Songwriters take their inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, and since many of them are also voracious readers, it’s no surprise that there have been many great songs written over the years about literary characters. As these songs unite two of our great loves here at Flavorwire — books and music — we’ve compiled a bumper list of 50 of the best. Click through and see if your favorite’s here — if not, that’s what the comment section is for!
Laurie Anderson — “O Superman”
This might seem a kinda tenuous one to start with, but Superman is a literary character (and yes, comics do count, snobs). More to the point, he functions here as a sort of idealized America, which is pretty much exactly what the character has always represented. In this case, he’s a distant authority figure, an unattainable America that stood in stark contrast to the real America of the early 1980s.
Anthrax — “Among the Living”
If you’ve ever read early Stephen King epic The Stand, you’ll have no trouble recognizing the character at play here: Randall Flagg, aka the Walkin’ Dude, and quite possibly aka the devil himself. (In this respect, the song is not unlike Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand,” which also portrays the devil and the dangers of dealing with him. But more of Nick Cave shortly.)
Bauhaus — “Dark Entries”
It’s not immediately apparent from the lyrics, but there’s a pretty solid argument to be made that the narrator of this song is Dorian Gray, he of the portrait in the attic. Peter Murphy told Mojo in 2010 that The Picture of Dorian Gray is his favorite novel, and the dissipated protagonist of “Dark Entries” certainly fits the mold of Oscar Wilde’s similarly hedonistic character.
The Birthday Party — “Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)”
Hamlet, as interpreted by five Australians in various states of chemical-induced mental disrepair. Nick Cave’s version of the character — viewed, it seems, from the perspective of Ophelia — doesn’t exactly correspond to the source material, being as he appears to be a gun-toting layabout with a penchant for carjacking. Don’t let him steal your heart! Nothing good can come of it! (The “wherefore art thou baby-face” line suggests that Cave was getting his Shakespeare in a muddle, but only he knows for sure.)
Bloc Party — “Song for Clay (Disappear Here)”
In which the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero is transplanted into East London, his casual narcissism and equally casual nihilism both intact. Kele Okereke borrows several lines from the source (the “Disappear Here” of the title, along with the “People are afraid to merge on the freeway” lyric in the outro), and does a pretty fine job of recreating the mood of existential numbness that characterizes what’s still Ellis’ finest book.
Blue Öyster Cult — “ETI”
There are a few theories about this one, but the most interesting is that the song borrows from Robert W. Chalmers’ The King in Yellow, who certainly appears in the lyrics. (If the book sounds familiar, it’s probably because Nic Pizzolatto also leaned on it heavily for inspiration in writing True Detective.)
David Bowie — “The Supermen”
Bowie’s songs often draw on literary sources, but rarely in a straightforward way — perhaps the most obvious examples are the 1984-themed songs on Diamond Dogs, but they’re more conceptual than anything else, so let’s instead go with the deranged glory of “The Supermen.” This song was perhaps the apogee of our hero’s Nietzsche-‘n’-Lovecraft phase, telling the story of some sort of Lovecraftian elder gods who reside “far out in the red-sky.”
Kate Bush — “Wuthering Heights”
Heathcliff! It’s me, Cathy! Come home!
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — “Saint Huck”
Another case of Nick Cave retelling the story of a well-known literary character, in this case Huckleberry Finn. Given the fascination that Cave had with all things Southern Gothic at this point of his career, it’s a choice that makes perfect sense, and Cave’s version of the story is as intense and bleak as one might expect, taking Huck out of Missouri and into the heart of the big city. The results are disastrous: he gets robbed, hustles for cash, and ends up shooting himself.
The Choice — “Alex”
There’s no shortage of songs inspired by A Clockwork Orange, but there’s something particularly appropriate about this track by oi! band The Choice, who sound as English as tea and summer rain, but are apparently in fact from California. Alex was famously into soundtracking his ultraviolence with Beethoven, but in another universe, he could quite happily have been a punk, one suspects.
Leonard Cohen — “The Stranger Song”
Few of Cohen’s lyrics are straightforward enough to attribute their inspiration to a single source, but there’s a definite sense here that the “dealer” Cohen describes is Frankie Machine, the morphine-addicted card sharp of Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel The Man with the Golden Arm — or, at least, a character for whom Machine serves as an effective metaphor.
