Artists from David Bowie to Taylor Swift have been inspired by great works of literature. As exam season approaches, we present some songs to add to your revision playlist that give a nod to Orwell, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Carroll and company.
Songs inspired by Shakespeare
Music is the subject of some of Shakespeare’s most impassioned lines, from Duke Orsino’s famous entrance in Twelfth Night (“If music be the food of love/play on”) to Lorenzo’s speech in The Merchant of Venice: “The man that hath no music in himself/Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds/Is fit for treasons (…) The motions of his spirit are dull as night (…) Let no such man be trusted”! The most tragic teenage couple in history, Romeo and Juliet, were granted a happy ending by Taylor Swift in her 2008 song Love Story; Exit Music (for a film) from Radiohead’s album OK Computer stays closer to the original:
“We hope your rules and wisdom choke you/Now we are one in everlasting peace”
Ophelia, who drowns after Hamlet rejects her, is mentioned in Bob Dylan’s protest song Desolation Row: “Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window/For her I feel so afraid/On her twenty-second birthday/She already is an old maid”. Othello’s deadly jealousy is the inspiration for Cute Without the E by Taking Back Sunday: “She’ll destroy us all before she’s through/And find a way to blame somebody else”. Thankfully some happy couples have also served as inspiration: Mumford and Sons’ Sigh No More, which takes its name from the song that features in Much Ado About Nothing, quotes Benedick (“Serve God, love me and mend”) in celebration of a love that “will not betray you, dismay or enslave you” but will “set you free”.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton has taken over Broadway- the Obama family are huge fans and Miranda has just won the Pulitzer Prize. The story of “ten dollar founding father” Alexander Hamilton and his role in the American War of Independence is retold via 90s-style rap and R&B, and has been widely praised for its historical accuracy. The biography Miranda used to fact-check his lightning-fast lyrics became a non-fiction best-seller, despite its huge size (808 pages!) The libretto (informally known as ‘the Hamiltome’) hasn’t been published in the UK, so the only way to learn the words to songs like Guns and Ships (over six per second!) is to put the soundtrack on repeat. You can find books on American history in and around 973; the French Revolution, which inspired Hamilton, Lafayette and co. to go to war, is at 944.04. If you’d like to turn the life of your favourite historical hero (or villain!) into a record-breaking musical, read The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide (BOOK ZONE 782.1413)
“”We hold these truths to be self-evident
That all men are created equal”
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’ma compel him
To include women in the sequel”
Justin Bieber enraged the public back in 2013 when he somehow managed to make a trip to the Anne Frank Museum all about him. A more tasteful tribute might be In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an album released in 1998 by Louisiana indie band Neutral Milk Hotel. Frontman Jeff Mangum has never confirmed that songs like Oh, Comely and Holland 1945 were written for Frank, who died in a concentration camp after spending two years in an attic. However, fans picked up on references to Anne’s date of birth and her father Otto, who published her diary after her death. If you’d like to test their theory and learn more about an incredible girl, you can find Anne’s diary in the BOOK ZONE 940.5316 FRA.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that works of fiction- from plays and novels to poetry- have inspired musical artists to write or re-write tales of love, adventure and betrayal. Avenged Sevenfold might take their name from the Bible, but their 2005 release Bat Country is based on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson’s fictionalised account of his drug-fuelled road trip through the Mojave desert. “Too weird to live, too rare to die” is a direct quote from the book, which has become something of a mantra for Thompson fans- Panic! At the Disco frontman Brandon Urie, who is originally from Las Vegas, used it as the title for the band’s 2013 album. Bat Country also quotes Dr Samuel Johnson, a politician from the 1700s who famously published the first English dictionary.“He who makes a beast out of himself/gets rid of the pain of being a man”…quite! Watch Johnny Depp’s iconic performance in Fear and Loathing…. the movie, located in the DVD LOBBY 791.43
Iron Maiden took on the daunting task of adapting Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner for their 1984 album Powerslave. The epic poem, which is said to depict Coleridge’s lifelong struggle with opium, gave us the phrase “an albatross around my neck”, to describe a terrible curse or obligation. Iron Maiden’s song comes in at almost 14 minutes long; shorter songs inspired by the Mariner include Albatross by Fleetwood Mac, The Weight of Living by Bastille and Echoes by Pink Floyd. Find Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Wordsworth and Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads (BOOK ZONE 821.7 WOR)
“The albatross begins with its vengeance
A terrible curse a thirst has begun
