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From Patti Smith to Dead Kennedys: 5 books that inspired classic punk songs

The world of music is full of stereotypes. It almost seems that as soon as a scene crops up, it becomes imbued with a set of connations and assumptions the musicians and fans have no real control over. When artists like The Clash and The Ramones burst onto the scene in the 1970s, the connotations surrounding punk spread like wildfire. And today, it’s almost impossible to tell which of those associations is slander and which may actually have been a tenant of punk philosophy. However, what is clear is that punk was influenced by more than a desire to rock the musical establishment.

Punk and literature might not seem like the most obvious pairing in the world. For many, punk came to represent the nihilistic abandonment of everything the establishment held dear, and that includes reading. But anyone who tells you that punk is just angry teenagers screeching, let’s be honest, is a moron. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Because punk was more than that, it was – and is – a rich tapestry of influences from art, politics and, notably, literature.

In fact, many principles of the punk movement were inspired by the work of a group of avant-garde artists and writers known as the situationists. Malcolm Mclaren has often cited the situationists as a major influence, and bands like The Sex Pistols and Bow Wow Wow were initially based around the group’s principles. So clearly, the punk’s were thinking on their feet, using writings like Guy Debord’s Theatre of the Spectacle to inject life and controversy into the arid musical landscape. 

In this list, we’ll be looking at five books that inspired Punk songs.

5 books that inspired classic punk songs:

Pet Sematary – The Ramones

From their 1989 album Brain Drain, The Ramones’ Pet Sematary was written specifically for the film adaptation of Steven King’s novel of the same name. King was always a massive fan of The Ramones and eventually invited the band to his home in Maine, as they were performing nearby.

During their visit, King handed Dee Dee a copy of Pet Semetary, who promptly disappeared to King’s basement to consume the novel. A few hours later, he returned with the lyrics to the song which would become one of the band’s biggest hits and a staple of their live set.

A Choice of Kipling’s Verse – ‘A Pict Song’ by Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg is renowned for his leftist politics, so it comes as no surprise that he chose to set a sample of Rudyard Kipling’s verse to music in ‘A Pict Song’.

In it, Bragg sings of the power ordinary people have to change the status quo and to rise up against oppressive governments. Kipling’s original verse spoke of his experiences in British-ruled India and bemoans the strife of its conquered population.

Bragg, however, twists the piece to speak of the crippling North-South divide and the ignorance of the elite. He sings of the power of “the little people” and how, together, they can “take down the state”.

The Wild Boys – ‘Land’ by Patti Smith

Known lovingly as the ‘Godmother of Punk’, Patti Smith was a poet first and a musician second, often using music as a setting for her spoken-word works. In ‘Land’ Smith makes her love for literature very clear, dropping references to her favourite poets left, right, and centre.

Of course, Patti Smith knew Alan Ginsberg personally. Ginsberg was one of the Beat Generation poets who, alongside Kerouac and Burroughs, gave birth to a stream-of-consciousness style of poetry that blended the aesthetics of jazz improvisation with the principles of eastern philosophy. ‘Land’ follows ‘Johnny’, a character from Burroughs’ novel The Wild Boys after a violent altercation in a locker room, capturing the grit of Burroughs’ book perfectly.

A Clockwork Orange – ‘Horrorshow’ by Scars

The influence of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange on punk aesthetics cannot be underplayed. With its representation of scornful teenagers prowling around town, causing destruction, the book and Kubrick’s subsequent film perfectly captured everything punk wanted to achieve – to shock the world into life; to burn it down and start again.

The Scars song ‘Horrowshow’ was written as a tribute to the book’s central character Alex and is written in ‘Nadsat’, the language which he uses to communicate with his gang.

1984 – ‘California Über Alles’ by Dead Kennedys

The idea of characters living within a dystopian world was immensely relatable for many punks throughout the 1970s and ’80s. So, it’s unsurprising that George Orwell’s book 1984 was so widely read at that time.

With ‘California Über Alles’, Dead Kennedys used Orwell’s vision of society to comment on the homogenisation of the liberal mind. Dead Kennedys used the song as a criticism of the then-senator of California, Jerry Brown, lamenting his desire to have every white liberal voter thinking the same thoughts and recycling the same opinions. Watch your step, Dead Kennedys seem to say, because “Big bro on white horse is near”.