Going back to the dawn of civilisation, stories were songs: Homer’s celebrated epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, were initially performed to 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.
Listen to the best songs based on books, on Spotify.
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 (REM’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 acknowledgement 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 dramatisation 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 channelled 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 civilisation, 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 it’s 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.