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Music

From Lou Reed to Lana Del Rey: Five songs inspired by James Dean

@TomTaylorFO

“Dream as if you will live forever; Live as if you will die today.” – James Dean (1931-1955)

When Yukio Mishima, the Japanese novelist, actor and eternal enigma, was reflecting on the death of James Dean, he wrote: “The beautiful should die young, and everyone else should live as long as possible”. Detailing further, Mishima added: “Greek mythology tells of how Achilles was forced to choose between a long life void of glory and a glorious young death. Without flinching, he chose the latter. Surely all but the most prosaic men, if given the choice at the start of life, would do the same”.

Aside from the obviously dangerous and condemnable elements of his staunch statement, it does seem to contain within it the prognosis for punk. It was a movement determined to live fast and fated to die young. It looked like nothing the world had ever seen and was determined to avoid the beset of wrinkles. In 1955, pretty much at the birth of pop culture, James Dean embodied a character who seemed to have all of the tenets of punk already in place, when he starred as the collar-popped pretty-faced proto-punk Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause.

For millions of young movie-goers watching on agog, the film seemed to herald what novels like Catcher in the Rye had hinted at a few years earlier: kids wanted their own realistic stories. But kids also had their own ideals. They might not have been certain what these ideals were just yet, but they were certainly after something. James Dean gave a cool, commercial face to this notion of iconoclasm.

As such, Dean inspired a legion of onlookers who later worked his ways into their own youth movement in the pop culture explosion that changed the world forever. When that wellspring unfurled into the future, Dean remained relevant owing to his undeniable level of ‘cool’ and he has been reflected on ever since. We’ve collated five of the best tracks that he helped to inspire below. 

Five songs inspired by James Dean:

‘Walk On the Wild Side’ by Lou Reed

Art isn’t meant to be perfect, nevertheless, few works can claim to be as perfect as Lou Reed’s counterculture anthem ‘Walk On the Wild Side’. It is a song that you’ve likely heard a thousand times over, but invariable a moment springs out of the blue and it’s like you’re hearing it for the first time once more and the masterpiece dawns all over again—that is one of the finest feelings that music has to offer up. 

This notion of a single work of art as a vignette for a movement seems very befitting when it comes to James Dean. Reed uses Dean in the anthem as a way of embodying the adventurous side of pursuing individualism and braving the fringes of acceptability that you might be cast out to as a result. By the same token, Reed also explores the redaction of icons becoming archetypes. “Jackie is just speeding away, Thought she was James Dean for a day, Then I guess she had to crash Valium would have helped that bash,” is a perfect way of pointing a figure at figures of culture forming costumes that people simply slip on and off.

‘Blue Jeans’ by Lana Del Rey

As if to prove Lou Reed’s point, Lana Del Rey touched upon a similar notion. It would seem that Dean is such an incorporated symbol of American culture that most of us picture him in one single outfit like a cartoon character. With vintage American splendour soaring in the mix, the mention of Dean and his iconic look injects a simple dose of Hollywood into the song. 

Through his three starring film roles, Dean created the image of a travelling heartthrob and epitomised the modern view of Hollywood romanticism. Every element of Del Rey’s sultry track harnesses this as though she is the lover on the flipside of Dean’s hightailing ways. It is a mark of his impact on culture that the simple utterance of “like James Dean” summons so much without even having to think about it. 

‘Fade Away and Radiate’ by Blondie

‘Fade Away and Radiate’ might not mention James Dean but the line “Dusty frames that still arrive, die in 1955” give a hint at the star in question on Debbie Harry’s TV screen who is still illuminating the future long after his death on September 30th, 1955. As Dean once said himself in a worrying portent of his life: “If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live after he’s died, then maybe he was a great man. Immortality is the only true success.”

This eerie early Blondie anthem might be about falling asleep in front of the TV on the surface, that idea doubles up as a handy poetic metaphor for the lasting impact of pop culture. While in the song the TV beams might enter Harry’s dreams, in reality, the same could be said about the way that millions aspire to be like their pop culture heroes

‘Helicopter’ by Bloc Party

“Stop being so American,” Kele Okereke sings on the 2000s indie rock anthem ‘Helicopter’, “There’s a time and there’s a place, so James Dean, so blue jeans.” In doing so, he encapsulates the many Dean impersonators scattered around the world. We’ve all met one of these phoney toothpick chewers imitating a hero from half a century ago and getting nowhere near capturing his coolness. 

Bloc Party delivered this in a frenzied attack on fake Americanised culture and soundtracked the revival of British alternative music. With Matt Tong delivering a blitzkrieg of astounding drums, the song soars on Rebel Without a Cause energy in an almost ironic way and it still stands up today as an indie dancefloor filler.  

‘Electrolite’ by R.E.M.

In the piano-led ballad to Los Angeles that closed R.E.M.’s final record, Michael Stipe rattles through the cultural history of Hollywood and cements Dean as a cornerstone within it. “I name-check three of the great legends of that single industry ‘town,’ as it likes to refer to itself. In order: James Dean, Steve McQueen, Martin Sheen.”

Adding: “All iconic, all representing different aspects of masculinity—a key feature of 20th-century ideology. It is the push me-pull you of a culture drawing on mid-century ideas of society, butt up against and in a great tug-of-war with modernism/rebirth/epiphany/futurism, wiping out all that came before to be replaced by something ‘better,’ more civilized, more tolerant, fair, open, and so on …” It is a marvel that with only three films to his name Dean manages to summon such influence still to do this day. Whichever you look at it, Dean is an icon who heralded so much and encompasses multitudes.