Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Songs About Books

A few years ago I was involved in an anthology of stories inspired by songs 

I wrote the introduction and reproduce it here:

The Symbiosis Of Music And Literature
I never read books until I was fourteen years old. Typical boy, I was out in all weathers playing cricket or football instead. What tuned me into literature was a respected older cousin’s suggestion to listen to The Cure's ‘Killing An Arab’ and then read Camus' L'Étranger, both of which I dutifully did. At the time I was on the look out for cool bands to drop in to conversations at school, but thanks to this one suggestion I had my appreciation opened up to a second vibrant art form. Oh yeah, I not only read books now, I write 'em as well. And as part of that, music is still key.
Literature is perhaps regarded as the highest, noblest art form for  opening our minds towards contemplation of the world around us. And rock'n'roll, bubble-gum three-minute-pop about puppy love and teenage crushes, is regarded in some quarters as the most disposable of art forms. Books occasionally percolate society's collective consciousness, for example the obscenity trials over Lady Chatterley's Lover or Last Exit To Brooklyn. Pop frequently outrages, from Elvis The Pelvis, through ‘God Save The Queen’ to Beastie Boys. Yet, despite being from fairly opposite ends of art's 'brow' spectrum, the two are fundamentally intertwined and mutually inform one another. 
Apart from the above example of The Cure, Gang of Four referenced Joseph Conrad's ‘Heart Of Darkness’ with ‘We Live As We Dream Alone’ and Kafka's beetle from ‘Metamorphosis’ in their song ‘Anthrax’. Howard Devoto, singer in Magazine, referenced Raskolnikov and  Dostoevsky's ‘Underground Man’ in ‘Song From Under The Floorboards’.  Just a few examples of artists honouring fellow artists who have gone before them. Inspired them. Given them words and ideas to stir their own creative pools...
Of course, it goes the other way too. Poets Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah and John Cooper-Clarke have all performed live with backing bands. Gus Van Sant has set texts by William S Burroughs to music, and Steve Fisk composed music for the late Steven Jesse Bernstein's poetry. Then there are the crossover artists: Patti Smith, Nick Cave and Henry Rollins to name but three with a foot firmly planted in both camps. Plus recently we have had short story anthologies inspired by the words of Mark E. Smith and the music of Sonic Youth. 
So now nine new writers offer their contributions to the symbiosis; nine stories inspired by songs from different musical artists, plus nine stories arising from the same song: "Heroes"’ by David Bowie. Nine very different interpretations, no mere cover versions.

So, here is a music video playlist for books name-checked or referenced in songs. Enjoy.

1) The Cure - "Killing An Arab"

This was the Cure's debut song as Robert Smith took his exam-level study of Camus' "L'Etranger" and spun a song out of it. Later, once tried to retreat from fame into his half-Goth, half-childlike persona, the books he referenced were more of the order of children's books such as "Charlotte Sometimes".

2) Kate Bush - "Wuthering Heights"
I was never a huge Kate Bush fan, but I was heartened when her recent comeback tour sold out so rapidly. Normally I am appalled by comeback tours when artists are way past their prime and the audiences just want to indulge in some nostalgia, but this tour seemed genuinely to have an audience spanning across generations suggesting Ms Bush had picked up legions of fans who have come to her music long after it was in the charts and public sensibility and that must speak for its strength.

3) Velvet underground - "Venus In Furs"
With Lou Reed's interest in all things transgressive and sexual, perhaps not surprising that he should find as an inspiration Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch's book that gave us the word 'masochism'. Never has John Cale's viola sound been used to such unsettling effect as on this song.

4) Klaxons - "Gravity's Rainbow"
The blissed out hedonism of rave is not usually associated with the literary, as its fans stand waving glow sticks around in muddy fields, bombed out of their heads. And yet here Klaxons reference  a writer who guards his true identity more than JD Salinger guarded his privacy. But then Pynchon writes about a pretty bombed out American sensibility so maybe it makes perfect sense.

