Rock and Roll in Oxford: A Very Short Introduction

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards described rock and roll as “music from the neck down”. Oxford, perhaps the most ‘rise’ in Britain, has had surprisingly little influence on the genre. The University’s Famous Alumni page lists 120 Olympic medalists, more than 50 international leaders, 55 Nobel Prize winners, but only one musician (jazz artist). A more comprehensive list of famous Oxonians names 43 composers, 13 conductors, seven musicologists and even a didgeridoo pianist. However, while pop and rock music dominate the charts, only seven Oxford graduates have found success in these areas: three “pop” artists and four rock and roll musicians.

Of the three “pop” artists, two managed to graduate. Mylo MacInnes received Brasenose’s first award in PPP and is now making electronic music. Bulgarian-Leverbodleian Mira Arroyo did not graduate. She chose to sing to DPhil’s Biochemistry because she “was young and seemed the most fun at the time to travel the world playing music.”

Benjamin Hudson McEldoe graduated from St. Anne’s University with a degree in English Literature, and is perhaps the most successful of the three. Under the pseudonym Mr. Hudson, he helped produce Kanye West 808 and HeartbreaksIt even provides vocals for “Paranoid”, “Say You Will” and “Amazing”. Kanye returned more than the favourite in 2009: served as executive producer for Hudson’s album straight no chasersang Pete on his single “Supernova”, and declared that “Mr. Hudson has the potential to be greater than [him]. Unfortunately for the credibility of St Anne Street – and for Mr. Hudson – this has not turned out to be the case.

The Oxford graduate of rock and roll has not achieved such success, or received such praise. The only graduate is Michael Rutledge, who read Psychology and Philosophy at University College. He continued playing piano and flute for Soft Machine – a relatively young prog rock band that was active in the 1960s and 1970s.

It doesn’t seem like the inspiration for chart-topping songs can be found in exam schools, 16The tenth Century libraries, or bridge dance floor Thursdays. It was interesting that the three students enrolled in rock and roll at Oxford were much more successful than Rutledge.

In 1991, Guthrie Jovan withdrew from St. Katz after him Introductions to English Literature; Heavy metal proved to be an even more attractive opportunity. Two years later, while his previous group sat in the finals, he was winning guitar player Guitarist of the Year award. He has toured all over the world for 30 years. Most recently, he worked with Hans Zimmer as a guitarist on the soundtrack for the king lion (2019) and Dune (2021).

The most famous rock players to have survived at any point in time at Oxford are the singer and pianist of the ocher. The group was formed in 2005, while the four founding members were spread between Magdalen College School and Abingdon School. Lead singer Yannis Filipakis went on to read English literature at St John’s, but soon left the band to form the band. Instead of learning Middle English, he “wanted to make a band to play house parties, irritate people who don’t like to dance, steal their girlfriends, and play music.”

Edwin Congreave – pianist – read English literature at St Hugh’s. Tell Sherwell In 2010, he dropped out because he “didn’t know yet which direction my life was going… I needed some time to figure it all out… and Indie Soc was bullshit.” The association has since chosen to rebrand it as the Oxford Alternative Music Society. The Foals began circa 2006 playing for the Zodiac – O2’s predecessor – and the now-closed “Cellar” who used to live opposite Plush in Frewin Court.

Oxford University’s lack of significant rock ‘n’ roll output contrasts with the creative success of the city’s non-student residents: most notably, Radiohead Rolling Stone magazine listed them as one of the greatest bands of all time.

Its members, Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Philip Selway met during their time at Abingdon School – a private school five miles south of Oxford. In 1985, the five high school students formed a band, On a Friday. Two years later, they performed their first concert at Jericho Tavern. In the same year, he left most of the Friday for the university. Frontman Thom Yorke had wanted to study English literature at St John but Abingdon told him he “couldn’t even serve”: “I was too thick. Oxford would eat me and spit on me. He’s too strict.”

Instead, York went to the University of Exeter, and on a Friday scattered across the country. Upon returning to Oxford in 1991, he shared a house with his old classmates at Magdalen Road School in Cowley. on Friday I return to performing regularly at Jericho Tavern. By their eighth gig, they were picked up by record company EMI – on the condition that they change their name to Radiohead. A few weeks later, they would commute daily to Chipping Norton Studios to record Paul Honey and the single “Creep”. Since then, Radiohead has sold over 30 million albums, won 6 Grammys, and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 1998, at the height of Radiohead’s fame, Oxford’s Thom Yorke complained. He called the city “very capricious and unjust.” In particular, he blamed the university for the destruction of Oxford “because most of those beautiful historic buildings are surrounded by barbed wire and jagged walls.” Despite this, he still lives here, and is said to hang out in the botanical garden occasionally.

Another successful rock group that emerged from the other half of Oxford is the Glass Animals. Lead singer Dave Bailey moved from America to Oxford at the age of 13. He met his bandmates at St Edmund’s, a private boarding school on Woodstock Road. In early 2010, drummer Joe Seward recounts that he “saw Dave Foals in [the Cellar] Playing is literally for about seven people and a dog.” In 2013, Glass Animals performed their first gig at Jericho Tavern — a 9-minute set whose producer was glad he hadn’t seen. “He was leaving after about 25 seconds…maybe less.” They quickly signed up. With XL Recordings. After a few albums, their single ‘Heat Waves’ of 2020 garnered over 1 billion streams on Spotify. They won Best New Artist at the 2022 Grammy Awards, and they now live in East London.

Rock and roll and academia have never been the most compatible. Since Chuck Berry, rock has set itself overwhelmingly against “the establishment.” Pink Floyd “didn’t need an education”, “clash of law” and The Sex Pistols rallied against the “fascist regime” in England. Meanwhile, Oxford University offers one of the best education in Europe, has taught most lawyers in Britain, and instructed more than half of the country’s prime ministers.

Oxford rock ‘n’ roll production may be weak, but our music scene is thriving in other genres. Our choirs have given birth to some of the most famous singers of the past millennia. Our colleges host everything from funk bands to jazz groups to musical theater performances. We even have the best a cappella group in the UK. However, rock ‘n’ roll lives stubbornly the outside Barbed wire and spiked walls. On that front, our locals made us beat.

Image credits: Marcin Pieluzek/Public Domain via Flickr, Pexels/Pixabay License via Pixabay


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