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8 Moments When Music and Middle-Earth Collided

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Peter Jackson's latest J.R.R. Tolkein-based film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, hits theaters today. But Tolkein's books haven't just inspired films. Here's a look back at a few Hobbit- and Lord of the Rings-inspired musical moments.

1. The Hippies Fall Hard For Hobbits

Previously available only as expensive hardcovers, the first paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings in the mid-1960s led to an explosion in popularity for the series. It was particularly embraced by the countercultural crowd; the motto “Frodo Lives!” eventually appeared on buttons, bumper stickers, and t-shirts of the era.

It didn’t take long for the series’ influence to permeate psychedelic music, as Tolkien-themed songs and bands popped up throughout the next decade. Journeyman singer/songwriter Jimmy Curtiss formed a sunshine pop group called The Hobbits, who released their debut album, Down to Middle Earth, in 1967; the psychedelic group Gandalf formed in New York City the same year.

Fuzz-propelled rockers Armageddon dramatized Gandalf and Bilbo’s first meeting in the lyrics to “Bilbo Baggins,” from their 1969 self-titled debut. San Francisco’s bafflingly-named Neighb’rhood Childr’n closed their lone album with a song called “Hobbit’s Dream.” Tom Rapp, the writer behind psych-folksters Pearls Before Swine, was so inspired by Tolkien’s work that he gave him a songwriting credit on the band’s 1968 track, “Ring Thing,” which sets much of Tolkien’s “The One Ring” poem over a far-out psychedelic backing.  

In 1972, folk singer Chris Wilson released a record under the name Gandalf the Grey, titled The Grey Wizard Am I. The album’s lyrics were full of Tolkien references—the title track vaguely summarizes The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—but its grandest homage is the (absolutely amazing) cover photo, featuring Wilson in full wizard garb.

2. The Beatles’ Movie Adaptation Which Never Was

John Lennon was reputed to be a big fan of The Lord of the Rings. So much so, in fact, that he once tried to buy the film rights to the series, but Tolkien balked at the idea of a big screen adaptation starring The Beatles.

Although it’s hard to imagine how their version might have turned out, you have to admit the casting choices were pretty spectacular: Paul was to star as Frodo, George was to play Gandalf, Ringo would be Samwise, and John? Gollum.

3. Leonard Nimoy Hams Up The Hobbit For An ABC Variety Show

During the original Star Trek series’ three season run in the late 1960s, actor Leonard Nimoy released two novelty albums for Dot Records. (The records featured songs where the TV star performed in-character as his wildly popular Mister Spock.) The second of these albums, Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, featured a song titled “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” composed by writer Charles Grean and inspired by Tolkien’s classic. He performed the song with a gaggle of groovy, pointy-eared dancers on a 1967 episode of Malibu U, and the video is still one of the greatest things you’ll find on YouTube.

4. Led Zeppelin Takes Tolkien to the Top of the Charts

Led Zeppelin is the band most famously known to be fans of Tolkien’s work, and they’re easily the biggest-selling. Several of their chart-topping albums contained allusions to Middle-earth. For example, the song “Ramble On” name-drops Mordor and Gollum, “Misty Mountain Hop” was titled after the location of the same name from The Hobbit, and “The Battle of Evermore” referenced a dark lord, ring wraiths, and magic runes written in gold.  

Led Zeppelin’s love for all things Lord of the Rings wasn’t limited to their music: Robert Plant’s dog, which he sang about in the song “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” was named Strider, after Aragorn’s nickname.

5. One Savvy Swede Goes Conceptual

In 1970, Swedish keyboardist Bo Hansson had hit a lull in his career. He’d toured in support of The Rolling Stones and even jammed with Jimi Hendrix—the famous guitarist recorded a version of “Tax Free,” which Hansson had written—but his latest band had broken up, leaving him in search of a new direction to take his career.

Inspired by his girlfriend’s copy of The Lord of the Rings, Hansson retreated to a summer house on an island off the coast of Stockholm and, with the help of a few friends, recorded a full instrumental concept album based on Tolkien’s trilogy. Released in Hansson’s native country in 1970 as Sagan om ringen—the title of the series’ Swedish translation—and abroad in 1972 as Music Inspired By Lord of the Rings, it was a major hit for the keyboardist, even earning gold record status in the U.K. and Australia. Hansson tried to repeat the literary formula in 1977 with Music Inspired by Watership Down, but that album was a commercial flop.

6. Prog Rockers Pick Up The Tolkien Torch

Sweden wasn’t the only country where progressive rockers recorded Tolkien tributes. By the early 1970s, The Lord of the Rings had found a new wave of musically-inclined fans among several of the genre’s most famous groups in the U.S. and United Kingdom.

Rush wrote the surprisingly gentle “Rivendell” for their 1975 album, Fly By Night. Styx included “Lords of the Ring” on their 1978 classic, Pieces of Eight, while a pre-Phil Collins Genesis wrote a song about Gollum (“Stagnation”) for 1970’s Trespass. Camel’s second record included a nine-minute composition called “Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider,” and Argent wrote an almost eight-minute track called “Lothlorien” for 1971’s Ring of Hands.

7. Heavy Metal Bands Make Mordor Their Muse

As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, heavy metal acts were the next musical movement to embrace Tolkien’s world of elves and orcs en masse. California’s Cirith Ungol took their name from the spider Shelob’s lair, while Germany’s Attacker titled their first album Battle At Helm’s Deep. In more recent decades, bands such as Summoning (Austria) and Battlelore (Finland) have formed and filled their discographies with Tolkien-themed songs and records.

The Lord of the Rings’ influence was particularly strong among Scandinavian metal acts. Sweden’s Amon Amarth took their name from an Elvish title for Mount Doom, while Norway’s Gorgoroth are named after an area of Mordor. The lead singer of Norwegian black metal unit Dimmu Borgir takes his stage name, Shagrath, from an orc army commander, while Burzum—a notorious recording project from Norwegian black metal’s early years—is a word meaning “darkness” in The Black Speech, the language spoken by Sauron’s servants.

Metal’s most intensive tribute to Tolkien comes from Germany’s Blind Guardian. Their full 1998 concept album, Nightfall in Middle-Earth, is a power-metal take on Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.

8. New Zealand Produces The Definitive Film Adaptation (And The Best Musical Parody)

It was a New Zealand director who finally produced a complete and generally faithful filmic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings; it was a duo from the same small island nation who would create its definitive musical parody.

Jermaine Clement and Bret Mckenzie—the pair behind the Grammy Award-winning musical comedy group Flight of the Conchords—introduced their tune, “Frodo,” during live performance as a rejected theme song for Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. The parody acknowledged Tolkien’s influence on both psychedelic folk and metal by borrowing from each musical style, and even tossed in some hip-hop for good measure. The song was later included in an episode of their HBO series.

The song wasn’t Flight of the Conchords’ first venture into Middle-earth; McKenzie played an elf in the first and third installments of Jackson’s trilogy.

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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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5 Surprising Facts About the Battle of Dunkirk
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With the release of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Dunkirk, the world’s attention is once again focused on the historic events recounted in the film, when a makeshift fleet of British fishing boats, pleasure yachts, and cargo ships helped save 185,000 British soldiers and 130,000 French soldiers from death or capture by German invaders during the Fall of France in May and June 1940. Here are five surprising facts about those heroic days.

1. THE GERMAN ATTACK WAS SUPPOSED TO BE IMPOSSIBLE.

By Weper Hermann, 13 German Mobile Assault Unit - Imperial War Museums, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The main reason France collapsed so quickly in 1940 was the element of surprise enjoyed by its German attackers, thanks to General Erich von Manstein, who proposed an invasion route that was widely believed to be impossible. In Manstein’s plan, the main German column of tanks and motorized infantry would force their way through the forests of Ardennes in southeast Belgium and Luxembourg—a thick, hilly woodland which was supposed to be difficult terrain for tanks, requiring at least five days to cross, according to conventional wisdom based on the experience of the First World War. The French and British assumed that little had changed since the previous conflict, but thanks to field studies and updated maps, Manstein and his colleague General Heinz Guderian realized that a new network of narrow, paved roads would allow just enough room for tanks and trucks to squeeze through. As a result the Germans passed through Ardennes into northern France in just two-and-a-half days, threatening to cut off hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, with only one escape route: the sea.

