Rock music has always been inspired by literature – not really for any deep, intellectual reason but mainly, I suspect, because some books and writers just sound cool. Or, to be more charitable, band names are thought of at the beginning of careers, possibly when the musicians were students; poor, hungry, reading Kafka in a squat (Josef K got their name from the protagonist in The Trial).
The band Soft Machine got their name from the book by William Burroughs. Steely Dan is a, er, talking dildo from Burroughs' The Naked Lunch. The Soft Boys, a post-punk band from Cambridge, combined two of Burroughs' books, Soft Machine and Wild Boys, to get their name. Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of Burroughs, resulting in him contributing guitar to a spoken word recording of Burroughs. Countless bands, from The Rolling Stones and Bowie to Cabaret Voltaire, have been influenced by Burroughs' cut-up technique.
The sublime In The Aeroplane over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel was supposedly inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank. The Boo Radley's got their name from a character in To Kill A Mocking Bird. The Klaxon's song Gravity's Rainbow is the title of the almost-unreadable book by Thomas Pynchon, and their album Myths of the Near Future is from a JD Ballard short story. Steppenwolf is from the book by Herman Hesse. Autobiography of a Supertramp by RE Davies gave Supertramp their name. Uriah Heep comes from a character in David Copperfield. Genesis is from The Bible. Heaven 17 are a fictitious band mentioned in Kubrick's adaption of A Clockwork Orange. Scritti Politti is the title of a book by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Savage Garden is an Ann Rice novel. The Fall were inspired by an Albert Camus novel of the same name, and Killing an Arab, The Cure song, also comes from Camus. A gang in Woody Guthrie's autobiography Bound for Glory gave The Boomtown Rats their name. Kate Bush wrote her song Wuthering Heights aged fourteen, obviously about the Brontë classic, but also: The Sensual World was inspired by Ulysses and Cloudbusting was based on A Book Of Dreams, by Peter Reich about his father, the psychologist Wilhelm Reich.
An early band of Nick Cave's, The Birthday Party is from the play by Harold Pinter (and I'm sure I've heard Nick Cave occasionally mention Charles Bukowski in his songs, as well as employing his writing style in his novels; he also references Milton, apparently. And The Lyre of Orpheus is a novel, as well as a myth). The Doors named themselves after a William Blake line. Marillion was inspired by Tolkien's Silmarillion. Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan, perhaps after the poet Dylan Thomas. Aerosmith might have come from Arrowsmith, a 1925 book by Sinclair Lewis. Level 42 is from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (as the answer to life, the universe and everything). From a sado-masochistic novel, The House of Dolls by Karol Cetinsky comes Joy Division, the division of Jewish women forced into prostitution by Nazis in concentration camps. Joy Division's song Atrocity Exhibition is from the JD Ballard book. Bruce Springsteen's underrated The Ghost of Tom Joad was inspired by the main character in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (though I think Sprinsteen's only seen the John Ford film).
The Velvet Underground was a book about the secret sexual subculture of the early 60s; a band in New York liked the name and used it to name their band; it reminded them of 'underground cinema'. Lou Reed had by this time already written the song Venus in Furs, itself inspired by the book of masochism by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. More recently Lou recorded The Raven, based on the Poe poem.
The Thompson Twins, The Mekons, The Teardrop Explodes and Suicide all got their names from comics– respectively: Tintin, Dan Dare, a panel from a Daredevil comic and the title of a Ghost Rider comic. Twee bookish band Belle and Sebastian got their name from a French book for children. I'm sure they've written several songs about books. But are they the only band to have had a collection of comic strips based on their songs?
Previously on Barnflakes:
Band names from other bands' songs