Dear sir or madam will you read my blog?
For Reading Addicts is generally all about that prose. But a good song can have all the intellectual and emotional impact of a great book. And we all know most writers would love to be rock stars. Some have a go, writing lyrics like Nick Hornby (for Ben Folds) or bashing out their own noise, like Stephen King’s The Rock Bottom Remainders.
Song lyrics aren’t always meant to be taken too seriously. John Lennon famously dismissed many of the songs he wrote for The Beatles, even attempting to deny he’d written Cry Baby Cry, one of my favourite Fabs lyrics.
Some song writers though do win respect for their words as well as their music, having their lyrics published like “proper” poetry, and analysed – often over-analysed – by “proper” critics.
Bob Dylan is just the most obvious example; Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen (who was a poet and novelist before recording his songs), Paul Simon, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, and many more have had their lyrics published to be read, like “proper” poetry.
We could talk about great lyrics for weeks. But as a books and reading site we thought we’d take a look at books in songs.
This is an entirely personal selection, it doesn’t pretend to be a definitive best-of, and no doubt reflects my age and my tastes in both reading and listening. I hope you enjoy it, add your own choices at the end.
1 – Here’s Where The Story Ends – The Sundays/Tintin Out
It would be wrong not to include the song that, in a chat with FRA Supremo Kath, inspired this post.
This sad, sad song from the mellow, melancholy Sundays, seems to tell the story of the end of an affair. And just what went on in the shed?!
Released on the band’s debut album, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (the famed “three rs” of British education), the song was their biggest hit in the States, and was an even bigger international success in the hands of Tin Tin Out.
Sundays singer, Harriet Wheeler, was studying English literature at Bristol University when the band was formed, and wrote the lyric that included that regretted put down:
“Oh, I never should have said the books that you read were all I loved you for.”
2 – Let’s Be Other People – The Wonder Stuff
Listening to the fun, funny, fizzy guitar pop of their debut album, The Eight-Legged Groove Machine, you might not have expected many literary name-checks from The Wonder Stuff and their often acid-tongued singer and writer, Miles Hunt.
However, here they are in Hup, their second album, still grooving away, but this time over a lyric based around Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers, which was called “”the most revolting book ever written in Canada” by one critic. F is the protagonist of the novel and the song, where he “left a mess and killed my wife”.
Hunt went on to write a couple of songs in tribute to Charles Bukowski, named the band’s best-of collection, If The Beatles Had Read Hunter, after Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, and is now publishing his own diaries.
“This is not my tale it’s in a book I read.”
3 – The Dangling Conversation – Simon and Garfunkel
I love Paul Simon’s lyrics, and this 1966 song is packed with literary and writing references.
The couple who are silently falling apart while they stare into their books but fail to speak to each other are, “verses out of rhythm, couplets out of rhyme”. Perhaps surprisingly this was released as a single – it’s very downbeat musically and lyrically – and Paul Simon was said to be shocked that it wasn’t a bigger hit.
I’m a little conflicted about this song. Sometimes I think it’s genius, sometimes I think it’s a bit pretentious and the inclusion of the poets’ names a clanging name-drop.
Make up your own mind.
“And you read your Emily Dickinson, and I my Robert Frost.”
4 – The Book Lovers – Broadcast
Well, here we are at a book lovers’ website… I had to include this song as it’s one of my favourites – particularly in this Andy Votel remix – regardless of its wordy pedigree.
Singer and lyricist Trish Keenan studied creative writing at Birmingham University while working in the band. An obituary – she died tragically young after contracting an illness on tour – cites Gertrude Stein, Edgar Allan Poe, and HG Wells as influences on her writing.
There’s a real menace to the sound of this spooky homage to a book-shop (or library?). “Read the sign above the door, it’s not for everyone.”
The song was included on Broadcast’s 1997 collection of singles, Work and Non Work. This remix is from the Warp 10 + 3 compilation from 1999.
“Lines and lines of the spines, coloured everyone, down the aisles, along the titles where you are. Your eyes, read with your eyes.”
5 – Venus In Furs – The Velvet Underground
Naughty naughty Lou Reed and co named their bohemian band after a book about the 60s’ sexual counter culture. And there on their hugely influential debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, sat this fun little singalong based on a famous Austrian erotic novel.
Venus in Furs was written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and first published in 1870. The novel is a tale of male sexual submission, featuring two Severins, one in a book-within-a-book who is so in love with a woman called Wanda that he becomes her slave.
