Can you keep a secret? Literature & rock


Listening the other day to Poison Arrow by Sheffield’s ABC, I was suddenly struck by the realisation that Martin Fry was quoting John Keats in the lyrics.  That great poetry should appear amidst great pop may seem improbable to some, but here’s the evidence:

Fry: “The sweetest melody, is an unheard refrain,

So lower your sights, yeah, and raise your aim…”

Keats: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard,

Are sweeter; therefore ye soft pipes, play on…”

Fry’s borrowing from Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn appears to be undeniable.  There’s no shame in it, of course, and it could well be a tribute to the lasting impression made by whatever Martin studied for his O-level English literature.


The intermingling of literature and popular music is a long standing process, with a number of motivations.  Artists may simply wish to pay tribute to admired sources of inspiration; they may indeed love a piece of verse so much that they want to set it to music (for example when West Yorkshire solo artist Merz wrote a track based on Gerard Manley Hopkins ‘Starlight Night’ on his first album, Merz, in 1999).  A final driving force may, perhaps, be simple pretension- a wish to be associated with recognised ‘culture’ and to acquire from that additional kudos and artistic standing.


In these posts I’ve been discussing the music of the 1970s in particular, and I don’t think that it can be denied that this was a decade when pretension was a major factor in many ‘progressive’ musicians’ minds.  I recall an interview on BBC2’s Old Grey Whistle Test when Bob Harris asked (I think) the drummer from Yes what his current influences were- rather than say Cozy Powell or Ian Paice, he instead replied he’d been listening to a lot of Sibelius…  Yes were of course the masters of the epic ‘concept’ album- with the epic gate-fold sleeve too- but they were not alone. Some readers may remember Deep Purple’s 1969 album, Concerto for Group and Orchestra recorded with the London Philharmonic.  In 1978 Jeff Wayne issued his album War of the Worlds based on the H G Wells’ book.  Many of you will certainly be aware of the keyboardist for Yes, Rick Wakeman, who recorded albums including The Myths and Legends of King Arthur, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  Lastly, those rock stalwarts Spinal Tap might also come to mind- their proposed rock opera Saucy Jack based on the life of Jack the Ripper and David St Hubbins’ own plans to record with the Philharmonic…


The rock opera was such a pervading and powerful idea that even schoolboys attempted it.  In previous posts I have described my involvement with my friends in the band Nightmare.  During the summer holidays of 1975 (I think) our O-level English studies had a baneful impact upon us: we set about trying to write a rock opera of our own, based upon our study of Macbeth.  Suffice to say the results were not as happy as Martin Fry’s engagement with John Keats…   (though if you’re really taken with the concept, in Freak or smoothy? I even quote some of the lyrics we composed for our masterwork).  Much as I may repent this offence against good musical taste, I will conclude by confessing that I never quite escaped that urge to plagiarise or steal.  I continued to play guitar when at university (as I describe in my first novel Rewind and edit) and amongst the many songs composed in my tortured youth, there were some based on the words of Samuel Beckett, some minor Elizabethan poets and, yes, Gerard Manley Hopkins.


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