Music Origin Stories

Published on 26 April 2023

Everyone loves a good origin story. From endless Marvel superhero reboots to TV shows about the origins of TV shows, we all love a good yarn about how things came together for notable people.

Today’s blog brings together a diverse and, hopefully, entertaining cast of musicians with interesting origin stories. We’ve got punk legends, punk misanthropes, grunge gods and soft rock royalty here for you, so read on for some fascinating and entirely trivial anecdotal lore on some of rock’s most interesting beginnings…

 

The Sex Pistols

Depending on your age/opinion, the Sex Pistols were either Year Zero of a new age, or an overrated and entirely phoney punk boy band.

The truth is maybe neither. There’s no doubt that they were carefully created by impish savant Malcolm McLaren, but there’s also no doubt that they energised a nation of youths to the power of rejecting mainstream culture and authority, and about going out and creating things with that new energy.

The story of the Sex Pistols revolves around a shop initially called Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, on the King’s Road, Chelsea. After punk hit as a cultural force, shop owners Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood renamed the place ‘Sex’ and promoted ‘anti-fashion’. Westwood of course went on to become one of the most celebrated fashion designers in the world, but back in 1975, she and McLaren were busy exploring and exploiting fashion trends. Future Sex Pistol members Steve Jones and Paul Cook frequented the store, as did members of Adam & the Ants and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Feeling a cultural change on the horizon, McLaren took off for the states, to work with the New York Dolls and pick up some fashion ideas. He also caught The Ramones, and came back evangelised to the cause of punk. Gathering together the cream of the crop from his customer base, he put together a band that incorporated Steve Jones’ already existing group and added sometime store employee Glen Matlock.

After trying several locals for the job of frontman (including, apparently, future Ultravox singer Midge Ure), the impresario settled on John Lydon, re-christening him Johnny Rotten. His attitude was key to his hiring, as guitarist Steve Jones commented:

“John had something special…he was a real arsehole - but smart”. 

A legend was born. Premeditated? Sure. Effective? Entirely.

 

The Band

Stepping backwards a little, there was a time when folk-hero Bob Dylan could inspire rage in his audience merely by appearing onstage with an electric guitar! 

The infamous exchange between irate audient and performer (“Judas!”, screamed some random. “I don’t beliiiieve you!”, replied Dylan, as only he could) has gone on to become a legendary example of fanboy overstatement, but Bob wasn’t alone on stage that night. His band, known to many singers around the Woodstock area as simply ‘the band’, would go on to be one of the most influential bands of the early 70s.

Their name?

The Band.

Simple! Actually, no. It took them quite a while to distil things to that level. The members of The Band had actually played together since the late 50s, when vocalist and band leader Ronnie Hawkins hired them as The Hawks, his personal backing band. Years spent in this context turned them into a finely tuned machine, capable of playing long, skillful sets with finesse. Outgrowing their leader, the Hawks left Ronnie in 1963, desiring to play their own original music away from his authoritarian leadership.

First of all, they named themselves the Levon Helm Sextet, after the group’s singing drummer. This name didn’t stick, so they renamed themselves Levon and the Hawks for a while. They then recorded a single as the Canadian Squires before going back to Levon and the Hawks again. Finally, Helm recognised that the name everybody used locally to identify them - the Band - was as good as any, and it won the battle.

They backed Dylan for a few years (they are on his Basement Tapes records, for example) whilst finding their own distinctive brand of Country Soul, a sound that caught on hugely and quickly. Super-influential records followed, and a career topped off by The Last Waltz, a farewell concert movie filmed by no less a talent than Martin Scorcese.

 

Pearl Jam

The genesis of grunge behemoths Pearl Jam is actually the story of a few bands. The fertile soil of late 80s Seattle brought with it a number of promising bands, including Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mother Love Bone. In a parallel world, Mother Love Bone would have gone on to dominate the nascent grunge scene, but tragedy befell the band before their debut album was even released.

Andrew Wood, the band’s flamboyant frontman, accidentally overdosed on heroin and died two days later, aged only 24. Wood’s roommate, Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell, responded by writing a brace of songs and enlisting members from Mother Love Bone (guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament) along with some other players to form Temple of the Dog in tribute to their lost friend. 

