The Best Songs Based On Books
From songs by The Beatles to Rick Wakeman, Metallica to The Rolling Stones, uDiscover Music uncovers the best songs inspired by books.
Going back to the dawn of civilization, stories were songs: Homer’s celebrated epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, were initially performed to the lute and serve as the bedrock of the oral tradition; only later were they written down and printed in some of the world’s first books. By then, songwriters had widened their scope, moving away from religious mythology to retell folk stories and pass on the news – sometimes simply taking newspaper headlines and turning them into songs.
As rock music came of age, so its ambitions grew, with big ideas in literature influencing big ideas on record. When The Beatles recorded “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the epochal closing track to their Revolver album, John Lennon had in mind a book by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, which advised readers to “turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.” Seven years later, while recording his fourth studio album, in 1973, Lennon had another consciousness-raising publication to hand, Robert Masters and Jean Houston’s Mind Games: The Guide To Inner Space, which would go on to inform his album’s title track.
That same year, David Bowie had ambitious plans of his own, hoping to turn George Orwell’s 1984 into a live theatre production. Though the Orwell estate refused him the rights to the story, remnants of the idea found their way into Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs, notably the second side’s “We Are The Dead,” “1984” and “Big Brother.”
Though it’s actually Orwell’s previous novel, 1945’s Animal Farm, which has directly inspired more songs (R.E.M.’s “Disturbance At The Heron House,” Hazel O’Connor’s “Animal Farm” and Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals among them), dystopian futures the likes of which are depicted in 1984 have continually resonated with musicians from a wide array of genres. Gary Numan was heavily into Philip K Dick’s sci-fi work, particularly Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, when he wrote his new wave/electro-pop classic “Are “Friends” Electric?,” and New Wave Of British Heavy Metal behemoths Iron Maiden recast Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as a six-minute epic on their 2000 album of the same name.
Seemingly natural bedfellows, prog rock’s ambitions are ably fed by literature’s lofty ideals. Take Rush, for instance, whose side-long title track to the game-changing 1976 album, 2112, was loosely based on Ayn Rand’s book Anthem (with Rand’s “genius” receiving an acknowledgment in the album’s sleevenotes), setting the scene for a bleak concept suite of novelistic proportions, in which the world is controlled by the Priests Of The Temples Of Syrinx. Gentle Giant looked to an even more obscure source for “Pantagruel’s Nativity,” the opening track to their 1971 outing Acquiring The Taste, taking inspiration from François Rabelais’ series of novels, The Life Of Gargantua And Of Pantagruel – a collection they would return to later in their career.
But why stop at one side of vinyl, when you have an entire album at your disposal? Or double-album if you’re Jeff Wayne, whose dramatization of The War Of The Worlds set Earth’s destruction to suitably theatrical music (and included a UK Top 5 single in the shape of “Forever Autumn,” sung by The Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward). Rick Wakeman, meanwhile, took a Journey To The Centre Of The Earth in 1974, with the London Symphony Orchestra in tow and Jules Verne’s 1864 novel as a guide; the following year, Camel released a largely instrumental take on Paul Gallico’s 1941 novella The Snow Goose.
Camel’s decision came off the back of their previous album, Mirage, for which they’d recorded a suite, “Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider,” based on JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. They weren’t the first band to find inspiration in Tolkein’s fantasy trilogy, though: Led Zeppelin had based “Ramble On,” from their 1969 sophomore album, on Frodo’s wanderings, before returning to the Rings trilogy for “The Battle Of Evermore,” a duet that appeared on their second album and which featured Sandy Denny on vocals.
Elsewhere on the prog spectrum, the title track to Genesis’ 1976 album A Trick Of The Tail was written by Tony Banks and based on William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors – not the only song to take inspiration from a Golding novel. Indeed, U2 have returned to his work at least twice: “White As Snow,” from 2009’s No Line On The Horizon, took Golding’s Pincher Martin for inspiration, and “Shadows And Tall Trees,” from their 1980 debut, Boy, was named after a chapter in Lord Of The Flies.
