Quoth the raven: “To the tick tock, ya don’t stop.”
Ever since Ancient Greece, when Melanippides staged an epic 6 hour rock opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey (And Oracle), complete with giant cyclops mascot a la Iron Maiden’s Eddie, music has looked to the printed page for inspiration. Here are some of my favorites. Sorry I didn’t include Maiden’s “Quest For Fire” but, no.
It makes sense that Sting would fill his songs with literary references since he started out as an English teacher (“Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” about a young girl’s crush on her teacher, hmmm, has a reference to Nabokov’s Lolita). This song was based on a story told in the Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky. The tale is about three sisters who want to have drinks in the desert with a prince. The prince never shows and the sisters are found dead, their cups full of sand. It’s an utterly beautiful song.
Back in the early 80s there was something called Chu-Bops. You’d get a small album sleeve reproduction with lyrics to one of the songs on the back cover and a record made of bubble gum. I thought they were amazing! One of the ones I got was Cultosaurus Erectus by Blue Oyster Cult . The printed lyrics were for a song called “Divine Wind” and they were super creepy so I picked up the actual album. “Black Blade” was the first track and it blew me away! I found out that it was about a series of books by Michael Moorcock about Elric, a weak prince with a magical sword that sucked the souls out of people (enemies, friends, lovers, it didn’t care) to give its user extra power. I went to the library and got the first novel and devoured it. This song gave me a love of fantasy novels that continues to this day. To say that it was a huge influence on me would be an understatement.
An absolute high-water mark for music, this song, written by John Lennon appeared on Revolver. He based it on lines from The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary (which itself was based on The Tibetan Book Of The Dead). Lennon told producer George Martin that he wanted it to sound like it was chanted from a hilltop by a thousand monks. It doesn’t sound like that, but it does still sound pretty incredible, from Lennon’s vocals recorded through a rotating speaker to the backward guitar to a seagull noise created by a sped-up tape of Paul McCartney laughing to Ringo Starr’s absolutely hypnotic drum track. I can’t imagine that a whole lot of pop songs sounded like this in mid-1966. The throbbing take 1 version on The Beatles Anthology 2 is pretty boss, too.
I adore Kate Bush. Her album Hounds Of Love is one of my top five favorites. “Wuthering Heights,” from her first album, The Kick Inside, was written when she was eighteen. The lyrics at times directly quote Emily Brontë’s classic novel. The song was the first self-penned single by a female artist to reach number one in the British charts, a position it held for four weeks. Kate Bush is an absolute genius, odd and awesome!
The fourth track on what is arguably the most influential album of all time, “Venus In Furs” was based on the 1870 novel of the same name written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The book was about some fun stuff Leo liked to do. The song is a mesmerizing five-minute drone with John Cale’s viola and Lou Reed’s guitar playing off each other beautifully.
As much as I love short punk songs, I also have a soft spot for pretentious prog epics. And I love Fish-era Marillion. “Grendel,” adapted from Beowulf, clocks in at a lean, mean 17 minutes. It was the band’s first release which is pretty gutsy. Usually bands wait until they’re established before they show their weird side. I like the song but it’s not one of my favorites. The reason it’s on here is the video. Taken from a live show, it’s a fairly straightforward performance until the 13 minute mark when Fish (the lead singer) puts on an old battle helmet/mask. He sings for a bit, but at 16:30 he attacks! Waving his hands around, he then pulls some helpless schlub out of the crowd and proceeds to fake maul him. The guy actually looks horrified (Fish is around 6’5 and schlubbo is nowhere near that). This goes on for a while and it’s the greatest thing ever! Youtube this sucker! Again, I love Marillion and don’t want to seem like I’m bagging on them. But it is super goofy.
Jimmy Eat World’s singer, Jim Adkins, once said “Anthrax always had a Stephen King song. I thought why not go with something I was reading?”. So he wrote a song based on A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving. It’s a long one too! The fade out takes about thirteen minutes. Hypnotic and beautiful.
