Columns > Published on October 24th, 2013

LitRock: 9 Odd Stories Behind Book-Inspired Music

Much like peanut butter and chocolate, or cats and tiny hoodies, music and books are pretty special on their own but downright magical when combined. Today, we’re going to look at—and listen to—a few of these literary musical gems. Some, such as “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush, are obviously book inspired, but others, like Devo’s “Whip It,” may surprise you with their more subtle approach.


Inspiration: George Orwell’s "1984"

Artist: David Bowie
Songs: “Big Brother,” “1984,” and “We Are the Dead”

Once upon a time, in a world where dazzling facial glitter met omniscient governmental tyrants, David Bowie wrote a series of songs that were intended to provide the soundtrack for a stage musical based on 1984. Orwell’s estate denied Bowie the rights, which didn’t sit well with the Goblin King. According to The Man Who Sold the World by Peter Doggett, Bowie said, “For a person who married a socialist with communist leanings, [Mrs. Orwell] was the biggest upper-class snob I’ve ever met in my life.” The songs ended up instead on Bowie’s 1974 album, Diamond Dogs, and the world was forever denied a glimpse into the most glammed-up dystopia ever conceived.

See also: Tina Turner’s cover of Bowie’s “1984,” Muse’s album The Resistance, “Talk Shows on Mute” by Incubus, “2+2=5” by Radiohead, “Sex Crime” by The Eurythmics, and “Testify” by Rage Against the Machine

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Inspiration: 'The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead' by William S. Burroughs

Artist: Duran Duran
Song: “Wild Boys”

Look, I know you’ve just recovered from your disappointment over the Bowie 1984 musical, so I hate to distress you further, but we also missed out on a William S. Burroughs-inspired feature film soundtracked by Duran Duran. For those keeping score, that’s TWO extravagant dystopias we’ll never witness. It’s enough to make you sick. Australian director Russell Mulcahy, who frequently worked on Duran2's videos, bought the movie rights to Burroughs’s 1971 sci-fi tale of homosexual warriors and asked the band to write the music. The nightmare-inducing “Wild Boys” video (for real, that creepy bald head used to haunt my dreams) cost more than $1 million and featured fire-breathing, elaborate choreography, prosthetics, computer graphics, and most importantly, Simon Le Bon strapped to a spinning windmill that tried to drown him once every few seconds.

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Inspiration: Chuck Palahniuk

Artist: Panic! at the Disco
Songs: Several songs off the band’s 2005 album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out

You say “tomato,” they say “tom-ah-toe.” You say “inspiration,” they say “blatant plagiarism without once giving any credit to the original author.” Pee-can, puh-cahn. The P!atD song “Time to Dance” is based on the plot of Invisible Monsters and steals—I mean, uses—one of Chuck’s refrains in its lyrics: “Give me envy. Give me malice. Give me your attention. … Give me a break.” “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines” makes similar use of a Diary refrain: “Just for the record, the weather today is slightly sarcastic with a good chance of (a) indifference or (b) disinterest in what the critics say”, though the song’s title actually comes directly from Douglas Coupland’s Shampoo Planet. The title of “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage” is a quote from Survivor.

See also:  “Brandy Alexander” by Feist and “Invisible Monsters” by Motion City Soundtrack (inspired by Invisible Monsters), “Together Burning Bright” by The Used (Damned), and “Lullaby” by Lagwagon (Lullaby)

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Inspiration: 'Sarah' by J.T. LeRoy

Artist: Garbage
Song: “Cherry Lips”

Imagine making an award-winning documentary about pandas, only to find out you’d spent two years filming guys who get off on wearing panda mascot costumes in public. That must be what Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson felt like after basing one of the band’s most popular songs on the “autobiographical” work of an author who didn’t exist. Shirley wrote “Cherry Lips” in 2001 and became pals with author J.T. LeRoy after reading his book Sarah, the (presumed true) story of a 12-year-old, HIV-positive, transgender prostitute who went by the nickname Cherry Vanilla. The problem? LeRoy did not exist. His books were written by a middle-aged woman named Laura Albert, and his public persona—the person Shirley Manson hung out with—was played by Laura Albert’s half-sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop. Following so far? When out in public, Albert (the actual writer of Sarah) referred to herself as Emily Frasier, aka Speedie, and claimed to be in a rock band with J.T. LeRoy (played by Savannah). This allowed Albert to stay close enough to Savannah to influence J.T’s behavior.

As is often the case with hoaxes on this scale, the lie was uncovered and Albert was sued for signing legal documents with a fake name . While it lasted, the fake LeRoy was quite the boy about town though, buddying up with musicians such as Marilyn Manson, Liz Phair, Billy Corgan, Conor Oberst, Courtney Love, Nancy Sinatra (which of these things is not like the others?), and of course, Shirley Manson. To bring it all full circle, Savannah Knoop wrote a book about the experience.

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Inspiration: 'House of Leaves' by Mark Z. Danielewski

Artist: Poe
Songs: The album Haunted

Sometimes when siblings collaborate, you end up with Keeping Up With the Kardashians or the career of the Olsen twins, and you think, “For the love of all that’s holy, pass a law against this sort of thing.” Then you experience Mark Z. Danielewski’s book, House of Leaves, and his sister Poe’s companion album, Haunted, and you think, “This! This is what families should do with their time.” Danielewski says Poe’s album is less a soundtrack for the book and more “a parallax view of the same history.” The album quotes the book directly in places, with Danielewski reading from his work on one version of the single “Hey Pretty,” and the book quotes the album (“I live at the end of a five and a half minute hallway,” for example). It’s adorable. So is the video below of the two of them discussing and performing their projects.

