LitRock: 9 Odd Stories Behind Book-Inspired Music

Much like peanut butter and chocolate, or cats and tiny hoodies, music and books are pretty special on their own but downright magical when combined. Today, we’re going to look at—and listen to—a few of these literary musical gems. Some, such as “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush, are obviously book inspired, but others, like Devo’s “Whip It,” may surprise you with their more subtle approach.

Inspiration: George Orwell’s "1984"

Artist: David Bowie
Songs: “Big Brother,” “1984,” and “We Are the Dead”

Once upon a time, in a world where dazzling facial glitter met omniscient governmental tyrants, David Bowie wrote a series of songs that were intended to provide the soundtrack for a stage musical based on 1984. Orwell’s estate denied Bowie the rights, which didn’t sit well with the Goblin King. According to The Man Who Sold the World by Peter Doggett, Bowie said, “For a person who married a socialist with communist leanings, [Mrs. Orwell] was the biggest upper-class snob I’ve ever met in my life.” The songs ended up instead on Bowie’s 1974 album, Diamond Dogs, and the world was forever denied a glimpse into the most glammed-up dystopia ever conceived.

See also: Tina Turner’s cover of Bowie’s “1984,” Muse’s album The Resistance, “Talk Shows on Mute” by Incubus, “2+2=5” by Radiohead, “Sex Crime” by The Eurythmics, and “Testify” by Rage Against the Machine


Inspiration: 'The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead' by William S. Burroughs

Artist: Duran Duran
Song: “Wild Boys”

Look, I know you’ve just recovered from your disappointment over the Bowie 1984 musical, so I hate to distress you further, but we also missed out on a William S. Burroughs-inspired feature film soundtracked by Duran Duran. For those keeping score, that’s TWO extravagant dystopias we’ll never witness. It’s enough to make you sick. Australian director Russell Mulcahy, who frequently worked on Duran2's videos, bought the movie rights to Burroughs’s 1971 sci-fi tale of homosexual warriors and asked the band to write the music. The nightmare-inducing “Wild Boys” video (for real, that creepy bald head used to haunt my dreams) cost more than $1 million and featured fire-breathing, elaborate choreography, prosthetics, computer graphics, and most importantly, Simon Le Bon strapped to a spinning windmill that tried to drown him once every few seconds.


Inspiration: Chuck Palahniuk

Artist: Panic! at the Disco
Songs: Several songs off the band’s 2005 album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out

You say “tomato,” they say “tom-ah-toe.” You say “inspiration,” they say “blatant plagiarism without once giving any credit to the original author.” Pee-can, puh-cahn. The P!atD song “Time to Dance” is based on the plot of Invisible Monsters and steals—I mean, uses—one of Chuck’s refrains in its lyrics: “Give me envy. Give me malice. Give me your attention. … Give me a break.” “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines” makes similar use of a Diary refrain: “Just for the record, the weather today is slightly sarcastic with a good chance of (a) indifference or (b) disinterest in what the critics say”, though the song’s title actually comes directly from Douglas Coupland’s Shampoo Planet. The title of “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage” is a quote from Survivor.

See also:  “Brandy Alexander” by Feist and “Invisible Monsters” by Motion City Soundtrack (inspired by Invisible Monsters), “Together Burning Bright” by The Used (Damned), and “Lullaby” by Lagwagon (Lullaby)


Inspiration: 'Sarah' by J.T. LeRoy

Artist: Garbage
Song: “Cherry Lips”

Imagine making an award-winning documentary about pandas, only to find out you’d spent two years filming guys who get off on wearing panda mascot costumes in public. That must be what Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson felt like after basing one of the band’s most popular songs on the “autobiographical” work of an author who didn’t exist. Shirley wrote “Cherry Lips” in 2001 and became pals with author J.T. LeRoy after reading his book Sarah, the (presumed true) story of a 12-year-old, HIV-positive, transgender prostitute who went by the nickname Cherry Vanilla. The problem? LeRoy did not exist. His books were written by a middle-aged woman named Laura Albert, and his public persona—the person Shirley Manson hung out with—was played by Laura Albert’s half-sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop. Following so far? When out in public, Albert (the actual writer of Sarah) referred to herself as Emily Frasier, aka Speedie, and claimed to be in a rock band with J.T. LeRoy (played by Savannah). This allowed Albert to stay close enough to Savannah to influence J.T’s behavior.

