By Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department
“To me, art begets art,” wrote Susan Vreeland, author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue. “Painting feeds the eye just as poetry feeds the ear, which is to say that both feed the soul.”  If you’ve choreographed an impromptu dance routine while listening to a favorite song, for example, or illustrated a beloved poem in watercolor, then you’ll know what she meant.
Sometimes those creative links span decades and genres. Who could have guessed that an “art pop” song based on the plot of a gothic tragi-romance would sweep the music charts in 13 countries and both hemispheres? But that’s exactly what happened when teenaged English artist Kate Bush released her first single, “Wuthering Heights,” in 1978.  That song – and its gloriously, theatrically, beautifully weird music video – has been running through my head for weeks, so I decided to find some more examples of popular music based on literature.
Countless acts, from Radiohead to Dead Kennedys to Stevie Wonder, have found inspiration in George Orwell’s 1984. David Bowie even aspired to produce a musical based on the dystopian novel. Orwell’s widow denied Bowie the rights, but some of the songs ended up on his Diamond Dogs album (“1984,” “Big Brother,” “We Are the Dead”). [3, 4, 5]
Musicians mine Middle Earth – the setting for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, among other stories – for ideas, as well. Led Zeppelin indulged their Hobbital tendencies in such classics as “Ramble On,” “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” and “The Battle of Evermore.” Rush, Genesis, and Nickel Creek are some other acts who’ve referenced Bilbo et al. Comedy nerdcore duo Lords of the Rhymes exists solely to rap about Sauron and such. The fantasy epics are a favorite of metalheads, too: Blind Guardian, Summoning, Battlelore, Isengard, and Rivendell lead the way in the “Tolkien metal” genre. (Yes, that’s a thing.) [6, 7, 8, 9] But may we never forget the gold standard when it comes to Tolkien-related songs: Leonard Nimoy’s “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” (Trust me: that video is a lot to take in, but you have to watch it.)
Many of the literary songs I’ve come across are much more subtle about their inspirations. Some of them quite surprised me, in fact. Listen to a few tracks from this list and see if you can figure out the connections for yourself. Then, check the links at the end of this post to read more about their bookish origins. And if you’re interested in books that were inspired by famous songs, check out this blog post.
ABBA, “The Piper” (The Stand by Steven King)
- Alt-J, “Breezeblocks” (Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak)
- The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert)
- Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kwali), “Thieves in the Night” (The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison)
- Kate Bush, “Flower of the Mountain” (Ulysses by James Joyce)
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Red Right Hand” (Paradise Lost by John Milton)
- Chance the Rapper, “Same Drugs” (Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie)
- Devo, “Whip It” (Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon)
Celine Dion (but really Meat Loaf), “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” (Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë)
- Manic Street Preachers, “Motorcycle Emptiness” (Rumble Fish by S.E. Hinton)
- Neutral Milk Hotel, “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” (The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank)
- Katy Perry, “Firework” (On the Road by Jack Kerouac)
- REM, “Disturbance at the Heron House” (Animal Farm by George Orwell)
- The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil” (Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov)
- The Roots, “Act Won (Things Fall Apart)” (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe)
- The Strokes, “Soma” (Brave New World by Aldous Huxley)
- T’Pau, “China in Your Hand” (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)
- U2, “Shadows and Tall Trees” (Lord of the Flies by William Golding)
References and Further Reading:
- 1 – https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/susan_vreeland_726633
- 2 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuthering_Heights_(song)#Chart_performance
- 3- https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/02/10-songs-inspired-by-george-orwells-1984.html
- 4 – https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/may/20/10-songs-inspired-by-literature
- 5 – http://www.openculture.com/2016/04/david-bowie-dreamed-of-turning-george-orwells-1984-into-a-musical.html
- 6 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_inspired_by_J._R._R._Tolkien#Rock_music
- 7 – http://ultimateclassicrock.com/top-10-the-hobbit-lord-of-the-rings-songs/
- 8 – http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Category:Bands
- 9 – http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Tolkien_metal
By Stephen McClain, Reference Department
On Sunday evening, January 10, 2016, David Bowie died at the age of 69. After the sudden death of Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead and the passing of Natalie Cole, the music world has suffered the loss of yet another icon. As modern rock and roll ages as a genre, we will unfortunately see more influential artists disappear in the foreseeable future. Paul McCartney is 73, Robert Plant is 67, Bruce Springsteen is 66, the guys in Iron Maiden are in their late 50s (sans Nicko McBrain who is 63) and they are all still actively creating new music, but performing takes its toll on the body. Artists like these all seem larger than life. Even immortal. Aren’t they supposed to live forever? Anyway… Bowie had just put out a new album entitled “Blackstar,” his 25th studio album. I never realized it until now, but Bowie’s music has been present in my life for a very long time. Around the time I started playing guitar, I used to repeatedly listen to a crackly 45 of “Space Oddity.” (For those under age twenty-five, a 45 is…never mind. Go ask your parents.) I was in 8th grade when “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” were in the Billboard top ten (yes, I’m that old). I bought the “Best of Bowie” two CD collection many years ago and have done an acoustic version of Ziggy Stardust at a few of my solo gigs. David Bowie had to have known the impact that his music and career had on the entertainment world, but some question whether or not he was aware of his own global reach.
