Your most life-altering educational experience may not necessarily take place in a classroom. It could be in a school hallway, a rehearsal room or even a set of communal dorm showers. (No, we’re not getting fresh. Read on and you’ll see.)
The thing is, it’s not always about the test you pass, the grade you get, or even the lesson you learn. Sometimes, it’s about who you meet. Your greatness may well be locked behind a gate, simply awaiting the right keyholder.
We know that the musicians included on this list would heartily agree, even if they made fun of me for the gratuitous metaphor. Hereafter, you will find a fairly diverse array of musicians, varying in age, subgenre and most notably, in quality. That’s right. This is not a best-of list. Some bands mentioned here are objectively awful. Others are quite legendary. (To those of you still angry about their ranking in my 100 Best Rock Bands list, all hail the mighty Queen and may I be forgiven for my sins.)
At any rate, all the bands mentioned here have one thing in common. They all got together while they were still in school. Before going on to massive, world-conquering success—or at least respectable one-hit-wonder status—each of these 20 bands matriculated together.
So remember, if you want to be a hugely successful rock star with money, groupies, and people on retainer just to sort your M&M’s by color, stay in school!
1. Steely Dan – Bard College (1968)
Steely Dan is the heavyweight champion of dad-rock bands. Its plastic-jazz milieu and Watergate-era cynicism effectively voiced the disappointment and detachment of a whole generation. Indeed, the duo at the band’s core, Walter Becker and Donald Fagan came together just as Nixon was preparing to take office in 1968. At the time, Becker and Fagan were both students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. One day, as Fagan walked by the nearby Red Balloon Cafe, he heard the strains of Becker’s electric guitar emanating from the doorway.
He entered, introduced himself, and the two quickly took to performing together under an array of names, including the Don Fagan Jazz Trio, the Bad Rock Group, and the Leather Canary. Though these efforts produced largely forgettable music, the Canary was also the launchpad for another superstar. Long before Clark Griswold took his family on vacation, fellow Bardian Chevy Chase manned the drums for the future Dans. The union was short-lived. Just about the time that Chevy was joining the National Lampoon’s Radio Hour and President Nixon’s goons were bugging the Watergate, Becker and Fagan were forging the initial lineup for Steely Dan.
Releasing their debut in 1972, Becker and Fagan quickly landed two songs on the Billboard charts. Though success would come in fairly short order after that, Becker and Fagan never forgot where they came from, proving as much with an Annandale namedrop in 1973 hit, “My Old School.”
2. Hall & Oates – Temple University (1967)
Daryl Hall and John Oates met exactly the way you’d expect a couple of Philly boys to meet: in the middle of a gunfight. Each was fronting his own band on the same bill one night in 1967. Hall led the Temptones and Oates, the Masters. It was supposed to be a battle of the bands but instead turned into a confrontation between two rival gangs at the Adelphi Ballroom.
When gunfire rang out, the place erupted in chaos. But out of the pandemonium came something beautiful. Hall and Oates (pre-ampersand) both fled to the same service elevator for safety. It was in the confines of this elevator that the two learned they were both students at nearby Temple University. The fast friends shared a series of bands and bachelor pads together thereafter, eventually drawing the self-explanatory name for their act from their mailbox, which simply read “Hall & Oates.”
In addition to thereafter creating some of the most beguiling and infectious harmonies known to AOR radio, Hall & Oates would eventually become, astonishingly, the only band from Philadelphia in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And even that didn’t happen until 2014, which is crazy because there should be a Hall of Fame just for John Oates’ mustache.
3. R.E.M. – University of Georgia (1980)
R.E.M. is often cited as the band that put “college-rock” on the map. If this is true, then the very first pindrop on that map would be in Athens, Georgia. It was here that University of Georgia student Peter Buck worked behind the counter of a record store. Michael Stipe was a regular there, and it soon became apparent to the nosy clerk that Stipe was buying all the same records he’d been eyeing up for himself.
Based on their shared interest in groups like the Velvet Underground and Television, the two struck up a friendship and musical partnership in January of 1980. They added fellow students Mike Mills and Bill Berry to the unnamed lineup and debuted in April. They achieved immediate success on-campus and in the larger Athens scene. So quickly won was their acclaim that they collectively dropped out of school, dubbed themselves R.E.M and embarked on a tour of the South.
