Anne Chafer looks at how literature has inspired contemporary music
Calypso, Tom Sawyer, Ophelia… what do these characters have in common? Of course, they belong to stories. But they are also the subjects of their own songs. I’m not talking about Calypso’s appearance in the Odyssey, allegedly a performed poem, but about songs from our own century. For lack of an actual music player on this analogue page, here is a brief introduction, absolutely influenced by my tastes and not at all comprehensive, to the vast world of literary music in the English language.
Of course, the easiest place to start would be J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the whole of Middle Earth. The Beatles did write many songs inspired by books, but I would argue that it was not until bands like Led Zeppelin start introducing fantasy elements to their songs (cue in the flute part from ‘Stairway to Heaven’). Fantasy books seem to inspire songwriters in a different way. And for a good while, it was the way of the white man writing progressive rock or metal in the period from the late seventies to the nineties. Rush, T. Rex, Led Zeppelin or Blind Guardian are some of the bands that have written countless songs with references to Tolkien’s Imaginarium, and if you like rock and complex yet still accessible drum solos, this is a good place to dive in.
Fantasy books seem to inspire songwriters in a different way
The ubiquitous dad-rock band U2 also tried their hand at literary reimaginings. I found ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’ after finishing William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, and was surprised by its unorthodox sound, different their usual style. Some other common themes of inspiration for male bands include Homeric tales (‘Home at Last’ by Steely Dan, ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’ by Cream) and other classic literature. Mastodon’s concept album Leviathan is based on Moby Dick while Brandon Flowers’ music video for ‘Can’t Deny My Love’ essentially adapts Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Young Goodman Brown into an entrancing short film starring Evan Rachel-Wood. Orwell’s dystopias also deserve a mention: David Bowie’s attempt to turn 1984 into a musical, Pink Floyd’s Animals, Muse’s The Resistance… his bleak vision of the future inspired many.
Where are the women, though? It’s easy to assume that women have focused mostly on adapting female narratives. While that applies to many, it is not necessarily accurate: PJ Harvey is a J.D. Salinger adept (‘A Perfect Day Elise’ and ‘Angelene’ are both inspired by Salinger short stories) and an incredible rock musician since we’re at it, as is Joni Mitchell, who adapted Tennessee Williams’ play The Night of the Iguana into a song of the same name. Regina Spektor prefers mythical figures: ‘Oedipus’ and ‘Samson’ are some of her best tracks, the latter putting a most wonderful twist to the biblical character.
speaking of all things magical and mystical, three names that had to be included are those of Suzanne Vega, Loreena McKennitt and Lana del Rey
Emmy the Great’s third album Virtue includes two gems named ‘Cassandra’ and ‘Exit Night / Juliet’s Theme’, both whimsical and lovely. For a more intense take, you can turn to Kate Bush and her ‘Wuthering Heights’, or to the one and only Stevie Nicks, whose version of Poe’s Annabel Lee is mystifying at the very least. And speaking of all things magical and mystical, three names that had to be included are those of Suzanne Vega, Loreena McKennitt and Lana del Rey. They take tales and, just like the three Fates of ancient myth, spin them in a different way. Vega has written about all sorts of literary figures, McKennitt prefers the old and the medieval, and del Rey focuses on her carefully constructed, self-aware idealisation of figures from more contemporary classics such as Lolita (‘Off to the Races’) or Walt Whitman’s poem I Sing the Body Electric (‘Body Electric’). But the most unexpected fact? Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ reworks a passage from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. My respect for women in music never stops growing, I swear.
Finally, there are the meta-literary songs: songs about writing books. Going back to the Beatles, their ‘Paperback Writer’ exemplifies this, but Belle & Sebastian’s back catalogue also has plenty to explore. However, I imagine you must have more than enough to make your own literary playlist. Happy reading!