Julian Cope — “Kolly Kibber’s Birthday”
The curiously monikered character of the title comes from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (although in the novel, his first name is spelled “Kolley”). Determining quite how the novel’s Kibber relates to Cope’s version will have to be left to someone with more knowledge of both Greene and Cope than me, but it’s a great song.
The Coral — “Michael’s Song”
The “Michael” of this song’s lyric is based on the character of Seymour from JD Salinger’s short story A Perfect Day for Bananafish. The song recounts the story from the perspective of Michael/Seymour’s wife, who’s sitting in the hotel waiting for him to come back from the beach. He never does come back, although you’ll have to read the story to find out why — it’s only hinted at obliquely in the song.
The Cure — “Killing an Arab”
Despite what your average ignorant racist might believe, this isn’t an anthem to racist murder — it is, of course, based on Albert Camus’ The Outsider, whose protagonist shoots an Arab without ever really quite understanding why. Such are the travails of existentialism.
Cursive — “Dorothy at Forty”
This surprisingly affecting lyric imagines L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy, she of the golden slippers, as a 40-year-old woman still dreaming of the land of Oz. It examines how one might deal with having to readjust to the “real” world after a visit to the Emerald City, and the song’s narrator seems to be fighting a losing battle to bring her back to the mundanity of everyday life: “Dorothy, it seems you’ll never understand/ This here land is everything we have/ Every sweat-stained collar, every dollar, every bent and bloodied spur/ We’re not the kids that we once were/ We can’t be the adults we want to be.” The song ends with the profoundly depressing refrain, “Dorothy, wake up, it’s time for work.”
Dead Prez — “Animal in Man”
Sure, Pink Floyd’s Animals was a whole album based loosely on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but Dead Prez condensed the whole thing into one song. It focuses on lead revolutionary pig Hannibal — based, clearly, on Orwell’s Napoleon, the Stalin figure of Animal Farm. He meets a significantly less rosy fate than Napoleon, though — in trying to elevate the pigs to supremacy, he arouses the rage of his fellow animals, who cut out his tongue and sell him for meat.
Ian Dury — “Profoundly in Love with Pandora”
Not the classical Pandora — no, this is the theme song for the TV adaptation of Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and narrates the eponymous Adrian’s undying teenage love for his perpetual crush, Pandora Braithwaite.
The Fall — “The Dice Man”
You can see why the ever-contrary Mark E. Smith might feel some sort of kinship with Luke Rhinehart, the dice-driven protagonist of The Dice Man. This song uses Rhinehart’s living-by-the-dice idea as a metaphor for the pursuit of art and music: “They stay with the masses/ Don’t take any chances/ End up emptying ashtrays/ But I push, push, push, push/ Throw the bones and the poison dice/ No time for small moralists/ ‘Cos I am the dice man/ And I take a chance.”
Luke Haines — “Oliver Twist Manifesto”
The gloriously misanthropic Haines turns his attention to the story of Oliver Twist as an allegory for “what’s wrong with popular culture,” with spectacular results: “A sense of humor is the most overrated virtue/ Get off your knees, you groveling bastards/ This is Oliver Twist, pissing over Britannia.”
PJ Harvey — “The River”
A river runs through PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire? — the cover features her standing by the water, her arms folded protectively over her chest, and this song, as its title suggests, is based around the image of a river as a place in which to “throw your pain… to be washed away slow.” Its tale of a somber baptism bears a heavy resemblance to Flannery O’Connor’s story of the same name. (It’s not the first time Harvey used death by water as the centerpiece of a song, either — “Down By the Water,” from To Bring You My Love, recounted the tale of a woman drowning her daughter.)
Iron Maiden — “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Why yes, this is a 13-minute song by Iron Maiden based on Coleridge’s poem. It’s simultaneously ridiculous and kind of amazing.
Jefferson Airplane — “White Rabbit”
Follow the white rabbit, kids! Happily, poor little Alice’s adventures in Wonderland never felt quite this tripped out.
Joy Division — “Colony”
The title comes from Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” although the degree to which the lyrics relate directly to the story’s narrative are unclear — if anything, the song appears to envisage how it might feel to be stuck in the titular colony, with only the torture of Kafka’s hellish machine as escape, and compares it to the narrator’s own situation. (It’s always made me think of boarding school — “A worried parent’s glance, a kiss, a last goodbye” — although that’s never made explicit by the lyric.)
