Monday, 16 September 2013

AAA Stars In Further Education (Top Five for News, Views and Music 211)

There are only really two jobs you can get in Great Britain where you don’t need any formal qualifications. One of these is of course good old rock and roll, an area that lazy journalists assume are full of school-leavers and drop-outs, and the other is of course being Prime Minister (which explains a few things about how bad David Cameron is at his job!) However, if you’re trying to get your music mad son or daughter to give further education a go then do not despair: simply point them towards this week’s little list which features no less than ten AAA stars who went on to at least try spells at universities and colleges and who knows – if you’re just starting somewhere new you might find out about an alumni you’d never otherwise have discovered (as expected, though, there are no fellow musical alumni from St Martin’s, now the University of Cumbria; a big shout out if you are at or went there!) Sadly, information is a little sketchy for quite a few of these artists so we’ve had to adopt a bit of guesswork this week – I guess a degree doesn’t look that cool on a rock and roll CV, even if Simon and Garfunkel are sporting college scarfs on the cover of the album we’ve reviewed this week. On the other hand, if you’re worried that failing your exams means you’re thick and life is over because that’s what your teachers have been telling you for a decade – don’t worry, it isn’t; Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney and Neil Young are three of the cleverest men to walk the Earth and they all left school at the age of 16 with only a handful of qualifications to their name. What’s more, George Harrison, Brian Jones and Dave Davies were expelled – something that seems to have done their careers absolutely no harm whatsoever! By the way, see if you can guess members of which bands were the only ones to a) study music formally past the age of 16 and b) received a doctorate at the height of their musical careers?...

Art Garfunkel

(studied architecture 1960-61, the history of art and mathematics 1965 at Columbia University, then Columbia College)
Art was a natural student. Bright, curious and hard-working, Garfunkel could have turned his hand to many careers even without that natural gift of a voice and seemed to have a gift for several subjects, choosing architecture at the request of his parents but soon dropping it in favour of art. Just think of it – a student called Art studying Art! Garfunkel was more likely to have been teased for being a ‘teenage heart throb’ though – along with Paul Simon he’d had a local #1 record under the name of ‘Tom’ and ‘Jerry’, although even then he’d put his love of learning top good use, giving himself the pseudonym ‘Tom Graph’ in honour of his love of plotting his favourite records’ progress in the charts on graph paper! Perhaps Garfunkel should have gone with maths originally, because he still wasn’t satisfied after gaining his degree, signing up for a maths course at the age of 22 after recording a ‘flop’ album with Paul (released in 1964 as ‘Wednesday Morning 5 AM’). Art even writes his ‘sleevenotes’ for the album (really a long, rambling letter to Paul) from his student digs, ‘with three term papers ahead of me’, looking on jealousy as his partner travels to England as a solo singer. Music was never far away though – according to the (unusually helpful) Columbia University website, Art performed at many university concerts, both by himself and as a member of local a capella group The Kingsmen. Following the moment that changed Simon and Garfunkel’s lives forever (when producer Tom Wilson overdubbed electric instruments onto ‘The Sound Of Silence’ and scored a surprise hit), Art was still reluctant to give up his studies. Figuring that his music career probably wouldn’t last that long, Art was still studying for a batchelor’s degree in mathematics as late as Christmas 1965, when the band’s third hit single ‘Homeward Bound’ was entering the charts. Since becoming famous Art has returned to his ‘old’ digs twice: once for the opening of a new hall (The Alfred Lerner Hall) in 1999 and again with Paul in 2003 as part of a charity night raising money for local healthcare in Columbia.

Mick Jagger

(degree in economics from the London School Of Economics, circa 1960-62)
The most interesting part of Keith Richards’ autobiography ‘Life’ is the early section when three of the Stones are living in a house together and existing on the kindness of various parents and siblings and Mick’s university grant. While Brian had been kicked out of every school going and struggled to keep a job for a month, Keith had already dedicated his life to music at the age of 17. Mick, on the other hand, was serious about his studies, at least at first, spending two tough years taking perhaps the most un-rock and roll degree of them all: economics. Legend has it Mick was always stingy about his money – but sharing a grant meant for one across three people was actually a very kind thing to do (Jagger often walking a long way into class in order to save bus fare and buy food for the night) and the singer’s legendary battles with businessmen down the years probably spring from what he learnt during his classes. The three Stones did get some money from playing local gigs with and without Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and their ‘discoverer’ Alexis Korner – and in between Mick’s classes where possible - but it was very few and far between until at least early 1962. Legend has it Mick was finally kicked out of what was and is quite a posh and distinguished school for riding a motorbike into the main library; with manager Andrew Loog Oldham on board and a record contract with Decca I doubt he was too worried, although sadly he never got to finish his degree!

