With maybe the exception of hair metal bands, most rock stars were big nerds before gaining the love of millions of adoring fans. It’s their weird outsider quirkiness that speaks so well to the masses. While many rock songs are written about love lost, love found or rock n’ rolling all night and partying ev-er-y day, some come from dorkier places like science fiction, pornography, and yes, even works of literature. Some of the greatest songs are about some of the greatest books.
The Cure, David Bowie, Metallica, and White Zombie are just a few book reading rock stars that spring to mind. Pretty much every White Zombie song is based on a horror movie, many of which started off as books. Metallica wrote an epic war song about an epic war novel. The Cure got all existential with a tune about remorseless murder.David Bowie wrote a rock opera around the plot of an Orwellian masterpiece.
Do these songs do any justice to the classic works of literature they are based on? Yes. These songs have become the band’s most epic, critically dissected, sometimes controversial works, and often what the musicians are most remembered for. White Zombie has written a handful of songs based on books like I am Legend, but the band’s highest charting song, “More Human Than Human,” is titled from a line in the 1982 film Blade Runner, which itself is loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The Cure’s “Killing an Arab,” based on The Stranger by Albert Camus, stirred up so much controversy that it still follows the band some thirty years later. So much so that the band has changed the lyric to “kissing an Arab.” Metallica’s “One,” based on Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun, was the band’s first top forty hit and many Metallica fans’ favorite song. David Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs,an homage to Orwell’s classic 1984, is possibly his most critically debated album to date. People either love it or hate it, rarely feeling anything in between. Its dark, confusing lyrics alienated many of Bowie’s early Ziggy Stardust fans. Many critics hail it as Bowie’s strongest album of all time.
Anyone declaring the death of books should take a closer look back at their favorite rock songs for the best suggestions on what to pick up next at the library. Reading or re-reading these books through the lyrics of these musicians breathes a whole new life into these great works of literature and helps one to see them in a completely different light. It also debunks the stereotype of rock stars as self obsessed whiners who have no stock in high brow culture. Yes, musicians do read books, even important culturally significant ones. Not only do they read books but they are capable of eloquently immortalizing them in song with candor and wit.
And now a little more in-depth review on some of these book-to-music selections:
Ministry of Rock – 1984 By George Orwell
Every wonder what reading the novel 1984 while snorting mountains of cocaine would sound like? Just have a listen to David Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs to be transported into the drug-addled post apocalyptic rubble of Halloween Jack. Most of the lyrics on Diamond Dogs seem dark and disjointed. The album opens with Bowie shouting to an audible crowd, “This ain’t rock n’ roll! This is genocide!” The lyrical pattern was directly influenced by the “cut-up” writing style of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which was to simply write down your thoughts, cut them up into lines, mix them up, and re-arrange them hap-hazardly into random order.Bowie wrote most of the songs on this album in anticipation for a theatrical rock opera version of 1984 but Orwell’s widow refused to release the rights so the project never grew legs.
1984 is the story of Winston Smith, a man with a crappy job. Crappier than any job you’ve ever had. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth for the Party. The oppressive and omnipresent government of Oceania is run by the totalitarian figure of Big Bother, who is always watching everyone on giant telescreens mounted on the walls in every corner of the city. It is Winston’s job to make sure that all forms of information in the media do not contradict the propaganda of the Party. He must destroy all evidence by tossing it into memory holes where it is incinerated. Winston becomes disillusioned with his life and with the Party. He wearily sips his rations of Victory Gin while keeping a diary, in defiance of the Thought Police. Winston falls in love with Julia a member of Junior Anti-Sex League. They begin a secret affair in a rented room atop an antiques shop in a proletarian neighborhood. The two of them meet a member of the Inner Party who is a part of the secret Brotherhood, a collection of Party members trying to destroy the Party from within. For a moment Julia and Winston seem optimistic with idealistic fantasies of bringing down the Party but they don’t call it a bleak Orwellian future for nothing. There are of course interrogations and torture and the ominous Room 101.
Diamond Dogs is one of the many examples of how 1984 has become more than a cultural icon, transcending into modern culture itself: most of the novel’s vernacular has become our own, such as memory hole, big brother, and thought police. These phrases can be understood even by those who’ve never read the book. Though the characters of Diamond Dogs are more colorful and flamboyant than Orwell would have ever imagined, the story of the album unfolds in almost the same order as the novel.Many of the lyrics paint a clear picture of scenes in the book.
If you haven’t read 1984 yet you probably should pick up a copy as it is eerily as relevant now as it was in 1949. If you have read it, read it again, this time whilst listening to the post glam masterpiece Diamond Dogs, and experience the story from the landscape of a rock opera.
A Scourge Worse Than a Disease – I am Legend by Richard Matheson
Every day is the same for Robert Neville: he gets up at sunrise to scrape the corpses off his lawn, he drives around Compton in any running automobile he can find, searching for food, gasoline and the sleeping infected, killing the ones he finds. He spends his nights barricaded inside his house, drinking liberally. Every creature within miles swarms his door taunting him to come out, including his neighbor Ben Cortman, who incessantly yells his name. And the women! The women hike up their skirts and dance seductively in an effort to entice him to come out. He keeps the creatures at bay the best he can with garlic, mirrors, and fountains with running water.
Robert Neville is the last man on earth. Everyone else is either dead or infected with a bacterium that turns them into vampire like creatures. Neville tries to search for a cure though he’s only a moderately educated man while relentlessly hunting any and all creatures he can find living in utter solitude until he himself becomes the stuff of myth and legend.
