From The Beatles to David Bowie: The 10 best songs inspired by books
Like all artists, musicians need inspiration sometimes. While we can all imagine that hitting our favourite bands or artists like a lightning bolt from Greek mythology, the chances are, most of your favourite songs were dreamt up in the most normal of circumstances. Sometimes when walking home, or driving through the country or maybe, just maybe, when reading your favourite book.
Books and music have always gone hand in hand. More often than not, to be a great lyricist, you need to have a good grasp of the literary world and be able to evoke similar feelings as the great novelists to have ever walked the planet. Sometimes, one of the easiest ways to achieve that is by using your favourite writers and their books as foundational inspiration for a song. Below, we’ve got our 10 favourite songs inspired by books.
John Lennon, Kate Bush, David Bowie, just three legendary artists who have all put the importance of books and reading directly into their songs. Using the written word as inspiration is a great point to start for any songwriter, after all, you are already gifted a basic narrative for your song. Other singers and songwriters, however, like to use these written scenarios as jumping off points to make new art.
Whichever way you cut it, it’s hard to avoid the inevitable crossover of books and music. While we’ve noticed a pretty dramatic decline of the parallel artforms integrating within a song, there’s no reason we can’t celebrate our favourite anyway. So, below, we’ve gathered up the best songs inspired by books.
10 best songs inspired by books:
‘Wuthering Heights’ – Kate Bush
Born on the same day as the author of Wuthering Heights’ EmilyBrontë, albeit over 100 years apart, Bush had an affinity with the written word that would permeate all her songs. But none more so than this record breaker (making Bush the first female to write and record a chart-topping single), which saw Bush take Bronte’s characters into the modern world.
The song was written in 1977 when “There was a full moon, the curtains were open and it came quite easily,” Bush told her fan club in 1979. Bush lifted lines straight from Brontë’s work as she used Earnshaw’s plea “Let me in! I’m so cold” among other quotations from the novel. It’s clear that Bush truly connected with the song, and in fact, the novel too. She told Record Mirror in 1978, “Great subject matter for a song. I loved writing it. It was a real challenge to precis the whole mood of a book into such a short piece of prose.”
Bush continued, “Also when I was a child I was always called Cathy not Kate and I just found myself able to relate to her as a character. It’s so important to put yourself in the role of the person in a song. There’s no half measures. When I sing that song I am Cathy. (Her face collapses back into smiles.) Gosh, I sound so intense. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is so important to me. It had to be the single. To me, it was the only one.”
‘One’ – Metallica
Metallica may not be the first band you think of when the term ‘anti-war’ crosses your mind but their tribute to Dalton Trumbo on ‘One’, shows they align with the message of his 1939 novel. The story, written about a young soldier in the First World War who loses his arms, legs, eyes, tongue and face, still surviving through his mind, is a troubling one.
It’s a harrowing book and that seems like something Metallica can be a part of. The book was turned into a film in 1971 with the Vietnam War phoned in to make the visuals a little more relevant. Hetfield, Hammet and Ulrich took the novel as their inspiration and wrote this 1988 song which, during the video, included clips of the movie. It’s the perfect partnership of artist and art.
‘I Am the Walrus’ – The Beatles
Lennon was quick to lean heavily on his inspirations when writing songs and the words for ‘I Am The Walrus’ leapt right up from the page. The song was directly inspired by the work of Lewis Carroll and sees Lennon use an allegory to create a mystifying point. “Walrus is just saying a dream,” recalled John in his infamous 1980 interview with Playboy. Like many dreams, the song is actually a composite of a few different themes.
In the same 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon confirmed: “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend. The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko… I’d seen Allen Ginsberg and some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus going on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words ‘Element’ry penguin’ meant that it’s naïve to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol.”
It sees Lennon put down on paper the fuzzy drug-fuelled sessions that underwrote the band’s output at this time and also showed that songs don’t necessarily have to mean anything to be considered great.
‘Pet Sematary’ – Ramones
OK, so this one is a bit of a cheat as rather than being inspired by the Stephen King horror novel of the same name, this Ramones track was written and recorded for the film adaptation of the book, meaning that you don’t have to imagine Johnny and Joey Ramone sitting down to read anything.
The eighties were a crazy decade for the Ramones, ending with Dee Dee leaving the group. However, before he did, the acclaimed novelist and supreme Ramones fan, Stephen King, asked if the group would write a theme song for the film adaptation of his bestselling horror novel Pet Sematary.
