Tolkien Influenced Rock More Than The Velvet Underground Did

Tolkien Influenced Rock More Than The Velvet Underground Did

The whole idiom of rock would have been different if not for the influx of fantasy themes and imagery made possible by J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal publishing event.
Matthew Walther
By

What would post-1965 rock have been like if the authorized second edition of “The Lord of the Rings” had never been released in paperback? Sure, there’s the obvious stuff that would otherwise have been unlikely, if not impossible, like “Ramble On”—what, I wonder, does Gollum want with the “girl so fair”? Has she got the Ring?—and “Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Battle of Evermore” and so on.

Black Sabbath had a Tolkien phase, and so did Rush. Call me crazy, but I’ve always caught faint whiffs of Bilbo’s walking song and Gandalf’s journey on horseback with Pippin in The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” (“And the rooooooad goes on forever”). Tom Bombadil and Galadriel are all over the place in the Grateful Dead.

This is to say nothing of the general medievalizing interest you find in everything from The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention to Sagittarius, King Crimson, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull, Rainbow, and the first two Pink Floyd records. You also find it in the hundreds of album covers in the ’70s arbitrarily decorated with images of wizards or warriors, all of which people with a more generous view of human nature than your correspondent might attribute to a private study of Anglo-Saxon grammar or English ecclesiastical history rather than to reading a bunch of kids’ books. (For hilarious examples of the arbitrary cover thing, see Mountain’s “Climbing!” or any Molly Hatchet album—seriously, what says fast-and-loose boogie-down Southern rock like a Ringwraith wearing plate mail?)

My point is that the whole idiom of rock would have been different if not for the influx of fantasy themes and imagery made possible by this seminal publishing event. No one except for Phil Spector or The Beatles or Bob Dylan—not Hendrix, not Brian Wilson, not even The Velvet Underground—had more influence on the direction of this art form than a pipe-smoking reactionary Catholic Oxford don who survived the Battle of the Somme and whose main hobbies included Welsh grammar.

Try Gandalf, For Example

I should take this opportunity while I still have my non-nerd cred intact to say that, no, I am not a great fan of “The Lord of the Rings”—the best work Tolkien ever did was in textual criticism; his letters are also amusing, as are his opinions on the Mass of Pope Paul VI. Anyway, you don’t have to be an expert on High Elvish nouns of the fourth declension to see the cultural shift I’m pointing out. In some cases, you don’t even have to know anything except that there is a guy called Gandalf in those books.

You see, in 1968, at the height of all this—when people were spray-painting “FRODO LIVES!” on the subway in New York—an American band called, err, Gandalf released its self-titled debut album. If you’ve spent time any time crate-digging, you might even have seen the cover—I distinctly remember staring at it in the dollar bin at New Moon Records in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, circa 2005: that bizarre, yellow-eyed figure with flowers instead of hair and butterflies coming out of his (?) ears. What you probably haven’t done is listened to it and realized that it is one of the best baroque pop albums of all time.

I’m not even joking. If you’re big on “Odessey and Oracle” and “Smiley Smile,” you’ll love “Gandalf.” It’s a consummate track-for-track masterpiece. “Golden Earrings” is an eerie occult ballad about magical jewelry that sounds like “Nights in White Satin” performed by The 13th Floor Elevators. “Hang on to a Dream” is a kind of brooding answer-song to The Left Banke’s immortal “Walk Away Renee” with just a hint of The Turtles in the chorus. “Scarlet Ribbons” is an acid-trip version of “Girl From the North Country.” “Nature Boy,” with its furious guitar solo in the middle and lyrics about an encounter with—I’m guessing—some kind of seer, is downright frightening. “Can You Travel in the Dark Alone” is full of sitar and glorious organ noodling.

Every track here features delicious Beatlesesque harmonies and spaced-out reverb and all kinds of weird vocal effects. It all sounds so amazing even on the reissue LP that I recommend you track down if you don’t want to spend around $100. (Despite its tendency to show up from time to time in discount stacks at down-market record stores and the ones so big they’ve had stuff on the shelves for decades, “Gandalf” has a following, and originals can command top dollar on eBay.)

