?Rock stars are perceived by most as being the coolest of all celebrities. So what happens when a popular musician also turns out to be a, gasp, nerd? In our post-Guitar Hero times this is increasingly more often the case. No longer is the mantra that “nerds do it better” strictly applicable to bedroom prowess. Geeks can rock out pretty damn fine as well, and not just while drunk playing videogames. History has proven nerds have been making waves on the pop charts since the birth of rock and roll — from Buddy Holly to Biz Markie. Every now and again a group or individual performer comes along whose gimmick, left-of-center approach to music or dedication to creating decidedly non-mainstream material gains attention amongst kindred spirits. Here are 16 of those types of musical acts. Some are superstars, others are obscure curiosities. Yet they are all united by a love of music and a nerdy ethos that is either worn like a badge of honor or kept just beneath the surface, ready to emerge like a phoenix of awkwardness.
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16) Matthew Sweet
Throughout the course of his deservedly lengthy career, Matthew Sweet has crafted songs of romantic despair and desire that any lovelorn nerd can relate to. Better still, he’s covered the themes to Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and Speed Racer, and his early videos featured footage from anime films. (Just check out the above clip). But what really proves that he is one of us is his tattoo of Urusei Yatsura‘s Lum — the same character that Topless Robot main man Rob Bricken has permanently inked on his person.
15) Ben Folds
Whether transforming Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” into a romantic ballad, extolling the virtues of a cappella vocal groups or recording with good pal William Shatner, Folds is always making his brand of piano-based nerdiness seem cool to frat boys and indie rock snobs alike.
If you saw Trekkies 2, you probably remember Stovokor — the world’s most popular Klingon death metal band. Again, they are a death metal band. Consisting of dudes in Klingon outfits. Who sing entirely in Klingonese. Let that sink in for a moment. Now before you go and mock them, remember that bat’leth strikes are really fucking painful.
Do Gwar really need an introduction at this point? For 25 years the costumed rockers have been bringing mayhem (and plenty of mysterious fluids) to audiences around the world. The fact that the group have achieved mainstream success is baffling and more than just a little impressive. As the above clip proves, even people in the heartland find latex-clad anarchists with Lovecraftian tendencies lovable.
Devo scared the shit out me when I was growing up. So you can imagine that the “Whip It” video, what with its weird hats and mashed potatoes, was akin to my worst nightmare. As the years have gone on and kid fears have dropped away, I’ve come to recognize Devo for what they truly are: Harmless nerds who make music for other harmless nerds. Bonus points go to frontman Mark Mothersbaugh for his amazing art lessons on Yo Gabba Gabba!
?Part of the downside of being a genre cover band is that there’s not much career longevity. Like The Beach Balls (1980s songs done in an operatic style) and The Nick Atoms (garage rock covers of sci-fi and TV themes) before them, Winnipeg’s Volume were masters of esoteric nerd rock who faded away all too soon. The group’s sole release was 2002’s The Amazing Spider-Band, a nine song EP that featured re-recordings of the jazzy music cues from the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon. The instrumentals featured on the series were a mixture of stock music and original works created by jazz great Ray Ellis. Having given up hope for an official soundtrack release, Volume set out to record their own versions of the series’ most recognizable melodies. From the opening theme to the incidental music that played whenever Spidey went web-slinging, the quartet brought these fondly remembered tunes back to life — albeit with a slightly harder edge. Even more impressive was that they did so with the blessing of Ray Ellis himself. These days, the CD is now long out of print, Ellis is dead and there’s still no hope that the complete original Spidey music will ever get the CD release it deserves. The world is a cruel place. Oddly enough, Volume isn’t Canada’s only Spider-Man cover band. The Alberta-based Mole City released a medley of songs from the toon in 2000 called Swing and Dig it. That too is impossible to track down. Sorry.
10) MC Frontalot
If Tiger Beat was geared towards fans of videogame references and hip-hop, MC Frontalot would be the publication’s Justin Bieber. Once an unassuming musician named Damian Hess, the rapper has become the face of the nerdcore movement — which is convenient since he coined the phrase. By infusing humor with geekcentric subject matter, Frontalot creates music that is fun and packed with smart rhymes that rival those of his peers in the mainstream hip-hop world. Let’s hear Eminem try to fit the words “300 baud” into one of his raps and not sound ridiculous.
Germany’s Kraftwerk have often been mocked for their cold, mechanical sound (the most notable example being The Big Lebowski‘s nihilist band, Autobahn). Yet beyond their carefully constructed image and robotic vocals lies an innate desire for human connection. As heard above, 1981’s “Computer Love” is a commentary on how technology can increase loneliness — something that anyone with hundreds of Facebook friends yet no one to spend a Saturday with can relate to. Creating eerily prescient predictions of the perils of online dating is one thing, but Kraftwerk really established themselves as nerd icons with the release of a ditty called “Pocket Calculator.” Guess what it’s about.