By 1981, they were the toast of a thing called “college radio,” a relic from a time when college students listened to the radio. That original campus-bred lineup remained intact for the next 20 years, transitioning from underground upstarts to alternative heroes to rock gods, and ultimately to exceedingly well-financed retirees.
4. The Doors – UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (1965)
In 1965, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek were two of the weirder students attending the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. It was likely these shared eccentricities that drew them together. At the time, Manzarek played in a band called Rick & the Ravens with his two brothers.
When he ran into Morrison on Venice Beach one afternoon, they recognized one another and struck up a conversation. Turned out Morrison had been working on a few songs and, at his new friend’s behest, sang his latest, “Moonlight Drive.” Ray, summarily convinced of Morrison’s talents and charisma, invited him to join the band.
Ray also knew a guy named John Densmore from his meditation class who played drums for a group called the Psychedelic Rangers (which is, by the way, the single most ‘60s sentence ever written). Soon after, Ray’s brothers dropped out, Robby Kreiger joined, and the Doors were born.
Building their reputation on a dark and ominous sound fully at odds with the rise of flower power, the Doors served as the house band for L.A.’s legendary Whiskey a Go Go. They held court there until August 21, 1966, when they were fired for a particularly incendiary live performance of “The End,” punctuated by Morrison’s long, scary oedipal freakout. Three days later, the Doors recorded their world-changing debut album for Elektra records, oedipal freakout included.
5. Better Than Ezra – Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (1988)
Do you remember Better Than Ezra or did I just betray my old age? In the mid-90s, they came storming out of the bayou with the least cajun sounding music you’ve ever heard. With earnest and angsty alt-hits like “Good” and “Desperately Wanting” receiving heavy airplay, the New Orleans trio sounded a lot more like Weezer-lite than a trip to the Mardi Gras.
The four founding members of the group—Kevin Griffin, Joel Rundell, Tom Drummond, and Cary Bonnecaze—met on-campus at the Louisiana State University in 1988. While some mystery abounds regarding the origin of their name, it seems likely it was yanked from a line in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” where he describes a sound as “…no worse than other noises, certainly better than Ezra learning to play the bassoon.”
From this self-effacing beginning, the band achieved modest local success. Though they experienced a major personal setback with the suicide death of bassist Joel Rundell in 1990, the remaining members soldiered on as a trio. When their self-released 1993 debut, Deluxe was picked up for reissue by Elektra Records in 1995, they rocketed out of the swamps of Louisiana and into FM radio programming. After 7 years of toiling, it took “Good” only 7 weeks to hit the top spot on the charts.
6. Creed – Florida State University (1993)
Look, generally speaking, college is a wonderful place where people meet, inspire one another, and do amazing things. But a word of caution to students and parents alike. College is also a place where Creed happened.
Scott Stapp and Mark Tremonti had been classmates in high school, but they were students at Tallahassee’s Florida State University in 1993 when they reunited under their mutual love for music. After meeting a few times to discuss and compose songs together, many bearing Christian themes as a tribute to Stapp’s Pentacostal minister stepfather, the two held auditions and assembled the band that would become Creed.
The rest is dreary, minor key, distortion-heavy history. Creed bellowed its way to enormous album and ticket sales, a fact that serves more as an indictment of the human species than anything else. Rather than bore you with the statistics detailing their success, I’ll simply mention that the band was once sued by its own fans for putting on a show that was so awful there should’ve been a law against it.
And no, I’m not inserting a Creed video here for your consideration.
7. Pink Floyd – Regent Street Polytechnic in London (1963)
Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright were all aspiring architects in 1963, when they met at the London Polytechnic at Regent Street. They would go on to build some of the most compelling and inspired soundscapes in the history of popular music. Along with a few other classmates, the future Floyd performed as Sigma 6, occupying the tearoom in the basement of their school for rehearsals.
