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By the Book: 7 Literary Tributes in Popular Music

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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.

The Doors
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.

Modest Mouse
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?

117 Comments

  1. wolf tamer and iron miner -  March 9, 2014 - 9:35 am

    “The Duke and the King” (this band’s very name is a tribute to 2 characters in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain) has an album called “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” the name of a poem by Robert Frost.

    Reply
  2. Dylan -  March 7, 2014 - 10:12 am

    The call of ktulu by Metallica… Im really surprised no one has said that one yet.

    Reply
  3. Noah -  March 6, 2014 - 7:15 pm

    The former alternative rock band My Chemical Romance took its name from Irvine Welsh’s novella collection “Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance.” The bassist was inspired by the title after seeing it in the Barnes and Noble in which he worked before the band’s formation.

    Reply
  4. saalian -  March 6, 2014 - 5:48 pm

    Sepultura’s Dante XII was a concept album based on The Divine Comedy. Also their A-Lex album was based on A Clockwork Orange.

    There is also a band called Paradise Lost … perhaps in reference to Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost”??

    Reply
  5. Patrick Flood -  March 6, 2014 - 2:51 pm

    My very favorite is Rush’s homage to Ayn Rand’s Anthem,”2112″.

    Which was then ITSELF referenced in the book “Ready Player One”.

    Which was amazing.

    Reply
  6. Galena -  March 4, 2014 - 11:45 pm

    Florence + the Machine’s “Rabbit Heart” video is very Lady of Shalott :)

    Reply
  7. Galena -  March 4, 2014 - 11:41 pm

    Lana Del Rey makes a ton of “Lolita” references in her first album. She also has a song called “I sing the body electric” in tribute to Walt Whitman. There’s a Nietzsche quote in “Gods and Monsters”: “God is Dead”.

    Reply
  8. Dee -  March 4, 2014 - 4:27 pm

    The unpopular alternative band The Boo Radleys is named after the character by the same name from To Kill A Mockingbird.

    Reply
  9. miri -  March 3, 2014 - 9:51 pm

    What about Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”? It’s got a ton of references to Anne Frank’s diary.

    Reply
  10. Jackson D. -  March 3, 2014 - 4:04 pm

    I remember first taking The Police seriously as something apart from a passing fad punk band when I heard the lyric in “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” – “just like the / old man in / that book by Nabakov”

    Reply
  11. Lindsey -  March 3, 2014 - 4:00 pm

    The metalcore band ‘Of Mice & Men’ (not to be confused with the alternative pop band ‘Of Monsters and Men’) chose their name from John Steinbeck’s book of the same title.

    Reply
  12. bruce -  March 3, 2014 - 11:01 am

    the drummer for rush writes the lyrics to their songs which are usually baced on novels he has read.his nick name is the professor.my favorite is Red Barchetta.

    Reply
  13. luna -  March 2, 2014 - 8:14 pm

    “the veldt” by deadmau5 is a tribute to ray bradbury on his story the veldt

    Reply
  14. michelle -  March 2, 2014 - 8:00 am

    The drowning man by the Cure refers to the deaths of Fuschia and Steerpike from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast,,

    Starting at the violent sound
    She tries to turn
    But final
    Noiseless
    Slips and strikes her soft dark head
    The water bows
    Receives her
    And drowns her at its ease

    Reply
  15. Boo -  February 28, 2014 - 2:05 pm

    One I haven’t heard mentioned is “Couches in alleys” by Ben Gibbard that is about Jack Kerouac.

    Reply
  16. Jon Woods -  February 28, 2014 - 9:35 am

    One my favorites is “Ripples” by Genesis, which references John Crowe Ransom’s poem “Blue Girls.”

    Reply
  17. Michele -  February 28, 2014 - 8:22 am

    “40″ by U2, taken from Psalms 40–almost word for word.
    One of my favorite passages in the Bible, one of my favorite songs.

    Reply
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