From Rings to Flies… these cult classics have shaped generations of teenagers, so it’s no surprise that they remain lodged in the minds of some of rock’s biggest stars. A Clockwork Orange has influenced everyone from Bowie to Rob Zombie, both of whom drew upon its imaginative teenage slang, Nadsat, for “Suffragette City” and “Never Gonna Stop (The Red Red Krovvy),” respectively; Sting referenced Humbert Humbert, “the old man in the book by Nabokov” (that book being Lolita), in The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me;” The Cure tapped into the existentialist angst of Albert Camus’ L’Etranger for their controversial debut single, “Killing An Arab.”
For many songwriters, short stories are perfect fodder for the three-to-four-minute song – particularly in the horror genre. Metallica took much inspiration from HP Lovecraft, whose “Cthulhu Mythos” informs early thrash classics such as “The Call Of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be,” while the work of another early pioneer of both horror and short-story writing, Edgar Allen Poe, has also been the subject of many musical reimaginings. Alan Parsons Project’s 1976 debut, Tales Of Mystery And Imagination, set his stories and poetry to music, as did Lou Reed’s 2002 double-album, The Raven. (Always drawn to life’s darker side, Reed had previously brought sadomasochism into the rock world when “Venus In Furs” appeared on The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut, drawing upon Austrian author Leopold van Sacher-Masoch’s book of the same name.)
With many songwriters being deemed poets themselves, it’s only natural that they would gravitate towards other like-minded souls. Ryan Adams wished he “had a Sylvia Plath” on a song named after the beloved American poet, while on The Smiths’ “Cemetery Gates,” Morrissey pledged allegiance to “wild lover Wilde,” drawing a line between himself and those who sided with John Keats and WB Yeats. Elsewhere, in the era of the ultimate “rock poet” Bob Dylan, the likes of protest singer Phil Ochs set extant poetry to music (Alfred Noyers’ “The Highwayman”), and 60s hitmakers Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich used Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” as the basis for their 1968 UK chart-topper, “The Legend Of Xanadu.”
Given the plethora of war poetry that’s been written, it’s a genre that has remained relatively untouched by musicians (though PJ Harvey, whose 1998 song “The River” is based upon Flannery O’Connor’s story of the same name, has channeled the likes of Wilfred Owen in recent years). War novels have, however, provided ample source material for the likes of Sensational Alex Harvey Band (“Dogs Of War,” inspired by Frederick Forsyth’s novel of the same name) and, once again, Metallica, who turned to Dalton Trumbo’s World War I novel, Johnny Got His Gun, for inspiration for the lyrics to “One,” and Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War classic, For Whom The Bell Tolls, for their song of the same name, taken from their landmark 1984 album, Ride The Lightning.
From the evidence, Metallica can justifiably claim to have taken more inspiration than most from novels, with the title track to Ride The Lightning referring to a death-row inmate in Stephen King’s classic The Stand. A big surprise, however, is that pop legends ABBA also tapped into King’s horror epic, basing a Souper Trouper album track “The Piper” on the novel’s study of fascistic leaders. An evil-minded leader of a different stripe provided the focus for Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master And Margarita, which imagined what would happen when the Devil paid a visit to the Soviet Union… At least one result was The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil,” whose lyrics were penned by Mick Jagger after Marianne Faithfull gave him a copy of the book.
A couple of years earlier, another blues-influenced British rock group, Cream, had flexed their own literary muscles, recording “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” for Disraeli Gears; bringing us nicely full circle, the song took Homer’s Odyssey for inspiration. In fact, fittingly, for one of the bedrocks of modern civilization, the story has influenced a plethora of artists, among them also Steely Dan, whose “Home At Last” looked to the Homeric epic for its subject matter.
More indirectly, The Odyssey was also an influence on Kate Bush’s 1989 single “The Sensual World,” for which Bush had initially wanted to read Molly Bloom’s monologue from James Joyce’s Ulysses, the groundbreaking modernist novel that used The Odyssey for its own framework. The Joyce estate initially denied Bush the rights to use text from the novel, but relented in 2011, when Bush re-recorded her song as “Flower Of The Mountain,” using passages from Joyce’s book for lyrics.
Of course, that wasn’t the first time Bush had been attracted to a female voice in a classic novel. Her first single, 1978’s “Wuthering Heights,” was released when Bush was just 19, and retold Emily Brontë’s 1847 story in a mere four and a half minutes. With its unforgettable video, the single effortlessly topped the UK charts. Introducing Bush as an idiosyncratic talent with a unique worldview, “Wuthering Heights” also arguably remains the definitive song based on literature.
