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25 Songs That Reference Books

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Songwriting is a competitive business, with each artist keen to prove that they're more knowledgeable and artistic than their peers. So what better way to do that than to namecheck, or draw inspiration from, a respected book?

In addition, usefully, it means that you don't have to think too much about the lyrics - so that's half your job done already.

We've taken a look at 25 excellent examples where the world of music has been inspired by the world of literature. Cross-art-pollination ahoy.

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Artist/Song: David Bowie – 1984, (from 1974’s Diamond Dogs)

Book: George Orwell’s 1984

Lyric: “They’ll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air/And tell that you’re eighty, but brother, you won’t care/Beware the savage jaw of 1984.”

Also: Other tracks on Diamond Dogs feature other Orwell references including the song titles Big Brother and We Are The Dead (Winston Smith’s final words before being captured by the thought police in the book). Bowie was intending to do a 1984 musical, though the project was killed off when Orwell’s widow objected.

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Artist/Song: Led Zeppelin – Ramble On (from 1969’s Led Zeppelin II)

Book: Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings

Lyric: “'Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor/I met a girl so fair/But Gollum, and the evil one crept up/And slipped away with her.”

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Artist/Song: The Strokes – Soma (from 2001’s Is This It?)

Book: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

Lyric: “Soma is what they would take when/Hard times opened their eyes.”

Also: Soma is the name of a hallucinogen given in Huxley’s Brave New World – the drug is also referenced by the Smashing Pumpkins and deadmau5 in their songs of the same name.

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Artist/Song: Gary Numan – Are Friends Electric? (from 1979’s Replicas)

Book: Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Lyric: “You know I hate to ask/But are ‘friends’ electric?/Only mine’s broke down/And now I’ve no one to love.”

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Artist/Song: Radiohead – Dollars & Cents (from 2001’s Amnesiac)

Book: Naomi Klein’s No Logo

Lyric: “We are the dollars and cents/And the pounds and pence/And the mark and the yen/And yeah were gonna crack your little souls.”

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Artist/Song: Joy Division – Atrocity Exhibition (from 1980’s Closer)

Book: JG Ballard’s collection of ‘condensed novels’ of the same name

Lyric: “Asylums with doors open wide/Where people had paid to see inside/For entertainment they watch his body twist/Behind his eyes he says, 'I still exist.”

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Artist/Song: Manic Street Preachers – Motorcycle Emptiness (from 1992’s Generation Terrorists)

Book: S.E. Hinton’s Rumble Fish

Lyric: “Under neon loneliness, motorcycle emptiness”

As with much of the Manics’ output, Motorcycle Emptiness borrows extensively from literature; even the title is partly borrowed, from the poem Neon Loneliness by Nicky Wire’s brother Patrick Jones.

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Artist/Song: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Red Right Hand (from 1994’s Let Love In)

Book: A poem, more specifically – the title is taken from John Milton’s Paradise Lost

Lyric: “On a gathering storm comes/a tall handsome man/in a dusty black coat with a red right hand”

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Artist/Song: The Police – Don’t Stand So Close To Me (from 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta)

Book: Vladimr Nabokov’s Lolita

Lyric: “Young teacher the subject of schoolgirl fantasy… This girl is half his age… He starts to shake and cough/Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.”

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Artist/Song: Pixies – Dead (from 1989’s Doolittle)

Book: The Bible (well, sort of) - Dead reworks the biblical story of David and Bathsheba.

Lyric: “You crazy Bathsheba, I wancha”

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Artist/Song: Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah (from 1984’s Various Positions)

Book: The Bible (again, sort of): Hallelujah merges the story of David and Bathsheba with the story of Samson and Delilah.

Lyric: “I heard there was a secret chord that David played to please the Lord”

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Artist/Song: Noah & The Whale – Jocasta (from 2008’s Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down)

Book: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex

Lyric: “Oh but now the love you found/Is raising you from muddy ground/And oh the death will let you down/'Cause your curse will still go on the same.”

Also: In 2007, Noah & The Whale released their super-twee whistle-along hit single 5 Years’ Time. Perhaps in an attempt to add some more ‘serious’ subject matter to their debut album, the band included this song, based on the Greek tragedy, which “expresses the turmoil of Oedipus’ mother, Jocasta, in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles”. Job done.

