by Mike Johnson
Tolkien's profound influence on the arts is undeniable, but Middle-earth seems to be a place where rock musicians fear to tread. The link between rock music and The Lord of the Rings has always been strong. Those who appreciate the ancient, mythical aspect of rock music, usually have the imagination to fully immerse themselves in Tolkien's world. Perhaps it is the lurking terror of critical analysis that scares musicians away, or a fear of defiling that which is so precious to many of their fans, the one piece of imaginative literature that, to this day, remains in tune with their better ideals. Perhaps, one day, someone would meet the challenge and champion their cause, and write the music they long for. It would take someone with courage, and a belief in their own ability, to focus their talents upon the very place their hearts would take them: Middle Earth.
It would take a hero. A legend.
Many rock bands have taken tentative steps, only hinting at Tolkien's influence on their work, inserting token names such as Gollum and Mordor into their lyrics with no more care or effect than furry dice to a Cortina Mark IV. If it were to be done, it would take someone, not only with a personal empathy for the subject, but with an already renowned history in the field of majestic, melodic rock. Someone who could not only boast of his love for the story of the ring, but one we could entrust with the task of painting a musical portrait of our beloved Middle Earth. Someone that would not only take us there in song, but share the journey too.
So when Bob Catley, lead singer of the rock band Magnum, announced that his third solo album would be inspired by The Lord of the Rings, and that the music would be written by the talented song writer Gary Hughes, my hope was rekindled. At last, a rock album that would do the books justice, a work of power and feeling that would give new colour to that which is already perfect. But don't just take my word for it:
|Interview Date||Saturday 13th January 2001|
|Place||Startracks Studio, Manchester|
|Present||Gina Claxton, The Keeper of Records|
|Bob Catley, The Minstrel|
|Gary Hughes, The Bard|
Bob Catley could have been smoking a long pipe, with bared feet crossed in front of him.
The guys were so keen to talk about the music, I hardly needed to ask any questions.
|Q:||Why did you decide to compose an album inspired by The Lord of the Rings?|
|Bob:||We had talked about doing a Lord of the Rings type album while doing the first two albums. We touched on it on the first album, The Tower, with the track, Fear of the Dark.|
|Gary:||Fear of the Dark was based in Middle Earth, but there is no direct connection with any of the characters. It has the aura of Middle Earth and depicts a kind of nightmare scenario in that land.|
|Bob:||Then we did Legends, which was based on legendary characters and literature.
(Including Homer, Dracula and The Phantom of the Opera.) Then one day,
Do you want to do it then?And I said,
OK, I'm getting scared now. We're actually, really going to do it?
|Q:||So you're a big Lord of the Rings fan?|
|Bob:||We both are. We both wanted to do this album.|
|Gary:||We had already done Legends, which included tracks based on great works of literature. Lord of the Rings seemed the natural thing to move onto. It's another epic subject. We only work on the big stuff.|
|Bob:||Oh, yeah. We don't mess around. We had to get this one out of our system, before we could move on. So we said, let's stop talking about it and actually do it. This is something we might never have the chance to do again.|
|Gary:||The last few years we have been working on an Arthurian project, a double album involving other singers. Whereas that will have a narrator throughout, it was important that this album would be different. This had to be special and unusual. People who remember Magnum know that there was always this folklore vibe surrounding them, and I think the fans see Bob's character as being very Tolkienesque.|
|Bob:||A little guy with big feet. I've been called an elf, a hobbit and all sorts.|
|Gary:||So, I thought, why not plunge him into the world for which he was created? (Bob laughs)|
|Q:||Would you like to live under a hill?|
|Bob:||Yeah, I wouldn't mind. I'd try it. I lived in a caravan for a short time. It couldn't be any worse than that, could it? It would be a darn sight warmer as well.|
|Q:||So what's the attraction of Tolkien for you personally?|
|Gary:||When you're growing up, anything to do with wizards and magic is completely awe-inspiring. It's nice to see kids, when they read Tolkien for the first time, how deeply they get into it. I find it amazing how he crafted Middle Earth in such a way. He wove the whole thing like a tapestry. Nobody else has done it so well, before or since, so convincing, so believable. It all interlocks.|
|Q:||Why do you think people who listen to rock music find Tolkien equally appealing?|
|Gary:||I think Tolkien brings out the artistic side in anyone. And then it's all about creating and adding to it, but without detracting from it. It was very important to us that we did not deface the story in any way. We didn't want to do anything that bent the rules around Tolkien's work. At the same time, we didn't want to do anything that deviated too much from the story. But you can't reflect something on the scale of Lord of the Rings in just one album. So I said to Bob, why don't we just do songs 'inspired' by the story?|
|Q||So tell us a little bit more about the songs.|
