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8 Great 80s Songs Inspired by Literature

Classic music inspired by classic books and writers

Music has often taken inspiration from great literature, and 1980s music was no exception. The following eight songs were all written, at least in part, because of a classic book or a well-known writer.

T’Pau, ‘China in Your Hand’. Carol Decker, lead singer with T’Pau, has said that idea for the chorus (and title) of this song came about when she was doing the washing up. China in one’s hand seemed like an apt metaphor for the fragility of one’s dreams. But the lyrics in the verses of the song clearly echo the background story of the composition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the subject-matter of the novel itself. Decker has said of the song’s Frankenstein link: ‘I was watching a documentary on the whole Mary Shelley and Byron and Keats gang and was enthralled by how, at 19, she outsold both noted poets. But her success caused much dissent and jealousy in her marriage and friendships, so created her own monster. It is a story within a story, be careful what you wish for in case you get it.’ Have a look at the lyrics here and see what you think.

The Waterboys, ‘The Whole of the Moon’. This song is partly about C. S. Lewis, as Waterboy Mike Scott has acknowledged – though it’s not just about Lewis. But the writer is one of many influences on the lyrics.

Pet Shop Boys, ‘West End Girls’. Partly inspired by T. S. Eliot’s modernist poem The Waste Land (1922), this song – the Pet Shop Boys’ first number 1 single from early 1986 – describes the fast-moving metropolis of London using a similarly clipped style to Eliot’s in parts of his great poem.

The Smiths, ‘Cemetry Gates’. Many Smiths songs pay homage to works of literature, but this is a particular highlight, name-checking as it does John Keats, W. B. Yeats, and Morrissey’s hero Oscar Wilde. Shakespeare is also J G Ballardalluded to, where the Bard’s lines from Richard III – ‘The early village cock / Hath twice done salutation to the morn’ become ‘Ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn’. And by the way, ‘Cemetry’ is not our misspelling: it’s how Morrissey spells the word in the sleeve notes to The Queen Is Dead.

Joy Division, ‘Atrocity Exhibition’. Inspired by the story and book of the same name by J. G. Ballard, this track opens Joy Division’s second album Closer, released in 1980. We’ve written about Ballard’s considerable influence on pop music here.

John Foxx, ‘Underpass’. Indeed, here’s another Ballard-influenced piece of pop, this time from synthpop proponent and onetime lead singer with Ultravox, John Foxx. Foxx later claimed that this song, and the album it appeared on, Metamatic (1980), were the result of ‘reading too much J. G. Ballard’. As if there is such a thing…

Gary Numan, ‘Down in the Park’. And here’s another Ballardian song! The lyrics reveal a dystopian scenario focusing on a park in which Machmen (androids or cyborgs) kill human beings, all before an appreciative audience.

The Buggles, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. And here’s yet another song that Ballard helped to inspire! Okay, this is strictly speaking a 70s rather than 80s song, but it is forever bound up with the world of 1980s music, not least because, in 1981, it became the first ever music video played on new channel MTV (aptly, given the title of the song). The lyrics for ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ arose out of Buggles member Trevor Horn’s fondness for a short story by Ballard called ‘The Sound-Sweep’, in which music has been rendered obsolete by technological advancement: in the story an unlikely friendship arises between an opera singer and a mute boy who goes around hoovering up stray bits of music that still survive.

Image: British writer J.G.Ballard painted on a wall (author: Thierry Ehrmann), Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on April 13, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    “The Sound-Sweep” is one of Ballard’s masterpieces.

  2. They don’t make ’em like that anymore!

  3. Wow, no Kate Bush/”Wuthering Heights”? I guess that was too obvious…

  4. ferretpower2013

    Did Mary’s success with ‘Frankenstein’ cause dissension? When? and how?

  5. For someone who is great lover of ’80’s music, this was delightful to read. Thanks for sharing!

  6. This was a delightful read. Informative.

  7. The “Frankenstein” references are wonderful. I taught the book for 25 years at both the college and high school levels without ever having read Gould or any other author on the novel beforehand. My interpretation and the question I asked my students was “Who is the real monster in this story?” Not the creature, but Victor Frankenstein who abandoned his creation,never accepting responsibility for it , and society that persecutes anyone who is “different.” My students were always sympathetic towards the “creature” as, i believe, was Mary Shelley. It truly is a socially-based novel, not surprising considering her background.

  8. What about “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”??

  9. Another one is ‘killing an arab’ by The Cure. Based on the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus.

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