The project was only ever meant to be short-lived, and afterwards Cornell and Cameron returned to Soundgarden. Those other members of Temple of the Dog, however, included vocalist Eddie Vedder and guitarist Mike McCready. One quick name change later, the remaining members became Pearl Jam, and, well…you know the rest!

 

Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates, those slick kings of schmoozy soft rock, had a surprisingly violent inception. We’re jumping back to 1967 now, and we’re on the mean streets of Philadelphia. A young Daryl Hall arrives at the Adelphi Ballroom with his band The Temptones. Another young man, John Oates, brings his band The Masters with him, for what promises to be a hotly contested battle of the bands.

Before either band gets to strike a note, gunshots ring out. Chaos ensues, and it turns out that two rival gangs have infiltrated the venue. The audience goes berserk, the bands flee the scene, and two of those men simultaneously seek safety and shelter in a service elevator. The two strangers begin chatting, lamenting their bad luck but finding common ground in their shared musical tastes. Realising that they both also go to the same university, they start hanging out and eventually room together. 

The sign on their shared mailbox reads ‘Hall & Oates’.

 

GG Allin

Our last origin story is not so much about the beginning of a band, but the beginning of a legendary figure, albeit legendary for some pretty unsavoury reasons! Learning about the early days of famed musicians is a fascinating experience, if only to see if there were any indications of what was to come later.

In this case, we’ll say ‘yes, there were definitely indicators’, and we’ll also let you know that GG Allin was a deliberately controversial, provocative and confrontational personality. Okay, disclaimer over: what’s the story?

GG Allin’s birth name was (no pressure here) Jesus Christ Allin. His mad, abusive, alcoholic father maintained that he’d had a visit from Jesus himself, foretelling messianic things for his baby boy, hence the name. Allin’s brother, unable to pronounce ‘Jesus’ properly, called him ‘Jeejee’ and the name stuck as ‘GG’.

The brothers lived with their religious fanatic father in a log cabin with no running water or electricity. Their dad routinely dug graves in their basement and threatened to ‘fill them in’ after killing his sons. At school, GG was took to cross-dressing, inspired by the New York Dolls. It seems that trouble was never far away. Here’s a quote from him relating to his childhood years:
"Very chaotic. Full of chances and dangers. We sold drugs, stole, broke into houses, cars. Did whatever we wanted to for the most part – including all the bands we played in. People even hated us back then."

Once music took hold for GG, there was no way back. Allin referred to his body as a ‘temple of rock and roll’ and that’s when the real antics began. We’re talking assaulting audience members, self-mutilation, coprophilia and coprophagia (all of this was on stage). We’ll let you google those last two in your own good time, if you feel like it. YouTube him at your peril.

It all ended in tears, heroin and death at 36 for GG Allin, but that’s a tale for another day. In terms of origin stories, his is about as real and as extreme as it gets!

 

Bonus Content: Rock n Roll Janitors

Those five tales were our main music origin stories, but here’s an interesting little vignette for you. Being a janitor, it seems, can be just the motivation you need to take on the world of music with passion and vigour.

Indeed, it seems that some extremely successful musicians spent time polishing floors and spinning bunches of keys around before their music took off. The most famous example is probably Kurt Cobain, who made sure there were references to his old job in the Smells Like Teen Spirit video.

  

There’s also Kevin Westerberg from the Replacements, who was a janitor for US senator David Durenberger when he overheard his future band rehearsing in a nearby basement. 

You’ve also got Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor, who janitored at Cleveland’s Right Track studio by day, whilst also using the studio’s facilities to craft NIN’s debut album Pretty Hate Machine in the evenings. Time well spent!

Finally, we also know about Offspring guitarist Noodles (real name: Kevin Wasserman), who kept his high school janitorial job going even after his band broke in a big way:

“There was this one high school girl that I knew [there] and she used to see me in the morning and say to me, ‘Man, what are you doing? I just saw you on MTV!”

 

A Tale as Old as Time

What other awesome and interesting origin stories are there? Led Zeppelin forming from the cream of the London session scene crop? U2’s Larry Mullen posting an advert on his high school noticeboard looking for band members? There are loads of cool origin tales out there, so if these have whetted your palate, have a search for more and let us know what you find!

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Ray

Features Editor, Warehouse

I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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