From the early '70s through the late '90s, artist branding guru Harold Wells worked with nearly every major label, coming up with perfect names for some of the most famous acts in rock history. His dark art was an open secret in the music industry; without the Wells touch, we wouldn't have classic band names like Hootie & the Blowfish, the Sex Pistols, Boston, Journey, Megadeth, or Motörhead.
When I last spoke to Wells in 2008, he'd been retired for more than a decade. But with labels struggling to market a new generation of rock bands, Harold Wells has been pulled back into the name game; at the risk of blowing up his spot, he's agreed to talk shop one more time.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU BACK INTO THE BUSINESS? A couple of things. I had a little bit of exposure after I spilled the beans about the groups I named, and I think that reminded [record labels] that I did some okay work. The labels haven't had much luck getting strong names for new groups lately, so there was some interest in my particular set of tools. And I needed some money.
For a while, they were asking me for some of my old lists. I had these lists I'd circulate of good group names, and they'd pick them à la carte. Just smaller labels, smaller artists. The fella who used to be in Oasis — I didn't name them, of course — his label bought "Beady Eye" off me for not much money. I was surprised that someone took the name "fun."— lower-case with a period — because I'd been floating it around since the very early '80s with no bites. I think I envisioned it for one of those Human League, Style Council sort of acts, very sophisticated. But these new fellas have done well by it.
AND WHEN DID YOU GET BACK INTO THE FULL SWING OF IT, BEYOND JUST LISTS? I was getting bigger calls by the start of 2010. The first major one was this group of kids who would be on a TV program in England, tipped to be very big. They sent me a photo, and it struck me that they all had these sort of swept bangs; they were all swept to the right except this one kid, and me being the anal retentive personality, I thought it would look better if their hair was all pointing one direction. And there it was, "One Direction." Simple as that.
I REALLY LIKED HEARING ABOUT BANDS WITH TERRIBLE NAMES THAT YOU HAD TO COME IN AND FIX. HAS THERE BEEN ANY OF THAT LATELY? Oh, lordy. Def Jam had this fella signed named Tity Boi, a rapper, and the problems with that are obvious. They were panicking. They actually came to me with a list of names they'd written for him, they just wanted me to pick one. But all of them were plain awful. One of them was "Jawja," like "Georgia." Real grim stuff. I told them, "These names are bunk, just fly me out and I'll meet the guy." So they did, I met him, and he was wearing two chains on his neck. I said, "Your name is 2 Chainz, with a Z," and he said, "That's perfect, I've got two chains." He shook my hand, that was it. Before I was even out of the room he had his mother on the phone, yelling "2 Chainz! I'm 2 Chainz!" That kind of thing, that's why I loved this job in the first place.