Rhythm Beard

 Posted by
Jan 312012

Grown To Catch Spills

Built To Spill, featuring Doug Martsch on Lead Beard (Foreground) and Brett Nelson on Rhythm Beard (Background)

Any long-term follower of discussions in the Hall will note the ongoing importance of discussing Look as a factor in the success of musical acts. Today, we’re exploring a lesser known but nonetheless important Look phenomenon: The Rhythm Beard.

Essentially, a Rhythm Beard is in use any time one member of a band tailors an aspect of their Look to serve a supporting role or to act as a foundation for a bolder, more dynamic version of the same Look being used by another member of the band. Above, we see how the trademark great, big, bushy beard of Built To Spill frontman Doug Martsch might overpower a fully clean-shaven band or lose its own heft if countered by a matching beard. Instead, bassist Brett Nelson cultivated a perfect Rhythm Beard, one that would not draw attention away from Martsch’s lead, but would instead perfectly complement Martsch, providing a point of comparison that would only enhance appreciation of his facial landscaping. One could argue that, taken alone, Nelson actually has the better beard – the downward sloping mustache perhaps evoking Levon Helm’s award-winning Spanish conquistador Look – but it remains clear that Martsch’s beard is the main event, and Nelson’s is there to subtly make it work.

Beards in Satan's Service?

Carl & Their Lack of Fashion: So Tough

That quiet selflessness indicates that the Rhythm Beard is a sign of good teamwork at play in a band dynamic. Consider Rock’s most famous Rhythm Beard player, Carl Wilson. When the Beach Boys entered their controversial bearded phase, it was open season within the band. Perhaps speaking to their respective inner turmoil, Brian Wilson went for a messy, cabin-in-woods clump of facial hair, while Dennis chose an unkempt, werewolf-style Look. Meanwhile, Mike Love displayed the total control of mind and body he’d achieved through gaining higher consciousness by first growing a massive, all-knowing, all-encompassing beard before eventually parking on a Van Dyke in his later years. (Above, we see Love in his transitional “Torgo” phase). For his part, Al Jardine was only interested in a beard designed to mirror his hairline.

If the band was to continue to function as a unit, it was up to Carl to step in and deliver a beard that could function as a bedrock for the entire rest of the band. He delivered in spades, providing a beard with enough body to support Brian’s shaggy rug, Mike’s enlightened guru cascade or Dennis’ sinister lupine beard at one end, but still sensible to anticipate Mike’s later Captain’s Special trim and Al’s “I’ll Have Whatever Mike’s Having” beards at the other.

The Captain Is Aboard

Beach Boys BBQ Blowout Bash Blast Beards

Above, we can see that Dennis has tragically taken over on Lead Beard as Mike settles into his Captain’s Special period and Brian seeks to get back in the game. Note that Al – having accepted hand-me-down’s in the form of Mikes Torgo outfit – looks on in admiration as Carl’s beard continues to make all this possible.

A Mitch Mitchell Hair Product

The Noel Redding Experience?

It should be noted that, though we call this phenomenon the Rhythm Beard, it is not limited strictly to matters of facial hair. Any time one band member offers up a facet of his or her Look to provide support for another, it can be said that they are Wearing Rhythm or Growing Rhythm. Mitch Mitchell was one of Rock’s great Rhythm Hair players, generally downplaying his own locks to help out the rest of the Experience. Noel Redding, meanwhile, routinely grew out his fro to the point that one could argue he was on Lead Hair, or that he and Jimi Hendrix were on Dual Lead. It’s no coincidence that Noel and Jimi clashed so often in the studio, while Mitchell was recruited to a part of The Dirty Mac.

Hats 'n Roses

Much like all of Badfinger “playing rhythm” on All Things Must Pass, GNR once employed a complete Rhythm Hat section

The concept is also applicable to accessories. Although Slash always wore Lead Hat in Guns ‘n Roses, most of the band supported him by Wearing Rhythm in the early years. Later, once Slash’s top hat was established and entrenched as part of the band’s logo, Axl would take over sole Rhythm Do-Rag duties. This should also serves as a reminder of the teamwork aspect of the Rhythm Beard: even frontmen can graciously Wear Rhythm in support of a secondary band member’s Look.