Led Zeppelin — “Achilles Last Stand”
The character of Achilles comes from the Iliad — he’s the one who was invulnerable except for his heel, which is where we get “Achilles’ heel” from. There’s a certain wryness to his appearance here — the song was written when Robert Plant was recovering from a broken ankle he suffered in a car crash, and the band’s air of apparent invulnerability was very much under threat from the possibility that he might be permanently impaired by his injury.
Gordon Lightfoot — “Don Quixote”
A pretty straight retelling of Cervantes’ novel and the story of its doomed protagonist: “Who can the brave young horseman be?/ He is wild but he is mellow/ He is strong but he is weak/ He is cruel but he is gentle.”
Magazine — “A Song From Under the Floorboards”
Written from the perspective of the unnamed narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, who was about as much fun as he sounds in this song (i.e. none at all.)
Manic Street Preachers — “R.P. McMurphy”
The Manics have always been fond of literary allusions, and this early b-side borrows the name of the protagonist of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to examine the nature of, and treatment of, mental illness. It takes McMurphy’s first-person perspective, but the character is shorn of all his rebelliousness, sounding more tired and resigned than anything else: “I just wanna lie down in my bed/ Make myself different than the rest/ Use a thought to put myself to sleep/ Relaxing in the fields where it feels free/ No more pills and no more drugs.”
Aimee Mann — “Jacob Marley’s Chain”
Any Dickens fan will know that Jacob Marley and his chain come from A Christmas Carol — Marley died before the novel started, and the miserable old bastard appears only as a ghost, chained to this world and denied the afterlife because of being thoroughly unpleasant in life. Mann uses the image to tell the story of a friend who appears similarly haunted by a catalog of unspecified sins: “Those tiny blunders made in yesteryear/ That comprise Jacob Marley’s chain.”
Mastodon — “I Am Ahab”
Of course Mastodon made a concept album about Moby-Dick!
Natalie Merchant — “Ophelia”
This lyric sees Merchant imagining Ophelia as a series of contemporary women — a nun, a suffragette, a whore, a circus performer, and so on — inviting us to sympathize with them as we do with Hamlet’s doomed lover.
Metallica — “The Thing That Should Not Be”
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!
Nine Inch Nails — “Happiness in Slavery”
In which Trent Reznor surprises absolutely no one by turning out to be a fan of The Story of ‘O’. This is written from the point of view of a (very) submissive narrator. And dear god, that video is NSFW and not safe for pretty much anything else, either. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Nirvana — “Scentless Apprentice”
The scentless apprentice of the title is Grenouille, the protagonist of Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel Perfume, which revolves around the fact that he has an incredibly powerful and discerning sense of smell, but no scent of his own. As Cobain’s lyric relates, Grenouille grew up a pariah and never really found a way to fit into society — the song, however, neglects to mention that he ended up as a serial killer.
Noisettes — “Atticus”
From the opening lines — “To kill a mockingbird/ Is to silence the song/ That seduces you” — it’s clear that the Atticus of the title is a reference to Atticus Finch, the beloved father in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Finch’s bravery in defending a black man accused of raping a white girl is repurposed here as a sort of general fearlessness, with Shingai Shoniwa proclaiming, “I have no fear/ I am Atticus now/ So why don’t we fall into the waves?/ Can’t you see how my heart yearns to misbehave?”
The Normal — “Warm Leatherette”
True story: long before David Cronenberg’s 1996 film of JG Ballard’s Crash, Mute Records founder Daniel Miller, aka The Normal, wrote a script for a cinematic adaptation. Miller’s version was never made, of course, but it did inform this song, which appears to be written from the perspective of the novel’s protagonist (called, creepily enough, James Ballard).
Gary Numan — “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”
They are indeed if they’re androids, and Numan’s lyric envisions a world where those craving companionship can rent electric “friends” to assuage their loneliness. It’s apparently based on a novel that Numan himself started writing, but sci-fi fans will also notice echoes of Isaac Asimov’s “Robbie,” the first story from I, Robot.
Pixies — “Dead”
The Biblical story of David and Bathsheba, retold in the inimitable style of Frank Black. It’s probably safe to say that the source material does not include the phrase, “Uriah hit the crapper, the crapper, the crapper.”
