Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"The Hammer of the Gods"

The hit song 'Immigrant song', by the former English hard rock band Led Zeppelin, was one of the few times that there has been a genuine mention of European paganism in mainstream music over the last fifty years. Odinism, in particular, has held a very ambiguous position in the English-speaking world. In 1970, when the song was released, the Christian ethic was much stronger. This was especially true in the United States. Some Christians considered it malevolent "devilish heresy," while other Christians thought of it as mere benign "cultural myth." It was a powerful song, which could be interpreted in slightly different ways.

The song begins with a distinctive, wailing cry from vocalist Robert Plant and is built around a repeating, staccato Jimmy Page/John Paul Jones/John Bonham riff in the key of F# minor. There is a very faint count-off at the beginning of the track with lots of hiss which appears on the album version, but is trimmed from the single version. The hiss is feedback from an echo unit.

"Immigrant Song" was written during Led Zeppelin's tour of Iceland, Bath and Germany in mid-1970. The opening date of this tour took place in Reykjavík, Iceland, which inspired Plant to write the song. As he explained:

We weren't being pompous ... We did come from the land of the ice and snow. We were guests of the Icelandic Government on a cultural mission. We were invited to play a concert in Reykjavik and the day before we arrived all the civil servants went on strike and the gig was going to be cancelled. The university prepared a concert hall for us and it was phenomenal. The response from the kids was remarkable and we had a great time. "Immigrant Song" was about that trip and it was the opening track on the album that was intended to be incredibly different.

Just six days after Led Zeppelin's appearance in Reykjavik, the band performed the song for the first time on stage during the Bath Festival.

The song's lyrics are written from the perspective of Vikings rowing west from Scandinavia in search of new lands. The lyrics make explicit reference to Viking conquests and the Old Norse religion (Fight the horde, sing and cry, Valhalla, I am coming!). In a 1970 radio interview, Plant jokingly recalled:

We went to Iceland, and it made you think of Vikings and big ships... and John Bonham's stomach... and bang, there it was - Immigrant Song!

First pressings of the US single of the song have a quote from Aleister Crowley inscribed in dead wax by the run-out groove: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law."

One of the lines from the song became part of Led Zeppelin lore. The line, "The hammer of the gods/will drive our ships to new lands" prompted some people to start referring to Led Zeppelin's sound as the "Hammer of the Gods." The phrase was used as the title of Stephen Davis' biography of the band, Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga. The lyrics also did much to inspire the classic heavy metal myth, of mighty Viking-esque figures on an adventure, themes which have been adopted in the look and music of bands from Iron Maiden to Manowar.

'Immigrant Song' lyrics:

Ah, ah,
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.
The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!

On we sweep with threshing oar, Our only goal will be the western shore.

Ah, ah,
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
How soft your fields so green, can whisper tales of gore,
Of how we calmed the tides of war. We are your overlords.

On we sweep with threshing oar, Our only goal will be the western shore.

So now you'd better stop and rebuild all your ruins,
For peace and trust can win the day despite of all your losing.

My initial reaction, from listening to it and by the lyrics, is that it hints at aggression. In other words, "conquerors, not immigrants." Right from the get-go they proclaim that they are from a harsh land, that their gods are driving them to new lands to fight and conqueror, and that they expect to enter "Valhalla" in the afterlife for their heroism in battle. Pretty powerful stuff!

Next they proclaim that their "only goal" is the western shore. Although some could envision Leif Erikson's landing in North America, most likely they were referring to the British Isles. Although the later lyrics are, like most songs, ambiguous; they, at the very least, hint of conquest. They describe the new lands as full of goodies, there is violence for a time, and they then triumphantly proclaim: "We are your overlords." Sort of a Viking version of "I came. I saw. I conquered."


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