As it happens, a whole slew of London-area would play a role in the early evolution of the band. As the lineup shifted, and the band moved through a series of names, Waters invited his friend from the nearby Camberwell College of Arts to join. Said friend, Syd Barrett, joined and, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, conjured the name the Pink Floyd Sound.
Peter Jenner, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, came onboard as the group’s manager in 1966 and wisely advised the boys to cut “Sound” from their name. Pink Floyd’s uniquely gloomy lysergic vision took rise during a series of now-legendary performances at the UFO Club in London. The group signed with EMI in 1967 and became the leading force in British psychedelia before ultimately reinventing album-oriented rock.
8. Queen – Imperial College/Ealing Art College (1968)
The reigning royal family of glam, Queen’s origin is deeply entwined with the educational pursuits of its future members. In 1968, the always erudite guitarist Brian May was a student at London’s Imperial College when he met bassist Tim Staffell, a pupil at Ealing Art College. The two decided to form a power trio in the mold of Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience and sought a drummer that shared their vision. May placed an ad on his college board and dental student Roger Taylor replied.
The three took on the name Smile and began gigging the London college scene. If Staffell’s name isn’t immediately familiar to music historians, he played quite the critical role in Queen’s formation. He befriended a fellow Ealing student named Farrokh Bulsara, better known to us as Freddie Mercury. Staffell’s eccentric classmate began merely as a fan of Smile. It wasn’t until 1970 that Freddie joined the band, just as Staffell departed to form a group called Humpy Bong. Based on everything you know about the band Humpy Bong, you can assume that Tim Staffell is still haunted by waking nightmares of this decision.
But it worked out pretty well for Smile, which took on the name Queen at the suggestion of its new frontman. Now a four-piece, they ran through a number of bassists before John Deacon settled into the role in 1971. They consequently launched 18 #1 albums, 18 #1 singles, and moved anywhere between 150 to 300 million records worldwide before Freddie Mercury’s tragic and sudden AIDS-related death in 1991.
9. U2 – Mount Temple Comprehensive School (1976)
The four principals of U2 must really like each other. They’ve performed in a band together since 1976 without ever rupturing, descending into public acrimony, or writing tell-all books badmouthing each other’s wives. Ireland’s most profitable export was formed in 1976 when 14-year-old Larry Mullen, Jr. posted a note on the bulletin board of his Mount Temple Comprehensive School in search of fellow musicians.
Six classmates responded and the aspiring punk septet (!) called itself Feedback. Among its members were Paul Hewson, who took on the name Bono, David Evans, who called himself the Edge, and Adam Clayton, who referred to himself as Adam Clayton. The Edge’s older brother Dik Evans also joined. There were two other guys who joined but bailed early and whose names are thus completely anonymous.
Feedback became a five piece and spent most of its gigs assaulting audiences with poor punk covers. The band, largely fronted at this point by the outspoken and charismatic Bono, sought a new direction, one informed by the band’s growing sense of spiritual and political conviction. In 1978, while playing at the Presbyterian Church Hall in Howth, The Hype ceremoniously discharged Dik Evans mid-concert, then announced itself as U2, completing its performance by premiering the quartet’s new original material.
Just days later, the most Irish thing in history happened when U2 won a St. Patrick’s Day talent show in Limerick. They used the prize money to finance their first demo tape.
10. Chicago – DePaul University (1967)
Over the years, this horn-charting classic rock conglomerate has passed well over 20 players through its ever-shifting ranks. However, five of the six founding members originally gathered together under the same alma mater. Saxophonist Walter Parazaider, guitarist Terry Kath, drummer Danny Seraphine, trombonist James Pankow and trumpet player Lee Loughnane were all students at the DePaul University’s Lincoln Park campus when they came together in 1967. Adding Robert Lamm from Roosevelt University, the group called itself the Big Six.
The name made less sense when they added Peter Cetera on bass and vocals so just as the band departed campus life for sunny Los Angeles, they became the Chicago Transit Authority. Their fiery blend of jazz and rock quickly attracted an audience, and even a complimentary review from a summarily impressed Jimi Hendrix.
