The Surprising Name Origins of 20 Famous 1980s Bands

Would a Twisted Sister by any other name rock quite as hard?
Twisted Sister
Twisted Sister / Michael Putland/GettyImages

Popular music in the ’80s ran the gamut from New Wave to hair metal to neon-colored dance-pop. If these and other genres had one thing in common, it was a certain vibrancy and youthful energy that often manifested itself in the ridiculous names of the groups that topped the charts. 

Read on for the origin stories behind 20 of the more memorable band names from the glorious decade of shoulder pads, leg warmers, and piano-keyboard neckties.

1. U2

U2 / Steve Rapport/GettyImages

Ireland’s most famous rock band was called “Feedback” and “The Hype” before settling on U2, one of the names suggested by their friend Steve Averill. According to guitarist The Edge, it was the one they “hated the least.” Lead singer Bono liked the way it evoked “futuristic” images of the Cold War-era U2 spy plane and the German U-boat, but he never really warmed to the moniker. “But then as it turned out to imply this kind of acquiescence,” Bono told the BBC. “No, I don't like that name.”

2. Kajagoogoo

Kajagoogoo / Brian Rasic/GettyImages

Best known for the 1983 smash “Too Shy,” Kajagoogoo were initially called “Art Nouveau,” after the art movement that began in the late 19th century. But they later decided to pick something that meant absolutely nothing. “I thought of something a child would say—‘Goo-ga-ga-goo-goo’ was the first thing that came into my mind,” bassist Nick Beggs told Smash Hits. “I didn’t like the ‘goo-ga-ga’ part, and so went for something more casual. So, Kajagoogoo! The sound of primal life, don’t you know!”

3. Talking Heads

Talking Heads on Pier
Talking Heads / Lynn Goldsmith/GettyImages

Credit for this iconic name goes to the band’s friend Michael “Wayne” Zieve, who turned up one day with an issue of TV Guide that contained industry terms used by camera operators. One of them was talking head—used to describe a shot of someone from the waist or chest up—and Zieve thought it would make a cool band name. He was right.

4. The Hooters

Philly rockers The Hooters did not name their band after the restaurant chain Hooters, which didn’t yet exist when they got started in 1980. Nor is the name a cheeky nod to the part of the female anatomy referenced in the name of that dining establishment. Hooter is a nickname for the melodica, an instrument featured on many of the group’s songs, including the 1985 hit “And We Danced.”

5. Tears for Fears

Roland Orzabal, Curt Smith
Tears For Fears / Michael Putland/GettyImages

Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith were moved to name their synth-pop duo Tears for Fears after reading psychologist Arthur Janov’s 1980 book Prisoners of Pain, which mentions “tears as a replacement for fears.” Janov was the creator of primal therapy, so he also deserves some of the credit for naming another band: Primal Scream.

6. Whitesnake

Neil Murray, John Sykes, David Coverdale, Cozy Powell
Whitesnake / Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/GettyImages

In a 2009 interview, Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale joked that he named his popular hard rock band for his penis. Then he clarified that it actually came from “Whitesnake,” the title track off his 1977 solo debut. But the chorus to that song goes, “Got a whitesnake, mama/You want to shake it, mama,” so maybe both things are true?

7. Mötley Crüe

Mötley Crüe
Mötley Crüe / Chris Walter/GettyImages

Prior to joining the hard-living gang of L.A. glam-punks that would become known as Mötley Crüe, guitarist Mick Mars was in a group called White Horse. One of his White Horse bandmates once referred to their group as a “motley-looking crew,” and the phrase must have stuck with Mars, because he suggested Mottley Cru as a possible name after he had linked up with Tommy Lee, Nikki Sixx, and Vince Neil. They wound up changing the spelling and adding metal-signifying umlauts, as they were drinking Löwenbräu beer at the time.

8. Blondie

Debbie Harry Sings With Blondie
Debbie Harry sings with Blondie. / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

This still confuses a lot of people: Blondie is a band, not the stage name of singer Debbie Harry. That said, the name does refer to Harry. After she dyed her hair blonde in the ’70s, truck drivers in the group’s native New York City would yell, “Hey, blondie!” as they cruised by. From those blatant acts of sexism was born one of the coolest and most influential female-fronted bands of the ’80s.

9. Guns N’ Roses

Axl Rose, Guns N' Roses, Slash
Guns N' Roses / Jeffrey Mayer/GettyImages

The formation of this legendary L.A. hard rock band in 1985 was the result of a merger between two other groups: Hollywood Rose, featuring one Axl Rose on lead vocals, and L.A. Guns, with Tracii Guns on lead guitar. Guns N’ Roses is simply a combination of those names. It’s unclear why they only used one apostrophe, though.

10. Def Leppard

Joe Elliott, Phil Collen, Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Rick Allen
Def Leppard / Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/GettyImages

While in art class in 1975, future rock god Joe Elliott convinced his teacher to let him stop painting fruit bowls and instead design concert posters. To amuse himself, Elliott invented fake band names, and one of them was Deaf Leopard. That came in handy two years later, when his newly formed rock group needed a name. They just tweaked the spelling to make it a little cooler.