8) The Apples in Stereo
Post-Lord of the Rings, Elijah Wood used some of his hobbit cash to start Simian Records. The first album that was released on the label was by literate rockers The Apples in Stereo. Being friends with Frodo is reason enough to land the group on this list, but that’s not why they are here. You see, awesomely bearded frontman Robert Schneider is a math whiz whose love for numbers and music theory resulted in his creation of something called the Non-Pythagorean scale. I can barely long-divide, so if I tried to explain to you what this means I would start to whimper. So let’s hear what Schneider has to say about it:
That’s some impressive smart talk right there folks, even if you didn’t understand a word of it.
7) MC Chris
The second MC to appear on this list, musician/voice artist/hoodie ninja Chris Ward gets the slight edge over Frontalot thanks to his frequent Adult Swim work and the song “Fett’s Vette,” arguably the most popular nerdcore song released to date. Ward gets all the attention for his comedy and rap work, but in my opinion his greatest achievement is co-writing the Rex Manning classic “Say No More (Mon Amour)” from Empire Records. Hey, Gwar was in that movie too. Coincidence? Yes, yes it is.
6) Michael Jackson
Around the time of his death last year, an auction catalog of Michael Jackson’s arcade games and film memorabilia from Neverland Ranch hit the Internet and cemented the fact that the King of Pop was a gigantic nerd. Amongst his possessions were life-sized replicas E.T and Boba Fett, endless Disney merchandise and more 8-bit games then what you could find in Starport circa-1985. MJ’s geekiness wasn’t too much of a shock given that he once turned himself into a giant-ass robot on film, although the magnitude of his collection makes him seem oddly human to those of us who spend our days — and a considerable amount of our income — gathering up this sort of junk.
While technically not a real group, Gorillaz earn their inclusion on this list thanks to the pop culture references that pepper their music and videos. Adding to the virtual band’s very real appeal, Blur’s Damon Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett constructed elaborate personal histories for Murdoc, et al that are just as fascinating (if not more so) than the biographies of actual musicians. The group’s recent Plastic Beach album further builds upon the Gorillaz saga by creating a mystery about why the guitarist Noodle has been replaced by a cyborg double. Of course the beauty of the band is you can just ignore the mythology and enjoy the music. But that’s not nearly as fun.
4) Man… or Astro-Man?
Surf punk music wasn’t quite niche enough for Man… or Astro-Man? No, instead they had to make surf music almost exclusively devoted to and inspired by crappy sci-fi movies and TV shows of the ’40s and ’50s, using clips of bad dialogue (if you think that sounds like Mystery Science Theater 3000, MST3K was MoA’s favorite show — they did a killer version of the MST theme song). The bandmembers — Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard, Star Crunch, Birdstuff and a variety of others — wore jumpsuits on stage, electrocuted beers with Tesla coils, and occasionally set TVs on fire (which were on their heads). They produced more than a dozen albums between 1992 and 2001, did one of the Space Ghost: Coast to Coast theme songs, wrote one song that was a text file being printed by an old dot-matrix printer, and sent out to groups of “Astro-clones” to tour in their stead after their 2001 hiatus (one group of clones was female). Basically, there was nothing that Man… or Astro-man? ever did that wasn’t insanely, awesomely nerdy.
3) Daft Punk
For fans of sci-fi and electronic music, there is no bigger event this year than the release of Tron Legacy. The film will feature a soundtrack by Daft Punk, the French duo with a penchant for dressing up as robots. Huge deal that their involvement with the sequel may be (they even have a cameo in some sort of awesome cyber disco), this isn’t the group’s first foray into motion pictures. In 2003, they collaborated with Star Blazers and Captain Harlock mastermind Leiji Matsumoto on Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, an anime companion to their Discovery album. Band members Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo also directed Daft Punk’s Electroma, an insane quasi-biopic from 2007. Careful image manufacturing like the shenanigans Daft Punk are involved with often means that the music lacks substance. Not the case here. Their songs are unforgettable earworms that get even the most rhythm-challenged person bee-lining to the dance floor. That they are clearly huge nerds too just makes their appeal even broader.
2) “Weird Al” Yankovic
Yes, yes, “Weird Al” is a lovable mensch who is the most successful nerd in musical history. That said, there is something deeply sad about any iPod that features “Stuck in a Closet with Vanna White” on it. Again, Al = awesome. Listening to some of his lesser works once you’ve past the age of 16? Not so much.
1) They Might be Giants
Even though they once covered Devo’s “Through Being Cool,” seeking hipness was never on They Might Be Giants’ radar. Such issues are unimportant when you are devoting your time to writing songs about guys who fall in love with angels or women who don’t want the world, just your half. First gaining attention for their low-budget videos, the guys soon became college radio darlings and cult sensations. They have since gone on to become a full band and reinvent themselves as children’s performers and theme song/jingle writers. Fortunately, their skewed perspective hasn’t changed with success. The music the Johns are putting out today — both for kids and adults alike — remains as literate and fun as ever. And if that’s not good enough reason to earn them the top spot here, check out the above clip to hear the nerdiest songs ever recorded.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.