Success came quickly for the band, with their 1969 Columbia debut selling over a million copies. The album also attracted the not-altogether-positive attention of the real Chicago Transit Authority, which expressed in clear legal terms that it was not too keen on sharing its name with a rock combo. Dropping the “Transit Authority,” the band took the name Chicago both for itself and for every single album it would ultimately release. As of 2014, these former classmates (of which four actually still remain in the band), released their 36th album, the inventively titled Chicago XXXVI.
11. Live – William Penn Senior High School in York, PA (1984)
The band Live absolutely exploded into mainstream consciousness in the mid-90s with their sophomore record, Throwing Copper. But a decade before mainstream success, they were just three junior high classmates in York, Pennsylvania. Chad Taylor (lead guitar), Patrick Dahlheimer (bass) and Chad Gracey (drums) performed together for years as young teens under the name First Aid.
Then, in 1984—and now attending York’s William Penn Senior High School—the trio suffered a humiliating loss at their school’s talent show (I don’t know if they were actually humiliated but I like to play up the drama). Anyhow, it was at this inflection point that they added an earnest and emotive singer named Ed Kowalczyk to their lineup. The move catapulted the group to stardom…ten years later.
They would actually go through a series of bad names before ultimately settling on the bad name that made them famous. Of those ex-names that best describe the band’s actual sound, I’m inclined either toward Club Fungus or the Body Odor Boys. After they graduated from high school in 1987, the quartet recorded a small clutch of self-released cassettes under the name Public Affection. By the turn of the decade, they had taken on the inexplicable name, Live, and recorded a debut EP under the production of Talking Head Jerry Harrison.
In 1994, in spite of its hideous cover, its generally bleak subject matter, and the fact that the band actually uses the word “placenta” in the opening verse of a radio-released signal, Throwing Copper sold 8 million copies.
12. Rush – Fisherville Junior High School (1968)
This is for everybody that was mad about the fact that my list of 100 Greatest Rock Bands does not include Rush (largely because I despise them and, speaking with unwavering bias, they aren’t good). In compensation, I am including them here. Let’s get this over with.
Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee met at Fisherville Junior High School in 1968 and went on to be Rush. Neil Peart was in a separate band called Hush. In 1974, he left Hush and joined Rush. Today, they are still Rush.
That’s all you get. I will respond to your hate mail in the order in which it is received.
13. REO Speedwagon – University of Illinois in Champaign (1967)
These guys absolutely dominated FM radio in the early 80s with a series of sweaty power ballads that we know you sing at top volume with your car windows rolled up. Go ahead. We won’t judge. Like you, we also can’t fight this feeling anymore.
As it happens, these guys were toiling in the hard rock milieu for more than a decade before they finally hit on the formula that made them everybody’s favorite guilty pleasure. The story begins with Neal Doughty’s junior year transfer to the University of Illinois in Champaign in 1966. On his very first night there, he met classmate Alan Gratzer. The latter already played in a band fronted by a keyboard player that nobody very much cared for. The band collectively voted to boot their leader in favor of Doughty.
They returned to school in the fall of 1967 and began rehearsing on campus together before the start of classes that semester. They began largely as a cover band, smashing out Doors tunes and other popular campus dive bar standards. Their lineup shifted basically every five minutes for the next decade as they sought the formula for success.
They ultimately found it in a lineup including Doughty, Gratzer and Keven Cronin, the latter on vocals. REO Speedwagon had released a self-titled debut in 1971 that was largely evocative of boogie bands like Foghat and Savoy Brown. But the band really only found midlevel recognition in that first decade. Remarkably, the Speedwagon rumbled on with little mainstream visibility until its 9th release, 1980’s High Infidelity. Apparently, the notion of whittling hard rock’s tropes down to one steaming batch of power ballads was the right move, as the band charted six hits and moved over 10 million copies. The Speedwagon became a premier arena draw of the 1980s.
(Note: If you think the video is kind of lame in a poorly-dated, 1980s sort of way, you’re wrong. It’s lame in a general sense, date entirely aside.)
14. Phish – University of Vermont (1983)
Before Bernie Sanders was the most popular thing out of Vermont, it was this quartet of noodle-kings. If the smell of bongwater and slightly burnt parking lot veggie burritos had a sound, it would be a 40-minute Phish jam.