Stephen Stills

(degree in English from Louisiana State University circa 1960-61)
Stephen Stills’ background in Texas is quite different to most bands we cover – and certainly different to the dreamy music-filled background of David Crosby and Manchester poverty of Graham Nash. Born into quite a military family, most of Stills’ education (at both high school and college) came from military academies full of upright, uptight teachers lecturing on practical subjects with the odd drill before lunch. Louisiana State University must have seemed like a breath of fresh air, then, especially as Stills was majoring in English – a subject built for debate and opinion rather than facts! However, Stills doesn’t seem to have stayed there for very long – perhaps for as little as a term in either 1960 or 1961 – having already got the music bug young (a picture in the Stills box set ‘Carry On’, released earlier this year, has a 12-year old Stills as a one-man band busking at St Leo’s College)and having already begun to make a name for himself as a folk singer. Stills may well have played a few gigs around Louisiana as part of a band called The Continentals (with future Eagles member Don Felder) while still a student, although it was only after ending up at Greenwich Village and meeting Richie Furay, Neil Young and Peter Tork that his career really took off.

Paul Simon

(a course in English from Queen’s College circa 1961-62)
Despite his ‘educated’ image – and the college scarf he proudly wears on the back of the ‘Sounds Of Silence’ album – Paul Simon never actually finished his studies and doesn’t appear to have been at Queen’s College for very long. Paul was always too busy with his music, having recorded his first song in 1956 at the age of 14 with Art. Unlike his partner, though, Paul continued with music long after it seemed to have given him up, being part of a ‘team’ making demos for big name singers in the ‘Brill Building’ in L.A. (along with Carole King) and recording under a variety of wild and wacky names solo and with friends (‘Tico and the Triumphs’ being by far the best, releasing at least three great singles in the early 1960s). Paul had one last shot at the big time with Art (1964’s flop album ‘Wednesday Morning 5 AM’) before travelling to England to busk his music there and play in some folk clubs. The singer had certainly stopped being a student long before the ‘Silence’ album (unlike Art), although his time at college did inspire at least one song, ‘The Dangling Conversation’ from 1966’s ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ which references a lot of the poets Paul had to study during his time there (Emily Dickinson being his all-time favourite).

Rick Wright, Roger Waters and Nick Mason

(architecture course at London Polytechnic circa 1960-63)
London Polytechnic’s architectural course of 1960 saw one of the most important intakes of all time as its where future Pink Floyd members Roger Waters and Nick Mason met. Discovering their love of music, the pair played together under a list of increasingly weird and wacky names (including ‘The Architectural Abdabs’!) before Rick Wright joined their group a year in. Rick is the only musically-trained post-16 AAA member we asked you to guess above, having studied piano and composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, albeit only for a couple of terms (a lack of money made him try his hand at something else – the music world might have been quite different if there’d been another course or college nearby that day). In case you’re wondering where Roger’s friend Syd Barratt was, he was busy studying painting at the Camberwell College Of Arts, although legend has it he didn’t turn up that often! All in all this makes Pink Floyd the most educated, certainly of AAA bands, with all four founding members in higher education (which is about what you’d expect for a group from Cambridge, although none of them went to the universities there!) As for David Gilmour...he was busking in France for most of this period! Interestingly when the Floyd were first formed they were joined on stage by their occasional lecturer and also landlord Mike Leonard – not from London Polytechnic but from nearby Hornsey College (see below for another alumni from there!) Talking of coincidences, who was Syd Barrett’s first teacher at primary school? Roger waters’ mum Mary, long before the two became friends! Roger Waters has, of course, since become the bane of teachers everywhere thanks to the lyrics of ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ with the chorus ‘we daahhn need narrr edducasshun!’, although Roger claims to have written the song about his hardened ex-war primary and secondary teachers rather than his college lecturers (who, uncharacteristically, he seems to have got along with rather well!)

Ray Davies

(Studied art at Hornsey Art College circa 1961-63)
The moment in Ray Davies’ ‘unauthorised autobiography’ ‘X-Ray’ when the befuddled, shy, awkward, anti-social Ray leaves the rigid world of school for the exciting ethereal world of art college is a truly magical moment. A reluctant student, there to please his parents and save them the grief of having two kids at home every day (Dave having just been expelled for getting his girlfriend pregnant), Ray blossomed at art college under the watchful eye of several tutors. By his own admission, Ray was always much more into music and books than he ever was into art, but he’s often said that the different way he was taught to look at the world through an ‘artists’ eyes’ at college had a lasting effect on him. Typically, though, it was the musical jamming sessions on blues numbers during lunch breaks (and, sometimes, during lessons) that caught his imagination the most. Ray joined his brother’s band The Kinks (then more often than not billed as ‘The Ravens’) during this period and often got gigs through his art school connections, music gradually taking over to the point where he hardly had the time to run up anymore, both student and college mutually deciding it was in his best interests to leave when The Kinks got a recording contract with Pye. Ray has written about his art school days a few times down the years, his song of lost childhood ‘Do You Remember, Walter?’ being at least partly inspired by an art school chum and ‘Art School Babe’ (from the 1994 solo show ‘X-Ray’) about a date with an older girl that went a bit wrong!