2. ONE FRENCH WORD WAS BURNED INTO WINSTON CHURCHILL’S MEMORY: “AUCUNE.”

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The German invasion of France began on May 10, 1940, the same day Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. By May 14, when he paid his first official visit to Britain’s ally, Holland had capitulated and Paris was preparing for evacuation. But an even worse surprise was in store. In one of the most famous passages of military history, Churchill recounted the moment he learned that the French didn’t have any troops in reserve:

"I then asked ‘Where is the strategic reserve?’ and, breaking into French … ‘Ou est la mass de manoeuvre?’ General Gamelin turned to me and, with a shake of the head and a shrug, replied. ‘Aucune.’ [There is none] … I was dumbfounded. What were we to think of the Great French Army and its highest chief? It had never occurred to me than any commanders … would have left themselves unprovided with a mass of manoeuvre … This was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”

3. HITLER MADE A FATAL MISTAKE.

On May 24, 1940, the Allied troops on the French and Belgian coast had been totally surrounded by powerful German tank columns, rendering them essentially defenseless against the impending German onslaught. And then came a brief reprieve, as the attackers suddenly stopped for 48 hours, allowing the British to dig in and create a defensive perimeter, setting the stage for the evacuation.

For reasons that still aren’t clear, Hitler—over the protests of his own generals and to the bafflement of historians—had ordered Guderian to halt for two days to rest and resupply. It’s true the German troops were worn out after two weeks of fighting, and Hitler may have worried about a repeat of 1914, when exhausted German troops were forced to withdraw at the Marne. He may also have been swayed by Hermann Göring, chief of the German Luftwaffe, who boasted that air power alone could destroy the helpless Allied forces at Dunkirk. Less likely is the speculation that Hitler purposefully “let the Allies go” to appear magnanimous or merciful as a prelude to peace negotiations (which was not really in keeping with his character). In the end we will probably never know why Hitler choked.

4. GERMAN DIVE-BOMBERS WERE EQUIPPED WITH SIRENS TO SPREAD TERROR.

Among many examples of Germany’s evil genius for psychological warfare, one of the most famous was the decision to equip its Ju 87 dive bombers with air-powered sirens that emitted a shrieking, unearthly wail as the plane went into attack. The siren, known as the “Jericho Trumpet,” was intended to spread terror among enemy troops and civilians on the ground—and it worked. To this day the Jericho Trumpet is one of the most recognizable, and terrifying, sounds of war. It was certainly one of the lasting impressions of the Dunkirk evacuation for ordinary troops caught beneath the German bombs. Lieutenant Elliman, a British gunner who was waiting to be evacuated on Malo-les-Bains beach, later recalled the Stukas “diving, zooming, screeching, and wheeling over our heads like a flock of huge infernal seagulls.”

5. THE FRENCH FOUGHT A HOPELESS BATTLE TO COVER THE EVACUATION.

By Saidman (Mr), War Office official photographer — Photograph H 1636 from the Imperial War Museums, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although Churchill and other Brits were quick to criticize the failure of France’s generals during the Fall of France, many ordinary French soldiers and officers fought bravely and honorably—and one hopeless “last stand” in particular probably helped enable the successful evacuation of Dunkirk.

As British and French troops withdrew to Dunkirk, 40 miles to the southeast French troops in two corps of the French First Army staged a ferocious defense against seven German divisions from May 28 to May 31, 1940, refusing to surrender and mounting several attempts to break out despite being heavily outnumbered (110,000 to 40,000). The valiant French effort, led by General Jean-Baptiste Molinié, helped tie up three German tank divisions under Erwin Rommel, enabling the British Expeditionary Force and the remaining troops of the French First Army to retreat and dig in at Dunkirk, ultimately saving another 100,000 Allied troops.

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