A new SMACKDOWN – the Battle for Middle Earth

Seems like ages since we’ve presented a good smackdown, and our last was the totally-lopsided Herb Alpert’s 9th vs. Beethoven’s 9th. Here’s a bizarre pair of fairly obscure records that were in a large collection of 60s rock this winter.

bilbo and gandalf

bilbo and gandalf

nova hobbit

Which one is our daughter Nova and which one is Bilbo Baggins?

Hobbits are the fictional inhabitants of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, first appearing as the titular character in his 1937 novel, The Hobbit, as a reluctant hero named Bilbo Baggins. The Hobbits were a late 60s psychedelic band led by a sporadically successful, enigmatic pop singer Jimmy Curtiss. He wrote and sang songs with doo wop groups early in his career (the Enjays, the Regents) before branching out into psychedelic music for Decca Records, including not only the Hobbits but also the soul-heavy Bag, who recorded an LP and a couple singles, and a few other even less prolific bands.

The Hobbits’ first album – Down to Middle Earth – is fairly uncommon, but not as rare as Gandalf, the only LP released by another 60s psych band apparently really into Tolkien’s epic novels, having named themselves after the wizard who intitiates Bilbo Baggins’ adventurs, himself an enigmatic figure. Gandalf was sort of a doomed band – Capitol Records not only didn’t promote their album, but originally issued it with the wrong LP inside the jacket! – but has become a collector’s favorite. Their 1969 album often sells for over $200, or nearly ten times the average price on a copy of Down to Middle Earth.

We’ve got copies of both albums – although not very nice ones – and today we’re going to put them against one another in our latest “smackdown”:

The Hobbits vs. Gandalf – so it’s come to this

Round #1: Awesome-est cover

hobbits lp

The Hobbits sort of win this one by default, because the copy of Gandalf I found doesn’t even have it’s cover. That’s not really fair, because if you search for it online (here, for instance) you’ll find one of the cool-est looking 60s psych records. Presently, our copy of the Gandalf LP is being stored in an empty Mother Goose jacket.

gandalf lp

As with many LPs that turn up without their original jacket, I’m guessing that somebody tacked Gandalf up on their dorm room wall. This is often the case with classic LPs that have awesome stuff life dragons on the cover, and most often when there are boobs (Blind Faith, Electric Ladyland, Supertramp’s Indelibly Stamped, etc) although in some cases we can assume that somebody’s mom threw the jacket away.

Round #2: Best Tolkien references

This is another round that the Hobbits win outright, because the title track on Down to Middle Earth is really the only place I recognize any references at all. And the lyrics in this track are pretty stupid, to be honest. Allmusic.com points out that the Hobbits’ Curtiss wrote his own lyrics “admirably,” but I think we could simply say that he wrote his own lyrics.

down to middle earth

“Down to Middle Earth”

Neither album contains the sort of awesome LOTR stuff on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (“Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Battle of Evermore”) or Baklava the second Pearls Before Swine which features the theatrical “Ring Thing.”

Round #3: Which record is actually in the worst shape

Down to Middle Earth: Sort of torn up jacket; scuffs and scratches on both sides of the LP; even some paint on side two. Who the hell gets paint on their records? (oh yeah, apparently I do)

Gandalf: No jacket; scratches on both sides.

Gandalf actually plays better, and in the end I’ll take a listenable LP with no jacket over one that skips so badly as Down to Middle Earth. Captiol recently reissued Gandalf, so you can get nice copies of it, now. Decca Records, who released the Hobbits LPs, had not reissued them yet.

Round #4: Best psych rock moment

let me run my fingers through your mind

“Let Me Run my Fingers through your Mind”

The Hobbits’ album has some pop songs that border on novelty (especially the sunshiny, silly “Daffodil Days”) but also a few trippy moments. “Down to Middle Earth” starts out right, but Jimmy Curtiss’ crooning is about as inspired by Bobby Vee as by LSD, and nothing in the track is really going to blow your mind.

About half of Gandalf is covers, but the band approaches each song with an original sound, especially the three songs by psych-friendly folky Tim Hardin. Peter Sando’s whispy lead vocals are more suited to the genre, and the album’s heavier lyrics are more rewarding.

With its swirling organ and lush, almost doo wop vocals, Gandalf’s “Me About You” is the standout track on either of the two LPs. It probably helps that their album is the one that plays with the least clicks, pops and skips, but the album is also considered a cult classic for good reason.

01 me about you

“Me About You”

Round #5: Really the only question that matters is Which album would J.R.R. Tolkien prefer?

Assuming the author has kept up on popular music until he passed away in 1973, there were probably far more successful works that caught his ear. Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” was and still is probably the coolest Tolkien-inspired pop record.

Even that was probably not Tolkien’s taste. The music of Middle Earth (at least in the songs and poems included in the Lord of the Rings books) seems to have more to do with the middle ages than music like Led Zeppelin or American psychedelic rock. It is often argued that his novels were inspired by Richard Wagner’s epic operatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Tolkien took offense, once writing “both rings are round but that’s where the comparisons end!” Given the Third Reich’s co-option of Wagner’s masterpiece, and the composer’s own controversial views, it is not surprising that Tolkien, a veteran of the first World War and as early as 1938 an open opponent of Nazism, would be upset by comparisons.
If a friend gave Tolkien a copy of the Hobbits’ Down to Middle Earth as a gag gift he likely would have taken it as little more than that, a novelty item. So while he was unlikely to have heard of Gandalf, given the disastrous release of their only album, I’m guessing they’re the one he’d like the best. golden earings“Golden Earrings”

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