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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


I would rather avoid courting any early controversy and so am excluding The Bible or any other spiritual text from this next Muso Musing but I was thinking about the occasions when artists took their inspiration from literature. "Wuthering Heights" by Kate Bush and "Romeo And Juliet" by Dire Straits are fairly obvious and Duran Duran's "The Wild Boys" and "Union Of The Snake" came from their love of William Burroughs, of course.

However, I doubt that any book has had more influence on the vagaries of rock composition than "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland" and its sequel "Through The Looking Glass". Considering it was originally published in 1865, this seems a remarkable achievement when it serves as the basis for songs by artists as varied as Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson even now.

Of course, the obvious starting point for this discussion is probably the appropriation of so much of these book's imagery into the world of drug-taking. Hookah-smoking caterpillars, rabbit holes, magic mushrooms and grinning cats seemed to really find a whole new audience with the liberated generation of the late 60s.

And where better to start than Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit".

The "Alice" references are littered throughout the record and by the time you reach the exhortation to "Feed Your Head" you are left in no doubt what the band were recommending you to do.

The record was released at the height of the Summer Of Love in 1967 and featured on the band's "Surrealistic Pillow" (right on, man) LP. It was written by their lead vocalist, Grace Slick who had recently joined the band and this together with their other big single "Somebody To Love" (also written by Slick and featured on the album) are to my mind the only pieces you will ever need from Jefferson Airplane but they are two singles that alone have carried them to rock and roll immortality.

"White Rabbit" is a real crescendo of a record and Slick herself said that it was influenced not just by "Alice' lyrically but musically by Ravel's "Bolero" - imagine Torvill & Dean taking this on instead...

Regardless it is still one of the best examples of the psychedelic sound you'll ever hear.

Whilst "White Rabbit" is obviously utilising the imagery of the book as a proxy for the experience of drug taking, they were not alone as Aerosmith's "Sunshine" also talked about eating mushrooms, while borrowing "Alice" imagery throughout the lyrics.

This record was released in 2001 for their "Just Push Play" album and they made no attempt to hide their inspiration - rabbits, caterpillars, red queens all turn up. They also introduced the Hatter into the narrative and perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the role Steven Tyler saw for himself in the accompanying promo.

Sunshine itself, is street slang LSD - don't ask me how I know but it leads to another of the most famous references of "Alice" in "I Am The Walrus" by the Beatles. This was released at the height of their psychedelic experimental phase which culminated in the film and Double EP for "Magical Mystery Tour" and is undoubtedly one of their most complex and interesting songs and productions. Jeff Lynne would certainly agree.

Put simply, there's just so much going on and it's probably my favourite Lennon song.

He wrote it after a couple of acid trips unsurprisingly and based it loosely on "The Walrus & The Carpenter" interlude from "Through The Looking Glass" - Donovan, another legendary "experimentalist", would later set it to music in the early 70s. Lennon would later be upset that he hadn't paid more attention to the original as The Walrus is the symbol of capitalist tyranny and this was not the character with which "man of the people" Lennon would like to be associated.

To this day, Eric Burdon of The Animals claims to have been the Eggman as he and Lennon used to bump into each other in various London nightspots and this became his nickname.

It was essentially made up of three songs welded together - a regular Beatles habit at the time - the first and opening section, written to mimic the monotonous rhythm of police sirens. The second was a little piece about sitting in his Weybridge garden and the third an odd dream-like segment about "Sitting on a cornflake". Added to this was the recollection of an old childhood rhyme about "yellow matter custard...". However, welding it all together is an astonishing experiment in sound, as everything from the crescendo of strings, to the backing vocal talents of assorted Moody Blues and the Mike Sammes Singers along with the recorded clips from Shakespeare's King Lear create one of the most magically elusive recordings of all time.

No wonder it is still the only song to be present in the same version on #1 and #2 UK charting record simultaneously - as the B-side to "Hello Goodbye" and on the "Magical Mystery Tour" EP. That should win you admiring glances at your next pub quiz.

When they recorded it towards the end of 1967, Lennon had hoped to confound his admirers who were starting to analyse his work for deeper subtexts as an intellectual pursuit. He may have thought that the supposed nonsense of "I Am The Walrus" would stop them but it has seemed to encourage them all the more - not least as one of the main exhibits in the "Paul Is Dead" evidence dossier.


Because it is brilliant.

The truth though is that despite the references that we view from over a century later, the story of "Alice" was much more innocent and was a tale concocted by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) to entertain three young girls, the Liddell Sisters as they rowed up the River Isis on one "Golden Afternoon" in 1862. So much did the middle girl, ten year old Alice enjoy the tale that she persuaded Dodgson to write it down which he then did together with his own illustrations - I have seen the original manuscript in the British Library.

There are those who believe the book was intended to be an attack on New Mathematics - Carroll was a Mathematician at Oxford - which seems unlikely but a secret paean to drug-taking it certainly isn't.

That said, legendary rehab-attendee, Stevie Nicks would release a whole album - 1989's "The Other Side Of The Mirror" - loosely dedicated to elements of the story including a great song just called "Alice". The record is infused with the influence of the book and the major hit "Rooms On Fire" which was written about the feeling of falling in love (maybe with Joe Walsh as the intended recipient) may not have borrowed directly but it definitely feels like it comes from Carroll's mindset.

I think Alice is a character with whom Stevie Nicks can undoubtedly associate. She is fearless, brave and brooks no nonsense - and yet inhabits a mysterious stylised otherworld. Interestingly, when Disney made the animated version in 1951, it was the first film they had made where the female lead had no romantic interest. Alice was an independent character making her way through a topsy-turvy world. No wonder she appeals still - not just to Stevie Nicks - as a personality for our times.

Of course, some musical links are tenuous. It is unlikely that "The Queen Of Hearts" by Dave Edmunds (and more tepidly by Juice Newton) The Cure's "The Caterpillar" borrowed too much from the world of "Alice" whereas Elton John's "Mad Hatters And Mona Lisas" and The Cure's "The Caterpillar" undoubtedly have a more than cursory nod. But Nobel Prize Winner, Bob Dylan knows his literature and he took the whole intention of the characters "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum", the two identical twins who seem to violently agree on everything, and created a sharp and angular racing blues rock number as the opener for the magnificent "Love And Theft" in 2001.

It is real old style Dylan satirical protest as he uses his knowledge of the two characters seemingly to represent either the leaders of East and West or even different religious heads. I promise you - if you thought the "I Am The Walrus" analysis was tricky - I have struggled through some of the multifarious Dylan interpretation sites and the answers are varied, deep and quite confusing regarding "Tweedle Dum And Tweedle Dee" but for me it seems to fit his world view of conflicting concepts really being in pursuit of the same goal. It appears to come from the experience of his own chequered spiritual history.

Ignore the poor quality of the video but it is still a fantastic set opener that really kicked off the new direction Dylan seemed to take in his late career renaissance. That rumbling railroad blues is quite something with its scything riffs and relentless push.

There are many many other examples of the world of "Alice" turning up across the canon of pop history - crikey there was even a band called the Mock Turtles - but perhaps the most interesting recent example is the "Almost Alice" album which was released with a series of songs from a variety of artists inspired by Tim Burton's "Alice In Wonderland" movie.

The most interesting tracks here are "You Are Old Father William" by They Might Be Giants and especially Franz Ferdinand's amazing "Lobster Quadrille". Both are direct musical interpretations of poems that appeared in the book and for Alex Kapranos voice, Carroll's words seemed absolutely tailor-made

Again, for a work of such enduring influence, this not only stands up remarkably well but manages to create an entirely contemporary presentation that sounds tight, relevant and mysterious.

Lewis Carroll only ever intended his story to amuse the Liddell sisters and yet it seems to have found a way to appeal repeatedly to oncoming generations of pop artists. His works have provided more than ample servings of mystery, colour and humour to remain relevant throughout the decades.

The story's intent was only ever wholesome but its output has somehow always seen it moved beyond music's customary limits and into much darker zones. Whichever shade it takes, the magic still lingers.

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Sep 16, 2020

Fantastic trip through the looking glass. As you say Tony, it's hard to think of a more influential story in pop. The inevitable wikipedia page could clearly do with an update:


Sep 13, 2020

Marvellous. But I do fear for the child in the Stevie Nicks video.


Sep 13, 2020

Lovely stuff all round, Tony. Walrus is a masterpiece. That Dylan clip is splendid. And as for Grace Slick... Wow! What a voice! Wow! What an everything! When she turned up on their doorstep with that voice, those looks and having written those amazing songs, who was going to say no to her joining? (Love how she's trying to keep a stern face but failing.) Will post an addition on your FB page x

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