September 21, 2023
Music NewsOngoing History of New Music

The Ongoing History of New Music, episode 966: Piano heroes

Rock’n’roll is built on the electric guitar. Well…mostly. And not really in the beginning. In fact, the electric guitar as we know it didn’t have much to do with the birth of rock at all.

The earlier rock evolved out of rhythm and blues combos that rose up in the wake of WWII. By the early 50S, some of the featured electric guitars but the honk and rhythm came from saxophones and pianos which were being slowly pounded into matchsticks.

The piano contributed bits of jazz, boogie-woogie, barrelhouse, and juke-joint energy. About the only real guitar hero of those early days was Chuck Berry. Instead, the early pioneers were piano heroes: Little Richard, Jerry lee Louis, Ray Charles, Huey “Piano” Smith, and a few others.

But when guitars got loud, started sounding dirtier, and began to wail with more power, the piano was soon outgunned and piano heroes began to recede into the background. Not entirely, though. Elton John, Billy Joel, and Carole King have had massive careers based on piano songs. The Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, also served the cause. Freddie Mercury wrote many of Queen’s greatest songs on piano.

There are others: Leon Russell, Mike Garson (who played with Bowie for years), Chuck Liddell (a favourite of the Rollings Stones), Dr. John, Billy Preston, Stevie Wonder, Ray Manzarek of the Doors, Rick Wakeman of Yes, and a huge variety of synth players.

But what’s missing from that list? Any piano heroes from the world of alt-rock. Does such a creature even exist? Actually, yes. They may be a bit hard to spot, but they’re out there. Let’s take a look.

Songs heard on this program:

  • Kate Bush, Wuthering Heights
  • Tori Amos, Crucify
  • Fiona Apple, Criminal
  • Ben Folds Five, The Ballad of Who Could Care Less
  • Coldplay, Clocks
  • Keane, Somewhere Only We Belong
  • New Radicals, You Get What You Give
  • Nine Inch Nails, Something I Can Never Have

Here’s a playlist from Eric Wilhite.

The Ongoing History of New Music can be heard on the following stations:

We’re still looking for more affiliates in Calgary, Kamloops, Kelowna, Regina, Saskatoon, Brandon, Windsor,  Montreal, Charlottetown, Moncton, Fredericton, and St John’s, and anywhere else with a transmitter and I’ll see what I can do.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37081 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “The Ongoing History of New Music, episode 966: Piano heroes

  • Australia has produced a couple of piano heroes that I think may be worthy of adding to this list.

    The first is Tim Freedman of The Whitlams ( – my all-time favourite alt rock piano hero. From their debut single ‘I Make Hamburgers’ (1995) right through to their 6th album ‘Little Cloud’ (2007) I was a devoted fan, going to live shows whenever I could including at least two shows performed with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. However, I don’t think they’ve ever toured outside of Oz.

    My second notable Aussie piano hero, coincidentally also a Tim, is Tim Minchin. Hailing from my hometown of Perth, he is not strictly an alt rock musician – my Google search described him as “a comedian, actor, composer, songwriter, pianist and director”! He achieved renown as the composer and lyricist of ‘Matilda the Musical’, but his song ‘White Wine in the Sun’ will always be my favourite.

    Thanks so much for this episode Alan. I finally worked out what it is that I like so much about Keane.


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