Rock & Metal Songs inspired by Literature
Sometimes it isn’t about booze ‘n’ birds. So, what is it that inspires bands to write songs? Yes, we all know that ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock N’ Roll’ comes into the equation. With its preoccupation with evil, dry ice and alternately shrieking and growling vocals, Heavy Metal has come by its goofball image honestly. But wearing leather and spikes doesn’t mean you don’t crack open a book from time to time. There are considerably more examples than you might expect, but just to dip toes in an aqueous solution, here are a few Rock & Metal Songs inspired by Literature.
Corrosion of Conformity – ‘Wiseblood’
The title track from 1996 C.O.C.’s album Wiseblood, took its name from another brutal portrayal of the decrepit American South in Flannery O’Connor’s Wiseblood. Apparently, it left a huge impression on guitarist Pepper Keenan – he later named his daughter Flannery.
Iron Maiden – ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
From the 1984 album Powerslave. Easily the most faithful of any of these adaptations, Maiden picked out direct quotes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and ended up with their longest song to date. We learned more from a 14-minute record than we ever learned in school.
Iron Maiden – ‘The Clairvoyant’
Any song from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, a concept album released in 1988, based on Orson Scott Card’s fantasy novel Seventh Son, could have appeared on this list. But the most enduring is deservedly The Clairvoyant, driven by one of Steve Harris’ healthiest basslines.
Iron Maiden – ‘To Tame A Land’
From the 1983 album Piece Of Mind, this was one of a number of literary inspired songs on the album (others include Where Eagles Dare and The Trooper). It’s based on the Frank Herbert epic Dune, and that was the track’s original title. But when Maiden wrote to the author seeking permission to call it Dune, he replied by stating he didn’t like ‘heavy rock bands, and especially rock bands like Iron Maiden’. Ouch! Bruce Dickinson reacted by calling the anti-metal writer a “cunt” onstage in Sweden. The saga of the song title is almost worthy of a track being written in its own right.
Iron Maiden – ‘The Trooper’
Maiden wrote many of the world’s best songs about books. This riveting Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Study of Charge of the Light Brigade kicks just hard enough to edge out “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “Brave New World” and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”. This song is also from the 1983 album Piece Of Mind.
Anthrax – ‘Among The Living’
From the 1987 album of the same title, this was based around the Stephen King novel The Stand. The plot is about a post-apocalyptic crisis, as a lethal flu strain escapes its militaristic containment, and threatens global annihilation. The album’s artwork was rumoured to have been based around The Stand as well, in particular the character of the tyrannical Randall Flagg, but drummer Charlie Benante, who came up with the idea, has denied this.
Metallica – ‘Call of the Ktulu’ & ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’
Call of the Ktulu is from the 1984 album Ride the Lightning. Anyone who mocks Metallica for misspelling the name of H.P. Lovecraft’s most infamous beast The Call of Cthulhu, obviously hasn’t read the book – the name is not to be said or written out, lest we bring it closer. The band did get brave enough to quote the Necronomicon passage on The Thing That Should Not Be (from the 1986 album Master of Puppets) a harrowing tribute to the same creature.
Metallica – ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’
From the 1984 album Ride The Lightning, it was based on the classic Ernest Hemingway 1940 novel For Whom The Bell Tolls, which was set in the Spanish Civil War. The song itself revels in one scene from the book, where soldiers are slaughtered during an air raid. Trivia tarts might wish to make something of the fact that the Hemingway book was published about the same time as Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, which inspired Metallica’s One.
Metallica – ‘One’
From the 1988 album …And Justice for All. Dave Barry once claimed to “play music as well as Metallica writes novels,” and he’s probably right. Still, there’s no disputing the storytelling and mood-setting capabilities behind One, a song that took its narration from Dalton Trumbo’s (Johnny Got His Gun) wretched hero.
Mastodon – ‘Blood and Thunder’
Mastodon’s breakthrough album Leviathan released in 2004 tackled one of literature’s indisputable classics in themes, scope and cover art. I couldn’t tell you what “Split your lungs with blood and thunder when you see the white whale” means, but it has me convinced that Troy Sanders is Captain Ahab, a fictional character from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Led Zeppelin – ‘Ramble On’
From the 1969 album Led Zeppelin II, the song’s lyrics were influenced by The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. The opening line (“Leaves are falling all around”) could be a paraphrase of the opening line of Tolkien’s poem “Namárië”. Tolkien references appear later in the song’s lyrics, including Mordor and Gollum.
“‘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.”
Led Zeppelin – ‘Misty Mountain Hop’
From the 1971 album Led Zeppelin IV, this was inspired by the Misty Mountains mentioned in The Hobbit. There are songs throughout the Zeppelin catalogue which are based on Tolkien characters and plots, but this one got its start after Robert Plant was jailed overnight, having been caught in Hyde Park after dark. With nothing better to do, he obviously began to dream about the famed Middle-earth mouth mountain range.