Looking for more? Discover the best music books you’ve never read.
Raúl Emilio Solís Ruiz
March 19, 2016 at 1:18 pm
What about The Byrds’s song “Turn, turn, turn” based on The eclessiastes?
March 19, 2016 at 2:07 pm
Good example. The song was written by Pete Seeger, btw.
March 24, 2016 at 3:38 pm
They would have mentioned that one. But, it’s pretentious hippy drippy shit…..
March 25, 2016 at 4:45 pm
March 19, 2016 at 2:58 pm
That should be Richard, not Robert Alpert.
March 19, 2016 at 3:05 pm
But I enjoyed the article!
March 19, 2016 at 3:47 pm
What? Not one mention of “White Rabbit”, the greatest song ever taken directly from a book? What wanker came up with this list?
March 19, 2016 at 8:39 pm
No need to call the writer a “wanker”, even if you mean it as a cute dismissal of the writer’s work. “White Rabbit” as done by Jefferson Airplane was an interesting song but not everyone necessarily has heard it nor understands it.
March 19, 2016 at 10:21 pm
So Catweasal, you would have come up with a better list, straight off the bat? Probably not…
March 19, 2016 at 4:37 pm
Compare John Wyndham’s “the Crysalids” to Jefferson Airplane’s “Crown of Creation”:
“Your work is to survive. Neither his kind, nor his kind of thinking will survive long. They are the crown of creation, they are ambition fulfilled – they have nowhere more to go. But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks, change is its very nature.”
“They have become history without being aware of it. They are determined still that there is a final form to defend: soon they will attain the stability they strive for, in the form it is granted – a place among the fossils…”
“In loyalty to their kind they cannot tolerate our rise; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction.”
Compare this to the lyrics of Crown of Creation, thanks to sing365:
You are the Crown of Creation
You are the Crown of Creation
and you’ve got no place to go.
Soon you’ll attain the stability you strive for
in the only way that it’s granted
in a place among the fossils of our time.
In loyalty to their kind
they cannot tolerate our minds.
In loyalty to our kind
we cannot tolerate their obstruction.
Life is Change
How it differs from the rocks
I’ve seen their ways too often for my liking
New worlds to gain
My life is to survive
and be alive
Thanks to Don Lesser.
March 19, 2016 at 4:46 pm
How about “The Stand” by the Alarm, based on Stephen Kings epic novel?
March 19, 2016 at 5:24 pm
Forgot Led Zeppelins several references to Hobbit/Lord of the rings:books “Misty Mountain Hop”: and some of their songs that mention characters from the books ie Strider, Gollum. etc.
March 17, 2018 at 10:04 am
The battle of Evermore.
March 19, 2016 at 6:16 pm
Neil Peart has written many songs based on books. Anthem being one based on Any Rands novel.
August 9, 2018 at 5:10 pm
Has written the songs inpired by those books (and poem: Xanadu) and wrtten the books to inspire songs (e.g. Vapor Trails).
March 19, 2016 at 10:31 pm
Rush 2112 by Ayn Rand’s (Horrible Cow) Book called Anthem
March 20, 2016 at 7:28 am
Iron Maiden’s “Out of the Silent Planet” from a book by CS Lewis.
March 20, 2016 at 4:05 pm
Fascinating stuff. Surely there are more examples if we look hard enough. Lindisfarne’s “Lady Eleanor” is directly derived from Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” Let’s keep looking & listening.
March 20, 2016 at 6:10 pm
“Journey from Mariabronn” by Kansas, based on the novel “Narcissus and Goldmund” by Herman Hesse.
March 20, 2016 at 10:42 pm
Black Sabbath : The Shining.
March 20, 2016 at 10:50 pm
Iron Maiden have a list as long as your arm of songs taken from books and films…. Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Phantom Of The Opera, Where Eagles Dare, The Duellists, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The Wicker Man…. and so on and on and on….
March 21, 2016 at 2:54 am
My favorite song based on a book…
Warm Leatherette by The Normal based on J. G. Ballard’s CRASH. Super disturbing but captures the essence of the book perfectly.
