With today’s announcement of the shortlisted nominees for the 2011 Mercury Prize, the music world turns its attention to the United Kingdom, a geographic speck that, from the Beatles to Adele, has produced a disproportionate number of influential rock and pop acts. How can a country roughly half the size of California churn out so many great artists? It might have something to do with the schools.
Certain British institutions, be they high schools or universities, serve as talent factories, grinding out guitar bands and pop divas like so many links of sausage. When the next Amy Winehouse staggers into America’s heart, we’re guessing she’ll have come from one of the following five schools.
1. The BRIT School
Over the last decade, no school has turned out more stars than BRIT. Founded in 1991 and funded in part by the BRIT Awards — a sort of UK version of the Grammys — the independent performing arts institution is responsible for R&B belters Amy Winehouse, Adele, Kate Nash and Leona Lewis; initial-loving up-and-comers Katy B and Jessie J; and rockers the Noisettes and the Kooks, among others. Even grads that don’t storm the charts fare well, and according to statistics, more than 60 percent of students go on to land careers in creative fields.
2. Central Saint Martins
Famously mentioned in the Pulp classic “Common People,” this University of the Arts London constituent college has helped to educate the likes of M.I.A., Horrors frontman Faris Badwan, quiet-storm seductress Sade, shape-shifting iconoclast PJ Harvey, electro-pop curio Tom Vek, and three members of the Clash. Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker also attended, and this month, having “immortalized” the school in song — albeit a bitter screed aimed at over-privileged art students — he’ll receive an honorary degree.
3. Alleyn’s School
Before taking control of the Machine, Florence Welch studied at this London independent school. So did Chemical Brother Ed Simons, Maccabees guitarist Felix White, singer Jack Penate and electronic artist Max Tundra.
4. Elliot School
Described in 2008 by English newspaper The Independent as “a large, urban, multi-ethnic comprehensive in Wandsworth with more than its fair share of challenges,” Elliot is in many ways the antithesis of the BRIT School. Despite its budget deficit and dearth of musical instruments, the school has birthed Hot Chip, dubstep great Burial, and The xx, winners of last year’s Mercury Prize.
Alumni gatherings at this constituent college of the University of London must be eclectic affairs. Velvet Underground founder and multi-instrumentalist producer John Cale studied there in the ‘60s. Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson was there in the ‘70s. And the members of Blur — including eventual Gorilla and genre-fusing mad scientist Damon Albarn — came together there in the late ‘80s. Continuing the tradition, dubstep crossover James Blake graduated with a music degree in 2010.