Back in 1983, Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman, and Jeff Holdsworth were students at the University of Vermont. They debuted as Blackwood Convention in the Harris-Millis Cafeteria in December of that year. In their earliest incarnation, they largely peddled in Grateful Dead covers, playing a major role in the tie-dye revival of the mid-1980s. In ’85, the band added Goddard College student Page McConnell on keys. Holdsworth graduated the following year, leaving behind the quartet that comprises Phish to this day.
When Anastasio ran afoul of a University of Vermont disciplinary committee for an on-campus prank—-rumor has it he stole a hand (sample) in a jar from the campus morgue—he transferred to Goddard. Indeed, when McConnell learned that he could earn $50 for each transferee that mentioned his name, they convinced Fishman to join them. In mid-1986, Phish began mixing its first self-distributed cassettes in a Goddard dorm-room.
If you live in a town with a major outdoor music venue, then you know Phish is the reason there’s a hippie-laden traffic jam in your town every few summers.
15. Hootie and the Blowfish – University of South Carolina (1986)
As long as we’re on the subject of aquamarine life, an entirely different breed of fish was spawning a few hundred miles south. In 1986, University of South Carolina student Mark Bryan was passing through the communal bathroom in his dorm when he heard something magnificent coming from the shower. It was Darius Rucker’s singing.
The two became friends and bandmates, presumably after Rucker finished his shower. Rucker and Bryan performed an arsenal of covers as the Wolf Brothers before eventually adding Dean Felber and Jim Sonefeld to their lineup. To clear up a common misnomer, distinctive lead vocalist Darius Rucker is not Hootie. And technically, his three bandmates aren’t the Blowfish. Hootie & the Blowfish (singular) are actually just two guys that the band went to college with. Presumably, the band didn’t figure on becoming hugely famous when they came up with the idea of naming themselves after a few drinking buddies.
But that’s exactly what happened. Signing to Atlantic in 1993, they released their debut a year later. Cracked Rear View became one of the fastest selling debuts in history, ultimately selling more than 16 million copies in the U.S. Their AOR-friendly country-rock hybrid shocked the grunge-filtered alternative universe and absolutely dominated radio programming in 1994 and 1995. Though Hootie is no more, Mr. Rucker enjoys a tremendously successful second life as a touring bro-country star.
16. Silverchair – Newcastle High School, New South Wales, Australia (1992)
Some of the bands on this list met while they were in high school but Silverchair is the only one to get enormously famous before graduating. If Stone Temple Pilots had an angsty Australian little brother, he would have been Silverchair. Ben Billies and Daniel Johns first met in elementary school in the Newcastle suburb of Merewether. They had performed together in various short-lived acts before meeting Chris Joannou at Newcastle High School.
In 1992, the trio took on the sort-of-amazing-but-also-horrible name, Death Rides a Sandwich, and built a repertoire of Zeppelin and Sabbath covers. They were calling themselves Innocent Criminals in 1994 when they entered a national competition specifically staged for school-based bands. With all three members just 15-years-old at the time, they bested a host of older and more experienced musicians, largely on the strength of a demo-recorded song called “Tomorrow.”
For a couple of mid-adolescent teens, they did a pretty fair approximation of the thundering riffs and guttural bellow typifying grown-man grunge. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation thought so too. They awarded the band another national competition victory, this one for the company’s alternative radio station. The prize was studio time and a video shoot.
They took the name Silverchair as the 1994 video for “Tomorrow” debuted on Australian TV. In short order, Silverchair became a global phenomenon, the first Australian band to crack the Billboard Top 10 in the U.S. since INXS. Before these guys were of legal age to drive in America, they were crisscrossing the country in support of the Ramones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
17. The Commodores – Tuskegee Institute (Tuskegee University today) (1968)
The Commodores were actually a marriage of two dissolving groups called the Mystics and the Jays. The members of both were freshmen at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute when they came together to form a single unit in 1968. The six founding members—-which included future superstar Lionel Richie—-called themselves the Commodores, a name they said was plucked at random from the dictionary.
