Art schools have long produced some of the most innovative and radical pop musicians. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Public Enemy and REM are names at the top of a very long list.
Many of these musicians put their interest in art behind them once they’d achieved pop superstardom, but the cross-fertilisation of art and pop happens in mysterious ways. Here’s an eclectic shortlist of those who have enjoyed success as both artists and musicians.
As a student at Liverpool College of Art, Stuart Sutcliffe entered the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize. Sir John Moores himself bought the painting and Sutcliffe was persuaded by friend and fellow student John Lennon to buy a bass guitar with the money. He joined Lennon’s band and changed their name from the Quarrymen to the Beatals (later amended by Lennon to the less French sounding Beatles). After The Beatles played in Hamburg, Sutcliffe left the band and stayed on when the others returned to Liverpool, taking up a scholarship under Eduardo Paolozzi at the Hamburg School of Art. To acclaim from his professors, Sutcliffe developed a lyrical, abstract expressionist style of painting before dying from a brain tumour in Hamburg aged only 22.
Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart)
Under the stage name Captain Beefheart, Don Van Vliet had critical success with such albums as 1969’s Trout Mask Replica. His compositional style was experimental and the music a highly original blend of rock, blues and pyschedelia. Van Vliet played several instruments and used a rotating backing band of musicians called The Magic Band. He was always interested in poetry and painting, and had his first exhibition in Liverpool in 1972. But he didn’t consider art as a career until a fan, the artist Julian Schnabel, asked to buy a drawing. Through his association with the Michael Werner Gallery, Van Vliet gave up music and went on to have the commercial success as an artist that he had failed to have as a musician. Self-taught, his style was crude and expressive, much like his music.
Eno was a student at Ipswich Civic College, in Suffolk, under Roy Ascott, an innovator in interactive computer arts. Despite not being trained in music, Eno joined avant-garde glam rock group Roxy Music because he could operate a synthesiser and had a reel-to-reel tape machine. After leaving Roxy Music, Eno developed his interests in systems that could generate music. He is a pioneer of ambient music and music production techniques, working as producer for David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2. The creator of sounds such as the start-up of Windows 95, Eno extends his experimental approach to images: 77 Million Paintings was a 2006 DVD/software project that generated randomised images and sounds.
“I’m a painter first and a musician second,” says Canadian-born Joni Mitchell. Music was a way to make pocket money while she was a student at the Alberta College of Art + Design in Calgary. Abstract Expressionism was the vogue in art schools in the early 1960s, so despite excelling academically for the first time, Mitchell’s figurative art was not in fashion. Students who made representational works were encouraged into commercial art and advertising. As this didn’t appeal Mitchell dropped out of art school and took a $15 a week job singing folk songs in a coffeehouse. A three-day train ride took Mitchell from Western Canada to Toronto where she had her first commercial breakthrough, and by the 1970s she was a household name with songs such as Big Yellow Taxi and California. Mitchell continues to paint in an eclectic style and creates the illustrations for many of her albums.
A radical sound went with a striking, graphic look in clothes, stage backdrops and record design for punk rock group The Clash. Agit-prop slogans, paint-spattered guitars, and all visuals were overseen by bass guitarist Paul Simonon. While attending the Byam Shaw School of Art and planning a career as a painter, he was persuaded to take up the instrument and form a group with lead guitarist Mick Jones. Since the Clash dissolved, Simonon has returned to painting, regularly exhibiting in London. Themes include views of the Thames, painted in a loose, expressive style. His success as an artist almost matches his success in music; in 2008, the singer Lily Allen reportedly spent £28,000 on his paintings.
*Lead image sourced from Wiki Commons