For Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, I wrote a piece about the band Uriah Heep, the only decent rock band to ever name themselves after a Dickens character. Their first album also referenced the David Copperfield antagonist in its title, Very ‘eavy… Very ‘umble. It was panned in Rolling Stone with the hook “If this group makes it I’ll have to commit suicide.”

Reading up on Uriah Heep, I was reminded that I can’t stand literary elitism in music criticism. In literary criticism, fine. That’s what your English degree is for. But I don’t need to see anyone else fawn over the Decemberists for crooning about Myla Goldberg, and then dismiss Iron Maiden for being pompous. Clearly only the bands that we enjoy can really understand books, right? I’m sure that Colin Meloy is a smart guy and that he appreciates Bee Season. It’s just a matter of taste that I’d rather listen to Bruce Dickinson screaming about the albatross. But whatever your preference is, if you’re looking for a good audio book, it doesn’t get much better than these eleven.

Antrax literary1. Anthrax, “Among the Living” (Stephen King’s The Stand)

Anthrax are responsible for more Stephen King adaptations than Frank Darabont, but they never hit it better than on their tribute to Randall Flagg from The Stand. Anthrax fan Kevin Smith must have noticed the song’s cinematic qualities when he picked it to score the Clerks 2 trailer, one of the best of the past decade.

2. Corrosion of Conformity, “Wiseblood” (Flannery O’Connor’s Wiseblood)

The title track from C.O.C.’s mid-’90s rager took its name from another brutal portrayal of the decrepit American South. Apparently, it left a huge impression on guitarist Pepper Keenan–he later named his daughter Flannery.

3. Iron Maiden, “The Clairvoyant” (Orson Scott Card’s Seventh Son)

Any song from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, a concept album based on Orson Scott Card’s fantasy novel, could have appeared on this list. But the most enduring is deservedly “The Clairvoyant,” driven by one of Steve Harris’ healthiest basslines. I’m thankful that Maiden, or anyone, is more inspired by Card’s books than by his stance on gay rights.

4. Iron Maiden, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

Easily the most faithful of any of these adaptations, Maiden picked out direct quotes from Coleridge and ended up with their longest song to date. We learned more from a 14-minute record than we ever learned in school.

Iron Maiden the Trooper5. Iron Maiden, “The Trooper” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade)

What can I say? Maiden wrote many of the world’s best songs about books. This riveting study of Charge of the Light Brigade kicks just hard enough to edge out “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “Brave New World” and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.”

6. Mastodon, “Blood and Thunder” (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick)

Mastodon’s breakthrough Leviathan tackled one of literature’s indisputable classics in themes, scope and cover art. I couldn’t tell you what “Split your lungs with blood and thunder when you see the white whale” means, but it has me convinced that Troy Sanders is Captain Ahab.

7-8. Metallica, “Call of the Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be” (H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu)

Anyone who mocks Metallica for misspelling the name of H.P. Lovecraft’s most infamous beast obviously hasn’t read the book–the name is not to be said or written out, lest we bring it closer. The band did get brave enough to quote the Necronomicon passage on “The Thing That Should Not Be,” a harrowing tribute to the same creature.

9. Metallica, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls)

By their second album, the world’s most masculine band was already cribbing from the world’s most masculine author. Using basic language and weaving together a series of simple riffs, James Hetfieldway honored both Uncle Ernie’s depiction of the Spanish Civil War and his concise writing style.

Metallica One10. Metallica, “One” (Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun)

Dave Barry once claimed to “play music as well as Metallica writes novels,” and he’s probably right. Still, there’s no disputing the storytelling and mood-setting capabilities behind “One,” a song that took its narration from Trumbo’s wretched hero.

11. Rush, “2112” (Ayn Rand’s Anthem)

Perhaps the greatest stunt that Rush ever pulled off was translating Ayn Rand into something that most headbangers could stomach. The fact that a composition as dizzying as “2112” is based on Anthem is proof that the best music is magic

58 Responses

  1. Randy

    The only thing is, Troy Sanders didn’t sing those lines on Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder”. Neil Fallon of Clutch did.

