From Led Zeppelin to Ylvis: rock’s Anglo-Nordic cultural exchanges

Many thanks to Peter Goodhugh for drawing our attention to the epic musical effort that is Stonehenge by Norwegian rock outfit Ylvis. The main reason we’re not inclined to call it pure comedy is that it is, in its own endearing way, respectful of the heritage surrounding the world-famous site in Wiltshire – so much so that one genuinely wonders why a native English band has not taken the trouble to inform us of how the stones were dragged 46 miles from Wales (though admittedly Spinal Tap, and Anglo-American band member Christopher Guest, tackled similar themes memorably more than thirty years ago).

Ylvis trying to crack an age-old mystery

                                                 Ylvis trying to crack an age-old mystery

Ylvis belong to a rich tradition of quirky Anglo-Nordic rock – which we loosely define here as some kind of cultural exchange where Anglophone artists (albeit not necessarily singing in English) embrace all things Nordic, and vice versa (with Scandi artists not necessarily singing in their mother tongue). The trick of writing something offbeat and musically and lyrically plausible without sounding like Spinal Tap is not an easy one. Spinal Tap represent a pure parody of over-earnest rock; Ylvis can hardly be accused of the same.

Todd Rundgren, himself the grandson of an immigrant who came to the US from Norrtälje in Sweden at the beginning of the 20th century, pulled the trick off admirably on Song Of The Viking on his landmark 1972 album, Something/Anything? It’s a track that effortlessly melds an apparent love of Gilbert and Sullivan (the sleeve notes tell us how Rundgren wrote this ‘in the feverish grip of the dreaded “D’Oyle (sic) Carte” ‘) with Rundgren’s own sophisticated take on modern pop and rock.

Still pertinent (and healthily impertinent) after all these years: Todd Rundgren

Still pertinent (and healthily impertinent) after all these years: Todd Rundgren

The validity of such tracks as something more than mere novelty/’music comedy’ items hangs on the ability to come up with really telling musical and lyrical flashes of insight on top of a well-structured song. One of the joys (for me) of Song of the Viking is that it is barely two and half minutes long yet resonates like some rich epic long after one has heard it. Rundgren gets the tone bang on when he describes the tale of Knut who ‘beats the drum’ on a Viking boat and who recounts of his previous voyages: ‘And we had our god/and it may seem odd/But at least there was a cause..And through it all we never faltered’.

The use of down-to-earth language (and Knut’s own sense of self-awareness and quiet pride in what he has done) makes it easier to relate to the narrator (and Rundgren himself) as unpretentious human beings. On top of that, Rundgren somehow manages to introduce a note of poignancy amid the breathless Nordic musical jig style (if it can be called that) when he slows the song right down to inform us: ‘If you like I’ll be your Viking’.

At heart Rundgren’s material, even to this day, has a strong vein of informed romanticism and highlights the need for human beings to connect with one another, and Song Of The Viking is a good example. It is ironic that this song about a historical foreign culture is both funny and warm and passes the Spinal Tap test whereas a separate effort on the same album dealing with the more familiar (for Rundgren) theme of modern American adolescence (‘Piss Aaron’) is clearly not well judged in the same way, although admittedly that’s the exception rather than the rule on this all-encompassing pop masterpiece.

There have been numerous attempts by Anglophone hard rock bands to summon up the Nordic or Viking spirit within their work, but no effort remains more resonant than Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. Musically, it’s a brutal, stripped-down juggernaut with a remarkable amount of diversity within that short timeframe (not unlike Song Of The Viking).

Still evoking awe like no other band: the Zep

                               Still evoking awe like no other band: the Zep

Later in their career, Led Zeppelin faced charges of being overblown, but Immigrant Song can hardly be a case in point: Jimmy Page’s signature guitar riff is interspersed with some scintillating (yet remarkably angular and clever) chord progressions and the landmark wail (or battle-cry?) by Robert Plant at the beginning subsequently gives way to a lower, more deliberate yet exploratory vocal register for the key phrase: ‘To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming.’ As such, the lyric comes across as far less silly (and far more like a piece of genuine nuanced story-telling like the Icelandic sagas themselves) than might otherwise be the case.

For all that, it’s the thrilling bombast which serves as the make-or-break element of Led Zeppelin’s most celebrated music – and indeed their live performances. In this sense, it’s difficult not to feel in the context of performance that Plant’s much commented-on resemblance to an open-shirted Viking (or Viking/hippy/troubador/Lothario hybrid?) made Northern-inspired lyrical tomes such as Immigrant Song and No Quarter far more palpable.

And yet. Here we are nearly half a century after the first Led Zeppelin album, and interest in their music appears to be intensifying on a daily basis, driven on by this week’s release of remastered (and previously unreleased) material. The political and social turbulence of the 2010s doesn’t seem too far away from the backdrop of the late 1960s and early 1970s when Led Zeppelin were in their pomp, and yet what seems so potent within their music from a distance of forty-plus years is the sense of freedom and hope.

Somehow – somehow – a lyric in Immigrant Song which could be easily construed as one about stereotypical Viking themes – pillage, plunder, conquest, battle etc. (‘On we sweep with threshing oar/Our only goal will be the Western shore’) ends up evoking the heady sense of adventure and thrilling expedition with raw naivety (which is surely one of the factors that makes the very terse and stripped-down ‘no explanations needed’ narrative of the Icelandic sagas so timeless and potent in the first place).

At best, Led Zeppelin’s lyrics work far better than a lot of commentators seem to have acknowledged because they so palpably capture the sense that the author is a young, blue-eyed boy from England’s West Midlands, desperate for adventure, full of zest and yet not free of a little trepidation (a case in point being The Rover, recorded two years after Immigrant Song: ‘I’ve been to London/Seen seven wonders/I know to trip is just too far.’) Which is surely the whole ethos of rock and roll.

Maybe it is the singing and music that, texturally speaking, brings such phrases to life. Yet, with hindsight, it’s remarkable how on Immigrant Song Plant fuses this persona/real self with a tribute to Viking/Icelandic saga culture and does it all so lovingly (a phrase that few were probably inclined to use seriously in Zeppelin’s ‘bad boys’ heyday). All Ylvis/Rundgren/Zeppelin wannabes should probably take note.

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