The 17 greatest songs based on books
One of the greatest strengths of rock music – in its evolution out of folk and blues – has always been its ability to tell a story. From breathtaking tales of adventure to harrowing stories of war to spine-prickling accounts of serial killers and other assorted monstrosities, the world of classical and contemporary literature has always proven a happy hunting ground for artists hungry for inspiration.
Some bands lean heavily on their bookcases. Standalone lists could easily be compiled, for instance, based on the literary-inspired works of Iron Maiden (The Longest Day, Lord Of The Flies, The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, Sign Of The Cross and To Tame A Land to name a few), Blind Guardian (Altair‑4, A Traveller In Time, Lord Of The Rings, The Soulforged, Tommyknockers) or Iced Earth (Dracula, Frankenstein). Others are more selective, if no less creative in their expansion of authors’ ideas into musical soundscapes.
We’ve delved deep into the back catalogue of our favourite artists to compile a list of our seventeen favourite compositions drawn from literature. We bet you didn’t expect to find Dr. Seuss in there…
The Sword – To Take The Black (2008)
Based on: George R.R. Martin – A Game Of Thrones (1996)
Following the enormous success of the HBO adaptation, there’s almost a sense of inevitability in that rock bands will draw inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s epic Song Of Ice And Fire saga. Extra kudos, then, to Austin metallers The Sword, who got in early with this (and a slew of other) bangers based on the books. Frontman J. D. Cronise is a self-confessed superfan and even if the groovy heaviosity of the music here – off the Gods Of The Earth LP – doesn’t quite evoke the desolation of life at The Wall, we have to give full marks for commitment to the blood and mud of the source material.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Yertle The Turtle (1985)
Based on: Dr. Seuss – Yertle The Turtle and Other Stories (1950)
‘Dr. Seuss isn’t very rock ’n’ roll,’ you say? Well, Los Angeles’ favourite funk rockers don’t give a fuck what you think. Taken from second album Freaky Styley, this deep cut finds that the lyrical word-work and outright randomness of Theodor Seuss ‘Ted’ Geisel’s work was an almost ideal fit for the the Chilis’ early drugged-out jams. Thinking about it, we’d pay good money to see them expand this into a full-on concept album taking in The Cat In The Hat, Green Eggs & Ham, Horton Hears A Who and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, too…
Led Zeppelin – Ramble On (1969)
Based on: J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord Of The Rings (1954)
“I wonder if we’ll ever be put into songs or tales?” wonders Samwise Gamgee in The Two Towers – part two of J.R.R. Tolkien’s peerless fantasy epic. Chances are that neither character nor author would ever have expected to be (further) immortalised like this.
‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, mm‑I met a girl so fair
But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her her, her, yeah
And ain’t nothin’ I can do, no…’
Being bookish types in the ’70s, it was inevitable that Middle Earth would feature in Led Zeppelin’s oeuvre and their combination of some folk-rock influenced instrumentation with lyrics that transpose some of their out-there romanticism onto the perspective of the adventurers, this is headily compelling stuff.
Pennywise – Pennywise (1991)
Based on: Stephen King – It (1986)
Are killer clowns really pop-punk? We guess so. Basically a warning against getting caught-up with Stephen King’s infamously predatory shapeshifter, this 100mph cut set not only the tone for the Californian icons’ debut LP but it gave the band the name that would stick for coming close on three decades now. Appearing just over the horizon from Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 miniseries, it’s debatable whether this Losers’ Club were more influenced by the door-stop novel or Tim Curry’s iconically creepy performance, but we must admit the by-product remains spookily great regardless.