The CD is also pretty decent, from what I gather. (Thank goodness, by the way, that this album came out after stereo had established its hegemony—otherwise I would be filing this piece from a jail cell after running up $27,000 worth of credit card debt in search of what would probably be one of the rarest mono records ever made.)

Running Around New York In Wizard Hats

The funny thing about “Gandalf,” though, is that apart from the title and band name, not much here speaks to Tolkien’s influence—at least not any more so than on almost any other psychedelic record. If you really want to see the author of “The Simarillion” front and center on a pop album, you need to hear “The Grey Wizard Am I” by Gandalf the Grey, an independently released LP from 1972 that has been reissued a handful of times both on vinyl and CD. (The quality of the original recording is such that you can listen to it on YouTube without losing much, although not all of the songs are available.)

All the tracks are written and performed in their entirety via overdubs by a guy called Chris Wilson, who around the time the record was released was running around New York coffee houses in full wizard gear, right down to the Mickey Mouse hat and long pipe, which he would smoke on stage. (According to the AllMusicGuide, he was occasionally joined by another guitarist whose nom de guerre was Legolas the Elf.)

If you can look at the album cover without laughing out loud, yours is a gentler heart than mine. But this is not a mere novelty record. The songs mostly have the sort of titles and lyrics you’d expect—“My Elven Home,” “From the Grey Havens,” “An Elven Song of Love”—but the performances are timid and earnest and ethereal all at the same time. The dominant mood is a kind of melancholy tinged with metaphysical hope—not optimism—whose source is not of this world. It is totally unsurprising that the best track here that is not explicitly Tolkien-inspired is about the joys of church attendance.

The Depth in Tolkien’s Fantasy

Let me back up for a moment. When you listen to, say, “Pink Moon” it does not require a great deal of mental effort to wrap your head around the fact that Nick Drake committed suicide a few years after the record was released without making another album. You can hear the pain in the man’s voice.

Drake was one of the great talents of our age, one of the handful of artists—his only real peers are Van Morrison on “Astral Weeks,” The Kinks at their very best, the Love of “Forever Changes,” Sandy Denny, and maybe Pavement on “Here”—in whom an unsophisticated, repetitive musical idiom cobbled together out of stolen chord progressions and teenage marketing clichés becomes great art. He had some of the best musicians in the business, the guys from Fairport Convention and the sidemen who played on the early John Martyn LPs, behind him, not to mention all the resources of Island Records and his own extensive musical training.

“The Grey Wizard Am I” is, meanwhile, a classic of what is sometimes called “outsider music.” This is to say—forgive me for being brutal—that the Wizard is not a great singer or guitarist or songwriter or arranger, certainly not someone could sell records or get a major label to support him. (He did, however, briefly have a contract with Columbia, who shelved what would have been his debut for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who listens to “Old Town Church.”) The album was made on his own dime, and very few people have ever heard it or ever will. You get the sense—forgive me again—that the man responsible was, very likely, severely mentally ill.

But he was also a human being created in the image of God, and if you can hear him sing the third verse and final chorus of the title track without your hair standing on end and your heart breaking, you’re … never mind—I don’t feel like being uncharitable just now.

That deep into Mordor sometimes I have gone,
Seeing what evil can do.

Fighting the demons and playing their games,
Losing some years of growth too.

But I leave for Sauron this message with you,
And for all his evil too:
The Grey Wizard am I.

This is all the more effective for the obscurity of the fourth line, which underscores the naivety and sincerity. The rest of it—the Black Land, the demons, the Dark Lord himself and all his works, and the unthinking childlike defiance of all these—is as clear as “Be-bop-a-lula / She’s my baby” and a million times more valuable: “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon. His work has also appeared in the Spectator of London, First Things, The Weekly Standard, National Review, the Daily Beast, the Hedgehog Review, and other publications. He lives with his wife, Lydia, and their daughter in Alexandria, Virginia.

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