His shipmates blame bad luck on the mariner
About his neck, the dead bird is hung”
Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith performs Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 2008
In George Orwell’s 1984 (BOOK ZONE 823.91 ORW), words are given new meanings to control the way the people think. David Bowie’s concept album Diamond Dogs began life as a musical based on the novel- when Bowie was refused the rights by Orwell’s estate, he created his own dystopia, Hunger City (the words “Big Brother” and “1984” still feature heavily). The album was written using the ‘cut-up’ technique popularised by author William S Burroughs- by cutting up and rearranging the text of 1984, Bowie was able to form lyrics like those below:
“Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you Big Brother, Big Brother”
Diamond Dogs is just as much of an influence now as Orwell’s novel itself. In 2009 Muse released their own dystopian concept album, The Resistance- the title track contains lyrics like “Kill your prayers for love and peace/You’ll wake the thought police”. Other works featured by multiple artists include Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which inspired Kate Bush to stand next to some trees and wave her arms about. Cath by Death Cab for Cutie is written from Heathcliff’s perspective, as he returns to find his soulmate has married his enemy Edgar. Cathy doesn’t live for much longer, and Heathcliff exhumes her corpse for a final embrace:
“The things that could have been are repressed
But you said your vows, and you closed the door
On so many men who would have loved you more
And soon everybody will ask what became of you
‘Cause your heart was dying fast, and you didn’t know what to do”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (BOOK ZONE 823.91 CAR), a children’s story written by a Victorian mathematician, became something of a counter-culture emblem in the ‘60’s. The animated Disney adaptation Alice in Wonderland was re-released in the 1960s due to the success of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Drugs like LSD and mescaline were popular on college campuses, and users reported seeing bright colours and strange creatures like those in Alice! The Eat Me/Drink Me sweets which alter Alice’s size, the caterpillar sucking on his shisha pipe and the themes of boredom, loss and loneliness all appealed to fans of ‘psychedelic’ music; in 1968 Jefferson Airplane released White Rabbit, a tribute to Alice’s unending curiosity:
“When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving slow
Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know”
The repeated lyric “Go Ask Alice” eventually formed the title of a 1971 book designed to warn teenagers about the dangers of drug use. Presented as the diary of an anonymous teenage girl, Go Ask Alice (BOOK ZONE 362.29092) shows how ‘one bad trip’ can set you on a path that ends with heroin addiction, incarcerations, heart attacks, rape, pregnancy and death! The song appears in the trailer for the upcoming Tim Burton movie Alice Through the Looking-Glass; in 2010 a compilation album called Almost Alice was released alongside Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (DVD LOBBY 791.43), featuring artists like Franz Ferdinand and Avril Lavigne on songs like Painting Flowers, The Lobster Quadrille and Tea Party.
Stranger still is the entirely unofficial world of ‘Wizard Rock’. There are many fictional wizards- Rincewind, Gandalf, Dr Strange- but none inspire music like Harry Potter. Harry and the Potters were first on the scene, swiftly followed by Draco and the Malfoys, Hermione and the Mudbloods, Justin Finch-Fletchley and the Sugar Quills, and As I Lay Dobby. Wrock bands perform at muggle events like Leakycon, the annual Harry Potter convention; several were featured in We Are Wizards, a documentary that premiered at SXSW in 2008.
“You may have freed our house-elf
And brought doubt to our family name
But your parents still got toasted by a big green glowing flame
My dad is rich, and your dad is dead.
My dad is rich, and your dad is dead!”
Book-to-film adaptations often elicit angry responses from fans, but they also allow us to listen to music that would have otherwise been left to our imagination. In Scott Pilgrim versus The World, adapted from the graphic novel series by Bryan O’Malley, Scott has to fight his girlfriend’s seven evil exes. Scott is a guitarist, and fights off exes 5, 6 and 7 in Battle of the Bands-style duels. The music for Scott’s band Sex Bob-omb (named for the Sex Pistols, Tom Jones’ Sex Bomb and the enemies from Super Mario!) was written by Beck, while Canadian band Broken Social Scene provide songs for rival band Crash and the Boys. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (BOOK ZONE 823.91 ROW), Ginny Weasley agrees to attend the Yule Ball with Neville Longbottom so she can see her favourite band, Weird Sisters. Led by Jarvis Cocker, the band provide the soundtrack for iconic scenes like Ron’s arrival (in ancient-looking dress robes) and Hermione’s dance with Durmstrang champion Viktor Krum.
El Conde de lo Trágico HAMILTON DSGN #002 / THE SCHUYLER SISTERS accessed at https://flic.kr/p/ER15Yc on 11/05/2016
CO1867 Adrian Smith. Air Canada Centre, March 2008. accessed at https://flic.kr/p/6u4QUL on 11/05/2016
ElCapitanBSC WE ARE SEX BOB-OMB! accessed at https://flic.kr/p/cToMAJ on 05/05/2016