  2. Markish

    To tame a land by Iron Maiden about Frank Herbert’s Dune. Possibly my favourite Maiden track ever.

  3. bob williamson

    um,no.Anthem was based on rands “Anthem”and to a lesser degree so was “closer to the heart”.2112 was a dream sequence

    • Russ Curtis

      Have you even read Anthem? The electric light becomes the electric guitar. The only differences are Rush kills the hero and Ayn Rand does not, and in the song the bad guys are thrown out but in the book the hero just goes off and starts a new life. Also, the -12 of 2112 is a reference to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. You can hear the muical reference near the end of Rush’s 2112 Overture.

    • Craig

      iced earth Gettysburg’s album was a history lesson in it’s self and subject’s written off for a very long time.F***ing loved that album\,,/

  4. Andy Theke

    My favorite Musik is Iron Maiden and there are so much favorite Songs from them but i think the best one is “Rime of the Anicient Mariner” its like an “Opera” i think. Your Critical its nice to read.
    Andy from Germany \_/ 🙂

  5. Sjoerd Tollenaar

    A beter song by Metallica based on a novel would be ”welcome home sanatorium”. It is direct adaptation of one flew over the cuckoos nest.

  6. Alvina

    I like Alexander the Great. ( iron maiden) Saw the movie. But didn’t read the book

    • josh

      I immediately thought this track as well, but I am not sure if it was based on any specific book so much as the history. But overall, the subject matter is what makes Iron Maiden so great.

  7. Andrew

    Hi Ben, I read your article and I think it’s very interesting in my opinion Maiden is the best band making songs about literature, but you know, this kind of opinions are always based on subjective points of views.
    I would like to share with you a JKDC’s song based on Melville’s book Moby Dick
    I you like I can send to you a copy of the entire album, thanks for your work!

  8. gandulf

    What’s about Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth album?
    Or their masterpiece “Ands then there was silence” about Troy (The Iliad?)

    • Emmi

      Glad I wasn’t the only one who noticed how limited the artist list in this article was.

  9. Rick

    And Then There was Silence by Blind Guardian combines both Homer’s Illiad and Virgil’s Aeneid. It is mythology with a power metal soundtrack and bronze age warfare never sounded better.

  10. Beeks

    Are you forgetting Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” about the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien?

    • deleon

      That’s what I was gonna say…but Gollum the evil one crept up and commented first.

  11. teroras

    Anything off of Bruce Dickinson’s The Chemical Wedding, especially The Book of Thel. An entire album dedicated to William Blake is an awesome thing.

  12. Kraxis

    “The thing that should not be” by Metallica is about “The shadow over innsmouth”, not about “The call of cthulhu “

    • Eric

      Dream Theater’s Pull Me Under on the Images and Words album is based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

  13. Ian

    Wait. Are you calling Clerks 2 one of the best films of the decade, or am I parsing that sentence incorrectly?

    • Craig

      Brilliant tale’s and song’s on that album from many an ancient source \m/

    • Steve

      Yes!!! Saw them do it live in it’s entirety as the encore a few years back. Amazing!

    • Neil

      Beat me to it. Fantastic piece of music.
      “I will right all the wrongs, let the gods sing my song”

  14. Lucas

    Please, what about Judas Priest’s “Electric eye”? Refering to George Orwell’s 1984

  15. daniel

    it would be missing one of the most accurate and beauty addaptations of a poem, which is the sleeper by edgar allan poe, interpreted by the gothic rock band sopor aethernus 😉

  16. Kerphelio

    Allan Parsons Project: Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
    Whole Album about E.A. Poe stories. Hard to beat when it comes to adaptations.