Dealing largely in R&B covers, the Commodores outfunked the competition at Tuskegee’s annual freshman talent contest. They became a fixture of the fraternity scene, soundtracking college parties and serving as the house band for the student-friendly Black Forest Inn.
Over the next decade, the Commodores graduated to mainstream notoriety, alternating between disco, hard funk and soul balladry. Played in sequence, “Machine Gun,” “Brick House” and “Easy” are the musical equivalent of Saturday evening, Saturday midnight, and Sunday morning. After a decade of charting success with the Commodores, Lionel Richie departed in 1982 for a smashingly profitable solo career.
18. Talking Heads – Rhode Island School of Design (1973)
It makes sense that this most cerebral of rock bands began on a college campus. David Byrne and Chris Frantz met as students at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. In 1973, they formed their first band together, the Artistics. Frantz’s girlfriend, Tina Weymouth, drove the band to most of its gigs.
The following year, the Artistics disbanded, which would prove fortuitous for Byrne and company. The three moved to a communal loft in New York City, where something big was bubbling just under the cultural surface. Weymouth taught herself bass and joined the band just as a place called CBGB was transforming the Bowery.
The venue had become the central hub in the burgeoning punk movement. When Byrne and his fellow RISD alum dubbed themselves the Talking Heads and opened for the Ramones there in the summer of 1975, it marked the beginning of a landmark time and place in music history. Over the next two years, the band’s tense, nervy and enthralling performances attracted a considerable following right alongside groundbreakers like Patti Smith, Blondie, and the Modern Lovers. In fact, they pulled keyboardist Jerry Harrison from the latter in 1977, ultimately becoming a quartet, signing to Sire records and launching their self-titled debut, all in what is now recognized as the epochal Year of the Punk.
19. Devo – Kent State University (1970)
The name Kent State often conjures a single tragic and symbolic moment in America’s history, the day in 1970 when national guard soldiers opened fire on peaceful anti-war protestors, killing four students on their own campus.
That event would also be pivotal in the formation of punk deconstructionists Devo. Gerald Casale, Bob Lewis and Mark Mothersbaugh were all students and friends at Kent this very same year. The events of that day in May inspired the creation of the band and informed much of its sardonic and subversive worldview. The band made its live debut as Sextet Devo (with three other guys, obviously) at the 1973 Kent State performing arts festival. After trimming the lineup to five (with Mark’s brother Jim and Gerald’s brother Bob in tow), they become Devo and headlined an event at the Student Governance Center.
More than a decade later, Devo would become a household name for “Whip It,” a song which suggested Devo as a boilerplate one-hit-wonder of the new wave era. But in reality, Devo spent the 70s confronting audiences, terrifying promoters, and generally living up to the de-evolutionary concept that inspired their name.
Warning: The following video is crazy weird. All credit due to a band that was clearly not using music as a way to attract the opposite sex.
20. Vampire Weekend – Columbia University (2005)
Kind of snotty, a little pretentious, and perfectly preppie, Vampire Weekend are pretty obviously products of the Ivy League. They got their start at Columbia University in 2006, when fellow students Ezra Koenig and Chris Thomson bonded over their shared love of punk and African music. Their first collaboration was actually as a rap duo, insufferably named “L’Homme Run.”
This act was fortunately short-lived. In the summer between freshman and sophomore year, Koenig decided to make a vampire movie centered in Cape Cod. Though he abandoned the project after a mere two days, it inspired the name Vampire Weekend. Upon returning for the fall semester, Koenig joined forces with Thomson and Chris Baio and they began gigging at various university facilities. Indeed, their first performance was at a battle of the bands in Learner Hall in 2006.
Upon graduating, the band released a self-produced debut, even as Thomson and Koenig worked full-time jobs. The latter actually worked by day as a middle school English Teacher. One year later, his band was touring the U.K. behind the Shins and making every critic’s end-of-year list.
That’s our list. What about yours? Did your fraternity’s house-band go on to top the charts? Did you see a before-the-fame lineup of a future Rock Hall of Famer in some sleazy off-campus dive bar? Or did you just live down the hall from some tool with with a synthesizer who managed to squeak a song onto the dance charts? Tell us about your college brush with pre-fame.