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Oxford’s rock and roll: a very short introduction

Oscar Fraser Turner discusses the unlikely connections between the city of Oxford, the University and the world of rock and roll.

The Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards called rock and roll “music from the neck downwards”. Oxford, as probably the most ‘neck upwards’ university in Britain, has had an unsurprisingly small impact on the genre. The university website’s ‘Famous Alumni’ page lists 120 Olympic Medal Winners, over 50 international leaders, 55 Nobel Prize winners, but only one musician (a jazz artist). A more comprehensive list of famous Oxonians names 43 composers, 13 conductors, seven musicologists, even a didgeridoo player. And yet while pop and rock music dominate the charts, only seven Oxford alumni have ‘made it’ in these fields: three ‘pop’ artists and four rock and roll musicians. 

Of the three ‘pop’ artists, two managed to graduate. Mylo MacInnes received a first from Brasenose in PPP and now makes electronic music. Bulgarian-Liverpudlian Mira Aroyo didn’t graduate. She chose singing over her DPhil in biochemistry because she “was young and it seemed a lot more fun at the time to travel the world playing music.” 

Benjamin Hudson McIldowie graduated from St Anne’s with a degree in English literature, and is probably the most successful of the three. Under the alias Mr Hudson, he helped produce Kanye West’s 808’s and Heartbreaks, even providing the vocals for “Paranoid”, “Say You Will”, and “Amazing”. Kanye more than returned the favour in 2009: he worked as executive producer for Hudson’s album Straight No Chaser, sang a verse on his hit single “Supernova”, and proclaimed that “Mr Hudson has the potential to be bigger than [him].” Unfortunately for St Anne’s street cred – and for Mr Hudson – this hasn’t turned out to be the case. 

Oxford’s singular rock and roll graduate never achieved such success, or received such praise. The lonely alumnus is Michael Ratledge, who read psychology and philosophy at University College. He went on to play the piano and the flute for Soft Machine – a relatively small prog-rock band that was active in the 60s and 70s. 

Inspiration for chart-topping hits doesn’t seem to be found in exam schools, 16th century libraries, or Bridge Thursday dancefloors. Tellingly, Oxford’s three rock and roll dropouts were far more successful than Ratledge.  

In 1991, Guthrie Govan dropped out of St Catz after his English literature prelims; heavy-metal proved a more attractive prospect. Two years later, while his former cohort was sitting finals, he was winning Guitarist magazine’s Guitarist of the Year award. He has been touring worldwide for the last 30 years. Most recently, he worked with Hans Zimmer as a guitarist on the soundtracks of The Lion King (2019) and Dune (2021). 

The most famous rockers to survive any amount of time at Oxford University were the singer and the pianist of Foals. The group was formed in 2005, while all four founding members were scattered between Magdalen College School and Abingdon School. Lead singer Yannis Philippakis went on to read English literature at St John’s, but quickly dropped out to form the band. Instead of learning Middle English, he “wanted to form a band to play house parties, rile the people who didn’t like dancing, steal their girlfriends and play music.”

Edwin Congreave – Foals pianist – read English literature at St Hugh’s. He told Cherwell in 2010 that he dropped out because he “didn’t yet know what direction my life was headed… I needed some time to figure it all out… and Indie Soc was shit.” The society has since chosen to rebrand itself as the Oxford Alternative Music society. The Foals started off around 2006 playing at the Zodiac – the O2’s predecessor – and the now-closed ‘Cellar’ that lived opposite Plush on Frewin Court. 

Oxford University’s lack of substantial rock and roll output is contrasted by the creative success of the city’s non-student population: most notably, of Radiohead listed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the greatest bands of all time. 

Its members, Thom Yorke, Jonny 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-schoolers formed a band, On a Friday. Two years later, they performed their first gig at the Jericho Tavern. That same year, most of On A Friday left for university. Frontman Thom Yorke had wanted to study English literature at St John’s but was told by Abingdon that he “couldn’t even apply”: “I was too thick. Oxford University would have eaten me up and spat me out. It’s too rigorous.”

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

In 1998, at the height of Radiohead’s fame, Thom Yorke complained about Oxford. He called the city “too crowned and oppressive.” In particular, he blamed the university for ruining Oxford “because most of those historic, beautiful buildings are surrounded by barbed wire and spiked walls.” Despite this, he still lives here, and is said to hang about the botanic garden once in a while. 

Another successful rock group to emerge from Oxford’s other half is Glass Animals. Lead singer Dave Bayley moved from America to Oxford at age 13. He met his future bandmates at St Edmund’s, a private boarding school on Woodstock Road. Back in the early 2010s, drummer Joe Seaward recounts that he “and Dave saw Foals in [the Cellar] literally playing to about seven people and a dog.” In 2013, Glass Animals performed their first gig at the Jericho Tavern – a 9 minute set that they are glad their producer didn’t see. “He would have left after about 25 seconds… Maybe less.” They soon signed with XL Recordings. A few albums later, their 2020 single ‘Heat Waves’ had over a billion streams on Spotify. They won Best New Artist at the 2022 Grammy Awards, and are now living in East London. 

Rock and roll and academia has never been the most compatible pairing. Since Chuck Berry, rock has overwhelmingly positioned itself against the ‘institution’. Pink Floyd didn’t “need no education”, The Clash “fought the law”, and The Sex Pistols rallied against England’s “fascist regime”. Meanwhile, Oxford provides one of the best educations in Europe, has taught the most lawyers in Britain, and has instructed over half of the country’s prime ministers.

Oxford University’s rock and roll output may be poor, but our music scene thrives in other genres. Our choirs have bred some of the most popular singers of the last millennia. Our colleges are host to everything from funk bands to jazz groups to musical theatre performances. We even have the UK’s best a cappella group. Yet rock and roll stubbornly lives on outside our “barbed wires and spiked walls.” On this front, our locals have us beat.

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

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