Note: The Rhythm Beard should not be confused with situations where an entire band wears a “uniform” of some kind (see: early Beatles, the Polyphonic Spree). In the case of a band Uniform, all individual Looks are downplayed for the sake of honoring a band’s gimmick or pushing an overall Unified Look Theory. And neither the Band Uniform nor the Rhythm Beard should be confused with another, rare stunt in the Look playbook, in which a frontman employs a member of their backing band outfitted specifically to look curiously like said frontman. See Prince, who would stock the Revolution first with Andre Cymone and later Brown Mark. This move has been commonly dubbed as the Poppelganger or Pulling a Saddam, in reference to the practice of military dictators who surround themselves with decoys in the hopes of fooling potential assassins.


  32 Responses to “Rhythm Beard”

  1. This is truly important work, alexmagic, and your timing couldn’t be better. In the coming week we hope to launch a job search on behalf of a nationally known band. There’s a nice finder’s fee for the Hall, should we land the proper candidate. More on that later, but this piece should help guide this search.

    Over the last 7 years or so I’ve noticed some hair jockeying among members of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. You’ll have to excuse me for not ever being able to keep track of the band members’ names.

    Early on, Nick and his bandmates were clean shaven, if otherwise disheveled.


    At some point a band member pulled a joint Bono-Edge Berlin Sleeze Cowboy Look out of nowhere, in perhaps the first challenge to Cave’s leadership.


    With that early challenge quelled the band settled into a clean-shaven, more debonnaire Look, like Southside Johnny in Hamburg:


    Flush with the critical success of a double album of Joe Cocker, the Mad Dogs, & the Englishmen scope, facial hair returned to the band through Warren Ellis’ stunning Bankrobber Beard. Cave, meanwhile, debuted his Receding Hairline Compensating Cowboy ‘Stache. At first the two presented themselves as a Dynamic Duo of Dudes So Into Their Dudeness That No Woman Would Touch Them With a 10-Foot Pole:


    Ellis kept pushing it with a Richard Manual’s Even More Fucked-Up Brother Beard:


    And finally a My Beard Eats Bonnie Prince Billy’s Beard for Breakfast Beard:


    The media followed their shaving rituals:


    Cave finally threw down the gauntlet with a press conference announcing his Fu Manchu and the launch of offshoot band Grinderman, featuring many of the Bad Seeds, including Ellis, in a scaled-down, insular setting, possibly to allow whatever shit had to go down without interference from string players and Polly Jean Harvey:


    Shortly thereafter, it one band member grew a traditional Warm and Fuzzy Rhythm Beard to offset possible tensions between Ellis’ suddenly dominant Lead Bandit’s Bandanna Beard and Cave’s response to said beard’s ploy for the brass ring, the Classic Fu Manchu.


    I’m not sure if this settled anything, though, or led to a Beach Boys-like excess of uncoordinated facial hair when the full band returned to action for Dig Lazarus Dig:


  2. Denny’s neck beard is really a beautiful thing.

  3. I don’t think Bruce Johnston ever grew a beard while he was with the Beach Boys, though he did sport a mustache for a while. Carl was always a bit on the chubby side, and I suspect he grew his beard to disguise his relative lack of chin.

  4. I was saying to alexmagic offlist that Bruce Johnston may have been an all-around Rhythm Member. His entire presence in the band seemed geared not only to supporting the band’s Look and musical direction but also spanning their entire history, somehow containing bother elements of their past successes while presaging their July 4th on the Washington Mall future. Look at almost any photo of the band including Johnston, and the band’s one timeless constant. He is Endless Summer personified.

  5. Bruce’s position in the Beach Boys was kind of odd – brought in as Brian’s live substitute, yet he ended up staying with them except for 1972-1979 (he missed out on the Endless Summer commercial revival and the whole “Brian is back!” debacle). He even wrote a few lightweight but charming songs like “Disney Girls (1957).” But can we call him 100% genuine Beach Boy? He was further in than, say, Ian Stewart with the Stones or Pat Smear with Nirvana, but was Bruce really a core member?

  6. He is in league with Love in the touring Beach Boys Band of recent years, so I sort of hate him for that. But he is a loyal soldier and evidently part of the 50th anniversary tour, so that’s worth a gold watch or something.

  7. trigmogigmo

    This is great in-depth research.

