As we have said a few times now, musicians like to write songs about books. This is especially true of the big names of classic rock. Whether it is a pedophilic teacher à la Humbert Humbert in The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” or one the many Tolkien references that saturate Led Zeppelin songs, there is an endless list of literary references in classic rock. We’ve narrowed it down to 10 of our favorite book-inspired classic rock songs. (You can also follow along with our Spotify playlist!)
“Layla,” Eric Clapton
Love isn’t easy for anyone, not even famous rock stars; that’s why we have thousands of songs about broken hearts. Guitar god Eric Clapton got this message when he met—and immediately fell for—the beautiful, smart Pattie Boyd. There was one problem: She was already married to Clapton’s good friend and fellow musician, George Harrison. When Clapton read The Story of Layla and Majnun, he felt a connection to the ill-fated Majnun.
In Ganjavi Nizami‘s 1192 poem, a young man named Majnun falls in love with the beautiful Layla. “Fall in love” is a nice way of putting it—he becomes a bit obsessed. Layla’s father, refusing to marry her to a madman, marries her to someone else. Denied his love, Majnun goes to live in the wilderness, where is sometimes seen writing poetry and singing songs to Layla. In Clapton’s “Layla”, he begs her to, “make the best of the situation, before I finally go insane,” like the poor Majnun. Of course, unlike Majnun, Clapton did eventually marry, and later divorce, his Layla.
“Tomorrow Never Knows,” the Beatles
It is crazy to think that if Friedrich Nietzsche hadn’t been so popular, we may never have experienced the Beatles’ psychedelic phase. Searching the bookstore for a copy of The Portable Nietzsche, John Lennon instead picked up a copy of Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience.
Inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Leary’s book is an instruction manual meant to aid your psychedelic drug-taking experience. Lennon brought the book home, took some LSD, and had a mind-altering experience. “Tomorrow Never Knows” provides the listener with some of the same instructions: “turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.”
“ReJoyce,” Jefferson Airplane
While the clever title might make it obvious, “ReJoyce” is Jefferson Airplane’s paraphrasing of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Loosely inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, the famous novel follows a day in the life of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, and how their lives interact. Jefferson Airplane takes this legnthy work and boils it down to its basics. They invoke the dark madness that permeates the novel and even mention, “Molly’s gone to blazes, Boylan’s crotch amazes,” referring to the affair that Bloom’s wife has (which he knows all about).
“Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” The Police
“Young teacher, the subject of schoolgirl fantasies”: Right from the first line, you know what’s going down. In this tale of an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and his student, the man struggles against his urges but eventually gives in. Whenever a story like this pops up, you can’t help but immediately go to the quintessential story of pedophilic love: Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita. Lest there be any question about their inspiration, The Police include the lyric “just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.”
“Richard Cory,” Simon & Garfunkel
The best written work stays relevant—even after 68 years. Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1897 poem “Richard Cory” introduces us to the eponymous millionaire, who, despite being wealthy, powerful, and in grasp of everything he could want, shocks his entire town by committing suicide. In 1965, Paul Simon saw how relevant the poem still was and chose to do a modern retelling. Though this Richard Cory has “orgies on his yacht,” he’s still the man of wealth and stature from the poem. As the speaker of the song, Paul Simon works in his factory and envies the wealthy man and all his privileges, even after he kills himself. The song shows that humans continue to struggle with the idea that money isn’t the be-all, end-all of life.
“The Battle of Evermore,” Led Zeppelin
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.
“The Invisible Man,” Queen
Invisibility is one of the superpowers people most cite as wanting, but H.G. Wells’ classic The Invisible Man warns readers to be careful what you wish for. The story of the scientist who turns himself invisible but can’t bring himself back is the stuff of nightmares. When Queen drummer Roger Taylor finished reading, he immediately felt the need to write this song. While it’s not a straight retelling, “The Invisible Man” definitely explores the power (“Now I’m in your room, and I’m in your bed and I’m in your life”) and the powerlessness (“Never had a real good friend… No-one knows what I’ve been through”) that comes from being invisible.
In the ‘60s, it was not uncommon to look to Eastern philosophies for guidance and inspiration; Pink Floyd was no different. In “Chapter 24,” Pink Floyd take the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text on divination, and set it to music. Specifically, they pull from chapter 24 of the book, which describes the process of divining using hexagrams, a process that goes through six stages. The song has a meditative sound that carries the teachings of the I Ching through the listener and deepens the experience.
“Journey from Mariabronn,” Kansas
The story of two monks, one who leaves the monastery and one who stays, Narcissus and Goldmund is meant to be an example of Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian theory, which compares the logical vs. the emotional. Narcissus represented the Apollonian side, as he is the intellectual and the static monk. Goldmund is the Dionysian side, often following his whims and he becomes an artist. In the end they meet and discuss the different paths their lives have taken.
In Kansas’ “Journey from Mariabronn,” the monks’ story is put to song, though the connection is very vague. It speaks more abstractly of two souls who started together but were pulled apart by their differing natures. Yet they feel no anger at each other for their differences; they’re merely amazed: “It puzzles me how we can be so close and yet worlds apart.”
10. Ultimate X-Men
“Magneto and Titanium Man,” Wings
Paul McCartney, a Marvel fan? Who knew! Macca’s fanboy status shines bright in “Magneto and Titanium Man,” which highlights the aforementioned Marvel characters as well as the Crimson Dynamo. It’s not just a simple namedrop: McCartney writes his own fanfiction, of sorts. The three Marvel characters and Paul rush to the scene of a robbery, where they find a supervillain that is more powerful than all of them: “Magneto was mad, Titanium too, and the Crimson Dynamo. They just couldn’t cut it no more, you were the law.”