Frank Zappa once said “So many books, so little time.” The same could be said about music, although some people seem to be able to consume both at the same time, which must be helpful. But Zappa is not the only musician looking to the literary world; books have inspired some of the greatest songs we know. Many people would compare lyrics to poetry, but in this case we’re looking at the prose that sparks creativity in artists. From classic hits through to the less likely references, we’ve put together some of the best literary adaptations in music…
Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush
Perhaps one of the best known literary adaptations in music, Kate Bush’s dramatic (and shrill) classic is brimful with the tragedy of Emily Brontë’s only novel. First published in 1847 under the pseudonym “Ellis Bell”, the doomed love of Cathy and Heathcliff has been a schoolroom staple of English Lit classes for decades. A prime favourite for TV adaptations, Bush’s version is perhaps the best known song to be inspired by Wuthering Heights.
Recorded in 1978, the lyrics were actually written by Bush aged just 18. Inspired by just ten minutes of a BBC mini-adaptation that aired on 1967 television, she also discovered that she shared her birthday with Emily Brontë (July 30). Singing as the ghost of Cathy, calling to Heathcliff from the bleak moors – and from beyond the grave – the track stayed at number one in the British charts for four weeks.
Bush actually fought hard with record label EMI to have Wuthering Heights released as the lead single for her album, The Kick Inside. A rare victory for a young artist, who was definitely more savvy than her floaty dresses and mystical demeanour might have indicated to unsuspecting label execs.
Scentless Apprentice by Nirvana
Nirvana’s final studio album, In Utero, was released in 1993 amid all the usual promotion and press coverage. Alongside the barrage of standard questions from music journos, Canadian reporter Erica Ehm asked Kurt Cobain if his music was inspired by literature. The answer was yes, and that his favourite book was Perfume by Patrick Suskind and he “as a matter a fact…used that very story in Scentless Apprentice.”
“I read Perfume by Patrick Suskind about 10 times in my life, and I can’t stop reading it. It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time. It just doesn’t leave me,” Cobain told Ehm during the interview. “Cause I’m a hypochondriac it just affects me – makes me want to cut off my nose.”
Originally written in German and published in 1985, Perfume is a dark and disturbing historical narrative that explores the relationship between smell and emotions. The protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is an unloved orphan with an exceptional sense of smell, but no scent to his body. The opening lyrics to Scentless Apprentice follow Suskind’s writing; “Like most babies smell like butter / His smell smelled like no other.”
In the novel, Grenouille’s lack of scent disturbs his wet nurse who claims that normal babies smell like butter. The chorus refrain of “Go away” is a pretty stark reference to Grenouille’s realisation that he is in fact a misanthrope. The novel is also widely seen as an allegory for Hitler’s rise to power.
Killing An Arab by The Cure
Robert Smith has made a number of nods towards the high-brow literary world throughout his career with The Cure. Starting as they meant to continue, the very first intended single written by The Cure was directly inspired by the French philosophical novelist Albert Camus. Killing An Arab was recorded at the same time as the band’s debut LP, Three Imaginary Boys, but wasn’t released until 1980 when it featured on their next album, Boys Don’t Cry.
Viewed as controversial and offensive since its release, Killing An Arab was actually “a short poetic attempt at condensing my impression of the key moments in L’Étranger (The Stranger)” by Smith. The book tells the story of Meursault, a French Algerian lacking in empathy, who shoots an Arab man during an altercation on a beach. The lyrics tell the story from Meursault’s perspective, briefly examining his position as ‘the stranger’ who cannot connect with himself or the world around him.
Smith has often regretted how Killing An Arab has been so misinterpreted and how it has been viewed as racist and inciting of violence.
Lotion by Greenskeeper
Most people are familiar with Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in the blockbuster version of The Silence Of The Lambs, but like many movie classics, the film was first a book. Published under the same title by Thomas Harris in 1988, the serial killer Buffalo Bill and his penchant for human skin were invented by Harris.
Chicago band Greenskeeper were inspired by the fictional psychopath to write their hit Lotion, included in the track listing on their 2004 album Pleetch. A sparse yet addictive piece of indie, the song follows the musings of Buffalo Bill as he goes about his daily life of imprisoning captives in the deep hole in his basement, walking his little dog and making sure everyone moisturises properly.
Always returning to his famous insistence that “It puts the lotion in the basket”, there is also a dark humour to the sordid subject matter. A particular favourite moment of mine from James Curd’s lyrics; “The night is very cold / I’m feeling kind of weak / I think I’ll make myself a cap from your right buttocks cheek”
Ramble On by Led Zeppelin
The 1960s and 70s found many artists fascinated by fantasy and philosophy, particularly with the arrival of mind-expanding psychedelia and “intellectual” prog rock. Even one the era’s most famous bands, Led Zeppelin were not averse to delving into fiction for inspiration. References to J.R.R. Tolkien’s iconic fantasy opus, The Lord Of The Rings, are rife throughout Zeppelin’s writing.
Perhaps the most famous example is Ramble On, taken from their 1969 album Led Zeppelin II. Co-written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, the highly descriptive lyrics parallel Frodo and Sam’s fictional journey. From the opening line “Leaves are falling all around” (which is likely to have been lifted from Tolkien’s poem Namárië), through to mention of Mordor and Gollum. Even the lyric “Got no time to for spreading roots” references the hobbits’ stint with the animated tree race of the “Ents”.
Led Zeppelin continued to reference LOTR across other songs well. Led Zeppelin IV in particular featured songs like Misty Mountain Hop and The Battle Of Evermore. Anyone familiar with the novel will recognise references to “ring wraiths” and magic runes. Misty Mountain Hop probably takes its title from the mountains of Middle Earth, but the song places Tolkien’s writings as a totem for the peace movement of the ’60s instead of taking inspiration from the story itself.
2+2=5 by Radiohead
Radiohead are well known for the intelligent commentary that is often inherent in their music. Born out in the Oxford countryside during the 1980s, like so many Britpop era bands they were the product of traditional English education. Giving them both an eclectic knowledge of music, and a creative dislike of the school system.
It seems unsurprising that Radiohead would look to the literary world for inspiration, and even less so that they would find it in George Orwell’s prophetic, dystopian novel 1984. 2+2=5 (The Lukewarm) was the third single from Radiohead’s 2003 album Hail To The Thief. The title matches the “symbol of unreality” used by Orwell to illustrate the concept of an imposed falsity. In Orwell’s imagined authoritarian world, inhabitants are subjects to “doublethinking” where their on beliefs are replaced by political propaganda.
The song features the familiar low-key menace of Radiohead, mixing alt-rock with electronic elements. Thom Yorke once said of the album that he “desperately tried not to write anything political … But it’s just fucking there.” The alternative title for 2+2=5 of The Lukewarm is also apparently inspired by the works of Dante who described “the lukewarm” as those inhabiting just the edges of the inferno.