40 of the Best Songs Inspired by Books

Chance the Rapper was inspired by Peter Pan
Category: Reading

They say music is how souls communicate with one another. Add to that the magic of books and you have a perfect formula for art.

That is why we were inspired to search the annals of music chart history to bring to you this top 40 list of some of the greatest book-inspired songs ever recorded. All you need to do is listen to them then vote for your favourite for Book Week Scotland 2017, by 17:00, 28 November

So, go on. Immerse yourself in the music of books. You will feel better for it.

Blog compiled by Danny Scott [DS], Sarah Barrie [SB], Brianne Moore [BM], Gordon Connelly [GC] and Lucinda MacFarlane [LM].

 

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Folk | Indie | Pop | Rap, R'nB and Soul | Rock and Heavy Metal | Scottish

 

Well Read Folk

"Both Sides, Now" by Joni Mitchell, inspired by Henderson and the Rain King by Saul Bellow

Ranked in 2004 by Rolling Stone magazine as the 171st greatest song of all time, we had to include this Joni Mitchell track. It drew its inspiration from Saul Bellow's Henderson and the Rain King, a book whose blend of philosophy and comedy also inspired Counting Crows' "Rain King". Of "Both Sides, Now" Joni Mitchell said in the LA Times: "I was reading Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He's on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did." [DS]

 

"Bright Eyes" by Art Garfunkel, inspired by Watership Down by Richard Adams

Writers might want to note that Watership Down was rejected by 13 publishers before its release in 1972. Since then, it has never been out of print, and its animated adaptation has emotionally scarred millions of UK adults who grew up in the late 20th century. The song was written by singer-songwriter Mike Batt and recorded by Art Garfunkel. Richard Adams wasn't a fan and questioned whether the songwriter had remembered the book well as the song didn't fit with his story's timeline. Despite this challenge, "Bright Eyes" haunts our childhood memories too much to leave off this list. [DS]

 

"Hurricane" by Bob Dylan, inspired by The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472 by Rubin "Hurricane" Carter

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter worked tirelessly from jail to prove his innocence after he was accused of gunning down three people in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966. His cause attracted the attentions of a writer who helped him to publish his autobiography. Rubin sent a copy to Bob Dylan. The artist was so moved after reading Carter's stirring account of his innocence, and mistrial, that he visited the boxer in jail, and raised $100,000 for Carter's defence at a Madison Square Garden concert featuring Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Roberta Flack. Not only that, he co-wrote this eight-minute-plus protest song as the opening track for his album Desire, with Jacques Levy. [DS]

 

"I Am a Rock" by Simon and Garfunkel, inspired by Meditation XVII by John Donne 

Ernest Hemingway borrowed the title for his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls from John Donne, and Paul Simon inverted the line, 'No man is an island', from the founder of metaphysical poetry. The track was released as part of The Paul Simon Songbook in the UK generating little in the way of sales. After Simon and Garfunkel finally found success Stateside with a reworked version of "The Sound of Silence" they re-recorded Paul Simon's song as part of their Sound of Silence album. [DS]

 

"Tom Joad" by Woody Guthrie, inspired by The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Woody Guthrie was a huge fan of Steinbeck. When asked to write a track to write a song to capitalise on the film version's success, Guthrie jumped at the chance. He ventured to Pete Seeger's apartment to use his friends typewriter at which he sat down with a bottle of wine. When Seeger woke up the next morning, he found "Tom Joad" written in the typewriter and Woody Guthrie passed out on the floor. Fans of this song should make sure they listen to the rest of Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads album. [DS]

 

Literary Indie

 

"Atticus" by The Noisettes, inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

English indie rock band The Noisettes are no stranger to literary allusion in their songs (their first studio album, What’s the Time Mr Wolf, features a song called The Count of Monte Christo). Atticus, included in their 2009 album, Wild Young Hearts, refers to Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, taking its name from the noble lawyer, Atticus Finch. [BM]

 

"Song for Clay" by Bloc Party, inspired by Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis

"'People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.' Though that sentence shouldn't bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time." So says Clay, the protagonist in Brett Easton Ellis' debut novel Less Than Zero – arguably a warped Catcher in the Rye for a disaffected 1980s Los Angeles. That recurring line also seems to have stayed in Bloc Party's mind long enough for them to dedicate a song to the novel, the opening track to their 2006 album A Weekend in the City the cover of which is an overhead of busy, soulless motorway bisecting a city at night. [DS]

