“There’s more to life than books, you know,” Morrissey once sang, “but not much more.” It’s the reason musicians, least of all Moz, with his nods to Keats, Yates and co, have always looked to novelists and poets for inspiration. Here’s 30 of our favourite songs inspired by books. If we’ve missed your favourite, indie bookworms, you know where to find us.
Wild Beasts, ‘Bed Of Nails’: “O, Ophelia, I feel yer fall, our love, Frankenstein in nature and design, like the Shellys on their very first time,” reads the lyric sheet to ‘Smother’ standout ‘Bed Of Nails’, weaving Shakespeare’s Hamlet into Mary Shelly’s iconic horror tale. “When our bodies become electrified, together we bring this creature to life… it’s alive!”
Bright Eyes, ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves’: Conor Oberst’s wily folk is littered with so many nods to literary greats, it’s hard to pick a favourite. His tip of the hat to Edgar Allan Poe’s gloomy ‘Annabel Lee’ on ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves’ probably best surmises the warm romance at the heart of his songwriting though: “to love and be loved!” he screams over a raucous electric guitar meltdown.
Regina Spektor, ‘Poor Little Rich Boy’: Spektor aims a stinging barb at coffee shop yuppies via mentions of classic novelists on whipsmart early track ‘Poor Little Rich Boy’: “You’re reading Fitzgerald/you’re reading Hemmingway/They’re both super smart and drinking in the cafes.”
Belle and Sebastian, ‘Just A Modern Rock Song’: Not only were Stuart Murdoch’s band named after a famous French novel about a boy and his dog living in a small Alps mountain village, but ‘Just A Modern Rock Song’ namedrops some literary big-hitters: “I’m not as sad as Dostoevsky, I’m not as clever as Mark Twain, I only buy a book for the way that it looks/when I put it on the shelf again.”
Titus Andronicus, ‘Albert Camus’: Patrick Stickles’ group are named after a Shakespeare work, but the literary references don’t end there: 2009’s ‘The Airing Of Grievances’ featured passages from Albert Camus’ The Stranger. The album title, FYI, was borrowed from Seinfeld. It’s not often Seinfeld and Camus rub shoulders.
Nirvana, ‘Scentless Apprentice’: Perfume by Patrick Suskind was Cobain’s favourite novel, and the inspiration behind the tale of a man with no sense of smell on this ‘In Utero’ gem: “It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time. It just doesn’t leave me,” Cobain revealed. “Cause I’m a hypochondriac, it just affects me – makes me want to cut off my nose.”
MF DOOM, ‘Born Like’: Masked rap agitator Doom’s ‘Born Like’ begins with a Bukowski passage: “Born like this/into this/as the chalk faces smile, as Mrs. Death laughs/as political landscapes dissolve/as the oily fish spit out their oily prey/we are born like this, into this/into hospitals that are too expensive that it is cheaper to die.”
Bob Dylan, ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’: Zimmerman’s a literary savant, across his career riffing on Chekov short stories (the inspiration for ‘Blood on the Tracks’), Divine Comedy writer Dante Alighieri and Kerouac. This ode to Fitzgerald wins it for us, though: “With great lawyers you have/discussed lepers and crooks/you’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books/You’re very well read.”
Ryan Adams, ‘Sylvia Plath’: “I wish I had a Sylvia Plath/Busted tooth and a smile/And cigarette ashes in her drink/The kind that goes out and then sleeps for a week,” goes Adams’ ‘Sylvia Plath’, a tender ode to the Boston-born writer’s free-spiritedness.
Million Dead, ‘Charlie and the Propaghanda Myth Machine’: Frank Turner’s finest moment as a lyricist? Depending on your politics, quite possibly. “Willy Wonka was a capitalist confidence trickster,” he sings on this Million Dead track, bringing out the darkness in Roald Dahl’s children’s classic. “And the BFG a propagandist for an unaccountable regime/Orwell’s vision with a wrinkled face.”
Blur, ‘Tender’: Damon Albarn cribbed the opening line to this 1999 gospel-tinted slowburn from the novel Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose title was in turn a quotation from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.
Mastodon, ‘I Am Ahab’: A sprawling down-tuned bruiser-metal spin on Herman Melville’s iconic Moby Dick? It sounds outlandish, but that’s exactly what Mastodon delivered with 2004’s epic ‘Leviathan’, with song titles including ‘Iron Tusk’, ‘Blood and Thunder’, ‘I Am Ahab’ and ‘Seabeast’.
Neutral Milk Hotel, ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’: Jeff Magnum’s untouchable cult classic was sparked by vivid dreams of Anne Frank after reading the diary of the young Jewish girl, who died at the hands of the Nazis. Lines like “Anna’s ghost all around/Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me” on this opener are telling of how possessed Magnum was by her haunting memoirs.