What transpired is one of the band’s few commercial hits and added as a nice ending note to finish the hellish decade for the group. Still, though it may not have been a great time to be a Ramone, it’s hard to ignore the punch and the push of this classic punk track.
‘Sympathy for the Devil’ – The Rolling Stones
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita had a hand in the writing of one of The Rolling Stones’ greatest songs. The book revolves around Satan paying a visit to the Soviet Union hinted at with lines like: “I stuck around St. Petersburg/When I saw it was a time for a change/ Killed the czar and his ministers/Anastasia screamed in vain.” However, Jagger has also suggested the song was inspired by another writer, “I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong.”
The ‘Brown Sugar’ singer added during the 1995 interview with Rolling Stone: “Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can’t see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.”
‘Colony’ – Joy Division
Ian Curtis’ short time on this planet was divided between two real loves: music and literature. The Joy Division singer, who sadly took his own life in 1980, was an avid reader and made it a point to include literary references throughout his work with the band. It means, searching through their canon you will find references to J.G. Ballard, ‘Nikolai Gogol and this the great Franz Kafka.
The latter is represented in this track from the abnd’s final album Closer. Titled ‘Colony’ the song is a direct reference to Kafka’s 1914 short story by the name of In The Penal Colony. The song is naturally dark and filled with menace, something both Kafka and Curtis were able to pull from their souls within a moment’s notice.
‘Killing An Arab’ – The Cure
A band’s debut single says a lot about them and The Cure’s ‘Killing An Arab’ does it very succinctly. The track has always had a contentious journey, the title alone brought criticisms for promoting violence against Muslims and today feels a little crass, to say the least. However, the content of the song is largely rooted in the fictitious world Albert Camus creates in his novel The Stranger and sees the song’s protagonist reflecting the life of Camus’ own Mersault, all backed by Persian guitar patterns.
Robert Smith called the song “a short poetic attempt at condensing my impression of the key moments in L’Étranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus”. So if a debut single tells us a lot, from the release we know that The Cure were set to be controversial, educated and poetic at every turn they could.
‘Scentless Apprentice’ – Nirvana
In Utero, Nirvana’s third and final LP, Cobain pays tribute to one of his favourite books of all time, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murder. It’s a historical horror novel which follows a perfumer’s apprentice whose super-sense of smell alienates him from those around him.
The book would accompany Cobain on many tours and directly inspired the song ‘Scentless Apprentice’ from 1993’s seminal album In Utero. “I’ve read Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, about ten times in my life and I can’t stop reading it. It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time, it just doesn’t leave me.” Cobain was quoted as saying.
“I promise not to sell your perfumed secrets / There are countless formulas for pressing flowers,” sings Cobain on the song, allowing his devotion to the book to shine through.
‘Ramble On’ – Led Zeppelin
Taken from the iconic sophomore album Led Zeppelin II, the album the quartet released in 1969, the vision for ‘Ramble On’ was one of fantasy from Robert Plant. The singer, like many other artists his age, had become inspired by the work of fantasy fiction writer J.R.R. Tolkein and with the track makes reference to its impact on him.
The singer used moments throughout the lyrics to express his connection, lines like “the darkest depths of Mordor” and “Gollum and the evil one” are both doffs of the caps to the writer. It’s a section of lyrics that Plant later confessed to being a little bit embarrassed about.
One of Zeppelin’s more obviously joyous songs, the upbeat tone of the cut is perfectly complimented by guitarist Jimmy Page’s silky solo which saunters in around the one minute 47-second mark. It swirls and spirals like a magician’s spell and there is something entirely hypnotic about it, something we’re sure Tolkein would have been more than a big fan of.
‘1984’ – David Bowie
Most of David Bowie’s songs have some literary sense attached to them. For a long while, Bowie only ever composed his songs using the lyric technique of William S. Burroughs known as the ‘cut-up’ method, whereby lots of different words are cut up and then joined together at random to help spark the imagination. However, there is one book which clearly had an influence on Bowie in a far more robust way.
After Bowie had killed off his own storied creation in Ziggy Stardust, he tried to have a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 made before Orwell’s widow blocked the idea. Instead, Bowie had to settle for paying homage to Orwell with a song from his 1974 album Diamond Dogs.
“They’ll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air / And tell that you’re eighty, but brother, you won’t care/Beware the savage jaw of 1984,” sings Bowie with his head full of ideas and his heart desperately trying to provide a warning for the future. It’s one of Bowie’s better songs on the album and speaks highly of an artist devoted to reading.