11. Haircut 100

Music File Photos 1980's
Haircut 100 / Chris Walter/GettyImages

Haircut 100 are responsible for one of the most delightful pop singles of the ’80s—the light and fluffy “Love Plus One”—and one of the strangest band names. The jazzy, funky U.K. New Wave crew was originally called “Moving England,” but they decided that wasn’t right. According to one story, the names Haircut and Hundred were proposed at a band meeting, and lead singer Nick Heyward had the brilliant idea of mashing them together. “That was the one that made us laugh the most,” guitarist Graham Jones told Amped in 2016.

12. Twisted Sister

Twisted Sister
Twisted Sister / Chris Walter/GettyImages

Makeup-loving glam-metal gods Twisted Sister owe their iconic name to Michael O’Neill, who served as lead singer before Dee Snider—frontman during the group’s hit-making era—joined the fold. The band had been calling itself “Silver Star,” and one night, after a fight with guitarist Jay Jay French, O’Neill called from a local bar, where he’d been throwing back the drinks. “I’ve got a good name, Twisted Sister,” he told French. Later on, O’Neill couldn’t remember the conversation.

13. Men Without Hats

Canadian synth-popsters Men Without Hats—they of “Safety Dance” fame—weren’t just being nonsensical when they picked their name. The group featured brothers Ivan, Stefan, and Colin Doroschuk, and they refused to wear winter caps, even during frigid Montreal winters. “We basically believed that style came before comfort, so we never wore them,” Ivan told Of Personal Interest. “We proudly called ourselves the men without hats.”

14. Spandau Ballet

Steve Norman, Martin Kemp, John Keeble, Gary Kemp, Tony Hadley
Spandau Ballet / Michael Putland/GettyImages

The UK band behind the soulful 1983 synth-pop favorite “True” has a shockingly grim name. As the story goes, the group’s friend Robert Elms saw some graffiti on a Berlin bathroom stall that read, “Rudolf Hess, all alone, dancing the Spandau Ballet,” and that became the impetus for the unusual moniker. The graffiti referred to Spandau Prison, a military lock-up in West Berlin, and the term Spandau ballet apparently describes the awful twitching movements people make when being hanged. Some sources claim Spandau ballet also refers to the similarly grotesque body contortions caused by Germany’s Spandau LMG 08 machine gun during World War I

15. Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode
Depeche Mode / Steve Rapport/GettyImages

The name of this pioneering U.K. synth-pop act sounds dark, sexy, and mysterious. But really it was just cribbed from a French fashion magazine. Translation: “fashion news” or “fashion dispatch.”

16. Wham!

george michael, Andrew Ridgeley
Wham! / John Rogers/GettyImages

Andrew Ridgeley is generally regarded as the lesser member of this UK pop duo, but if nothing else, he was responsible for their name. According to George Michael—the other guy in the band—the name was born one night when he and Ridgeley were in a club doing some sort of “formation dance.” “Andy started shouting something about wham bam, and all this, you know,” Michael once said. “And we thought that would be a good name for a group.”

17. The Go-Go’s

Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin
The Go-Go's / George Rose/GettyImages

While sitting at a Denny’s on Sunset Boulevard at 2 a.m., the poppy L.A. punk band led by Belinda Carlisle narrowed their list of possible names down to two: The Misfits (after the Marilyn Monroe film of the same name) and The Go-Go’s. They checked the dictionary and discovered the latter term means “effervescent and fun,” as Carlisle told CBS Sunday Morning, and that fit the group’s sound perfectly. There’s still some confusion about the apostrophe, though.

18. Yazoo

Alison Moyet, Vince Clarke
Yazoo / Steve Rapport/GettyImages

Depeche Mode co-founder Vince Clarke left after that band’s first album, 1981’s Speak & Spell, and formed Yazoo with singer Alison Moyet. The soulful synth-pop duo took their name from an American blues record label, but unbeknownst to them, there was also an obscure American rock band using the name. Under threats of legal action, Yazoo became known as Yaz in America. They scored a string of U.S. dance hits, including “Don’t Go,” and were fortunately not sued by baseball hall-of-famer Carl Yastrzemski

19. The Human League

Philip Oakey, Susan Ann Sulley
Human League / Brian Rasic/GettyImages

The synth-pop crew responsible for 1981’s “Don’t You Want Me” began life as a much more experimental combo called “The Future.” They later switched to The Human League, named one of the interstellar empires featured in the popular sci-fi board game StarForce: Alpha Centauri.

20. Bananarama

Keren Woodward, Siobhan Fahey, Sara Dallin
Bananarama / Michael Putland/GettyImages

UK pop queens Bananarama, the trio behind transatlantic hits like “Cruel Summer” and “Venus,” partially got their name from Roxy Music’s 1973 classic “Pyjamarama.” They threw in banana because their 1981 debut single, “Aie a Mwana,” partially sung in Swahili, had a tropical vibe. “It sounded very catchy to all of us at the time, but obviously, we had no idea that it would last for as long as it has,” Keren Woodward wrote in 2020’s Really Saying Something: Sara & Keren – Our Bananarama Story.