Best Book Songs
Rock artists have always had a tricky relationship with the fine arts. On one hand, many musicians come from scholarly backgrounds, having studied art and literature in college. But on the other hand, rock ‘n’ roll is a primal music made for people who want to unwind and have a good time. Throw too many artsy-fartsy references into your songs, and you’re going to lose a good chunk of your less-cerebral fan base. But rockers need to be well-read in order to engage audiences with their lyrics — otherwise you might as well just be LMFAO. Our list of the Best Book Songs works both ways: They’re great songs inspired by great literature.
Robert Plant waved his geek flag plenty of times before and after this song — from Led Zeppelin’s classic fourth album — which was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ (‘Ramble On’ references both Mordor and Gollum; ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ is about Bilbo’s journey.) But ‘The Battle of Evermore’ burrows itself deep in Middle Earth in both sound (it’s an acoustic number played on mandolin) and theme (it drops several references to Tolkien’s trilogy).
This ominous track from Metallica’s second album not only grabs its title from Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 novel; it also borrows its setting and theme. The book reflects on the brutality of war, set against the Spanish Civil War. Likewise, Metallica’s crushing song takes an antiwar stance: “Take a look to the sky just before you die / It is the last time you will.” The bells that open the song drive home the message.
Bruce Springsteen has grabbed inspiration from John Steinbeck, particularly his classic 1938 Great Depression novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ before (in a way, ‘The River”s song cycle is a modern-day interpretation). But ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad,’ the title track to Springsteen’s 1995 album, takes it further, borrowing lines and themes from the book. Joad, ‘Wrath”s protagonist, clings to a sliver of hope in a land of hopelessness. Springsteen’s song, and album, follows suit.
The Rolling Stones’ classic opening track from 1968’s ‘Beggars Banquet’ was inspired by a Russian book called ‘The Master and Margarita’ that was started in 1928 by writer Mikhail Bulgakov but not published in English until 1967. Marianne Faithfull gave Mick Jagger a copy of the novel — about the devil’s trip to the Soviet Union — and he mixed in some ideas borrowed from French poet Charles Baudelaire, coming up with the sinister ’60s anthem ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’
With references to Alice, a white knight, a red queen and a hookah-smoking caterpillar, ‘White Rabbit’ clearly ripped some pages from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and its sequel ‘Through the Looking-Glass.’ But because the song came out in 1967, it didn’t take the drug-numbed masses long to connect the surreal imagery to all the psychedelics going around during the Summer of Love.