David Bowie was born David Robert Jones south of London, England on January 8, 1947. After several unsuccessful bands and musical endeavors in the 1960s, he would begin his solo career with his focus not only on music, but image as well. He changed his name to Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones, the lead singer of the Monkees. The success of “Space Oddity” would drive Bowie’s career in the early 1970s and he would be a pioneer of the genre of “glam” rock. He and guitarist Marc Bolan are credited with inventing the genre. With the creation and huge success of the characters Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972, Bowie’s status as an influential rock icon was cemented, even if he didn’t record anything else. Coupled with his androgynous appearance and admitted bisexuality, David Bowie was unlike anything at the time. He greatly influenced bands like Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, Sweet, and the New York Dolls, all known for an androgynous appearance that was directly related to Bowie. But it’s the music that is so important. Much of what he did in the 1970s still sounds fresh today, “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Changes,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Young Americans,” Suffragette City,” and “Heroes,” the first and last songs being covered by Nirvana and the Wallflowers, respectively.
I could go into great detail about Bowie’s music, image and the impact of his artistic endeavors on the world, but this has been written at length by music writers much better than myself. To me, what is so significant about the loss of David Bowie is that he was an innovator; one that continued to reinvent himself and remained creative and original until the end. He was not only a musician; he was also an actor, artist and fashion icon. In a modern music world where conformity is the rule of the day and artistic development is rare, David Bowie would not have had a chance today. Bowie’s first records were not huge successes until “Space Oddity.” He began his career in 1962 but didn’t see real success until the early 1970s. Today, if an artist’s first album is not a blockbuster, he or she is done. No development. No second chance. That’s it. Without Bowie, there would be no Madonna, Lady Gaga, Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper, Motley Crue, even Smashing Pumpkins… the list goes on. Bowie tested limits, broke barriers and invented original, unearthly characters. At the risk of sounding cynical, how many of today’s top artists will still be making critically acclaimed, innovative music into their 60s?
His new album, “Blackstar,” which was released on his 69th birthday, is a dark record of 7 tracks that still test limits and is already being acknowledged as some of his finest work. Like George Harrison’s “Brainwashed” and Warren Zevon’s “The Wind,” this is an album written by a man knowing that death would come soon and this would be his final work. I turned on Palladia Monday evening and they were playing an older VH-1 concert of Bowie. Following the show, they played the video for the new single “Lazarus.” It’s creepy. Coupled with the shock of his death, I was not prepared for it. Bowie is in bed, blindfolded by bandages with buttons for eyes and sings, “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” The other 6 tracks are also introspective, jazzy saxophone coupled with a bit of distorted techno. Chaotic at times. The album closes with a lyrical and musical farewell with the track “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”
“I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal sons
The blackout’s hearts with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes”
We all live in an important time regarding popular music. We are sharing oxygen with artists who were the first of their kind, paved their own way and created music that will last far beyond our time on earth, but I fear that the grab for cash that has consumed the music industry is threatening the further development of music that will last. So much of what we hear today is lowest common dominator dreck designed to appeal to as many as possible. Don’t get me wrong, there is good music out there, but it’s not on the surface. You have to dig. David Bowie’s music and career began at a time when you listened to the radio to know which way the wind blew. Those days are over, but the music lives on. My hope is that there is a kid in a garage or basement somewhere, with an idea or song that will change everything. He or she is out there, I know it. Just like the starman, waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds…
Rest in peace, Ziggy.
*Opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and in no way reflect the philosophy or preferences of the Williamson County Public Library, its staff members, their families, friends, or pets.