How J.R.R. Tolkien Influenced Classic Rock & Metal: A Video Introduction

The influ­ence of J.R.R. Tolkien on met­al is so wide and deep it has become almost cliché. There are count­less Tolkien-themed songs, albums, band names, and an entire sub­genre of Tolkien met­al in which the fan­ta­sy mas­ter’s work has become “the foun­da­tion,” as Loud­wire writes, that such bands “have built their per­sona upon.” After all, “the doomy hellscape of Mor­dor is a set­ting that rivals hell itself, mak­ing it the per­fect fod­der for lyri­cal bru­tal­i­ty.”

Of course, there’s more to the fas­ci­na­tion than doomy hellscape. Mys­ti­cism, mag­ic, and mythol­o­gy; “themes of friend­ship, adven­ture, betray­al, greed, and mor­tal­i­ty.” The Hob­bit and Lord of the Rings tril­o­gy fold lit­er­ary rich­ness and depth into a ful­ly real­ized alter­nate real­i­ty full of swords and sor­cery, gob­lins, orcs, and walk­ing trees. What met­al­head can resist? Even those who might want to have a hard time get­ting away from Tolkien.

He’s in the source code of the genre, in its clas­sic rock chro­mo­somes. The most promi­nent pre­cur­sor of Tolkien met­al, Led Zep­pelin, real­ly loved Tolkien. As Robert Plant put it in a lat­er inter­view, “when I read those books, they kind of dis­solved into me.” In the short video above from Poly­phon­ic, we get a sur­vey of the num­ber of Tolkien ref­er­ences not only in Zep­pelin, but in Gen­e­sis, Rush, and oth­er pro­to-met­al prog-rock bands.

One key fea­ture of Tolkien that makes his work such great mate­r­i­al for epic songs is that the nov­els are already full of epic songs (and poems, in Elvish and oth­er lan­guages). “Music plays an inte­gral role in the very found­ing of Mid­dle Earth.” Tolkien ref­er­ences crop up in Black Sab­bath, Uri­ah Heep, and dozens of 70s pro­gres­sive rock bands whose influ­ence exceeds their fame.

One band the Poly­phon­ic video doesn’t men­tion, The Bea­t­les, aren’t often thought of as Tolkienesque, or as hav­ing much influ­ence on heavy met­al. But they were mas­sive Tolkien fans and even approached the author in the 60s about mak­ing a Lord of the Rings film, with John as Gol­lum, Paul as Fro­do, Ringo as Sam, and George as Gan­dalf. McCart­ney even approached Stan­ley Kubrick to direct.

Report­ed­ly, when McCart­ney told Peter Jack­son the sto­ry, the direc­tor replied, “It’s the songs I feel bad­ly about. You guys could have banged out a few good tunes for this.” Tolkien him­self didn’t think so and turned them down imme­di­ate­ly. We don’t have any record of his thoughts on the 70s rock bands who enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly adopt­ed him, if he even knew of their exis­tence. But we do know that he didn’t like The Bea­t­les.

Does this mean he wouldn’t care for any of the clas­sic rock and met­al to whom he has inad­ver­tent­ly giv­en so much? Prob­a­bly. But one com­menter in a dis­cus­sion thread on this very ques­tion imag­ines anoth­er reac­tion Tolkien might have to hear­ing “Ram­ble On,” etc.: “I believe he raised a fist into the air and extend­ed the index and lit­tle fin­gers in imi­ta­tion of a horned crea­ture, while vig­or­ous­ly, emphat­i­cal­ly nod­ding his head back and forth, toss­ing his hair to and fro like a fish­ing boat caught in a rag­ing storm.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Lord of the Rings Mythol­o­gy Explained in 10 Min­utes, in Two Illus­trat­ed Videos

Map of Mid­dle-Earth Anno­tat­ed by Tolkien Found in a Copy of Lord of the Rings

The Ori­gins of the Death Growl in Met­al Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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