Monday, 2 December 2013

AAA Songs/Albums Based on Books and Poems (Top ten News, Views and Music 221)

This week's top ten is quite 'novel' because this week we're 'wrapped up in books' - or literature to be precise as a few poems have sneaked into our list. Every so often an AAA member will take on a literary theme, taking inspiration from a work of literature. Sometimes it's a whole album, sometimes it's just a song. Sometimes it's a novel that's causing a huge fuss at the time an album is released - sometimes it's an album released hundreds of years before the group was born. Sometimes two AAA bands take inspiration from the same work of art. Anyway, we think we've caught them all but as ever let us know if there's any AAA examples we've missed! Happy, err, reading! The ten listings are given here in the order the books were written. By the way, David Crosby still hasn't revealed which book gave him the inspiration to write 'Page 43'...

1) Unknown "The I Ching" (3-2 BC)

The I Ching, a fortune telling device, is one of the earliest texts in human history. Possibly created by Chinese Emperor Fu Xi, but probably not, the origins of the hexagrams offering words of wisdom designed to fit the caster's situation are shrouded in mystery. Hmm, mystery and seeing into the future - no wonder Syd Barrat chose this as the inspiration for one of his songs as it's his interests all over! Syd wrote the Pink Floyd song 'Chapter 24' (from the first Pink Floyd album 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn') after casting this hexagram for himself. Called 'The Returning', the lyrics to the song are taken almost verbatim and are used in the song to express hope after troubled times now that the summer of love is here. The beginning of the text actually runs 'Change, return success, going out and coming in without error, friends come without blame...' Of course, as we now sadly know, the year after the summer of love was a turbulent year, full of Vietnam, riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King and Syd has only about six months himself before sliding into a decline he never escaped right up until his death in 2006. The line about 'friends coming without blame' is especially wrong, given that the rest of Pink Floyd gradually ease David Gilmour into the band as his replacement. Then again the end of the hexagram reads 'Danger - no blame' which is about as close to Syd's sorry destiny as you can get. Perhaps chapter 23 'Splitting Apart' would have been more apt - but then that chapter wouldn't have inspired such a wonderfully warm hopeful glow of psychedelia. By the way the name of that first Pink Floyd album ('Piper') was taken by Syd from another of his favourite books, Kenneth Grahame's 'Wind In The Willows', where it is the title of chapter seven.

2 Various "The Bible" (2BC-1500 AD)

Where to start? So many bands have been inspired by The Bible - or at least the short extracts doled out to them during Sunday school/assemblies/RE lessons. Chief amongst these, amazingly, seem to be those hippie outlaws The Grateful Dead, who quote from the bible in Bob Weir's solo song 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' ('Ace' 1974) and re-tell the whole of the passage about 'Samson and Delilah' on their 'Terrapin Station' album (1977) (huh, to think they had the audacity to say longhair in the 1960s was a sign of the devil when this passage is all about overthrowing evil tyrants by gaining strength from your hair!) Another taker is Paul Simon, whose film/soundtrack album 'One Trick Pony' about a fading one-hit wonder futilely trying to carry on as a musician when no one wants to know is deliberately named 'Jonah' after the biblical sailor swallowed by a whale. The parallels between the two are huge - both are hapless figures who can't see the bigger picture and hang on to what they think they should be doing long past the point when their respective industries have spit them out (quite literally in the bible's case); as Paul puts it 'They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but I know there's no truth to that tale, I know Jonah was swallowed by a song'.

3) Lewis Carroll "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland" (1865 AD)

As Grace Slick once put it, the drug taking of the 1960s were inevitable after some of the Victorian novels children were given to read. Her most famous song for the Jefferson Airplane, 'White Rabbit', takes directly from this novel (and even more from the sequel 'Alice Through The Looking Glass') mentioning 'hookah smoking caterpillars', pills that change your sense of perception (making Alice 'big' or 'small') and copious references to 'mushrooms'. Why if 'Alice' had come out in 1967, like the song, it would surely have been banned - because everything in the lyrics took place in the book the censors couldn't very well censor Grace's song and so 'White Rabbit' became an anthem for the underground drug culture of the summer of love. John Lennon, meanwhile, was inspired more by the wordplay ('Alice' was one of his favourite books, inspiring 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' among others). However inspiration isn't enough for this top ten so we've plumped for The Beatles' 'I Am The Walrus', which makes references to the chapter 'The Walrus and the Carpenter'. Lennon only half-remembered the work when he sat down to wrote his song (which, contrary to popular opinion, is not gobbledegook but his rage at his teachers for telling him his writing was 'nonsense' and then having the gall to set his book 'In His Own Write' as a set text at Quarry Bank School) and later admitted that he got the song wrong, casting himself as the 'baddy' (both the walrus and the carpenter are trying to murder innocent clams by pretending to be nice and take them home with them). Goo goo ga joob indeed.

4) Rudyard Kipling "Gunga Din" (1892)

Gene Parsons' wonderful song for The Byrds 'Gunga Din' ('The Ballad Of Easy Rider' 1969) updates Kipling's Victorian parable about a soldier who bullies a native boy who then sacrifices his life for the soldier for the present day, with the band 'hippie sacrifices' that are suddenly being celebrated as Vietnam changes the ideals of so many of the 'parent' generation that peace might not be such a bad thing after all. Parsons writes the song as a letter home, 'aboard a DC8' jet taking him to America, 'chasing the sun back to L.A.' and wondering what he can wear instead of a leather jacket because 'I know that it's a sin'. Of course there's always the answer to that perennial question 'do you like Kipling?' The correct answer is 'I don't know - I've never kippled'.