Sacher-Masoch, from whose name the word masochism is derived, was a forward thinker, concluding his tale of female domination with a plea for equality: “[Woman] can only be [Man’s] slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work.”
The Velvets made their tune just as challenging: more than five minutes of droning violas and clanging guitars in alternate tunings over Lou Reed’s deadpan vocal.
“Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you. Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.”
6 – Motorcycle Emptiness – Manic Street Preachers
You won’t find many more bookish bands than South Wales’ Manic Street Preachers, who’d spout on critical theory, poetry and politics as quickly as they’d down a bottle of Jack and set fire to their feather boas.
Motorcycle Emptiness, from the band’s debut album Generation Terrorists, was inspired by Rumble Fish, a novel by S E Hinton about teenage gangs.
Rumble Fish was also a big cult hit as a 1983 movie by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Matt Dillon and an impossibly cool Mickey Rourke as the Motorcycle Boy, after whom a Scottish indie band are named. Coppola also co-wrote (with Hinton) and directed an adaption of her massively successful debut novel, The Outsiders.
“Culture sucks down words, itemise loathing and feed yourself smiles.”
7 – I Am The Walrus – The Beatles
I’m a bit of a Beatles obsessive so had to get one of their songs into this list.
There are a few to choose from. Paperback Writer, about a would-be novelist, perhaps, or Tomorrow Never Knows, which took its lyrics from The Psychedelic Experience, Timothy Leary’s reworking of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Tibetan original itself.
I’ve picked I Am The Walrus purely because I love the song so much.
John Lennon was a huge fan of Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and borrowed the author’s Walrus from the 1871 poem, The Walrus and the Carpenter, in Through The Looking Glass, Alice’s second visit to Wonderland.
Lennon spins his own rather vitriolic nonsense around the title character in this 1967 release, but was said to have been disappointed to remember that the Walrus was in fact “the bad guy” in the poem.
“I am the Eggman, they are the Eggmen, I am the Walrus.”
8 – Wuthering Heights – Kate Bush
You’ll have to excuse me for being obvious here. Wuthering Heights must be one of the most famous literary songs there is, and one of the most straightforward adaptations. It’s been described as the novel, “but at a higher pitch.”
Kate Bush first met the story of Heathcliff and Cathy in a 1967 BBC TV adaptation starring Ian McShane and Angela Scoular, and then read the book. Her connection with the story was further strengthened when she learned that she shared author Emily Bronte’s birthday.
Bush’s record company weren’t keen on releasing a pop version of a Victorian novel as a single, but Kate (then still in her teens) persisted and was rewarded with an international hit that’s still probably her best-known song.
Wuthering is a northern English dialect word for the noise made by a strong wind.
“Heathcliff, it’s me Cathy. Come home. I’m so cold!”
9 – Thousands are Sailing – the Pogues
Shane MacGowan gets most plenty of plaudits for the Pogues’ fantastic lyrics, but this one – my favourite song of theirs – was written by Philip Chevron, another on our list who died too young, in 2013.
It’s a brilliant tale of a subject the band loved: Irish emigration to America and Irish American culture. Our literary reference is quite slight here, our hero dances up and down the New York streets “in Brendan Behan’s footsteps.”
Like the Pogues, Behan’s reputation as an artist is sometimes in danger of vanishing in the slew of boozy legends that his name also conjures up (there are more biographies of him than he wrote novels). Borstal Boy and The Quare Fellow are probably his two best-known works today, and he is widely regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest modern writers.
Chevron’s song appeared on If I Should Fall from Grace with God, the Pogues’ 1988 album that’s widely regarded as their best.
“And in Brendan Behan’s footsteps I danced up and down the street.”
10 – The Ghost of Tom Joad – Bruce Springsteen
Bruce loves nothing more than a story of a struggling working man and in this song he borrowed one of the most famous from John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
It’s been a popular song for The Boss, who’s played a number of versions himself, and appeared alongside Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello on his cover version.
In the novel, Tom Joad, fresh out of prison, joins his family on their Depression-era trek from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to the Promised Land of California.
The Springsteen song was released in 1995, when the writer could see parallels with the struggles and injustices Steinbeck highlighted in his 1939 novel.
The song was also inspired by Woody Guthrie’s song, The Ballad of Tom Joad, which he wrote after seeing the 1940 film of the book, which starred Henry Fonda as Tom.