Three great Lyrics based on George Orwell Novels

2019-08-06 Essay


by Alec Plowman

George Orwell is one of the most influential writers of modern literature. In particular, “1984” and “Animal Farm” are regarded as classics, staples of high school reading lists as well as critics’ “best ever” lists.

It’s unsurprising, then, that so many popular songs have been based on George Orwell’s works. You’ll find references to “1984” and “Animal Farm” in many songs across pop and rock.

Today, we’re taking a look at three great examples of George Orwell-inspired lyrics, and what makes them work. As these choices show, there’s a fine art to adapting Orwellian themes into popular music.

David Bowie – “1984”

“I'm looking for a vehicle, I'm looking for a ride
I'm looking for a party, I'm looking for a side
I'm looking for the treason that I knew in '65
Beware the savage jaw
Of 1984”
Bowie was a huge fan of Orwell’s “1984.” So much so, in fact, that he tried to write a musical based on the book. That project ultimately never came to fruition, but many of the “1984”-inspired tracks have circulated on various Bowie albums over the year.

“1984” from “Diamond Dogs” (1974), presumably intended as the overture for the whole project, sets the stage pretty nicely. “Beware the savage jaw of 1984” the recurring line that anchors each verse, is particularly catchy.

But, where Bowie makes this one interesting is in his introduction of (then) modern concepts to the story. “Someday they won't let you, now you must agree, the times they are a-telling, and the changing isn't free,” he opens with in a subversion of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin,’” giving the message a renewed relevance to the hippie generation circa 1974.

Muse – “United States of Eurasia”

Once again taking a cue from “1984,” Muse’s “United States of Eurasia” is the album-closing epic from 2009’s “The Resistance.” But, despite the bombastic music, the lyrics are actually fairly straightforward:

“And these wars, they can't be won
And these wars, they can't be won
And do you want them to go on
And on and on

Why split these states
When there can be only one?
And must we do as we're told?
Must we do as we're told?”
The ongoing “wars” mentioned in the lyrics are a reference to the seemingly eternal conflict between Oceania and either Eurasia and Eastasia from the book. In “1984,” the wars are one of the most insidious examples of state control. While the side that Oceania is facing continually changes, history is repeatedly changed to hide this. “Oceania was always at war with Eastasia and is now allies with Eurasia,” we are told, despite the reader knowing that Oceania was at war with Eurasia the previous day.

Muse’s reference to Eurasia, then, offers a suitably Orwellian commentary on the dangers of false information being considered automatically true. For those reading the lyric sheets that are familiar with the book, it’s a nice reward.

But, Matt Belamy’s lyrics have a broader resonance, even for those who haven’t read Orwell’s text. By keeping things fairly universal and not bogging the listener down in too much detail, he keeps the sentiments of Orwell’s work intact, while allowing the listener some room for their own interpretation.

Pink Floyd – “Dogs”

A reimagining of Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” Pink Floyd’s “Animals” (1977) album was less a metaphor for the evils of Stalinism and more a critique on ‘70s capitalist culture. That critique is perhaps most apparent on “Dogs,” which literalizes the “dog-eat-dog” world of business board rooms by reimagining the office workers as canines:

“You gotta be crazy, you gotta have a real need
You gotta sleep on your toes, and when you're on the street
You gotta be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed
And then moving in silently, down wind and out of sight
You gotta strike when the moment is right without thinking.”
The result is some strikingly effective visuals that result in one of Roger Waters’ most visceral lyrics (“and it's too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around” is one of my particular favourites).

It’s the final verses of the song, though, where the “businessmen as dogs” metaphors really reach their peak:

“Who was born in a house full of pain
Who was trained not to spit in the fan
Who was told what to do by the man
Who was broken by trained personnel

Who was fitted with collar and chain
Who was given a pat on the back
Who was breaking away from the pack
Who was only a stranger at home

Who was ground down in the end
Who was found dead on the phone
Who was dragged down by the stone”
That last image of the dead businessman “dragged down by the stone,” as if an unwanted puppy being drowned in a river, is particularly haunting. It’s ugly, nasty and, well, downright Orwellian.

What are your favourite George Orwell-inspired lyrics?