Pop stars are turning away from rock 'n' roll and towards the classics, finding fresh inspiration in the poets and playwrights of the past. Forget Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Dylan and Hendrix today's rockers are rediscovering a different set of golden oldies like Shakespeare, Yeats and Blake. Elvis Costello is leading the new wave of literary rockers with a set of songs from Twelfth Night, while Johnny Rotten's old sidekick Jah Wobble is bringing William Blake to a new audience.
Across the water, Irish stars including The Cranberries and Van Morrison are paying their own homage to W B Yeats. And in London next Sunday, Damon Albarn of Blur, Ray Davies of The Kinks, Patti Smith and Nick Cave will all be joining a Poetry Olympics Weekend at the Royal Albert Hall.
Elvis Costello has teamed up with classical saxophonist John Harle on a work called Mistress Mine, featuring the Bard's own song lyrics set to music Harle wrote for a 1994 production of Twelfth Night in Nottingham. After a wild instrumental introduction, depicting the storm that led Sebastian and Viola to the mythical island of Elyria, Costello performs "O Mistress Mine," "Come Away, Death" and "When That I Was And A Little Tiny Boy," his voice capturing the intensity and darkness so beloved of the Elizabethan era.
"John approached me when we worked together at the South Bank Meltdown Festival last year. He heard certain possibilities in the sound of my voice, perhaps connecting with words in a more direct way than classical singers can do, and it was a delightful challenge to justify his confidence in me. It was inspiring and exciting to do and I think there is going to be much more of this sort of collaboration, with people composing new musical settings for old words," said Costello, who has also written some songs for mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter.
"The idea of going back to poetry from the past has usually been the province of classical composers and there used to be a heavy price to pay for pop musicians and singers daring to be pretentious, which scared away a lot of sensitive souls."
Yeats is the subject of a separate album this summer, featuring existing recordings of his poetry by Clannad, The Waterboys, Van Morrison, The Cranberries and World Party, as well as some new ones by Christy Moore, Sharon Shannon, Sinead Lohan, Paul Brady — and an old BBC recording of Yeats himself.
A third mixture of music and poetry is due to be released by Jah Wobble, former bass player with Public Image Limited — the band Johnny Rotten formed after the end of The Sex Pistols. While Rotten is going back to his roots by reuniting his old band for a summer of punk revivalism, Wobble is heading in a different direction with an album called The Inspiration of William Blake, reading extracts from Blake's work accompanied by his own musical soundscapes.
"I have a friend who was doing an Open University course on Blake and he gave me a Blake book about four years ago, saying I would really like it — but it was not until a year ago that I began to read it," explained Wobble.
"I didn't know about him: I didn't even know he'd written Jerusalem. When my friend told me that, I just thought of the Tory party using it at their conferences."