Rock & Roll by design: the influence of the Brit art schools.

The top Brit bands of the '60s—arguably the seven best to come out of the UK in that period, whose music is still heard on your satellite radio—had something interesting in common: their leaders/co-founders attended art school.

That would be: The Beatles' John Lennon; the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards; The Who's Pete Townshend; the Kinks' Ray Davies; Cream's Eric Clapton; Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett; and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. (More art school alumni in the comments.)

Coincidence? No chance. Art schools in England in the '60s were sanctuaries of cool. And like art schools everywhere they promoted the preeminence of aesthetics, beauty, style, design. Any art student would quickly grasp the importance—and basic mechanics—of standing out from the pack.

No surprise that each of these seven musicians, after leaving art school, was able to develop a distinct style of his own, a powerful brand identity—and help his band develop its own identity.

"Design thinking" is all the rage now, because in the copycat world of business in 2010 it's tough to hammer the competition on the usual things such as cost or features.

In the world of consumer electronics, for instance, when one company lowers its price or adds a new function, competitors usually just follow suit. So one way to stand out from the herd is to make your product or service cooler than the rest. That includes enhancing its look and feel, its sensory appeal, its style, its design. (Think "any Apple product.")

Likewise, in the British pop music scene of the '60s—especially in-and-around swinging London where the aforementioned bands recorded their music and hung out in pubs with each other—there was initially some similarity to their musical products.

These fledgling rock groups all loved the edgy new music coming from across the Pond—early rock & roll, R&B, blues—and replicated it to some extent on their early recordings. But each of these groups realized they had to stake out an identity that differed from the others—musically and visually.

The result was an explosion of style, on many levels. The Beatles, Stones, and Who, for instance—though starting from similar roots (a common love of American R&B, a desire to write their own songs, an appreciation of the art of performance, a goal to sell records to young fans, etc.)—went in diverse directions, each with a very different sound, look, and style.

The Beatles went from pop moptops to psychedelic revolutionaries; the Stones cultivated a more primitive sound and a tougher image to become the anti-Beatles; The Who adopted a Mod fashion look and a destructive stage persona that set them apart from everyone.

Though some had longer lives than others, all seven bands did an extraordinary job of defining themselves and their artistic products. This was differentiation by design, in every sense of the word.

Are the lessons obvious for today's business?

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »


  1. My list could have included many more rockers who came out of British art school in the 1960s, but to keep it brief, I listed the leaders/founders of the most critically acclaimed 60s bands in the UK. Other talented art school alums who had a clear sense of their own style and identity were: Jeff Beck of The Yardbirds and The Jeff Beck Group; Ron Wood of The Jeff Beck Group and, later, Faces and The Rolling Stones; Eric Burdon of The Animals, Freddie Mercury of Queen (formed in 1970); Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull; and John Mayall of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. The Yardbirds, one of the most experimental and avant garde of the UK bands, was formed IN art school and included Clapton, Beck, and Page at various times. Meanwhile, David Bowie, who studied art at a technical school, exhibited HIS artistic genius as a solo artist. And Bryan Ferry, who studied fine arts in college, formed Roxy Music in 1971 which was considered one of the first “art rock” and “glam rock” bands—and later attracted Brian Eno, yet another brilliant art school alumnus. Not a bad bunch.

    Some might argue with my inclusion of Syd Barrett who was soon dropped from Pink Floyd for reasons of mental instability, but Syd was the founder of the band, wrote most of their early material, and left an indelible stamp on the band by the time of his departure.

  2. I remember sitting next to Clapton when he was endlessly doodling before we'd go on, drawing these creepy pencil sketches of skeletons and death's heads and such. Very morbid stuff. But good art. And don't forget, the art schools weren't just a conceptual connection, bunches of the guys met up at art school, that's how they physically met and bonded and formed bands.

    In America, we had way more kids getting liberal arts educations. Not as many pure art school kids until later, when you had punk and "art rock", band music as abstract art. The Velvets were more art schooly but only because they evolved out the Warhol Scene.

    Once you got into the late 70's and had goth chicks and all, it got very art school dominated. Didn't the Talking Heads all go to RISD or something?

    Those Brit bands you mentioned definitely defined themselves in opposition to each other. The oddmen out were Cream who were much closer conceptually to a JAZZ band of all things. And were reviewed, brutally, by a Downbeat critic in Boston of all places. Dude wrote a scathing piece on them because he was sent to review them as a jazz band. Of course, they sucked as a jazz band, they weren't playing jazz. But all the long, wild improvisational stuff reminded jazzers of Ornette Coleman and Tranbe and Sonny Stitt and Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But compared to any of those guys, these Brits could barely play their instruments. They were adept at something very different. Blues/pop. Very far away from jazz conceptually.