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Artist/Song: Rick Wakeman – Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (from the 1974 album)

Book: Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth

Lyric: “Five days out on an infinite sea, they prayed for calm on an ocean free/But the surface of the water ws indicating some disturbance…”

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Artist/Song: Wild Beasts – Two Dancers (from 2009’s Two Dancers)

Book(s): Henry Miller’s controversial 1949 novel Sexus

Lyric: “His hairy hands, his falling fists, his dancing cock down by his knees”

Also: The super-literary quartet have made a habit out of marrying sexually overt lyrics with high-minded literary references over the course of their four albums. The 2011 follow-up to this record, Smother, squeezed in references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon and the Pedro Almodovar film Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. Try to keep up, will you?

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Artist/Song: Friendly Fires – Pala (from 2012’s Pala)

Book: Aldous Huxley’s Island

Lyric: “In Pala, in Pala… And we couldn’t care/If we die out here, die out here.”

Also: Friendly Fires’ second album has some pretty opposite reference points. Named after the utopian island in Aldous Huxley’s final novel, Island, it also finds room to reference Owen Wilson’s family comedy Marmaduke (via Hawaiian Air’s line, “watching a film with a talking dog”).

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Artist/Song: Red Hot Chili Peppers – Yertle The Turtle (from 1985’s Freaky Styley)

Book: Dr. Seuss’s Yertle The Turtle

Lyric: “I’m Yertle The Turtle/The things I now rule/I’m king of a cow/I’m king of a mule.”

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Artist/Song: Alt-J – Breezeblocks, from 2011’s An Awesome Wave

Book: Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are

Lyric: “Do you know where the wild things go? They go along to take your honey, la la la”

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Artist/Song: The Velvet Underground – Venus In Furs (from 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico)

Book: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs

Lyric: “Severin, down on your bended knee/Taste the whip, in love not given lightly/Taste the whip, now plead for me.”

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Artist/Song: Metallica – For Whom The Bell Tolls (from 1984’s Ride The Lightning)

Book: Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls

Lyrics: “Men of five, still alive through the raging glow/Gone insane from this pain that they surely know.”

Also: The same book also inspired a Bee Gees song of the same name. Proof that literature doesn’t care how it sounds.

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Artist/Song: Ramones – Pet Sematary (from 1989’s Brain Drain)

Book: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary

Lyrics: “Molars and fangs, the clicking of bones/Spirits moaning among the tombstones.”

Also: The Ramones’ Pet Sematary was written for the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. It was also covered by the German industrial metal band Rammstein.

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Artist/Song: Elton John – Rocket Man (from 1972’s Honky Chateau)

Book: Ray Bradbury’s The Rocket Man (short story)

Lyrics: “She packed my bags last night pre-flight.”

Also: Bernie Taupin’s lyrics condense the plot of Bradbury’s short story, which tells of an astronaut leaving his wife and son on a journey into space.

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Artist/Song: Nirvana – Scentless Apprentice (from 1993’s In Utero)

Book: Patrick Suskind’s Perfume

Lyrics: “His smell smelled like no other.”

Also: Suskind’s novel tells the story of a man with a super sense of smell who kills women in an attempt to create the perfect scent. Reputedly, it was one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite books.

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Artist/Song: The Cure – Killing An Arab (non-album single)

Book: Albert Camus’ The Outsider

Lyric: “I’m alive/I’m dead/I’m the stranger/Killing an arab.”

Also: This song was The Cure’s debut single and has courted controversy since its release. Some took the title and content literally as an endorsement of murdering Arab peoples, rather than an almost direct re-telling of Camus’ existential lament. However, with the controversy in mind, the band changed the song’s title and lyrics when they reformed in 2005, performing it as Killing An Ahab and choosing to reference Herman Melville’s Moby Dick instead.

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Artist/Song: The Rolling Stones – Sympathy For The Devil (from 1968’s Beggars Banquet)

Book: Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master And The Margarita

Lyrics: “I stuck around St. Petersburg, when I saw it was a time for a change.”

Also: Mick Jagger has gone on record as saying that the song was inspired by Bulgakov’s novel, which centres around Satan paying a visit to the Soviet Union. Apparently, he liked it so much he changed his name to Vladimir and decided to stay (boom boom)..

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Artist/Song: Klaxons - Gravity's Rainbow (from 2007's Myths of the Near Future)

Book: Thomas Pynchon's book of the same name

Lyrics: “Come with me, come with me/We'll travel to infinity”

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(Images: Rex)

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