Here’s a collection of songs I’ve had sitting in my iTunes that all have one thing in common: they are all based on or make reference to a classic author or piece of literature. Some of these songs are completely sculpted around the story, while others just make an offhand reference. Each song title is linked to the song mp3 or YouTube video. Check ‘em out and enjoy!
Ra Ra Riot – “Each Year”
The band’s drummer, John Pike, who unfortunately passed away before the recording of Ra Ra Riot’s debut LP, wrote this song. It was very much inspired by To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Lyrics throughout the song allude to points in the story, “silhouettes in a window frame / better run if it’s Boo’s old man.”
The Dead Milkmen – “Solvents (For Home and Industry)”
This song is from the new Dead Milkmen album, The King in Yellow. It’s the story of a girl who dedicated her life to “solvents” and it became her downfall. As with many songs by this satirical punk band, this song is loaded with clever lines. “She got pregnant and dropped out of high school, before her senior year / she never got to read The Great Gatsby, the irony is so clear.”
The Magnetic Fields – “Crazy For You (But Not That Crazy)”
One of my favorite indie bands, The Magnetic Fields specialize in Cole Porter-esque wordplay. Stephin Merritt is a well-read individual and this is made obvious by how effortlessly he churns out song after song, all of them notable for their brilliant lyricism. This song in particular uses religious symbolism to express love and the results are hilarious. There’s an offhand mention of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. “I treated you like Radium, I treated you like God / You were my glass menagerie, did you not find that odd?”
Radiohead – “Paranoid Android”
This classic from “OK Computer” gets its name from Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Like the book, this song is darkly humorous if you dissect the lyrics. “Kicking, screaming, Gucci little piggy.”
The Smiths – “Cemetery Gates”
This indie classic manages a tip of the hat to William Butler Yeats, John Keats, and Oscar Wilde. While all three figures were more known for their plays, they have managed to leave an indelible impression on modern literature. Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a well-known classic that is constantly referenced. “A dreaded sunny day so I meet you at the cemetery gates / Keats and Yeats are on your side / while Wilde is on mine.”
Yo La Tengo – “Periodically Double or Triple”
As mentioned in an earlier post, this song makes reference to the intimidating works of Marcel Proust in a quick, sassy opening line, “Never read Proust / seems a little too long.”
The Cure – “Killing an Arab”
This one is kind of a plot spoiler to Albert Camus’, The Stranger, but what can you do?
Kate Bush – “Wuthering Heights”
This one’s kind of obvious. I don’t think much explanation is needed here, especially considering the level of popularity this song had when it was first released.
Ween – “Don’t Laugh, I Love You“
Ween is one of my favorite bands. They effortlessly jump genres and generally do whatever they want, which alienates some people but greatly appeals to others. On their first LP, God Ween Satan, the following lyric can be found, “Ernest Hemingway would always be there for me / but now Ernest Hemingway is dead.”
Bob Dylan – “Lo and Behold!”
I think I own every Dylan album ever released. Though his lyrics are sometimes cryptic, there are some references that are a little more obvious than others. However, you can be assured that if you’re listening to Dylan, you’ll be hearing a lot of references. This song is from The Basement Tapes. “What’s the matter, Molly, dear, what’s the matter with your mound? / what’s it to ya, Moby Dick? This is chicken town!”
There are many hyper-literate bands I haven’t mentioned (Sparks, Tom Waits, They Might Be Giants, etc.) but there’s always next time. Keep rocking those bookish tunes.