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Best Book Songs

Chris Ware, Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Rock artists have always had a tricky relationship with the fine arts. On one hand, many musicians come from scholarly backgrounds, having studied art and literature in college. But on the other hand, rock ‘n’ roll is a primal music made for people who want to unwind and have a good time. Throw too many artsy-fartsy references into your songs, and you’re going to lose a good chunk of your less-cerebral fan base. But rockers need to be well-read in order to engage audiences with their lyrics — otherwise you might as well just be LMFAO. Our list of the Best Book Songs works both ways: They’re great songs inspired by great literature.

The Cure Killing an Arab

‘Killing an Arab’



The Cure’s controversial debut single was inspired by Albert Camus’ classic 1942 existential novel ‘The Stranger,’ in which the story’s narrator shoots an Arab on the beach — a key moment in the book. Robert Smith revisits the murder: “Standing on the beach with a gun in my hand /
Staring at the sea, staring at the sand / Staring down the barrel, at the Arab on the ground … / I’m alive, I’m dead, I’m the stranger.” The literary connection didn’t stop some people from reading racism in the lyrics.


Counting Crows August and Everything After

‘Rain King’



Counting Crows, no strangers to the occasional overload of pretension, take on Saul Bellows’ 1959 novel ‘Henderson the Rain King’ in their popular cut from their mega-selling debut album, ‘August and Everything After.’ In the book, a spiritually dead man heads to Africa, where he unwittingly becomes the rain king of a tribe and confronts a ton of philosophical questions. The Crows’ ‘Rain King’ doesn’t go as deep.


Nirvana In Utero

‘Scentless Apprentice’



The second track on ‘In Utero,’ Nirvana’s No. 1 follow-up to ‘Nevermind,’ grabs some inspiration from a 1985 horror mystery novel called ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’ by German author Patrick Süskind. In the book, an 18th-century Frenchman kills virgins as he seeks the perfect scent. Nirvana’s song shares a similar abrasive tone.


U2 Shadows and Tall Trees

‘Shadows and Tall Trees’




The final song on U2’s 1980 debut album ‘Boy’ takes its title from a chapter in William Golding’s classic 1954 novel ‘Lord of the Flies,’ about young boys stuck on a deserted island. But ‘Shadows and Tall Trees” lyrics steer in a different direction, describing the drab existence of a young Irishman: “Life through a window / Discolored pane / Mrs. Brown’s washing is always the same.” It’s not quite the brutal primitivism found in Golding’s book.


Kate Bush Wuthering Heights

‘Wuthering Heights’

Kate Bush



Unlike many of the tracks on our list of the Best Book Songs, ‘Wuthering Heights’ doesn’t just borrow inspiration from the novel it takes its title from; it also appropriates lines, characters and scenes. Emily Bronte’s 1847 classic is all over Kate Bush’s song. The song’s famous refrain — “Let me in, I’m so cold” — comes directly from the book; so does the narrator’s romantic longing. Spoiler: Things don’t turn out so well for the novel’s heroine.


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