    And while I looove Iron Maiden (lovelovelove) – I don’t like their adaptations very much, because they’re mostly just retelling the stories and that’s kinda cheap. No reflection, no own angle – meh.
    If I want the story I’ll read the book – it’s better written than any re-telling in song can ever be. I prefer it when someone takes a book , mentally works through it and then uses that as the basis for their own perspective on it, or if they look at the story from a specific characters viewpoint. Kinda like Kate Bush did with “The Sensual World” (Based on James Joyce, “Ulysses”)
    But then again, I do love all the Maiden songs mentioned here for their music, just not their approach when it comes to doing songs based on literature.

  17. Melina

    Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson are the reason I have a second major in English lit. Another notable mention is Arcturus with “Alone” (Edgar Allan Poe).

  18. Nivunen

    I think there’s a big difference between songs that actually tell the story quite accurately and songs that are only influenced by some book. Listening to Iron Maiden is like reading a book. I heard that some teacher in some Finnish school used to play Maiden’s tracks on his lessons and raised many new metal heads as a byproduct.

  19. john hammond

    how about The Alan Parsons Project’s “Doctor Tarr and Professor Pheather?

  20. Sam

    I love Maiden and Metallica, but it would have been nice to see a few more bands in this list; I don’t think we needed 3 or 4 each from those two. The biggest oversight on here is Sabbat’s ‘Dreamweaver (Reflections Of Our Yesterdays’ album. Based on Brian Bates’s ‘The Way Of Wyrd,’ ‘Dreamweaver’ was not only a literary adaptation, but also featured possibly the most literary lyrics ever found in thrash metal, courtesy of future Skyclad frontman Martin Walkyier. I daresay they fall somewhere between Shakespeare and Poe in their grandeur.

  21. josh

    Someone needs to write a metal song about the Glanton Gang from Cormac MacCarthy’s Blood Meridian. That would be a bloody awesome song (pun intended).

  22. mike

    the alan parsons project really? did you guys read the article they are not even a metal band

  23. Katherine

    Okay, I like Maiden and Metallica as much as anybody, but is it really necessary to have 3 songs by each of them on a list that’s only 11 songs long? So many great bands have been overlooked. Surprised I didn’t see Symphony X on here. They did an entire album based on Paradise Lost.

  24. Miguel menezes

    I love a song with a good lyric, somehow is adding the pleasure of reading a book with listening a musical composition. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son being one of my first records, introduced me to that sub world of a community of songs and artists that made this care for the word, has a priority or even an identity to their compositions.
    Pink Floyd´s introspectives, Dire Straits americas lonely man blues, Radiohead Surrealism and paranoia, Dylans street wisdom and Leonard Cohen´s poetry, are some of the genius that would´t be, without the word that they write.

  25. max

    Seventh Wonder’s “Great Escape” is my favorite… 31 minutes of fun 🙂

  26. GruntUltra

    Not that there weren’t enough Iron Maiden tracks here, but I’m also partial to their song ‘Stranger In a Strange Land.’

  27. Sam

    Lesser known but I’ll include “The Tell-Tale Heart” by From the Dark.

  28. gern

    I have much less respect for Rush all of a sudden. Too bad Neil Peart is a teabagger.

  29. Kevin

    Don’t know how you classify “heavy metal,” but there are many more choices than this, if you consider “great” or “classic” rock. How about “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” (Homer) by Cream, or “Ramble On” (JRR Tolkein) by Led Zep?

    Definitely agree with gern about Rush.

  30. Tabbycat

    Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” based loosely on Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy.” The wheel being the wheel of fortune.

  31. Marzio

    Porcupine Tree “Fear of a blank planet” is based on Lunar Park.

    Amorphis “Tuonela” is based on Kalevala

    Virgin Steele “The marriage of heaven and hell” is based on Blake’s book

    Ulver re-telled the ENTIRE Blake’s book

  32. grenadeh

    This article really lists 4 more metallica songs than it should, which is 0. So many better choices (pretty much all by maiden) like out of the silent planet, brave new world, children of the damned, childhood’s end, or I would even mention songs like The Swords to take the black. Megadeth – Five Magics better than all 4 of those songs combined. Or the bard’s song by blind guardian, or dante’s inferno by iced earth. Or frankenstein by iced earth.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.