Music Inspired by J. G. Ballard

Photo via Wikipedia

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


If you go by numbers of books, J. G. Ballard takes up more room on my shelves than any other author other than Philip K. Dick, and while I don’t know if that makes him my second favorite writer, I have enjoyed his work my whole life. The British writer died on Sunday, and while his fame was assured by his novels that became movies, Empire of the Sun and Crash, it was his dystopian science fiction work (usually short stories) that I always found most compelling. Their shocking ideas were often powerful precisely because they were aspects of our world taken to their logical—if extreme—conclusions. “The Concentration City,” for instance, imagines an entirely enclosed conurbation so large its residents believe it to be infinite, while “Billenium” looks forward (almost quaintly now) at an overpopulated Earth so crowded with people the protagonists are stunned to discover a single hidden, empty room.

Whether it was his mind-blowing subject matter or edgy style, Ballard’s fiction has always appealed to musicians as well, and his work has served as inspirations for songs, albums and even band names. After the jump, a couple examples and their connections (or lack thereof) to Ballard’s work.

Joy Division – “The Atrocity Exhibition” (1980)

This track from the final album by the bleak UK post-punk band is really more of a riff on the title of Ballard’s well-known novel-slash-collection of experimental stories than it is a specific reference to the story itself. Joy Division singer Ian Curtis imagines a circus freak show displaying murderers and the insane, and he plays the carnival barker: “This is the way, step inside.” Ballard’s work, however, is one of his most obtuse, a fragmented tale of psychosis, media and war. Wikipedia says Curtis only read the novel after “writing a majority of the song,” though, so I guess that makes sense.

 

The Normal – “Warm Leatherette” (1978)

Appropriately enough, this video is a YouTube user’s mashup using scenes from Crash, the movie based on the novel that also inspired this song, nearly 20 years earlier. In the case of The Normal, the singer appears to have actually read the book, and manages to make car crashes seem almost sexy: “Hear the crushing steel / Feel the steering wheel.”

 

The Buggles – “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1979)

Producer Trevor Horn was actually inspired by the Normal to turn to Ballard for subject matter, and found it in “The Sound-Sweep,” a tale of a boy whose job it is to go to old buildings and sweep up old sounds with some sort of specially made vacuum cleaner. Not his best short story, and I’m not sure how you get to a prescient vision of MTV from that, but hey, I’m glad they did.

 

The Klaxons – Myths of the Near Future (2007)

The English band won the Mercury prize for this aggressive album of angular post-punk sounds mixed with rave-style electronic wizardry, and its name comes from the title of a collection of Ballard’s short stories, although they seem to look at it as a more general inspiration, with song titles owing more to Thomas Pynchon. The apocalyptic theme of “Golden Skans” (“You can forget our future plans”) sure sounds Ballardy though.

 

Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)

While there really aren’t any lyrics on Radiohead’s acclaimed internet release that directly reference Ballard, frontman Thom Yorke quoted Ballard’s anti-consumerist Kingdom Come on his blog as a “hint” about the band’s revolutionary “pay what you want” scheme for the album. Kingdom Come‘s imaginings of capitalism’s trappings warping into fascism—shopping center as prison, sports team loyalty as quasi-racist nationalism—seem all too real today.


If you buy a book using the Bookshop link on this page, a small share of the proceeds supports our journalism.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Corporations and billionaires don’t fund journalism like ours that exists to shake things up. Instead, support from readers allows Mother Jones to call it like it is without fear, favor, or false equivalence.

And right now, a longtime friend of Mother Jones has pledged an incredibly generous gift to inspire—and double—giving from online readers. That's huge! Because you can see that our fall fundraising drive is well behind the $325,000 we need to raise. So if you agree that in-depth, fiercely independent journalism matters right now, please support our work and help us raise the money it takes to keep Mother Jones charging hard. Your gift, and all online donations up to $94,000 total, will be matched and go twice as far—but only until the November 9 deadline.

$400,000 to go: Please help us pick up the pace!

payment methods

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Corporations and billionaires don’t fund journalism like ours that exists to shake things up. Instead, support from readers allows Mother Jones to call it like it is without fear, favor, or false equivalence.

And right now, a longtime friend of Mother Jones has pledged an incredibly generous gift to inspire—and double—giving from online readers. That's huge! Because you can see that our fall fundraising drive is well behind the $325,000 we need to raise. So if you agree that in-depth, fiercely independent journalism matters right now, please support our work and help us raise the money it takes to keep Mother Jones charging hard. Your gift, and all online donations up $94,000 total, will be matched and go twice as far—but only until the November 9 deadline.

$400,000 to go: Please help us pick up the pace!

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate