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.

Upcoming Events

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!'"

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >