Tag Archive: Lord of the Rings


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.

Tony Iommi

Black Sabbath didn’t sound like any other band, and they carved out for themselves a niche that was original and foundational. They had a deep, bottom-heavy tone, reaching low notes that other bands simply didn’t reach. Led Zeppelin, who were almost as heavy, had a similar musical method, and both bands are considered ancestors of heavy metal. But in addition to Led Zep being more blues-influenced, they also had a more standard range of musical notes. Black Sabbath, however, made music that came from a deeper place in your gut. That lent itself very well to their more apocalyptic and pessimistic lyrical approach.

But really, the origin of their unique sound is pretty simple and unexciting. Tony Iommi worked at a sheet metal factory when he was 17 to help his destitute family with money. On his last day, an accident with a machine cost him the tips of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. He had been playing guitar for a while, and considering he played left-handed, the accident could have ended his guitar days for good. Instead, he used lighter strings and tuned his guitar way down to C# from the normal E to ease the tension on his fingers. Geezer also tuned his bass to C# in order to match Tony, and Black Sabbath’s sludgy, bottom-heavy sound was born.

“you shall not pass!!!”

Black Sabbath bears more than just a passing resemblance to Led Zeppelin; they too have a fascination with Lord of the Rings. “The Wizard” was inspired by the character of Gandalf, a charismatic wizard, mentor to Frodo Baggins, and de facto leader of the Fellowship of the Ring. The song also has application to the band’s drug dealer at the time, according to Geezer.

Here’s my own interpretation. The second verse goes like this: “Evil power disappears / Demons worry when the wizard is near / He turns tears into joy / Everyone’s happy when the wizard walks by.” Maybe it’s just because I grew up knowing Jesus like a member of my family, but “the wizard” in these lyrics sound an awful lot like the Son of God to me. “Everyone’s happy” indicates this was in the first part of Jesus’ ministry when people were glad to see him coming, before the Powers That Be decided he was big trouble. As far as I know, the only “demon” Gandalf ever made “worry” was the Balrog. He did more than make it worry, though; he smacked the crap out of it. However, Jesus was casting out demons all over the four Gospels, most notably the “Herd of Swine” incident as recorded in the book of Matthew. But again, it’s just my own interpretation.

“Behind the Wall of Sleep” features several time signature changes, which makes me grumble a little bit. Even so, it’s a pretty groovy song. It draws inspiration from the H.P. Lovecraft short story Beyond the Wall of Sleep, but the story has only tangential relation to the actual lyrics. They speak of a greater awareness lying behind the “wall of sleep,” one a person can access one they “take [their] body to a corpse,” which I can only assume means to shuffle off this mortal coil.

“Evil Woman,” while fitting right in with Black Sabbath’s motif of darkness and dismay, is not their song. It’s a cover of a song by Crow (if you’ve heard of them, you deserve a medal). Lyrics like “I see the look of evil in your eyes” plays right into Black Sabbath’s wheelhouse. I’ve never heard the original, but I have a hard time imagining it to sound very different from the BS version. Unless you looked into it, you probably wouldn’t even know it’s a cover, so seamless is the integration into BS’s oeuvre.

Finishing off Black Sabbath, we have the schizoid “Sleeping Village” and “Warning.” I talk about them together because they’re very much a medley, despite their separation on the track listing (though not on all editions – more on that later). I confess I haven’t been watching my iTunes like a hawk when listening to this album – I know, I know, forty lashes – so I haven’t seen when track 6 ends and track 7 begins. Nevertheless, the two songs together total up to about 14 minutes, a lot of which is just Tony Iommi improvising to fill studio time. “Warning” is another cover, this one from the Ansley Dunbar Revolution. Again, you can’t actually tell it’s not a Black Sabbath original.

Ozzy Osbourne

Black Sabbath was released when difference between American and British editions was a thing of the (recent) past, but somehow this one slipped through. Perhaps it’s because no one expected the album to make as big splash, even in Britain. Thus, there are several different editions of Black Sabbath with different track orders, and even an extra song. “Wicked World” is an interesting slice of sludgy blues, delivered with what is now Ozzy Osbourne’s trademark sneer. It’s exclusion from the original British release doesn’t really make sense to me. It’s a good song, it fits in with the scope of the album as a whole, and it makes it a little longer without it being filler.

This entire album was produced in just a few days: two for recording, one for mastering, one for mixing. This makes perfect sense, considering the album’s bluesy, thrown-together feel, but it’s still kind of amazing. Tony Iommi actually said he thought two days was a little long to record. In less than 20 years, artists would routinely be spending multiple years on albums, crafting and honing everything in a meticulous and perfectionist way. Producers would insist on take after take after take until the musicians were on the brink of madness. Black Sabbath, however, would play a song a few times through and then say, “yeah, that sounds good.” Some of those perfectionists could learn a thing or two from early BS, not the least of which is when to say, “yeah, that sounds good.”

On Monday: “What the bloody hell is that noise?” “I think it’s the Beatles.”

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.