‘Lyrical Ballads’: books and music

“Would put me up on the bookshelf / With the books, and the plants?”

Adam Ant, ‘Desperate But Not Serious’

Books and music are two of my favourite things, but that’s not my whole excuse for writing about them together today. The Adam Ant lines above were the first thing that came into my head when I thought of books and songs which likely says more about the inside of my brain than their connection. Nevertheless, books and music are definitely connected.

The obvious starting point is how they’ve influenced each other. From the most famous songs influenced by books (e.g. Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, the reason many people know the plot, or Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’) to the lyrics and titles that make slightly less obvious connections (I was a proud teenager when I understood the very obvious reference in the title of Green Day’s ‘Who Wrote Holden Caulfield’, only slightly more understandable because I’m not American), there’s plenty of music that mentions or is influenced by books. And the other way round isn’t lacking either, with book titles (Coupland’s Girlfriend In A Coma comes to my mind because I’m a Smiths fan) and endless quotations and epigraphs proving authors often have music on the brain whilst writing.

Next is where my title comes in. Wordsworth and Coleridge’s 1798 book of poetry Lyrical Ballads may not be to everyone’s taste (I say as someone who somewhat agrees with Byron’s use of ‘Turdsworth’), but it’s a pretty obvious reminder of something pointed out to my class at undergrad: poetry and music are connected. Plenty of poems have been turned into music (sticking with the Romantics, Blake’s ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ is perhaps the most famous example, better known as the anthem ‘Jerusalem’). Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, somewhat controversially. It is difficult, especially when being pressed by an Oxford tutor who wants you to admit it could be arbitrary, to explain the difference satisfactorily.

And finally, my real excuse for writing about books and music being connected. I think that they can create the same sense of nostalgia, the same knowledge of where you were when you read/first listened to/reread/listened excessively to them. I can tell you that The Secret History is what I read whilst also trying (and succeeding, I must show off and say) to read Richardson’s 1500 page Clarissa in my second year of undergrad, that The Libertines are the band that means moving to Holloway Road and walking the same locations mentioned in the songs, that I reread Order of the Phoenix on a trampoline whilst waiting for the day of the Half-Blood Prince release. To me, there’s nothing quite like books, songs, or bands for generating memories of a specific time and what I was doing then. And I love them both for it.