9 Songs That Were Inspired by Books

Woman reading and listening to music

If you can’t get David Bowie to join your book club, do the next best thing and pick a book he’d recommend—his taste for Orwell is not-so-well hidden inside songs like “Big Brother.” It’s alway fun to spot a literary easter egg, tucked away in the music of everyone from hipster godfather Lou Reed to perennial Romeo-seeker Taylor Swift. Here are some of my favorite book-inspired songs, brought to us by rock stars who play lit geek on the side.

“White Rabbit” (Jefferson Airplane). Once you’ve heard it, you can’t forget the spare, spooky opening sounds of 60s anthem “White Rabbit,” the aural equivalent of hashish. Plug in your lava lamp, bake some bread, and listen to Grace Slick’s love letter to a darker reading of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

“Ramble On” (Led Zeppelin). As Robert Plant always says (probably), I like a little troll in my rock and roll. Not of the internet variety, but honest-to-God trolls. Yes, behind the leather pants, glorious hair, and rock-and-roll howl, Plant was a Tolkien geek. He doesn’t even try to hide it: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair. But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.” Want to see The Hobbit with me, Bob? I’ve got Netflix.

“The Stranger Song” (Leonard Cohen). Cohen’s autumnal work, sung to a discarded woman, references Nelson Algren’s Chicago underbelly–set masterpiece The Man With the Golden Arm, about a morphine-addicted card dealer: “O you’ve seen that man before/His golden arm dispatching cards/But now it’s rusted from the elbows to the finger.”

“Angelene” (PJ Harvey). “Rose my color is and white/pretty mouth and green my eyes.” This heartbreaking rhyme, written by a cuckolded husband for his wife (and recited, unwittingly, to the woman’s lover), provides the title for “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” one of J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. It’s also a central lyric of this haunting song, off of Harvey’s Is This Desire—in Harvey’s reimagining, the rhyme is spoken by and about a prostitute.

“Been Down So Long” (The Doors). “I been down so long it looks like up to me,” growls Jim Morrison in this track off his final album, echoing the title of Richard Farina’s 1966 counterculture classic. Farina, husband to Joan Baez’s kid sister, Mimi, died far too young, but left behind this unimprovably titled debut novel, which comes with the Thomas Pynchon (a close friend of Farina’s) stamp of approval.

“Scentless Apprentice” (Nirvana). Cobain’s sweaty ode is inspired by the creepy protagonist of Perfume. He has no scent of his own, but nurses a repellent obsession with the smell of pubescent women, leading him to obsessively track and murder them in hopes of transmuting their scents into perfume. Creepy, suggestive lyrics like “I promise not to sell your perfumed secrets/There are countless formulas for pressing flowers” effectively distill the essence of this horror novel.

“Red Right Hand” (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). This eerie song, cousin to a murder ballad, cadges its title from a line in Paradise Lost: “Should intermitted vengeance arm again his red right hand to plague us?” Milton spoke of God’s vengeful hand, and Cave talks of a dark, charismatic figure (“he’s a god, he’s a man”) who has the same bloody touch.

“Horses” and “My Blakean Year” (Patti Smith). To listen to Patti Smith is to swim in a sea of brainy references. These two songs make it real easy: “Horses” refers to poet Arthur Rimbaud by name, and “My Blakean Year” gives homage to William Blake, poet and illustrator of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

What’s your favorite lit-inspired song?

  • Martin Wagner

    “The Sensual World” aka “Flower of the Mountain” by Kate Bush. Pretty much straight out of James Joyce.

  • Larry Cunningham

    There’s one obvious one that comes to mind: “Wuthering Heights,” by Kate Bush.

    • Kayla

      Listening to that right now!

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  • Larry Cunningham

    Also, Loreena McKennitt has done fine renditions of Tennyson’s poetry.

    • Inês S. Albuquerque

      Tennyson and Dante, as well :)

  • http://www.awesomeville.co.uk/ Nicky @ Awesomeville.co.uk

    Angry Johnny, which is about Johnny in the book House of Leaves.

    • Ariel

      Actually, the whole album is based on that book in one way or another, her (Poe’s) brother wrote it. ::)

  • William Cuthbertson

    The Police song “Tea in the Sahara” is based on Paul Bowles’ novel, “The Sheltering Sky.”

