Five Great British Nerdy Pop Stars

Thomas Dolby: Nerdy Pop Star

Pop stars are supposed to be beings made of pure charm and sexual energy. They need a fulsome knowledge of the work of Isaac Asimov like they need tooth decay. Nevertheless, a few nerds – like Thomas Dolby here – have managed to make their way through the prom night popularity contest that is the music business without having to sacrifice their essential nerdiness in order to do so (with one notable exception, see below).

So, to celebrate Nerdist week here on Anglophenia, here are five of the best.

Elvis Costello

Without pandering to too many stereotypes, Elvis has to be the nerdiest pop star ever. He’s not only a book-reading music swot with a penchant for puns and crossword puzzle lyrics, he’s also developed a lyrical persona (in his early songs at least) which is entirely driven by revenge and guilt. Revenge against all the people who did him wrong, people whose meaningless lives have impacted on his superior intelligence in a bruising fashion, and guilt because he should be clever enough not to keep getting into emotional scrapes in the first place. And that’s before we even get into the whole thrift-store chic, glasses-as-emotional-probe, vicious sneer thing. If Elvis Costello was in the film The Incredibles, he’d be Syndrome, the jilted nerd with a massive axe to grind. As it is, he’s just Elvis Costello, the broadcaster, music buff and compulsive songwriter (with a massive axe to grind).

The Proclaimers

Do you know why people think spectacle-wearers are smart? It’s not because they’ve somehow prioritised reading over all other concerns, including their ocular health, it’s because they demonstrate a clear mastery of tools, just by walking about and looking at things. None of this macho nonsense about looking weak, as if straining is a key part of the business of seeing stuff, they just put their bins on, focus, and get busy. And that’s what it’s like being in the Proclaimers, I’d imagine. No frills or nonsense, no attempts to be something they’re not. They’re twins, they wear specs, they’re from Scotland and they play simple songs with a lot of punch. They have mastered the tools they require in order to exist, and you don’t need to be any smarter than that.

Also: They’re David Tennant’s favorite band. I rest my case.

Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure)

I’ll be honest, I was supposed to be writing about Hot Chip here, but this is probably my favorite video on the entire internet, and this man looms large over everything that band does. It’s Vince Clarke – the fella who started Depeche Mode, who left after their first album and formed Yazoo, and left again to form Erasure, and the archetype of the British synth nerd – in his Maine log cabin studio, talking about synthesizers and how he uses them to build up a backing track. He’s a driven man, to this day, and clearly a world expert on the art of using analogue synths to make music happen. The brilliant fact is, he’s such a nerd he has to write his music on a distinctly wooden acoustic guitar, because it would be too distracting to try and do it on synths, he would never get anything done.

Radiohead

There’s a suspicion about Radiohead, from a lot of quarters, that they’re far too contrary for their own good, and that they think way too hard about something which has to be felt out, using feelings, not negotiated across a minefield of British reserve. The fact that they made one astonishing guitar-led album (“The Bends”) and then followed it up with an even-more-astonishing album (“OK Computer,” in which the warmth of their guitars was frozen under cold, cold reverb), and then decided to ditch the guitars altogether (apart from all the songs on which they didn’t), has been treated as some kind of treachery to good old honest heartfelt music lovers the world over. “Too cerebral,” they moan, “too drippy. Where’s the raunch?” Well if you want raunch, Ke$ha is face-down in a wheelie-bin outside. If you want barriers pushed back, new ideas exchanged, mutated forms of music accepted into the mainstream and feelings given a thorough pummelling by Thom Yorke’s angelic howl, well stick around.

Led Zeppelin

OK, OK, this is clearly going to be a tough sell, but hear me out. Ignore the golden god hair and all the groinal thrustage, let’s see things as they really are for a moment. Four guys get together to form a band. There’s a pale, dark haired studio boffin with an interest in the occult; a Tolkein-obsessed singer with a lyric pad straight out of World of Warcraft (if WOW could sustain sexual metaphors about lemons), and a librarian’s knowledge of esoteric music; an astonishingly gifted session musician who can’t stand the limelight, can orchestrate for the recorder, AND play all the parts; and a scientifically-inquisitive drummer who once lined the inside of his bass drum with tinfoil, to try and change its fundamental acoustic properties. They all pretend to be Powerful Lords of their Mighty Domain (the capitalisation is important) and they bestride ’70s rock like a Collossus, partly to overcompensate for being pasty Brits and partly because collectively, they are a Collussus.

Let’s face it, Led Zeppelin are a nerd’s interior monologue made flesh, they are to rock music what Lord of the Rings is to literature. And all the better for it.

The Nerdist special, hosted by Chris Hardwick, premieres Saturday, September 24 at 10/9c on BBC America.

Who else could we have mentioned? Tell us here:

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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