The Best Songs Inspired by Books.

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.

Charity Book Shopping: Canterbury.

Will there ever be a charity shop bookshelf that doesn’t have a copy of Fifty Shades on it again? At the weekend we went to Canterbury, and discovered that among the omnipresent E.L James, James Patterson and Mills & Boon, Canterbury stacks up pretty well.

Canterbury has arguably the richest literary history of any town in England. Toilet humour enthusiast Geoffrey Chaucer, Christopher Marlowe and Sir Thomas More all have strong ties to the place, the latter of whom’s severed head supposedly resides in St Dunstan’s Church.

The standout bookshop for me was the Catching Lives bookshop in The Crooked House. The Crooked House is worth a look alone. Its door is tilted almost 45 degrees, and the whole building gives you the feeling of being down the rabbit hole. Every room is completely stuffed with books, and you can feel good about buying up shelves of the stock as it all goes to the homeless charity Catching Lives. Read more about it here.

It isn’t quite payday for me, so I had to limit myself. For every book I bought I could’ve bought five more. Here’s what I got:

Auto da Fé – Elias Canetti

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I’ve always heard great things about this book, and even when someone has been telling me it’s too strange or shocking, I’ve still been attracted to it. Seeing it in this ’60s Modern Classics edition it looked a lot less daunting than other editions I’ve seen – did they somehow manage to fit more pages in 50 years ago, or is it purely that the print is so much smaller? It tells the story of Herr Doktor Peter Kien, a 40-year-old recluse who has no interest in human interaction or sex, just his books. ‘Auto da fé’ translates as ‘act of faith’, but is also a reference to the burning of heretics by the Inquisition. It sounds completely mad, but I can’t wait to get into it.

Querelle of Brest – Jean Genet

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I’m not as keen on the cover of this one, since my girlfriend pointed out to me that it is four hands masturbating an ejaculating penis. But it is what it is. To have this on the cover of a book I’ll read on my commute is a small price to pay to find another Jean Genet. Our Lady of the Flowers is one of my favourite books of all time, and I have never found anything else of his readily available. I discovered that Our Lady is now a print-on-demand title, which means it is on its way out. If you can get hold of it you really have to. This one seems to portray the young man Querelle as the object of desire of several older men and women. Genet had a way of writing about disgusting, gory reality in such a poetic way that sometimes you’d read a page before the image is fully formed in your mind, somehow both hideous and beautiful.

Try – Dennis Cooper

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Dennis Cooper writes horrible books about sad people doing terrible things. I’ve read a few of his novels before. They refuse to let you be anything but present in the total derangement, sadness and brutality of their narratives. Like a Throbbing Gristle record etched into paper, his writing is incredible – occasionally stream-of-consciousness, always gripping. The story of the adopted teenage son of two sexually abusive fathers, this probably won’t have them rolling in the aisles, but it will be affecting.

Freaks: Cinema of the Bizarre

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This is an A4 black-and-white encyclopedia of weird cinema, published in 1976. A large part of it is dedicated to the Tod Browning film of the same name, before it runs out of steam and turns to made-up creeps in Hammer Horror movies. I love everything about it, from the trashy presentation to the inflammatory chapter titles (‘The Age of the Human Freak’). A snapshot of its time and the beginning of the midnight movie phenomenon, Freaks: Cinema of the Bizarre cost me £1.50.

Why I like J.G Ballard.

‘Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash.’ This, the first line of Crash, was my rude awakening to the world of J.G Ballard. An obsession with Joy Division had led me to pick up Crash in a now-defunct record shop for £3.99. I’d seen the mirrored cover of Cocaine Nights on my dad’s bookshelf since I was really young, but knew I had to start with the most controversial of his works (not counting the earlier short story Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan).

It is a horrifying story about a group of people who achieve sexual gratification through car crashes. I have always read it as an existentialist novel; people who are so numbed by the constant mental stimulation of late 20th-century media that they go to further and further lengths to feel.

J.G Ballard is responsible for the changes that occurred in science fiction across the 20th century. You could argue that Crash isn’t even really sci-fi; everything that occurs could feasibly have occurred at the time he wrote it. However, its theme of technology interfering in the human psyche is very much science fiction. Good sci-fi is always really about the present and so, with Ballard’s self-styled ‘new science fiction’, he often cut out the middle man of space travel or the setting of the year 3000.

In his teens, Ballard was imprisoned in an internment camp in Shanghai, an experience fictionalised in Empire of the Sun. It was during these years that he was exposed to the abandoned buildings and drained swimming pools that would recur throughout his work. Towards the end of the war, he was also witness to other inmates dying around him, starving to death. Many propose that this early exposure to war atrocities was the seed from which the more violent and apocalyptic ideas in his fiction grew.

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Through J.G Ballard I discovered ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Normal – a terrifying, Suicide-esque slab of industrial. I read High-Rise, Super-Cannes, and The Atrocity Exhibition in quick succession, each time discovering another horrifying work, each reading like a fictional extrapolation of an academic journal proving Ballard’s hypotheses about the human race.

In 2012, Extreme Metaphors was published; a collection of the best interviews with Ballard from 1967-2008. Featuring interviews conducted by several people I had discovered through him – Will Self, Iain Sinclair, David Cronenberg – it was a fascinating insight into the man’s thoughts through the late 20th and early 21st century. It revealed him to be, in my eyes, one of the most prescient futurists of all time. An example:

A lot of my prophecies about the alienated society are going to come true… Everybody’s going to be starring in their own porno films as extensions of the Polaroid camera. Electronic aids, particularly domestic computers, will help the inner migration, the opting out of reality. Reality is no longer going to be the stuff out there, but the stuff inside your head. It’s going to be commercial and nasty at the same time, like ‘Rite of Spring’ in Disney’s Fantasia…

(Heavy Metal, 1982)

I’m not saying he purely predicted the onset of POV amateur pornography; there isn’t a single element of that quote I disagree with.

Further examples of his predictions:

Everything’s designed to be bland, homogenous, user-friendly… The totalitarian regimes of the future will be ingratiating, subservient. No longer will it be Orwell’s vision of a boot stamping on a human face. We’ll have something highly subservient and ingratiating, where the tyranny is imposed for our own good.

On mental illness:

Some people have suggested that mental illness is a kind of adaptation to the sort of circumstances that will arise in the future. As we move towards a more and more psychotic landscape, the psychotic traits are signs of a kind of Darwinian adaptation.

And, most importantly:

Sex times technology equals the future.

You can dip into his bibliography anywhere and find something poignant and terrifying. And yet in a way his novels have that very British feeling to them, like discovering your train is cancelled, saying ‘this is shit, isn’t it?’ to someone else on the platform and laughing. We’re all going to hell but some aspects of the journey are quite darkly funny, aren’t they? And what made him write such horrific visions of the near future?

When asked why he’d written Crash, in an interview sampled on the seminal Manic Street Preachers’ album The Holy Bible, Ballard replied:

‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.’

 

Has the world changed or have I changed?

The first book I loved (that wasn’t written by JK Rowling) was Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. I was an edgy sixteen year-old; had it been the fifties I would’ve carried Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea around in my bag, in the sixties Kerouac’s On The Road, but I was born too late to be one of those pretentious teenagers and to an era where my reading was based on the music I liked – in the case of Less Than Zero, Bloc Party’s A Weekend in the City.

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The edition I ordered through WHSmiths.

My life was nowhere near as exciting as the lives of Clay, Julian and Blair, based as it was on the cusp of Hampshire and Surrey rather than Los Angeles. They were rich doing cocaine in mansions and I was poor drinking cider in alleyways. I definitely glamourised their version of emptiness, which was ridiculous being from where I was from, but that’s one of the brilliant things about being a teenager – the simultaneous deathly self-consciousness and complete lack of self-awareness. I watched the film adaptation, which plays like a John Hughes movie written by Lars Von Trier, and proceeded to read everything I could get my hands on by Ellis over the next few months, culminating in the use of a plane’s sick bag while reading American Psycho over California. If tomorrow he announced a new novel, I would be the first to pre-order it. I know he is not for everyone, but he was the first writer to grab my attention to the point that nothing existed outside of those borders.

However. Giving his podcast a go a few years ago, I heard his piece about a silly column written about Sky Ferreira, where the writer had gone on and on about her breasts with really childish language. It wound some people up, and they reacted to it, leading the LA Weekly to apologise for the piece. You can read Ellis’s whole reaction to the column here.

For me, phrases like ‘snowflakes’ and ‘SJWs’ are a distraction. They’re like mosquitoes swirling around your face; it’s that level of annoyance. It’s not a real insult, because surely ‘snowflake’ refers to snowflakes being completely unique. Doesn’t everyone think they’re unique? And if they don’t, isn’t that the most life-drainingly sad thing ever? But that’s not the point here. The point is when your idols aren’t what you thought they were.

It leads back to a conversation I am constantly having, which is how do you – should you, even – separate art from the artist? And what are the limits to that?

The other artist I idolised in my teens was Morrissey. I remember the first time I heard The Smiths – I was 14 on a train out of Brighton with my dad, going to stay with my girlfriend for the night. My dad had lent me his iPod and I was flicking through to find something to listen to – The Anti-Nowhere League, Depeche Mode, The White Stripes – before hitting The Smiths. ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’; the title grabbed me and I was thrust into the knowledge of how Joan of Arc felt. That whole trip, any moment I was alone, I plugged into The Smiths.

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I have spent too much time trying to look like this.

I know this is not an original experience. I know that I had this experience about twenty years later than most. But listening to Morrissey was like having a pen-pal, or one of those close friends you could spend evening after evening on the phone with. When I turned 18 I got a ‘Hand in Glove’ tattoo and never looked back. Refused to look back, even after several suspect comments in an interview with Simon Armitage.

And then on the back of his first solo album in three years, Low in High School, he started spouting worrying comments all over. First there were his comments about the UKIP election, which confused most people and worried others. You don’t really want to align yourself with that at a BBC 6Music concert. Then a response to the Kevin Spacey allegations in Der Spiegel left everyone at best speechless, at worst disgusted. Der Spiegel claims Morrissey said that ‘people know exactly what’s going on and they play along,’ implying the victims knew what they were getting into.

I really enjoyed his latest album. Some of the lyrics were a bit heavy-handed, but there were more highs than lows in my opinion. But the day after I read the interview in Der Spiegel, I didn’t feel too great about people seeing my tattoo. He has staunchly denied making the comments, and went on to say at a concert in Chicago that ‘unless you see the words form in my mouth and then you see the words or hear the words come out of my mouth – please, if you don’t see that, I didn’t say it.’

But he hasn’t denied being pro-Brexit, or a fan of Nigel Farage. How do you square that with beautiful insightful vegetarian Morrissey of the 1980s, who said it was okay to be whatever you were?

And like the man himself responding to the question ‘does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body?’, my conclusion is, I don’t know. Is it just the age we live in, of instant feedback and an inability to backtrack once something is said? I don’t know. You’re probably not meant to have idols in your late twenties, or if you do they should be long dead so they can’t disappoint you. From now on my heroes are St. Jude and John Steinbeck.