 

"The Dark is Rising" by Mercury Rev, inspired by The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

If Mercury Rev wrote a Bond song, it would sound like "The Dark is Rising", from their -muchcherished 2001 album All is a Dream. The song reached number 16 in the UK singles chart, taking its inspiration from Susan Cooper's eponymous 1973 Gothic fantasy, a childhood favourite of the song's creator Jonathan Donahue. Talking to the New Zealand Herald, Donahue said, ""What I was trying to express was a love of everyone's personal mythology. It doesn't have to involve elves, dwarfs and gnomes, it can involve your own imaginary world." [DS]

 

Pop in a Book Mark

"A Rose for Emily" by The Zombies, inspired by the poem 'A Rose for Emily' by William Faulkner

If you've listened to S-Town, the podcast from the makers of Serial and This American Life, this year, the refrain "the summer is here at last..." which closes each episode will have been one of your summer earworms. This song, from the 1968 album Odessey and Oracle, is a retelling of the William Faulkner short story, first published in April 1930. John B. McLemore, the podcast's focus, gave a copy of the story to the show's producer during the first days of their initial meeting after recognising parallels between his life and that of Emily. [SB]

 

"Bell Jar" by The Bangles, inspired by The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Pop girl band The Bangles turned to Sylvia Plath for their 1988 song, which was released on their third album, Everything. The bouncy melody stands starkly at odds with the sobering story of a young woman whom everyone wants to be, secretly suffocating in her own misery and loneliness. The original story, Plath’s only novel, was published in 1963, only a month before Plath’s death by suicide. [BM]

 

"China in Your Hand" by T'Pau, inspired by Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein was originally written on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816 and was first published a couple of years later. Initial reviews were mixed, even calling it a "disgusting absurdity". However the novel has never been out of print and lauded by some as the start of science fiction.

The song was inspired by Mary Shelley's line about Frankenstein’s dreams crumbling - "Don't push too hard, your dreams are china in your hand." Carol Decker, lead singer of T'Pau, became "sick to death" of the song, which in 2005 was voted the nation’s 11th favourite 1980’s number one. [LM]

 

"Firework" by Katy Perry, inspired by On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac's On the Road has been cited as an inspiration for multiple musicians over the years, including Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Van Morrison. Ray Manzarek, keyboard player for The Doors, has said "if Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed." And, more alarmingly, neither would Katy Perry's 2010 hit, "Firework".

Perry has said that the song was inspired by the book and her wish to be shot across the sky as a firework when she dies. "I want to be a firework, both living and dead. My boyfriend showed me a paragraph out of Jack Kerouac's book On the Road, about people that are buzzing and fizzing and full of life and never say a commonplace thing. They shoot across the sky like a firework and make people go, 'Ahhh.' I guess that making people go 'ahhh' is kind of like my motto."

Ours too. [SB]

 

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John, inspired by The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum

The title song in Elton John’s seventh studio album, released in 1973, presents us with a narrator who yearns to return home, to a simpler, safer existence. Sound like a certain young lady from Kansas? The song was a chart-topper from its release and is still considered one of John’s best. As if that weren’t enough to raise it to iconic status: Ben & Jerry’s even took it as inspiration for an ice cream flavour—Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road. [BM]

 

"Off to the Races" by Lana del Rey, inspired by Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This song, about a destructive, doomed romance, references Nabokov’s novel several times. The opening line, ‘My old man is a bad man’ is an allusion to the fact that Humbert was not only a terrible person, but also Lolita’s stepfather, and the chorus line, ‘Light of my life, fire of my loins’ is the first line of the novel. "Off to the Races" first appeared on Del Rey’s debut album and was re-released on her second studio album, Born to Die, in 2012. [BM]

 

"Rhiannon" by Fleetwood Mac, inspired by Triad by Mary Leader

Novels bought in airports can affect our lives in unexpected ways. When Stevie Nicks bought Triad by Mary Leader she thought the name Rhiannon was pretty enough to have a song in its honour. She did so in Malibu in 1974 a few months before joining Fleetwood Mac. "Rhiannon" appeared on Fleetwood Mac's eponymous 1975 album, and Rolling Stone listed the song as the 488th greatest song of all time 2004. [DS]

 

"The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" by Leonard Nimoy, inspired by The Hobbit by J.R. R. Tolkien

