Good songwriting requires a lot of technical skill, artistic intuition, and, sometimes, literary genius. There’s something tremendously impressive about being able to create a song that’s not only poignant and moving, but also rich with historical or literary context. Leaving aside obvious one-off references to literature, such as The Police’s famous nod to Nabokov or Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic foray down the rabbit hole, musicians with a more encompassing, perhaps even obsessive, appreciation for literature are harder to come by. We’ve put together a list of ten of the most seemingly literature-obsessed musicians who have shown a certain bookish tendency throughout their careers. See if you can think of others.
Nobody does poetic pretense quite so masterfully as Morrissey. Hands down, he represents contemporary music’s most notorious inheritor of 19th-century Romanticism’s metered flourishes and Oscar Wilde’s effete cynicism. Morrissey’s lyrics are also, perhaps, the most saturated of any artist’s in literary references. There are too many to mention, but “Cemetry Gates” is perhaps the most obvious, with explicit nods to Keats, Yeats, and Wilde. Also memorable are the opening lines to “How Soon Is Now,” which borrow from Middlemarch, and the numerous songs referencing A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney. Take a look at a compiled list of Morrissey’s various sources of lyrical inspiration for both The Smiths and his solo work here.
As with Morrissey, the punk rock godmother’s passion for Romantics like Rimbaud and Blake is well known. Over the years, Smith’s music has only become more and more flush with allusions to poetry and classic literature, but even at an early age, her sources of inspiration were found more often than not in books. As she once told Thurston Moore: “I had devoted so much of my girlish daydreams to Rimbaud. Rimbaud was like my boyfriend.”
“I am Rimbaud in a leather jacket,” the late Jim Morrison once declared. The band’s name, taken from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, is a testament to Morrison’s extensive lyrical use of literary allusion. “The End” is a bleak retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus, while various other Doors songs reference William Blake, Jack Kerouac, and Bertolt Brecht, to name a few.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
If there’s one thing post-punk icon Nick Cave loves, it’s dark, lyrical allusions to biblical verse, literature, poetry, and folklore. From his mythologically driven “The Lyre of Orpheus” to his terrifying “Red Right Hand,” Cave has developed quite the repertoire for erudite lyricism. The latter song is apparently a reference to Paradise Lost, as suggested in another of Cave’s songs, “Song of Joy”: “Quotes John Milton on the walls in the victim’s blood / The police are investigating at tremendous cost / In my house he wrote ‘his red right hand.'”
It makes sense that a musician as bold and experimental as Kate Bush should find inspiration in unconventional places. Apart from the obvious “Wuthering Heights,” the songwriter has a long track record of bookishness, from “Cloudbusting,” inspired by a memoir by Wilhelm Reich’s son, to “Sensual World,” which is based on a soliloquy by Molly Bloom at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Over the years The Cure’s career has oscillated between the pop hooks of “Friday I’m In Love” and the gothic despair of Disintegration. But throughout it all, a surprising number of literary references crop up. “Killing An Arab,” is a pretty literal literary recap of the climax to Camus’ The Stranger. Others include: “Charlotte Sometimes,” a Penelope Farmer novel, “How Beautiful You Are,” which draws on Baudelaire’s Le Spleen De Paris, and “Drowning Man,” a reference to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.
The Velvet Underground
“Venus In Furs,” was inspired by a book of the same name, written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whom we get the term “masochism.” Since then, Lou Reed and John Cale have gone their separate ways, but both have embraced their own highly literate styles of music. Cale’s “Child’s Christmas in Wales” is taken from Dylan Thomas, and Reed found his own conceptual inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe with his album The Raven.
Cohen began his career as a poet and has become one of the few songwriters to garner as much respect among literary circles as he has as a musician. His most popular and widely covered song, “Hallelujah” is a detached, gospel-backed dirge with sorrowful biblical references. More recently, his “Alexandra Leaving” borrows themes from Constantine P. Cavafy’s poem “The God Abandons Antony.” It’d be difficult to find a songwriter more poetic, more literate, or more well-read than Cohen.
Dylan is perhaps the ultimate troubadour of our time, and with that comes a devotion to poetry as much as to music. Dylan often cites Arthur Rumbaud, Paul Verlaine, or Dylan Thomas (from whom the young Zimmerman took his stage name) among his heroes, alongside songwriters like Woody Guthrie. Dylan, like Cohen, has also tried his own hand at poetry, having released a book in 1966 called Tarantula. His most famous literary song is probably “Desolation Row,” where he refers to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
With the exception of Led Zeppelin’s famous Tolkien fixation, hard rock and heavy metal may not be the obvious place to look for bibliophiles and literati. But Iron Maiden has a literary-heavy discography that proves otherwise. From nerdier nods to Orson Scott Card in “Seventh Son” to this highbrow reference to Tennyson’s poetic account of the Crimean War in “Trooper,” Led Zeppelin may be one of the most bookish bands of all time.