Led Zeppelin – ‘The Battle of Evermore’
This song is also from the 1971 album Led Zeppelin IV. Led Zeppelin has a well-documented love for J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle Earth, referencing it in songs like Ramble On and Misty Mountain Hop. The Battle of Evermore tells the story of one of the final battles for Middle Earth: It talks of Sauron, “the Dark Lord rides in force tonight” and “the Ringwraiths ride in black tonight”. And of course, Frodo and the One Ring get special attention: “The magic runes are writ in gold to bring the balance back. Bring it back”. Though it’s unclear who the Prince of Peace is, the Tolkien connection is clear.
Guns N’ Roses – ‘The Catcher in the Rye’
The much-awaited 2008 album Chinese Democracy contained this song after the J.D. Salinger classic The Catcher in the Rye, but it’s surmised that the song is really about another culture-changing event that Holden Caulfield was involved in; the assassination of John Lennon in 1980. Lennon’s murderer was carrying a copy of the book when he pulled the trigger.
Nirvana – ‘Scentless Apprentice’
Though this horror book The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind never made it to the bestseller lists, it was a modest hit thanks in part to Kurt Cobain, who frequently mentioned that it was one of his favorite reads. He liked it so much, in fact, he wrote a song about it and put it on the 1993 In Utero album. The book is about a man who kills young women and captures their scents in order to make the perfect perfume.
Rush – ‘Xanadu’
From their 1977 album A Farewell to Kings. Lest you think them only capable of references to classic novels, Rush’s “Xanadu” is based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan. In fact, the song borrows many lines directly from the poem.
Rush – ‘Tom Sawyer’
Originally released on their 1981 album Moving Pictures as its opener. Not content with just one famous literary reference under their belt, Rush also uses the titular character of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer as the inspiration for one of their most famous songs.
Rush – ‘2112’
From the 1976 album of the same title. Perhaps the greatest stunt that Rush ever pulled off was translating Ayn Rand’s Anthem into something that most headbangers could stomach. The fact that a composition as dizzying as “2112” is based on Anthem is proof that the best music is magic
Hawkwind – ‘Damnation Alley’
From the 1977 album Quark, Strangeness And Charm, this is based around the Roger Zelazny novel Damnation Alley. Yet again, we are in a hellish world, ripped apart by a nuclear war. A film adaptation came out in 77, but this song was first performed the previous year, so wasn’t conjured up because of the movie, which was fairly rubbish anyway. What was Damnation Alley? A treacherous route linking Los Angeles and Boston.
Bruce Springsteen – ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’
Technically, Springsteen was inspired by John Ford’s big-screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Great Depression journey. The Ghost of Tom Joad is a 1995 version of The Grapes of Wrath, meant to serve as a reminder that modern times are just as difficult for some. Rage Against the Machine covered the song in 1997.
Blue Öyster Cult – ‘Black Blade’
From the 1980 album Cultosaurus Erectus, this is a rarity among literary inspired songs, in that it was co-written by the man whose fiction was a huge influence here. Michael Moorcock is the man in question, and the song is based on Elric, perhaps his most celebrated character, who wields the soul-sucking sword named Stormbringer. Moorcock also wrote lyrics for BOC songs Veteran Of The Psychic Wars and The Great Sun Jester.
Rolling Stones – ‘Sympathy For The Devil’
From the 1968 album Beggars Banquet. Mick Jagger was responsible for much of the writing on the song and has admitted be took inspiration from the Mikhail Bulgakov novel The Master And Margarita. Originally in Russian, it was translated into English in 1967, and he was given a copy by Marianne Faithfull. Jagger also acknowledged the influence of French poet Baudelaire, but it’s certainly Bulgakov’s brilliant depiction of Lucifer that most informs the lyrics.
Pink Floyd – ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’
From the 1977 album Animals, Pink Floyd felt so strongly about George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that they made a mascot from the book’s dictator pigs. The first incarnation of the famous Pink Floyd pigs popped up in 1976 for the photoshoot for 1977’s Animals album, which is based loosely around Animal Farm themes. Pigs (Three Different Ones) is about people in society with wealth and power.
Ramones – ‘Pet Sematary’
From the 1989 album Brain Drain, this was originally written for the movie adaptation of the Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. King loved the band, and there are constant references to them in his books. The song became one of their biggest hits.
Jefferson Airplane – ‘White Rabbit’
From the 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow, this isn’t actually an Airplane song. Well it is, but was written by Grace Slick before she joined the band. It’s inspired by Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and its sequel Through The Looking-Glass, and the drug connotations are obvious. In fact, the seemingly innocuous references to Lewis Carroll’s masterworks might have helped this drug-soaked counter culture anthem to get past radio censors and onto the air in America.