When you think of Leonard Nimoy, you may just think ‘Spock,’ but in fact he was also a singer who released five albums with Dot Records. "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins", which tells the story of Tolkien’s most famous Middle-Earthling, features on his second album, Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy. [BM]

 

"Tomorrow Never Knows" by The Beatles, inspired by The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert

The lyrics of The Beatles thumping closing track to Revolver are largely taken from Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert's psychedelic version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. John Lennon discovered the book during a trip to a book shop to buy some works of Nietzsche. Instead of settling down to some nihilist philosophy, Lennon found himself on the shop's couch with The Psychedelic Experience, copying out the line, "Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream." [DS]

 

"Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles, inspired by the short story 'The Sound Sweep' by J. G. Ballard

Written in 1978 by English new wavers The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star” took its place on the band’s debut album The Age of Plastic. That album concerns itself with attitudes and towards the benefits and perils of modern technology.

Band member Trevor Horn says this stand out track from the album is inspired by J. G. Ballard’s short story ‘The Sound Sweep’. The story features a mute boy hoovering up leftover music in a world that has switch to “ultrasonic music”. The boy comes upon an opera singer living destitute now her professions is no longer needed. Ultrasonic music killed the opera star, as it were. [DS]

 

"Wuthering Heights" by Kate Bush, inspired by Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights was Kate Bush's debut single, released in 1978. After watching the last few minutes of the 1967 BBC series of Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush was inspired to read Emily Bronte's book and write the classic song. The song is sung from the point of view of Cathy Earnshaw, and uses several quotations from the book, using Cathy's famous quote "Let me in your window - I'm so cold!" throughout. [SB]

 

Book Rapping, Rhythm and Blues

"Across 110th Street" by Bobby Womack, inspired by Across 110th Street by Wally Ferris

This track - the title of which was inspired by Wally Ferris’ savage novel of an unending New York war between the law and the racketeers - has been made famous by movies, twice. The first time round, Womack’s smooth song accompanied Barry Shear’s adaptation of Ferris’ eponymous novel. It came to popular attention again in the late 1990s when obscure music guru Quentin Tarantino used it as the title track for his Blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown. [DS]

 

"Same Drugs" by Chance the Rapper, inspired by Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie 

"Same Drugs", from Chance the Rapper's multi-Grammy Award nominated album Coloring Book, weaves the story of Peter Pan into a track that discusses the experience of growing apart from childhood friends. In the song, which Chance describes as being the hardest track on the album to write, drugs are used as a metaphor for the changes he's experienced throughout his life, with the song referencing the book very literally with the lyrics "When did you change?/Wendy, you've aged/I thought you'd never grow up". [SB]

 

"Thieves in the Night" by Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kweli), inspired by The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Thieves in the Night, taken from the 1998 album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, was inspired by Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye. In the album's liner notes, Kweli talks about a paragraph from the book that "struck me as one of the truest critiques of our society, and I read that in high school when I was 15 years old. I think it is especially true in the world of hip hop, because we get blinded by these illusions." [SB]

 

"Willie Burke Sherwood" by Killer Mike, inspired by Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Willie Burke Sherwood, named after Killer Mike's grandfather, is an autobiographical track that uses Lord of the Flies, William Golding's 1954 novel, to demonstrate how Mike had to channel his harder side to survive growing up. The book's character of Jack, the school's former head boy, represents the darker side of human nature: "And I got hard, cause I was smart/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/It's a book I read, books I read/Cause I'm addicted to literature". [SB]

 

Rockin' Readers

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Metallica, inspired by For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway’s novel (itself inspired by a John Donne poem) about a young American soldier fighting for the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War was the inspiration for legendary American band Metallica’s track For Whom the Bell Tolls. Lyrically, the track communicates the futility of conflict and the fundamental senselessness of individual loss for the gain of political ideology, “For a hill men would kill, why? They do not know”. [GC]

 

"Motorcycle Emptiness" by Manic Street Preachers, inspired by Rumble Fish by S. E. Hinton

S.E. Hinton wrote some amazing books about gang culture, violence and teen alienation in mid-century America. Her 1975 novel, Rumble Fish, inspired Manic Street Preachers’ 1992 song about the emptiness of consumer culture and the expectations on young people to conform (and their subsequent reluctance to do so). The song has a connection to another literary work: bassist Nicky Wire’s brother, Patrick Jones, is a poet and parts of his poem, Neon Loneliness, feature in the song’s chorus. [BM]

