Tag Archive: J.R.R. Tolkien


Get In Line

On the other side of the Jesus People rift lived the hippies. While I find a lot of value in their no-judgments attitude and connection to the earth, I’m equally frustrated by their spacey-ness and hypocritical judgment of Christians. But even more than that is their preoccupation with illegal drugs. They could have done so much more good in the world if they weren’t enslaved to substances. It’s tragic and ironic that what they hated the most was people keeping other people down, but they themselves were kept down by their own addictions.

If you went to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, you would probably get stopped at least 4 times by a greasy-haired, dreadlocked, tie-dye tank top-wearing, unkempt beard-sporting lay-about saying, “hey, do you wanna score?” Y’know, smoke a bowl, surf the ganj, get crazy with Mary Jane… marijuana. And if you ask him if you can stay awhile, you will undoubtedly be met with a hearty laugh and an easy “sure, man, come on down!” You’ll lose track of time and your mind from the haze of pot, hashish and opium all around you, right before a policeman comes up to you with a smile as bright as Chernobyl and says “get in line.” He sarcastically mentions tea and crumpets, and says his friends and fellow policemen will drop by and bring their billyclubs. You’re basically screwed.

Tolkien’s Misty Mountains from The Hobbit

Sounds like a song, doesn’t it? The first two verses of “Misty Mountain Hop” relate this story – alright, I added a few embellishments. The third verse gives a rather scathing retort to the drug-addled hippie culture, with an implied “you reap what you sow” vibe. The fourth contains a repudiation of the whole thing, and the narrator says he’s “packing [his] bags for the Misty Mountains, where the spirits go.” There’s even a subtle Tolkien reference in there – beautiful.

We’ve gone from intense rock and roll to Olde English folk balladry to mid-tempo stomp, and now “Four Sticks” brings it to as close to a fever pitch as IV comes. It’s mad and frantic, so frantic that it leaves out a beat for some measures, making it 5/4 instead of 6/4. The drumming nervous and jumpy, a characteristic not typically displayed by John Bonham. He’s normally like a roaring lion, or more accurately a plodding elephant; not in any hurry, but crushing in his inevitability and force.

After that, a quick breath inwards, and a respite from the agitation of “Four Sticks.” “Going to California” is pretty and gentle. This is the first moment where you as the listener are allowed to let down your guard and slow your breathing a little. In the lyrics, the girl with “love in her eyes and flowers in her hair” is in fact Joni Mitchell, a good friend of Robert Plant’s. This song stands in light contrast to “Misty Mountain Hop,” because while that song reprimands the darker side of hippie culture, “Going to California” has sentimental fondness of that lifestyle, the kind of thing that’s born out of distance or separation from it. Maybe the only reason Plant has that for the hippies is because he knows Mitchell. Maybe she represents for him all that is good, beautiful and positive about the Haight-Ashbury thing.

Joni Mitchell

The calm and serenity that “Going to California” lulls you into is completely ruined by John Bonham and his plodding-elephant drumming. As track 7 finishes, track 8 brings the doom of death at the cap. “When the Levee Breaks” takes the pessimism and storminess of blues music and multiplies it by 100, creating something downright dangerous.

The lyrics talk of a city being devastated by a flood, not in the detached storyteller kind of way, but from the point of view of a man on the street. It always makes me think of Hurricane Katrina. The doomy quality of the lyrics bears out in the music, too. The harmonica sounds like it’s underwater, and the slide guitar sounds liquidy and wet. It’s raining, flooding, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Led Zeppelin never made an album as good as IV; how could they? That’s not a judgment on their declining power, but a pronouncement of how mighty and colossal an album IV actually is. Led Zeppelin went on to release 4 studio albums in the next 8 years, and they were all good (In Through the Out Door skirts the border between “good” and “mediocre,” but everyone is allowed an off-day). Those other seven albums cement Led Zeppelin as a significant and permanent presence in the history of rock and roll; IV makes them gods.

Next up: the (constant) evolution of David Bowie.

Formulas

Led Zeppelin III

With I and II, Led Zeppelin were taking a well-established formula (the blues) and transforming it into something new. Songs like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “The Lemon Song” have roots in American blues, but they’re nigh unrecognizable after Led Zep got a hold of them. With III, they started taking a different formula and morphing it, though it’s not as well-established; that formula is Led Zeppelin itself.

It might be the reason III wasn’t well-received when it first came out. They had carved out a niche for themselves with the first 2 albums, but they shifted directions a little too swiftly; there’s less than two years between I and III. Maybe that blues-update thing had gotten boring for them. It must have still held some appeal since there are awesome songs like “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “Hey Hey What Can I Do.” But change was happening, marked by the presence of “Tangerine” and “Gallows Pole” which had a folk and country vibe to them. Led Zeppelin was playing around with the very definition of itself.

Even so, it’s weird to me. I’ve seen other bands do similar things, and much more radical than that. No one was expecting Smashing Pumpkins to follow the gigantic smash hit of Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness with the morose and techno-ish Adore. Bruce Springsteen suddenly changed gears for an album and turned into a mellow singer-songwriter with Nebraska. And I hear Muse is going from Queen impersonators to dubstep. So what’s the big deal?