|Gary||Pretty much all of them are sung in the first person. We wanted to 'ghost' through the books without being too precise and specific about the facts. But we tried to use one or two place names in the songs to give that particular song a 'root', somewhere where it touches ground. Otherwise, the album is quite emotive, and Bob has sung it that way.|
|Bob:||I hope so, because I have the utmost respect for Tolkien. I couldn't sing it badly if I tried. I have to feel the music; otherwise I just can't do a good job.|
|Q||Do you think the album will surprise your regular fans?|
|Bob:||No, I don't. They think of me as the "Storyteller" from my Magnum days and, to me, that's a singer's job to tell a story. I think they've seen it coming, even though it's quite different to what I've done before. It's not unexpected for people that know me, and know how I am on stage. If I know my fans - and I know most of them by name (laughs) - I think they're really gonna' go with it.|
|Gary||Each song has a different concept of its own, and Bob's delivery live is like a storyteller. He 'casts' the lines (Gary demonstrates with his hand) and you can believe the story he's telling. And that is why I thought that he, of all people, had the best chance of pulling this off. When you listen to the songs, there's real emotion there. It's not contrived.|
|Bob:||The feeling I got when I first heard the melody to 'The Fellowship', and read the lyrics, was of an anthem, or a hymn, and so that's how I sung it. I actually find the song quite upsetting. I thought, this is ridiculous. I had to choke back the tears; I couldn't help it. And me, a grown man...|
|Gary||Even though we know it's based around the Tolkien novels - the comradery of the fellowship, the feeling that they've endured the task together - to the unknowing there's all manner of things. It's like Remembrance Day; it triggers emotions.|
|Q||There is some concern among Tolkien fans that the forthcoming movie will not do the books justice. Should we be concerned about this album?|
|Gary||Everybody has their own mental image of all the characters, and if Gandalf doesn't look like Gandalf, then they're not gonna' buy it. It's encouraging that they are keeping the films a trilogy, and that they are all being filmed at the same time. That might give it some kind of continuity. As to the music, I was quite worried about how it would be received. But now I know that we've done the best job we can. If we had the chance to go back, we wouldn't do it any other way. It's important that people realize that we are fans, and that we're doing our best as fans. If you look at fantasy art, you can tell that so much of it is Tolkien based, and they are doing their best because they got so much out of the books. We're the same. We got so much out of the books that we just had to do this.|
|Bob:||I hope that people don't scrutinize, because that's not the spirit in which it was done. The songs are good, the performance will be good, and we think it'll be a great album. We're very proud of it.|
|Gary||We're revisiting our childhood in many respects. Re-reading Lord of the Rings to do this album has been a real 'soul-food' experience, and we're immersed in it now. We're never going to come back to this subject, so we've got to do the best that we possibly can, before we can put it to one side.|
|Q||If there were a real Prancing Pony, would you drink there? And do you think the locals would enjoy your music?|
|Bob:||Of course I'd drink there. I've probably been there. As to the music, I'm sure they would love it.|
|Gary||One thing's for sure, if they asked him to get up and sing, as they asked Frodo for a song from the Shire, Bob would have no problem giving them a song from Stafford-shire.|
|Q||Gary. Did you have this project in mind when you first contacted Bob three years ago?|
|Gary||Not in the form that it is now, although I had already written 'Fear of the Dark' for The Tower. As a Magnum fan, it was down to my perception of Bob as being this Tolkienesque character, this Storyteller.|
|Q||Your lyrics show that you are as much a poet as a musician.|
|Gary||Thank you. I was always a romantic and into poetry, and I read a lot. I think this is reflected in my lyrics. I can't put a good book down until I've finished it.|
|Q||How do you achieve a mythological feel with rock instruments?|
|Gary||I think it's in the melody. The songs are almost neo-classical in their layout, and we use a traditional, melodic approach. Some of our sweeter music is more folk-based. Otherwise, I can't quite put my finger on it. If I could, I'd sell the secret.|
|Bob:||Gary's got some very good orchestral sounds on the keyboards. We didn't want it to be a normal rock album. It will be very atmospheric with orchestral passages, so it'll have that 'epic' feel. You'll close your eyes and it'll be like Ben Hur, or Gladiator.|
|Gary||And you've got to be a real singer to sing these songs. You can't 'fudge' them. To do a Catley song, you've got to be able to really sing. There are a lot of lyrics on this album and the tracks are long; nine tracks with nearly an hour of music. Some of the songs have two titles, almost dual-headers with a preceding prelude and then the main song. As I said, we wanted to do something unusual.|
At this stage, Gary runs through the tracks:
| The Wraiths of the Ring
This reflects the initial journey out of the Shire. It describes the Hobbits' first encounter with the Ring Wraiths, where they hide, cowering, waiting for danger to pass.The Fields that I Recall/The Emissary
This begins with a reflection of the Shire that has the shadow of Sauron looming over it. The second part depicts the idea that the Ring has a life of its own, and that each keeper unwillingly lets it slip through their fingers, turning each recipient into an 'emissary', guiding it to where it wants to go.
