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.
Isn't Prince his actual first name?
Yeah, and he didn’t want to use it. Warner came to me and said, “We’ve got this kid Prince Nelson needs a new name,” and I said, “What are you paying me for, he’s got the name. It’s perfect.” I guess he always resented it, so much that he did the “Artist Formerly Known As” thing and whatever.
Any band names you didn't come up with that you wish you'd thought of first?
I came up with Oasis and was going to give that to a band who eventually got named Savage Garden, but these fellows got to it first, and really I’m glad in the end because they did well with it. But names I didn’t come up with: I always liked “The Smashing Pumpkins,” I thought that was cute. And I remember seeing this group called “Bone Thugs-N-Harmony,” and that was just so stupid, but I loved it.
When the band members are explaining their name, your name hardly ever comes up . . .
Yeah, it’s no secret that I name bands, but I guess the groups and sometimes the labels want to keep mum about it. That’s part of the contract most of the time, not only do I give them the name but we work out a little story on why they’re called that. Like, “Your grandma used to call you Snoopy when you were little” — I used that for Snoop Doggy Dogg, but really it was because I just thought he looked like a dog. Also, funny about that one, the emphasis was supposed to be on “Doggy,” like, “Snoop Doggy Dogg,” but whenever he said it back, he’d go “Snoop Doggy Dogg.” I guess he thought that sounded better when he was rapping it.