 

"One Brown Mouse" by Jethro Tull, inspired by the poem 'To A Mouse' by Robert Burns

"One Brown Mouse" appeared on Blackpool rock band Jethro Tull's Heavy Horses album – an album that arguably has Burns' influence through its core like Blackpool rock of a different kind. Of Burns, Tull felt Scotland's bard was, "a complete drunken lech, putting his heart into it." [DS]

 

"Paranoid Android" by Radiohead, inspired by The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Radiohead's memorable second track from their OK Computer is a four-part, six-minute Radiohead-does-Bohemian-Rhapsody masterpiece. The song's title is inspired by Marvin, the depressed android in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Apparently, the band had been listening to an audiobook of the novel on their bus during a tour post-The Bends. Thom Yorke felt Marvin's 'I'm so depressed' attitude was exactly how people would like him to be, prompting him to choose the song's title as a joke. [DS]

 

"Ramble On" by Led Zeppelin, inspired by Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Curly, hobbit-like locks aside, the connection between iconic rock band Led Zeppelin and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy may not be immediately obvious. However, around two thirds of the way through their 1969 track Ramble On, Plant’s lyrics reference meeting a girl “so fair” in the “darkest depths of Mordor” before “Gollum and the evil one/crept up and slipped away with her”. Recorded in between shows during their second North American tour, Plant was apparently later embarrassed by the references to Tolkien’s books. Don’t worry Robert, we love them - for what it's worth! [GC] 

 

"Red Right Hand" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, inspired by Paradise Lost by Milton

Nick Cave took John Milton’s Paradise Lost as inspiration for one of the band's most recognisable tracks. Written in the 17th century when Milton had lost the use of his eyes, Paradise Lost details Satan’s banishment from heaven and his attempts to overthrow a cruel and power-obsessed God. The title appears in the second book of Paradise Lost where it references an undefined threat. Featuring Cave’s deep, foreboding vocals and referencing a tall handsome man with (funnily enough) a “red right hand”, the track raises questions about the pursuit of material wealth and how damaging and unessential it can be to identity. There’s still some debate whether the tall handsome man is a reference to God or Satan, and Cave has said it was one of the few tracks that continued to “reveal itself” to him after he’d written it… very ambiguous, Mr. Cave.  [GC]

 

"Soma" by The Strokes, inspired by Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

From The Strokes’ iconic debut album Is This it, "Soma" references Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. In Huxley’s book soma refers to a type of opiate enforced by the government to keep its citizens sedated – distracted from the reality of the oppressive environment they are living in. Casablancas’ opening line highlights this state of self-induced ignorance: “Soma is what they would take when hard times opened their eyes”. [GC]

 

"Sympathy for the Devil" by The Rolling Stones, inspired by Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Appearing on The Rolling Stones’ 1968 album Beggars Banquet, "Sympathy for the Devil" was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire on Stalinist Russia, The Master and Margarita, which Jagger is said to have read after an English translation was published in 1967. The song describes atrocities committed throughout history, including the trial and death of Jesus, Robert F. Kennedy’s death and the 1917 Russian Revolution. Written in the first person from the perspective of the Devil himself, the song led some to label the Stones as devil-worshippers, something Jagger later reflected on, stating: “I thought it was a really odd thing, because it was only one song, after all. It wasn't like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back”.  [GC]

 

"The Invisible Man" by Queen, inspired by The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

This song from Queen’s 1989 album The Miracle was written by drummer Roger Taylor. Inspired by H.G. Wells’ classic Science-Fiction novella The Invisible Man Taylor said in a 1991 interview with the BBC that the idea for the song “came from a book I was reading, and it just seemed to fit in with a rhythmic pattern I had in mind." Like Wells’ book, the song references the difficulty individuals face making meaningful connections with those around them, and how easy it is to become isolated within society. [GC] 

 

