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Nerd attack: why music's big guns find inspiration in the library

Sneha Vakharia | Updated on: 19 August 2015, 4:08 IST

Perhaps you knew that Led Zepplin's Ramble On was inspired by Tolkein's beloved fantasy series Lord of the Rings. Maybe you also knew that David Bowie wrote the songs 1984 and Big Brother after reading Orwell.

That literature, cinema and music form a triumvirate has been widely acknowledged. One derives from another with what Rushdie once called 'subconscious plagiarism'.

Except a lot of it, it turns out, isn't even subconscious: some of the world's most influential musicians have consciously turned to literature to find their muse.

In the case of Bob Dylan, it influenced more than his work; born Robert Zimmerman, he took his performing name as a nod to poet Dylan Thomas. For others, ranging from U2 to Coldplay, bestsellers have been the basis for some of their most influential work. Here's a peek at some of our favourites.

U2 - The Ground Beneath Her Feet

I was on the heartbreaking last pages of Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a heady novel with breathtaking prose. Rushdie's storytelling was rich with references to musicians from the 1960s. Ormus Cama, Rushdie's protagonist, was loosely based on Queen's Freddie Mercury (with his Parsi-Bombay heritage). Ormus later died a death not unlike John Lennon's, shot at close range outside his apartment.

The overarching plot was derived from the Orpheus-Eurydice Greek myth. The Orpheus-Eurydice myth has inspired music from the '60s and '70s aplenty (and eventually, Arcade Fire's Reflektor, but we'll come to that in a bit). In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rushdie superimposes the myth onto the lives of two fictitious rock legends and their tumultuous, ill-fated love.

Ormus Cama, the rock legend of Rushdie's creation, writes for his lover a song titled The Ground Beneath Her Feet, lending the book its name.

U2's lead singer Bono was so moved by Rushdie's book and specifically the song in it that he ended up writing a song also called - yes - The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

Rushdie also features in the video of the song (although his presence only serves to creep the viewer out).

Music inspires literature, which in turn inspires music. The world spins madly on.

Mumford and Sons - Roll Away Your Stones

"Darkness is a harsh term don't you think? And yet it dominates the things I see.

Stars hide your fires. These here are my desires"

In Roll Away Your Stones, arguably a song about confronting the wretched parts of ourselves, Mumford and Sons marvellously incorporate Shakespeare.

Macbeth, when first confronted with the possibility of becoming King, had said to himself: "Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires".

This is not the first time the British rock band has directly referenced Shakespeare. Sigh No More, the title track from their debut album, borrows generously from Much Ado About Nothing. "Serve God, love me and mend".

In an interview with the London Evening Standard, bandleader Marcus Mumford acknowledged the 'inspiration' but laughed, "You can rip off Shakespeare all you like; no lawyer's going to call you up on that one."

Katy Perry - This Moment

Not all literature-music inspiration is highbrow; pop princess Katy Perry seems equally inspired by the books she reads - or listens to. An audiobook of Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment is, arguably, the inspiration behind This Moment.

This entirely forgettable song may not be her greatest hit. It is, however, worth noting that among those who swear by books such as The Secret and Tuesdays with Morrie, you can now count one of the most prolific pop stars of our times.

Coldplay - 42, Don't Panic

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its legion of fans will already know this. For those who didn't, however, here are some intriguing facts.

1. Don't Panic, the first song from Coldplay's debut album Parachutes, is a direct reference to the words supposedly written on the cover of the Hitchhiker's Guide in Douglas Adams' genius series. Curiously, Chris Martin says he hadn't read the book when he wrote the song but that seems odd given the title of another of his songs, 42.

2. 42, a three-part track tucked away in Viva La Vida, has instant meaning for any Hitchhiker-ite. Except if you haven't read it we can't tell you why without spoilers

3. Now My Feet Won't Touch The Ground, also a song in Viva La Vida

4. Now My Feet Won't Touch The Ground. Once again, hidden away in the lyrics of Strawberry Swing

5. Now My Feet Won't Touch the Ground, which shows up a third time in the chorus of Life in Technicolor II!

That's five Easter eggs too many

Arcade Fire - It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus) & Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)

The very Orpheus-Eurydice myth that inspired Rushdie makes its way to our list again. wo songs from the Reflektor, Arcade Fire's most recent album, patently address the Greek myth.

Even the album's cover art is a photograph of the "Orpheus and Eurydice" sculpture by Auguste Rodin. Further, the album-teaser juxtaposes clips from the film Black Orpheus with lyrics from the songs.

Now it won't be Greek to you, after all.

The Police and Lana Del Rey's Lolita obsession

Sting penned a song in 1981 about paedophilia, with an overt reference to Lolita. He describes the teacher preying on his student as being "Just like the old man in /The book by Nobokov." It's a jaunty number that doesn't quite do the theme justice.

Singer Lana Del Rey's Off to the Races, also Lolita-inspired, does a far better job with the same motifs.

"Light of my life, fire of my loins,

Be a good baby, do what I want

Light of my life, fire of my loins,

Give me them gold coins, give me them coins."

Incidentally, Lana Del Ray has written another song, Ultraviolence, which is an undisguised reference to The Clockwork Orange.

Carla Bruni - No Promises

Heiresses have sung before. In that, Carla Bruni entirely lacks novelty.

But Carla Bruni's 2007 album, No Promises, is quite something else. She sings the seductive verses of poets Emily Dickinson, Yeats and Dorothy Parker, among others, to the tunes of an acoustic guitar.

Putting verse to music is no mean task. It may even feel contrived on occasion. But Bruni does it with finesse, her luxurious French accent intact.

The whole album is worth a listen, but especially recommended is her rendition of Dorothy Parker's Ballade at 35:

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Tell us your favourite literature-based music in the comments!

First published: 17 August 2015, 19:50 IST
Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia

A Beyonce-loving feminist who writes about literature and lifestyle at Catch, Sneha is a fan of limericks, sonnets, pantoums and anything that rhymes. She loves economics and music, and has found a happy profession in neither. When not being consumed by the great novels of drama and tragedy, she pays the world back with poems of nostalgia, journals of heartbreak and critiques of the comfortable.