As is often the case with hoaxes on this scale, the lie was uncovered and Albert was sued for signing legal documents with a fake name . While it lasted, the fake LeRoy was quite the boy about town though, buddying up with musicians such as Marilyn Manson, Liz Phair, Billy Corgan, Conor Oberst, Courtney Love, Nancy Sinatra (which of these things is not like the others?), and of course, Shirley Manson. To bring it all full circle, Savannah Knoop wrote a book about the experience.


Inspiration: 'House of Leaves' by Mark Z. Danielewski

Artist: Poe
Songs: The album Haunted

Sometimes when siblings collaborate, you end up with Keeping Up With the Kardashians or the career of the Olsen twins, and you think, “For the love of all that’s holy, pass a law against this sort of thing.” Then you experience Mark Z. Danielewski’s book, House of Leaves, and his sister Poe’s companion album, Haunted, and you think, “This! This is what families should do with their time.” Danielewski says Poe’s album is less a soundtrack for the book and more “a parallax view of the same history.” The album quotes the book directly in places, with Danielewski reading from his work on one version of the single “Hey Pretty,” and the book quotes the album (“I live at the end of a five and a half minute hallway,” for example). It’s adorable. So is the video below of the two of them discussing and performing their projects.

See also: "House of Leaves" by Circa Survive


Inspiration: 'Gravity’s Rainbow' by Thomas Pynchon

Artist: Devo
Song: “Whip It”

Nothing says, “This is a song with a serious literary foundation” like guys wearing red flower pots on their heads using a whip to remove a lady’s clothes. That’s why most people will be surprised to know that Devo’s biggest hit was inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Rather than being a direct retelling of some plot element or quoting from the book, the song was simply written in deliberate mimicry of Pynchon. Devo’s Gerald Casale said, “The lyrics were written by me as an imitation of Thomas Pynchon's parodies in his book Gravity's Rainbow. He had parodied limericks and poems of kind of all-American, obsessive, cult of personality ideas like Horatio Alger and 'You're #1, there's nobody else like you' kind of poems that were very funny and very clever. I thought, 'I'd like to do one like Thomas Pynchon,' so I wrote down 'Whip It' one night.”

See also: "Gravity's Angel" by Laurie Anderson, “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Klaxons


Inspiration: Edgar Allan Poe

Artist: The Alan Parsons Project
Songs: “A Dream Within a Dream,” “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the rest of the album Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe

For me, The Alan Parsons Project is like those miniature corn-looking things you put in stir fry dishes, in that I sort of forget that they exist most of the time, but when I happen upon them, I’m delighted because hey, tiny corn and prog rock! So delightful are the APP that they wrote an entire 1976 album devoted to telling E.A. Poe stories in song form, and when they were finished with that, they made another album (I Robot) based on Isaac Asimov's Robot trilogy. On second thought, these guys are even better than stir fry corn things.

See also: “Ol' Evil Eye” by Insane Clown Posse (based on Poe's Tell-Tale Heart), “Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Iron Maiden, “Annabel Lee” by Stevie Nicks


Inspiration: 'Moby Dick' by Herman Melville

Artist: Mastodon
Songs: Most of the 2004 album Leviathan, including “Iron Tusk,” “Blood and Thunder,” “I Am Ahab,” and “Seabeast”

Like a lot of metal bands, Atlanta-based Mastodon decided their second album should be a concept album inspired by a Herman Melville novel. You know, as you do. Frontman Brent Hinds read the novel on a long flight, and by the time he’d landed in London, he had the band’s next album mapped out in his head. “[T]he parallels seemed undeniable,” he said, “…it refers to Moby Dick as the Salt Sea Mastodon so I was like, ‘Oh, there you go right there.’” So it was done. In what is undoubtedly the most effective tactic for getting the youngsters to read since Reading Rainbow was canceled, Leviathan’s opening track features the band screeching, “White whale! Holy grail!” over and over. LitReactor’s Joshua Chaplinsky wrote a fantastic column about the album just last year.


Inspiration: Stephen King

Artist: Anthrax
Songs: "Among the Living" (The Stand), "Skeletons in the Closet" (Apt Pupil), "Misery Loves Company" (Misery)

Living in the South, I picture Maine as one big perpetual ice storm, like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, but much colder. So it wasn’t surprising to me that despite Stephen King’s renowned affection for metal, and for Anthrax in particular, he hasn’t seen the band live because winter weather has blocked him from attending. He does, however, name check the band in the Dark Tower series and mentions his enjoyment of their music in interviews. That’s why, the author was quick to give his permission when the bands record label insisted on a legal release for several songs based on King’s work. It’s a real love-fest of horror and metal.

See also: "Pennywise" by Pennywise (It), "Pet Sematary" by The Ramones, "Somewhere Far Beyond" by Blind Guardian (The Dark Tower), "The Stand" by The Alarm, and the soundtrack for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

There are plenty more where these came from, so we made you a Spotify playlist of book-inspired jams.

Here are a few of the other songs you'll hear:

  • Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad, Parts 1 and 2” (John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath)
  • Iron Maiden’s “Lord of the Flies” (William Goulding), “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” (Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card), “To Take a Land” (Frank Herbert’s Dune), “The Trooper” (Alfred Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”), and “Out of the Silent Planet” (C.S. Lewis)
  • Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” (Emily Bronte)
  • Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Stevie Nicks’s “Alice” (Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland)
  • Nirvana’s “Senseless Apprentice” (Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: the Story of a Murderer)
  • Guns & Roses and Datarock’s “The Catcher in the Rye” (J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye)
  • Suzanne Vega’s “Calypso,” Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” ABBA’s “Cassandra”, and Steely Dan’s “Home at Last” (Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey)
  • U2’s “Breathe,” Franz Ferdinand’s “Ulysses,” Kate Bush’s “The Sensual World,” Jefferson Airplane’s “Rejoyce” (James Joyce’s Ulysses)
  • Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Ernest Hemingway) and “The Thing That Should Not Be” (H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu)
  • The Bravery’s “I Have Seen the Future” (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World)
  • Annie Lennox’s “Into the West” (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings)
  • Sting’s “Moon Over Bourbon Street” (Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire)
  • Ambrosia’s “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” (Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat's Cradle)
  • The Manic Street Preachers’s “Patrick Bateman” (Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho)
  • Bloc Party’s “Songs for Clay” (Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero)
  • The Clash’s “Combat Rock” (Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”)

What did we miss? What's your favorite lit-inspired song? Tell us in the comments so we can add it to the playlist.

Kimberly Turner

Column by Kimberly Turner

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books October 24, 2013 - 10:11am

Wild boys always... SHINE!

Ryan Danger Fitch's picture
Ryan Danger Fitch October 24, 2013 - 10:35am

Don't forget Panic! at the Disco also referencing Douglas Coupland's Shampoo Planet with the titles London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines and I Write Sins Not Tragedies :-)

Shawn Kelley's picture
Shawn Kelley October 24, 2013 - 10:57am

Wasn't the Cure's "Killing an Arab" inpsired by Camus' The Stranger?

lyknthrp's picture
lyknthrp October 24, 2013 - 11:12am

LOVE the pic of D2, thanks for the memories.

I immediately thought of The Cure's "Killing an Arab" as well and the many lyrics of Tori Amos that reference Neil Gaiman and his Sandman, Delirium, and Velvets characters.

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta is reading The Every by Dave Eggers October 24, 2013 - 11:13am

Keep 'em coming. I'm adding them to the playlist.


@Ryan, I mentioned the Shampoo Planet connection, but forgot about "I Write Sins..."

@Shawn, it was! I wanted to put it on the playlist, but it's not on spotify.

Darcy Jansen's picture
Darcy Jansen October 24, 2013 - 11:34am

Iron Maiden also had "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" (Alan Sillitoe) from the Somewhere in Time album!

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts October 24, 2013 - 11:49am

Cool topic!

ones I can think of:

Evergreen Terrace had a lot of Chuck Palahniuk songs.

Thrice's Vheissu based on Thomas Pynchon's V.

Slint's Good Morning Captain is Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.

The Hooters had All You Zombies.

The band Harry Crews also had a bunch of songs named after his books.

Pere Ubu's Why I Hate Women is inspired by Jim Thompson.

Harry Nilsson's Pandemanium Shadow Show takes from Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes as well as the song The Rainmaker from the album Harry.

