Before he became a heartthrob on 21 Jump Street, got weird with Tim Burton, or played a pirate version of Keith Richards, Johnny Depp wanted to be a rock star. Refusing to let that dream go, the Oscar-nominated actor has maintained a steady side-gig of playing in various groups and guesting on friends’ albums, often showing up at concerts to play a few songs. Viewers of the 2016 Grammys got to see just how seriously Depp takes his music, as he performed a Motörhead cover and an original song with his new band, Hollywood Vampires, which features Alice Cooper, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, and two members of Guns N’ Roses. Today Vulture takes a look back at Depp’s long love affair with rock and roll, from his teens in Florida to his work with some of the most legendary figures in music.
The Kids – ca. 1980
The teenage Depp dropped out of high school in Miramar, Florida, to pursue a career in music. His first band of note, the Kids, achieved a bit of success in the area, opening for the likes of the Ramones, Iggy Pop, the Pretenders, and Talking Heads. Eventually, they decided to move to L.A. in hopes of hitting it big, but the band split before getting a record deal. Depp soon decided to try acting, on the advice of his wife’s friend Nicolas Cage.
Rock City Angels – mid-’80s
Even after roles in movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Platoon, Depp still wasn’t ready to give up on music, so he joined the glam outfit Rock City Angels. He quit when 21 Jump Street came along, but did end up with a writing credit on their song “Mary,” from their 1988 debut album Young Man’s Blues.
P – 1993
After Edward Scissorhands made him a movie star, Depp helped open a nightclub, the Viper Room, and formed the band P with Butthole Surfers front man Gibby Haynes and pal Bill Carter. During the group’s Viper Room performance on October 30, 1993, actor River Phoenix overdosed and collapsed outside, dying the next day. The band, which occasionally featured Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, released a self-titled album in 1995 on Capitol Records before breaking up.
Shane MacGowan and the Popes, “That Woman’s Got Me Drinking” – 1994
Following MacGowan’s ejection from the Pogues, he launched a solo career with 1994’s The Snake, which featured Depp providing “weird guitar noises” on the punk-blues track “That Woman’s Got Me Drinking.” They reunited in 2010 to cover Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s blues classic “I Put a Spell on You.”
Oasis collaborations, 1995–1996
Depp played guitar (and then-girlfriend Kate Moss shook a tambourine) for Oasis’s “Fade Away,” which appeared on a 1995 charity compilation. After vacationing with Noel Gallagher on the island of Mustique, Depp was invited back to the studio, this time to play slide guitar on the Be Here Now track “Fade In-Out.”
Iggy Pop, “Hollywood Affair” – 1999
Two decades after opening for Iggy as a member of the Kids, Depp and Pop reunited for this B-side from 1999’s Avenue B. The pair also performed the song on French television.
Vanessa Paradis — 2000–2013
Depp lent his musical talents to his longtime partner’s* fourth album, 2000’s Bliss, co-writing two songs, playing guitar on another, painting some of the artwork, and directing two of the LP’s music videos. In 2011, they covered Serge Gainsbourg’s “Ballade de Melody Nelson” for a tribute album, and in 2013, a year after they split up, Paradis released the album Love Songs, featuring Depp and their daughter Lily-Rose on “New Year.”
Chocolat and other soundtracks – 2000–present
In 2000, Depp starred opposite Juliette Binoche in the romance Chocolat, playing an itinerant guitarist. He also contributed three impressive European jazz songs to the soundtrack, marking the first of several times he’d provide music for a film of his own. So far, that list includes Once Upon a Time in Mexico, The Rum Diary, The Lone Ranger, and Into the Woods. In 2011, while promoting The Rum Diary, Depp put together the JD Band for a few performances, including one where he shared the stage with Keith Richards in New York.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street — 2007
Despite their long friendship, Tim Burton’s casting of Depp as the lead in Sweeney Todd seemed like an odd choice at first. But Burton’s hunch paid off, as Depp’s musical-theater chops earned him a Golden Globe, as well as a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Glenn Tilbrook and the Fluffers, “Too Close to the Sun” — 2008
Depp hooked up with Squeeze front man Glenn Tilbrook to play guitar on this New Wave oddity from 2008’s Pandemonium Ensues.
Babybird — 2010–2011
As a longtime fan of the English indie group Babybird, Depp had the honor of playing guitar on their 2010 single “Unloveable” and directing its music video. He’d rejoin them the following year to record “The Jesus Stag Night Club,” a song about a group of guys who have a wild bachelor party with none other than Jesus. A spokesman for the Christian Coalition released a statement about the song: “One day Johnny Depp and his cronies will face the judgment of our Lord and they will burn in hell for this filth.”
Marilyn Manson, “You’re So Vain” — 2012
Depp playing guitar and drums for Marilyn Manson’s cover of Carly Simon’s hit? Makes total sense. Later in 2012, Depp joined Manson at the Revolver Golden Gods Awards, performing “The Beautiful People” and “Sweet Dreams.”
Aerosmith, “Freedom Fighter” — 2012
Future Hollywood Vampire Joe Perry wrote this politically charged song for Aerosmith’s Music From Another Dimension! album and enlisted Depp to provide backing vocals. Depp’s played guitar at several Aerosmith gigs over the years, and joined Perry, Steven Tyler, and Alice Cooper for a set of covers at the Dark Shadows premiere party.
West of Memphis Soundtrack — 2012
Depp was already involved in asking for the release of the West Memphis Three by the time this documentary came out in 2012, performing at rallies alongside the likes of Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder. For the film, he covered Mumford and Sons’ “Little Lion Man,” a favorite song of former inmate Damien Echols, using the band name Tonto’s Giant Nuts. He also read one of Echols’s prison letters over a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
Patti Smith, Banga — 2012
Visiting Depp on the set of The Rum Diary, Patti Smith had a song idea, and, not wanting to forget it, asked Depp to record her singing it. When he sent her the tape, he added guitars and drums, giving Smith a backbone for her tune. They’ve since performed together a bunch, and Smith paid tribute to the actor with another track off 2012’s Banga, “Nine,” which she wrote for him as a birthday present.
Jup and Rob Jackson, “Street Runners” — 2012
Depp’s first foray into hip-hop came as the narrator — listed as Mr. Stench — on this Jup and Rob Jackson track. Depp doesn’t do any rapping himself, instead reading some beat-poetry-like lines about greed and life.
Steve Hunter, “Brooklyn Shuffle” — 2013
In a collaboration facilitated by Alice Cooper, Depp and Joe Perry joined guitarist Steve Hunter on this laid-back blues jam. Depp takes the second guitar solo, ably hanging with his more musically renowned friends.
Ryan Adams — 2014
A vocal Ryan Adams fan, Depp has joined the singer-songwriter onstage for a cover of Danzig’s “Mother” and in the studio, adding guitar to the Gimme Something Good B-side “Aching for More.” The collaboration went so well that they teamed up for another two songs on Adams’s 2015 EP No Shadow.
The New Basement Tapes, “Kansas City” — 2015
Producer T Bone Burnett formed a supergroup — Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and Mumford and Sons’ Marcus Mumford — to write the music for a bunch of ‘60s-era Bob Dylan lyrics that were never actually recorded. When it came time to track “Kansas City,” Costello was out of town due to a prior engagement, so Burnett called on Depp to add a subtly forceful guitar part.
Hollywood Vampires — 2015–present
Having Depp, Perry, and Cooper as Hollywood Vampires’ main members has its perks. When it came time to record their self-titled debut album, which features two original tracks and a bunch of covers, the group was able to enlist a ridiculous amount of guest stars, including Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Slash, AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell, actor Christopher Lee, and many, many more. You can tell they’ve really made it by the fact that, less than 24 hours after their Grammy performance, they’re already the subject of an Illuminati conspiracy video:
*Correction: This article originally mischaracterized Depp’s relationship with Vanessa Paradis.