Five Classic Rock Songs That Are Actually Inspired By Literature
21 Apr 2023
Words by Angie Moon
Inspiration really does come from everywhere in classic rock. Many classic rock songwriters are bookworms and get a lot of their inspiration from books and poems they have read. You might even think of song lyrics as a form of poetry. Here are five classic rock songs based on literature:
1. “Wuthering Heights” - Kate Bush (1978) - Based on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
This haunting, ethereal chart-topper from 1978 was based on a book written 131 years before it. Kate Bush wrote the song at just 18 years old, inspired by the 1967 BBC adaptation of Wuthering Heights and reading the book and discovering that Emily Brontë was born exactly 140 years before her, on July 30, 1818. If you want even more similarities: both of them are half Irish and considered to be mysterious people - Emily Brontë was very reclusive and Kate Bush shuns the spotlight, rarely gives interviews, and only once went on tour in 1979 and 35 years later a 22-show residency at the Hammersmith Apollo, but never again played concerts. Kate Bush made history as the first female artist to have a self-penned #1 hit in the UK.
Wuthering Heights was Emily Bronte’s only novel ever written and she died the year after it was published at just 30 years old. Like other female authors in the 19th century, it was originally published under a male pen name. Around the same time, Emily Brontë’s sisters Anne and Charlotte published Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre, respectively.
2. White Rabbit - Jefferson Airplane (1967) - Based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through The Looking-Glass (1871) by Lewis Carroll
Alice in Wonderland is one of the most trippy, psychedelic classics and we can thank Disney and Jefferson Airplane for showing us that. Grace Slick wrote “White Rabbit” when she was in The Great Society and brought the song with her when she replaced Signe Toly Anderson as one of the singers in the band. The song, along with “Somebody To Love” became one of the band’s biggest hits. With women’s liberation being a big movement in the 60s, Grace Slick’s message was that women should be independent, informed, and follow their curiosity. Don’t wait for your Prince Charming to save you. Follow the white rabbit, like Alice.
Both books are considered one of the best works of Victorian literature and highly influential in the fantasy genre and an early children’s book that was intended to entertain, rather than inform or explain. There are many film, theatre, and musical adaptations of the books. Here’s one more classic rock one, The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus” was inspired by the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter”.
3.“Ramble On” - Led Zeppelin (1969) - Based on The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
Led Zeppelin were big fans of Lord of the Rings and wrote multiple songs based on it, one of the most famous and obvious is “Ramble On” from their classic album Led Zeppelin II. It’s one of the band’s most famous songs, with it being ranked #5 on Rolling Stone’s list of 40 greatest Led Zeppelin songs. The opening line, “leaves are falling all around” is based on a line from a Tolkien Elvish language poem called “Namarié”, which translates to “Ah! Like gold fall the leaves in the wind”. In the lyrics you can hear references to Mordor and the characters Gollum and Sauron (The Evil One). Interestingly enough, the song was never performed in its entirety live until 2007, at the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert.
If you want more Lord of the Rings references check out “The Battle of Evermore” - a song with beautiful mandolin and Robert Plant and Sandy Denny’s duet, with him singing as the narrator and her singing as the town crier.
4. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” - Elton John (1973) - Based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)
Yes, that’s right! One of Elton John’s most famous songs references a book - 39 years before the classic film starring Judy Garland came out, the first book in the Oz series was published. As usual the music was written by Elton John and the lyrics by Bernie Taupin, a powerhouse songwriting duo. As we all know, when Dorothy and Toto were swept away by a tornado to The Land Of Oz, Dorothy is told to follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City to find The Wizard of Oz, who can help her return back to her home on a farm in Kansas. The lyrics refer to a farm and a yellow brick road, but instead it’s a song about the downsides of fame and wanting to go back to a simple life, a going back to your roots song. You can see so many of those downsides and struggles in the musical biopic Rocketman.
5. “Tales of Brave Ulysses” - Cream (1967) - Based on The Odyssey by Homer (8th Century BC)
We’re going back to Ancient Greece for this song. Musically inspired by The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Eric Clapton composed the music and Australian painter and songwriter Martin Sharp wrote the lyrics. Not only did Martin Sharp write the lyrics, he also created the cover art for the album the song is on, Disraeli Gears. If you want even more of a literary connection, Sharp originally wrote the lyrics as a poem and told Eric Clapton about it and so the song was born. It’s also the song where Eric Clapton first used a wah-wah pedal, inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s use of it on “The Burning of the Midnight Lamp”.
The Odyssey is an epic poem written by Homer. It is one of the oldest works of literature still widely read to this day. Homer’s other famous work was The Iliad, another epic poem.
English class can sometimes feel boring, but perhaps you might see some of these works in a new way when you see them become rock and roll. Perhaps you may give these books a read.
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