I Am Legend inspired two White Zombie songs, “I Am Legend” on the groundbreaking La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1, and “Creature of the Wheel” on Astro Creep: 2000 – Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head. On La Sexorcisto the band focuses on how the story unfolds in the book. The lyrics describe the life of the last man on earth as he becomes a god. He uses gasoline to burn clean what he perceives to be the scourge of the earth. His home has become a tomb and the sexy lady vampires outside his door are starting to break his resolve. “Creature of the Wheel” follows the story as it is told in Omega Man, the 1971 film starring Charlton Heston. The song features sound bites from the film and lyrics describing vampires hell-bent on revolution seeking to destroy the last vestiges of the technological society that failed them, including its last surviving man.
White Zombie started as a noise rock band in the 1980s before finding the heavy metal sound they are now known for. The band struggled in their early years, releasing music on their own label, Silent Explosion. White Zombie wrote songs almost exclusively about surreal horror fantasies inspired by books and movies instead of the sex with groupies and drugged out debauchery lyrics being written by most metal bands at the time.
La Sexorcisto the band’s first major label release. The only two singles from the album, “Thunder Kiss ’65” and “Black Sunshine,” received lukewarm attention until the videos were featured on Beavis and Butthead. The album eventually went double platinum. Though “I am Legend” was never released as a single, it still resonates with diehard fans of metal and horror for seamlessly combining the two mediums.
Astro Creep was White Zombie’s most commercially successful album, peaking at number six on the Billboard charts. “Creature of the Wheel” was never released as a single, but again resonates with diehard fans of metal and horror and is one of the darker songs on the album.
Matheson’s I Am Legend is perhaps one of the influential horror novels ever written. Since being published in 1954, this short, 150 page novella, has inspired the whole apocalyptic subgenre of horror. Many in the horror genre cite Matheson as a major influence from George Romero to Stephen King, and of course bands like White Zombie.
Philosophy at an Execution – The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Stranger is the story of Meursault, a French colonist living in Algiers. Meursault is an emotionally detached and innately passive man who concludes that the recent death of his mother has not changed his life at all. He quickly returns to his life after her funeral as if nothing has happened. He starts an affair with a former co-worker, Marie, he writes a break-up letter for his neighbor Raymond to help him get revenge on a Moorish girlfriend suspected of infidelity, and he goes to the beach where he kills an Arab man because of the heat and glare of the sun. The focus of Meursault’s trial is that he showed little or no remorse at his mother’s recent funeral, indicating that he is a criminal at heart. Meursault is confused by this train of logic and repeatedly insists that he loved his mother like everybody else, but like all normal people he had also more or less desired the death of those he loved, at some time or another.
The Stranger was published in 1942, an extraordinarily dark time. The world was in the throws of WWII and most people had lost hope in trying to find meaning in the chaos that had become their lives. Amidst this political turmoil the book became an immediate success. Even now, over 70 years later, the anti-hero Meursault resonates with the individual who is trying to find meaning in the face of indifference. And who is trying to face the indifferences of the world more than The Cure, the so called “gurus of gloom?” In December 1978 The Cure released their debut single, “Killing an Arab,” on the Small Wonder label and controversy has followed the song ever since. According to frontman Robert Smith the song is, “a short poetic attempt at condensing my impression of the key moments in The Stranger by Albert Camus.” The song’s provocative title led to accusations of racism and the band has since included a disclaimer on all releases stating that the song “decries the existence of all prejudice and consequent violence.” American DJs further pushed the controversy when they played the song to advance anti-Arab sentiments. The band has since changed the title and lyrics to “Kissing an Arab.”
The lyrics of “Killing an Arab” narrate the pivotal scene of the book, the moment when Meursault stumbles across an Arab man at high noon on the beach, a man who just a few hours before Meursault had had a brief altercation with. The Arab man is sitting, knife in hand, in the shade on a large rock. A shaded area Meursault desperately wants for himself. The heat and glare of the sun on the Arab’s blade become too much for him and he takes the gun from his pocket (the one he took from Raymond to keep him from doing anything too rash) and shoots him once, killing him, before firing four more shots into the Arab’s lifeless body. The Stranger is a short read, less than 200 pages, and though it’s one of the most famous French novels of the 20th century it isn’t necessarily an easy read. Some readers criticize it for the randomness of the events that take place in the story. In looking beyond the existential philosophy and into the life of Meursault, it’s really just a story about a man who refused to conform to the ideals of humanity that were being pressed upon him, something most of us can relate to.
The Armless Legless Wonder of the Twentieth Century! – Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun has had renewed relevance with every American war. Many U.S. soldiers found the book in Army libraries. Metallica guitarist James Hetfield became one of those to discover the book long after its publication. Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich wrote “One” in November of 1987.
Trumbo made his directorial debut with the film version of his tumultuous novel. The movie received harsh reviews, quickly fading from memory. It was so forgotten that Metallica purchased the rights to the movie to use generous clips from it for the song’s 1989 music video. “One” is a mainstay of Metallica’s live shows as a fan favorite and one of the band’s biggest hits to date. It was their first Top 40 single, peaking at #35 on the Billboard Hot 100. “One” was also the band’s first video, featuring dialogue and several scenes from the 1971 film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun. Metallica received their first two Grammy nominations for the album …And Justice For All and the single “One” in 1989. They preformed “One” live at the award show and won the Grammy for the single but lost the Best Rock Album award in a huge upset to Jethro Tull. [Editor’s Note: Say What???]
Johnny Got His Gun is not for the faint of heart. It isn’t a gung-ho American kind of war novel. In fact, it’s not so much about the actual war itself, but rather the terrible, isolated aftermath. It’s the kind of story that can bring its readers to tears, on more than one occasion. It is not a book about politics, it is not about communism or democracy or fighting for honor. It’s about the human cost of war.