Stories are a universal language, so it comes as no surprise that they make their way into music as well. Some of the most famous books of our time have been memorialized in music, sometimes in ways we don’t even realize. These 21 tracks were inspired by books both popular and unknown. You might even know some of these songs without knowing that they had their roots in a work of fiction.
1. Rocket Man — Elton John
Rocket Man is one of Elton John’s most famous songs. But most people don’t know that much of the track’s inspiration came from a short story by Ray Bradbury. It is about a professional astronaut whose long periods of absence affect his family life. Bernie Taupin, who wrote the song, was intrigued by the idea that the advancement of technology might make being an astronaut a mundane, everyday job much like going into an office. Though the short story isn’t among Bradbury’s most famous works, it made for an iconic track.
Recommended: Our list of songs about stars, space and the universe
2. Wuthering Heights — Kate Bush
English songstress Kate Bush has often dived into strange, eerie topics in her tracks. One of the most famous is Wuthering Heights, which draws inspiration from the novel by Emily Brontë.
In the track, Bush assumes the role of Cathy Linton, the dead heroine calling for Heathcliff to let her in from the moors. This is taken directly from the beginning of the novel, in which the protagonist dreams of seeing her weeping outside his bedroom window. Bush’s performance is evocative of the eerie sounds of someone crying over the moor.
3. Don’t Stand So Close To Me — The Police
Don’t Stand So Close To Me has become famous as one of the most famous songs by The Police—perhaps in part because it’s so creepy. The 1980 track, which won a Grammy Award, was inspired at least in part by the story of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It even references the novel directly as the protagonist of the song, a teacher, struggles with his inappropriate feelings toward his young student. The track was written in part as a warning to the band’s fans, who tended to be teenage girls.
4. 1984 — David Bowie
In the mid-1970s, there was a movement to create a rock opera based on George Orwell’s 1984. Rock musician David Bowie jumped at the opportunity to contribute to it. The result was a funk-infused track meant to retell the interrogation scene from the novel.
Unfortunately, the rock opera stalled and eventually fizzled out, in part because of a lack of cooperation from Orwell’s estate. It remains a somewhat niche track in Bowie’s discography, having been released as a single in 1974 but never as part of an album—though it was later included on compilation albums.
5. Scentless Apprentice — Nirvana
One of Nirvana’s lesser-known songs was Scentless Apprentice, released in 1993 on their album, In Utero. The track is based on one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite novels, Perfume by Patrick Susskind. The eerie book tells the tale of a man with an inhuman sense of smell.
However, because he has no scent of his own, he is rejected by society. Apprenticed to a perfume maker, he goes on a quest to find the most beautiful perfume in the world—a quest that happens to involve killing virgin women.
6. Paperback Writer — The Beatles
The Beatles’ song Paperback Writer isn’t about a real book. Rather, it’s a subtle dig at aspiring writers who won’t stop badgering people to read their unpublished work. The author seems to think he’s written the next great novel, insisting that the thousand-page tome will make him millions.
Lots of things have changed since 1966, but there still seem to be writers everywhere who think they’ll be the next biggest thing.
7. Pet Sematary — Ramones
Pet Sematary was written for the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. He loved the Ramones and asked them in person to write a song for the movie. The resulting track was one of the biggest of the band’s career, an eerie rock song that perfectly encapsulated the novel’s horror elements.
While it hit number four on the rock charts, not everyone was a fan of the track, and it also earned a Razzie Award for Worst Original Song that year.
Recommended: A list of the top movie songs ever
8. White Rabbit — Jefferson Airplane
Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 song White Rabbit might be the quintessential track of the psychedelic rock era. It’s easy to see the otherworldly inspiration they got from Alice In Wonderland.
Writer Grace Slick, also the frontwoman of the band at the time, wrote the song to parallel the strangeness of fairy tales with the experience of using psychedelic drugs. It’s hard not to make the parallel on your own, what with all the novel’s food- and drink-induced growing and shrinking.
9. Lost Boy — Ruth B
Ruth B achieved her first hit in 2015 with the release of Lost Boy, a retelling of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan from the point of view of one of his crew. The song focuses less on the events of the story itself and more on the life of the lost boys as they range around Neverland.
Their days involve flying through the power of fairy dust and hiding from Captain Hook in the woods. Most importantly, they find a home in one another, prompting questions about the real meaning of the word “lost.”
10. Who Wrote Holden Caulfield? — Green Day
We all have a classic novel that we simply can’t stand; for Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, that was The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger. He said he bucked at being forced to read the book in high school but later reread it as an adult and found much to relate to in the character of Holden Caulfield. In fact, he even said that the lead character’s moody, angsty self-introspection was in line with the ideals of punk rock.
