The university sound: pop’s unsung debt to higher education

From Coldplay to Queen, the world’s biggest bands often meet as students – yet universities are seldom mentioned in song. Jeremy Clay ponders why and unearths some lost exemplars – including a long-lost Dutch psychedelic paean to the University of Leicester

August 17, 2023
Silhouette of live band
Source: Getty Images montage

It’s the old, old story. Boy meets girl, though other gender permutations are available, and they surrender to an urge to make sweet, sweet music.

To add a little oomph to the affair, they hook up with a stranger. The threesome soon becomes four when they rope in the stranger’s mate, who has limited social skills but his own drum kit. Kerrang! (kerdonk, more likely): the band is born. Next stop, Glastonbury – via a Tuesday night open-mic slot at the student union bar.

Variations of this ho-hum tale have played out on university campuses for decades. Often, the group never makes it far beyond a few clunky rehearsals and an underwhelming gig or two. Sometimes they grind on and on, like tantric tortoises, when all common sense tells them to give up. But every now and again, something clicks.

Pink Floyd’s foundations were laid when Roger Waters and Nick Mason enrolled on an architecture course at the Regent Street Polytechnic, London. Blur’s Alex James clocked a guitar-toting Graham Coxon on their first day at Goldsmiths. The evolution of Queen dates back to Brian May sticking an advert for a “Mitch Mitchell/Ginger Baker type drummer” on the student union noticeboard at Imperial College London, which was answered by dentistry student Roger Taylor.

The list goes on. Everything But the Girl formed at Hull, nicking their name from a slogan on a furniture shop on the city’s Beverley Road. Cornershop’s roots lie at Lancashire Polytechnic in Preston. Snow Patrol met at the University of Dundee; Chvrches at the University of Strathclyde; Soft Cell at Leeds Poly. In the US, graphic design student Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, better known as Public Enemy’s Chuck D, crossed paths with the artist latterly known as Flavor Flav on the radio station at Adelphi University in Long Island. The Commodores got together at Tuskegee Institute; REM at the University of Georgia; Talking Heads at Rhode Island School of Design. Back home, Alt-J pressed ctrl+g at the University of Leeds. “I basically went to art school to start a band,” singer Joe Newman once said.

And we have Ucas to thank/blame (delete according to devotion or disdain) for Coldplay, whose unstoppable ascent to stadium-filling, DHL-endorsing, ruthless platinum-disc-acquiring machine can be traced back to induction week at UCL in 1996. More precisely, Ramsay Hall, Maple Street, Fitzrovia, where fate (in the shape of UCL admissions) threw together Chris Martin (Greek and Latin), Will Champion (anthropology), Jonny Buckland (maths) and Guy Berryman (mechanical engineering). It’s a quarter of a century since they played their first gig, at the Laurel Tree in Camden, under the hastily picked, rapidly ditched name Starfish. Within a few months they’d released their first EP, but you’d have got long odds at this point on the singer marrying a Hollywood star and future scented-candle maverick.

Montage of music acts Public Enemy, Coldplay and Everything but the Girl
Getty Images montage

It’s not hard to fathom why universities – and the polytechnics and art schools that pre-dated them – have been such fertile ground for bands. Take thousands of risk-embracing adolescents with an itch to make a mark on the world and cram them together in high-rise boxes far from home. Give them rooms to practise in, stages to stand on and ready-made audiences who’ll put up with more or less anything if there are discounted drinks. And most of all, allow oodles of free time to do it all in (at least in the days before having to pull all-nighters at Amazon warehouses to make ends meet).

But here’s a thing. Although there’s a lengthy list of bands that formed at university, songs about university are in relatively short supply. A quick, thoroughly scientific search of reveals there are almost as many songs about unicorns.

Peter Gossman, principal lecturer in education at the University of Worcester and joint author of a 2017 study of the representation of the university in pop music, suspects there are wholesome reasons for that.

“Attendance at university is a largely positive thing,” he says, “and therefore not the stuff of song material. ‘I went to uni, met some good mates, did a spot of learning, got a degree, got a job’ is hardly the stuff of, say, Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan’s I Contain Multitudes.”

It also might have something to do with a lyricist’s instinct for shared experience, he suggests. “Whilst roughly 50 per cent of the traditional age group attend university, that means 50 per cent do not. Add the other age groups, and I think songs about uni therefore don’t have universal appeal.”

And if songs about student life generally are a little thin on the ground, tunes that namecheck specific universities are rarer than chock-a-block lecture theatres.

Perhaps the most famous one of all – certainly the most cherished – was inspired by a lofty remark by a well-heeled undergraduate in a London pub. “I’m going to move to Hackney and live like the common people,” she told the film student from Sheffield. The result was the high-water mark of the Britpop age: a withering attack on poverty tourism with an immortal opening couplet and a tidy dance routine to boot.

All together now: “She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge. She studied sculpture at St Martin’s College.”  

