Frequency Rotation

Frequency Rotation: The Downliners Sect, “Lord of the Rings”

Each week, Frequency Rotation probes a different song with a science fiction or fantasy theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.

Untold dozens of rock ’n’ roll bands have written songs about The Lord of the Rings. Led Zeppelin’s 1969 classic “Ramble On” is among the best known. But that same year, one of Zeppelin’s far, far, far, far, far less famous contemporaries—the Downliners Sect—took their own shot at immortalizing Tolkien in rock. Did they succeed? Is all that glitters gold?

Before we go any further, it should be noted: The Downliners Sect weren’t the sanest group of men that ever picked up drumsticks and electric guitars (and, um, Sherlock Holmes hats, which the band was infamously fond of wearing). The English group formed in 1963 and commenced to make some of the rawest, most unhinged rock ’n’ roll that raw and unhinged decade would see. There’s even a connection between the Sect and Led Zeppelin: Allegedly a young, unknown Rod Stewart auditioned to be the Sect’s harmonica player but was turned down; Stewart, of course, wound up playing in the first lineup of the Jeff Beck Group in the late ’60s, a band that was the chief rival of that other ex-Yardbirds band, Led Zeppelin.

And while we know who won the Jeff Beck/Jimmy Page rivalry, we also know that the Downliners Sect weren’t even in the same room. But the Sect did write and record “Lord of the Rings,” their garage-blues tribute to Tolkien—one that does away with the faux-poetry of Robert Plant’s “Ramble On” in favor of a faithful interpretation—that is, as much as it’s possible to interpret a roughly half-million-word epic in three and a half minutes.

It’s hard to say if the Sect heard Zeppelin’s Gollum-referencing “Ramble On” (one of the highlights of their 1969 album, Led Zeppelin II, and the first of three Tolkien-friendly songs they’d would write) before recording “Lord of the Rings,” which was released sometime that same year by an obscure Swedish record label. For obvious reasons, the Sect’s every move wasn’t exhaustively recorded for posterity like Zeppelin’s was. But we do know that Page and crew never played “Ramble On” live in its entirety until the their 2007 reunion, so the chances that the Downliners Sect were copying Zeppelin are remote.

In any case, the crude, sloppy, Tolkien-spouting, Sherlock-Holmes-hat-wearing Downliners Sect were obviously far more geeky than Zeppelin, so out of sympathy for the underdog we’ll just assume they’re the ring-bearing trailblazers here. (That’s not to say, of course, that “Lord of the Rings” was the first Hobbit-inspired song the world of popular music ever produced. Never forget.)

Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, plays guitar, and believes rock is just another path—one that we all must take.


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