Music and Literature: Books That Inspired Punk
Punk began in the mid-1970s as a total rebellion against rock music of the time. Rock had become overdone, with long complicated guitar solos that were accompanied by full orchestrations; the rock stars were flying in private jets with the Queen; and fans had to pay a fortune to squint at the act from the back of a stadium. Punk aimed to bring the music back to the people. To play punk all you needed was to, as Sid Vicious said, “just pick a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music.”
Unfortunately, that lack of emphasis on expertise has caused many to regard punk as not the most intelligent of genres—yet that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Aside from the advanced political attitudes that punk came to represent, the genre is bursting with literary influence. With songs that reference writers as diverse as Beat author William S. Burroughs and sci-fi icon George Orwell, punk rockers have proven they’re well-read. Rock out to these nine punk songs inspired by books. (You can also follow along with our Spotify playlist!)
“Land,” Patti Smith
Patti Smith—known as the “Godmother of Punk”—always brought a literary edge to the CBGB crowd. Starting out, her act consisted of just guitarist Lenny Kaye accompanying her while she read her poems, using the sound and aesthetic of punk to add an extra level to her words.
In “Land,” Smith doesn’t hold back on the literary references: Along with name-dropping one of her favorite poets, Arthur Rimbaud, she also draws from the Beat writers she knew personally. The song follows a character named Johnny after a violent altercation in a locker room. Smith wrote her Johnny as a continuation of the character Johnny from William S. Burroughs The Wild Boys.
“California Über Alles,” Dead Kennedys
Dystopians and punk go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s no surprise, then, that George Orwell’s 1984 has inspired a number of punk songs. With its vision of a future where the government controls your thoughts, it was both a nightmare and a likely reality for the anarchist-leaning punks.
In “California Über Alles”, the Dead Kennedys use the framework of Orwell’s future society to express how power can corrupt and to call out the then (and current) governor of California, Jerry Brown. In the Dead Kennedys’ dystopia, you must think the same super liberal thoughts because “Big Bro on white horse is near,” and any deviance will bring the secret police to your door.
“I, Robot,” U.K. Subs
The short stories that make up Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot had a major impact on science fiction. In addition to exploring the morality of creating artificial human life and the complicated consequences that may come from it, the book also established the well-known Three Laws of Robotics.
The influence of I, Robot on the U.K. Subs song of the same name goes beyond just a title: The song combines the many short stories and talks of a robot that “won’t tell no lies” and who “thinks he is the future of a superhuman race.”
“Pet Sematary,” The Ramones
Aside from it being written for the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, the Ramones’ song is clearly inspired by the horror tale that chilled us as youngsters. In the book, a man moves next to a Native American burial ground, from which bodies return to life—but with awful consequences. In this punk retelling, the Ramones “don’t want to be buried in a pet sematary” because they know that they would come back as monstrous versions of themselves.
With its representations of a culture of violent youths, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is so relatable to young punks. Consider the Ramones’ “Durango 95” and Los Violadores’ “1,2, Ultraviolento”: It isn’t difficult to see the influence the novel had on the genre. Scars’ “Horrorshow” takes an especially unique spin: The song is written in Nadsat, the slang that protagonist Alex uses to communicate with his group.
“Ozymandias,” JJ Burnel
In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet “Ozymandias,” a traveler visits the ruins of a statue of a great emperor, Ozymandias. On the base of the statue are written the lines, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Around it is only sand. The poem, which speaks to the ephemeral nature of empires and power, had a major effect on JJ Burnel, bassist of The Stranglers. Not only does he mention it in The Stranglers’ song “Ugly,” but he also decided to set the entirety of the poem to music in “Ozymandias.”
If naming their band after Stephen King's murderous clown wasn’t enough to show you the influence the novel It had on them, Pennywise decided to also make it the name of their first album. Beyond that, King’s gift to coulrophobics—people who fear clowns—was also the inspiration for a song on that album, appropriately named (you guessed it) “Pennywise.” The band is able to perfectly capture the absolutely frightening spirit of the clown; lines like, “He'll creep inside your soul at night and torment nice and slow” would make even the bravest man shake a little at the next circus he attends.
“A Pict Song,” Billy Bragg
Musician and activist Billy Bragg is well known for his leftist politics through music and involvement in socialist movements. So, it makes perfect sense for him to take Rudyard Kipling’s poem “A Pict Song” and set it to folk punk music. The poem talks of how “we are the little folk we” and if you underestimate the little folk, you’ll see “how we can drag down the State!” It warns those in power not to tread on the average worker because the worker can rise up. Combined with music, the poem becomes an anthem, which was exactly what it needed.
“Rusty James,” Green Day
Named after the main character of S.E. Hinton’s Rumble Fish, “Rusty James” borrows from the book’s spirit in more than just plotline. Both conjure up imagery of growing up too quickly and the idea that the things you fought for when you were young might not be as important as you thought. Both also deal with alienation and being left behind. “Well there’s no one else around and you’re the last gang in town” speaks to both Green Day being alienated from the Oakland punk scene they started in, and Rusty’s fear that his brother will leave him behind like his mother did.
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