Updated on February 10, 2017
Songs named after books: part 1
Music has always been linked to literature, from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” to Verdi’s “La Traviata” to Iron Maiden’s “Lord of the Flies”. Here we look at five songs inspired by books (five more next week)
Following my post on bands with literary names, I thought I’d look at songs that take their titles from books (more or less). I could have done songs with literary themes, but we would have been here ALL DAY, as there are so many of them. So I kept the criteria pretty narrow to make it easier to choose. Here are my favourites – some great songs, some great books, and some intriguing cultural crossovers…
“Charlotte Sometimes” by The Cure (from “Staring at the Sea”, 1986)
I love both the song and the novel here. “Charlotte Sometimes” by Penelope Farmer (published in 1969) is a children’s book in which schoolgirl Charlotte travels between her own time (in the 50s) and 1918, swapping places every night with Clare, a quiet, serious girl who slept in the same bed 40 years previously. The girls are very different people but they look similar and, amongst the adolescent rabble of an all-girls boarding school, hardly anyone notices what’s happening, especially when Charlotte eventually gets stuck in the past. I suppose the book is largely about identity – and especially the way in which girls are, or were, moulded into identikit young women. There’s an unsettling tension between Charlotte’s fear of being unable to get back to the present and the way in which she is able to accept what is happening to her and adapt to her surroundings – on the one hand she has no choice, but the other slightly more sinister explanation is that she has been brought up to conform, to modify her behaviour and personality to whatever is expected of her. The Cure’s song, which uses lines from the book, reflects the slightly unsettling tone: “Night after night she lay alone in bed/Her eyes so open to the dark/The streets all looked so strange/They seemed so far away/But Charlotte did not cry”.
“The Wild Boys” by Duran Duran (from “Arena”, 1984)
If my childhood memories of Duran Duran are accurate, they were (and are) a superior but fairly lightweight pop band who mostly sang about women. They were not, to my mind, the obvious choice to write the soundtrack for the film version of William S. Burroughs’ 1971 novel “The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead” – a somewhat challenging story, written as a series of fragmentary dream-like (or nightmarish) scenes, which include merciless, horrific violence and pages and pages of graphic but empty (gay) sex. There is not much of a plot (or much in the way of conventional grammar or punctuation), but the narrative gradually coalesces into a disturbing story of a futuristic dystopian society, in which the Wild Boys (there are no girls) live a kind of mystical but brutal existence punctuated with ferocious savagery as they battle the repressive forces around them by any means necessary. Duran Duran were asked to write the song by video director Russell Mulcahy, who wanted to make a full-length film based on the book. In the end he only got as far as Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys” video – and, watching it now, that’s probably just as well.
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica (from “Ride The Lightning”, 1984)
Metallica probably come second only to Iron Maiden (who we’ll be looking at next week) when it comes to literature-inspired rock. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” references a scene in Ernest Hemingway’s book of the same name, in which a band of guerrilla fighters is bombed by fascist planes during the Spanish Civil War. The story concerns an American who fights on the Republican side with a small but unpredictable group of anti-fascists, and it focuses on the brutality, hopelessness and human sacrifice required to make small and possibly insignificant gains against the enemy. The physical and existential horror of war explored in this song was a theme the band returned to a few years later with “One”, inspired by Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 protest novel “Johnny Got His Gun”, in which a soldier comes back to consciousness in hospital to realise he no longer has limbs or a face, and that he is deaf, dumb and blind – literally a fate worse than death. (“Darkness/Imprisoning me/All that I see/Absolute horror/I cannot live/I cannot die/Trapped in myself/Body my holding cell”). PLUS! Guitarist Kirk Hammett told “Rolling Stone” that song/album title “Ride the Lightning” came from Stephen King’s book “The Stand”: “There was this one passage where this guy was on death row and said he was waiting to ‘ride the lightning.’ I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what a great song title.'”
“Everything’s Illuminated” by Nerina Pallot (from “The Graduate”, 2009)
Londoner Nerina Pallot (above) is a singer/songwriter who has never really hit the big time, despite a consistent output of pretty, atmospheric songs over the past 10 years and a truly gorgeous voice. She has said that this song is about “where we find God in ourselves”, and was inspired by an early passage in “Everything is Illuminated”, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2003 debut novel about a Jewish college student searching for answers about his family’s past. Beyond that, the song and book have little in common and, indeed, Foer’s novel is not the obvious inspiration for a pop song. A hugely ambitious, structurally complex book, it bursts with weighty themes, gets very creative with language, and is peppered throughout with allusions to pop culture, high-brow literature and everything in between.
“Neon Bible” by Arcade Fire (from “Neon Bible”, 2007)
The band have stated that the song (and album) were not named after the book, although you do wonder if the phrase was subconsciously lodged in someone’s brain – it’s not exactly prosaic. But I’m including it anyway because the story behind this book is so fascinating and so sad. “The Neon Bible” was written in 1954 by the then 16-year-old John Kennedy Toole, who would later go on to write the Pulitzer-prize-winning “A Confederacy of Dunces”. Both books were rejected during Toole’s lifetime and were published posthumously, after Toole’s suicide in 1969 at the age of 31. Following the success of “Confederacy”, the publishing rights to “The Neon Bible” became the subject of a bitter legal battle between Toole’s mother, Thelma, and some distant relatives on his father’s side who wanted to cash in on his sudden fame. It was finally published in 1989, after Thelma’s death and against her wishes. Toole himself described the book as “a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South” – and indeed it’s a coming-of-age tale set against a backdrop of bigotry, intolerance and hysterical moral judgement. The song is not much more jolly to be honest (“It’s in the neon Bible, the neon Bible/Not much chance for survival/If the Neon Bible is right”) but still, it’s a great album all in all.
Next week: 5 more songs named after books – any guesses?