The Rolling Stones — “Sympathy for the Devil”
Inspired by and based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, although if we’re honest, it’s not nearly as much fun.
Rush — “2112”
Yes, someone had to go and ruin it all by writing a song about an Ayn Rand novel. Pfaugh.
Simon and Garfunkel — “Mrs. Robinson”
Based, of course, on The Graduate — but before Mrs. Robinson became synonymous with Anne Bancroft whispering, “Would you like me to seduce you?,” she was a character in Charles Webb’s novel.
Slint — “Good Morning Captain”
If Iron Maiden’s interpretation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is high camp and a whole lot of fun, then Slint’s is the polar opposite. The anguish with which Brian McMahan howls the song’s closing lines — “I miss you! I miss you!” — is genuinely disconcerting, and apparently made him physically ill.
The Smiths — “William, It Was Really Nothing”
Who’s William? It’s a pretty good bet that he is none other than Billy Fisher, the central character of Keith Waterhouse’s novel Billy Liar, who’s most certainly marooned in a “humdrum town,” dreaming of escape to London. Morrissey’s lyric exhorts him to do just that, and not to stay in a job he hates and marry a girl he doesn’t love. (The character in Waterhouse’s novel is in even more of a pickle than Morrissey’s protagonist, being engaged to not one but two local girls.)
The Soft Machine — “Esther’s Nose Job”
Esther is a character from Thomas Pynchon’s V, which is pretty much just as impenetrable and mystifying as this 15-minute wig-out.
Regina Spektor — “Samson”
Spektor is fond of mining the Bible for inspiration, and this is based on the story of Samson and Delilah, written from the perspective of the latter. The song recounts an alternate history of the lovers, imagining what might have happened if Delilah had sneakily cut Samson’s hair — the source of his superhuman strength — herself, removing him from God’s great plan and letting him live with her as a normal man. If you want to read Spektor’s fans’ thoughts on the song, knock yourself out — at time of publishing, there were 413 comments and counting on this SongMeanings thread.
Bruce Springsteen — “The Ghost of Tom Joad”
Steinbeck and Springsteen go together so perfectly that it’s surprising it took the Boss as long as it did to write a song based on The Grapes of Wrath. This is that song, the title track to an album that meditates on the echoes of Steinbeck in contemporary American society, particularly in the treatment of immigrants crossing the country’s southern border.
Steely Dan — “Home at Last”
Aw, Odysseus. It’s been 20 years since you were last at home — of course your wife doesn’t recognize you!
The Triffids — “Tender is the Night”
The last song on The Triffids’ masterpiece Born Sandy Devotional takes its title from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 short story, which charts the decline of alcoholic psychotherapist Dick Diver. (Fellow Australian band Dick Diver also take their name from the story.) The bitter irony is that the lyrics here also do a pretty depressingly accurate job of presaging the similar fate that awaited lead Triffid Dave McComb: “I knew him as a gentle young man/ I cannot say for sure the reasons for his decline/ We watched him fade before our very eyes/ And years before his time.” (McComb died in 1999 at the age of only 37, after a long history of drug and alcohol abuse.)
The Velvet Underground — “Venus in Furs”
The band famously took their name from Michael Leigh’s book on BDSM and paraphilia, and Lou Reed borrowed the title and subject matter of another text on similar subject matter — Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs — for this classic. It narrates the story of Sacher-Masoch’s Severin — a character very much based on the author himself — and his experiences of submissiveness.
Tom Waits — “Alice”
The title track from an album that took its songs from a collection that Waits wrote for a stage adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s a love song of sorts, neatly replicating the slightly unwholesome nature of Lewis Carroll’s interest in Alice Liddell, and the story’s psychedelic nature is a perfect fit for his brand of image-heavy lyrics: “Your hair is like meadow grass on the tide,” he growls softly, “And the raindrops on my window/ And the ice in my drink/ Baby all I can think of… is Alice.”
Wild Beasts — “Two Dancers”
The titular dancers are, apparently, from Henry Miller’s Sexus, which recounts the author leaving his wife for June, who first appears as a dancer. The lyric discusses Miller’s decision to leave, and its consequences: “Deserters! Deserters!/ The neighbors cup their ears to the wall/ Two hearts no more.”