A Perfect Circle – So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish (2018)
Based On: Douglas Adams – So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish (1984)
At this stage, we probably should have stopped being surprised by the range of sources from which A Perfect Circle seem able to draw influence. Regardless, this cracker from Eat The Elephant, based on Douglas Adams’ classic, classically British sci-fi comedy novel-turned-radio-play still caused a few raised eyebrows. (That title is the message left by the dolphins as they departed Earth just before it was demolished to make way for the hyperspace bypass, in case you didn’t know.) It might be one of the more upbeat-sounding songs on the LP, but the lyrics (‘Signal the final curtain call, in all its atomic pageantry…’) are loaded with a whimsical yet sardonic sense of darkness. Main songwriter Billy Howerdel has commented on it being inspired by grief and cold realisation at the loss of so many musical heroes in such a short space of time. He certainly found a creative way of expressing that sentiment…
Ice Nine Kills – Hell In The Hallways (2016)
Based on: Stephen King – Carrie (1974)
Stephen King’s debut novel is a dark masterpiece, painfully chronicling the petty politics of high school, teenage social-anxiety – and the potential pitfalls of off-the-chart telekinetic ability on Prom Night. Unsurprisingly, the tale fits perfectly with the moodily tortured sound of Boston metalcore crew Ice Nine Kills. Lighting up 2015’s Every Trick In The Book, Hell In The Hallways wears its influence on its pigs-blood-soaked sleeve: from lurid lyricism (‘But they can’t hold back the certain wrath of a pissed off prom queen psychopath!’) to the point-blank modernisation of that music video. Bloody powerful stuff.
Entombed – Left Hand Path (1990)
Based on: Anton LaVey – The Satanic Bible (1969)
‘I am my own God / Master and slave I will be beyond the grave / No-one will take my soul away / I carry my own will and make my day!’ Ostensibly, the title of this trademark tune from Swedish death-metal’s all-time badasses is a little on the subtle side by genre standards. Discovered by guitarist Alex Hellid in Anton LaVey’s infamous Satanic Bible, however, the Left Hand Path belief system promotes the breaking of taboo and the abandonment of morality in the interest of personal pleasure and advancement.
Morbid Angel – The Ancient Ones (1991)
Based on: H.P. Lovecraft – The Call Of Cthulhu (1926)
Aside from perhaps Tolkien’s Middle Earth exploration, no other literary series has proven as bountiful for metal exploration as Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. There are far more famous examples, of course (Metallica, cough) but the sheer twisted savagery of this entrail-encrusted slab off Blessed Are The Sick has to be our pick for its wilfully strange evocation of those books’ nightmarishly unhinged content.
Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2015)
Based on: Richard Dawkins – The Ancestor’s Tale (2004)
Rarely have a band worked as closely with a writer as Finnish symphonic masters Nightwish did with English evolutionary biologist/shit-stirrer Richard Dawkins on Endless Forms Most Beautiful. The titular album refers to many of the same evolutionary ideas dealt with in his 2004 opus The Ancestor’s Tale – and he even contributes on The Greatest Show On Earth. This has to be our pick, though, due to its real sense of exuberance in the musicality, with Floor Jansen on spectacular form and the instrumentation switching freely and compellingly between symphonic sweep and metallic crunch. There’s something particularly fitting, too, in this coming from a band as evolved over the years as Nightwish.
Iron Maiden – Brave New World (2000)
Based on: Alders Huxley – Brave New World (1932)
Aldous Huxley’s dystopian masterpiece (itself borrowing its title from a speech in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest) is, without doubt, one of the greatest novels of the modern era. Telling the story of a ‘World State’ where the masses are genetically engineered and kept docile with the drug Soma, it paved the way for so many 20th century classics – and so much of today’s YA fiction. The title-track from Iron Maiden’s 2000 return-to-form (and singer Bruce Dickinson’s comeback) might not manage to pack in all that much of the subtlety and social commentary of the source material but it provides the basis for a masterwork of incredibly expansive, utterly irresistible sweep. Top stuff.
Mastodon – Iron Tusk (2004)
Based on: Herman Melville – Moby Dick (1851)
Bit of a cheat, this, as Mastodon’s whole Leviathan masterpiece is a concept album based around Herman Melville’s classic tale of the white whale. Our pick of an awesome bunch (the album was Kerrang!’s Best Of The Year in 2004) is relatively succinct single Iron Tusk. All unyielding riffage and pummelling fury, it fully encapsulates the themes of obsession, madness and common-destiny on the crashing waves that have made the story of Captain Ahab seeking revenge on the seabeast that cost him his leg essential reading for the past century-and-a-half.
Nirvana – Scentless Apprentice (1993)
Based on: Patrick Süskind – Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer (1985)
Kurt Cobain reportedly read Patrick Süskind’s tale of a serial killer born without body-scent but gifted with hypersomia (an exceptional sense of smell) around ten times in his short life. Cobain felt that re-reading the novel help him deal with hypochondria and joked that he’d had to start borrowing ideas from literature as he was beginning to run out of fresh ones of his own. That’s hardly fair, of course, as the strange, disturbing themes at play here mesh perfectly with the abstruse content of In Utero and weirdly reflect the grunge icon’s own disconnect from society. The book, originally published in German, deals with the titular perfume apprentice ‘collecting’ the exceptional natural perfumes of certain young women and certainly makes for a fascinating read.
