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“Analyzing the Lyrics to ‘Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin in All Their Seminal British Quirk”


“Immigrant Song,” the first tune on Led Zeppelin III, has one auspicious claim to fame of being the opener on the band’s wolverine live album, How the West Was Won. In addition, you’ll hear it snippeted in the Jack Black film School of Rock, in a scene when he’s sneaking the students for which he substitute teaches on some surreptitious “rock” field trip of some sort. As you might surmise from this, it’s a song that carries a very IMMEDIATE sort of power, able to imbue a sense of freedom and conquest in just a couple odd seconds, or by way of a very brief segment.

But hark… from once over the barracks came a time in rock when bands weren’t like nauseatingly earnest, when lyrics could still be tongue-in-cheek and didn’t abide with repugnantly invariable staunchness to the mood dictated by the music, line for line [1]. In the case of “Immigrant Song,” actually, even though the music is so exciting and visceral, the whole dang THING is pretty much a goof off — Zeppelin’s take on the American phenomenon of “immigrants” [2]. 

It’s a song that’s ABOUT vikings taking over: “We come from the land of the ice and snow / From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow”, sung entirely from the perspective thereof, but that’s also, by American standards, pretty devoid of conflict and tension. The whole thing is in fact delivered as if in a dream, with a strange emphasis placed on the seemingly ephemeral statement of “We are your overlords”. 

This, then, would bring me to my primary point about this song, which deals with a humorously inverted paradigm of international wartime, one in which the primitive, Nordic men of the sea still hold sovereignty: “How soft your fields of green / Can whisper tales of gore / Of how we calmed the tides of war / We are your overlords”. Obviously, this reference to primitive vikings as ruling over the British empire, what with the latter’s acquisitions of numerous colonies all over the world and victories in two world wars, is meant to evoke a sort of mystical, metaphysical sort of effect. Most importantly, though, it steers the song into this distinctly British realm of the foolish, and, while being self-deprecating in denouncing the military prevalence of its own nation, also seems to embody this certainly British sense of humor, one which has to entail such a predilection for self-parody as a requisite for its knack for successfully mocking the outside world.

“Immigrant Song” is arguably Led Zeppelin’s first sort of “satire” song and comes, not accidentally, after their band groundwork was lain by certain achievements in sound (“You Shook Me”); physical achievement (“Moby Dick”) and of course good ol’ rock star lust (“Whole Lotta Love”). It did not, though, surface in a time when the spoofing, or the fleecing, of national powers were out of style, or rare, as it were. Sadly, again, the British were far more prolific in this sort of thing than the Americans, as a general rule, with the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” taking a pointedly playful jab at the prideful, churlish U.S.A. immediately following the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” perhaps doing a similar thing though cutting noticeably deeper with some serious, sharp and accusatory apocrypha. The fact of “Immigrant Song” being about nothing but just a fictitious realm of viking “immigrants” taking over and leading Britain in its bellicose endeavors should signify that ultimately this stuff was all in good fun. Ironically, though, its complete topical eccentricity, I think, stands as a feather in its cap — they were aping the Beatles and the Stones, that is, in a way that was so creative and fresh as to almost completely disguise their endeavor of doing so at all. But that anecdote of “immigrants” should give it away, to the mentally adroit, anyway, and should also solidify what we can’t help but begin to see was a preternatural British sense of the iconoclastic and the analytically humorous, a penchant on their part that must have stemmed from something that was nurtured as discursive throughout pubs and other hang-outs, on a word-of-mouth level. In this way, anyway, we must credit Britain for just another building block in the rock and roll “wall” that is truly almost all theirs anyway, albeit a piece that’s probably too subtle and clever to be duplicated by anybody across the pond, sadly enough. 

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[1] Granted, it could certainly be argued that, given America’s history, it’s harder to be un-patriotic, or dissenting, in a song, and not reap some sort of ignominious, damning fate.

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[2] It’s interesting too that Zeppelin chose a Nordic setting for being the source of Britain’s phantom “immigrants,” since that’s the exact region of Europe from which Donald Trump playfully requested such a populace influx. 

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