Music’s 20 greatest cult heroes

The names you’ll find here are musicians whose artistic ability – genius, in some cases – has dwarfed their limited commercial success. So don your white robes and join us as we count down the 20 gods of cult.

20 Television Personalities

From being asked by Kurt Cobain to support Nirvana, to The Futureheads’ cover of ‘A Picture Of Dorian Gray’, to being the glue that bound the C86/Creation scene of the late ’80s, Television Personalities have nonetheless never troubled the mainstream.

Here’s Andrew from MGMT on their genius: “We set up a couple of shows with them – they were wild shows. When TVP play they can be completely disastrous, or just really good. It confused the hell out of our fans. They’ve made some of the best music of the last 30 years.”

19 J Dilla

Like so many in the hip-hop scene, it took death for the work of James Dewitt Yancey, to be given the appropriate reverence.

Not by Jack Barnett from These New Puritans though: “My brother lent me a copy of ‘Donuts’ – two days before he died, weirdly.

“He was unique for his approach to rhythms, a kind of out-of-timeness. I admire his imperfections; he was definitely the most standout figure from that entire independent hip-hop scene.”

Download: Anything on ‘Donuts’

18 Alec Empire

With Atari Teenage Riot, Alec Empire invented digital hardcore and reconnected techno with politics, while as the label boss of Digital Hardcore Recordings, he’s been the leading light in the Berlin electronic avant-vanguard.

Download: Atari Teenage Riots – ‘Destroy 2000 Years of Culture’

17 Bill Drummond

While others schemed it, he lived it.

While most moaned about the state of the charts and banality of record labels, he put the entire music industry over his lap and gave it a spanking – whether it was The KLF deleting their entire back-catalogue, costing themselves a fortune, or them toasting another fortune in the infamous burning-a-million-quid saga.

Drummond has always gone out and brought us back the news about the relationship between art, music, and commerce.

16 Bis

Despite being the first DIY-punk-pop-riot-grrrl-band-who-wrote-their-own-fanzines to appear on Top Of The Pops, this Glasgow trio were the subject of much derision.

Yet in recent years their cult has striven to right past wrongs; 2010 even saw their fans hold International Bis Day, with tribute bands playing in venues worldwide.

15 Billy Childish

Born Steven John Hamper in 1959, Childish is an English artist, painter, author, poet, photographer, filmmaker, singer and guitarist.

He is loved by Graham Coxon: “I watched Thee Headcoats play at St John’s Tavern [in Archway, London] in the mid-’90s. That was long before I met Billy – I think Thee Headcoats were coming to an end by the time I actually went to go talk to him.

14 Big L

In hip-hop, so often you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone. Never more true than with Lamont Coleman, dead by bullet at 24, possibly in a tragic case of mistaken identity.

13 Lydia Lunch

Lydia Lunch is a spoken-word performance artist who has, at times, made GG Allin look like the kind of chap you’d take home for tea with your grandparents.

In New York in 1976, aged 17, she formed Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, an abrasive no-wave noise band who took punk’s rudimentary three chords and ripped them apart with knives and beer bottles.

12 Mike Patton

For over 20 years the 42-year-old Californian has been confounding audiences, fronting a succession of bands who push the envelope with every note.

Simon Neil from Biffy Clyro is an acolyte: “We love him because he’s always shown the right amount of contempt for the industry and has always followed his own muse. It’s a lesson that more bands could follow…”

Download: Mr Bungle – ‘My Ass Is On Fire’

11 Whitehouse

Whitehouse were formed in Brighton in 1980 by William Bennett, under some encouragement from Mute boss Daniel Miller, who bequeathed William a WASP synthesizer. Bennett used the instrument to make an awful, ear-splitting racket over which he and a 14-year-old runaway from Bristol called Philip Best would screech vulgar lyrics.

10 Mark Linkous

When we were putting together this issue, everyone in the NME office argued about who should be in this list. Nearly everyone said Sparklehorse. Then when Mark Linkous passed away the doubters joined them in agreement.

9 Daniel Johnston

Daniel Dale Johnston is perhaps US indie’s ultimate cult hero – yet he’s seen his career hindered by his long-term bipolar disorder. Here’s Marina Diamandis on his enduring brilliance: “What I love about Daniel Johnston is that he can’t hide his emotions and doesn’t have a lot of vocal control. I’ve got a Daniel Johnston T-shirt and I’m going to cover ‘Walking The Cow’ one day.

8 Yoko Ono

Alongside her late husband John Lennon, Yoko was one half of the principal avant-garde power couple of the late ’60s and ’70s. In mainstream circles, her art, both musical and visual, has often gone unrecognised but she’s not short of her devotees.

We thought we’d call her up and see how she felt about being in our list: “I don’t feel like a cult hero – but if you tell me I am then I accept it! I have just gone down my own path and made art and music that expresses how I feel.”

7 Ian Svenonius

Whether fronting seminal DC punks The Nation Of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Weird War, or his new band Chain And The Gang, Ian Svenonius is a true underground don.

We asked him about his cult heroes. “My main hero is Fidel Castro because he really is heroic. In rock’n’roll, the people that people love are the ones who make one record or die. Like Nick Drake and The La’s. I see myself as an edge-frayer, slowly polluting the rock’n’roll gene pool and having less people care about me.”

6 Bob Pollard – Guided By Voices

Nobody wrote songs like Guided By Voices – short, snappy, lo-fi perfect pop that was more often than not drunker than Shane MacGowan at a wedding.

The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas is a member of their cult: “Guided By Voices’ music is like all the great knowledge that’s out there in the world, things like Oscar Wilde’s Phrases And Philosophies For The Use Of The Young or reading quotes from The Analects – you know, the Confucius thing…

5 The Yummy Fur

Led by 1990s frontman Jackie McKeown, The Yummy Fur were not only one of the most important Scottish indie bands ever – before finding success with Franz Ferdinand, Alex Kapranos and Paul Thomson made up their numbers – but also a unique band with an impressive catalogue of work in their own right.

4 The Replacements

Envied for their talent by other bands in their home city of Minneapolis, this permanently wasted stink-rock foursome were banned from rock clubs across America for trashing stages, and loathed by their record company for wrecking every opportunity that came their way. But behind that goofy demeanour and songs called things like ‘Gary’s Got A Boner’, The ‘Ments had a soft spot a mile wide.

3 Richard Hell

Richard Hell might not – as he claims – have actually invented punk rock but, at the very least, he was the man who gave it its identity.

Sporting the kind of haircut previously only modelled by lunatic asylum patients and wearing a shirt held together with safety pins, Hell – born Richard Myers in 1949 – wasn’t to know that 40 years later his sartorial statement would be a uniform for fledgling rock troupes worldwide.

2 Alex Chilton

As a 17-year-old in 1967, Alex Chilton was the singer with Memphis pop-soul act The Box Tops when they scored a global Number One hit with ‘The Letter’. But when the band split he found himself a has-been aged 20.

His response? Forming Big Star, whose mix of ’60s British pop and heartfelt, self-doubting lyrics flopped, before a plethora of bands – principally Teenage Fanclub – started to recognize Chilton as one of the all-time great American songwriters.

Download: Big Star – ‘September Gurls’

1 Mark E Smith

Life in The Fall is brutish and short, but some alumni have achieved independent celebrity. Marc Riley, who played on The Fall’s classic album ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ (1982), is now a BBC 6 Music DJ. Brix Smith-Start, guitarist during the mid-’80s, is now a sidekick to Gok Wan.