5) Rush - "Tom Sawyer"
Rush were big fans of Ayn Rand, but I'm not going to peddle of her work here. They also quoted Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" which is far more edifying, though with Rush you never quite know. I don't know, like most things Rush, they manage to make this all sound somewhat bombastic.

6) Manic Street Preachers - "Patrick Bateman"
After Salinger's "Catcher In The Rye" and Tolkein's "The Hobbit"and Orwell's "1984", this is the book most often referenced in song by musicians. And the thing is I suspect most of the musicians creating a paean to Brett Easton Ellis' psychopathic financier probably identify with him rather than embrace Ellis' satire. The Manics maybe one of the few who got it to judge by their sarky opening.

7) Joy Division - "No Love Lost"
Ian Curtis was very literary in his refrences, from JG Ballard's "Atrocity Exhibtion" to Kafka's short story "In the Penal Colony". Though spoilt for choice I've plumped for a slightly more trashy reference from a book called "House of Dolls" because it's the book from which the band took their name. Curtis quotes a passage from the book directly in the song. 

8) Lagwagon - "Owen Meaney"
Having not read the book I hope author John Irving got to the point a hell of a lot quicker than Lagwagon, a band about which I know nothing. Not very informative on this one I'm afraid.

9) The Stranglers - "Death And Night And Blood" 
Stranglers' bassist JJ Burnel got a bad rap as a thug when in the fledgeling days of punk he just used to lay into photographers at the front of the stage and belt them with his bass. But actually he's pretty well read, evidenced by his solo release "Ozymandias" quoting a Shelley sonnet. But as a song it's nigh on unlistenable. I suspect that this Stranglers ditty was his as well, referencing Japanese author Yukio Mishima's "Confessions Of A Mask". The band identified with outsiders and peripheral guys, such as Sancho Panzer in "No More Heroes". And there were fewer more radical outsiders than Mishima who took his life by traditional seppuku (ritualised self-disembowelling of the Samurai warrior class) after failing to persuade a detachment the army to join a coup d'etat.

10) Jefferson Airplane - "Rejoyce"
Who let the stoners read "Ulysses"? What next, death metal does Samuel Beckett? New Romantics do Flann O'Brien? As impenetrable as the original tome.

11) Iron Maiden - "Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner"
And yet... Heavy Metal, always associated with anti-intellectualism, well Iron Maiden had several songs inspired by literary works so just goes to show you can't judge a band by their hair length. From the album "Power Slave", oh well, you can't have everything. Did someone say "Spinal Tap"?

12) Hawkwind - "Farenheit 451"
I find myself undergoing a worrying transformation as I hit my 50s. I'm starting to get into Hawkwind, space rock drug excessives from the 1970s and still just about going strong I think. I credit it's that period when their paranoid frontman Robert Calvert wrote lots of songs about terrorism which seems somewhat apt today. I dunno.

13) Magazine - "Song From Under The Floorboards"
Howard Devoto is another one of those New Wave music frontmen who drew hecvaily from literature for their lyrics. Dostoevsky's "Rashkolnikov" is name-checked in the song "Philadelphia" and here devoto draws on the opening to "Notes From The Underground".

14) Bomb The Bass - "5Ml Barrel"
And to finish up, a couple of songs which are the result of collaborations between musicians/producers and actual authors reading their own words, or having them sampled. Bomb The Bass (Tim Simenon) did a song based on William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" but here goes one better and has the hard-bitten and yet also simultaneously world-weary tones of Will Self also exploring the theme of drug-taking. And mighty fine it is too.

15) William Burroughs/ Gus Van Sant - "Millions Of Images"
Van Sant's cast Burroughs in his second movie "Drugstore Cowboy" and from that emerged a rather wonderful 4-track EP called "The Elvis Of Letters". Burroughs of course had such a characterful Southern drawl, he never actually would need to sing, the music is there in his delivery anyway.

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