See also: "House of Leaves" by Circa Survive

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Inspiration: 'Gravity’s Rainbow' by Thomas Pynchon

Artist: Devo
Song: “Whip It”

Nothing says, “This is a song with a serious literary foundation” like guys wearing red flower pots on their heads using a whip to remove a lady’s clothes. That’s why most people will be surprised to know that Devo’s biggest hit was inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Rather than being a direct retelling of some plot element or quoting from the book, the song was simply written in deliberate mimicry of Pynchon. Devo’s Gerald Casale said, “The lyrics were written by me as an imitation of Thomas Pynchon's parodies in his book Gravity's Rainbow. He had parodied limericks and poems of kind of all-American, obsessive, cult of personality ideas like Horatio Alger and 'You're #1, there's nobody else like you' kind of poems that were very funny and very clever. I thought, 'I'd like to do one like Thomas Pynchon,' so I wrote down 'Whip It' one night.”

See also: "Gravity's Angel" by Laurie Anderson, “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Klaxons

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Inspiration: Edgar Allan Poe

Artist: The Alan Parsons Project
Songs: “A Dream Within a Dream,” “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the rest of the album Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe

For me, The Alan Parsons Project is like those miniature corn-looking things you put in stir fry dishes, in that I sort of forget that they exist most of the time, but when I happen upon them, I’m delighted because hey, tiny corn and prog rock! So delightful are the APP that they wrote an entire 1976 album devoted to telling E.A. Poe stories in song form, and when they were finished with that, they made another album (I Robot) based on Isaac Asimov's Robot trilogy. On second thought, these guys are even better than stir fry corn things.

See also: “Ol' Evil Eye” by Insane Clown Posse (based on Poe's Tell-Tale Heart), “Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Iron Maiden, “Annabel Lee” by Stevie Nicks

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Inspiration: 'Moby Dick' by Herman Melville

Artist: Mastodon
Songs: Most of the 2004 album Leviathan, including “Iron Tusk,” “Blood and Thunder,” “I Am Ahab,” and “Seabeast”

Like a lot of metal bands, Atlanta-based Mastodon decided their second album should be a concept album inspired by a Herman Melville novel. You know, as you do. Frontman Brent Hinds read the novel on a long flight, and by the time he’d landed in London, he had the band’s next album mapped out in his head. “[T]he parallels seemed undeniable,” he said, “…it refers to Moby Dick as the Salt Sea Mastodon so I was like, ‘Oh, there you go right there.’” So it was done. In what is undoubtedly the most effective tactic for getting the youngsters to read since Reading Rainbow was canceled, Leviathan’s opening track features the band screeching, “White whale! Holy grail!” over and over. LitReactor’s Joshua Chaplinsky wrote a fantastic column about the album just last year.

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Inspiration: Stephen King

Artist: Anthrax
Songs: "Among the Living" (The Stand), "Skeletons in the Closet" (Apt Pupil), "Misery Loves Company" (Misery)

Living in the South, I picture Maine as one big perpetual ice storm, like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, but much colder. So it wasn’t surprising to me that despite Stephen King’s renowned affection for metal, and for Anthrax in particular, he hasn’t seen the band live because winter weather has blocked him from attending. He does, however, name check the band in the Dark Tower series and mentions his enjoyment of their music in interviews. That’s why, the author was quick to give his permission when the bands record label insisted on a legal release for several songs based on King’s work. It’s a real love-fest of horror and metal.

See also: "Pennywise" by Pennywise (It), "Pet Sematary" by The Ramones, "Somewhere Far Beyond" by Blind Guardian (The Dark Tower), "The Stand" by The Alarm, and the soundtrack for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

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There are plenty more where these came from, so we made you a Spotify playlist of book-inspired jams.

Here are a few of the other songs you'll hear:

  • Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad, Parts 1 and 2” (John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath)
  • Iron Maiden’s “Lord of the Flies” (William Goulding), “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” (Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card), “To Take a Land” (Frank Herbert’s Dune), “The Trooper” (Alfred Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”), and “Out of the Silent Planet” (C.S. Lewis)
  • Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” (Emily Bronte)
  • Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Stevie Nicks’s “Alice” (Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland)
  • Nirvana’s “Senseless Apprentice” (Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: the Story of a Murderer)
  • Guns & Roses and Datarock’s “The Catcher in the Rye” (J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye)
  • Suzanne Vega’s “Calypso,” Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” ABBA’s “Cassandra”, and Steely Dan’s “Home at Last” (Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey)
  • U2’s “Breathe,” Franz Ferdinand’s “Ulysses,” Kate Bush’s “The Sensual World,” Jefferson Airplane’s “Rejoyce” (James Joyce’s Ulysses)
  • Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Ernest Hemingway) and “The Thing That Should Not Be” (H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu)
  • The Bravery’s “I Have Seen the Future” (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World)
  • Annie Lennox’s “Into the West” (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings)
  • Sting’s “Moon Over Bourbon Street” (Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire)
  • Ambrosia’s “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” (Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat's Cradle)
  • The Manic Street Preachers’s “Patrick Bateman” (Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho)
  • Bloc Party’s “Songs for Clay” (Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero)
  • The Clash’s “Combat Rock” (Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”)

What did we miss? What's your favorite lit-inspired song? Tell us in the comments so we can add it to the playlist.

About the author

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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