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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.

Primary image courtesy of Rockasteria

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

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That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
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This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

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Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

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18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

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