  • Marci Yesowitch Hopkins

    Blue Oyster Cult “Nosforatu”

  • Clark Hare

    The Police song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” is based on Lolita and references Nabokov.

  • Elizabeth

    Since I can never pick a favorite song (or book) I’ll just go with the first that comes to mind: “Misery Loves Company” by Anthrax, based on Stephen King’s novel Misery.

    • Russ Perry Jr

      A woman who knows her Anthrax? Yow!

      How about Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, which is definitely based on the Hemingway novel, not John Dunne’s “Devotions” which Hemingway got the title from.

  • Dave

    There’s a million Iron Maiden songs: Murders in the Rue Morgue, Phantom of the Opera, Rime of the Ancient Mariner….

    • Travis Birt

      Don’t forget “To Tame a Land” by Iron maiden about Frank Herbert’s Dune.

  • Amy

    Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Deep Blue Something…

  • Andy Bosch

    The Cure – Killing an Arab – (based on Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”)

  • Michelle Brademeyer

    No Spill Blood by Oingo Boingo was inspired by H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau

  • JeremiahHorrigan

    Randy Newman credited on his liner notes Huey Long biographer T. Harry Williams for inspiring some part of Newman’s masterpiece “Good Old Boys.”

    Also, how many folk / country / traditional songs draw on Bible stories?

    Also also– Richard Farina’s “Been Down So Long Looks Like Up to Me” was drawn by him from an old blues number by Furry Lewis. Two great artoists, one great line.

  • http://www.thenewdorkreviewofbooks.com Greg Zimmerman

    Counting Crows – The Rain King , inspired by Bellow’s Henderson The Rain King.

  • Megan

    Moon Over Bourbon Street by Sting is based on Interview with the Vampire.

  • BustemLoose

    Sirens of Titan, written by Kurt Vonnegut and sung by Al Stewart is quite lovely.

  • Em Sanders

    “Oh Valencia!” by the Decemberists is inspired by Romeo and Juliet.

  • Elizabeth

    “Running through the Garden” by Fleetwood Mac is based off Rapichini’s Daughter.

  • Kate M.

    Well there’s “The Giving Tree” by The Palin White T’s ipsired from that book. And there’s recently “Breezeblocks” which has lyrics inspired my the children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are”.

  • John Baugh

    Don’t forget “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Bruce Springsteen. It is awesome in concert.

  • Kelley Walker

    No Spill Blood by Oingo Boingo. It actually is a reference to Animal Farm by George Orwell.

  • Susanna Mattsson

    Many favourites among those already mentioned, but this don’t miss “Tales of brave Ulysses” by Cream.

  • Zach White

    I can’t believe no one else has said it: The Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil” and Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”. Simply perfect on both fronts.

  • Wendy Lee

    What, you mention Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” but completely forget to mention “Battle of Evermore?” For shame…

  • April_Fool_79

    How about the entire Our Lady Peace CD “Spiritual Machines”?? It was inspired after a fan gave the band a copy of “The Age of Spiritual Machines” by Ray Kurzweil. In fact, Kurzewil provided recordings of himself reading passages from the book to use on the CD.

  • Sarah Wolf

    Rebecca by Meg & Dia is another.

  • Megan Leigh

    I Blame Coco ft. Robyn ‘Caesar’ references Lord of the Flies.

  • catdance

    “Romeo Had Juliette” by Lou Reed. “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (Dylan Thomas) and “Hedda Gabbler” (Ibsen) by John Cale – lots more from him.
    The Real Tuesday Weld creates soundtrack albums for author Glen Duncan’s novels.

  • Joshua Smythe

    I love this literary mix tape, some more:
    Warm Leatherette by the Normal – J G Ballard’s Crash.
    Close to the Edge by Yes – Siddhartha, Herman Hesse.
    Coma by Pendulum – Brave New World by Huxley.
    All Along the Watch Tower by Bob Dylan has some Frankenstein vibes running through it.
    Paranoid Android by Radiohead is about Marvin from Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide.
    If you want to Hear About it – quotes the closing line of Catcher in the Rye by Salinger.
    Every Day is Exactly the Same by NIN is about 1984 by Orwell

  • Amber

    Bright Eyes – Tereza and Tomas is a reference to Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

  • Ariel

    Panic! at the Disco’s song “Time to Dance” is based on and uses lines from Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk.
    “Give me envy! Give me malice! Baby, give me a break.”