Machine Head – A Farewell To Arms (2007)
Based on: Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell To Arms (1929)
Arguably the great American WWI novel, Ernest Hemingway’s first bestseller (its own title borrowed from a poem by English 16th century dramatist George Peele) was based on the great writer’s own experience as an ambulance driver on the frontlines. A fictionalised, first person account of the experience of Frederic Henry and his love affair with an English Nurse, Hemingway’s take on things pulsated not only with brutality but also realism and romance. As Metallica would before them (see below), Machine Head would mine his writing for sheer darkness on the final track of their 2007 classic The Blackening. Although there is a sense of dynamic foreboding in some of the softer-sung sections here, this ends up as a powerful lament of the waste of war.
Anthrax – Among The Living (1987)
Based on: Stephen King – The Stand (1978)
‘Disease! Disease! Spreading the disease! With some help from Captain Trips, he’ll bring the world down to its knees!’ Anthrax were, famously, massive Stephen King fans and The Walkin’ Dude as featured in the music and on the artwork of their peerless 1987 mosh soundtrack is indeed Randall Flagg, the primary antagonist in his none-more-epic tale of pestilence and apocalypse. A representation of pure, chaotic evil who’s actually present in the background of much of King’s interconnected work, it’s hard to think of a more badass subject matter for a thrash song and the New Yorkers nail it here. As a bonus, A Skeleton In The Closet from the same LP is also based on King novella Apt Pupil – about a Nazi war criminal hiding in plain sight – from the Different Seasons collection.
Jimmy Eat World – Goodbye Sky Harbor (1999)
Based on: John Irving – A Prayer For Owen Meany (1989)
Jimmy Eat World mainman Jim Adkins has actually acknowledged that as Anthrax “always had a Stephen King song” he wanted to try to insert the ideas of what he was reading back into his music. A complex drama of friendship, faith and the trials of 20th century America, A Prayer For Owen Meany isn’t exactly easy to summarise here, and Adkins’ sparse lyrics don’t give us many clues to his interpretation. The expansive, spiralling outro is strangely reflective of writer John Irving’s own repetitive writing style, though, and a rumour persists that the 16 minutes and 11 seconds runtime is the exact time it takes to reach cruising altitude from Arizona Sky Harbor airport (the state in which the novel ends with the titular Meany escorting the bodies of military dead back to their families), though JEW themselves insist that they just wanted to use up all of the tape on the reel…
Metallica – For Whom The Bell Tolls (1984)
Based on: Ernest Hemingway – For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940)
Hemingway’s 1940 classic tells the tale of Robert Jordan, an idealistic young American Midwestern teacher who finds himself signing up to the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. A timeless account of honour, valour, morality and the loss of innocence in war the novel was listed as a favourite book by everyone from communist Cuban revolutionary/dictator Fidel Castro to American Republican presidential candidate John McCain to Barack Obama himself. Metallica, though, rejected the heroic central narrative in favour of telling the story of peripheral characters – El Sordo and his quartet of soldiers who stage a bloody attack against the advancing fascists on a hillside in a valiant, albeit futile last stand. The madness of war strips away all of them except ‘the will to be’ and makes for one of Metallica’s most powerful ‘political’ statements.
Ramones – Pet Sematary (1989)
Based on: Stephen King – Pet Sematary (1983)
There’s a radio-rock simplicity about this song that means it mightn’t be objectively the best on this list, but there surely isn’t another as suited to the source material. To be found on the Brain Drain album but originally written for the movie adaptation of the utterly terrifying book of the same name, it became one of the legendary punks’ biggest hits. King himself is an enormous Ramones fan and Dee Dee Ramone reportedly wrote the lyrics in the basement of the author’s New England home in Bangor, Maine during a visit where he was presented with the Pet Sematary manuscript. Be sure to check out the music video, shot in New York’s infamous Sleepy Hollow Cemetary (Sematary?) and featuring a cameo from Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie, too. ‘I don’t want to be buried in a Pet Semetary,’ indeed…
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