The list of bands that met at art school is endless. Throughout history, art and music have gone together like tacos and guacamole! Not only have both art forms inspired each other, they have both helped shape popular culture in revolutionary ways.
When you learn about art, you open up your imagination to a whole new world of possibilities. And, maybe that’s why so many of the people we love as singers, guitarists and DJs learned how to paint and draw before hitting the right chord with their musical careers.
In this blog, the team at Pencil Kings takes a look at some of history’s most famous popular musicians who studied art and reveals why we think their early experiments with visual ideas helped them create the music we listen to today.
1. John Lennon
As a member of one of the most famous groups of all time, John Lennon needs no introduction. After all, this is the man who wrote the songs which have been passed down through generations and inspired other musicians all over the world.
However, while everyone probably knows at least one song by The Beatles, what everyone may not know is that John Lennon’s creativity first found its outlet at Liverpool College of Art, where the young man who would later become a musical icon to millions enrolled in 1957.
It’s hard to believe now, but art school in the UK during this era was not exactly the free-thinking explosion of creativity people think it is today. Bands that met at art school during this period weren’t always free to explore their creativity!
So, rather than letting his imagination run riot with paint brushes, the 17-year-old Lennon was dismayed to find himself learning about geometry, architecture and lettering from strict teachers who reminded him of the hardline taskmasters at school!
Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebellion at Art College
With the spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the air, John chose to rebel rather than conform. With his slicked-back hair, drainpipe jeans and crepe shoes, he already looked a lot different to the average student and his outrageous antics (disrupting classes, having a passionate embrace with the female life model and deliberately ruining his work to annoy the tutors) helped seal his reputation as a troublemaker!
Art school didn’t go quite as planned for John Lennon, but there was one happy co-incidence. While studying at Liverpool College of Art, he met up with an old school friend, George Harrison, who was based at the Liverpool Institute next door. George introduced John to Paul McCartney, a school friend of his, and they formed a band…
2. Kanye West
He’s one of the most famous rappers in the world, yet Chicago-born Kanye West prefers to think of himself as a ‘sonic artist’ and has compared his work to Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and even Picasso in the past.
He’s also been keen to voice his opinions about popular music websites, pouring scorn on YouTube for its ‘ugly’ appearance and how ‘it’s presented in such a terrible manner’.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, to learn that this Windy City hip-hop hero studied at the American Academy of Art before dropping out to pursue a career in music. Just like John Lennon many years before him, the young Kanye found himself at odds with his teachers and, after telling himself he was never going to make it as a visual artist, decided to pick up the mic instead of the paintbrush.
He hasn’t abandoned his artistic aspirations altogether, though, saying: ‘I want everything I do to be presented in an art context’. Maybe him and Jay-Z will go sketching together soon?
3. Chuck D
As frontman with hip-hop legends, Public Enemy, rapper Chuck D is known for his direct approach and uncompromising way with words. And, when you learn that this famous musician once studied graphic design at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, it’s easy to see how this helped influence his career behind the mic.
Chuck, born Carlton Ridenhour, was raised by politically-active parents and learned much about African American history from an early age. While studying for his graphic design degree, he was introduced to several things that would change his life forever – music and the sheer power of entertainers such as activist and comedian, Dick Gregory.
Take a look at the impact Public Enemy had upon the music scene at the time. A strong image, coupled with an instantly-recognizable logo and fierce performances on stage earned Chuck D and his bandmates a well-deserved place in music history and helped pave the way for many new rap artists today. We think his early interest in art also helped Chuck become the major star he is today.
4. Keith Richards
Did you see footage from the UK’s Glastonbury festival a few years ago? While the Rolling Stones may have looked as old as the famous stone circle itself, there was no denying these elder statesmen of rock have still got what it takes to deliver an awesome live performance.
As lead guitarist, Keith Richards is known for his unique style and hedonistic lifestyle. And, we like to think this spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll rebellion began when the young Stone, having been expelled from school in 1959, went to Sidcup Art College to find an outlet for his creativity.
Talking in his autobiography, Keith explains: “The society and everything I was growing up in was just too small for me…I knew I had to look for a way out…”
A Rolling Stone Looking For Freedom
But, while building up his portfolio, Keith began to suspect that art school may have not been the passport to individual freedom he thought it was, saying: “There was almost no ‘art’ to be had at Sidcup. After a while you got a drift of what you were being trained for and it wasn’t Leonardo da Vinci.”
Having become disillusioned with what he described as ‘flash advertising types’ who seemed to be grooming art students for a career at the local ad agency, Keith dumped his portfolio in the nearest bin, picked up his guitar and made musical history.
5. David Byrne
As the eccentric frontman with Talking Heads, David Byrne was known for his over-sized suits, random dancing and unconventional lyrics. Where did this come from? You guessed it – the young Mr Byrne was an art student!
Having been born in Scotland in 1952, David’s family moved to Canada and then Baltimore, where the youngster attended Rhode Island School Of Design in 1970. While studying here, he became friends with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth and they later became one of the most famous bands that met at art school.
Just like many of our art students turned musicians, David was not impressed with art school, saying: “I think art school is a real racket, especially in this country. You run into a couple of good teachers and some interesting students but for the amount of money you spend, it’s not worth it”.
David’s unorthodox approach at art school didn’t go down to well with the teachers, either. And, after a piece of performance art where he shaved off his hair and beard while a piano accordion played and showgirls held up cue cards written in Russian, he found himself kicked out of Rhode Island School of Design after just one year.
Beginnings of Art Rock
As one of the original ‘art rock’ bands, Talking Heads were hugely successful and have influenced a wide range of artists since. The tutors at his art school may not have agreed, but David had (and still has) a unique way of taking strange concepts and making them accessible to people on a wider scale.
This is only a small selection of the famous musicians who studied art before putting their faith in popular music. Others include Freddie Mercury, Florence Welch, the members of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin guitarist, Jimmy Page, ambient music maestro and super-producer, Brian Eno and many, many more.
Interestingly, the one thing many of these have in common is a sense of disillusionment with art school, which seemed to stifle, rather than enhance, their creativity.
We hope you enjoyed this article on bands that met at art school. And here’s something else you might like…
At Pencil Kings, you don’t need to worry about any such issues – you’re free to create what you like, when you like…and all from the comfort of your own home at a fraction of the price!
If you haven’t already, why not put your favorite music on and take a look at our lessons page? Whatever your level of experience, you’re sure to find something that hits the right note.