Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

7 Songs Inspired by Classic Literature

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I read and reviewed the Brontë classic Wuthering Heights. Until I finally got around to reading it for this project, all I knew about the book had been drawn from the lyrics of the Kate Bush song of the same name (spoiler alert: they’re not the same thing). It got me to thinking: what other songs have been inspired by classic literature?

Songs Inspired By Classic Literature - Blue and Black Text Beneath an Image of a Vinyl Record - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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1984 – David Bowie

Inspired By: 1984 by George Orwell

This song – along with many others from the same album (Diamond Dogs) – was actually intended for a musical based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel. Bowie scrapped the project after Orwell’s widow raised objections.

You’ve read it in the tea leaves
And the tracks are on TV
Beware the savage jaw of 1984

Soma – The Strokes

Inspired By: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

It would seem that classic dystopian novels are great sources of inspiration for musicians. “Soma” is the drug of choice in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, used to placate and control the population. The same fictional drug has also been referenced by Smashing Pumpkins, deadmau5, and others.

Soma is what they would take
When hard times opened their eyes

Off To The Races – Lana Del Rey

Inspired By: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lana Del Rey’s music famously draws frequently from Nabakov’s novel, which centered around an older man’s obsession with his beautiful teenage stepdaughter. This song is particularly notable, though, in that it cites “light of my life, fire of my loins”, a line taken verbatim from the opening passage of Lolita.

My old man is a bad man
But I can’t deny the way he holds my hand
And he grabs me, he has me by my heart

Bonus: Lolita is also referenced in the ’80s classic “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police. In that track, they spoke from the perspective of the older man, likening his desire to that of Nabakov’s narrator.

It’s no use, he sees her
He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov

Tom Joad (Parts 1 & 2) – Woody Guthrie

Inspired By: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Guthrie’s songs, released on the album “Dust Bowl Ballads” the year after The Grapes of Wrath was published, focus on the life of the protagonist Tom Joad, after he is paroled from prison.

Tom Joad got out of the old McAlester Pen
There he got his parole
After four long years on a man killing charge
Tom Joad came a-walkin’ down the road, poor boy

Love Song for a Vampire – Annie Lennox

Inspired By: Dracula by Bram Stoker

This track was not only inspired by Bram Stoker’s gothic novel, but it was even used as the theme for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation of the same.

It beats for you, it bleeds for you
It know not how it sound
For it is the drum of drums
It is the song of songs

I Am The Walrus – The Beatles

Inspired By: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The “walrus” referred to in The Beatles’ 1967 song is actually taken from the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, which Carroll wrote. It featured in the second volume of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Alice Through The Looking Glass).

I am the egg man
They are the egg men
I am the walrus
Goo goo g’joob

John Lennon was reportedly dismayed to learn, some time after the song had been written and performed, that the walrus was in fact a villain in Carroll’s original poem. Close reading matters, people!

China In Your Hand – T’Pau

Inspired By: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

You might not have guessed it, if you’ve only heard the single re-recorded for radio release, but the original album version of this song is packed with references to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

It was a theme she had
On a scheme he had
Told in a foreign land
To take life on earth
To the second birth


  1. This is a great topic. I tend to listen to a lot of music and I am always listening for literary references.

    On the Heavy Metal Front I have always liked Metallica’s For Whom the Bell Tolls based upon the Hemingway book of the same name. Iron Maiden has so many songs based on books and poems. Brave New World based upon The Aldous Huxley book comes to mind.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      April 21, 2018 at 11:37 AM

      Yes, that’s right – Brave New World was huge for Iron Maiden! I’ve had so many people send me their favourite literary-inspired songs off the back of this post, I’ve got awesome playlists for dayyyys 🙂

  2. And who doesn’t love “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane? Definitely some “Alice Through the Looking Glass” going on there! 😍💖🍻

  3. Man!! What a great topic. I would never have made the correlation between Alice and I Am The Walrus.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      April 23, 2018 at 2:02 PM

      Hahahaha cheers! Don’t worry, I listened to Beatles for years before I realised the link 🙂

  4. Yes I think the Police song was nominated for the most pretentious lyric used in a pop sing for that very line. Hopefully it won.

  5. Fantastic. I showed my son the video of Kate Bush singing Wuthering Heights after he was reading it at school, he was fascinated and had a try at the dance moves! Like you, for me it was a case of growing up knowing the song a long time before reading the book. I had no idea China in your Hand was inspired by Frankenstein, loved both!

    • ShereeKUWTP

      April 27, 2018 at 3:18 PM

      Hahahaha I must say, your son is braver than I, I certainly never had a crack at the moves! Good on him! 😉

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