11. Venus in Furs — The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground released Venus In Furs in 1967, a nod to the novella of the same name. The shocking erotic story was published in 1870 by Leopold von Sachser-Masoch, whose name gave rise to the word “masochism.”
Like the novel, The Velvet Underground song describes acts of sadomasochism. It doesn’t hold back, opening from the start with a description of a woman whipping the narrator while wearing leather boots.
12. China in Your Hand — T’Pau
English pop group T’Pau recorded China In Your Hand in 1987, and it quickly became one of the most iconic power ballads of all time. Though the song isn’t specifically about Frankenstein, it makes extensive references to the Mary Shelley novel with lines such as “And we could make this monster live again” and “Now life will return in this electric storm.” Frontwoman Carol Decker said that Shelley played a central role in the inspiration of the track.
13. I Am The Walrus — The Beatles
Though almost everyone has heard The Beatles’ seemingly nonsensical hit I Am The Walrus, most people don’t know that it had its roots in an equally absurd novel. John Lennon took his inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s story of The Walrus And The Carpenter, which is told in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.
The song might not be about the story itself, but it makes several references to the tale, in which a walrus and a carpenter trick oysters into being eaten. The last verse of the track also directly quotes William Shakespeare’s King Lear.
14. Yertle The Turtle — Red Hot Chili Peppers
Almost everyone will recognize the title of this 1985 song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers—even if you’re not usually familiar with the band’s music. The track is a whimsical retelling of the book by Dr. Seuss, a standard in almost every kid’s library.
It’s pretty faithful to the original story—but if you notice the repeated line “Look at that turtle go, bro,” that’s a contribution from producer George Clinton’s cocaine dealer as a compromise for funds that Clinton owed him.
Recommended: Playlist of songs about turtles
15. One — Metallica
Metallica’s song One was based on the novel of the same name by Dalton Trumbo. His book was written in 1939 and told the story of a veteran of the First World War whose war injuries rendered him severely disabled.
Though Metallica’s track is the only musical adaptation, the story has been adapted into a film at least once—and Trumbo’s life has been as well. The heartbreaking song was released in 1988 and won a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance.
16. Sympathy For The Devil — The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones released Sympathy For The Devil back in 1968. The song has become an essential part of their early discography. Though its eerie lyrics are clearly written from the perspective of a demon—perhaps Lucifer himself—you might not know that the track was inspired by a book. Mick Jagger said the idea came from the book The Master And Margarita, the story of the devil visiting the Soviet Union during the 1930s.
17. Thieves in The Night — Black Star
Thieves In The Night appeared on the genre-defining album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, released in 1998. The song is based on the novel The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Similar to the novel, the track focuses on themes of racism and white supremacy, questioning why Black culture is led and controlled by white ideals. Explicit references to the novel are made in lines about money, beauty ideals, and generational trauma in Black families in the United States.
18. Ramble On — Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin and J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t seem to be a natural pairing, but that’s exactly the inspiration behind their 1969 track, Ramble On. The song makes mention of walking to Mordor and meeting “Gollum and the evil one,” presumably a reference to Sauron. It also paraphrases Tolkien’s poem Namárië, in the line “Leaves are falling all around.”
Clearly, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were big fans of Tolkien’s novels, considering the level of detail the track goes into. It has been called one of the greatest rock songs ever written. Who knew that Tolkien would have that effect on rock and roll?
19. Black Blade — Blue Öyster Cult
It’s a big thing for an author to be able to work on an adaptation of their book—much less an adaptation into a rock song. The 1980 track Black Blade by Blue Öyster Cult was not only written in collaboration with author Michael Moorcock but also based on his fantasy novel, Elric Of Melniboné.
The track is about the titular Elric, who owns a magical sword filled with evil; as he slays more and more enemies with the blade, it gains more control over him. The sword, Stormbringer, becomes stronger by absorbing the souls of those it has killed.
20. Gravity’s Rainbow — Klaxons
You may not have heard of either Klaxons or the novel Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Neither of them is very well known, with the band only enjoying 10 years together before dissolving in 2015.
Their 2007 song Gravity’s Rainbow took its name directly from the novel and discusses some of its themes in a psychedelic commentary on time travel, love, and the development of mass weapons of destruction during World War II. A strange topic in a strange novel, but one that suited Klaxons’ adaptation to perfection.
21. Book Club — Arkells
This 2011 indie hit from the Arkells isn’t about a specific book but rather about the power of books to bring people together. The narrator makes a tentative connection with a friend as they share the books they enjoy reading. They have said that Book Club is based on a friendship between two teenage boys who find common ground through books and shared interests. It just goes to show that even in the digital age, there is nothing that can help us understand others like books.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.