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The Lord of the Rings

Towards the end of the golden era of progressive rock, the denigration of the genre took a number of different forms. One of these was that prog was a music based on stories about elves and wizards, which can’t have been helped by Rick Wakeman posing with his keyboards at Tintagel to promote The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975), while wearing a wizard’s hat. The jibes mistakenly attributed the genre to a fantastic world inhabited by elves, goblins and other fabulous beings, and the ‘Tolkien’ tag stuck because The Lord of the Rings was ubiquitous at the time. Though it can’t be denied that there are specific examples of songs that directly reference fantasy writing, the association was surely more a reflection of what was rapidly becoming a feature of mainstream popular culture. The criticism could actually be viewed as being hypocritical because according to the same writers, one of progressive rock’s other sins was inflating its own self-importance through its association with high culture. It might have been better for the critics to address the shortcomings of rock ‘n’ roll’s inherent misogyny than finding issue with prog’s attempt to bridge popular and high culture, but deriding prog for writing about ‘elves and wizards’ was just inverted snobbery. Critics also seemed to have forgotten that the subject matter wasn’t only the province of prog; hard rock legends Led Zeppelin included the fantasy-heavy track The Battle of Evermore on their 1971 release Led Zeppelin IV, a song that could easily be interpreted as being inspired by Tolkien, and heavy rockers Uriah Heep released two albums with fantasy-inspired themes in 1972, Demons and Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday.

I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1972, coincidentally the year I got into progressive rock, borrowing the classic three volume hardback set from Barrow library. Tolkien’s masterwork was more than simple story, it was a self-contained mythology where the appendices at the back of volume three added vital history to the events concerning Middle Earth, making them as important to fans as the novel itself; the first, and in my opinion the 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 highlighting a lifestyle more in-tune with nature and consequently the popularity of the trilogy increased during the late 60s and early 70s. Tolkien’s description of the Shire landscape seemed to fit in with the Furness landscape around my home, and this may have been at least part of the reason I enjoyed the book.

The prog fan of the 70s has been frequently satirised as a long-haired greatcoat-wearing male with a copy of Tales from Topographic Oceans (or equivalent) under one arm and copy of The Lord of the Rings in the other hand. I bought my own copy of the book, a single edition paperback with a truncated appendix and cover artwork by illustrator Pauline Baynes in 1973 or 1974 and read it once a year for the next 10 years or so, and it travelled the world when loaned out to friends. 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 (1971), they retained a treasure trove of pre-decimalisation priced books, mainly Penguin modern classics in distinctive grey covers which proved a rich source of reading material. There was at least one other independent bookseller, The Book Corner, that had moved from a cramped space into the premises of the former local school uniform outfitters in Cavendish Street and this became a regular haunt.

A quick look through my collection of 70’s era albums reveals surprisingly few Tolkien references. Does the band name Gentle Giant make them synonymous with Tolkien or even songs about ‘fairy-tale’ creatures? The answer is less simplistic than citing songs The Advent of Panurge and The Nativity of Pantagreul as evidence of the crime. These were actually creations of early 16th Century satirist François Rabelais, not Tolkien, which could conceivably be listed as the prog crime of pretentiousness. The most obvious 70’s reference to Tolkien comes from Bo Hansson whose 1972 UK release of Music Inspired by 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 notice of Tony Stratton-Smith who released it in the UK on the Charisma label. This recording is quite far removed from the bombast associated with early 70’s 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 the track Flight to the Ford on a friend’s copy of Charisma Keyboards, which struck me as a rather short piece compared to other material on that compilation album. My friend subsequently bought the album and though I could appreciate Hansson’s abilities and liked the album cover artwork, I wasn’t over-impressed with the music because of the loose fit with the concept and paucity of dynamics. My vinyl copy was procured in the mid 2000s, complete with the iconic Snowdon portrait of Tolkien as an insert. 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.

Galadriel from Once Again (1971) by Barclay James Harvest is one of the tracks that got me listening to BJH. I first heard this on Live (1974), shortly before going to see them during the Time Honoured Ghosts tour in 1975 in preparation for what I was about to experience – my second prog gig and the first outside Barrow. It’s quite simple yet deceptively beautiful with an arrangement that I feel sums up the character of Galadriel perfectly.

Andy Latimer’s mini-epic Procession/Nimrodel/The White Rider from Camel’s Mirage (1974) is a very satisfying piece of well-constructed melodic prog with what I consider to be an appropriate interpretation of disparate parts of Lord of the Rings. Everything works well, from a balanced sonic palette to an appropriate employment of dynamics and it also adds to the mental image of Gandalf I’d constructed, aided by the illustrations of Pauline Baynes and Dominic de Sousa Pernes from the early 1970s. It even ranks alongside Peter Jackson’s stunning interpretation of the story in his film trilogy, where all the main actors portray fully believable characters.

The second full homage to Tolkien’s work in my collection is Glass Hammer’s Journey of the Dunadan (1993) which falls well outside the time when most of the ridicule was heaped on prog for its references to wizards and goblins, appearing just as the third wave of prog was beginning, by which time fantasy writing had fully entered the mainstream. The CD attracted criticism because it’s perceived as biting off more than Fred Schendel and Steve Babb (credited under the name Stephen DeArqe) could chew which, while to a large extent true, shouldn’t 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 which has hints of Gryphon or Gentle Giant. The narrative is accompanied by incidental background sounds which I find helpful, though it’s clear that there are plenty of people who find this irritating. I think its main fault is that there is insufficient time to get the storyline across. It’s interesting to note that Glass Hammer’s sophomore release was called Perelandra (1995) after the second book in CS Lewis’ space trilogy, also known as Voyage to Venus. Lewis and Tolkien were close friends, both involved in the Inklings informal literary discussion group at Oxford. Steve Hackett includes the song Narnia on his second solo album Please Don’t Touch (1978) based on Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, a thinly-disguised parable which described a land populated by witches, fauns and centaurs and would no doubt have attracted the ire of the music critics at the time.

The most recent references to Tolkien in my collection are on Yak’s 2008 album Journey of the Yak. The origins of the band go back to the end of the 70s but recordings start in 2004 with a CD release Dark Side of the Duck by keyboard player Martin Morgan which included the track Aragorn. The band reconvened as a four piece and jam sessions were recorded for posterity in 2005 and 2006 before the trio of Morgan, Gary Bennett (bass) and Dave Speight (drums) recorded Journey of the Yak which includes the tracks Gates of Moria and March of the Huorns. The music is really atmospheric with a broad range of keyboard sounds, including a patch that sounds as though Steve Hackett has been called in as a guest to add guitar lines! Journey of the Yak also contains a reference from CS Lewis’ Narnia books in the form of Jadis of Charn. Jadis was the White Witch who caused the land to be gripped in a deep freeze for 100 years, whose name was acquired by one of the bands in UK neo-prog vanguard.

Apart from the illustration of Jon Anderson’s Old English sheepdog Bilbo in his debut solo album Olias of Sunhillow (1976), and Marillion, who were originally called ‘Silmarillion’ after Tolkien’s detailed book concerning the early history of Middle Earth, that’s about it for Lord of the Rings references in my record collection.

There were fantasy themes that ran 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 many writers in the UK music papers and the Barrett-less Floyd tended to be derided. The 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’ and the references were the writing of Kenneth Grahame, Hilaire Belloc or ee cummings.

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