You might not believe it, but that gown is so rock'n'roll

September 8, 2006

It’s hush-hush, but universities boast several rock legends, Lee Elliot Major finds

Academe has always had an uneasy relationship with pop stars.

“We don’t need no education,” proclaimed Pink Floyd in their 1979 classic Another Brick in the Wall . But, actually, they did.

The group’s only number one hit summed up what seemed to be the prevailing view of most successful musicians and bands towards the education system.

What is not often publicised, however, is that the founding members of Pink Floyd met at Regent Street Polytechnic - now part of Westminster University.

The romantic rock’n’roll tale is one of friends dropping out of school to set up a band - with university experiences limited to a few campus gigs while on tour. But this is a myth, according to a survey by The Times Higher .

In fact, “gownie rock” has been on the rise since the 1960s, with universities increasingly acting as the seedbeds of emerging musical talent. Mick Jagger famously enrolled at the London School of Economics, but left after only a year. Legend has it that he told his tutor that he was forming a “skiffle” band - to which the tutor replied that he would find that there was “not much money in it”.

Brian May meanwhile was half way through a doctorate in astronomy at Imperial College London and had co-authored two research papers when he decided instead to play guitar for a new group called Queen. He teamed up with a young singer called Freddie Mercury, who had a graphic art diploma from Ealing College of Art, now part of Thames Valley University.

Art colleges in particular - many now subsumed into universities - produced many of the world’s most influential musicians, among them Eric Clapton, Ray Davies, Brian Eno and Pete Townshend.

Jarvis Cocker, Pulp’s lead singer, continued this tradition and immortalised his alma matter, Saint Martin’s College, in the 1995 song Common People . It reflected a more relaxed attitude towards higher education - albeit one that maintained working-class credentials.

Gerry Smyth, a lecturer in cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, said that while the academic roots of many pop stars were undeniable, they could be a source of embarrassment.

“There is a whole tradition of what might be called ‘gownie rock’ - middle-class boys who have the money to invest in familiarising themselves with various new trends in popular music, and the leisure time to begin developing them in new directions. In the UK we’re talking Genesis, I guess, but also perhaps Queen, Soft Cell, Coldplay etc. It’s not very ‘street’, however - rock’s rebel persona doesn’t ring very true when it’s seen to emerge from a privileged background. Remember Mick Jagger’s cockney wideboy turning to Home Counties intonation when he was done for drugs? Or John Lennon - the quintessential middle-class boy bound for higher education - who turned himself into a working-class hero?”

Our list of pop stars with university backgrounds, produced by surveying institutions and scouring the biographies of musicians, reveals that higher education is increasingly common among today’s leading music acts.

Archetypal of the modern era is Coldplay, one of the biggest bands in the world, who happily admit that they first met and jammed in the stairwells of Ramsay Hall after enrolling at University College London.

Some musicians - including Brian Cox, keyboard player for 1990s pop band D:ream - have even returned to university to become academics. Dr Cox now researches particle physics at Manchester University.  


King’s College London Kele Okereke (Bloc Party) John Deacon (Queen) Richard Coles (Communards) Anne Dudley (Art of Noise) John Evan (Jethro Tull)

University College London Chris Martin, Will Champion, Jonny Buckland and Guy Berryman (Coldplay) Brett Anderson (Suede) Justine Frischmann (Elastica) Simon Ratcliffe (Basement Jaxx) Tim Rice-Oxley (Keane)


Leeds Corinne Bailey Rae Simon Rix (Kaiser Chiefs) David Gedge (The Wedding Present) Andrew Eldritch (The Sisters of Mercy)

London Met Sonya Madden (Echobelly) Alison Moyet David McAlmont (McAlmont & Butler) Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys)

Manchester Chemical Brothers D:ream Sleeper James

Thames Valley Pete Townshend (The Who) Freddie Mercury (Queen) Ronnie Wood (The Rolling Stones) Matt Tong (Bloc Party)


Bristol James Blunt Hugh Cornwell (The Stranglers) Tony McGuinness (trance DJ)

Goldsmiths, London Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon and Alex James (Blur) Brian Molko (Placebo) Malcolm McLaren

Queen Mary, London Pete Doherty Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden) Bernard Butler (Suede)

Reading Jamie Cullum The Go! Team British Sea Power

University of the Arts Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) Sade Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd)


Cardiff Manchild Underworld

Essex Tony Banks (Genesis) Chandra Sonic (Asian Dub Foundation)

Exeter Thom Yorke (Radiohead) Will Young

Hull Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn (Everything but the Girl) Some of the Housemartins

Leeds Metropolitan Ricky Wilson (Kaiser Chiefs) Marc Almond (Soft Cell)

London School of Economics Mick Jagger Judge Jules

Middlesex Ray Davies Alison Goldfrapp

Newcastle Maximo Park Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music)

Oxford Kris Kristofferson (Rhodes scholar) DJ Paul

Open Joan Armatrading Myleene Klass (Hear’Say)

Royal Holloway KT Tunstall Joby Talbot and Stuart Bates (The Divine Comedy)

Sheffield Longpigs Gomez

Southampton Mark Hill (Artful Dodger) Brian Eno (Roxy Music)


Aberdeen Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand)

Anglia Ruskin Adam Ant

Bath Russell Senior (Pulp)

Birkbeck, London Dido

Birmingham Simon Le Bon (Duran Duran)

Brunel Carl Barat (Dirty Pretty Things)

Cambridge Colin Greenwood (Radiohead)

Central Lancs Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres (Cornershop)

Dundee Snow Patrol

Edinburgh Tom Chaplin (Keane)

Glasgow Caledonian Stephen Lironi (Altered Images)

Greenwich Natasha Bedingfield

Imperial College London Brian May (Queen)

Kingston Eric Clapton

Liverpool Chris Lowe (Pet Shop Boys)

Liverpool John Moores Phil Selway (Radiohead)

Manchester Met Mick Hucknall (Simply Red)

Oxford Brookes Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead)

Sussex Billy Idol

Swansea Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire (Manic Street Preachers)

Teesside Skin (Skunk Anansie)

Warwick Sting

Westminster David Gilmour, Richard Wright, Nick Mason (Pink Floyd)

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