Ballard’s death last weekend inspired BBC writer Stephen Dowling to examine the connection between the worlds of music and literature.
Through his books and essays J.G. Ballard was said to have predicted the melting of the polar icecaps, terrorism against tourists and Ronald Reagan’s ascent to the White House.
His science fiction of the almost-normal – based around suburbia and urban hinterlands, fixations on celebrity and car crashes – became best known through the film “Crash,” and the surreal semi-autobiography Empire of the Sun.
But his feverish imagination, stoked by pre-lunch whiskey and sodas in his study, found an unlikely appeal among pop musicians – many of whom liked to invoke a bit of Ballard in their work.
Bands influenced by Ballard include Joy Division (the song “Atrocity Exhibit” is based on a 1970 short-story collection about a psychotic doctor’s warped take on reality), Klaxons (the band’s album Myths of the Near Future is named after a 1982 short-collection of the same name), Radiohead (OK Computer contains two songs influenced by Ballard’s view of the world: “Opener Airbag” and “Lucky”), Hawkwind (the group said its song “High Rise” was inspired by the author’s 1975 novel), Manic Street Preachers (the track “Mausoleum” features a sample of Ballard talking about his book Crash), Gary Numan (“Down in the Park” relates a tale of “fear and fetishism of technology that was a Ballard staple”) and Suede (the cover of the 1997 B-sides collection Sci-Fi Lullabies features a trashed airplane, an image that frequently cropped up in Ballard’s work, and the band’s lyrics “often touched on a Ballardian conceit of urban life, rich with allusions to concrete, traffic and ennui”).
Oh and let’s not forget The Buggles:
Producer Trevor Horn’s 1979 single “Video Killed the Radio Star” ushered in the MTV age – it was the first song played on MTV when it launched in 1981. Horn admits the song – about a radio star whose career is cut short by TV – is based on a Ballard short story “The Sound Sweep,” in which a mute boy obsessed with collecting music discovers an opera singer hiding in a sewer. It taps into Ballard’s interest in the hold of mass media on people’s lives, especially the influence of television, beamed into the same suburban homes that used to listen in their millions to the radio.
“… a mute boy obsessed with collecting music discovers an opera singer hiding in a sewer.” Yeah, um, I totally got that from listening to the song.
Seeing the strong connection between Ballard and pop music got me thinking about other authors who’ve left a big mark on the music world. A quick poll of some people in the office came up with names like J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King and Charles Bukowski. But a clear winner quickly emerged: William S. Burroughs.
Burroughs’ work was the inspiration for the names of several bands – including Steely Dan, Soft Machine, The Mugwumps and Clem Snide – and he’s been cited as an influence by a diverse group of artists like Roger Waters, Patti Smith, Ian Curtis, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and Duran Duran (whose 1984 song and video “The Wild Boys” is based on Burroughs’ 1971 novel).
Before everyone starts howling about authors I’ve left out, let me say I’m certain there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of other bands and songs with connections to the literary world. So if you know of some interesting ones, let’s hear about them.
Read Stephen Dowling’s complete piece on J.G. Ballard’s influence here.