The Best Songs Inspired By Books
Illustration by Mr Angelo Trofa
Our top five literature-influenced tunes.
Recording an iconic album is much like writing a classic novel – both take patience, skill and an abundance of original ideas. It’s little surprise, then, that authors and musicians look to each other for inspiration during the creation of their masterpieces. A quick perusal of the novelists who have appeared on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, including Messrs Roald Dahl, Robert Harris and Peter Ackroyd, reveals an overwhelming predilection for classical composers such as Messrs Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig Van Beethoven. Yet when you look at the poetry and literature that have inspired some of the greatest rock songs of the past 50 years, the selection is much more eclectic. Here, then, are five of MR PORTER’s favourite book-inspired records, along with an extended playlist of other legendary musical bookworms.
“Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush
Still her biggest selling song, Ms Kate Bush wrote the gothic pop classic “Wuthering Heights” when she was just 18. She shares the same birthday as author Ms Emily Brontë and sings the song from the perspective of the character Catherine Earnshaw, a ghost stuck in purgatory who seeks forgiveness from her former lover, Heathcliff. Released in 1978 on Ms Bush’s debut album The Kick Inside, the song’s haunting, swooping chorus still sounds bewitching after all these years.
“The Battle Of Evermore” by Led Zeppelin
When they weren’t using red snappers as sex toys and hanging around with satanists, Led Zeppelin liked nothing more than to get cosy in their mansions and read a bit of Mr JRR Tolkien. The artwork for their albums is directly inspired by Middle Earth imagery, and Mr Robert Plant can be heard singing about Ringwraiths, Mordor and Gollum on more than one occasion. “The Battle Of Evermore” was inspired by The Return Of The King, the final book in The Lord Of The Rings saga.
“White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane
In 1965, 100 years after Mr Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, a young singer called Ms Grace Slick turned the book into a counter-cultural anthem for the acid generation. The book told the story of a little girl who took a pill and drank some unknown liquid, which allowed her to access a fantasy world. Somehow sneaking it past the radio censors, Jefferson Airplane’s interpretation inspired millions of hippies to “follow their curiosity”. Coming full circle back to literature, the song was subsequently referenced in the legendary bath scene in Mr Hunter S Thompson’s narco novel Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Whether you believe in hookah-smoking caterpillars or not, we advise you to take a trip down Jefferson Airplane's musical rabbit hole at the earliest opportunity.
“Scentless Apprentice” by Nirvana
Mr Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of Perfume, a 1985 novel by Mr Patrick Süskind about a perfumer with hyperosmia, a condition that gives a person a strong sense of smell, but who has no body scent of their own. It inspired “Scentless Apprentice”, the second track on 1993’s In Utero. “I read it about 10 times in my life,” Mr Cobain said at the time. “It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time. It just doesn’t leave me ’cause I’m a hypochondriac [and] it just affects me, makes me want to cut off my nose.”
“2 + 2 = 5” by Radiohead
Mr George Orwell’s 1984 has been referenced by many musicians over the years, from Mr David Bowie to Muse. But it is Mr Thom Yorke’s modern interpretation of “doublethink” – an Orwellian term used to describe how authorities force the public to disregard logic under threat of death – that has haunted us the most. Released on Radiohead’s 2003 album Hail To The Thief, it was a searing commentary on an illogical system that won Mr George W Bush the American presidency. No doubt it’s going to get played a lot over the next four years, too.
Futher Reading And Listening
“Richard Cory” by Simon & Garfunkel Inspired by “Richard Cory”, a poem by Mr Edwin Arlington Robinson
“Venus In Furs” by The Velvet Underground Inspired by Venus In Furs by Mr Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch
“The River” by Ms PJ Harvey Inspired by The River by Ms Flannery O’Connor
“1984” by Mr David Bowie Inspired by 1984 by Mr George Orwell
“Cemetry Gates” by The Smiths Inspired by Messrs Oscar Wilde, John Keats, and WB Yeats
“A Picture Of Dorian Gray” by Television Personalities Inspired by The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Mr Oscar Wilde
“Atrocity Exhibition” by Joy Division Inspired by The Atrocity Exhibition by Mr JG Ballard
“Bananafishbones” by The Cure Inspired by “A Perfect Day For Bananafish”, a short story by Mr JD Salinger
“Soma” by The Strokes Inspired by Brave New World by Mr Aldous Huxley
“High Rise” by Hawkwind Inspired by High-Rise by Mr JG Ballard
“Warm Leatherette” by The Normal Inspired by Crash by Mr JG Ballard