Today we look at a few of the most educated rock stars who broke the stereotype that rock musicians are uneducated or unintelligent.
The “Unintelligent Rock Star” Stereotype
In the last several years, I’ve become more interested in why musicians are sometimes perceived as being uneducated and dim-witted. As a musician myself, I can confidently say that we’re a different breed, but why the negative stigma? Perhaps it is because many rockers are considered to be carefree types that are only interested in sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Something that always sticks in my mind is the scene from the first Wayne’s World movie when Wayne and Garth meet Alice Cooper. No one expects rockers to present themselves as serious and intelligent.
Just like any other segment of the population, musicians are a varied group with differing levels of intelligence and education. On the whole, it seems to me that rock musicians are more artistic, intuitive, and abstract thinkers than the general population. Perhaps this is why they are perceived as less logical, as our modern society seems to have an obsession with extreme rationalism.
In my opinion, most people are not aware that one of the functions of an artist is to live on the edge while challenging the status quo… a kind of chic court jester that subconsciously subverts the seriousness of everyday life and makes us question ourselves. This is perhaps another reason they are widely recognized as unreasonable.
I digress. Below are a few rock stars who have opposed the stereotype.
10 Educated Rock Stars
Brian May of Queen – Considered to be one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, Brian May attained a Bachelors of Science degree in mathematics and physics from Imperial College, London in 1968. Apparently, he put his education on hold when Queen started to become famous. Nearly 37 years later, at the age of 60, May earned his PhD in astrophysics from London’s Imperial College in 2007.
“It’s been the longest gap year ever. It was a tough decision back then to leave my studies for music.” – Brian May
Greg Graffin of Bad Religion – Greg Graffin is the lead vocalist and songwriter of Bad Religion, a Los Angeles punk band he co-founded in 1979. He has undergraduate degrees in anthropology and geology from UCLA. In addition, Graffin has a master’s degree in geology from UCLA and a PhD in zoology from Cornell University. When he is not playing with Bad Religion, he is a professor who teaches classes at both UCLA and Cornell University.
Dave Blood of the Dead Milkmen – Dave Blood, whose real name was Dave Schulthise, was a PhD candidate in economics at Purdue University before becoming the bass player for the Dead Milkmen. When the band broke up in 1995, he began studying Serbian-Croatian culture at Indiana University. In 1998, he moved to Serbia and taught English, but fled in 1999 when NATO bombed the country. Sadly, Dave committed suicide by drug overdose in March of 2004.
We miss you, Dave. Your contributions are not forgotten.
“The secret of life is no secret at all. For secrets hold death and lies only build walls.” – Dead Milkmen
Tom Scholz of Boston – Prior to founding the band Boston, guitarist Tom Scholz earned a masters degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1970. He also invented the Rockman guitar amplifier, and designed much of the band’s recording gear. In the 70s, Scholz recorded and produced most of Boston’s first two releases in his basement recording studio.
Jim Morrison of The Doors – Legendary rock vocalist and lyricst Jim Morrison of The Doors earned an undergraduate degree in film from UCLA in 1965. Jim was an avid reader who was well-read in subjects of literature, poetry, and philosophy. He died in 1971 at the age of 27.
His reputation as a heavy drinker and drug user sometimes overshadows his impressive intellect.
Listen to a 1970 interview with Tony Thomas of CBS:
Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground – Many people don’t realize that Lou Reed, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter of the Velvet Underground, graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in arts in 1964.
Sterling Morrison, also a founding member of the Velvet Underground, went on to earn a doctorate degree in medieval studies from the University of Texas at Austin.
Sterling Morrison died in 1995 of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Lou Reed died in October of 2013 from liver disease.
Thom Yorke of Radiohead – Several members of Radiohead have undergraduate degrees. In 1988, lead singer/songwriter Thom Yorke put an early version of Radiohead (then called On A Friday) on hiatus to earn his bachelors degree in fine art and English from the University of Exeter. Shortly after the band members completed their college coursework, On A Friday regrouped and were signed by Parlophone under the name Radiohead in the early 1990s.
Philip Taylor Kramer of Iron Butterfly – Once the bass player for Iron Butterfly in the 1970s, Philip Kramer earned a night-school degree in aerospace engineering from the Western States College of Engineering in the 1980s. Out of college, he did classified work on the MX missile guidance system for Northrop, a contractor for the US Department of Defense. Kramer also allegedly worked on advanced computer systems and co-founded Total Multimedia, Inc. with Randy Jackson (one of Michael Jackson’s brothers). Philip Taylor Kramer disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1995. In 1999, his skeletal remains were found in his van at the bottom of Decker Canyon near Malibu, California. His death was ruled a probable suicide.
Watch an episode of VH1 Confidential on Philip Taylor Kramer:
Rivers Cuomo of Weezer – A little more than a year after Weezer’s debut album was released in 1994, lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Rivers Cuomo began attending Harvard University. 11 years and 4 Weezer albums later, Cuomo graduated with a bachelors degree in English in 2006.
“After graduation, I’ll be able to make a better commitment to the band.” – Rivers Cuomo
Coldplay – Love or hate them, Coldplay is a popular band. Not to mention, educated. All the bands members met at University College London in 1996, and three of the four completed degrees there. Singer Chris Martin graduated with first honors in Greek and Latin. Guitarist Johnny Buckland obtained a degree in mathematics. Drummer Will Champion majored in anthropology.
The idea that rock musicians are foolish and uneducated is only a stereotype. As with any subgroup of the overall population, musicians come in a variety of intelligence and education levels. We’ve presented ten examples of rock stars who have degrees, some who attained PhD’s. Several rock stars actually began their careers as teachers. Since many musicians are artists and often abstract thinkers that live on the periphery of what is acceptable, perhaps many people view them as illogical and unreasonable.
Updated September 9, 2016
Originally published July 2014