10 Of Rock’s Most Intelligent Musicians
Let’s be honest, when it comes to rock’n’roll, intelligence isn’t always a vital component. At least not in the traditional, booksmart sense of the word. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Metal, punk and everything that resides under the glorious umbrella of noise we all love hits hardest when it’s loud, obnoxious, guttural and raw – qualities you don’t need to be a brainiac to produce. That might mean its proponents are more likely to possess an STI than a PhD, but that’s not always the case.
Occasionally, some bright sparks get involved in the making of our favourite music too. You’ll find countless examples of brilliant wordsmiths, speakers and thinkers across the broad spectrum of alternative music throughout the past however many years you care to look for them, but only a relative few have actually gone through the higher education system and emerged with the qualifications to show for it. That may more often than not be because a) college education can be prohibitively expensive and b) a lot of people are forced to choose between pursuing their studies or making music.
This talented bunch, however, prove that striving for academic and artistic achievements needn’t always be an either/or dilemma…
Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine)
Okay, so one listen to RATM’s music should tell you that this is a group comprised of guys who are smarter than your average gang of noisemakers. Most bands don’t usually come with recommended reading lists after all, but the LA firebrands aren’t most bands. So it shouldn’t really come as a huge surprise that there are a lot of brains at play behind their not inconsiderable brawn. The operative word being ‘shouldn’t’ there, as one idiot on Tom Morello’s Instagram found out when he took issue with the guitarist’s ‘Fuck Trump’ post in 2017. User davez67, giving a bad name to good Daves everywhere, commented, ‘Another successful musician instantly becomes a political expert’, presumably putting his phone down and feeling quite smug afterwards. It proved an open goal opportunity too good to pass up for learned friend Tom, however.
“One does not have to be an honours grad in political science from Harvard University to recognise the unethical and inhumane nature of this administration,” he replied, “but well, I happen to be an honours grad in political science from Harvard University so I can confirm that for you.”
Know your enemy, indeed.
Milo Aukerman (The Descendents)
You know The Descendents’ 1982 record Milo Goes To College? Well, turns out he actually did. And until relatively recently, the vocalist’s legendary interest in academics matched his passion for punk rock, having only just quit research to concentrate on music full-time four years ago, coinciding with the Descendents last album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate. Previously, the California native juggled his time away from family duties between both of his personal loves, earning a doctorate in 1992 in biology from the University Of California, San Diego and contributing postdoctoral research at various institutes. He also worked as a plant researcher at DuPont and an adjunct professor at the University Of Delaware. To think some people feel a sense of achievement from just clearing their inboxes…
Brian May (Queen)
When we look at Queen guitarist Brian May we see a giant of rock history responsible for some of the most memorable riffs and melodies of all time. In science circles, he is just as famous for his 2007 astrophysics thesis A Survey Of Radial Velocities In The Zodiacal Dust Cloud, which earned him a PhD from Imperial College, London. Impressive enough, right? Don’t forget he was Chancellor Of Liverpool John Moores University (2008-2013), collaborated with NASA on their New Horizons Pluto mission and the fact that he’s had an asteroid named in his honour. Excuse us while we delete our LinkedIn and go curl into the foetal position forever.
Dexter Holland (The Offspring)
The dude who wrote Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)? Yeah, he’s really good at maths and holds a PhD in molecular biology among several other academic achievements. Oh, he’s also a licensed pilot who has completed a solo flight around the world, had been involved in a bunch of philanthropic projects, overseen successful businesses, has run two marathons… we could go on. A punk legend and someone truly deserving of the term polymath.
Rivers Cuomo (Weezer)
In 1995, in the midst of touring off the back of the breakout success of their debut ‘Blue’ album, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo matriculated as an undergrad music major at Harvard University, apparently shunning the media spotlight and the “unbearable boredom” of rock stardom. During a miserable semester, the enigmatic songwriter wrote half of the band’s cult classic but infamously panned second album Pinkerton, only to be called back to the road to kickstart his other life again. With intermittent returns to academia in subsequent years, Rivers finally graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English lit in 2006, earning a prestigious spot in the big deal honours society Phi Beta Kappa.
Greg Graffin (Bad Religion)
Interviewing the Bad Religion frontman is like being treated to a one-on-one lecture, so erudite and learned is he compared to most musicians, and certainly those whose job it is to scream righteous invective into a microphone. Away from the stage though, Greg graduated from UCLA with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, before going onto pick up a PhD in zoology from Cornell University. He has taught life sciences at each of his old stomping grounds, written books on evolution and humanism, and been awarded by the Society Of Vertebrate Palaeontologists and Harvard’s Cultural Humanism committee. Somehow he’s found time to keep the punk rock flag flying high for four decades and counting, as Bad Religion’s only mainstay member since 1979.
Blake Schwarzenbach (Jawbreaker)
The Jawbreaker vocalist and guitarist is renowned for his lyrical smarts as much as he is for providing the gravel-throated edge for the cult emo-punk pioneers, but it should be no surprise he’s better than the average songwriter in the words department. In 1991, Blake graduated as a BA Honours student in English literature from NYU and upon breaking up his post-JB band Jets To Brazil, got his master’s in teaching and began a new life as a literature professor at Hunter’s College in New York, before reuniting with Jawbreaker in 2017.
Gregg Turner (Angry Samoans)
Another legendary cult figure turned teacher, in 1991 Gregg Turner swapped Angry Samoans’ short scabrous bursts of white-hot punk rock for life as a professor of mathematics at Highlands University, New Mexico. Considering he also spent several years on the masthead of the influential music magazine Creem in the ‘70s (alongside famous critics Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer), perhaps the world should have seen something like that coming. Still, that’s a diverse set of skills.
Duff McKagan (Guns N' Roses)
Guns N’ Roses are a lot of things, but cerebral isn’t a word most people would immediately reach for when thinking about LA’s most infamous gang of hellraisers. The band’s louche bassist Duff McKagan helped earn that rep as much as any of his compadres did and it almost killed him by the time the mid-‘90s rolled around. Par for the course for a high school dropout, right? But nowadays, Duff’s a sober, savvy wealth management mastermind, published author and when time off from rock supergroup Velvet Revolver allowed in the early 2000s, he enrolled in Seattle University’s Albers School Of Business and Economics. A glow-up and then some.
Michael Starr (Steel Panther)
You’d never have guessed it from listening to the low-hanging comedic fruit of Steel Panther’s music, but their vocalist Michael Starr (real name Ralph Michael Saenz) might not be quite as dumb as he’d like the world to believe. According to various sources, in 1991, he graduated from the University Of California, Berkeley with a PhD in English, but in interviews he has denied these claims, dismissing it as fiction made up to help him get laid. Of course. Suffice to say this one may be worth taking with a large pinch of salt…
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