5) Edwin Arlington Robinson "Richard Cory" (1897)

As we covered just a few issues ago, Paul Simon drew greatly on Robinson's Victorian poem for the Simon and Garfunkel classic 'Richard Cory' ('Sounds Of Silence' 1966). However the original 'Richard Cory' is a bit of a mouthful ('Whenever Richard went to town...he was a gentleman from sole to crown') and Simon changes all of the lyrics, whilst keeping the same theme of 'distance' between the disenfranchised workers in the factory sweating buckets for no money and the pressures of manager Cory's life that lead him to commit suicide in the last verse. Simon adds the twist ending, though, where even death seems like a better option for the overworked workers, however, who envy him even that.

6) H G Wells "War Of The Worlds" (1898)

When Justin Hayward was roped into doing Jeff Wayne's full double disc concept album based on the HG Wells album his first thought was 'I'll never hear about this again'. Indeed, the album sessions for the album took so long that it was about two years after recording his vocal that Justin suddenly found himself on Top Of The Pops at number one, singing 'Forever Autumn'. Now, there's not a single line in Wells' influential science-fiction novel about martian aliens felled by human viruses that mentions 'Forever Autumn' and just a sole line about the narrator's wife Carrie, which shows you how many changes Wayne made to the work. Still, the beginning middle and end of the book are there, even if some of the characters are changed. Ooooo-lah!

7) James Joyce "Ulysses" (1918-20)

We're back to Grace Slick again, who got so tired of reading reviews of the Jefferson Airplane's work that called them 'uneducated' that she set out to prove them wrong on the band's third LP 'After Bathing At Baxters'. Having read and enjoyed 'Ulysses', a work so difficult she knew most of her critics wouldn't have read it (note - it's probably Joyce's weakest work but his short stories are well worth reading), Grace then condensed arguably the longest single story from Western Europe into a four minute song, calling it 'ReJoyce'. The song really does do a good job at condensing the day-in-the-life of Leopold Bloom and the parallels of his life in Ireland with the Greek King Ulysses (better known by the name Odysseus, a key player in the Trojan War). Grace even gets the stream-of-consciousness feel of the work down pat ('Saxon's sick on the holy dregs' 'Molly's gone to blazes').

8) George Orwell "Animal Farm" (1945)

There are two main AAA players to have been influenced by Orwell's seminal work, a fairytale parable that's all too clearly based on contemporary cold war events and Stalin's manipulation of communism (which was actually a pretty good idea under Lenin and Trotsky until Uncle Joe got his hands on it...all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others...') The first is The Kinks, with the song 'Animal Farm' ending up on their seminal 1968 album 'The Village Green Preservation Society'. A song about escape in the country, this song doesn't have all that much to do with the novel but is clearly in Ray's mind as he comes in with those grumpy opening words 'The world is big and wild and half insane...' The other AAA album is Pink Floyd's 'Animals', which extends Orwell's metaphor by dividing the world up into 'dogs' (outsiders usually on the run from the law for speaking out), 'pigs' (the ones in charge with their snouts in the trough) and the sheep (everyone else content to live as slaves under the rules of pigs). The parallels between the two works aren't actually as close as some fans make out (there aren't any sheep in Orwell's work - instead that role is taken up by the hard-working horses who give their life to their masters and whose bodies are then sold for glue; two of the three main songs on the album began life as different songs entirely before Roger Waters had the idea of how to link the songs together). Still, you can hear Orwell's influence in almost everything Waters ever wrote - his socialist upbringing meant that Orwell's liberal leanings made him a hero in his household; no doubt his own conscientious objector father, who died at Anzio in 1943 after being forced to fight against his will, would have identified with 'Animal Farm' only too well.

9) Dylan Thomas "Under Milk Wood" (1954)

Ray Davies must have been quite a bookworm in 1968, because here's another song from the same period (which ended up as a B-side to Klassik Kinks single 'Days'). Dylan Thomas' epic work,. which tells the story of a simple mining village in Wales, tries to give equal space to all the characters. Ray, though, is more interested in 'Pollyanna Garter'. Intrigued by how much this slightly wayward youth from the 1950s seems to point the way forward to the 1960s, Ray updates the story to let her 'try and make the swinging city swing' and turns her story into yet another tale of the innocent maiden from the country hoodwinked by the pretty city lights and disreputable characters (this is Ray's favourite theme between 1966 and 1968). Polly ends up back home in the arms of her mother, promising never to stray again - but her eyes have been opened to the world now...

10) Alan Sillitoe "The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner" (1959)

Sillitoe's short story is a prototype for 'Billy Elliott' where a poor working class kid from Nottingham escapes his poverty and his street's predilection for petty crime by running long distances - as much to 'run away' from his problems as anything else. Despite being a fairly later-period Belle and Sebastian song (B-side to their 2001 single 'Jonathan David'), I'm convinced this song dates from Stuart Murdoch's days confined to bed with chronic fatigue syndrome, wishing he could run at all, never mind run away from his problems. The narrator barely mentions running: instead he's more concerned in letting his kind run away with him, 'spending the day in stories and dreaming of the time we are on stage'. Note too that despite the song's title the lyrics refer to himself as a 'middle distance runner' who knows he won't be able to get away with doing this forever.
Well, if you're in love with reading too then you've to the right place - there'll be more eyesight-reducing AAA articles and news, views and music next week!

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