    Now Jack and Ginger had been actual "jazz" players, but now we have to get into semantics about what "jazz" meant in Britain. These guys weren't playing bebop at all, they were playing something very commercial and Brit, something much closer to what they over there called "Trad" jazz. Old timey stuff. To Americans, hopelessly dated and corny. Swinging standards. Not the hipster bebop swing we had going on here.

    However, just to play "Trad" jazz required knowledge, skills and chops light years ahead of what the average rock musician in the States had. Clapton certainly couldn't play it. He knew about 4 chords. And played mainly modally off the classic pentatonic scale, very "inside" stuff to real jazz guys. He was just vastly gifted melodically within those strict confines. But to this day, Clapton can't play anything remotely close to jazz, in any form. Ken

  3. Yeah, art schools were creativity hotbeds where students who were musically inclined began to hang and play with each other. And London itself of course was a creativity boiler in the 60s—like Greenwich Village and, briefly, Haight Ashbury. LA too.

    I forgot that Talking Heads (or 3 of them anyway) got together at Rhode Island School of Design.

    Clapton was more of a blues head than Baker or Bruce. Too bad they couldn't get along with each other. Cream was a classic case of a highly dysfunctional small team whose interpersonal "abrasion" seemed to spark a productive (tho brief) run.

  4. Richards attends Sidcup Art School, Jagger the London School of Economics, Lennon the Liverpool College of Art, Townshend the Ealing Art School. I guess these are the places that street fighting men and working class heroes go. Nice marketing job by someone. I suppose you're going to be tell me that Clapton studied stained glass design. Oh, wait, I just looked it up — he did.

  5. You're airing one of rock & roll's dirty little secrets, Ali. When I visited Liverpool for the first time I was surprised to learn that Lennon grew up in suburban Woolton and was pretty well off. Lennon did a good job of personal branding with the working-class-hero thing. Jagger too.

  6. there were american rock musicians from the sixties who went to art school too -- jerry garcia went to the art institute here in san francisco. some members of other bands too.

  7. Yes, but there weren't nearly as many art school alums in the US, as Ken observed in his comment (#2 on this page), because kids usually studied art in the US as part of a larger curriculum in a liberal arts college.

    BTW, Ken was the founder and lead guitarist of a sixties blues band in Boston — Catharsis — that I briefly played for. One of their claims to fame was opening for Eric Clapton's Cream for SEVEN DAYS at Boston's legendary Psychedelic Supermarket in 1967. Rumor has it that Clapton benefited enormously from Ken's tutelage.

  8. You would put Floyd amongst the "7 best" English bands of the time and not the Yardbirds or Tull??? Are you still smoking DMT?? Do you actually think these dudes ever showed up for class, let alone learned anything useful?? You don't think they already had there act together by then??

  9. J: Yes.No.Yes.No.

    If you want detail...

    1.I was on the fence about Pink Floyd but Spin Mag had them in their 50 Greatest Bands of All Time behind only Beatles, Zeppelin, Stones, & Who from the 60s Brit list. So I defer to authority on occasion. :-)

    2. DMT is overrated. (So is GMT.)

    3. So you don't think Clapton's study of stained glass design didn't PROFOUNDLY affect his interpretation of Robert Johnson?

    4. Townsend, for one, is quoted as saying he learned everything about image/style/identity from his days in art school.

  10. Are there lessons for business? Absolutely.

    There are so many 'me too' products out there--who actually listens to consumers and makes things with features we actually want and use?

    Yes,companies like Apple are cool, and also 'exclusive' to an extent, by pricing their stuff out of reach of so many people. Snob appeal has no appeal for me. Although the PC is ubiquitous, it has opened up connections better than everything Apple makes.

    Didn't Jagger go to the London School of Economics? There's a good blog topic!

  11. Marilyn, as a Mac zealot I'll have to leap to its defense. Mac is priced higher because, IMHO, it's simply a better product. The Macs I've owned over the last 10 years have been crash proof and virus proof. The applications are an order of magnitude better, e.g. Keynote vs. Powerpoint (at least as of a year ago when I put my slides on Keynote), not to mention MUCH easier and more fun to use. Then, there's the aesthetics/design of a product—getting back to my post—which is often the difference maker in a copycat economy. I think a lot of folks love products that have a terrific "look & feel," that are stimulating to the senses, that have genuine beauty to them. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad—as well as iMacs and MacBooks—have that in spades. Style counts for something, as the Brit art schools—and the English rock bands they influenced—demonstrated. There's a BRILLIANT book by Virgina Postrel, which I'll blog about someday, "The Substance of Style" which explores this subject.

    Yes, Jagger attended economics school, which probably helped him put the Stones' finances back on track after their manager Allen Klein took them to the cleaners. The band made the classic mistake of not wanting to deal with the financial minutiae and deciding to "just let the manager worry about it." I did that more than once when I was playing in bands in the peace/love era but fortunately/unfortunately there wasn't a lot of dough at stake.

