Have you ever felt so inspired by a good book that you wanted to break into song? Many bands and recording artists have acted on that impulse by working elements of their favorite novels, short stories, or poems into their musical repertoires. Here are a few of our favorite salutes to literature in popular music.
More than an homage to architecture, the band name The Doors is a nod to Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, which chronicles the author’s experience of taking the mind-altering drug mescaline. The literary reference goes even deeper as Huxley’s title is taken from a line in William Blake’s work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”
“Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin
It’s no secret that these British rockers were fond of Middle Earth and all of its mythic trappings, but nowhere is J.R.R. Tolkein’s influence more apparent than in the lyrics of their 1969 hit “Ramble On.” This epic ditty contains a translated and paraphrased version of a poem that Tolkein wrote in Elvish. Now that’s dedication.
This alliterative band name is derived from the following passage in Virginia Woolf’s short story “The Mark on the Wall”: “I wish I could hit upon a pleasant track of thought, a track indirectly reflecting credit upon myself, for those are the pleasantest thoughts, and very frequent even in the minds of modest, mouse-coloured people, who believe genuinely that they dislike to hear their own praises.” We’re glad they didn’t go with “mouse-coloured people.”
“Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush
This musical homage to Emily Bronte, with whom Bush shares a birthday, tells the tale of the tortured and timeless love of Heathcliff and Catherine. In the song, Bush plays the part of Catherine come back from beyond the grave, bringing scenes from the novel to life with haunting lyrics such as “I’m so cold, let me in your window.” This literary tune, which Bush wrote as a teenager, reached #1 in the UK charts in 1978 and remains Bush’s best-selling single.
The Velvet Underground
Experimental rockers Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Angus MacLise swiped the name The Velvet Underground from a book of the same name by Michael Leigh that explored the sexual subculture of the early 1960s. In addition to being intrigued by the evocative phrase, band members found the literary reference fitting as Reed had already penned the song “Venus in Furs,” which was named after a novella written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
Diamond Dogs by David Bowie
With the narrative arc of a messiah alien behind him, David Bowie turned to literature for inspiration, specifically George Orwell’s 1984. The 1974 album Diamond Dogs features a number of songs, such as “Big Brother” and the disco-tinged “1984,” that Bowie penned in the hopes of adapting Orwell’s dystopian classic for the stage.
“White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane
Alice’s journey through Wonderland was never a walk in the park, but in this bone-rattling musical reconfiguration of Lewis Carroll’s beloved tale, her experiences and interactions with the fantastical characters of Wonderland take on a harrowing hue.
What are some of your favorite literary references in music?
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