10 Songs You Didn't Know Were Inspired By Literature
Inspiration for music can come from a variety of different sources and the laundry list of books and short stories that have influenced rock bands could fill, well, a library. But while "For Whom The Bell Tolls" by Metallica, "Ramble On" by Led Zeppelin, and "Frankenstein" by Lenny Kravitz have obvious reference points, here are a few songs you might not have known have roots in the written word.
10. "Don't Stand So Close To Me" by The Police (1980)
At first sounding as ambiguous as some of their other singles, listen closely and you'll discover "Don't Stand So Close To Me" is about a teacher who is having impure thoughts about one of his students. Even worse, those feelings appear to be reciprocated, leading the narrator to feel "Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov."
This line, somewhat buried in the rest of the lyrics, is, of course, a reference to Lolita, the 1955 novel about a literature professor obsessed with a preteen girl. Interestingly, The Police's lead singer Sting was also once an English teacher and he's been forthright about the types of tension that can exist in classrooms. Exploring those situations, Sting said Nabokov was "the key" that helped him finish the song, but in a 2001 interview for the concert DVD ...All This Time, Sting denied that the tune is even remotely autobiographical.
9. "Killing An Arab" by The Cure (1978)
A song title like "Killing An Arab" invites the kind of outrage that certainly wouldn't fly today. But even in the late '70s, some people protested, leading The Cure to request radio stations to stop playing their song. Back then, controversial music like this could land you on black lists by certain conservative groups, who would then use their influence to coerce radio stations not to play your songs and stores not to sell your music. The song generated even more controversy during the Persian Gulf War and following the September 11 Attacks.
However, "Killing An Arab" wasn't really racist, at least not intentionally -- it was actually a reference to The Stranger by French existentialist Albert Camus. The lyrics "Standing on the beach with a gun in my hand" nods to the book's protagonist, Meursault, who like Johnny Cash, killed an Arab "just to watch him die."
8. "Whip It" by Devo (1980)
Crack that whip! Using the same riff from Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman," Devo's number one song might just seem like just another silly new wave mantra. The song's subject matter has been linked to everything from sadomasochism to former President Jimmy Carter to inhaling nitrous oxide. But there's a lot more beneath the surface.
Gerald Casale, who co-wrote "Whip It" with Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh, has explained the lyrics were heavily inspired by Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel, Gravity's Rainbow. The book balances between the high-brow and the low-brow, and featured many parodies of limericks and American attitudes, such as "We're number 1!" Inspired, Casale wrote the lyrics and the rest is history.
7. "Up The Junction" by Squeeze (1979)
This depressing, chorus-less song details the life of a man who knocks up his girlfriend, then must take a job with grueling hours to support his family, but she leaves him when his gambling and drinking grows out of hand. "Up The Junction" is the British equivalent to the phrase "up a creek without a paddle," which is a fairly accurate summary of the dude's misfortune.
The title, however, is a reference to author Nell Dunn's collection of short stories bearing the same name. In the same vein as the "true to life" stories of Raymond Carver or Hemingway, the stories deal with the hardworking life in the slums. Guitarist Chris Difford saw a play on TV that was also written by Dunn, and got the inspiration for the song there.
6. "Firework" by Katy Perry (2010)
Katy Perry doesn't seem to be much of a reader, and indeed, this one's a bit of a loose reference. Anyway, remember when Russell Brand and Ms. Perry were dating? He showed her a paragraph from Jack Kerouac's On The Road that described people who are so electrified by life that they buzz all over the place, just like a bottle rocket.
The idea was loosely translated into the now-infamous lyrics, turning a Beat Generation mantra into a catchphrase for a new generation. That's actually pretty cool, even if the 13-yeard old girls (and, if you believe Seth Rogen, sometimes Kim Jong-un) who sing along to "Firework" have no idea of its origins.
Here's the quote, which is admittedly far more poetic than Perry could ever hope to be: "But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'"
5. "I Want Candy" by The Strangeloves (1965)
Perhaps the best-known version of this song is Aaron Carter's cover, but it's doubtful even he knew what inspired this classic number. The Strangeloves were a group of songwriters who, trying to sound exotic, claimed to be sheepherders from Australia, but were actually three producers from New York - Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer. With the help of Bert Berns, known for writing "Twist And Shout," the song reached Number 11 on the charts and became a classic.
Listen closely and you can almost sniff past the euphemism, but the titillating subject matter becomes clear when you learn Candy is the name of the 1958 novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg. It follows the erotic misadventures of the doe-eyed Candy Christian, as she frolics with sexual analysts and mystics.
The book was highly controversial in its day, due to its strong sexual content and was quickly banned. But that certainly gives new meaning to the lyrics, "So sweet, you make my mouth water."
4. "Video Killed The Radio Star" by The Buggles (1979)
OK, so the video didn't really kill the radio star -- FM stations certainly still exist. But this song, also the very first music video MTV played when the awful network debuted, was more of a warning than a prophecy.
Travis Horn wrote the song after reading "The Sound-Sweep" a short story by J.G. Ballard about a world in which music no longer exists. In the story, a little mute boy is wandering around, vacuuming up stray sounds, when he befriends an opera singer (her occupation now obsolete) hiding in an abandoned recording studio. A world without music? That's the kind of tragedy that would really be murder.
3. "Rocket Man" by Elton John (1972)
Most people compare this song to David Bowie's "Space Oddity," both due to the depressing, sci-fi existentialism and due to the fact that producer Gus Dudgeon worked on both iconic songs. But the inspiration for the lyrics, written by Bernie Taupin, came from another place - Ray Bradbury's short story "The Rocket Man."
But it's a little more indirect than that, actually. A band called Pearls Before Swine did a song of the same name inspired by the story first in 1970, which Taupin has admitted informed his lyrics. When asking who was plagiarizing who, the answer is truly the author of Fahrenheit 451.
2. "Scentless Apprentice" by Nirvana (1993)
Nirvana wanted In Utero, their follow-up to Nevermind, to be as different from their breakout album as possible and they definitely succeeded. This is due in part to Kurt Cobain's far more erratic lyrics and subject matter, which can be pretty obscure on the first listen. While songs like "Heart Shaped Box" and "Pennyroyal Tea" could be vague, weird and even downright absurd, "Scentless Apprentice" relied on some pretty heavy source material.
The song details the story of a perfume shop apprentice born with an incredible sense of smell, but alas -- he has no scent of his own. His solution? Murdering young girls for their smells -- admittedly, not the best choice.
If that story sounds familiar, it's because it's based on the 1985 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by German writer Patrick Süskind. Cobain said the novel was one of his all time favorites, but he isn't alone - Air, Rammstein, and even Panic! At The Disco, among others, have credited Perfume with inspiring their music.
1. "Sympathy For The Devil" by The Rolling Stones (1968)
In "Sympathy For The Devil," the Prince of Darkness gets a facelift, being shown to be a sympathetic character, "a man of wealth and taste." Taking credit for luring men and women to ruin, the first-person account of Satan's deeds takes on a more personal narrative.
Nope, it's not a song about The Satanic Bible, at least according to Mick Jagger. Rather, this classic Stones' tune was inspired by The Master and Margarita, a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. The book, which details the Devil's visit to the former Soviet Union, wasn't just exploitative either - it's seen by many critics as one of the best examples of Soviet satire.
However, while the Stones' song is the most recognizable, it's far from the only tune inspired by the novel. By some estimates, there are at least 250 songs that reference the novel, including but not limited to Patti Smith, Franz Ferdinand, Pearl Jam and many others.
Troy Farah buys stacks of books that he never reads and that's probably because he has a Twitter account you should stalk.
Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.