In this city where some musicians would sell their mother for a shot at success, it’s ironic to learn that some rock stars “made it” almost accidentally. Here are some prominent examples of folks whom fate or circumstance propelled onto the stage and into the limelight, often despite their having zero prior musical experience.
1 and 2. Joanne Catherall & Susan Ann Sulley, The Human League
Teenagers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley, neither of them musicians, were approached by Human League leader Phil Oakey to join his up-and-coming synth-pop band while dancing at an English nightclub in 1980. Both required permission from their parents and school before joining the League’s European tour just 10 days later. Despite initially mixed reviews, the new lineup swiftly exploded, with single “Don’t You Want Me” topping the U.K. and U.S. charts within a year. Catherall and Sulley have been full-time Leaguers ever since, earning multiple platinum and gold albums. “Joanne and I weren't ambitious; we didn't want to be in a pop group,” Sulley told BBC Radio Newcastle in 2004. “We were just two girls at school.”
3. Frank Bell, The Cure
“I’m a Cult Hero” is a 1979 single by an extended lineup of The Cure, released under the name Cult Hero. Lead vocalist on both sides of the record was one Frank Bell — The Cure’s eccentric local mailman in Horley, England. While strictly tongue-in-cheek (it also featured band leader Robert Smith’s two sisters), Cult Hero was a serious trial run for a new Cure incarnation, featuring future members Simon Gallup, Matthieu Hartley and Porl Thompson. Inspired by Bell’s favorite T-shirt, which proclaimed “I’m a Cult Hero,” the single proved a self-fulfilling prophecy when it became a surprise hit in Canada. Bell performed with The Cure at the huge Brighton Center in 1985 and at an intimate London charity show in 2004.
4. DJ Milf, EMF
DJ Milf was working a county council desk job in Gloucester, England, when he was asked to join longtime friends in the fledgling EMF. The Forest of Dean fivesome promptly signed to EMI Records and their debut single, 1990’s “Unbelievable,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 the following year. “I had no yearnings whatsoever to be in a band,” Milf told L.A. Weekly. “When we got signed and went on our first tour, I asked my boss if I could have a few weeks off. … Pretty sure it was paid leave, too.” That was his last job. Milf still DJs professionally (including with EMF), is an extreme-sports athlete and entrepreneur, and even played semipro soccer in Australia.
5. Bez, Happy Mondays/Black Grape
Bez originally joined Happy Mondays onstage only because, one night in 1985, singer Shaun Ryder was too loaded on (Bez-supplied) LSD to perform without his mate’s support. Yet Bez’s bug-eyed stare and mesmerized, jogging-underwater dancing became emblematic not only of the legendary “baggy” band but also of the whole “Madchester” and rave scenes of turn-of-the-’90s Britain. Indeed, aside from jiggling maracas, these seemed to be his sole contribution to Happy Mondays (and to the later, related, Black Grape), yet he actually earns studio credits for “percussion, freaky dancing” and “bezness.” Not even claiming to be a musician, Bez remains famous in Britain, winning Celebrity Big Brother, appearing on Pimp My Ride U.K. and even running for political office.
6. U.K. Soccer Teams
There’s been an unlikely tradition of U.K. soccer teams releasing records since the 1930s, but it was only when the England national team released “Back Home” before the 1970 FIFA World Cup that these started enjoying commercial success. Burly soccer players whose only prior singing experience was chanting on the terraces as teenagers suddenly became (often reluctant) pop stars, including the Manchester United squad who scored a 1994 U.K. No. 1 in with “Come on You Reds.” Collaborating with actual musicians also has proved fruitful for singing soccer players, such as the England team’s 1990 chart topper “World in Motion,” with New Order, and the Scotland squad’s 1978 hit with footie-mad Rod Stewart, “Ole Ola (Mulher Brasileira)”.
7. John Lydon, The Sex Pistols/Public Image Ltd
While John Lydon’s sneering croak has helped define both punk icons the Sex Pistols (as Johnny Rotten) and Public Image Ltd. (PiL), he actually had no musical aspirations when spotted by Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren in 1975. Lydon hung around a fetish clothing shop (and early punk hub) run by McLaren and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. McLaren noted Lydon’s irreverent, anti-establishment look and, despite an appalling “audition” — tunelessly crooning along to Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” — hired him for the newly formed Pistols. Lydon, who had previously worked as a minicab dispatcher and in construction, subsequently founded the successful PiL (which he still fronts), married a German heiress, penned two acclaimed autobiographies and appeared in high-profile TV shows and commercials.
8. Linda McCartney, Wings
Linda McCartney had been a photographer — the first woman to have a photograph on the cover of Rolling Stone — prior to meeting The Beatles' Paul McCartney. After the two married in ’69 and The Beatles broke up the following year, Paul taught Linda to play keyboards. They performed as a duo on 1971 album Ram, and then — defying Linda’s oft-pitchy vocals — in the hugely successful band Wings, which earned a parade of platinum albums. Linda thrived as a co-songwriter, winning several Grammy Awards with Wings and even an Oscar nomination (for co-composing “Live and Let Die” with her husband). A posthumous solo compilation album, Wide Prairie, was released shortly after her 1998 death.
9. Ben Carr, Mighty Mighty Bosstones
Ben Carr was an underage Mighty Mighty Bosstones roadie when, one night in 1983, a venue insisted that he had to actually be in the band to enter. That meant he needed to appear onstage, so Carr skanked around and chimed in with some backing vocals, just to avoid being thrown out. He’s been doing so ever since for the Boston ska-punk stalwarts, and even earns credits on gold- and platinum-certified albums. All this might sound rather Bez-like, were it not that Carr also acts as the eight-piece Bosstones’ tour manager. “It kind of developed,” Carr told Noisey in 2014. “It wasn’t like ‘I dropped out of college, Mom. I’m gonna be a dancer.’”
Chumbawamba were certainly not an unintentional band, having evolved from England’s early-1980s punk/squat scene into what would ultimately be fully 30 years of hard touring. But the surprise, full-blown rock-star success of 1997 single “Tubthumping,” a Top 10 hit in 13 countries, epitomized a career-long balancing act between surviving as musicians while staying true to their deeply held libertarian/socialist/anarchist views. They signed to EMI Records in 1997, having appeared on a compilation album titled Fuck EMI just eight years prior, but apparently turned down $1.5 million to have “Tubthumping “ used in a Nike commercial. “Seems like such a massive contradiction,” said Chumbawamba vocalist-percussionist Dunstan Bruce of his band’s sudden celebrity in a 1997 interview for the Washington Post.