When Classic Rock Meets Classic Literature
If you’re a fan of classic rock, chances are you’re absorbing more literary references and retellings than you might think.
Allusions, references, and retellings are time-honored literary techniques in any medium, so is it any surprise to find references to classic literature littered throughout classic rock? The genre may be known for “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll,” but that’s doesn’t mean it can’t also serve as a primer on literary classics.
Take a look at a few well-known examples of classic rock tunes that serve as literary homages:
“Ramble On” – Led Zeppelin
Oh sure, it’s easy to get caught up in the iconic chorus of the famous Zeppelin tune, but anyone who has taken a closer listen will remember mentions of “the darkest depths of Mordor” and “Gollum and the evil one.” If you missed this reference to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, it might be a sign for you to listen more carefully to song lyrics in the future. Who knows what else you may be missing?
“Rivendell” – Rush
Led Zeppelin isn’t the only band to base a song or two on Tolkien’s mythology. Rush’s “Rivendell” describes the peace, safety and beauty of the elven territory of Rivendell. In fact, it almost seems as though there are a number of Tolkien fans among classic rock bands.
“I Am the Walrus” – The Beatles
Yes, the lyrics are a memorable lot of nonsense, but The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” still features a classic reference: the song contains audio of a dramatic reading of text from Shakespeare’s King Lear.
“No Quarter” – Led Zeppelin
“Ramble On” wasn’t Zeppelin’s only Tolkien reference; “No Quarter” takes its inspiration from the final battle of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit. The song also throws in a reference to Norse mythology with the line “the winds of Thor are blowing cold.”
“Tales of Brave Ulysses” – Cream
References to Greek mythology and classic Greek epics are littered throughout classic plays, poems, novels and – oh, yes – rock songs. Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, is just one example among many.
“Tom Sawyer” – Rush
Not content with just one famous literary reference under their belt, Rush also uses the titular character of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer as the inspiration for one of their most famous songs.
“Sympathy for the Devil” – The Rolling Stones
Critically acclaimed Soviet satireThe Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, is not as well-known as it should be, especially considering it served as inspiration for The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
“Xanadu” – Rush
Lest you think them only capable of references to classic novels, Rush’s “Xanadu” is based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” In fact, the song borrows many lines directly from the poem.
“Pigs (Three Different Ones)” – Pink Floyd
They “don’t need no education,” but it’s clear that Pink Floyd is a well-read band without the help of any educational institutions. Their song “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” is a reference to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In fact, much of that particular album – aptly titled Animals – explores the same themes as Orwell’s novel.
“1984,” “Big Brother,” “We Are the Dead” – David Bowie
Whereas many musicians who were active in the 80’s seemed more interested in what their hair looked like than they were in deep thinking, David Bowie has always been a cut above. It’s probably safe to say that Bowie was also greatly affected by the works of George Orwell. His songs “1984,” “Big Brother,” and “We Are the Dead” all reference and are inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s most famous novel.
“Carry On Wayward Son” – Kansas
Though not a strict retelling, anyone even slightly familiar with the tale of Daedalus and Icarus will recognize the references in “Wayward Son”: “I was soaring ever higher, but I flew too high.” Like the Greek myth, the song offers several warnings against hubris: “though my eyes could see I still was a blind man.”
“White Rabbit” – Jefferson Airplane
Was there ever a pairing more suited than Jefferson Airplane and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Jefferson Airplane’s trippy song “White Rabbit” is a perfect homage to the trippy story and landscape of Carroll’s classic children’s tale.
“Don’t Stand So Close to Me” – The Police
Some references, however, are not meant for children. Nevertheless, The Police’s reference to Nabokov’s Lolita is a perfect fit for the premise of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” – a tale of an older authority figure’s sexual attraction to his underage charge.
As you can see, there’s quite a bit more to classic rock and roll than fast cars, substance abuse, and beautiful women. And this is just the start; there are plenty more literary references among rock lyrics. Next time your literary friend sticks up his or her nose at rock lyrics, you can blow their pre-conceived ideas out of the water with a few well-placed references from this list.
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