Wednesday, January 30, 2013

ZEPPELIN WEEK: The Politics of J.R.R. Tolkien

Mark Jack (@RealDarkMark) looks at J.R.R. Tolkien's influence on Led Zeppelin and what that says about the band's relationship to the world at large.

I work in a used bookstore and, as such, I am asked about my reading habits almost daily. Usually it’s a question posed with some amount of well-meant condescension. I often get the feeling that I’m being viewed as some rare, adorable creature; a nocturnal mammal with large eyes perhaps. My interlocutor, their voice raised in mock seriousness, as if speaking to a child, asks, “You must read a lot, huh?” I answer with something like “I do, I suppose.” Then I get the second question, “Did you read when you were a kid?”

“Yes,” I’ll inevitably answer, and they’ll walk away satisfied that they learned something, though I’m not sure what.

I did read when I was a child, and yet if pressed for those books’ titles, I could only name a handful. Almost every single one of the titles I can name was authored by J.R.R. Tolkien, and I read those books again and again. So when I was around twelve, and beginning to get into the really dorky stuff like The Silmarillion while simultaneously beginning to feel the pressures of coolness, I found the ultimate, or so I thought, justification for my fantasy obsession, Led Zeppelin.

The first clue that Led Zeppelin consisted of Tolkien fans was the song “Misty Mountain Hop,” from the enigmatic, rune covered fourth album with which I predictably started my Led Zeppelin love affair. This connection then lead to an exploration of the band’s various references to Tolkien's fantasy world from lyrics—”The Battle of Evermore”, “Ramble On”—to Robert Plant’s dog’s name (Strider), which then lead to Aleister Crowley and all the attendant mythology of Magick with which Jimmy Page specifically seems to have (had?) a love.

Led Zeppelin was the Tolkien obsessed teenager’s dream. I was a little too aware of the dorkiness of being a fan of fantasy, but the heavy blues-based riffs and amazing, heavy groove of Led Zeppelin were perfectly cool. The fact that I grew up in an area of the country dominated by competing classic rock stations and little else made it even easier for me to embrace them completely.


Zeppelin's contribution to some of the more imaginative metal groups in their wake is not so much musical as it is mythological (Zeppelin had more of an almost funk groove than almost any other band of similar heaviness)—their interest in not only fantasy books but also the lore upon which Tolkien based his books, and was bequeathed to the subsequent forms of metal. I do not intend to go into the manner or extent of this component of Led Zeppelin’s influence. I mark it only to suggest that the mythological/fantasy aspect of the band is not only an important aspect of it’s own image but is also important as a legacy. Perhaps my idea in pursuing this point may be viewed as somewhat strange, maybe even a stretch. However, I feel that Led Zeppelin’s choice of imagery reflected a general disillusionment both with progressive/utopian political movements of the sixties (with which many bands were closely allied at the time of Zeppelin’s nascence), and with a turn towards self and a certain brand of conservatism, which became the hallmark of the seventies.

It seems that the band’s reputation for hedonism often stands in for some notion of a liberal politics. I’m not sure that this notion is ever explicitly stated anywhere and honestly, I’m not terribly interested in any of the professed political stances of the band. I know that Tolkien identified with conservative politics, but that rests slightly to the side of my argument as well, not that it hurts it. What I see in Led Zeppelin’s embrace of Tolkien, and Aleister Crowley and all the rest, is a rejection of the arts as social mover or even reflector. There are fantasy and sci-fi works concerned with the way we do, will, and have lived together, but other entries in this genre—like any other genre really—reject the idea of communicating community.

The guiding principle of this type of fantasy/sci-fi is the self as an individual will; and that “individual will” often veers into mere entertainment. I’d like to think that’s fine, but I’m beginning to think its not. Led Zeppelin hews too close to being merely a part of panem et circenses regime. Each day, we are screwed too often and too unjustly to be OK with that. Granted, Led Zeppelin is not a contemporary band, but I don't believe that makes the manner in which the band operated politically as a reaction to the utopian impulses of the sixties any more acceptable.

Regardless of my argument’s ultimate validity, I find it interesting to recognize that Led Zeppelin, as connected as it is with the seventies, is very much a product of a particular British music/culture scene of the late sixties. Jimmy Page was involved with it all, including skiffle (a clip of which you can easily see on YouTube with everything else in the world of British music in sixties), playing, like John Paul Jones, on records by Donovan, The Who, and countless others as a session musician. While Led Zeppelin rose from the prominent ashes of the Yardbirds, relatively unknown, though definitely established, English rock musicians from the late-60's London "scene" filled out the final lineup.

The debut album reads like any other English blues album, but it sounds different, heavier. In an exhilarating, and yet problematic way, Led Zeppelin owns the blues they play. It is not homage to some feverishly collected, and otherwise neglected, American bluesmen by skinny, pale English youth. It is something less concerned with optimistic identification with the down and out. The course of rock music in the very early sixties—wherein a particularly American music influenced a subsequently influential English group of musicians—by the late sixties had begun to be a western music and even in some cases a global music.

However, even as liberation and social awareness as a component of rock music reached an apotheosis in the sixties, this internationalization of rock coincided conspicuously with commodification. Led Zeppelin’s particular trouble with copyright and general attribution problems similarly takes on these two aspects. The free flow and access to information as a particular attribute of capitalism takes on an early form with Led Zeppelin. In fact it continues with Page’s troubles over “Dazed and Confused,” a song originally written by Jake Holmes two years before Led Zeppelin’s version. The trouble with attribution is the trouble with determining who gets what money. Led Zeppelin undoubtedly got most of it. Their music, even from the beginning had the swagger of knowing they’d get the money.

