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From Kate Bush to The Beatles: Five songs inspired by James Joyce

Not only is James Joyce responsible for typifying modern Ireland, but he’s also responsible for championing the literary movement colloquially known as “internal monologue”. And although internal monologues don’t make for the most accessible of literature for the more intermittent reader, it fits the world of pop almost perfectly.

Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of artists too numerous to mention in this piece, who have borrowed from the Irish scribe. Buzzcocks frontman Steve Diggle likens his writing to the cinematic medium, and Leonard Cohen felt captivated by the minimalism Joyce used during the close part of ‘The Dead’.

He’s more modern than Yeats, more intimate than Wilde, yet he’s steeped with an intellectual acumen that is comparable to Doyle and Shaw. In another age, Joyce would have been the elusive rockstar, the Barrett to Wilde’s Bowie. But he didn’t live in the world of pop: he lived in a more novel one.

This list offers a sampling of songs that were inspired, directly or otherwise, by the author himself. It pivots from The Beatles into more contemporary dance-oriented pop. And each of them honours the writer in their own idiosyncratic manner.

Five songs inspired by James Joyce:

5. U2 – ‘Breathe’

Fitting for a band that grew up in James Joyce’s hometown, U2 have referenced the author’s work in a variety of manners. Bono compared New York rocker Lou Reed, delivered a thoughtful eulogy to the writer in Nice, and with ‘Breathe’, he makes an overt reference to the date that centres Ulysses almost entirely: 16th June. 

It’s the first thing he belts out, polishing the song with a series of blinding events that brings nausea, confusion and mania to the forefront. Rather than celebrate the day as a true evocation of Irish pride (this writer would prefer it if the Irish diaspora enjoyed Bloomsday instead of St.Patrick’s Day), the track embodies an urgency that’s in keeping with the fast-paced frenzy of Joyce’s work. 

The track is also notable for boasting some of The Edge’s most primal, uncontrollable display of guitar exhibition. Indeed, it was the London-born musician who came up with the music for the track, having been inspired by Jimmy Page’s riveting guitar performance on It Might Get Loud

4. Kate Bush – ‘Flower Of the Mountain’

Although Joyce prided himself as an internationalist, his books were based entirely in Ireland. And although there aren’t many people in Ireland who have read his entire catalogue – scarcely even parts of it – his status as an icon is much grander there than the position normally allotted to a celebrity of some repute. In some ways, to paraphrase John Lennon, he’s bigger than Jesus in Ireland.

Kate Bush is of mixed British and Irish parentage, and while ‘Wuthering Heights’ defined the great works of her native England, ‘Flower of The Mountain’ serves as her way to pay tribute to her mother’s country. She revealed to Gay Byrne that her mother grew up in Waterford, a county that had also produced vaudeville darling Gilbert O’Sullivan, and 1960s heart-throb Val Doonican, a particular favourite of lonely housewives across the English plains. 

Inexplicably, Bush was initially denied permission to write a song about Molly Bloom, the wistful wife who spends her days agonising over the fading days of youth. “Well, I’m not James Joyce am I?” Bush reasoned. “When I came to work on this project I thought I would ask for permission again and this time they said yes. It is now re-titled ‘Flower Of the Mountain’ and I am delighted that I have had the chance to fulfil the original concept.”

3. The Beatles – ‘I Am The Walrus’

A precocious writer from an early age, John Lennon’s literary aspirations were fully realised on the excellent In His Own Write, a charmingly-eccentric collection of vignettes that served as the first solo project any Beatle issued. Inspired by Irish comic Spike Milligan, Lennon claimed that In His Own Write was his answer to The Goon Show, although he must have been flattered when critics compared his work to that of the Irish laureate. 

Lennon was wary of combining his nonsensical prose into The Beatles sphere, but he wowed by Bob Dylan’s efforts, Lennon channelled his inner comic on the band’s startling ‘I Am The Walrus’, a tune that was foolishly thrown onto the flipside of the risible ‘Hello Goodbye‘. 

Edward Lear’s work was another obvious contributor, and Lennon seemed more comfortable acknowledging the influence of the Alice in Wonderland author to Joyce. Yet his work exhibited a similarly dispirited sense of entanglement to the characters in Finnegan’s Wake, which likely explains why a copy of the book appears in the ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ video. 

2. Grace Slick – ‘Rejoyce’

John Lennon and Bono were subtle with their allusions, Kate Bush was a bit more overt, and then there’s Grace Slick who literally throws the writer’s name into the chorus of her piercing tune. Sympathising with Leopold Bloom’s predicament as “The only Jew in the room”, Slick turns the parable into a damning critique on American values. Ireland holds a vanishingly small Jewish contingent, leading director Lenny Abrahamson to joke he was “Ireland’s third most famous Jewish son”.

‘Rejoyce’ can be heard on After Bathing at Baxter’s, forming the concluding part to the probing suite, ‘Hymn to an Older Generation’. Rock had become synonymous with the teenagers that frequented the live circuit, yet 1967 was also the juncture where rock and literature were forming an allegiance, creating a collection of formidable, even intellectual, works. 

In keeping with her surname, the vocalist writes with slick, sharp attention to detail. The tune is rife with commentary, every piece tuned to the changing landscapes unfolding before her eyes. And although the characters belonged to a Dubliner, the tune, and the message that goes with it, belonged to Jefferson Airplane. 

1. Franz Ferdinand – ‘Ulysses’

This one’s interesting, as it seems Franz Ferdinand are borrowing as much from the original Homeric text, as they are paying direct homage to the dream-like novel. In its purest form, the Odyssey represented the spiritual journey of a wayward voyager, sent into his personal exile and forced to undergo a journey that can only end with personal acceptance. It serves as a richly written metaphor for anyone embracing the change within their personal lives, so it was only fitting that Joyce should name his great mosaic of Ireland’s greatest city after it. 

The Franz Ferdinand tune is a different property, considering that the turmoil seems to stem from an unfinished smoke wafting through the skies. It’s possible to discern from the track a youthfulness and buoyancy that is driven by a desire and a need for completion. Sure, they skip on the sirens luring wayward sailors to their doom, but the Scottish rockers drive the point home, backed by a thumping drum beat and spikey guitar lines. 

There’s no doubt that other rock artists will channel Joyce in the near future, considering his kinetic approach to writing, as well as his sharp wit. Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake might be too dense for readers unfamiliar with this kaleidoscopic association of ideas, but Portrait of The Artist as A Young Man will appeal to more casual buyers looking for a light read on the beach.