She might not have been studying sculpture, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker later conceded on a BBC Three documentary about Common People: “It’s artistic licence. She could have been doing anything.” Either way, her identity has never been conclusively established, although a Greek newspaper in 2015 speculated it was Danae Stratou, the artist wife of the country’s anti-austerity firebrand Yanis Varoufakis.

While Cocker’s tune skewered a single student, the Pixies took aim with a blunderbuss. At the tail end of the first incarnation of the influential alt-rockers’ career, they fell back on a riff written when frontman Black Francis and guitarist Joey Santiago were neighbours at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“We’re not just kids, to say the least. We got ideas, to us that’s dear,” Francis jeers on U-Mass. “Like capitalism, like communism, like lots of things, you’ve heard about. And redneckers, they get us pissed, and stupid stuff, it makes us shout.”

The chorus is a primal scream of “it’s educational”. And if that isn’t on the sign on the campus gates, the university has missed a trick.

From Brideshead Revisited to Porterhouse Blue, Oxford and Cambridge have long acted as a kind of literary catnip for novelists, but they’ve made much less of a dent in the world of rock and pop lyrics. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, featuring alumni of London’s Central School of Art and Design, broke ranks in We Were Wrong: “The May Ball in Oxford, we arrived in a punt. You fell down in the beer tent, unashamedly drunk.”

Across the Channel, the Sorbonne has fared a little better. Aside from a fleeting appearance in Peter Sarstedt’s Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? it rears up in the Pet Shop Boys’ much-misunderstood yuppie satire, Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money): “You can tell I’m educated, I studied at the Sorbonne, doctored in mathematics, I could have been a don.”

Guinness World Records is strangely silent on the matter of the most universities mentioned in one song, but the prize surely belongs to Elvis. It comes in his 1965 pot-boiler movie Girl Happy, in which he plays Rusty Wells, a singer hired by Chicago mobster Big Frank to look after his daughter during a spring-break trip to Florida. You can probably guess the rest. 

“Elvis jumps with the campus crowd to make the beach ‘ball’ bounce!” swooned the tagline on the poster – and he’s soon on stage at the Sandbar Club, launching into Startin’ Tonight, with its opening roll call of fancy US colleges. “Michigan State, MIT, Harvard University, Vassar, Wells, Smith and Brown,” he grunts, each shout-out greeted with lusty cheers by pockets of actors pretending to be students in the crowd. It would be churlish to say they all look like accountants. Some look like actuaries.  

But at least they look like they wouldn’t be flummoxed by a couple of plastic bricks, which is more than can be said for the students in Mariah Carey’s Up Out My Face, detailing a relationship so broken “if we were two Lego blocks even the Harvard University graduating class of 2010 couldn’t put us back together again.”

The mysteriously hyphenated R’n’B singer The-Dream had a break-up on his mind, too. And when he needed a radio-friendly chorus, he found a less-than-subtle solution in higher education. “I was the realest thing you’ve ever known, I couldn’t wait to say I told you so, so forget you ever heard of me, this is short for Florida University: F.U. F.U. F.U. F.U. F.U. F.U. F.U.” And with that, a golden opportunity to immortalise Falmouth was frittered away.

Twenty or so years before Pulp, folkie Clifford T. Ward was also vexed by a student with a thirst for knowledge, in the droll, gently lovelorn The Open University. “Let me tell you ’bout a girl who’s breaking my heart. She decided lately to get smart. She read an article that changed her life, so tired of working in a factory, she joined the Open University,” sings Ward, a schoolteacher-turned-troubadour.

Bemoaning his “qualification-mad” muse “whose main objective is an arts degree”, he laments: “We used to have a lot of fun you know, spend our money and away we’d go, but now whenever I go round to call, she’s reading Lawrence and T. H. Huxley, with the Open University.” Cue trombone solo. Trombone!

Things turned out infinitely better for comedian Tim Minchin, who deconstructed his own love story in the wry If I Didn’t Have You, which would earn nods of approval from cold-hearted probability theorists the world over. Deconstructing the “inherently flawed notion of fate”, Minchin wonders if he actually “found my soulmate at the age of 17”, adding it is “mathematically unlikely that at a university in Perth, I happened to stumble on the one girl on Earth, specifically designed for me”.

The bone-dry chorus? “If I didn’t have you…someone else would do.”

For legal reasons, let’s skip Van Morrison’s vilification of Imperial scientists and their supposedly “crooked facts” in No More Lockdown and move on to Mancunian obscurists The Fall, who had a work ethic to make the average honeybee look like a slacker. In four decades, they churned out hundreds of songs, about wildly unpredictable subjects. Who else would have written about a clerical error at a pharmaceutical firm? Small wonder, then, that Mark E. Smith’s scattergun lyrics would pick out universities at some stage: he tackled pretty much everything else.

And yet there’s nothing in the raw early skirmishes of Words of Expectation to suggest the lyrical swerve to come: “I have tears, I shed fears, I have tears, I have fears,” he meanders before making his main point. “Like Leicester Polytechnic, is scheiße, is scheiße.”