The Beatles, ‘I Am The Walrus’: “If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body; and give the letters which thou find’st about me to Edmund Earl of Gloucester/Seek him out upon the British party: O, untimely death!” Snuck into Lennon’s weirdo torch song is a verse lifted from Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Oasis, ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’: Here’s a classic pub quiz bit of trivia – what connects Noel Gallagher to David Bowie? Well, Noel Gallagher swiped the title of John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back In Anger for this Britpop anthem. The play was also the inspiration for a song on David Bowie’s 1979 album ‘Lodger.’ There you have it.
Sonic Youth, ‘Schizophrenia’: Sonic Youth’s 1987 LP ‘Sister’ was inspired by the life and times of sci-fi hero Philip K. Dick. This opener track, and the LP’s title, was a reference to Dick’s twin, who died shortly after birth and whose memory drove Dick to the brink of insanity: “She said Jesus had a twin who knew nothing about sin/She was laughing like crazy at the trouble I’m in.”
The Antlers, ‘Sylvia’: Another tribute to the macabre, poetic prose of Sylvia Plath, as the band imagine saving the doomed author: “Sylvia, get your head out of the oven/go back to screaming and cursing.”
Led Zeppelin, ‘Ramble On’: “‘Twas 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.” Zep’s proggy epics were threaded with tales riffing on Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings – none more so than the stunning ‘Ramble On’.
Metallica, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’: Cribbing from Hemingway’s novel of the same name, this Metallica staple, propelled by Cliff Burton’s famous bass line, shares the book’s dark sense of foreboding at the advent of modern warfare.
The Cure, ‘Killing Of An Arab’: Robert Smith’s one high-brow bookworm, and over the years The Cure have made literary nods to highfaluting writers including French poet Charles Baudelaire and ‘Gormenghast’ writer Mervyn Peake. Top of the class, though, is ‘Killing Of An Arab’: a dangerous, dark thing inspired by Albert Camus’ disturbing novel ‘The Stranger’ (him again).
The Velvet Underground, ‘Venus In Furs’: Lou Reed’s the original rock’n’roll poet, so it figures that no song would be enough for he and his bandmates to use for inspiration: The Velvet Underground stole their whole name from Michael Leigh’s book of the same title, which explored sexual subcultures in the 1960s.
Alt-J, ‘Breezeblocks’: Heading for the kids’ section rather than the boring old grown-up tomes, Alt-J’s standout single ‘Breezeblocks’ borrows heavily from Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic ‘Where The Wild Things Are’, in which a bunch of rough-but-lovable animals threaten cannibalism: “Please don’t go, we’ll eat you whole, we love you so!”
Sufjan Stevens, ‘Come On! Feel The Illinoise’: Detroit musical chameleon Sufjan drops a nod to Chicago’s three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Carl Sandburg over weeping violins: “I cried myself to sleep last night, and the ghost of Carl, he approached my window/I was hypnotized/I was asked to improvise on the attitude/the regret/of a thousand centuries of death.”
Kate Bush, ‘Wuthering Heights’: We couldn’t not include this, could we? Arguably the finest literary-referencing song of all time, Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ retells the doomed romance of Heathcliff and Cathy from Emily Bronte’s novel of the same name. “Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home!” shrieked Bush, mimicking a ghost outside of her lover’s window.
Lana Del Rey, ‘Off To The Races’: Lana’s ‘Ultraviolence’ borrowed its name from Anthony Burgess’s cult classic ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but she’s also made numerous references to ‘Lolita’ author Vladmir Nabakov, too: ‘Off To The Races’ references the beastly Humbert Humbert’s seduction patter with the lines: “light of my life, fire of my loins, be a good baby do what I want.”
Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’: Steinbeck’s Great Depression novel ‘Grapes Of Wrath’ introduced the world to the down-on-his-luck figure Tom Joad. And The Boss took the character and ran with it on hard-times anthem ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’ as he conjures an image of downtrodden despair: “Welcome to the new world order, families sleeping in the cars in the southwest…”
Radiohead, ‘2+2=5’: Thom Yorke and co channel the unease, aggression, confusion and dystopian nightmare of George Orwell’s seminal ‘1984’ in ‘2+2=5’; a shorthand way of explaining how the truth is whatever those in charge want it to be, and how rules can be bent to serve those in power.
Manic Street Preachers, ‘Faster’: “I spat out Plath and Pinter,” spits james Dean Bradfield on the Manics’ classic ‘Faster’: a comment on the chew-and-regurgitate emptiness of 20th century culture as two literary heavyweights are reduced to tasteless, meaningless mush.
Joy Division, ‘Atrocity Exhibition’: Ian Curtis’ most striking literary nod has to be ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, with its allusions to JG Ballard. Ballard’s novel is a strange collage of gruesome images, and Curtis gets right to the guts of feeling like a wretched curio: “Asylums with doors open wide, where people had paid to see inside/ For entertainment they watch his body twist.”
Klaxons, ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’: The nu-rave bunch were big fans of Ballard, too – the title of their album ‘Myths Of The Near Future’ came from a collection of his short stories – but they also tackled the baffling (and brilliant) ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ by Thomas Pynchon too: a book about weapons, technology, arms races and high-and-low culture with “all ships of sense on hyper ocean.”