Tag Archives: The Beatles

A Hobbit, Four Beatles, a Queen and a Led Zeppelin: How Tolkien Influenced British Music In The 1960s and 7os

Stew Fantasy Quote Meme

Allow me to elaborate on my quote, dear readers. In the Second World war, Britain and Germany were gleefully bombing each other’s major cities into oblivion day and night. In the myopia of war, they thought they were engaged in a conflict to strengthen themselves, but were, in fact, destroying each other as major world powers. This created a vacuum into which stepped the new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of the war, Britain was devastated physically, financially and mentally. Rationing was still in force and luxuries were unheard of for a whole generation of children. The war was before their time but the impact and implications of it were a daily fact of life. Ruined areas called bomb sites still pockmarked the land and the new kids played on them, including a young David Bowie.

Bowie’s biographer Paul Trynka kicks off his excellent book Starman with this illustration of grim post-war austerity from Peter Prickett: “Everything seemed grey. We wore short grey flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, grey socks and grey shirts. The roads were grey, the prefabs were grey and the bomb sites seemed to be made of grey rubble.”

Behold the constraints of reality! Glam Rock in the 70s was going to be the antithesis of all that childhood drabness and deprivation. First though, Tolkien would unleash the beast that was The Lord of the Rings. Despite being written in stages between 1937 and 1949, three volumes were published over the course of a year between 1954 and 1955 (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and the Return of the king). There was a sudden glut of Tolkien product in the marketplace at just the right time. The books were manna from Heaven for a generation starved of good food, new ideas and hope. For the first time, they had in their hands an affordable escape and a template for a way out of their difficult situations. It was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the world goes from monochrome to eye-popping technicolor as Dorothy reaches Oz. John Lennon was one of many British kids who became a fan of Tolkien’s.

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The Beatles turned everything on its head when they shot to fame in 1962. As well as topping the charts with monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic, they also made some remarkable films including A Hard Day’s Night, Help and the surreal, Pythonesque Magical Mystery Tour. Kicking around for ideas for a new Fab Four flick, John Lennon suggested an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Peter Jackson directed both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. In 2014, he said “The Beatles once approached Stanley Kubrick to do The Lord Of The Rings and he said no. I actually spoke about this with Paul McCartney. He confirmed it. I’d heard rumors that it was going to be their next film after Help.”

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It wasn’t just Kubrick who rejected The Beatles: “It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson added.

Beatles LOTR Poster

Lennon had published two books himself, A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write, his love of wordplay being evident in the titles. Lennon was fan of Lewis Carroll as well as Tolkien and his writing has been compared to Carroll’s, particularly I Am The Walrus.

 

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It is arguable that many of the prog rock concept albums of the 70s were an attempt to transfer Tolkien’s epic fantasy imagery to the album format. Rick Wakeman played piano on Bowie’s Life On Mars and was the keyboard player with Yes. Wakeman did a 70s concert at an ice rink with skaters playing knights on horseback jousting to the music he was playing. He admitted recently that he had gone too far but it was excess-all-areas in the 70s.

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Lord of the Strings

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin was a serious Tolkien nerd, liberally sprinkling references to the books in his songs. Take these lines from Zeppelin’s Ramble On: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair. But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.”

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Queen, in turn, were big fans of Led Zeppelin. They played Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song during soundchecks and Plant turned up at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 to perform Innuendo and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It’s possible that Freddie and the boys imbibed some of Zeppelin’s Tolkien imagery by osmosis. Seven Seas of Rhye was Queen’s first hit. It came out in 1974 and was written by Freddie Mercury. Rhye was a fantasy world that Freddie had created with his sister Kashmira. Freddie sings of “the mighty Titan and his troubadours” in Seven Seas of Rhye. On other Queen albums there was “Ogre Battle” and “Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” The imagery of Brian May’s The Prophet’s Song on A Night At The Opera is very Tolkienesque, although the images came to him in a dream. Queen would also go on to do the music for fantasy films like Highlander and Flash Gordon.

Tolkien was probably horrified by the bands and music he inspired but that would have been a typical reaction from his generation. None of it was intended for him. He was unable to foresee the consequences of publishing his books but it is interesting to see how one creative act can inspire many similar and dissimilar ones, spreading out like ripples in a pond. We pass the torch of inspiration down the generations, it is not ours to keep but ours to maintain and pass on.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

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The Story Behind David Bowie’s “Heroes”

“The lowest point in my life was in 1975, when I was 28, living in Los Angeles. I really did think that my thoughts about not making 30 would come true. Drugs had taken my life away from me. I felt as though I would probably die and it was going to be all over. My assistant, Coco, got me out of it. Thanks to her, I got myself out of America to Berlin”

David Bowie

So he did and that is where the genesis of his classic song “Heroes” begins. Germany has an oddly influential place in popular music history. Elvis was stationed there in the army in the 50s. The Beatles went to Hamburg and learned their craft and lived it up in the early 60s. Bowie recorded his Low, Heroes and Lodger albums there and Queen recorded several albums in Munich, including their best-selling album The Game. U2 would record Achtung Baby there in the early 90s. David Bowie played a concert in West Berlin in 1987 that could be heard over the Berlin Wall in East Berlin. Earlier this week, when news of Bowie’s death broke, the German Foreign Office tweeted: “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.” Praise, indeed.

