There are book geeks and there are music geeks, but because songwriting itself is such a literary endeavor there is also a lot of cross-pollination between these two distinct tribes. Interestingly enough, the biggest geeks are very often the songwriters themselves.
Nerd music as we know it today is the product of mixed parentage. On the one side you have your classic filk circles — fan-made music that celebrates the dork arts. On the other there is heavy metal — music that leveraged outsider angst and nerd-friendly imagery within a more recognizably contemporary context. What we have in the modern era is a delightful hodgepodge of both wherein popular genres are bent to geektastic means. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this occasionally leads to a masterful mash-up of skillful songwriting and a true love of literature.
Rush – “Rivendell” [iTunes | Amazon MP3]
“Sunlight dances through the leaves / Soft winds stir the sighing trees / Lying in the warm grass /
Feel the sun upon your face.”
From seminal hard rockers Led Zeppelin to nerdcore rappers The Lords of the Rhymes, musicians have long responded favorably to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. With music and verse playing a large part in the narrative of the One Ring, it’s not surprising that so many have in turn drawn musical inspiration from that epic tale. Few have done so as beautifully, as delicately, as Canadian prog-rock power trio Rush. From 1975′s Fly By Night, “Rivendell” serves as an early example of the unique brand of lyrical leanings that would lead the band to its eventual nerd-heavy following.
MC Lars – “Ahab” [iTunes | Amazon MP3]
“Call me Ahab – what – monomaniac /Obsessed with success unlike Steve Wozniak.”
Oakland-born MC Lars is a graduate of California’s Stanford University – a fact he’ll certainly never let the listening public forget – and like all good English majors he grew up to be a songwriter. Lars has peppered his musical catalog with references to Poe and Shakespeare, but surely his most literate of tributes centers on Herman Melville’s sea-faring classic.
Tom Lehrer – “Oedipus Rex” [iTunes | Amazon MP3]
“From the Bible to the popular song / There’s one theme that we find right along / Of all ideals they hail as good / The most sublime is motherhood. “
Satirist, mathematician, musician and veritable geek icon Tom Lehrer paved the way for more modern incarnations like “Weird Al” Yankovic by writing music that was genuinely funny and unapologetically smart. Though quaint by today’s standards, performing a song about Oedipus in 1959 could be thought of as bold at the very least and more likely outright subversive. Gaze backward, ye geek musicians of the day, and you will see Tom Lehrer’s smiling, bespectacled face.
Anthrax – “Among the Living” [iTunes | Amazon MP3]
“Disease! Disease! Spreading the disease. / With some help from Captain Trips / he’ll bring the world down to his knees.”
It is a universal truth that nerds love two things – Stephen King and thrash metal. And though I totally just made that up Anthrax indeed represents both in equal measure. This The Stand-inspired track from 1987′s Among the Living was featured alongside slam dance classic “Caught in a Mosh,” the Judge Dredd tribute track “I am the Law” and “A Skeleton in the Closet,” a song inspired by King’s novella Apt Pupil.
Demons & Wizards – “The Gunslinger” [Amazon MP3]
“Song of turtle / And the cry of the bear / Awake / I can sense it / Still I’m afraid.”
Seemingly not to be outdone, power metal supergroup Demons & Wizards – composed of Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kürsch and Iced Earth guitarist Jon Schaffer – took a love of Stephen King to the next logical level. Their sophomore album Touched by the Crimson King was heavily inspired by his Dark Tower series, with “The Gunslinger” focusing on the tale’s protagonist.
BlöödHag – “Anne McCaffrey” [iTunes | Amazon MP3]
“You know you’ve got to / run / to your dragon’s Weyr.”
Calling their style edu-core, Seattle’s BlöödHag combined the musical style of death metal with a love of literature to create a truly original concept. Punishing instrumentals layered with growled vocals containing biographical information about authors and plot points for some of their famed works helped them stand out, even among the nerdy music elite of the Pacific Northwest. Sadly they guys called it quits last year, but their 2006 Alternative Tentacles release Hell Bent for Letters remains a testament to the true strength of literary history.
The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets – “Shoggoths Away” [iTunes | Amazon MP3]
“While on a flight one day I passed over the polar city / And curious zipped down to see what I could glean / Behold the nightmare pit that splashed with piping shapeless monsters / I packed them in the bay of my B-17.”
Limiting themselves almost exclusively to songs written about H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets made a name for themselves the old fashioned way – with a steady stream of quality releases and an over-the-top stage show. Frontman/co-founder Toren Atkinson gains additional nerd cred for continually having his hands in role playing and card gaming culture, and songs like this lyrical take-off of At the Mountains of Madness ensure they remain in a class by themselves.
Harry and the Potters – “Save Ginny Weasley” [iTunes | Amazon MP3]
“Are you scared to walk through the hallways? / Are you worried that the spiders run away?”
In 2002 brothers Paul and Joe DeGeorge unintentionally launched a sub-cultural revolution in the form of Wizard Rock. While songs about the Harry Potter series predate the band itself (the earliest if often attributed to their contemporaries The Switchblade Kittens), Harry and the Potters gave birth to the concept of the Harry-Potter theme band. While still derided in some circles, both Harry and the Potters and Wizard Rock endure, contributing to the shared heritage of the music of fandom as well as the world at large thanks to robust support of progressive social programs.
Iron Maiden – “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” [iTunes | Amazon MP3]
“Hear the rime of the Ancient mariner / See his eyes as he stops one of three / Mesmerises one of the wedding guests / Stay here and listen to the nightmares / of the sea.”
Last year comedian Brendon Small stunned non-geeks the world over by proclaiming “The ultimate trick that musicians played on the world is that they were cool.” Some of us, however, had already figured this out. My realization that rockers were really just dorks with more extravagant wardrobes occurred with the 1984 release of Iron Maiden’s Powerslave. It contained a heavy metal re-imagining of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. From that point on Bruce Dickinson wasn’t foolin’ anybody!
John Anealio – “Rachel Rosen” [iTunes | Amazon MP3]
“My name is Rick Deckard, I’m in my hover car / I’m a bounty hunter for the city.”
Of late my favorite literary tune has come compliments of one of GeekDad’s own. In 2010 John Anealio parlayed his music blog Sci-Fi Songs into an album of the same name, and it boasted 11 tracks of lit rock majesty. The most impressive by far was his musical meditation on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – truly a geek rock anthem for the ages.