Detractors of Led Zeppelin’s evolution might have been many for III, but they all changed their tunes when IV hit the streets. Every critic you turned to had nothing but praises for Led Zep after that. All they had to do was not put their name on an album.

I’m just being cynical, a rare thing for me. I think what truly made IV receive critical acclaim is that it was good, really good. In my opinion, there are only 2 albums better than this one. I’ll cover them when I get to them in history.

IV starts out on an intense note with “Black Dog,” a full-on metal stomper. Some of Led Zep’s stuff has deep meanings or esoteric references, but some of it is just “let’s-do-it-in-the-bath” material. The lyrics to “Black Dog” don’t have much behind them other that desperate sexual desire and king-sized libido. The music, however, is incredibly interesting/frustrating. John Paul Jones, who wrote the main riff, wanted something you couldn’t dance to. That’s pretty easy to do, but what’s not easy is not having it be craptastically awful. “Black Dog” has ringing success on both counts. It has an unresolved quality, which always keeps you a little off-balance. I still don’t know what the rhythm is supposed to be. Every time I listen to it I’m aware that I’ve almost got it figured out. I know, I know, something about horseshoes and hand grenades…

“Rock and Roll” continues the force and intensity that “Black Dog” hinted at, but ups it by a factor of 10. And as much as John Paul Jones didn’t want you to be able to groove to “Black Dog,” the groove on “Rock and Roll” is undeniable. Your great-grandmother will be banging her head in her grave, if you play it loud enough. The musical pattern is nothing more complicated or less effective than a simple blues: I-I-IV-I and then V-IV-I-I. Lather, rinse, repeat.

While I think “Rock and Roll” is one of the best songs ever recorded, it really points to the fact that the blues is one of the best musical forms ever created. But more than that, it’s a token of that incredible talent Led Zeppelin had, to take something already existing and reformulate it into a completely new thing. That new thing Led Zeppelin created is something rock bands have consistently been trying to copy since then, and they’ve had little success. Success is not the point, though; it’s pretty fun just trying.

After that, it slows down and takes a turn for the strange and uncharted. I’m not even sure of where to begin with “The Battle of Evermore.” The first adjective that pops to mind is “Beowulfish,” which isn’t even a real word. It calls to mind a land so wild and ancient it doesn’t even seem like Earth.

Besides the Saxon/Celtic vibe, there are several notable firsts documented on “Battle.” It marks the first time Led Zep have had a guest vocalist. This honor belongs to Sandy Denny, singer for the folk outfit Fairport Convention. She got her own symbol on the album, much like the symbols for the other four. It also features Jimmy Page’s first time ever picking up a mandolin. He simply got curious about the mandolin John Paul Jones owned, started messing around with it, and recorded the instrumental track for “Battle” that day. Robert Plant then added his own contributions with the lyrics, which he recorded in two takes.

The lyrics are said to contain at least 4 references to Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, including “Dark Lord” and “Ringwraiths.” It also speaks of Avalon, the Queen of Light (possibly Galadriel) and the Prince of Peace (possibly Aragorn, but more likely Jesus Christ).

Next up: the second side of IV and the descent of Led Zeppelin.

Mystique

Led Zeppelin had mystique. They rarely gave interviews, released no radio singles, and had almost no direct media presence. The way it goes today, famous people need to get out in front of an issue to spin it the way they want it spun, before someone spins it for them. Led Zeppelin didn’t do any of that. People were (and are) fascinated with them because they weren’t told how to think about them. While that allowed people to think about them in whatever way they wanted (as they will anyhow), it also forced them to say that they didn’t really know.

There were stories, though. When concrete information on a band is so scant, the public is bound to fill in the holes themselves. Most often, this will constitute just making stuff up. The stories about Led Zep, true or not, have been around long enough that they’re now legend, like Santa Claus. Some said they were Satanists. Some claim there are hidden back-masked messages in their songs. There is even a hotel tale about an incident in Florida involving a groupie, chocolate syrup, and a giant marlin (hint: they didn’t cook and eat it).

The one I want to focus on is their preoccupation with J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. While this is mostly in their later albums (“Battle of Evermore” is said to have at least 6 references to the book in its lyrics), the only time it’s completely confirmed is in the song “Ramble On” from II.

For the most part, “Ramble On” walks a well-travelled path of a guy who loves his woman but loves the road more. He inevitably leaves one lover for another, reveling in the glory of going from place to place.

Then the third verse. What’s this talk of “the darkest depths of Mordor,” and “Gollum?” It appears that a blues band is combining a very common, people-oriented form of music with scholarly and erudite literature.

You might think it’s not so scholarly; who doesn’t know about Return of the King and the boatload of Oscars it won? But the fact is II was released in 1969, which is 32 years before the Peter Jackson-directed epic movies first started coming out. Led Zeppelin thought it was cool waaaay before everyone and their brother in this generation liked it. We in our American temporality often forget this, but Lord of the Rings was popular long before digital filming even existed. Indeed, they were a hit on first being published. J.R.R. Tolkien, despite that he was a stuffy Oxford professor, was kind of a rock star.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Led Zep’s combining of those two apparent opposites (high literature and fantasy with down-and-out blues music) creates something new. They brought an English sensibility to an American form of music, also creating something new. The presence of Middle-earth language signals that delta blues and Oxford higher learning are opposites only in our own minds, and the rift between them is smaller than imagined.