Music inspires paintings, films inspire fashion, art inspires poetry. Books, mostly, get turned into films. They inspire all art forms, but what I really like is a song about a book. Experimental composer Ben Frost recently turned Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory into an opera, but plenty of musicians have compressed novels into excellent tracks of four minutes or less. These are my favourite examples, but they’re not the only ones. I struggled to think of any from the last ten years. Someone out there must have written a song about a Margaret Atwood novel that I’m forgetting.
Killing an Arab – The Cure
An aggressive title, I’ll admit – one that, at the time of release, was pretty controversial. The song is actually based on The Stranger by Albert Camus, and pretty succinctly manages to convey the same feeling as that book. All the existential dread and numbness is perfectly expressed in two minutes.
Venus in Furs – The Velvet Underground
Shiny shiny. Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch is a BDSM-oriented novella, largely inspired by Sacher-Masoch’s sexual experiences with the appropriately named Fanny Pistor. Sacher-Masoch is where the term ‘masochism’ comes from, and the book details whippings and other forms of submissive degradation that probably weren’t much talked about in the year of its publication, 1870. John Cale’s viola on this adds to the whole song’s feeling of being trapped in a smoky 19th-century boudoir.
Warm Leatherette – The Normal
I’ve spoken about this song before but it bears repeating. The Normal was Daniel Miller, the founder of Mute Records, tooling about with a Korg synthesiser. The result is this terrifying rendering of Ballard’s Crash. Since covered by as varied artists as Grace Jones and Trent Reznor, the track has the perfect level of restrained violence. The lyric ‘a tear of petrol/is in your eye/the handbrake/penetrates your thigh’ makes me shiver every time.
Scentless Apprentice – Nirvana
Despite only having about nine lines, this song is, I promise, based on Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of A Murderer. It was one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite novels, and he once said he had read it at least ten times. The story of a boy born with no scent who becomes a perfumer, it is creeping, cold and excellent. Süskind now reportedly lives as a recluse in Munich, has not published any fiction since 1996, and Perfume remains his only novel.
Pet Semetary – The Ramones
I’m counting this. Written for the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Semetary, it feels possible that the band were shown an early cut of the film and instantly recorded this. It follows the story of the novel pretty perfectly, and the rhyming couplet ‘I don’t wanna be buried/in a…pet semetary’ is one of my favourite choruses of all time, no exaggeration. Everyone good is a fan of The Ramones, otherwise you wouldn’t see their t-shirts everywhere. This was also from the 1980s when The Ramones were adding synthesisers to things, seemingly reluctantly.
Honorable mentions go to Atrocity Exhibition by Joy Division (not included because Ian Curtis hadn’t actually read the book when he wrote the song), Kings of Speed by Hawkwind (although Michael Moorcock wrote the lyrics, it is only very loosely based on his novel Eternal Champion, which I’ve not read), and Graham Greene by John Cale (a great song but only mentions an author in passing). Let me know if I missed anything vital.