What could be better than spending a few hours with a great album on a long winter evening? Spending a few hours with a great album and a great book! Of course, it may seem that no one actually reads books anymore, endlessly glued to their phones instead, but, hey, you’re reading now, so why not take that extra step? Maybe you could even start with a book that inspired one of your favorite songs. And there are many from which to choose, classic songs that have drawn upon classic novels.
The following is just a small selection of these works, and many of them you may already know. But if you’ve heard the song and have yet to read the book, then why not dive in? And vice versa. Before you know it, it will be spring again…
1. Jefferson Airplane “White Rabbit”
Employing imagery from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and its sequel Through The Looking Glass, “White Rabbit” was reportedly written by Grace Slick at the tail end of an acid trip, and has since become synonymous with the use of hallucinogens, regularly used in drug scenes in movie soundtracks. Slick, however, insisted that the song was aimed at hypocritical parents, who would read such drug-fueled tales to their children and then wonder why they took drugs: “Alice In Wonderland is blatant,” she told writer Mark Paytress. “Eat me! She gets literally high, too big for the room. Drink me! The caterpillar is sitting on a psychedelic mushroom smoking opium!”
2. Clutch “The Rapture Of Riddley Walker”
It’s no great secret that Clutch frontman Neil Fallon is among the best rock lyricists of modern times, nor that he is incredibly well read, often finding inspiration in his favorite books. Needless to say, “The Rapture Of Riddley Walker” draws heavily from Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic science fiction novel Riddley Walker, first published in 1980. “It’s a tough read at first,” admitted Fallon. “A good deal of the narration is a phonetic version of English spoken many centuries after a nuclear holocaust, (where) England, and presumably the world, has fallen into another dark age.” As such, the lyrics at first glance appear to be largely gibberish, but as Fallon says, “Read the book. It will explain everything.”
3. Bad Religion “Boot Stamping On A Human Face Forever”
Not surprisingly, there are countless songs that have been inspired by the George Orwell masterpiece 1984, with its grimly prophetic vision of a future that had yet to become reality. Indeed, it would be easy to compile an entire list of tunes – from Bowie’s “1984” and Subhumans’ “Big Brother” to Radiohead’s “2 + 2 = 5” – that reference the book in some way. And lets not forget Eurythmics’ soundtrack to the movie, with such titles as “Doubleplusgood” and “Winston’s Diary.” Perhaps the most stark interpretation, however, comes from L.A. punks Bad Religion, with its abbreviation of the line “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
4. Dead Prez “Animal In Man”
From the 2000 debut album, Let’s Get Free, from hip hop duo Dead Prez, “Animal In Man” is largely a retelling of that other George Orwell classic, Animal Farm, first published in 1945. As such, it sticks to the plot of the book until a revisionist character called Hannibal attempts to re-organize the society into a class system, at which point the animals revolt, taking out Hannibal’s tongue before cutting him up for sale. Possibly the name Hannibal is a reference to the Thomas Harris trilogy about Hannibal Lecter. Or maybe it just rhymes with ‘animal’.
5. The Strokes “Soma”
Another dystopian future – and there seems to be no other kind – to have inspired a number of songs is that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, first published in 1932, and foretelling such scientific advancements as genetic engineering and ‘sleep-learning’. Soma is the happiness-inducing drug employed to suppress emotions (and in one instance for riot control), referenced in the opening line of this Stokes track from the 2001 album Is This It. “Soma is what they would take when hard times opened their eyes.” It is also the name of an instrumental song by Deadmau5, while elsewhere we find tracks by Iron Maiden and Motörhead entitled “Brave New World.” Incidentally, another book by Huxley, The Doors Of Perception, was abbreviated in giving its name to a well known L.A. band. Er, The Doors, in case you were wondering.
6. Guns N Roses “Catcher In The Rye”
Opinion is divided as to whether J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye is a classic tale of teen angst and alienation, or a rather dull story about an over-privileged rich kid being a bit of a dick. Either way, the 1951 novel has had a vast influence on music, not least in its association with the murder of John Lennon in December 1980, which is the concern of this track from Guns N Roses’ Chinese Democracy album. “The outro is a tribute to Lennon,” Axl Rose told Blabbermouth, “and an indictment of the author for writing what I feel is utter garbage and I agree wholeheartedly that it should be discontinued as required reading in schools.” Not a fan, then.
7. Ice Cube “Dr. Frankenstein”
Over 200 years after it was initially published (in 1818), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein continues to create monsters of its own, inspiring literally hundreds of songs, from Alice Cooper’s “Teenage Frankenstein” and Rob Zombie’s “Jesus Frankenstein” to the Misfits’ “Ghost Of Frankenstein,” the Crystals’ “Frankenstein Twist,” and even Metallica’s “Some Kind Of Monster.” On the autobiographical “Dr. Frankenstein,” from Ice Cube’s War & Peace: Vol. 1, we find the former NWA rapper reveling in his role as a postmodern Victor Frankenstein: “They call me, ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Hated’. Gettin’ liberated by this monster I created.” To his credit, Cube is one of the few people who doesn’t confuse the doctor with his creation.
8. Led Zeppelin “Ramble On”
Led Zeppelin are far from being the only band who pilfered a thing or two from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings – Rush, Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath being among the others – but Zeppelin are by far the most obsessive, with at least four songs based on the book. That said, with lyrics like, “‘T was in the darkest depths of Mordor. I met a girl so fair. But Gollum, and the evil one. Crept up and slipped away with her,” one has to wonder if they actually read it. There are plenty of nasty orcses in Mordor, but a girl so fair? Hmm… don’t recall that bit.
9. Killer Mike “Willie Burke Sherwood”
The album sleeve for 2012’s R.A.P. Music by American hip hop artist Killer Mike, bears graffiti artwork with the words ‘Readers of Books. Leaders of Crooks’, the former demonstrated by the penultimate song “Willie Burke Sherwood,” in which Mike compares his upbringing to William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies. “I knew that the weak and the meek couldn’t make it in the street. Had to assert yourself to survive. So I convinced myself it was better for me. To be Jack in the Lord of the Flies.” He further adds that “that’s why Simon and Piggy died. Ralph survives, but he lives changed.” We also find Iron Maiden at it again, with a song called “Lord Of The Flies,” although one imagines that Bruce Dickinson’s childhood was rather less troublesome.
10. Kate Bush “Wuthering Heights”
Written in March 1977 and released as her debut single in November of that year, Kate Bush’s biggest hit takes its inspiration, as the title suggests, from the Emily Bronte novel of the same name. Considered by the singer to be “the ultimate love story”, the song is sung from the perspective of the female protagonist Cathy Earnshaw, and quotes her dialogue in the chorus. Having discovered that she shared her birthday with the author, Bush noted other synchronicities, such as the fact that Bronte was in the advanced stages of consumption when she wrote the book, and Bush had a bad cold when writing. Although, with the greatest respect, having the sniffles is hardly the same as dying from Tuberculosis.
11. Radiohead “Paranoid Android”
Aside from referencing Orwell’s 1984 with the aforementioned “2 + 2 = 5,” Radiohead also give a nod to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy in this track from 1997’s OK Computer album, which takes its name from Marvin The Paranoid Android. According to vocalist Thom Yorke, the title was chosen as a joke, due to Marvin being terminally depressed, while the lyrics concern themselves with an unpleasant evening at an L.A. bar, where Yorke became surrounded by strangers high on cocaine. And possibly drunk on Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters. Life! Don’t talk to them about life!