Bible Rock: Ten Pop/Rock Songs with Biblical References


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Bible Rock: Ten Pop/Rock Songs with Biblical References

The Bible is an entrenched part of culture in the western world, and that includes pop and rock music. It's been used by Dylan, Springsteen, Pixies and more


Mark Wallace

on Feb 14, 2011

The Bible has been a source of inspiration for artists and writers for centuries, indeed, millennia, and modern pop and rock music is no different. Bible references are widespread in our music, and found in surprising places, as the following list shows.

Bruce Springsteen – Adam Raised a Cain

“In the Bible Cain killed Abel, and East of Eden he was cast.” Bruce is spot on with his precis of the first murder, by Cain, son of Adam. What this song is really about is the generation gap, and Bruce’s uneasy relationship with his own father. The narrator feels stigmatized by his father’s apparent disappointment in him, as if he bore the biblical “mark of Cain”, as if he was born with some unknown sin: “You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past.”

The “East of Eden” reference also recalls John Steinbeck’s novel of that name, famously filmed with James Dean in 1955.

Bob Dylan – All Along the Watchtower

Lots of Dylan songs have Biblical echoes, and it has been suggested that “All Along the Watchtower”, more famous for the Jimi Hendrix cover, of course, echoes Isaiah 21:5-9, a passage about a watchman meeting with two horsemen, who tell him “Babylon is fallen.” Dylan’s song then becomes a commentary on the decadence of our society and a prediction of its collapse – or maybe not, the lyric is so bare that it can be interpreted any way you like.

The Byrds – Turn! Turn! Turn!

Another sixties classic, this one reproduces almost verbatim a large chunk of the book of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. Written in the 1950s by Pete Seeger, though the only original lyrics was basically the word “Turn” repeated in the refrain.

Pixies – Gouge Away

This track from the classic Doolittle album actually deals with the story of the giant Samson, whose strength resided in his flowing locks, from the book of Judges 13:24-16:30. The title phrase refers to the gouging of Samson’s eyes which was carried out by the Philistines, who captured him after he was betrayed by his wife Delilah, referred to in the song as “Missy Aggravation”; they also chained him to a pillar and mocked him, till Samson called on the Lord to give him the strength to break the pillar and bring the whole place down on himself and his persecutors, and his wish was granted: “I break the walls, and kill us all.”

Violent Femmes – Jesus walking on the Water

Matthew 14:22-33, Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:16-21 are agreed that Jesus did, indeed, walk on the water and 80s alternative rock legends Violent Femmes commemorated this fact on this folkish singalong track from their second album Hallowed Ground. Indeed, it is one of several songs that continue the religious theme expressed in the album title. Lead singer Gordon Gano is a devout Baptist.

Metallica – Creeping Death

This epic of thrash metal has as its narrator the angel of death sent by God to kill the firstborn children in each Egyptian household so that the Jews will be freed, in the second book of the Bible, Exodus 12:12. A live favorite with Metallica fans, particularly for the “Die! Die!” chant in the middle.

Boney M – Rivers of Babylon

At the other end of the scale from Metallica, Boney M had a massive number 1 in 1977 with this song, first recorded by The Melodians 7 years earlier. Its lyric is adapted from the Bible’s Psalm 137, in which the Jewish people exiled in Babylon lament their distance from their homeland.

Leonard Cohen – Story of Isaac

From Cohen’s classic 1969 release Songs from a Room, this song is a parable about the destructiveness of ideology and the madness that lies in the heart of man. The story of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-24) illustrates the perfectly, as it relates how God ordered Abraham to kill his son Isaac, but as Abraham raised his axe to carry out the divinely-ordained deed, God stayed his hand and told him it was a test. Cohen’s point was that religions and ideologies demand such tests all the time (or at least are interpreted as doing so), but they don’t stay the hand at the last moment.

The opening lines of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” also deal with the story of Isaac, though in an apparently jocular manner.

Pixies – Dead

Them pesky little Pixies again, this time with what appears to be an update of the classical Biblical love triangle: Bathsheba is married to Uriah, King David loves Bathsheba, King David sends Uriah off to battle, where he dies, and David marries Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12-13).

However, the Lord is displeased, and causes their firstborn to die as punishment. The Pixies version opens with a reference to “You crazy babe, Bathsheba, I want you” and ends with a refrain of “Uriah hit the crapper, the crapper!” Weird, but in a good way.

But the winner is:

Aphrodite’s Child – 666 [Album]

This is the daddy of them all. Prog-rock Greek style (in English, though), from a band containing Demis Roussos and Vangelis. This 1971 album is enitrely based on the book of The Revelation of St. John. That’s the last book of the Bible, and most of the lyrics here are adapted from that book, which foretells of the end of the world, the final battle of Armageddon, all that Omen stuff.

Copyright Mark Wallace

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