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‘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 could make this claim it is Cox, a forty-eight-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. ‘I was never taught an instrument, so I had to teach myself,’ he told ShortList. ‘I was good at programming the keyboards, but I never saw myself as a musician.’ 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 admitted 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 and recruited Cox, who was five-and-a-half years his junior, as his keyboardist.
Dare began performing locally and soon attracted the attention of three major record labels; MCA, RCA and A&M. Eventually signing with the latter, Dare assembled together ten tracks and commenced work on their debut album. The sessions took place at two principal locations – Hookend Studios, 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.
‘I remember it being around 1988, we were the Oldham Bon Jovi with big hair, but around that time we were about two years behind the current music scene which was all about the Happy Mondays and indie music then,’ Cox later admitted to the Daily Post. Having finally signed a contract and recorded in a professional studio, the band were understandably excited and began to indulge in their new lifestyle, although not to the excess of their Californian contemporaries.
‘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 L.A. with an expenses account, you’re going to have a drink, aren’t you?’ admitted Cox to ShortList.com. ‘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. At the start we paid ourselves £75 each a week and that went up to about £120 a week by the end. We thought, ‘My God – we’ve made it!”
The first single to be released from the album Out of the Silence 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, who were promoting their own record, Out of This World. 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 sophomore 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. ‘When you’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty-years-old, you’re not thinking, ‘Pop music is a waste of my intellect.’ You’re thinking, ‘This is brilliant,’’ he laughed during an interview with the Guardian.
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 last year. ‘We were drunk and tired and everyone just jumped on one another. And that was that.’ Cox returned home to England and, now in his early twenties, 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. Ostensibly a one-man project, Cunnah had launched D:Ream following the demise of the short-lived group Tie the Boy. Signing with Magnet Records, Cunnah released his debut album D:Ream On Volume 1 in late 1993 but it would be through the re-release of its second single, Things Can Only Get Better, that Cunnah would become an overnight sensation.
‘D:Ream was almost like a part-time job. I popped in and out,’ admitted Cox, whose contribution to the album would be the closing ballad Star. Cox would, however, appear alongside Cunnah during D:Ream’s performance on Top of the Pops in early 1994 when Things Can Only Get Better reached the top of the charts in the UK.
Despite continuing his studies, Cox would tour for a short time with D:Ream, even supporting boy band Take That who were at the height of their popularity but even as he began to focus on his future away from the music industry the song was resurrected in 1997 when the New Labour used it as their unofficial anthem during the elections. ‘The New Labour appearance is all we’re really remembered for,’ he joked.
Having enjoyed a minor taste of success both with Dare and D:Ream, Cox finally turned his back on his music career in the late 1990s and over the following decade was closely associated with the FP420 R&D project while taking the position of Professor of Particle Physics at his former university. Prior to returning to music once again after over a decade, Cox worked as a scientific advisor on Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi horror Sunshine, which charted a mission to detonate a nuclear bomb into the centre of the dying sun in an effort to save mankind from extinction.
While in recent years he has become more known to the British public as the presenter of BBC’s Wonders of the Solar System and its follow-up Wonders of the Universe, while also working as an author on such titles as Why Does E=mc2? and Quantum Universe: Anything that Can Happen Does. But in 2010 it was revealed that Cox would reunite with Cunnah to work on a new D:Ream album. ‘It was a great bit of my life and I just wanted to give it another go,’ he revealed. ‘But the last time I played with D:Ream was in 1997 at the election. I’ve probably forgotten how to play.’
Things Can Only Get Better returned to the news in 2015 when Cox was asked whether Labour would once again be allowed to use the song in the elections. ‘Really good question,’ he told the Evening Standard. ‘I’d probably say no to Labour using the song — there are immense pros and cons to all the parties and I can’t quite see a clear direction. It’s very different now than in ’97. In ’97, it was obvious that everybody supported Blair. But now I think it’s complicated, it’s a muddy political climate.’
In 2011 Cox made an appearance at the Jodrell Bank observatory to perform with British Sea Power at a sold-out event that also featured the Flaming Lips. ‘It’s a great idea and obviously quite fitting that he plays at Jodrell Bank given the television programmes he’s making at the moment,’ said a spokesperson in a statement.
Thirty years later and Darren Wharton continues to record and tour under the Dare moniker, having released their most recent album Sacred Ground in the summer of 2016, yet despite having reunited on several occasions with D:Ream there has been no talk of a reunion with Dare. 2018 will mark thirty years since their debut album and the only remaining members from the original line-up are Wharton and guitarist Vinny Burns. Whether or not the thirtieth anniversary will see Cox celebrating alongside Dare remains to be seen.