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Writing songs is hard. You might have an astonishing melody over a brilliant chord sequence set to the best groove in the whole world, but if you can’t find the words to fit, you’re stumped. That’s why some bookish songwriters turn to the world of classic literature for inspiration. You can either pinch a few quotes here and there, use the plot for inspiration, or even, as Sting did in the Police song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” just lob in a cheerily dim reference to “the old man in that book by Nabokov” to fill out your third verse.
So, because it’s Kate Bush week and her first hit was inspired directly by a novel, here are five examples of pop songs with a definite literary bent. Starting with Kate herself:
“Wuthering Heights” – Kate Bush
While it’s easy to look back on this fondly, as a late ’70s curio from a fresh new talent, there are times when the reality of “Wuthering Heights” strikes me in a wholly fresh way, and I have to stop for a moment and take a breath. Here’s a song which is every bit the equal of the novel from which it stems, and not just in artistic achievement. It’s equally strange, plays with musical form just as much as Emily Bronte played with that of the novel, and invests the character of Cathy Earnshaw with an equal amount of wild, natural force. It is to “Wuthering Heights” the novel what West Side Story is to Romeo and Juliet. And it’s only four and a half minutes long.
“Romeo and Juliet” – Dire Straits
Speaking of which, here’s another song which one of the greatest love stories ever told is recast for modern times. In Mark Knopfler’s interpretation, the lovestruck couple aren’t even really that interested in one another any more, no matter how bitterly they look back on their time together or quote West Side Story’s “There’s A Place For Us.” There’s no poison, no turf war between their respective families and at the end of the song Romeo is depicted singing up at someone else’s balcony. It’s all very depressing.
“Tender” – Blur
This is perhaps the most common way songwriters throw in references to classic literature, which is to pick a well-known phrase or title and use it as the opening line, just to get the rhythm and feel of the melody sorted out. Then when they go back to take the line out, they realise it’s essential to the sense of the song, and just leave it. So, while the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel Tender Is The Night might not be about the breakup between the pop star Damon Albarn and the pop star Justine Frischmann (from Elastica), this song most definitely is, and the title clearly fitted Damon’s mood. Oh my baby, indeed.*
“Shakespeare’s Sister” – The Smiths
Now here’s something we can get our teeth into. Shakespeare’s Sister is a section of an essay called A Room of One’s Own, written by Virginia Woolf, in which she imagines that William Shakespeare had a sister called Judith (in reality he had four, but only Joan Shakespeare survived childhood) who was of equal talent to him, but refused any kind of education or choice in her own life, with tragic consequences. However, the lyrics to this song don’t really follow that narrative, being closer to the Tennessee Williams play The Glass Menagerie, in which a girl called Laura, hemmed in by her shyness and her disabled foot, has a existentially bad date with a gentleman caller. He gives her brother Tom (who is the narrator of the story) the nickname Shakespeare. Morrissey then added a gag about an acoustic guitar. And later, the band Shakespears Sister pinched the title. An astonishing amount of context for such a short song.
“Don’t Look Back In Anger” – Oasis
When Noel Gallagher was writing the lyrics to this song, he did what he often does, and strung together a series of words and phrases which are not unpleasant to sing and which sort of hint at a kind of sort of communal something. One of which is a playful swipe at the title of John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back In Anger, which was itself purloined by David Bowie for a song on his 1979 album “Lodger.” Frustratingly, it’s a much wittier reference than any of the other songs on this list, in that he reverses the title of the play, to make it more peaceable, and yet the rest of the lyrics, from “slip inside the eye of your mind” to “so Sally can wait, she knows it’s too late as we’re walking on by” are just a bunch of aimiable whimsy. Not that there’s anything wrong with whimsy, but imagine what he could do it he really tried.
See also: “Cat Off A Hot Tin Roof,” “It Isn’t A Wonderful Life,” “The Lightness Of Being Unbearable.”
Which literary classic have we missed? Tell us here:
* Yesyesyes I know Graham wrote that bit.
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic