5 Songs Inspired by Books

Next week we will be hosting the extremely talented Steve Garrigan of Kodaline as he talks to Fergal D’Arcy about his personal journey and becoming part of one of Ireland’s biggest bands. There are still a limited number of tickets left (which include a SIGNED copy of Steve’s brilliant book High Hopes from Hachette) so get in on the action here.

In the meantime, the whole books and music thing got us thinking. And we know it’s not the same thing but, have you ever wondered how many songs were inspired by books? Probably not. We’ll tell you some anyway. 

1. “I wonder if we’ll ever be put into songs or tales?” Samwise asked Frodo. Indeed you will Samwise. So many songs.

The Lord Of The Rings can claim a multitude of tunes in its musical legacy. The most memorable of them appeared on Led Zeppelin’ s second album Led Zeppelin II. “Ramble On” tells the story of Sam and Frodo’s journey to Mordor but instead of it being a ring that binds them all, it’s a…girl. We know. It’s still a tune though.

Zeppelin’s love of Tolkien didn’t stop there, “Battle of Evermore” from their fourth album Led Zeppelin IV talks about how “The drums will shake the castle wall, the Ringwraiths ride in black…” It presents Frodo as the “Prince of Peace” and features folk singer Sandy Denny – the only guest singer to record with them. And the same 1971 album also gave us “Misty Mountain Hop” which combined The Hobbit with events at the “Legalise Pot Rally” in Hyde Park 1968. What a time to be alive.

2. Nineteen Eighty Four, written in 1949 by George Orwell is THE go-to dystopian novel.

Mass surveillance, censorship, historical negation and even just the term Big Brother have inserted themselves casually into our everyday lives long past the dreaded year. I won’t say hundreds, but I’ll say lots, because there have been A LOT of songs inspired by Orwell’s classic. Probably the most talked about is David Bowie’s 1973 brace “1984” and “Big Brother” from the album Diamond Dogs. Bowie had initially wanted to take the songs further and create a rock musical based around the book. Orwell’s Estate denied him the rights in the end which led him to release Diamond Dogs as a “concept” album in its stead. The album incorporated the abandoned Ziggy Stardust musical and another project inspired by William S Burroughs (we could probably throw Nova Express in here for good measure). It went to number one in the UK and number five in the US.

Closer to home, Rory Gallagher was also feeling moved by Orwell’s revelations, writing The Watcher which was included in a remastered CD version of Top Priority. Sung through a megaphone, it extolled the reality of CCTV and surveillance.

Further Nineteen Eighty Four mentions can go to Sex-Crime from the Eurythmics and 2+2=5 from Radiohead. But we like the Bowie story best so… beware the savage jaw of 1984 y’all…

3. Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman is a powerful love story set in 1980’s Italy.

It is an intimate coming-of-age tale of Elio and his relationship with the slightly older Oliver. It’s tactile, beautiful and it gives you that warm glow of endless days and teenage sexual energy. Lil Nas X was obviously quite moved by it too. He recorded “MONTERO (Call My By Your Name)” as the lead song on his debut album MONTERO released in September 2021. The single was released earlier in the year and debuted at number one in the Billboard Hot 100. After the release Lil Nas X stated on Twitter that the song “will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist”.

The music video for “Call Me By Your Name” is a thing to behold. It won Video of the Year at this year’s MTVMA’s and has been described as “unabashedly queer”. It is biblical in theme, featuring Lil Nas X pole dancing his way down to hell before he seduces Satan. Receptions were mixed. It received criticism from conservatives, including the Governor of South Dakota, claiming it was immoral and harmful to children. The Church of Satan, on the other hand, approved of it and Magister Dave Harris gave it his blessing for the video’s portrayal of Satan’s consensual sex.

In response to criticism, Lil Nas X wrote on Twitter: “There is a mass shooting every week that our government does nothing to stop. Me sliding down a CGI pole isn’t what’s destroying society”
Call Me By Your Name has come a long way.

4. Hemmingway’s 1940 For Whom The Bell Tolls was an obvious influence on various titles ranging from J. Cole, The Bee Gees to Metallica.

Metallica’s version is quite specifically based around a scene in Chapter 27 where five soldiers are killed in an airstrike. “Men of five, still alive through the raging glow, Gone insane from the pain that they surely know”

Metallica were quite the lads for literary influences. Their fascination with the theme of death in warfare was laid all but bare in One. From their fourth album …And Justice for All, this Grammy winning tune was based on the 1939 book Johnny Got His Gun from Dalton Trumbo. Scenes from the 1971 film adaptation were used in the music video, so much so, that Metallica ended up buying the rights to the entire film to save on recurring costs.
HP Lovecraft probably deserves his own section. His fans are legion. In rock and metal subgenres you could probably write another book on how far his influences have stretched but some of my favourites are Metallica’s “Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be,” the latter from their third studio album Master Of The Puppets. “Call of Ktulu” obviously based on “The Call of Cthulhu”, a short story of eldritch goings-on which Lovecraft himself referred to as “rather middling”, is featured on their Ride The Lightening album. Ride The Lightening, as a final literary flourish is also inspired by a book. Metallica apparently took the phrase from Stephen King’s The Stand

5. Kate Bush and Emily Bronté have the same birthday.

That is supposedly what began her love of Bronté’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights which culminated on March 5th 1977 when at just 18, she wrote her own “Wuthering Heights”. Sung from the perspective of the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw pleading at Heathcliff’s window, her lyrics even contain lines lifted directly from the novel’s dialogue “Let me in! I’m so cold.” It was the first single from The Kick Inside, Kate Bush’s debut album and it made her the first female artist to have an entirely self written number one hit in the UK.

This wasn’t Kate’s only foray into the song producing powers of books. For her 1989 album The Sensual World, recorded partly in Dublin’s Windmill Lane Studies, the title track was originally to include Molly’s Bloom’s soliloquy from the closing passages of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The Joyce Estate refused permission in 1989 but then in 2011 they relented and it was released as the song “Flower of the Mountain” from the album Director’s Cut.

So there you go. There are so many more fantastic songs that have been influenced by the written word over the years. Penguin Books made a playlist of them if you want to check that out.