March 21, 2016 at 3:13 pm
How about Ben Nichols’ solo album “Last Pale Light in the West” which is entirely inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The title track having been used in The Walking Dead.
March 21, 2016 at 9:55 pm
Interestingly, no mention of the Roots.
The band name comes from the famous TV miniseries.
“Things Fall Apart” references the Chinua Achebe novel.
“Phrenology” was a branch of pseudoscience designed to proved that some races were inferior to others.
“The Tipping Point” references the Malcolm Gladwell bestseller
“Rising Down” references the William Vollmann book.
March 24, 2016 at 12:07 pm
Jefferson Airplane also had “Rejoyce,” based on James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” on their “After Bathing At Baxter’s” album.
March 24, 2016 at 1:07 pm
Hawkwind based songs on JG Ballard’s “High Rise”, on “Lord of Light” and “Jack of Shadows” by Roger Zelazny, and on “Steppenwolf” by Herman Hesse. Their “Chronicles of the Black Sword” album was based on Michael Moorcock’s “Elric” novels, and Mioorcock has performed with the band several times, for instance reciting the opening of his story “The Black Corridors”. Their latest album is inspired by EM Forster’s “When the Machine Stops”.
March 24, 2016 at 3:35 pm
I love Dire Straits “Romeo and Juliet”.
March 24, 2016 at 6:36 pm
In addition to their brilliant Snowgoose album, Camel had another superb album based on a book. Dust & Dreams is based on Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath.
Genesis bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford’s first solo album, Smallcreep’s Day, included a a side based on Peter C. Brown’s book of the same name, although Rutherford chose to end his retelling with a considerably less dark ending than the original story.
March 24, 2016 at 8:40 pm
Blind Guardian have songs based on books based on Stephen King and Tolkien (also an album). Joe Dassin also based one of his songs on the Daltons from Lucky Luke
March 24, 2016 at 9:23 pm
Mike Oldfields Songs of distant earth. Arther C Clarks book . both brilliant and underated
March 24, 2016 at 9:31 pm
Kate Bush`s Cloudbusting also.
March 25, 2016 at 5:05 pm
From Watership Down came Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes
March 26, 2016 at 3:28 pm
Beginner’s mistake, forgetting Best by King Crimson, Tales of Topographic Oceans from Yes and Passion Play by JethroTull. These are not even obscure bands!
December 21, 2016 at 2:52 pm
I understand that Yes’s Close to the Edge was based on Herman Hesse’s Siddartha.
March 18, 2017 at 12:56 pm
Different versions of “1984”. One by Spirit in 1969 and one by David Bowie in 1974. Bowie even wrote a musical based on “1984” which was never performed.
March 19, 2017 at 12:42 pm
Starship Troopers by Yes
March 19, 2017 at 5:47 pm
Was Bowie’s Space Oddity mentioned here?
April 29, 2017 at 6:58 pm
ha ha ha…
how about the old testament? think any songs came out of there?
how about ‘psalms’/lute accompaniment/composer David, King of Israel, son of Jesse.
i can’t believe NOone said anything about any of this…
ya can’t miss with the classics…
; – )
April 30, 2017 at 6:40 am
Glad they acknowledged Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights as the definitive song based on a novel. It’s pure brilliance, just like most of this musical genius’ work.
July 25, 2017 at 8:13 pm
The Gates of Delirium, by Yes (inspired by Tolstoy’s War&Peace).
April 5, 2018 at 6:11 am
Jefferson Airplane, Album Crown of Creation, quotes
Martin Luther King Jr.
“Where do we go from here, Chaos or Community?”
(MLJ’s last book, written in 1967, referenced by Airplane in 1968.
Jefferson Airplane, Album Bathing at Baxters starts off with
quote from A.A. Milne (When we were very young):
If you were a bird, and lived on high,
You’d lean on the wind when the wind came by,
You’d say to the wind when it took you away:
“That’s where I wanted to go today!”
April 5, 2018 at 6:47 am
Igor Stravinsky set “Owl and the PussyCat” to music:
July 8, 2022 at 9:19 pm
Two more come to mind:
Al Stewart “Sirens of Titan” and the book by Kurt Vonnegut is an excellent read. Secondly, “Jonathan” by Barclay James Harvest based on Jonathan Livingston Seagull.