J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was once dismissed as the geekiest book series in history. But little did the jocks who picked on kids carrying The Two Towers around their middle school know that many of their favorite bands were total Tolkien nuts. Here’s a pocket guide to the long history of rock music about Middle Earth:
Zeppelin are probably the best known Lord of the Rings heads in rock & roll. The narrator of their 1969 classic “Ramble On” finds himself in a very bizarre version of Middle Earth – a land where Mordor appears to be a great place to meet beautiful women, and Gollum and Sauron are more interested in fighting over the narrator’s girlfriend than getting their hands on the One Ring. Aside from this weirdness, it’s clear that Jimmy Page was a huge Tolkien fan, as the opening lines of “Ramble On” paraphrase a poem that Tolkien wrote in the Elvish tongue of Quenya. Led Zeppelin went on to reference their favorite fantasy series in two songs from 1971: “Misty Mountain Hop” (named for the place where Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf pals spend some time in The Hobbit) and “The Battle of Evermore” (“The ring wraiths ride in black/Ride on!”).
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Right around the time Led Zeppelin were recording “Ramble On,” Black Sabbath were cutting “The Wizard” for their first album. Does this guy sound familiar? “Evil power disappears/Demons worry when the wizard is near/He turns tears into joy/Everyone’s happy when the wizard walks by.” Geezer Butler was reading The Lord of the Rings when he wrote the lyrics, and he based the character of the wizard off of Gandalf.
Rush’s drummer-lyricist Neil Peart has always been a voracious reader. He must have worked his way towards The Lord of the Rings by the mid-1970s, because 1975’s “Rivendell” was named after the great Elven city where Elrond dwelt. The following year, Peart wrote “The Necromancer” – which was Gandalf’s name for Sauron in The Hobbit.
It’s no great surprise that prog bands were way into Lord of the Rings. “Stagnation,” from Genesis’ 1970 LP Trespass, isn’t explicitly about Middle Earth, but many fans have noticed lyrics that seem to evoke Gollum: “Will I wait forever, besides the silent mirror/And fish for bitter minnows amongst the weeds and slimy water.” The song came out within months of “Ramble On” and “The Wizard.” Clearly, 1970 was a good year for LOTR-rock.
Syd Barrett wrote most of Pink Floyd’s early lyrics. Nobody knows exactly what 1967’s “The Gnome” is about, but many fans believe it’s at least partly Lord of the Rings-inspired. The gnome in question wears a scarlet tunic, is named Gimble Gromble and has “a big adventure,” all of which sounds pretty Tolkien-esque to us.
In the past decade, many more people have seen Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies than actually read the books for the first time. That probably explains why Megadeth’s Tolkien-inspired “This Day We Fight!” takes its title from a line in The Return of the King that appeared nowhere in the books.
The Norwegian metal band’s lead singer calls himself Shagrath – a minor variation on the name of a very mean orc from The Lord of the Rings.
The Star Trek star’s 1968 LP Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy reaches peak nerd nirvana with a song called “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” No, your eyes and ears don’t deceive you – that’s Mr. Spock himself retelling the story of The Hobbit to a jaunty folk-rock tune. This one has to be seen to be believed.