"The Tomahawk Kid" by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, inspired by Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Glasgow's Alex Harvey's career spanned three decades, but his most famous body of work came as the frontman of the aptly named glam rockers The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Judging by "The Tomahawk Kid" from TSAHB's 1974 alum The Impossible Dream, somewhere along the way, Harvey must have been enchanted by Robert Louis Stevenson's swashbuckling masterpiece Treasure Island. The rocking tune gaily plunders from Stevenson's tale for characters and lyrics, taking us on a pirating journey with one unexpected character in the form of the Tomahawk Kid - described on All Music as, "an ebullient cross between Dennis the Menace and Christopher Robin, the Kid sees even the romantic thrust of a pirate's life as an intrusion on the true spirit of playtime - "let's be bold, my Captain, and I'll hold your hairy hand," pleads the Kid. "Let's forget the treasure, we can skip across the sand."" [DS]

 

"Venus in Furs" by The Velvet Underground, inspired by Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sachor-Masoch

Inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella of the same name, about a man who wishes to be enslaved to a woman, this song features on the Velvet Underground’s iconic 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico. Shining a light on an area of sexuality not openly discussed or accepted in American society at the time, the song inspired a host of future bands to embrace sexuality in their work. [GC]

 

"Walk on the Wild Side" by Lou Reed, inspired by Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren

Lou Reed recorded this famous track two years after leaving The Velvet Underground. It is one of three tracks on Transformer Reed wrote for Andy Warhol’s proposed musical version of Todd Algren’s novel A Walk on the Wide Side. A project that sadly never came to fruition. The song uses the book as a launching point but is inhabited by its own set of characters, most of whom were regulars at Warhol’s New York studio, the Factory. Produced by Mick Ronson and David Bowie, “Walk on the Wide Side” was Reed’s first major mainstream hit – despite its risqué content. [DS]

 

"Whip It" by Devo, inspired by Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon 

Thomas Pynchon’s parodies from Gravity’s Rainbow inspired Devo’s bassist Gerard Casale’s American satire. In the book, Pynchon parodied poems of American optimism, corporate can-do aphorisms and the cult of personality. The band also played on these themes in their famous video for the song, which became one the first eye-catching music videos, in 1981, on a new TV station called MTV. [DS]

 

"White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane, inspired by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Jefferson Airplane's 1967 song, considered to be one of the most iconic songs of 60s psychedelic rock, heavily references Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The short track linked the themes in the book to the era's counter-culture, as well as to the importance of education.  Grace Slick, the song's writer, stated, "I identified with Alice. I was a product of ’50s America in Palo Alto, California, where women were housewives with short hair and everything was highly regulated. I went from the planned, bland ’50s to the world of being in a rock band without looking back. It was my Alice moment, heading down the hole. ‘White Rabbit’ seemed like an appropriate title." [SB]

 

 

Write Scottish Songs

"Backyard Skulls" by Frightened Rabbit, inspired by Where the Bodies are Buried by Christopher Brookmyre

Selkirk's Frightened Rabbit took the inspiration for 2013's Backyard Skulls from Where The Bodies Are Buried, the 2011 novel by fellow Scot Chris Brookmyre. The band's primary songwriter, Scott Hutchison was inspired by the idea of detectives in the book using aerial imaging to find undiscovered bodies and said, "I took this idea and threaded it into a song about unpleasant secrets in a more general sense. Infidelity, mistakes, wrong-doings. These things are never really gone, no matter how far down you bury them. They're always lurking, even when you yourself are dead. Here, we also introduce to the album the fairly prominent metaphor of death... which is nice." [SB]

 

"I Fought in a War" by Belle & Sebastian, inspired by the short story 'For Esme - with Squalor and Love' by J. D. Salinger

The opening track from Scottish band Belle and Sebastian’s album Fold Your Hands Child is inspired by J.D. Salinger’s short story For Esmé – with Love and Squalor. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch has said that he was inspired by the “atmosphere” of Salinger’s story about an encounter between an army sergeant and a young girl prior to the soldier fighting in the Second World War. [GC]

 

"True Ways of Knowing" by Blue Rose Code, inspired by the poem 'True Ways of Knowing' by Norman MacCaig

The alt-folk and very literary artist Ross Wilson aka Blue Rose Code sets the work of Edinburgh poet Norman McCaig to beautifully percussive song. To further enhance the literary credentials of this song’s, it features on Wilson’s second album The Ballad of Peckham Rye – named after Muriel Spark’s 1960 novel. Be sure to watch Ross Hoon’s video for the song created using archive footage from Scottish Poetry Library’s website. [DS]

  

You've listened to the songs, now it is time to vote for your favourite! Submit your vote in our Book Week Scotland 2017 poll by 17:00, 28 November 2017.

 

 

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