Morphine had Do Not Go Quietly Unto Your Grave and A Good Woman is Hard to Find.

The song Ripped Open by Metal Explosions from the musical Hair is based on Allen Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex Sutra.

Jim Carroll Band's People Who Died is inspired by Ted Berrigan's People Who Died and Carroll's The Basketball Diaries subsequently is a memoir expanding upon the song's content.

broddhisatva's picture
broddhisatva October 24, 2013 - 11:45am

The Police, Tea in the Sahara, from Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky.

Also, how did we all miss the number of Led Zeppelin songs inspired by Tolkien?

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books October 24, 2013 - 11:53am

We covered Tolkien influenced music rather thoroughly HERE.

Belle Wood's picture
Belle Wood October 24, 2013 - 12:04pm

Two others not mentioned here: Lou Reed also did a Poe-inspired project, the highlight of which was a musical take on 'Hop Frog' with David Bowie singing lead. It's shite. Utter shite. When I say the highlight is Hop Frog, you will have to listen to said song to see how shite that album is. Far, far better is Maryland band Clutch's use of Riddley Walker by Russel Holborn. It's difficult for Clutch to do things badly (they are just that awesome) and somehow they make Holborn's post-apocolypse gobbledy-gook (he developed a language specifically for the book) scan into meter and rhyme for the song. No word on whether they ever intend to adapt into song Holborn's early childrens' work, Bread and Jam for Francis. On second thought, Bread and Jam for Francis is the title of an album by synth-goths Switchblade Symphony.

John Tully's picture
John Tully October 24, 2013 - 12:05pm

Since you already mentioned Conor Oberst, it would be a fail not to note the Bright Eyes song "Tereza and Tomas" based on The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies October 24, 2013 - 12:21pm

Gold Mine Gutted by Bright Eyes contains a reference to Don Delillo. And the band Airborne Toxic Event gets their name from White Noise by Delillo.

Ursa Rendor's picture
Ursa Rendor October 24, 2013 - 2:07pm

around a hundered liberally sprinkled references to Tolkien's Middle-Earth in all sorts of Led Zepplin songs.... 

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes October 24, 2013 - 4:43pm


"Hey Jack Kerouac" by 10,000 Maniacs always conjures "On the Road" for me.  "Cassady" by Grateful Dead too, for that matter. 

John Lennon references Edgar Allan  Poe in "I Am the Walrus". " But closer to the spirit of this article maybe: "Through the Looking Glass" by  Louis Caroll contains the poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter". 

Vangelis was definitely channeling "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K Dick for the Bladerunner soundtrack. Bob Dylan's "Song to Woody" used "Glory Bound" by Woody Guthrie. 

Louis-Ferdinand Celine's "Journey to the End of the Night" inspired The Doors' "End of the Night".

Gotta mention Richard Farina's "Been  Down Do Long it Looks Like Up to Me" in connection with the Doors song by the same name, too. 

Julie_Smits's picture
Julie_Smits from Antwerp is reading Stuff October 25, 2013 - 5:34am

I kept expecting to see this once, The Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs based on Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

The album Alice by Tom Waits, which was written for a play by the same name. Based on Alice in Wonderland.

Cameron Lawrence Merker's picture
Cameron Lawrenc... from Twin Cities is reading Watership Down November 8, 2013 - 6:55pm

Another Panic at the Disco, "The only difference between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage" based on Palahniuk's Survivor

Tim Wideman's picture
Tim Wideman May 11, 2014 - 2:15pm

C. McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" = "The Last Pale Light in the West" by Ben Nichols. Each song is named after/ inspired by a different character.

Bret Easton Ellis' "Lunar Park" clearly influenced Porcupine Tree's album "Fear of a blank planet," using the opening line "I do a good impression of myself" (or variations thereof) in multiple songs. The inspiration for the song "My Ashes" comes from the last chapter of the book, with Steven Wilson saying better in three minutes what Ellis takes hundreds of words to say. 

Hannibal Barberra Lowe's picture
Hannibal Barber... June 22, 2014 - 12:47pm

I didn't see anyone mention it, but Sonic Youth's "Sister" was based on a lot of PKD work and about his life in general, the entire album was based around he concept. I recommend the song Shizophrenia