Songs based on books- a playl­ist.

Published Categorised as Books, Music 2 Comments on Songs based on books- a playl­ist.

Here’s a short playl­ist I made of songs based on (good, enjoy­able) books, with some short descrip­tions for people who haven’t read the books in ques­tion.


1) Sympathy for the Devil- the Rolling Stones
The Master and Margar­ita– Mikhail Bulgakov

The Devil comes to Moscow in the 30s as Profess­or Woland, academ­ic, stage magi­cian and trouble­maker. More academ­ics should consider adding some diabol­ic magic tricks to their reper­toire in my opin­ion. It has a terri­fy­ing cat, histor­ic­al flash­backs and philo­sophy too.  Every­one ought to read this book. There’s a recent Russi­an TV version as well.

2) Bukowski- Modest Mouse
Gener­al works- Charles Bukowski

The song succinctly sums up my feel­ings on the topic. I wish people didn’t think you have to live like Bukowski to write like him. Wannabe boy-Bukowskis are pain­ful to behold.

3) Golden Hair- Syd Barrett
Poem V– James Joyce

Based on one of James Joyce’s poems. I really don’t recom­mend read­ing any of Joyce’s letters to his girl­friend, you will want to wash your brain out after­wards.

This Hark a Vagrant comic sums it up pretty well. I wonder if anyone’s done a song inter­pret­a­tion of Finneg­ans Wake? I know there’s clas­sic­al inter­pret­a­tions. There’s a list here of some music based on Joyce.

4) Willi­am It Was Really Noth­ing- the Smiths
Billy Liar– Keith Water­house

A nice bit of kitchen sink drama. York­shire boy Billy spends his days daydream­ing and compuls­ively telling elab­or­ate tall tales to escape his dreary job at an under­takers in a small town, and manages to get acci­dent­ally engaged to multiple girls at the same time. There’s a Decem­ber­ists song based on it too, but I didn’t have it to hand. There is also a very good film adapt­a­tion.

5) Char­lotte Some­times- the Cure
Char­lotte Some­times– Penelope Farm­er

Char­lotte is at board­ing school in the 1960s. Some­times she wakes up and finds herself as a girl called Clare in 1918. The two girls leave notes for each other in a diary about their exper­i­ences in each other’s lives until Char­lotte becomes trapped in 1918. The whole book has a sad, haunt­ing atmo­sphere. When I was a kid I read this back to back with Tom’s Midnight Garden and Moon­di­al. I’m suprised I didn’t take to my bed with a fit of the melan­chol­ics (that’s still a valid medic­al diagnos­is right?).

6) Cloud­bust­ing- Kate Bush
A Book of Dreams- Peter Reich

Wuther­ing Heights was just too obvi­ous. Cloud­bust­ing is based on the memoirs of Peter Reich, son of the contro­ver­sial psycho­ana­lyst Wilhelm Reich (and invent­or of the cloud­buster machine). The book is really worth a read, but is out of print and hard to get. There is a pdf version float­ing around though. The song also has a great video, direc­ted by Terry Gilli­am.

7) Gouge Away- the Pixies
Samson and Deli­l­ah – The Bible

Frank Black seemed to like writ­ing songs about the more bloodthirsty bible stor­ies.

8) Scent­less Appren­tice- Nirvana
The Perfume– Patrick Süss­kind

Jean-Baptiste Gren­ouille is an 18th century perfumer’s appren­tice with an incred­ible sense of smell, and an obses­sion with creat­ing the smell of beauty by murder­ing beau­ti­ful girls and extract­ing their scent. One of my all-time favour­ite books, and one that did wonders for my German vocab. I also really enjoyed the film adapt­a­tion from a few years ago, with Ben Whishaw.

9) Venus in Furs- the Velvet Under­ground
Venus in Furs– Leopold von Sach­er-Masoch­Victori­an

S&M novel. Von Sach­er-Masoch gave his name to masochism. It seems to be Gregor Samsa’s recent read­ing matter too. I suppose because of von Sach­er-Masoch and Leopold II of Belgi­um I always see Leopold as a slightly sinis­ter name.

10) White Rabbit- Jeffer­son Airplane
Alice in Wonder­land/​Alice Through the Look­ing Glass– Lewis Carroll

If I didn’t include Wuther­ing Heights, then I will include this obvi­ous one. I really hate the fluffi­fy­ing of Alice in Wonder­land where she’s a giggly blonde girl, and it ignores the atmo­sphere and logic/​word games of the book and the piss-taking of Victori­an educa­tion and its love of moral­ising poems. Take a look at the real Alice Liddell. I hated the Tim Burton film even more. It really annoys me when Holly­wood feels the need to turn everything into a one-size-fits-all bland fantasy quest to save the world. This is my favour­ite screen version of Alice in Wonder­land.

11) the Fox in the Snow- Belle and Sebasti­an
Orlando– Virgin­ia Woolf

A double-bill of Virgin­ia Woolf, because why not. This one is loosely based on Orlando by Virgin­ia Woolf. Orlando describes Sasha, the incon­stant Russi­an prin­cess as “a melon, a pine­apple, an olive tree, an emer­ald, and a fox in the snow all in the space of three seconds – he did not know wheth­er he had heard her, tasted her, seen her, or all three togeth­er.” I recom­mend the Sally Potter film version, with Tilda Swin­ton and Quentin Crisp.

12) To the Light­house- Patrick Wolf
To the Light­house– Virgin­ia Woolf

To the Light­house is a good guide to having a really miser­able holi­day. I really loved Patrick Wolf’s first two albums, but I went off him later. Whenev­er I went to see his gigs I always felt like the oldest person in the room, even though I was only in my 20s.

Back in the days when I used to teach EFL at a dodgy language school in Brighton, I had a mantlepiece in my classroom. I got some frames from the char­ity shop, and prin­ted out a photo of Oscar Wilde and Virgin­ia Woolf, writers who I liked, and who happened to have two pictures that were a simil­ar colour tone and compos­i­tion and placed them on the mantlepiece to cheer the place up a bit. One of my students asked me in all honesty if they were my parents. Imagine that upbring­ing.

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  1. I didn't know about Char­lotte Some­times.

    I've had a copy of The Master and Margar­ita sitting on the shelf for years and had no idea there was a connec­tion. The fact that I haven't actu­ally read it might explain that. Oops.

    Those first couple of Pixies albums are obsessed with Biblic­al viol­ence and other unsa­vory beha­vi­or.

    I've tried to come up with a few of my own but I'm draw­ing blanks. I do my best to ignore lyrics. I like for their to be words in these songs but, I don't want to be distrac­ted by linear thoughts…Pavement were great for that.

    I reck­on the spawn of Oscar Wilde and Virgin­ia Woolf would spend every day star­ing in the mirror trad­ing insults with herself. What, in this world, could possibly be more satis­fy­ing?

  2. I cannot recom­mend the Master and Margar­ita highly enough.

    I think Oscar Wilde and Virgin­ia Woolf's child would be horribly torn between being short and witty or long-winded and descript­ive all the time, and maybe end up zing­ing people in a flowery way.

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