Maybe you’ve never heard the name Harold Wells, but it’s a safe bet that you’re a fan of his handiwork. Since the early ’70s, he’s provided names to hundreds of major acts in every genre. His naming style is so pervasive that band names he didn’t come up with just sound awkward and phony, like an off-brand dude narrating a movie trailer. Nickelback, Fall Out Boy, Trapt. . . these are not the work of a professional. This isn’t general knowledge, of course — labels want you to think that bands think up their own names. So, not to make a big deal out of what a great journalist I am or anything, but I called him up.
Obvious question first: where do you come up with band names?
They can come from anywhere. You see some word or phrase on TV that strikes you as funny, and you just know it works. Like, I remember hearing the phrase “pretender to the throne” in some movie, and immediately I wrote down “The Pretenders.” It was years before a group took that name, though.
So do bands pick pre-written names from a list you've made, or do you meet the band and work out a name?
Depends on what I get hired for, or what the label wants to pay. If they’re really pushing some new act, they’ll fly me in to meet it, or if they’re feeling cheap, they just send a CD and I send them a list of choices. Nirvana picked their name from a list, but in hindsight I wish I’d named them in person. I meant that name for a much mellower act. I would have called them Garbage. I used that name for another group later on, but whenever I hear a Nirvana song, I think, “Should be Garbage.”
Any particularly memorable in-person band-naming sessions?
Atlantic was really trying to push this act in the ’90s, real talented guys. They brought them in and I asked the lead singer to sing me a few bars, and he had about two words out before I said, “Hootie, your name is Hootie.” He hated it, though, he was saying, “I’m not Hootie!”, but I took a stand on that one. Hootie and the Blowfish. Of course, later I saw him on TV saying the same thing, still trying to weasel out: “I’m not Hootie, it’s just the name of the band. . . ” But my favorite was when this guy McLaren came in with these real awful-looking kids and I said, “Your shop is called Sex, call them the Sex Pistols,” and he said, “No. Fuck you.” And I didn’t hear from him ever again, didn’t get paid, but of course that turned into one of the most famous ones I did.
What was the most difficult band to name?
Oh, Lord. Usually it’s the solo acts that are hard, because there’s more ego there. I remember I had an ordeal with Prince. He wanted to call himself LaFontaine, which I thought was very stupid, very feminine. The label agreed with me on Prince, but it took him forever to buy it.