    Now that Tom Petty is sporting a beard most of the time, I see that his sideman Mike Campbell is going further with a beard-and-dreadlocks thing. I think this also puts Tom in the rhythm beard position, which is a flip from the Built to Spill model where the frontman has lead beard. In this case I think the lead beard lessens the shock of change in the front man’s new look after so many years of clean shaven living.


  8. Happiness Stan

    That is the funniest thing that I’ve read on here in ages, thanks Alex.

    One Great Beard which springs to mind is TMR-period Drumbo, eclipsing slightly DVV’s goatee:

  9. I’m not sure if they give out Pulitzers or Nobel Prizes for this sort of work. I suspect they don’t because this type of critical thinking is often criminally unrecognized. But just know that you are doing Very Important Work here, and if this was a society that had it’s priorities in order, your face would most likely be on a stamp.

    A few additional points:
    1. Mike Campbell’s dreadlocks are a shonde. They really seem like the mid life crisis equivalent of a little red sports car for a guy who probably already has several little red sports cars. I suspect that Petty is really being a bit of an enabler here. Let’s not forget although being a Rhythm Beard is often a supportive and selfless act, it can be unhealthy in certain situations.
    What Petty should do is let Mike go through this phase by himself until one day, in the middle of the solo for Running Down A Dream, he has the epiphany that Brian May will always be cool, while Adam Duritz hair wasn’t even cool back in 1993. This lesson will be both painful and crucial.

    2.Speaking of selfless, Frank Beard may be the ultimate team player.

  10. Also, I’m going to be laughing about the Captain’s Special all day.

  11. hrrundivbakshi

    Responsibilities at work have kept me from really chiming in to the degree I would like here, but — dang — I just had to quickly throw my MAD PROPS to Alexmagic for a truly inspired bit of analysis. Bravolingus!

  12. alexmagic

    My take on Bruce Johnston is that, once he was in the band, Mike Love saw someone he could mold in his image. By the time Love was ready to lead the Beach Boys into their late-80s comeback run, Johnston was in full on Poppleganger mode for Love, and really, if anyone in music needed to Pull A Saddam, it was the Mike Love who was going around challenging the Fat Boys and Rolling Stones to fist fights in 1988.

    The side effect of this was that Al Jardine now became expendable, and I assume this is what set Mike on his path to force Al out of all Beach Boys-related activities.

    Good call on Petty being the Rhythm Beard for Mike Campbell, trig. Did he grow it during the Mudcrutch reunion phase? I think Campbell had the Duritz going then, too, so maybe they made a quiet side deal around that time so Petty could pay back Campbell for hanging around during the non-Heartbreaker years.

    Where ZZ Top and Frank Beard fit into all of this is truly perplexing. I gave them a lot of thought and ultimately decided that Dusty/Billy are too equal for that to be a Pulling A Saddam scenario, and Beard not having a beard is an obvious subversion of the Uniform look. In later years, Dusty’s hat has taken a supporting role to Billy’s Nudu cap.

    I guess Beard’s mustache is playing rhythm for their beards, because the band would probably fall apart completely if he was clean shaven. Given free range, I’m confident Beard could cultivate a Jeff Lynne look with little effort, and I’m now left thinking that, given the general ZZ Top beat, Beard could have had a sweet, easy gig as Jeff Lynne’s robot drummer for the last few years if he’d ever gotten fed up with Dusty and Billy.

  13. This rhythm beard thing kind of ties in with the HBO series Treme, which my wife and I have been racing through. They aren’t all in the same band, but all the white guys in the New Orleans scene have heavy beardage:
    Leon Russell: https://encrypted-tbn0.google.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcThX0pRyiSPeWhCec2ScWbvSyU4g0SISaPfgPVbQeGYyUbDrMzz2w
    Dr. John: https://encrypted-tbn0.google.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcT1t68muHCYhCCh0HF3x0jshelRCT67QOnKBQ7XwKyzGx9mgctS8fBqngL9
    and, featured in the series but not a N.O. guy as far as I know, Steve Earle: https://encrypted-tbn1.google.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRKBH17iLgMGj6QNy2exQha1lYUI3l6xw8yIDlxu3xI3kqlonreDQ.

    The African-American jazz cats, not so much. Why would this be?