That leads us to a curious footnote in this inconsequential trawl through songs about universities: there might not be many, but a disproportionate number of them feature the spiritual home of crisps.

Leicester Poly’s post-92 incarnation, De Montfort University, lurches into Dave’s debut number-one single, Funky Friday: “Heard you got a girl going DMU, If I DM’d you would she DM me?” Dave has a bit of a thing for the city, it seems. In Streatham he raps: “Like I’m in Leicester, skippin’ my lectures.”

But easily the greatest of them all is an undiscovered psychedelic thriller by late-60s Dutch punctuation anarchists De Mega’s – a joyous kaleidoscopic swirl called, for no immediately apparent reason, Leicester University Sound: “Fills my heart with memories, spitting out against my knees, Leicester University Sound, that’s the treasure that I found.”

Two questions spring to mind: Eh? And why?

Over to songwriter Cees Stolk, who is now 73 and living near Amsterdam: “To be quite honest, I didn’t have a clue where Leicester was located or even if it had a university,” he says. “It just sounded right. Lucky for me, nobody cared in the ’60s.

“I’m sorry that the facts behind Leicester University Sound are quite meaningless. But thanks to Google, I now know that the University of Leicester is renowned for its astronomy faculty.”

Give that man an honorary degree.

Jeremy Clay is a journalism lecturer at De Montfort University. In an earlier life, he joined a band at university. No, you haven’t heard of them.

We’ve compiled a Spotify playlist of all the songs mentioned here (apart from the last one – it’s just too obscure).

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Reader's comments (10)

A bad pun--"unsung debt"--proves nothing. Band members meet anywhere. Where are Clay's control groups? This is just silly. Come on, man! You're way off-key
Glad to see Pixies and U-Mass make an appearance. The peerless Half Man Half Biscuit have a few HE references in their oeuvre. The narrator of their track "4AD3DCD", who is on a foundation course, talks about "Playing eerie madrigals on the campus egg slicer"; and Goldsmiths features heavily in "If I had possession over pancake day".
Hey, what about a shout out for musicians who are now university academics- The wonderful late 1980’s The Edsel Auctioneer and Aidan Winterburn (Leeds Beckett)
Kevin Godley and Lol Creme (10cc and Godley&Creme) teamed up at an art school, documented in their song Art School Canteen: "Come in late and go home earlier One day a week or maybe less So I lied about the funeral I was really playing chess But I was seen By the coffee machine
Another band which admits to have started at a university is Pure Reason Revolution formed at the University of Westminster.
You forgot Tom Lehrer's The Elements. There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium, And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium, And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium, Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium, And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium, And gold, protactinium and indium and gallium, And iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium. There's yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium, And boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium, There's strontium and silicon and silver and samarium, And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium, and barium. There's holmium and helium and hafnium and erbium, And phosphorus and francium and fluorine and terbium, And manganese and mercury, molybdenum, magnesium, Dysprosium and scandium and cerium and cesium. And lead, praseodymium and platinum, plutonium, Palladium, promethium, potassium, polonium, And tantalum, technetium, titanium, tellurium, And cadmium and calcium and chromium and curium. There's sulfur, californium and fermium, berkelium, And also mendelevium, einsteinium, nobelium, And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc and rhodium, And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin and sodium. These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, And there may be many others but they haven't been discovered. (Now I have to explain to my dearly beloved why I was singing it - it's the only way I can remember the sequence!)
Jeremy Clay is a journalism lecturer at De Montfort University. In an earlier life, he joined a band at university. No, you haven’t heard of them. Oh yes I have! Hope you're well Jeremy!
Godley and Creme met on the Foundation course at the Manchester School of Art, where a bit earlier John Mayall had studied and actually recorded Art School Boogie in the main gallery there (playing piano at that time) Later Mick Hucknall got a 2.1 in painting. But my favourite musical academic is Professor Quincey Wagstaff of Huxley College in the US (aka Groucho Marx) who performed the oddly prescient anthem Whatever It is I'm Against It.
Thanks for your comments everyone - and hello jpodcaster! - some good extra suggestions here. And - arrgghhh! - how did I neglect to trawl through the Half Man Half Biscuit lyrics archive? Other songs that didn’t make the cut (I’d eaten up the word count) included Stanton, by Sports Team, about the fire warden at their Cambridge college, and Berkeley Heathen Scum by Fang, but that was mainly because it’s unpleasant.
Nice to see mention of The Fall but shame 'Hey! Student' wasn't mentioned with the less than appreciative lyrics: Ah-well I'm walking down the street, It's always students that I meet, Long hair down and sneakers on your feet. Write your letters to the Evening News I clench my fist and sing this tune: I said Hey student, hey student, hey student, You're gonna get it through the head, I said Hey student, hey student, hey student, You're gonna get it through the head, I said Well, walking to work, It's always students that I meet Henna in your hair, As you I clench my hand before I flip my lid. And so on . . .