Thursday, 10 July 2014

My Top Ten Songs About British & Irish Writers

After last week's Top Ten Songs About American Writers, I thought a list devoted to British wordsmiths would be easy. After all, we invented English Literature... surely Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer and Roger Hargreaves must have been name-checked by songwriters aplenty? And if Prince and Ryan Adams can write dirty love songs for Dorothy Parker and Sylvia Plath, surely Tom Jones must have, at some point, fancied getting into Elizabeth Barrett Browning's knickers?

However, while there are plenty of songs inspired by the works of British writers (from Wuthering Heights to all those Rush songs about Middle Earth), it proved much trickier to come up with songs dedicated to the authors themselves. In the end, I had to cheat and include Irish writers as well... for two good reasons. Firstly, the chances of me coming up with a separate Songs About Irish Writers Top Ten were slim to non-existent... and secondly, how could I leave out Oscar? Apologies to any Irish readers who object to being lumped in with us Brits... but you guys helped me out of a hole here.

Special mention to The Jane Austen Argument.

10. Manic Street Preachers - Jackie Collins Existential Question Time

After beginning my American list with Danielle Steele, it seemed only fair to open this time with her British equivalent. That is, until Radiohead record a song about Jilly Cooper. Go on, Thom, you know you want to...
Oh, mummy, what's a sex pistol?

9. Jefferson Airplane - ReJoyce

Grace Slick has a good stab at echoing Joyce's evocative, occasionally nonsensical lyricism...
Molly's gone to blazes,
Boylan's crotch amazes
any woman whose husband sleeps with his head
all buried down at the foot of his bed.

Sadly, Ode To Joyce by Half Man Half Biscuit isn't about James.

8. Murder By Death - I’m Afraid Of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf

MBD are one of those frustrating bands whose songs never sound as good as their promising titles. This comes from an album called Like The Exorcist But More Beakdancing which also includes tracks called Flamenco's Fuckin' Easy, Intergalactic Menopause and Holy Lord, Shawshank Redemption Is Such A Good Movie... none of which quite live up to their potential.

Still, I always thought To The Lighthouse was overrated too.

7. Company of Thieves - Oscar Wilde

I'm sure Oscar would appreciate a band singing about "making this world our hell" in his name.

See also Oscar Wilde Gets Out by Elton John. Although Oscar might think that one a little... ordinary. 

6. Patti Smith - My Blakean Year

Patti Smith marries heaven and hell with her tribute to the famous poet and painter.

5. John Cale - Graham Greene

John Cale shares an Earl Grey with the author of Brighton Rock in this bizarre indictment of the English class system.

4. Warren Zevon -  Lord Byron's Luggage

One more reason Warren Zevon deserves a posthumous sainthood (if that's not tautology).
Lord Byron had a lot of luggage
He took it when he travelled far and wide
He didn't get to bathe very often
But he liked to change his clothes all the time

And if that's not good enough for you, check out the bit where he rhymes Henley Regatta with persona non grata. Byron would blush.

3. Burt Bacharach featuring Rufus Wainwright - Go Ask Shakespeare

You'd think a lyrical philosopher as smart as Burt would have the answers to the woes of the world, yet here he confesses that while ignorance may be the curse of God and knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven... his own words fly up but his thoughts remain below. To paraphrase his muse...
I keep hoping for a better day
It's a long time coming, but I wait anyway
Life's a miracle or a foolish tale
I don't know, go ask Shakespeare

See also... Shakespeare's Got A Gun by Dan Bern in which the Bard gets bent out of shape that a monkey just outside Pittsburgh finally typed out Hamlet... and goes after it with an uzi.

2. Dexys Midnight Runners - Dance Stance (Burn It Down)

Dexys' 1980 debut single was a fiery statement of intent that name-checks a litany of famous Irish writers in its defiant and rebellious lyrics. But it's got a great Northern Soul beat...
Never heard about, won't think about...
Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan,
Sean O'Casey, George Bernard Shaw.
Samuel Beckett, Eugene O'Neill, Edna O'Brien and Lawrence Stern.
Sean Kavanaugh and Sean McCann,
Benedict Keilly, Jimmy Hiney
Frank O'Connor and Catherine Rhine.

1. The Smiths - Cemetry Gates

No, Morrissey can't spell cemetery... but that's (one of) the point(s). Mozzer's famous ode to plagiarism has Keats and Yeats on your side, but Wilde - of course - on his. T.S. Eliot apparently said "Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal." (echoing Picasso's "Good artists copy. Great artists steal.") and in his early lyrics, Morrissey stole lines from the likes of Shelagh Delaney, Elizabeth Smart, Noël Coward and even Jeffrey Archer (“I was only joking when I should be bludgeoned in your bed.” comes directly from Archer's novel First Among Equals). He even lifted a good chunk of the lyrics for this song from the movie The Man Who Came To Dinner.

Apologies to those of you who were expecting another Smiths song, Shakespeare's Sister, to make the top slot... but I gave that a Number One already.

Finally, I can't let this one go without playing you this excellent tribute to Charles Dickens from "The Smiths"... courtesy of the BBC's Horrible Histories programme. Almost makes me want to give Dickens another go...

Which one passes muster with the Booker jury?


  1. Ozzie Osbourne - "Mr Crowley".

    1. A commendably devilish response.

  2. I was going to mention the Dexys one, so I'm glad that you got it. I'm sure that Brendan Behan gets a namecheck in one of the songs on 'Don't Stand Me Down' as well, but I could be mistaken.

    1. Not sure, off the top of my head, but he does crop up in Stream of Whiskey by The Pogues.

  3. An untouchable number one there, good call. As well as mentioned Shakespeare's Sister, surely a nod is also required for Oscillate Wildly, if only for the punning name.

    Always a pleasure to watch the Horrible Histories clip too. Wackford Squeers indeed...

    1. True, I'd forgotten Oscillate Wildly!

      I actually only discovered that Horrible Histories clip this week... now I can't stop watching it!

    2. Not only is it funny and a brilliant pastiche, it's also very catchy. After reading your blog post, I spent most of the rest of the day humming it, rather than any of the entires in your Top Ten!

  4. that is a great number one - and this is a big call - but I think its my favourite Smiths song (of course my Smiths repotoire is only one album deep - but its a big call when said album has that classic song about double decker buses, flatulent pains in ass, and some girls that are bigger than other girls mothers...hehehe)

    Also love the John Cale number, don't know the others on the list though.

    And my brain has been too music in Aussie literature land - check my blog, I have responded to your challenge. So I will try and slip into a Northern Hemisphere approach and get back to you with any other suggestions.

    1. I'll get you to broaden that Smiths repertoire sooner or later, Deano!

  5. so the song lyric that I keep hearing in my head is "She was born in November 1963
    The day Aldous Huxley died" from Sheryl Crow's Run Baby Run. Not really about Huxley, its more some incidental trivia, but I can't get it out of my head after thinking about your list.

    1. I knew Huxley must have been mentioned somewhere... and this is Crow being ironic, if I recall my trivia correctly. Huxley died November 22nd, but his death was hardly even commented on because of the JFK assassination on the same day. CS Lewis also died that day.

      A similar fate befell poor Farrah Fawcett who left this world on the same day as Michael Jackson.

      Here endeth my pub quiz / Trivial Pursuit knowledge for this week.


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