Kevin Godley and Lawrence Creme

(studied art at ‘a Manchester University’ circa 1961-64)
Before their big break with 10cc in 1972 both Godley and Creme’s biggest claim to fame was painting the white fence seen on the set of the 1960s film adaptation of ‘The Railway Children!’ That apparently came about during a week of work experience as set dressers organised by ‘a Manchester University’ – although frustratingly no website or book seems to agree on which one (most likely it was Manchester University itself). Godley and Creme had known each other since about the age of 6 and deliberately applied for the same university so they could be together. The pair recorded both separately and together in a variety of bands throughout the 1960s, the most me,morably named one being ‘Frabjoy and the Runciple Spoon’, including during their time at art school (while 10cc bandmates Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldmann – who’d been at secondary school with the pair - were busy with The Mindbenders and The Mockingbirds respectively). The duo credit their art school background with many of 10cc’s ‘weirdest’ songs, especially ‘Une Nuit In Paris’ which Creme later described as ‘trying to paint a picture with sound’. Godley and Creme later recorded a song called ‘Art School Canteen’ for their 1978 album ‘L’, which is most likely autobiographical, about an eccentric student ‘walking round with my talent hanging out’. If it is then neither singer seems to have been a model student! (‘Come in late and go home earlier, do one day a week or maybe less!’)

Pete Townshend

(studied art at Ealing Art College circa 1962-63)
Another huge fan of the art college system was Pete Townshend, who in fact tried to get on the same course as Ray Davies before finding it was full (a band with Pete and Ray writing together – now that would have been something!) Like Ray’s autobiography, Pete’s book ‘Who I Am’ has a timid and awkward child floundering under a rigid educational system suddenly flower under the looser, more individual teaching methods of art school. Pete had already formed The Who with Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle at Acton County Grammar High School – and the others, working at 16, really seem to have feared that they were ‘losing’ their guitarist in a sea of paintings, philosophy and staying-in-bed-all-day according to his book. Like Ray, Pete left his course early when The Who’s career took off but also like Ray he used a lot of what he learnt in his music. The band’s dalliance with ‘pop art’ came from what Pete had been taught (with pop the short, artificially throwaway ‘instant’ equivalent of modern art pieces and installations in 1965) and Pete’s decision to ‘smash’ his guitars up during gigs is meant to have its roots in ideas he learnt during art school lectures (combined with a low ceiling and a dodgy cheap guitar that broke easily). Fans have also had a field day tracing rock operas like ‘Tommy’ and ‘Lifehouse’ back to art school concepts of understanding the world and connections between human beings.

Mark Knopfler

(degree in journalism from Harlow College, Essex, circa 1970-73)
As we’ve mentioned many times on this website by now, Knopfler wasn’t just a student but a teacher, lecturing on history in a variety of Newcastle schools as a ‘filler’ between jobs. Before that, though, he was brave enough to travel all the way to Harlow College to become a journalist, the same college that has given the world such serious broadcasters as, erm, Piers Morgan and Jeremy Clarkson (no wonder their website emphasises so many of the musicians they’ve turned out instead!) Unlike the majority of entries on this list, Mark completed his course and got his degree, working for a time as a junior reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post (a fact that seemed to be lost on them when I brought it up during an interview there once!) Whilst still a reporter, Knopfler also took night classes for an English degree at Leeds University – sadly missing out on the famous Who ‘Live at Leeds’ gig there in 1970 by only two months! Mark didn’t play any gigs in this period but he was busy writing his own material when he had the time and gradually got more and more involved in music as first his journalism and then his teaching work dried up.

Stuart Murdoch/Belle and Sebastian

(degree in English from Glasgow university circa 1986-88, plus a business studies course circa 1994)
Finally, Belle and Sebastian are the one AAA group that formed at college, during a business studies class for mature students somewhere around 1994. The first album, ‘Tigermilk’, was recorded in the college canteen across three days, not for a music project but for part of a business studies course (in which a group of students had to come up with a ‘unique’ product they could sell in a ‘unique’ way – discovering they had a shared love of music the first line-up of the band decided to make an album using Stuart Murdoch’s songs and then sell it on a newfangled invention called ‘the internet’. I wonder what happened to that...) Murdoch, meanwhile, had already taken one degree – from the local University of Glasgow, although sources vary as to what subject he studied (some say English which seems likely, so I’ve plumped for that). Again Murdoch is one of the few students who completed his course, although he couldn’t do much with it: he’d become poorly with chronic fatigue syndrome during his last term at university and spent most of the seven years in-between his degree and the B+S course in bed writing songs. Murdoch wasn’t yet writing or performing during his degree, but he did work as a DJ for the university radio there – the few people who remember his work claim to hear a direct link with B+S’ later sound!

And that’s that for another week – we’ll join you next issue for some more news views and music. Remember, you can be as overqualified or as underqualified to read this site as you like – all you need to love music are a pair of ears and a soul!

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