‘The Bene Gesserit can kill with their voices. That’s what I try to do’: the musicians mining Dune for tunes

<span>Sing it ... The sandworm in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune.</span><span>Photograph: Universal Pictures/Allstar</span>
Sing it ... The sandworm in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune.Photograph: Universal Pictures/Allstar

Harry Potter might have “wrock” (AKA “wizard rock”), Doctor Who fans “trock” (“Time Lord rock”) and Star Wars “jizz” (don’t ask) but you could argue that few works of sci-fi or fantasy have influenced the history of popular music as much as Dune. Since the novel’s release in 1965, countless huge artists, from Iron Maiden to Grimes, have released songs or entire records inspired by Frank Herbert’s epic tale of war, colonialism and human morality. Although the book is particularly beloved fodder for 70s and 80s prog musicians, its influence has leached into everything from underground pop to Fatboy Slim’s No 2-charting 2001 hit Weapon of Choice, with successive generations finding new ways to reinterpret Herbert’s images of monstrous sandworms, blue-eyed freedom fighters and superhuman nuns through music.

Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris first read Dune when he was in his early teens. Despite thinking “it was a bit odd going for the first 20 pages”, because of Herbert’s unusual terminology, he ended up loving the series and reading a number of its sequels. Over a decade after reading the first novel, Harris incorporated the language of Dune into one of his songs, ending Iron Maiden’s 1983 album Piece of Mind with a churning epic inspired by the series’ messianic protagonist Paul Atreides: “He is the Kwizatz Haderach / He is born of Caladan / And will take the Gom Jabbar.”

“Originally, I just thought Dune would translate into an incredible film,” Harris recalls. “The riffing in the song almost reminds you of the desert or something, and that’s what sparked me thinking it would be about that book.”

To Tame a Land was originally entitled Dune, but the band ran into clearance issues when trying to OK the title with Herbert. “We later realised it was around the time they were making the film,” says Harris. “In retrospect, it would have been a good thing if we had called it Dune – it would have helped people be interested in the original film.”

Harris is referring to David Lynch’s infamous 1984 film adaptation of Dune, a critical and commercial flop that was later disowned by Lynch. The film has since achieved cult status, but its poor reception at the time slapped Herbert’s book with a reputation as an “unfilmable” novel, a legacy that persisted until Denis Villeneuve’s successful 2021 version. That status may be why so many musicians have found the book ripe for reinterpretation: without constraints around visual effects and budgets, they’re free to create a musical landscape that best fits their vision of the book.

Lynch’s adaptation also contributed to the Dunecore canon: its soundtrack was composed, amazingly, by Toto, two years after they hit No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Africa. Their soundtrack for Dune couldn’t be more different from their best known hit: working with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, they created a moody, sweeping sound that was miles (or planets) away from the jaunty schmaltz of Africa or their Grammy-winning Rosanna. When describing his vision to Toto, Lynch played them symphonies by Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. “He’s making the anti-Star Wars movie,” Toto keyboardist David Paich recalled last year. “He wanted me to avoid anything that’s uplifting, that’s happy, that’s joyous, that’s compelling.”

Herbert’s book reinterpreted the tensions of his era: the book’s oppressed, insurgent Fremen tribe were inspired by Algerian FLN fighters pushing back against French colonialism; its discussion of ecology and gender dynamics reflected changing understandings and social norms. The relative seriousness of much Dunecore sets it apart from wrock and trock, novelty genres which tend to unearth the inherent comedy in a lot of sci-fi and fantasy jargon.

Since Harris wrote To Tame a Land, many more metal musicians have found inspiration in Dune, including legendary stoner outfit Sleep with the 2018 song Giza Butler, and Australian trap-metal MC Zheani, who has referenced the book’s Litany Against Fear prayer. The book was equally influential on electronic and prog musicians. Geidi Primes, the debut album by Canadian pop musician Grimes, takes its name from a planet in the novel and other songs refer to characters and locations in the book. Her intention, she told Pitchfork in 2020, was to “make an album that would sound like Dune”, one of her favourite films: “My dream at the time would have been to direct the movie, so I was [like] ‘Oh, I’ll write the soundtrack.’”

You can understand why an artist like Grimes would be so interested in reinterpreting Dune: Herbert’s book is set in a post-technological world, requiring anyone trying to capture its sound to look beyond hackneyed “futuristic” ideas. And for all its seriousness, Dune is also kind of ridiculous – perhaps the only sci-fi property that can cause its fans to gravely discuss the politics of sandworms or superhuman nun cults without a trace of irony. (Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice might be the only Dunecore track that’s totally tipped the source material on its head, reinterpreting the nomadic Fremen tribe’s “sandwalk” and the Bene Gesserit nuns’ power of “the voice” into calls to the dancefloor.)

The book’s knowing grandeur has made bedfellows of prog and sci-fi, says renowned French experimentalist Richard Pinhas, who wrote an entire album based on Dune, the 1978 song cycle Chronolyse. “There is a direct connection between sci-fi, philosophy and an open mind. I was always concerned with the philosophical concept of time, of repetition, of event” – key ideas in Herbert’s work.

Alain Neffe and Nadine Bal, a Belgian husband and wife duo who recorded minimal wave music under the name Bene Gesserit in the 80s, took more literal inspiration from Herbert’s book. The Bene Gesserit can kill by modulating with their voices. “And that’s a bit like what I try to do,” says Bal. “We like science fiction, and I think the way we compose our music, it’s also exploration in fantasy and imaginary worlds, and I often sing in invented languages. We invent – we’re not just telling a little story of ourselves, it’s invention of a different world.”

Bal and Neffe, like all the musicians interviewed for this piece, found David Lynch’s 80s adaptation of Dune underwhelming – and none of them had seen Villeneuve’s recent films. Perhaps unlike blockbuster adaptations, music allows endless opportunity to expand and refract Herbert’s world. “Dune is one of the first books I read from page one to last page in a night,” recalls Bal. “It’s a very realistic world – you can project yourself completely, and it’s … wow.”