10 Songs Inspired by Books

Gabe Habash -- December 13th, 2012

Fun fact: “Tea in the Sahara” by The Police is a reference to The Sheltering Sky, specifically the chapter in the book (titled “Tea in the Sahara”) in which Port is told of three dancers who wish to have tea in the desert, but end up dead from the heat. Here are 11 other book-song connections a little less obvious than The Grapes of Wrath and “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

1. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon inspired “Whip It” by Devo

In case you weren’t spending your spare time searching the internet for the meaning behind the words of Devo’s most famous song, we’ll tell you: Devo member Jerry Casale wrote the lyrics to “Whip It” in one night, imitating Pynchon’s parodies in Gravity’s Rainbow. Said Casale: ”[Pynchon] had parodied limericks and poems of kind of all-American, obsessive, cult of personality ideas like Horatio Alger and ‘You’re #1, there’s nobody else like you’ kind of poems that were very funny and very clever. I thought, ‘I’d like to do one like Thomas Pynchon.’”

2. 1984 by George Orwell inspired “2+2=5″ by Radiohead

In addition to The Clash, Judas Priest, Stevie Wonder, Rage Against the Machine, Cheap Trick and many others, Orwell’s dystopia bible was a direct inspiration for Radiohead’s “2+2=5″ from Hail to the Thief. The song’s title is a reference to 1984‘s doublethink, in which logic does not matter as much as what authority tells you matters. Lyrics like “January has April’s showers” mirror the illogicality of Big Brother’s dictum. Bonus factoid: the alternate title for “2+2=5″ is “The Lukewarm,” a reference to the works of Dante, according to Thom Yorke.

3. Anthem by Ayn Rand inspired “2112″ by Rush

Many of Rush’s songs have objectivist lyrics, and that’s because drummer Neil Peart, who writes the words, is a big Ayn Rand fan. Or at least he used to be. But Objectivist prog nerds have been been air drumming/air bassing/air guitaring to “2112″, the band’s longest song at over 20 minutes, for over 30 years. In 1976, when the album was released, Peart credited “the genius of Ayn Rand” (he had also titled the Rush’s song “Anthem” as a nod to the writer on the earlier Fly by Night album). The song (without getting into descriptions of the long instrumental and SFX breaks) is about a wide-eyed boy who finds a magical thing (a guitar), presents it to the ruling Priests of the Temples of Syrinx, is rebuked, commits suicide, and spurs a planetary revolution. Wonders of the world they wrought, indeed.

4. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot inspired “Afternoons And Coffeespoons” by Crash Test Dummies

The refrain of “Afternoons & Coffeespoons” is “Afternoons will be measured out, measured out, measured with coffeespoons and T.S. Elliot,” which, in addition to the name drop, refers to Prufrock in Eliot’s lines: “Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Further overlap: the song’s music video features lead singer Brad Roberts getting operated on, a reference to Eliot’s line “Like a patient etherized upon a table”; and the song’s repeated lyric “someday I’ll have a disappearing hairline,” calling to mind Prufrock’s thought about his thinning hair.

5. The Stranger by Albert Camus inspired “Killing an Arab” by The Cure

The Cure’s first single, according to Robert Smith, “was a short poetic attempt at condensing my impression of the key moments in L’Étranger.” The lyrics, like the book, describe the shooting of an Arab on a beach. Because of the track’s controversial history, the band changed the song to “Kissing an Arab” during its 2005 revival, and even performed the song as “Killing an Ahab” in 2011, with lyrics inspired by Melville.

6. Perfume by Patrick Süskind inspired “Scentless Apprentice” by Nirvana

Patrick Süskind’s story of a man with a superhuman sense of smell who begins murdering women to create the perfect scent had direct influence on Nivrana’s “Scentless Apprentice,” which includes lyrics like “His smell smelled like no other” and “There are countless formulas for pressing flowers.” Another link: both Süskind’s character and Nirvana’s “apprentice” have no inherent body odor. Perfume was one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite books, and he had read it multiple times by the time “Scentless Apprentice” debuted on 1993′s In Utero.

7. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley inspired “China in Your Hand” by T’Pau

T’Pau’s 1987 #1 hit has more obvious nods to Frankenstein like the line “And we could make the monster live again” and “Now life will return in this electric storm,” but about the song’s title, writer Carol Decker said:

“I was watching a documentary on the whole Mary Shelley and Byron and Keats gang and was enthralled by how, at 19, she outsold both noted poets. But her success caused much dissent and jealousy in her marriage and friendships, so created her own monster. It is a story within a story, be careful what you wish for in case you get it. Ronnie’s (Rogers – the band’s guitarist) mother gave us a china tea-set and if you lifted the cups up to the light you can see a woman’s face in the bottom. The cups were paper thin and so fragile when you held it in your hand. I guess subconsciously that’s how I got the title.”

8. “The River” by Flannery O’Connor inspired “The River” by PJ Harvey

Supposedly many of the songs on PJ Harvey’s album Is This Desire? have references to the works of Flannery O’Connor, and one of the most obvious is O’Connor’s story “The River” and Harvey’s song of the same name. The story, about a boy who is baptized by an evangelist, has little explicit connection with Harvey’s lyrics (which steer away from the specific), but rather the song tries to evoke the tone and spirit of O’Connor’s famous story.

9. Ulysses by James Joyce inspired “ReJoyce” by Jefferson Airplane

Everyone knows the connection between Alice and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” but the band also gave a nod to Ulysses with “ReJoyce.” The song becomes a meeting point for modernism and the psychedelic, beginning with lyrics like “You know you’ll be inside of my mind soon” before dropping in references to the book, including “Boylan’s crotch amazes” and “Mulligan stew for Bloom.”

10. Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo inspired “One” by Metallica

You may not realize it, but literature is well represented by metal bands. Iron Maiden alone has songs with references to the works of C.S. Lewis, Orson Scott Card, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Tennyson. Another literary metal band is Metallica, whose “For Whom the Bell Tolls” references Hemingway and “The Thing That Should Not Be” (and “The Call of Ktulu”) references Lovecraft. “One,” a seven-minute power ballad, is based on Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, with lyrics like “Fed through the tube that sticks in me just like a wartime novelty.” The music video features dialogue and scenes from the 1971 film version of Trumbo’s book.

42 thoughts on “10 Songs Inspired by Books

  1. Gary

    How about the name of the band Steely Dan coming from the book Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs? Anyone know who the character is in the book named Steely Dan?

    What about doing an article of Bands names based on classic literature??

  2. Woland

    Don’t forget “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones ,”Love and Destroy” by Franz Ferdinand, and “Pilate” by Pearl Jam, three amazing songs inspired by Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

  3. Greg

    This list suffers from incompletion without the inclusion of The Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil” inspired directly by Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.”

  4. Mori

    This list can not be ended without mentioning the Fascinating “Animal” album by Pink Floyd which was inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

  5. LooksThatKill

    The original title for “War and Peace” was “War–What Is It Good For?”. But then Tolstoy’s mistress didn’t like the title and insisted he change it to “War and Peace”. And we all know what happened next.

  6. The Stolen Dormouse

    Jefferson Airplane was quite literate (or perhaps literary). In addition to “White Rabbit”/Alice in Wonderland, and “ReJoyce”/Ullyses, there are also: “Crown of Creation”/Rebirth by John Wyndham; “The House at Pooneil Corners”/ a mad combination of Winnie the Pooh” and Eugene O’Neill; and “Wooden Ships”/ Short story “Shark Ship” by C.M. Kornbluth.

  7. CMP2763

    Also, The Beatles’ (specifically John) “I Am the Walrus” from Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” with, perhaps, a short nod to James Joyce.

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