Prof Brian Cox, Former Rock Star

Dare Raindance shot

‘Physics is better than rock ‘n’ roll,’ declared the headline of an article published by the Guardian in 2011 that profiled keyboardist-turned-physicist Professor Brian Cox. But if anyone would know whether or not this is true it is Cox, a forty-six-year-old former musician whose first foray into the industry had been with the soft rock band Dare during the late 1980s. Having grown up in Oldham, Cox had spent his childhood fascinated with outer space, as well as regular visits to Manchester Airport to watch planes.

After leaving Hulme Grammar School, Cox began to develop an interest in performing music after attending a Duran Duran concert. A fan of David Bowie, particularly his 1971 album Hunky Dory (which included the classic Life on Mars?), Cox decided that he wanted to become a rock star. With his priorities having changed, Cox still continued with his A-Levels and received a ‘D’ in Mathematics. ‘I didn’t go to university until I was twenty-two,’ Cox told The Times in 2008. ‘Instead I joined a rock band called Dare.’

The band was formed by fellow Mancunian Darren Wharton, who had joined rock legends Thin Lizzy in 1980 at the age of just seventeen, having been discovered while working in a Manchester nightclub called Deno’s. Following a hiatus and the unexpected death of frontman Phil Lynott, Wharton decided to focus on his new band, a project he would have more control over, and so Dare was born. Initially though, Wharton decided to perform under his own name.

The first musician recruited was Vinny Burns, a guitarist who had grown up in Oldham and, while cutting his teeth on the local pub scene, had also worked as a session musician. Wharton had recently moved into the same neighbour as Cox and, finding the balance of singing and playing keyboard too restrictive, he decided to offer the eighteen-year-old the chance to join his band. Cox had not been Wharton’s first choice, however, but when the man hired for the role, Mark Simpson, proved disappointing he was promptly dismissed.

Despite aspirations of university to further pursue his fascination with physics, Cox wasted no time in accepting Wharton’s offer and, with the five-piece line-up now complete, they began to perform locally in the hope of attracting attention from record labels. While Cox had no experience onstage, Wharton has already a veteran at twenty-three, having already recorded three studio albums with Thin Lizzy and toured as part of the legendary group.

It would be Lemmy, the legendary frontman of Motörhead, who would suggest a new name for the band. On 16 August 1986 Motörhead appeared the Donington Park in Derby for the annual Monsters of Rock festival alongside Ozzy Osbourne, Def Leppard and the Scorpions, and during a chance meeting Wharton talked about his new project. Lemmy suggested he call the band Dare I, and despite disliking the Roman numeral he had finally found a name he was satisfied with.

The rock scene in Britain during the mid-1980s had not embraced the glitter and spandex of its Los Angeles contemporaries, but hairspray and leather were still commonplace among bands that appeared at festivals such as Monsters of Rock and on TV shows like the Power Hour. Although not taking it to such extremes as Tigertailz, who would adopt an excessive feminine image common among glam metal acts of the era, Dare still wore the hairspray.

Regardless of his past association with Thin Lizzy, success for Wharton’s latest band did not come easy, and over the next eighteen months Dare performed extensively, earning a name for themselves on the local circuit until the labels finally began to take note. Their shows were soon populated by scouts from EMI, RCA and A&M, with the latter finally sealing the deal in May 1987. Dare assembled together ten tracks and commenced work on their debut album, Out of the Silence.

Dare Band cover shot

The sessions took place at two principal locations – Hookend Studios, previously owned by Pink Floyd‘s David Gilmour, and Joni Mitchell’s private studio at her mansion in Bel Air, Los Angeles. In charge of production was Mike Shipley and Mitchell’s husband Larry Klein, both of whom she had collaborated with on her 1985 album Dog Eat Dog. Klein had recently produced the sophomore album for Starship, which had spawned the power ballad Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, a song that had climb to the top of the charts in several countries.

Having finally signed a contract and recorded in a professional studio, the band were understandably excited and began to indulge in their new lifestyle. ‘We were just a bunch of lads from Oldham who suddenly got a deal. If you’re twenty-years-old and you get plonked in the middle of LA with an expenses account, you’re going to have a drink, aren’t you?’ admitted Cox to ‘I never crashed my Rolls-Royce into a swimming pool or anything. I had a rusty Ford Fiesta. And no pool to drive it into.’

The first single released from the album was the opening track Abandon, which enjoyed minor success in the United Kingdom but failed to generate much interest overseas. This was soon followed by a second single, The Raindance, which was released as a 7” gatefold vinyl that featured five profile cards, each with trivia about the band members (although, interestingly, Cox listed his hobbies as ‘Squash, running, eating,’ with no mention of physics). Dare began to tour in support of the album, sharing the bill with such rock acts as Europe and former Led Zeppelin guitar icon Jimmy Page.

Despite their modest success, some British music journalists had criticised the band for sounding too polished and soft, prompting Wharton to write heavier material for Dare‘s second album, Blood from Stone. Once again working in Los Angeles, this time they were joined by Keith Olsen, who had overseen the production on Whitesnake‘s 1987 eponymous album, which had included the hit singles Here I Go Again and Still of the Night.

Released in September 1991, the album was met with positive reviews and its lead single, We Don’t Need a Reason, performed modestly well in the charts. But soon the pressures of touring began to take its toll on each member, which finally culminated in an incident while in a bar in Berlin. ‘It was a proper fight,’ Cox explained to the Daily Mail. ‘We were drunk and tired and everyone just jumped on one another. And that was that.’ Cox returned home to England and enrolled at the University of Manchester to study physics.

He was soon tempted back to music, however, when he was hired by Irish singer Peter Cunnah for his pop group D:Ream. Cunnah had already tried to break the charts with two tracks he was convinced would become hits, U R the Best Thing and Things Can Only Get Better, but both had failed to fulfil their expectations, leaving the young singer frustrated. Although he was now determined to focus on his studies, Cox soon found himself appearing on the long-running British music show Top of the Pops.

‘They needed a keyboard player to do a television show,’ Cox was quoted as saying in the biography The Wonders of Brian Cox. ‘I just stood there and waved my hair around.’ Perseverance finally paid off for Cunnah when the re-release of U R The Best Thing cracked the top twenty, but success would finally come in 1994 when Things Can Only Get Better climbed to the top of the charts, where it remained for a total of four weeks.

Cox would continue his studies during his time with the band, finally turning his back on music in 1997 on the eve of an Australian tour when he graduated from university and decided that he would instead pursue a career in physics. Cox has since returned to the University of Manchester as a physics professor, as well as working on the ATLAS experiment at CERN in Geneva. Cox is perhaps best known as the host of acclaimed BBC science show Wonders of the Solar System and its semi-sequel Wonders of the Universe, and makes regular appearances on television as a scientific advisor and presenter.

Professor Brian Cox

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