Retrospective: The Battle of Evermore

Most Zeppelin fans favor “Black Dog”, “Rock and Roll”, or “Stairway to Heaven” from the glorious fourth album (1971), but I go with the sneaky third track, and not just because I love Lord of the Rings. “The Battle of Evermore” has a structure and mood enhanced by its lack of percussion, is played only on a mandolin and acoustic guitar, around vocals weaving myth from the past. Gone are the usual Zeppelin themes of sex, drugs, and love; in their place are swords, spells, and war. Archetypes real and imagined replay battles in Scotland and Gondor. What more can you ask of a song that’s doing its damnedest to stand singular while sacrificing none of the mojo that makes it quintessentially Zeppelinesque?

And what a cast. There’s Frodo (“the Prince of Peace”), Galadriel (“the Queen of Light”), Sauron (“the Dark Lord”) and his Nazgul (the “Ringwraiths who ride in black”). Outside of Middle-Earth, the Arthurian legend is evoked (Avalon) and also real-world British history (with overtones of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce fighting for Scottish independence). Just in case you missed the title, the lyrics makes clear that we’re on a battleground of hopeless causes, where the right sides won not because they were good, but despite it.

Which is all fine and grand. The Lord of the Rings is the best story ever told, and the Scottish Independence Wars (1296-1357) are stirring history. But stories are nothing if the music is shitty. Zeppelin’s music has two things going for it in this song, the first being its rhythmic urgency. It starts with a slow fade-in, announcing the urgency with intense cord stabs. The cords keep coming at the right moments and propel the song forward with the exciting narrative. Just as films depend on dramatic tension to hold interest, certain songs need the musical equivalent of dramatic tension, and “Evermore” has that in spades.

The second thing it has going for it is its question-and-answer style. It’s is the only recorded Zeppelin song to use a guest vocalist. Robert Plant wanted to make it a duet and so brought in Sandy Denny. They go back and forth, with Plant singing the narrative parts, and Denny crying out for the people. (In the lyrics below, I italicize Denny’s parts.) Now, duets are a dime a dozen in rock, but most are ballad-oriented, and none come close to matching what Plant and Denny accomplish here. (The closest would be Queen and David Bowie in “Under Pressure”.) When I first heard “Battle of Evermore” as a kid, I didn’t even realize it was a duet; I thought Plant was singing the entire thing, and just very effectively lilting his voice at different parts. That’s how seamless he and Denny blend over each other. But the pitches are unmistakable, and Denny’s calls to dance, song, and battle always chill me when I hear them.

The writer at the Broken Levee likes “The Battle of Evermore” too, and acknowledges the difficulty of explaining why: “Music is completely intimate, personal, unique, abstract, so connected to our deeper feelings that it’s really hard to define its meaning.” That’s basically what I said yesterday in my retrospective of “Baba O’Riley”, and why I consider music the purest art form. Its elusive nature sets it (at least in one way) above literature and film. The writer nonetheless takes a stab at explaining why “Evermore” is so special, and I’d say it’s uniquely special. All of the song’s elements could have piled up to an embarrassment of riches, but Plant and Page milked everything — story, tone, and sound — for maximal effect.


Listen here and sing. (The italicized lyrics are the “responses” sung by Sandy Denny, who represents the town crier. The bolded italics are sung by both Plant and Denny.)


The Queen of Light took her bow
And then she turned to go
The Prince of Peace embraced the gloom
And walked the night alone

Oh, dance in the dark of night
Sing to the morning light

The Dark Lord rides in force tonight
And time will tell us all

Oh, throw down your plow and hoe
Rest not to lock your homes

Side by side we wait the might
Of the darkest of them all

I hear the horses’ thunder down in the valley below
I’m waiting for the angels of Avalon, waiting for the eastern glow

The apples of the valley hold the seeds of happiness
The ground is rich from tender care
Repay, do not forget, no, no

Dance in the dark of night
Sing to the morning light

The apples turn to brown and black
The tyrant’s face is red

Oh war is the common cry
Pick up your swords and fly

The sky is filled with good and bad
That mortals never know

Oh well, the night is long, the beads of time pass slow
Tired eyes on the sunrise, waiting for the eastern glow

The pain of war cannot exceed the woe of aftermath
The drums will shake the castle wall
The Ringwraiths ride in black, ride on

Sing as you raise your bow
Shoot straighter than before

No comfort has the fire at night
That lights the face so cold

Oh dance in the dark of night
Sing to the morning light

The magic runes are writ in gold to bring the balance back
Bring it back

At last the sun is shining, the clouds of blue roll by
With flames from the dragon of darkness, the sunlight blinds his eyes.


From the album Led Zeppelin IV, 1971.

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