| The City Walls
Based around Helms Deep and the whole standoff situation, it portrays the idea that, at dawn, the defenders will ride out to meet their fate, whatever that might be.Where You Lead I'll Follow/Stormcrow and Pilgrim
Reflects the idea that the fellowship is being guided by Gandalf, and explains how he meets them at various points along the route to help them.Against the Wind
Depicts the idea that this small group of people are forging on against the odds to complete a seemingly impossible task.The Return of the Mountain King
An upbeat song to lift the album, it reflects the return of Aragorn, King of Gondor.The End of Summer
Based on the idea that Frodo would gladly give Galadriel the One Ring, at a time when she is supposed to be testing his resolve. Reflects the fact that Frodo is completely taken by her aura, and that Lothlorien might be the last safe haven he will see for a while.This Gallant Band of Manic Strangers
This one suggests how crazy the quest must have seemed to the Hobbits, to travel to the land of Sauron and seek the fire where the ring was made.The Fellowship
A poignant song that draws a natural close to the album. It is a melancholic but positive reflection on how the company stayed together, through thick and thin, bringing the whole thing full circle.
|Q:||Do you think this is the best music you have written?|
|Gary:||I would say it is the most complete set of material I've written. When
you're writing for someone of Bob's reputation, you have to make sure
you do the best you can, all the time. I wouldn't approach him with anything
I thought would not work. As to the songs, now they're finished, I can't
imagine any other versions of them, and that's always a good indication
that you've got it right.
(Gary leaves at this point to continue mixing the album.)
|Q:||Can you remember your first experience of Lord of the Rings?|
|Bob:||Yes. I was at school. We studied The Lord of the Rings and it stuck with me. I got it out of the library, started reading it, and the story just took over.|
|Q:||Did it change your life?|
|Bob:||It must have done, without me realizing it. I started singing with bands, but The Lord of the Rings stayed with me through my life. It's a wonderful story. I'm not an expert by any means, but I'm definitely a fan, and I wanted to put it to music. I still can't believe we're actually doing it. It's a golden opportunity.|
|Q:||Tell me a little more about the King Arthur project.|
|Bob:||Well I'm going to be Merlin. It's going to be a double album with the possibility of a stage show. Gary's looking at other big names in the business. It's very exciting, but it's going to take a year to complete. Unlike Middle Earth, this will be specific, with different singers playing different characters.|
|Q:||And The Jabberwocky?|
|Bob:||I did that one two years ago with Clive Nolan and Oliver Wakeman and I'm going to be working with those two again on the Hound of the Baskervilles.|
|Q:||This whole mythology link seems to follow you around. Is this your personal choice, or do people just associate you with stories and literature?|
|Bob:||Why do they keep picking on me? (Bob jokes) I'm just a bloke who likes singing. I think people associate me with portraying characters. Anybody with that kind of project in mind comes looking for me. It's got be the right music, though. I don't want to waste anybody's time including my own.|
|Q:||For those who have never heard of Magnum, how would you describe your musical style?|
|Bob:||'Never heard of Magnum?' (Bob pretends to be astounded.) Where have they been all their lives? No, seriously. 'Melodic Rock' is a pretty good way to describe it. Melodies, harmonies, great musicianship and, above all, great songs. Put all that together, and it's very good on the ear. It's not harsh, and you can hear every word. I want people to hear the lyrics on this album.|
|Q:||Lots of emotion?|
|Bob:||Oh, yeah. It's good for the heart.|
|Q:||Will you be playing much of the new album on tour?|
|Bob:||I'm on tour at the end of April and through May. I'll probably sing about half of the album. Good as it is, the fans will still want to hear all the Magnum stuff later on in the show. They like to jump up and down to something they know - the really ancient stuff. I hope that people who come and see me on tour, and buy the records, tell all their friends. Just come along one time, and I'm sure you'll be there forever.|
|Q:||Is that your message to Tolkien fans?|
|Bob:||Yes. Just give it a chance. You're gonna' love it, or my name isn't Bob Catley. It's a conceptual album, so if you never buy another rock album in your life, buy this one. In my opinion, it enhances that which is already wonderful: The Lord of the Rings.|
|Q:||Finally, what does Middle Earth mean to you?|
|Bob:||I'd like to think that Middle Earth is where I've always lived; the Midlands, the Shires, England. That's the real Middle Earth to me: Tolkien Country. Perhaps that's why I'm a fan.|
The interview ends, but we chat into the wee hours about Bob's Magnum days. Later, we find that Gary has almost finished mixing another track, 'The Fellowship'. I find myself humming the tune. And yet I heard it just once, three weeks ago, at a live concert. That is the effect this music has. It stays with you, just like Lord of the Rings.
From the pieces I had the pleasure of hearing in the studio, and from my knowledge of Bob Catley's recent approach to music, I expect this album to add a fresh and invigorating dimension to Tolkien's legacy. Yes, it's rock music - there's no denying it. But it's far from mindless noise. The melodic harmonies will not destroy your eardrums, and the compassionate lyrics will not encourage devil worship. It is music of hope, and I think JRRT would approve.
Bob Catley's new album Middle Earth has been released. It can be ordered from Now & Then - for details see their website.