Updated on February 17, 2017
Songs named after books: part 2
This week: the literature/music crossover continues with five more songs inspired by books
Maybe it’s all that time on tour buses, but musicians sure read a lot. If you missed them, here are my posts on Bands with literary names and Songs named after books: part 1 but, for now, let’s get straight into part 2.
“Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush (from “The Kick Inside”, 1978)
You KNEW it would be here and of course this is the one that springs to mind for most people. In many ways this Kate Bush song is the ideal soundtrack to Emily Brontë’s desperate, gut-wrenching story of doomed lovers Cathy and Heathcliff, and their wild, windswept romance – if you’re a teenage girl, certainly. The song tells the story from Cathy’s point of view, focusing on the moment when her icy ghost tries to get back into Wuthering Heights during the night, to seek forgiveness from Heathcliff. Both Brontë and Bush were very young when they wrote their respective works and there’s definitely something about both book and song that appeals to youth and romantic idealism – the unchecked passion, the lack of self-consciousness, and the disregard for convention and formality – and Bush has previously described how strongly she identifies with the novel: “This young girl in an era when the female role was so inferior and she was coming out with this passionate, heavy stuff… Also when I was a child I was always called Cathy not Kate and I just found myself able to relate to her as a character. It’s so important to put yourself in the role of the person in a song. There are no half measures. When I sing that song I am Cathy.” There are other literary allusions in Bush’s work, including “The Infant Kiss”, which was inspired by Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”, and “The Sensual World”, a reimagining of Molly Bloom’s sleepy soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, which has Molly “stepping out of the page/into the sensual world”.
“Brave New World” by Iron Maiden (from “Brave New World”, 2000)
According to Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, the song was inspired by his rereading of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian classic, just as the internet began to take off. The idea that physical reality and natural beauty could become redundant in favour of digital images and virtual simulations struck him as dangerously close to Huxley’s terrifying vision, an idea reflected in the song’s opening lines: “Dying swans, twisted wings, beauty not needed here”, as well as more direct allusions to the book: “You are planned and you are damned in this brave new world”. In fact Iron Maiden are perhaps the most literary band out there, with an impressively broad reading list – authors whose work they refer to include William Golding, Lord Tennyson, Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Coleridge, Frank Herbert, Umberto Eco, John Wyndham and Joseph Conrad – which is a pretty great list.
“Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl (from If I Should Fall From Grace with God, 1988)
This song takes its title from “A Fairytale of New York”, the 1973 novel by Irish-American author JP Donleavy – but the story told by its lyrics has little to do with the book itself. OK, so most of you can probably recite the entire thing but, to recap, The Pogues’ most famous single relives an argument between an Irish immigrant couple (but are they still a couple?) living in New York. Having arrived in the city in their younger days full of hopes and dreams, they now blame each other for their squalid existences before ending on a tender note. According to banjo player Jem Finer, the idea came from his wife, and was based on a true story involving some friends of theirs. Finer and singer Shane MacGowan then spent two years perfecting both lyrics and music, so complex did the song become. When it came to choosing a title, Finer suggested the name of the book he was reading at the time and MacGowan apparently visited Donleavy to ask for his blessing. But, although Donleavy is a native New Yorker whose parents were Irish immigrants, his novel bears little relation to the song. In fact the protagonist, Cornelius Christian, is very much single, his wife having died on their journey back to New York after an extended stay in Europe. Indebted to the funeral parlour that buried her, he takes a job there, and thus begins a blackly comic tale of scurrilous behaviour and bawdy encounters as he cavorts his way around the city, drifting between obnoxious vulgarity and moments of touching clarity and insight into life, death and the human condition. All that said, Christian is not an especially sympathetic character and the book exposes the seedier side of the city – so I guess in that sense novel and song do have something in common.
“Venus in Furs” by The Velvet Underground (from “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, 1967)
Published in 1870, “Venus in Furs” is an erotic novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, concerning sexual submission and control – the word masochism derives from his name. Even though he really was a masochist, Sacher-Masoch was horrified by the coinage, considering himself a serious writer, political activist and a champion of women’s rights. The song makes direct references to the book (“Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart”), even name-checking main character Severin, who was loosely based on Sacher-Masoch himself. Lou Reed updates Severin’s lover’s clothes, however, exchanging her satins and linens for “Shiny, shiny boots of leather”.
“The Far Pavilions” by …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (from “The Century of Self”, 2013)
Here’s another example of a song and book that make pretty odd bedfellows. “The Far Pavilions”, published in 1978, is an India-set romantic epic by MM Kaye, about Ash, a British orphan who is brought up as a native Indian before being sent back to the UK for military training. After returning to India as part of the British Raj, he has an identity crisis, embarks on a seemingly hopeless love affair with childhood sweetheart Anjuli, and becomes involved in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, before finally setting off for a Himalayan paradise where he and Anjuli can live in peace (the “Far Pavilions”). The story is set against the backdrop of “The Great Game” (Britain’s 19th-century stand-off with Russia over land in central and southern Asia) and it’s this, apparently, that inspired punk/prog rock group …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. Singer Conrad Keely has said, “I saw a lot of parallels, reading the book, about what’s going on in Afghanistan now and how the Khyber Pass has always been a playground for war, ever since the time of Alexander the Great. The song is role playing in a way, expressing the wistful feeling of trying to live your life past the place you were born, to try and reach a distant goal or dream, which the character in the book is doing.” In all honesty the song, which has a kind of 90s alternative rock vibe with messy distorted guitars, a hard-edged melody and shouty singing, does not exactly sound wistful or dreamy, but the lyrics are pretty clear: “You can’t let it get you down/You were raised on the edge of this unnamed ghost town/There, a million far pavilions/Gaze down from upon their heights/Where their eyes, full of wonder, wait to greet you/As you rise, feel the world you know divided up/Above and below.”