Beards go pop

We appear to be growing a weekly beard feature. Today Daniel Kalder combs through some notable beards from the world of popular music.

Last week Susan offered us a fine post on Biblical beards. Among the images selected to illustrate the text was a photo of Billy Gibbons, lead guitarist for ZZ Top, who is the owner of one of the most famous beards in the world, and surely the most famous beard in popular music today. But I wondered, what about the others? And so this Sunday, The Dabbler offers a brief guide to the beard in popular music.

From the 1930s on, the stars of country music were smooth-shaven, clean cut family entertainers, although Tennessee Ernie Ford did sport a neatly trimmed moustache, it must be said. In the early 70s however the “outlaw” movement was born and beards thrived. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr. and Johnny Paycheck all grew luxurious facial hair to signal their rejection of Nashville slickness, their embrace of a grittier, harder sound, and their enthusiasm for the wild life. A beard too is a symbol of virility and nobody’s beard screamed SEX more than fellow outlaw Kris Kristofferson’s, which was clearly intended to signal thrusting manhood to any and all attractive females in his vicinity. Many of the Oxford grad’s songs are about seduction, sexual frustration or even abject pleading for sex. Here he is rubbing up against Rita Coolidge, from whom he was most definitely “getting some” (as they say in the common parlance) – they would marry a year later:

Another musical genre where beards flourished was prog rock. Famous exponents such as Edgar Broughton, Ian Anderson and assorted members of Hawkwind all wore unkempt beards, perhaps to imply a spiritual connection with the druids. And yet also operating within that genre was a fine example of the professorial beard, which is extremely rare in popular music. It belonged to Robert Fripp, the guitarist and leader of King Crimson who approached his experimental sounds with both rigorous intellect and advanced technique; the (bearded) Russian classical minimalist Vladimir Martynov has acclaimed him as the greatest composer of the late 20th /early 21st century. Fripp’s beard, which required constant maintenance, uniquely symbolized discipline rather than wild abandon. It would disappear before the end of the decade as he got into New Wave and dance music, but here he is in 1973, revealing his gift for melody as he probes the depths of cosmic angst on the majestic “Starless”:

The beard is not restricted to the past however. One of the finest beards of recent years, indeed probably the finest beard of its generation belongs to the enigmatic singer-songwriter Will Oldham, who most often records under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy. First spotted on the cover of his 2003 LP Master and Everyone, this luxurious growth refers backwards to the beards of Appalachian patriarchs, 60s folk singers and, to a lesser extent, the exponents of outlaw country, but with an added hermetic quality all of its own. Oldham’s beard is elusive; it comes and goes; but the man is rarely spotted without some form of lush facial hair. Here it is at its most savagely unkempt in the video for his quasi-country track I Am Goodbye:

And finally we come to the beards of Grinderman, an offshoot of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.  If Kristofferson’s beard was a symbol of virility, then these are the beards of dirty, obscene, lascivious old men, behaving disgracefully, making a primal racket, sneering and jeering and leering at the top of their voices. I’ve kept things kind of mellow since it’s a Sunday but here I end on a different note; dark ravings from the unconscious- four sweaty dudes in their fifties dressed as Greek gods, cavorting with wolves, phalluses, the Buddha, nuclear Armageddon and a frightened naked girl in the bath. Alas, Nick Cave’s porno moustache makes but a fleeting appearance in this video, but it remains one of the finest clips of all time, containing not one but two beards to rival even that of Will Oldham:


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Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at

5 thoughts on “Beards go pop

    March 25, 2012 at 14:28

    blimey in the first clip it looks like the on-heat Kris is going to mount her leg and start dry-humping at any moment. Nice tune though

    Also like the Fripp one, the violin melody at the start is cracking, and the drumming at the end is satisfyingly modern

  2. Brit
    March 25, 2012 at 19:33

    Yes even Status Quo never got that close to each other when sharing the mic… I never knew KK was an Oxford grad.

    March 26, 2012 at 02:19

    KK went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, I believe, after growing up in a dump on the Tex/Mex border. A stint as a helicopter pilot ensued. And then he started dry humping female legs.

    Will Oldham & Grinderman also have lascivious beards, as do ZZ Top, only Fripp’s is austere and scholarly. And even he co-wrote a song called Ladies of the Road, about bangin’ lots of chicks, man.

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