    Oh, did I mention that I like Apple products?

  12. Hey John!!

    You can see the art influence in some of today's bands, not noting anyone in particular, but it is there.
    A few good examples of incorporating art into the performance are Blackmore's Night (Richie Blackmore's current band), Casey Desmond, and The Bentmen!! Check them out for visual performance!!


  13. Hi John,

    I hear what you say about Macs. Everyone I know who owns one is a raving fan. My point is that when accessibiltiy to the Internet is measured, the PC wins, hands down. It is in that aspect, actually opening up communication between people who would never have connected, that the PC excels.

    It's likely that I would never have connected with Simplicity had I not been able to buy a computer, less expensively, with the PC's I've owned.

    I also think of people in the third world who've had the world literally opened to them due to Windows. Love him, hate him, Bill Gates has left his mark.

  14. Hi John. This blog is so much fun and very thought provoking. Thank you!

    This latest topic has me thinking about creativity and multi-talented folks, not necessarily musicians. The person that I first thought of was Clive Barker. I have read a few of his books, not that many, but my sons are both well read fans. In addition to his writing, he is a very gifted artist, working in a wide variety of media. He also is a film maker, both on the 'big screen' and television. He even has developed a variety of games - and I do mean a variety. That was an element of his work I was not aware of, just learned that looking at his website.

    The point is just that some people seem gifted with an over abundance of creativity that shows up where you may not expect it. I imagine these people with unmatched hemispheres in those brains of theirs. Great big right side, maybe skimpy on the other side. Maybe they even walk just a little lopsided - all that right brain power.

    Mick Jagger in economics school? That is one big two sided brain.

  15. I hate it when I see something I wished I had worded a little differently. I am especially worried that my use of the word (?) unmatched may make me sound a little Palin-ish. If it does, I am going to have to take a long walk off a short pier or something. :)

  16. Dorothy, I always get Clive Barker and Cleve Backster mixed up. But I think Cleve is the one who experimented with communicating to plants. (Did I tell you I have artificial plants so I don't have to talk to them?)

    Yup, Mr. Jagger is an interesting study. Maybe I'll blog on him at some point. At the moment I'm REALLY enjoying Victor Bockris's biography, "Keith Richards."

    Leaving comments on a blog is not for the faint of heart, given that tens of thousands are watching, ready to criticize any malapropism! (Well, maybe not TENS of thousands in this case, but at least my relatives.)

  17. The thing that stands out to me, and that was probably engendered by the art schooling, is that most of the acts we've cited here were not only aware of the importance of image and identity, but wanted to experiment with it. To change. To do other things.

    I suspect that this kind of restless creativity is what drew most of these acts to art school, rather than art school drawing it out of them. I wonder how much art school really taught them, although putting them in touch with other creative people undoubtedly will have helped to nurture their own ideas?

    Nature vs. nurture: that old debate, eh?

  18. Restless Creativity is what we were ALL feeling, I think. It's why we were so eager for each new musical happening, why we memorized the info on the album covers and liners. I think that restlessness, that love for creative new solutions - in all of us - caused the changes.
    Restless Creativity - a very good thing.

  19. Mark, it's probably a "both-and" deal. No doubt the art schools were a magnet for creative musical talent. They also became creativity hotbeds (within the larger creativity incubator of 1960's London) where these free spirits mixed with kindred souls in an environment that encouraged "design."

    I'm glad you mentioned the word "experiment." That's what seems to be missing with so many of the otherwise competent modern rock bands. Of the top-selling bands of the 00s I don't hear that experimental spirit that was so characteristic of the aforementioned Brit bands—who could be relentlessly innovative without losing their rock/R&B/blues appeal. Their "restless creativity" was matched with a popular accessibility.

    I was just thinking about this while listening to Maroon 5's latest release, an EXTREMELY well crafted album, produced by Mutt Lange (of AC/DC-Foreigner-Def Leppard-Shania Twain fame). Now Maroon 5 is enormously talented, with a great lead vocalist, world-class musicians, and catchy soulful tunes. But like so many of their peers I'm not hearing them cutting NEW GROUND.

    If there ARE bands out there who are doing truly revolutionary stuff (and there must be SOME), I'm left to conclude that their music must not be sufficiently accessible or I'd be hearing it.

    In the meantime, maybe we should ship these headliner bands off to art school?

  20. Dorothy, your remarks imply that rock audiences in those days expected and demanded more than they do now. A provocative thought.

  21. John: You know ... I just don't know. I really have no idea. Anyone help me out on this? Do today's rock audiences expect and demand less?

  22. BTW, when I talk about the top selling bands of the 00s who aren't cutting new ground, I meant the NEW bands coming out of this decade, not the older bands like U2 and Green Day who ARE willing to experiment. In fact I think I'll do my next post on Green Day who deserve some props for their punk rock operas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »