Nikola Tesla’s Musical Legacy

This morning, Wake-Up Video tipped its hat to the swearing in of Millard Fillmore, the 13th President of the United States who took office on this day in 1850. But there’s another historical note today that bears mentioning: Today is Nikola Tesla’s birthday. Since his death in 1943, Tesla has gained the reputation as being a woefully underrated contributor to the world of science. His experiments with conducting alternating electrical current were the most important in the history of energy, but even though Tesla’s AC ultimately beat out rival Thomas Edison’s DC, Edison’s offensives against Tesla left him as a historical footnote for decades.

But Tesla also had a great effect on music — and not just because he created technology that made wireless transmission (like radio waves) possible. A handful of musicians have gained inspiration from Tesla’s reputation as a genius, a troublemaker and an underdog.

The most famous, of course, is the band Tesla, the hard rock band who had hits at the end of the ’80s with albums like Mechanical Resonance and Five Man Acoustical Jam. Tesla took their namesake very seriously, even going as far as creating a concept album around Tesla’s rivalry with Guglielmo Marconi over the creation of radio (The Great Radio Controversy). One of the band’s biggest hits, “Edison’s Medicine,” revolved around Thomas Edison’s quest to destroy his rival Tesla. All told, pretty brainy stuff for a metal band.

But Tesla’s influence over musicians doesn’t stop there. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark had a minor hit in 1984 with a track called “Tesla Girls,” though it doesn’t seem to have any lyrical connection to Tesla (except for the lyric about “testing out theories”).

A more convincing tribute came in the 2006 movie “The Prestige,” which saw David Bowie star as Nikola Tesla. Bowie played the scientist as part genius, part madman — not unlike Bowie himself.

But by far the best tribute to Tesla that involved rock stars was in the 2003 Jim Jarmusch film “Coffee and Cigarettes,” which saw Jack and Meg White discuss a Tesla Coil. The White Stripes are no strangers to Tesla — they also offered him a lyrical shout-out on their song “Astro.”