And we’re talking early Metallica here, not the later Load-y business. There are probably some songs there that would fit, but I’ve not given them much of a listen. Their wonderful second and third albums, though have a bunch! Ride The Lightning, the second album, has “For Whom The Bell Tolls” based on Hemingway, “Creeping Death” based on the bible and “The Call Of Ktulu” which was a mis-spelled reference to the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. The follow up album, Master Of Puppets has “The Thing That Should Not Be” (Lovecraft again!) and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” which found inspiration in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. And they’re all great songs. What happened?
I was a huge metal fan in high school, but when I got to college, I had gotten out of it, preferring punk, post punk and hip hop. When I started dipping my toes back into the water, I went to my friend Keith’s shop on the East Side called Hole In The Wall Music. I had recently fallen in love with an album called Heartwork by Carcass (to whomever played the title track on WXUT one summer day, thank you so much!), so I asked for some stuff like that, which he gave me. It was all pretty brutal, which is awesome, but I asked for something more epic too. He played me “Into The Storm” off of Nightfall In Middle Earth by German Power Metal band Blind Guardian. It was brilliant! Soaring, catchy, and, let’s face it, cheesy as heck. The whole album is a retelling of The Silmarillion by Tolkien, complete with dramatic spoken bits between songs. It’s perfect for waving a flagon of ale around by a roaring fire, waiting for Tanis Half-Elven to show up at the Inn Of The Last Home. I know it’s a completely different fantasy series, but I was never a huge Tolkien fan.
Back in the late Eighties, a scene was spawned in England called “Grebo music.” It was a combination of hip hop, electronica, and punk and it didn’t last long. Acts included The Wonder Stuff, Carter USM, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (whom I thought were great), but the scene itself was started by Pop Will Eat Itself (at least I’m pretty sure they did. If there are any Grebo scholars out there, set me straight). PWEI were a blur of bright colors, catchy songs, and pop culture references. Their biggest hit, Can U Dig It?, alone, referenced movies (Dirty Harry, Terminator, and The Warriors, which gave the song its title and is sampled throughout), music (RUN DMC, The Fall, Sonic Youth and Salt N Pepa’s Spinderella), and comics (Freak Brothers, Batman, and especially writer Alan Moore, who knows the score). Moore was the writer of Watchmen which “Def Con One” is based on. A lot of the lyrics are direct quotes from the book (“Ground floor coming up”) and they mention the doomsday clock a bunch. It’s a wonderfully weird song. PWEI leader Clint Mansell later became the composer for the films of Darren Aronofsky, creating the brilliant score from Requiem For A Dream among others. I wonder what Aronofsky heard in Mansell’s earlier work that made him want Mansell to score his films. Whatever it was, he was right!
As I said before, no “Quest For Fire.” But I had to include this gem. Almost fourteen minutes long, “Rime” anchors Maiden’s fifth album, Powerslave. Based on Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem from the Eighteenth Century, “Rime” tells the story of a cursed sea voyage and the lone survivor of it. The song quotes lines from the poem and some brilliant ship creaking sound effects which they used when I saw them on that tour, playing with the amazing Accept at the Sports Arena back in June of 1985 (one of my favorite concerts of all time. “Scream for me, Toledo!”).
It’s no secret that Herman Melville’s favorite band was Uriah Heep. He drew their logo on all his binders and he had their patch on his denim jacket. But few people know that he was also a huge fan of Mountain. He once described Leslie West’s guitar work as transcendent in a letter to his publisher in England, Richard Bentley, in which they discussed heavy prog. So, when he heard the title track of Mountain’s second album, Nantucket Sleighride, he flipped his gourd. The song is the tale of the whaleship Essex, which was destroyed by its prey in 1820. The music was written by bass player Felix Papillardi and the lyrics were by his wife, Gail Collins (who would later kill Papillardi). The song so moved Melville that he wrote a novel based on it called Moby Dick (the title was from a Led Zeppelin song). He thanked Mountain in the acknowledgements and actually put a line from the song just after the title page (oddly, the book was dedicated to early Heep vocalist David Byron). Ron Howard also made a movie about the Essex which Melville described as “sucked.”
Featured Image Credit: Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay.