20 songs that were inspired by classic books

9 August 2023, 11:23

Classic artists - and the classic books that inspired them: The Beatles, Metallica and Kate Bush.
Classic artists - and the classic books that inspired them: The Beatles, Metallica and Kate Bush. Picture: Science History Images/Keystone Press/Photo 12/Pictorial Press Ltd/heliography/Stockimo/Alamy Stock Photo

It's International Book Lovers Day on 9th August! Here's a selection of songs that pay homage to books, novels, anthologies and novellas.

  1. Metallica - One

    Dalton Trumbo's famous anti-war novel was written in 1939 about a young soldier in the First World War who is injured and loses his arms, legs, eyes, tongue, face… but his mind is still alert, leaving him trapped in a useless body to consider his fate.

    This harrowing book was turned into an equally harrowing film in 1971, when the Vietnam War made the story still relevant. Metallica took the novel as the inspiration for their 1988 track One, and included clips from the movie in the video, while Trumbo’s eventful life was made into a biopic starring Breaking Bad's Byran Cranston in 2015.

    Metallica - One [Official Music Video]

  2. Kate Bush - Wuthering Heights

    One of the most famous literary-influenced pop songs, young Kate’s adaptation of Emily Bronte’s dark romance from 1847 made the UK Number One spot in 1978. Kate chose the song because she realised that she shared a birthday with the writer: 30 July.

    Kate Bush - Wuthering Heights - Official Music Video - Version 1

  3. Klaxons - Gravity's Rainbow

    Before Gravity's Rainbow was a Nu Rave indie dancefloor anthem, it was a 1973 novel by American writer Thomas Pynchon. Considered one of the great American novels of all time, the book is said to combine themes of science and speculative metaphysics with high and low culture... which we suppose suits Nu Rave quite well...

    Klaxons - Gravitys Rainbow (Official Video)

  4. Nirvana - Scentless Apprentice

    This track from the band's third and final album from 1993 was written by Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl. It takes as its inspiration the 1985 novel by Patrick Suskind titled Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer. The story of a perfumer's apprentice who kills women in search of the perfect scent, the song offers the quote: "I promise not to sell your perfumed secrets / There are countless formulas for pressing flowers.”

    Scentless Apprentice

  5. The Beatles - I Am The Walrus

    The title of John Lennon's nonsensical composition from 1967 refers to Lewis Carroll's poem The Walrus And The Carpenter, which is included in the 1871 book Through The Looking Glass.

    And, if that's not enough, the end of the track also includes snatches of a BBC radio dramatisation of Shakespeare's King Lear: "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!"

    I Am The Walrus (Remastered 2009)

  6. David Bowie – 1984

    Bowie tried to launch a musical version of George Orwell’s dystopian 1949 novel after he killed off Ziggy Stardust, but the writer’s widow blocked the idea. Instead, some of the songs found their way into Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs, including 1984: “They’ll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air / And tell that you’re eighty, but brother, you won’t care/Beware the savage jaw of 1984.”

    1984 (2016 Remaster)

  7. Led Zeppelin – Ramble On

    This stonking track from Led Zep II (1969) makes reference to J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tome The Lord Of The Rings: “’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.”

    Led Zeppelin - Ramble On (Official Audio)

  8. Muse - The Small Print

    According to the Muse Supermassive Wiki, this track from 2003's Absolution album is a re-telling of the classic story of Faust by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe… but from the point of view of Satan, who makes a diabolic deal with the titular Student Of Prague. "Be my slave to the grave / I'm the priest God never paid."

    The Small Print

  9. The Ramones - Pet Sematary

    A bit of a cheat as this track from Da Brudders Ramone was recorded for the soundtrack to the movie version of Stephen King's 1983 novel of the same name. The lyrics neatly sum up the plot of the morbid novel: "I don't want to be buried in a Pet Sematary / I don't want to live my life again."

    Ramones - Pet Sematary

  10. The Libertines - Narcissist

    Track 6 from The Libertines' self-titled second album sees Carl Barat take the vocal helm for a track, which takes Oscar Wilde's iconic character Dorian Gray as a metaphor for "professionally trendy" scenesters. Dorian Gray was the man who stashed a portrait of himself in the attic - as he lived a debauched life, the portrait aged while Dorian himself remained youthful as ever. Of course, this did not end well.


  11. Manic Street Preachers - Patrick Bateman

    Released as the b-side to La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh) in 1993, this track is a study of the main protagonist in Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho. It highlights some of the murderous Bateman's obsessions: "Genesis, Huey Lewis, Filofax, CD 5 / A backdrop to discuss over expensive wine."

    Manic street preachers Patrick Bateman (la tristesse durera)

  12. Radiohead - 2+2=5

    The title of this track from the Hail To The Thief album from 2003 is a reference to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the practice of "Doublethink" was used by the totalitarian government of Big Brother to rewrite history and opinions. By the way, the line "Oh, go and tell the king that the sky is falling in" recalls the fable of Chicken Licken…

    Radiohead - 2+2=5 [The Lukewarm]

  13. Joy Division - Colony

    Ian Curtis was a big fan of literature: his lyrics reference J.G. Ballard (Atrocity Exhibition), Nikolai Gogol (Dead Souls) and this song, taken from the band's second and final album Closer, is an homage to Franz Kafka's 1914 short story, In The Penal Colony.

    Colony (2007 Remaster)

  14. Pixies - Gouge Away

    Hey, The Bible is a book too! Black Francis loves his Biblical references, and Gouge Away tells the story of Samson and Delilah: "Chained to the pillars, a three-day party / I break the walls and kill us all." The gouging of the title is when Delilah blinds the legendary strong man and cuts his hair, depriving him of his power.

    Gouge Away

  15. The Cure - Charlotte Sometimes

    Robert Smith loved a literary homage: The Cure’s debut single Killing An Arab was a retelling of Albert CamusThe Outsider and The Drowning Man was based on Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.

    Written in 1969 by Penelope Farmer, Charlotte Sometimes tells the tale of a girl at boarding school who suddenly finds herself transported back to the same location, during the First World War. The Cure's 1981 single was a re-telling of the tale and was accompanied by a cringeworthy video. Watch it here!

    The Cure - Charlotte Sometimes

  16. Bloc Party - Song for Clay (Disappear Here)

    The opening track from Bloc Party's second album Weekend In The City, is inspired by Bret Easton Ellis' novel Less Than Zero in which the main character's name is Clay. Lyrics such as "People are afraid, are afraid/To merge on the freeway," refer to the opening and recurring lines of the book, while Disappear Here reflects a billboard which appears in the novel.

    Song for Clay (Disappear Here)

  17. The Rolling Stones – Sympathy For The Devil

    Mick Jagger has gone on record as saying that the song was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which centres around Satan paying a visit to the Soviet Union: "I stuck around St. Petersburg/When I saw it was a time for a change/ Killed the czar and his ministers/Anastasia screamed in vain”.

    The Rolling Stones - Sympathy For The Devil (Lyric Video)

  18. The Velvet Underground – Venus In Furs

    Originally featuring on the 1967 album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Venus In Furs was inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's book of the same name. Dealing with themes of sadomasochism, the song is deeply inspired by the book, which follows the character of Wanda von Dunajew and charts her journey into female dominance.

    Venus In Furs

  19. The Strokes - Soma

    The Strokes' Soma is taken from the imaginary name for the hallucinogenic drug used to calm the masses in Aldous Huxley's 1937 novel, Brave New World. From the very first lyrics the New York band reference an ongoing theme of the book: "Soma is what they would take when/Hard times opened their eyes". The term was also used for the Smashing Pumpkins track of the same name, from their Siamese Dream album.

    The Strokes - Soma

  20. Gary Numan – Are 'Friends' Electric?

    The Gary Numan-penned track from his time in the Tubeway Army is said to have been influenced by Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? - Which eventually inspired the film Blade Runner. Numan's lyrical description of a man "In a long coat, grey hat, smoking a cigarette," could be referring to the book's protagonist, Rick Deckard, a special polieman who chases after androids or "andys". Plus, when performing the No.1 track on Top Of The Pops, Numan gave his best robot impression.

    Tubeway Army 'Are Friends Electric' TOTP (1979)