The album “Heroes”, the second of Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy”, was recorded at Hansa Studio by the Wall in what was then West Berlin. It was produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti with Brian Eno playing a key role in it also. (Bowie credits Eno with shifting the emphasis of his career away from the creation of characters like Ziggy Stardust to the music itself.)

The song “Heroes” was recorded using a noise gate technique. According to Wikipedia, a noise gate is “an electronic device or software that is used to control the volume of an audio signal.”

It goes on: “The invention of a technique, called multi-latch gating by Jay Hodgson, common in classical music recordings for years, is often credited to producer Tony Visconti, whose use on David Bowie’s “Heroes” may have been the first in rock. Visconti recorded Bowie’s vocals in a large space using three microphones placed 9 inches (23 cm), 20 feet (6.1 m), and 50 feet (15.2 m) away, respectively. A different gate was applied to each microphone so that the farther microphone was triggered only when Bowie reached the appropriate volume, and each microphone was muted as the next one was triggered.

Bowie’s performance thus grows in intensity precisely as ever more ambience infuses his delivery until, by the final verse, he has to shout just to be heard….The more Bowie shouts to be heard, in fact, the further back in the mix Visconti’s multi-latch system pushes his vocal tracks [dry audio being perceived as front and ambience pushing audio back in the mix], creating a stark metaphor for the situation of Bowie’s doomed lovers shouting their love for one another over the Berlin wall”

(Tony Visconti recently admitted that the he and his mistress were the couple seen kissing by the wall.)

Bowie played the sax solo at the end of “Heroes” and even recorded a version in German called “Helden.”

When released on October 15th 1977, the song only got to number 24 in the UK charts a far cry from smash-hit Ziggy Stardust mania just a few years earlier. Even his appearance on Top of the Pops in a plain shirt with a less-harsh remix of the song seems muted compared to his culture-changing turn on the same show with Starman.

The noise gate technique the shouting Bowie had to resort to did result in a harsh-sounding vocal that wasn’t exactly radio friendly at the time which perhaps accounts for its low chart-placing. (Queen’s “We Are The Champions” was released the same month and became an instant classic anthem when it reached number 2 in the charts.) While “Heroes” remained a favourite with his fans, in the general public’s consciousness the song quickly faded from the charts and into obscurity. It remained there until eight years later, when Bowie had the inspired idea to include it in his set for Live Aid.

Bob Geldof had christened his Live Aid charity extravaganza “The Global Jukebox” and told the artists on the bill to give him hits, hits and more hits to keep viewers watching and donating. While “Heroes” wasn’t one of Bowie’s biggest hits on first release, it is one of his best songs and the idea of being heroes for a day was the perfect tagline for Live Aid. So it proved, the song went down a storm. Everyone in Wembley Stadium got swept up in the idea of their generation changing the world in that place at that time. Bowie told the Wembley crowd: “You’re the real heroes of this concert.”

Queen had ended their legendary Live Aid set earlier with “We Are The Champions.” That day, “Heroes” joined “We Are The Champions” in the pantheon of inspirational anthems that are often played at sporting events. When a documentary was made about the Live Aid concerts by the Band Aid trust later in 1985, a montage of the artists that performed was cut to the sounds of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

The rehabilitation of “Heroes” reached its apotheosis at the London Olympic games of 2012 when “Heroes” was playing on loop in the background at each medal presentation. It even featured in the closing ceremony.

Who knows, perhaps “Heroes” may even become a posthumous number one for David Bowie, such is the popularity and poignancy of the song now. That would be a fitting close to the remarkable journey the song has taken in the unforgettable life of its creator and in the lives of us all.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

The Power of Dreams, The Richness of Nightmares

Dreams have inspired thinkers of all kinds to come up with great works throughout history. Author Salman Rushdie referred to it earlier this week as “the world of imagination and dream, the irrational world which is not subject to logic.”

The theory of relativity is alleged to have come to Albert Einstein in a dream. The genre of science fiction owes its existence to the nightmare Mary Shelley had that inspired her to write the novel Frankenstein in 1816. Bram Stoker had an erotic dream about female vampires ravishing him after a crab supper one night. That surreal spark lit the touchpaper of his classic vampire novel Dracula and became the “brides of Dracula” sequence.

