Music and Literature: Books That Inspired Musicians

Music and Literature: Books That Inspired Musicians


It’s not news that books are continually being adapted for film and television—but did you know that books have also long been the source of inspiration for music? For instance, Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice” calls out the twisted protagonist of Patrick Suskind‘s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.Though the list could go on forever, here are 11 of our favorite songs with a bookish muse. (You can also follow along with our Spotify playlist.)

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    1. Tao Te Ching

    “The Inner Light,” the Beatles

    When George Harrison received a copy of Lamps of Fire from Juan Mascaró, he was immediately inspired by the passages of the Tao Te Ching. He took the lines “Without going out of my door, I can know the ways of heaven” and turned it into “The Inner Light”—a song that draws both aural and lyrical inspiration from the far east.

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    2. Faust

    “The Small Print,” Muse

    Originally titled “Action Faust,” the song adopts the point of view of the Devil from Goethe’s ultimate cautionary tale Faust. Referred to in the song as “the priest God never paid,” the Devil manipulates a deal in exchange for a soul.

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    3. The Lord of the Rings

    “Ramble On,” Led Zeppelin

    Evidence of Led Zeppelin’s love of J.R.R. Tolkien can be found all over their music, whether through direct reference or interpretations of themes. “Ramble On’s” Lord of the Rings influence is impossible to deny, with lines like “T’was in the darkest depths of Mordor” and “But Gollum, and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.” But your clearest indicator is the epicness of the music to Tolkien’s epic tale.

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    4. The Catcher in the Rye

    “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield,” Green Day

    With Catcher in the Rye being one of lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s favorite books, it’s no surprise that it crept into one of his songs. While the very telling title should tip you off, the song has Holden written all over it: The song speaks of a boy who “makes a plan to take a stand” but “always ends up sitting.” He’s fed up with the world but can’t seem to do anything to change it.

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    5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

    “White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane

    Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is all over “White Rabbit”: There’s the “hookah smoking caterpillar” and the “red queen’s off with her head,” and (of course) Alice in all her different states. Lead singer Grace Slick wrote the song when she observed that parents were always trying to tell their children not to take psychedelic drugs, yet they would read their kids stories so obviously influenced by mushrooms and pills that—like in the classic—make you larger or smaller. Let’s not forget the dormouse that says, “Feed your head.”

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    6. Venus in Furs

    “Venus in Furs,” The Velvet Underground

    Venus in Furs tells the story of a man named Severin, who loves a woman—Wanda—so much that he asks to be her slave. He then convinces her to take on a dominatrix role. The Velvet Underground song of the same name is basically a direct translation, with lines like, “Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart” and “Taste the whip, in love not given lightly.”

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    7. Lolita

    “Off to the Races,” Lana Del Rey

    “My old man is a bad man”: With opening lyrics like that, it is not hard to imagine that Lana Del Rey was channeling Nabokov’s Lolita in her song “Off to the Races.” Painting herself as Dolores (or Lolita), she even paraphrases one of Humbert Humbert’s sayings: “Light of your life, fire of your loins.”

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    8. 1984

    “1984,” David Bowie

    David Bowie has a well known connection to George Orwell’s 1984. In the 1970s, Bowie had planned to write a musical based off the novel, but this was thwarted by Orwell’s wife. However, that didn’t stop Bowie from writing a few songs based on the novel—most obviously, “1984.” The lyrics are believed to represent the questioning of main character Winston Smith by antagonist O’Brien.

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    9. Perfume

    “Scentless Apprentice,” Nirvana

    When Kurt Cobain wrote the words “His smell smelled like no other,” it was a direct reference to Grenouille, the main character from Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Grenouille was born without an odor but with a keen sense of smell. This leads him to search for the perfect scent, which he attains through murdering and preserving the smells of countless women. A surprising number of songs have taken this story as an influence, with Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice” being the most famous.

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    10. The Grapes of Wrath

    “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Bruce Springsteen

    When Bruce Springsteen wrote the song “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” he was looking to channel the spirit of The Grapes of Wrath by making a modern example of the plight of Americans down on their luck. He even paraphrases a famous speech made by Tom Joad with the lines, “Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air / Look for me mom I’ll be there.”

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    11. One Hundred Years of Solitude

    “Banana Co.,” Radiohead

    In Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, an imperialist Banana plantation moves into the town of Macondo and treats the land and the people of the town unfairly. The Banana Company and its influence on the town is the subject of Radiohead’s “Banana Co.” In the novel, the workers end up revolting, which is directly reflected in the line, “Everything’s burning down / We got to put it out somehow.”


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