The language of Led Zeppelin
Confession: I grew up in the 1990s. I admit freely that the only musical artists I knew for a while were N’Sync, the Spice Girls, and Blink-182. But then one day I heard a song called Dazed and Confused by a little band named Led Zeppelin and— after several jaw-dropping minutes of that insanely heavy bass riff, Robert Plant’s soulful wailing, and Jimmy Page’s otherworldly bowing in his guitar solos—I felt pretty dazed and confused myself. I started to think that I had missed out—that I might just give up an arm and a leg to have been a teenager in New York City, July 1973, saving up pennies to see them live in Madison Square Garden.
And don’t get me started on their lyrics!
…well, okay. You can get me started on that—let’s take a look at the language of Led Zeppelin.
Go down like a Led Zeppelin
Anyone even mildly rock- and blues-oriented knows the influence Led Zeppelin has had on rock and roll. But who knows how they got their name?
Initially, Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page was playing in a group called the Yardbirds, named in part for the people who work or hang around in railway yards. When the group began to split due to differences in artistic vision, Page tried to form a supergroup with Jeff Beck, as well as The Who’s John Entwistle and Keith Moon; the latter purportedly quipped that such a group would go down like a “lead balloon”—that is, fail, or at least be quite poorly received. Needless to say, that dream team never formed.
In the end, Page joined up with Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham; taking inspiration from Moon’s misgivings, they removed the “a” from “lead” (for the sake of clarity in pronunciation) and replaced the small, childish balloon with the enormous, elegant zeppelin. (Indeed, “balloon” was originally a game played with an inflated leather ball, later referring to the ball itself; “zeppelin”, on the other hand, is no toy ball—it’s a large dirigible airship, made famous in World War I for reconnaissance and bombing, and named for the Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.) Led Zeppelin was born, and once they took off, they would never need to come back down to earth.
Valhalla, I am coming
Led Zeppelin’s lyrics—particularly in their early jams, as on their albums Led Zeppelin I and II—are heavily influenced by traditional bluesy tropes of sexual innuendo and unrequited love. However, Robert Plant (who quickly became Led Zeppelin’s lyricist) would begin to introduce other subjects as well; long interested in mythology and the occult, he seamlessly entwined these themes with rock and roll in an unprecedented way.
“Immigrant Song”—whose staccato guitar/drum intro overlaid with Plant’s howls is one of the most recognizable in rock and roll—is a prime example of their new lyrical direction as of the album Led Zeppelin III. Inspired by Norse mythology, it was written after the band played a concert in Reykjavík, Iceland.
The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, sing and cry
Valhalla, I am coming
The “hammer of the gods” is probably in reference to Thor’s hammer; Thor is the famously powerful Norse god, whose name derives from the Germanic word for thunder and is the origin of the English word Thursday. Thor’s hammer—powerful enough to level mountains— is named Mjölnir, which may be related to the Old Norse mölva, to break in pieces, and mylja to crush. Interestingly, hammer comes from the Old Norse hamarr, or rock— though this refers of course to the stone or boulder, not the music genre (which has a separate history, coming from the verb meaning to sway back and forth). Regardless, “the hammer of the gods” came to refer to Led Zeppelin’s music in general; often thunderous, driven by powerful rhythms, leveling old rock to expose the new.
And what about Valhalla? It’s the palace in which heroes killed in battle were believed to feast with Odin—Thor’s father, and the most supreme god in Norse mythology—for all eternity. Valhalla comes from the Old Norse Valholl, from valr “the slain” and holl “hall”. The connection between the latter two is clear, but valr may also remind you of the Valkyrie, the goddesses who conducted certain slain warriors to Valhalla; literally, Valkyrie means “chooser of the slain”. Ultimately, Led Zeppelin would be conducted to a hall of sorts; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1995.
In the darkest depths of Mordor I met a girl so fair
As if they weren’t already awesome enough, Led Zeppelin also began to incorporate references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in their songs, starting with “Ramble On” in Led Zeppelin II. (Not to mention that Robert Plant gave his dog the name Strider, Aragorn’s alias.)
When magic filled the air
‘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
Here, the traditional theme of unrequited love meshes with the Lord of the Rings allusions, bringing Led Zeppelin’s lyrics into artistic dialogue with the novel and lending them extra depth and context. It doesn’t seem likely that one would meet, much less fall in love with a girl while in the darkest depths of Mordor, but knowing what Mordor is lends a sense of doom to the love; not only is it the dwelling place of the dark lord Sauron (and the site of Mount Doom), the name Mordor clearly serves to remind one of the word murder—in fact, mordor is an old (16th-century) Scots form of the word.
“Gollum” also has an interesting background. It is the nickname given to the hobbit Sméagol who, rendered sickly and animalistic by his obsession with the Ring, often makes a horrible throaty noise; Gollum, therefore, is onomatopoeic. Furthermore, it seems Robert Plant may have been familiar with the origin of the name Sméagol when he wrote “Gollum, and the evil one crept up”; Sméagol is akin to the Old English smugan, to creep.
Led Zeppelin’s song “The Battle of Evermore” also explicitly references The Lord of the Rings, and in particular ringwraiths (though the entire song is rumored to recount the Battle of Pelennor in The Return of the King). In the novels, the ringwraiths are the nine men who became soulless servants to the Ring; wraith is a Scottish word used at least as early as the 16th century, meaning a ghost or apparition. The song “Misty Mountain Hop” was also named for that mountain range in the novels; a hop is a slang term almost 300 years old for an informal dance.
Shadows taller than our souls
Norse mythology and Tolkien don’t begin to cover all the themes that came to make Led Zeppelin what they were: a band that found a way to imbue rock and roll with images of singing Vikings, scented deserts, ancient forest paths, and strolls through Welsh countryside—making the genre mystical, clever, and larger than life. “Our shadows taller than our souls”—a line in their most famous song, the eight-minute-long genre-defying crescendo “Stairway to Heaven”—is apt to describe Led Zeppelin’s legacy. Though the band has been broken up since drummer John Bonham’s death in 1980 (apart from a handful of reunion gigs), even today it is impossible to understand rock and heavy metal without seeing the long shadow still cast by Led Zeppelin’s influence.