  14. ladymisskirroyale

    This is EXCEPTIONAL music journalism.

  15. ladymisskirroyale


    In this photo, the very cognitive Camper Van Beethoven demonstrate how this theory can be expanded to include the use of transitional objects. Notice how frontman Lowery leads the toy brigade but attempts to out Tinky Winky the others. Valiant Pederson artfully continues the expanded Rhythm Beard theme with the loathsome yet American Tickle Me Elmo. Segel, Krummenacher and Lisher initially appear unified with the band, but closer inspection indicates that their objects are not those of delusion but are instead actual rabbits.

  16. trigmogigmo

    I do think it may have been a Mudcrutch reunion change. When I searched for photos of him on lead beard they seemed to start there.

    The whole Frank Beard aspect to this theory is weird enough to make me wonder if you have just uncovered a “glitch in the matrix”.

  17. tonyola

    Pink Floyd started out all boyish and clean-shaven, but after Syd was booted, the facial hair started to creep in with Nick Mason’s Fu-Manchu mustache. By Dark Side of the Moon, Waters was taking control of the band and while he remained hair-free throughout the Floyd, his soon-to-be minions all began sporting beards. Was this a symptom of behind-the-scenes power plays? Were Waters’ eventual adversaries trying to out-macho him? Was angry Roger sending a signal that he needed no visible signs of testosterone to maintain his visionary grip? While Wright and Mason had impressive full facial hair, ex-pretty-boy-model David Gilmour seemed to have to struggle with his.


    All pretense of facial hirsuteness was gone from the band by The Wall. Roger had apparently won the battle.

  18. An excellent analysis of the seldom discussed darker side of the Rhythm Beard phenomenon.

  19. Mod, while I appreciate your current pole regarding the merits of Alexmagic’s post, there is no dispute as to whether or not it trumps some journalistic trifle like an item about the dangers of potpourri as a recreational drug. The more relevant poll would address HOW alexmagic would best be honored: Pulitzer? Nobel Prize? a Statue? a Stamp? Congressional Medal of Honor? KBE? Have a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike named after him?

  20. The Petty beard is really an important topic. Do you supposed Petty sees the beard as some sort age-defyling Look? Do the dreads give Campbell a free pass to color his hair?

    I also am compelled to point out that Simon Le Bon now sports a good-looking beard.


  21. I wouldn’t have though a LeBon LeBeard would be possible. Amazing!

    Does anyone else around here watch the Masterpiece series Downton Abbey? If so, does anyone else think the time is ripe for making a Duran Duran movie with the actor who plays Matthew as LeBon?


  22. So it is written, so let it be done! Hold tight.

  23. Bravo! Best thing I’ve read on here in a long while.

  24. Brilliant!

    I propose another way to accommodate the lead look is by putting on some rhythm fat. It’s uncomfortable to watch current day Heart because Nancy is so clearly leaving Ann all by her corpulent self. If she were to properly support the lead look, she should bulk up a little.

    Carl seemed willing to support Brian in that respect.

  25. Wilson-Phillips had a perfect balance of body weights for a trio, didn’t they?

  26. Carl really was not “Ann Wilson Fat” …so fat as to become unrecognizable.

  27. No. I’m only suggesting that Carl put on some rhythm fat in support of Brian’s lead fat. Carl was never one to usurp the lead look.

  28. But Brian was presentably lean at least in the early days – he’s second from left in this 1962 picture. Carl (far right) had the baby fat right from the start.

  29. None of them had a beard back then either. Let’s stick to the period at hand.

  30. “One could argue that, taken alone, Nelson actually has the better beard – the downward sloping mustache perhaps evoking Levon Helm’s award-winning Spanish conquistador Look – but it remains clear that Martsch’s beard is the main event, and Nelson’s is there to subtly make it work.”

    In all these matters it is of course crucial for the Rhythm (insert name of aspect here) to be possibly better than the Lead one, so that a certain segment of the fans can feel like they’re In the Know by preferring it. Call it the Ginger-Mary Anne Effect – everyone thinks they’re being contrary by preferring Mary Anne, when in fact EVERYONE prefers Mary Anne. Or, to keep it within the Rock, you could call it The Michael Steele Factor.

  31. Massimo! Excellent point!

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