Lord of the Rings (originally posted 19/1/14)
By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 07:33PM
Towards the end of the golden era of prog, dinosaur bashing took a number of different forms. One of these was that progressive rock was rubbish because it was all about elves and wizards. The jibes were specific; mistakenly attributing the genre to a fantastic world inhabited by elves, goblins and associated fabulous beings. I’ll not deny that there are examples of songs that directly reference fantasy writing, but this was more a reflection of what was rapidly becoming mainstream popular culture at the time. The critics may have been highlighting what they perceived to be another example of the difference between the high culture of progressive rock, with its references to European classical music and ‘seriousness’, and the everyday grind of rock ‘n’ roll. Was this simple inverted snobbery, and when was any form of misogyny, an emerging ‘benefit’ of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, ever appropriate? Did critics conveniently forget Led Zeppelin’s much-praised Battle of Evermore and its Tolkien interpretation?
I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1972, coincidentally the year I got into prog, borrowing the classic three volume hardback set from Barrow library. Tolkien’s masterwork was more than simple story, it was a self-contained mythology and the appendices at the back of volume three were as important as the novel itself; the first (and, in my opinion, best) of a new literary genre. The bucolic idyll of Hobbiton and the Shire may have appealed to the Hippie movement as an example of being more in-tune with nature, so the popularity of the trilogy increased during the late 60s and early 70s. I bought my own copy, the single edition paperback with truncated appendix and cover artwork by in-vogue illustrator Pauline Baynes in 1973 or ’74 and read it once a year for the next 10 years or so. My copy even went on a school skiing expedition with friend Geoff Hinchley. I’d once been told by a headmaster that I didn’t read enough but I set about rectifying that in my early teens. Much of what I read was allied to fantasy, or science fiction, another so-called staple of the prog scene but I also started to read the classics. Barrow had a stationer/toy shop called Heaths that had an interesting book selection. Post-decimalisation, they retained a treasure trove of pre-decimalisation priced books, mainly Penguin modern classics in distinctive grey covers. There was at least one other independent bookseller, The Book Corner, that moved into the premises of the former local school uniform outfitters in Cavendish Street and this became a regular haunt.
I’ve gone through my collection of albums and there are very few Tolkien references. Does the band name Gentle Giant make them synonymous with Tolkien or even songs about ‘fairy-tale’ creatures? The answer is far more complex than simply quoting songs The Advent of Panurge and The Nativity of Pantagreul, creations of early 16th Century satirist François Rabelais, not Tolkien. The most obvious reference to Tolkien comes from Bo Hansson; his 1972 UK release of Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings brought him to the attention of a large number of prog fans. This had originally been a hit in Hansson’s native Sweden following its release on Silence Records in 1970 and it somehow came to the attention of Tony Stratton-Smith who released it in the UK on his Charisma label. This recording is quite far removed from the bombast associated with early 70s prog; it comes across as a rather reflective piece with few changes of tempo or volume and only at rare times does it suggest to me the grandeur of Middle Earth and the epic nature of the quest to destroy the One Ring. I first heard a track on a friend’s copy of Charisma Keyboards, what struck me as a rather short piece compared to other material on that compilation album, Flight to the Ford. Guy Wimble subsequently bought the album and though impressed with Hansson’s ability and the album cover artwork, I wasn’t too enamoured with the music because of the loose fit with the concept and paucity of dynamics. I only got my own copy (on vinyl) around 10 years ago; one of Susan’s friends and former work colleagues was performing surgery on her partner’s music collection. Thanks, Christine!
The second full homage to Tolkien’s work in my collection is Glass Hammer’s Journey of the Dunadan. This is criticised because it’s perceived as biting off more than Fred Schendel and Steve Babb could chew but, while to a large extent true, I don’t believe that should detract from some excellent musicianship and some strong ideas. The organ work throughout is quite Emerson- or Jobson-like and there is more than a hint of the grandeur of the story. I think it lets itself down when it comes to some of the interpretation. I don’t like the unnecessary The Way to her Heart, though I do like (the equally unnecessary) The Ballad of Balin Longbeard with hints of Gryphon or Gentle Giant. The narrative is aided by incidental background sounds, though there are many who don’t like this and find it irritating; its main fault is there is insufficient time to get the storyline across.
Galadriel, from Once Again by Barclay James Harvest, is one of the tracks that got me listening to BJH. I first heard this on Live, shortly before going to see them during the Time Honoured Ghosts tour in 1975, preparing me for what I was about to hear. It’s quite simple yet deceptively beautiful and I feel it sums up the character of Galadriel perfectly.
Andy Latimer’s mini-epic Procession/Nimrodel/The White Rider from Mirage is a very satisfying piece of music with what I consider to be an appropriate atmosphere, possibly due to the sonic palette employed and which depicts Gandalf pretty much as how I visualised him before the stunning Peter Jackson film trilogy, where all the main actors portray characters that are fully believable.
Bo Hansson has himself suggested that his 1972 release Magicians Hat (Ur Trollkarlens Hatt), is a kind of ‘what happened after the Grey Havens’ though here he references some other favourites of mine, Alan Garner’s Elidor and Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Steve Hackett has the song Narnia on his second solo album, but that was written by Tolkien’s friend CS Lewis. That’s about it for Lord of the Rings references in my record collection and there genuinely aren’t very many.
Of course there are fantasy themes that run through other albums. Who can forget the imagery of Peter Sinfield as he writes about fire witches? This is most definitely not Tolkien but it may help form the critical view that linked prog to fantasy. I suspect the critics were conveniently forgetting the whimsy of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd; Syd was praised by critics and the Barrett-less Floyd tended to be derided. Piper at the Gates of Dawn may have suggested Tolkien to some with its depiction of gnomes and suggestions of fairy stories but this seems to have been allowed if it was filed under the label ‘psychedelia’.