They had very good reason to believe this way. Tolkien’s universe was about heroics, glory, and all that bullshit. Despite the stories often being centered around the actions of some humble little hobbits, the little guys are completely imbued with classic adventure spirit, though maybe toned down with a bit of British reserve. The mythology of Tolkien, the elves and kings and god-like beings and false profundity, collapses in Led Zeppelin; onto a band which, rising out of the “Summer of Love,” realizes that with the right swagger they can do anything, not because they can change the world, but because they can rule it. Tolkien’s world doesn’t change anymore than Crowley’s world does. The people or elements that are the power behind it all remain the power behind it all. It’s merely a matter of having a few kick-ass songs and a good/terrifying manager.


Led Zeppelin recorded their first album in the autumn of 1968. Earlier in the year, during May, protests erupted across Europe and the United States. It was the angry, hopeful culmination of the political counterculture. In France, the protests reached stirring proportions with students and workers striking, occupying factories, and generally making their voices heard. It was simultaneously the exasperated reaction of a hopeful generation meeting the continued dominance of a racist, classist, cultural elite with the only means open to the young and the poor; rocks, chants, and fire.

Even as Led Zeppelin is born, ostensibly, out of the youth culture that gave rise to all the radical social movements of the sixties, the band takes on an almost reactionary character. The blues of Zeppelin are not about any amount of identification with oppressed peoples. It is merely the exploitation of a musical genre and set of lyrics and melodic tropes. Likewise, the borrowing from English folk, most evident on Led Zeppelin III, no longer refers to some sense of Englishness and the reinscribing of peasant narratives into that Englishness—as the case could be argued for other English bands like Fairport Convention, Shirley Collins, etc. Rather, it is again an exploitation of forms and tropes.

What then is the guiding principle behind Led Zeppelin? Is it merely a pure expression of a mixed musical heritage—with some art for art sake mentality attached to it—in both disregard for the utopian and radical politics of the band’s immediate heritage and in opposition to that heritage and it’s failings? The uprisings of ‘68 translated into almost nothing. The social movements of the U.S were infiltrated by the FBI and it’s members were arrested and generally broken. The heady spirit of Woodstock turned into the horrible sense of profound alienation and separation between marginal, oppressed and otherwise oppositional groups as became evident in the violence of Altamont. The reforms of LBJ’s Great Society lead to piecemeal civil rights reforms. What was really in the air, after the promises of political upheaval in the spring of ‘68, was a turn towards the self, towards imagination. In music, the thunderous arrival of Led Zeppelin offered a reasonable alternative to the other offshoot of sixties music—the confessional singer songwriter. Both the heavy rock of Zeppelin and the confessional posturing of the singer-songwriter represent moves away from commentary about society to commentary about the self. 
Led Zeppelin’s embrace of the occult and Tolkien's fantasy provide a key to the exact nature of the turn in music away from the politics of social upheaval. The disillusionment over the utopian potential of music and the arts generally leads seamlessly into the illusion of fantasy and the occult. It is a somewhat adolescent reaction, and perhaps this accounts for the “I loved Zeppelin in high shool” trope we see so much and have already encountered on this blog. I fucking loved Led Zeppelin when I was younger, and to some extent I still do. It wasn’t just because they made references to my own dorky interest in the Lord of The Rings, but because they made incredible music, and had one of the greatest bass players of all-time. John Paul Jones was a hero for me. I started off as a bass player and a shy one at that. The musical heroics of JPJ as he locked in perfectly with Bonzo, while simultaneously maintaining his cool, were perfect. In addition he took his name—he was born John Baldwin—in a sly and shy rebellious move from America’s first Naval hero. A sort of "fuck you" to Britain from a young Brit maybe; or he may have just liked the sound of the name.


While I still love Led Zeppelin, I do not love them like I once did. Similarly, while I still have a place in my heart for Tolkien, it is not the same love I had when I was younger. I’ll probably never read his books again.

There is something adolescent about both Zeppelin and Tolkien, and, while I may not be an adult like I probably should be at my age, I am more of one than when I was sixteen. But Zeppelin wasn’t only for sixteen year olds. Those years in the seventies, when Zep traveled the skies in their wildly painted plane, packed the biggest venues, and possibly made it all happen with strange black magic rituals, were an adolescent time. Our more optimistic leaders had been assassinated, our protests were ignored, our cities were left to rot and we had long beautiful hair but no one cared anymore. We couldn’t wear our protest and we couldn’t sing it either. The elemental forces in Led Zeppelin, the power of their performance is this adolescent feeling of being caught between the innocent stupidity of children and the perceived, staid maturity of the adult.

The high school self is often solipsistic and its characteristic rebellion is easily pushed into the realm of individualism. A fantasy obsession merely serves, in many cases, to siphon off the last vestiges of identification with others by turning that identification to fantastic fictions. Zeppelin is one of the greatest bands to perform this adolescent play. The myths of wild hotel room debaucheries, the onstage swagger, would all point to the defiant rejection and skepticism of punk if it weren’t for the strange references to Tolkien and Crowley—and maybe the impressive musicianship. I suppose I merely mean to suggest that Zeppelin is best understood in the context of the sixties, of the decade they rose from, rather than that of the seventies, the decade during which they reigned.

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