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Books Can Change Your World

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Whistle while you read

posted on 29 Jan 2016

Whistle while you read

I’m a late developer in lots of areas of intellectual life. It wasn’t until the late 1970s or early 1980s that it really started to dawn on me in any significant way that quite a lot of the pop and rock songs that I loved were inspired in part or wholly by books.  Hardly a revelation you might think – after all it’s probably true that books have been a source of song-writing  inspiration for donkeys years – it’s just that I, stupid boy that I was, didn’t really spot it or think about it.

I think the record that really triggered my subsequent fascination with this hybrid art form was that sublime few minutes of crafted brilliance by The Cure called Killing An Arab. Although the title taken in isolation might give you fears that you’re dealing with some terrible racist out-pouring, it doesn’t take very long to twig that this is something else altogether. Robert Smith’s oblique take on Albert Camus’s existentialist classic  L’Eranger  ( usually translated as The Outsider) captures a mood brilliantly with lyrics and curious jagged guitar lines cutting across a sun-saturated beach as Robert Smith opines  :

                          Whatever I do it amounts to the same;

                          Absolutely nothing.

Then there was the fabulously eccentric  Daniel Miller recording under the title The Normal and his electronic monster, Warm Leatherette (which was later covered by Grace Jones), a paean to the erotic possibilities of car crashes – surely influenced by the cult novel by J.G.Ballard, Crash.

And so with my antennae now fully alerted, I started to spot them all over the place.  Some were much more in your face than others - Bowie’s take on 1984 constitutes one of the more obvious efforts ( a trick to be repeated by The Eurhythmics with their film soundtrack hit 1984) but there were more subtle, more literate, more engaging ones too. At this time my particular favourite was the first album by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions  which is called Rattlesnakes. Here we had songs that clearly referenced Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Renata Adler and the movie of On The Waterfront and all this bookishness combined perfectly with Cole’s effortless beatnik sulkiness and the bands classy 80s style Indie guitar driven tunes. Entry to Cole’s world requires you to ‘ read Norman Mailer, Or get yourself a new tailor’ – a manifesto I could at least meet half way.

The danger is that thinking about the way musicians turn books into music can just result in me making a list of my favourites or the ones that have leapt into public consciousness – Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, The Velvet Underground’s Venus In Furs, Jefferson Airplanes’ White Rabbit, Joy Division’s Atrocity Exhibition, Bruce Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad .  However, what I really like is when the music is inspired by a book(s) and you have to work reasonably hard to figure  out or interpret  the connections.

For me jazz is great territory for this kind of interpretive engagement. Weather Report’s  album  I Sing the Body Electric is inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem in a way that is quite different from some of the examples above. The album has no single track listing called ‘I Sing The Body Electric’ we are being invited instead to see the whole album as a response to Whitman’s epic.

Similarly, the much under-rated British jazz combo – The Stan Tracey Quartet – recoded their version of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood  about which, John Fordham writing in The Guardian said:

But it was his six years as house pianist at Ronnie Scott's, backing the biggest stars in jazz from Rollins to Stan Getz, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Anita O'Day, Wes Montgomery and many more, that really fired his imagination. The thrill of those encounters, and the musical ideas they sparked night after night, set him composing prolifically – often on the night bus home after the gigs. Under Milk Wood was an evocative collection of sparky themes inspired by the Dylan Thomas radio play (it's sometimes performed with a narrator reading the parts). And thanks to Tracey's sparing piano and Wellins's softly hooting sax, the rippling tone-poem Starless and Bible Black is widely acclaimed as one of the great jazz performances.

 

It would, of course, be unfair to suggest that everything in the garden is rosy.  We also now have to confront the dreadful spectre that is the ‘concept album’  ( muffled cries of despair ring around the room). The concept album has, in view, always been a pretty bad idea – although I confess that one or two decent specimens have bucked the trend if you include the likes of Ziggy Stardust in your definitions of that category. But, as a general rule, by and large these are monstrous carbuncles that need lancing but which, I also acknowledge, are unaccountably popular.

Top of my personal hate list is the dollop of dreadfulness nearly always described as ‘Jeff Wayne’s musical version’ of War of the Worlds. This bloated, pomp-rock excrescence is nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and over-wrought theatricality which brings absolutely nothing to the experience of the original novel. Beware of pop musicians who, drained of all creative inspiration, turn to great works of literature and eviscerate them as a way of reflating their hopelessly turgid careers.

A similar critique could also be made of the synthesised mauling  Rick Wakeman gives the Arthurian legends on his ill-conceived  The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The fact that this dreadful thing not only gave Wakeman a literal heart attack while he was recording it, it has gone on to blight the ears of millions of others who bought the album or went to the even more scary King Arthur on Ice shows that followed.  

Once you start listening for references to books in your favourite songs it becomes addictive – I honestly believe it adds a new dimension both to your reading and to your listening pleasure. Give it a go – what have you got to lose?

Terry Potter

January 2016