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A nightmare inspired Stephen King to write The Shining:

“In late September of 1974, Tabby and I spent a night at a grand old hotel in Estes Park, the Stanley. We were the only guests as it turned out, the following day they were going to close the place down for the winter. Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect – maybe the archetypal – setting for a ghost story. That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his over shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of the bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in the chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”

Misery

A nightmare also inspired King to write Misery:

“I was on Concorde, flying over here, to Brown’s. I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, ‘I have to write this story.’ Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel.”

James Cameron was in Rome in the early 1980s. The production company behind his directorial debut Pirahna II: Flying Killers (you’re not missing much, folks) fired him. He was starving and penniless. In his hotel room, he had the “fever dream” that would lead to his big breakthrough – The Terminator:

“I was sick at the time. I had a high fever. I was just lying on the bed thinking and came up with all this bizarre imagery … I think also the idea that because I was in a foreign city by myself and I felt very dissociated from humanity in general, it was very easy to project myself into these two characters from the future who were out of sync, out of time, out of place.”

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Dreams can even inspire musical compositions. Singer/songwriter Sting keeps a diary of his dreams and he named his 1985 album “The Dream of the Blue Turtles” after one of them.

Brian May

Queen guitarist Brian May on how he wrote the classic track We Will Rock You:

“Queen played a gig at Bingley Hall near Birmingham. It was a popular venue at the time. It was a big sweaty barn and that night it was packed with a particularly vocal crowd. They were definitely drowning us out with their enthusiasm. I remember that even after we left the stage they didn’t stop singing – loudly. They sang You’ll Never Walk Alone, which is very emotional. Quite a choking thing really. I certainly found it inspirational. Later that night back at our hotel I said to the others, “That was great. So what should we do to continue generating that kind of energetic response?” I woke up with the We Will Rock You lyrics in my head and had it written in about 10 minutes.”

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A similar thing happened to Paul McCartney when he wrote The Beatles classic Yesterday:

“I just fell out of bed and it was there. I have a piano by the side of my bed and just got up and played the chords. I thought I must have heard it the night before or something, and spent about three weeks asking all the music people I knew, ‘What is this song?’ I couldn’t believe I’d written it.”

The idea for my first book The Vorbing also came to me through a dream. I’m not for one minute comparing myself or my book to the aforementioned works of genius. Their reputations are set in stone, mine has yet to begin. I am merely stating that the process was the same for me. It was in June 1996 that I had a nightmare, a fragment of a dream really about vampires. They were coming out of the sky and flattening people around me. I woke up and ran downstairs to type it up before I forgot it. I wrote a short story that would become the first chapter of The Vorbing. From there, I kept working on it every day that summer. I was not on the internet then, so there were no distractions. I recreated the world of my dream on the page and then expanded it to see where it would take me. I was about to start the second year of my acting course and was so lucky to continue being paid during the summer recess. I could put 100% into seeing if I could write a book for the first time. Somehow I did and it felt like climbing a mountain.

It did become an obsession. I had not chosen to write a book about vampires, they had chosen me to write about them for some reason and I couldn’t stop. Now, 19 years later, the book is nearly ready for release. It is a time of great excitement but also great uncertainty as I push my baby chick out of the nest to see if it can fly. Some will try to shoot it down, no doubt, but some will also give my baby a chance and nurture it. Vampires should fly at Halloween and this year, The Vorbing takes flight.

“I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” – William Butler Yeats

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Simplicity And Being Neat – Let The Writer Beware

The other day, someone was going the long way around explaining a problem they had and I just said straight out what I thought. The person agreed with me and told me what I had said was “simple.” I disagreed and said it was not simplicity but precision and there is a difference.

I was reading a review of a Beatles album and the reviewer remarked on the child-like simplicity of John Lennon’s imagery.. Again, I disagreed. If writing songs was that simple, there would be millions of John Lennons walking the earth easily writing stuff as good as his repertoire and it ain’t so. It was not the simplicity of his imagery, it was the precision he had to be able to concoct such razor-sharp images within the confines of a three-minute pop song that differentiates him from others. His mindset was unique.

“Neat” is another way of saying “simple.” A review of John Carpenter’s Halloween praised the “straight-arrow neatness” of the plot. That’s another way of damning it with faint praise that it’s simple. However, just look at all the hundreds of lousy Halloween imitators that flooded the world’s screens after it’s success. They copied the characters, the settings, the camerawork, the music and none of those films are held in high regard today but Halloween still is. That’s because not everyone thinks like John Carpenter. His mindset was and is unique also.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes being creative as “the use of the imagination to create something.” Now should that “something”, creativity itself, be judged? I think not. The effectiveness of the idea should be all that matters not the idea itself taken out of context and misjudged. Writers, like all artists, are sensitive people and comments like “simple” and “neat” are not an accurate reflection of the creative process and should be used sparingly. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps simplicity and neatness are too.

© 2014, Stewart Stafford. All rights reserved.