“You can shake me up, or I can break you down”: Nilsson Schmilsson (Harry Nilsson)

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Year: 1971

Genre: Pop Rock

Preceded by: The Point! (1971)

Followed by: Son of Schmilsson (1972)

Related to: not available yet



Not in any way obstructed by the open curtains, the bright morning sun suddenly intruded the room very forcefully, and soon put a ruthless spotlight on my face, changing black into orange. Meanwhile, a tiny dwarf seemed to walk through my hair, tapping on my forehead with his tiny hammer in a very accurate rhythm, perhaps celebrating the fact that I’d just successfully eaten an ashtray. Anyway, according to my morning routine I grasped at the spot where my glass of water is likely to stand, but there was no glass, neither a place where it could have been. I had no choice but to open up my eyes, the first thing I saw being the ugly as hell tablecloth that had served as my blanket. Our blanket, as it soon became clear that there was a soaked woman beside me, also reasonably skinny and therefore allowing this small old couch to be our bed. Slowly it began to dawn on me that we eventually ended up in Johnny’s house last night; I got up and chased after some water.

Johnny was already sitting at the kitchen table, in his bathrobe, with a glass of milk and a cigarette. We wished each other good morning by means of a mutual smile that didn’t need any words, I gobbled up half a liter of water and went searching for Paul in the wood breathing house. He was in a room at the backside, lying next to a woman at least twice his age. I threw some water in his face.

P: Richard? … Where the fuck are we?
R: Johnny’s house.
P: Johnny’s house? Who the fuck is Johnny?
R: Johnny Niles!
P: Shiiiiit. Who’s this woman?
R: OK, so at least it’s not your mother. We raised hell with Johnny last night.
P: Shit man, what time is it? I gotta let the people know I’m gonna be late!
R: You go be all you can be, man. We’re in the kitchen.

The kitchen was meanwhile wrapped up in smoke, and Johnny had treated himself with the first beer of the day. I put on the white record that was lying next to his record player and joined him for breakfast. Some minutes later, Paul stumbled in.

P: OK, can somebody tell me what happened last night?
J: So Miss Alzheimer couldn’t remember, could she?
P: Fuck you, Johnny.
R: You called me yesterday evening, asking me if I could drop by. When I arrived, you were howling along some completely over the top seventies production, like a freakin’ teenager, telling me that you could not live without her, that kind of shit you know. You said that she had left once again, and that ‘it was very lonely at the bottom of your existence’, really, really sad, man. So I called Johnny, who just got back from London.
P: Brilliant plan man, for my life wasn’t worth saving anyway?
J: Hey, fuck you man. And apparently, she’s breaking your heart, so fuck her. Man, I brought you my best bottle of whisky.
R: He surely did. It totally got you over it, and Johnny took us for a ride across town afterwards.
P: Great, you really wanted to get me killed.
J: Hey, sometimes an idea is just too good for it to be spoiled by responsibility. By the way, it totally cleared your head. You kept on talking about all those people we drove along, all looking very frustrated, depressed, and even angry, and having nothing to say to each other. We talked about how you could read the problems from all people’s faces nowadays, how tired everybody seemed to be from having to look at each other, diverting their glance when they pass by.

Eventually, we drove to the top of the hill to see them all, and the rest of the city, in one view. We had a couple of reefers and from what I remember, I was staring for half an hour at a nocturnal breeze and a lovely moonbeam, chasing each other through the city’s airspace, really fabulous. Could I perhaps offer you something, Paulie? There’s milk, vodka, some beers.
P: Thanks John, but my head is still exploding.
J: Which is exactly why I’m offering. The cause is the cure, man. Take a beer, put some vodka in it and drink it altogether.
P: Well all right. But where the hell do these women come from?
R: We left the car behind at the hill and walked to the valley below. Some people were having a campfire at the lakeshore, so we joined them for a couple of drinks and went swimming with these women. Two of them are sleeping it off in this house now.
J: They took us to some roadhouse bar, where you ran into this, well, very experienced lady. You were really drunk as hell and kept screaming ‘Rock me all night long!’ at her. Shiiit, did I have good laugh out there. You know Paulie, back in her youth, let’s say the early fifties, those things still had a completely different meaning.

R: Shit man, is he really throwing up in your sink?
J: Fuck that, gimme a cigarette.

“You press on God’s waiter your last dime as he hands you the bill”: Aqualung (Jethro Tull)

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Year: 1971

Genre: Progressive Rock

Preceded by: Benefit (1970)

Followed by: Thick as a Brick (1972)

Related to: not available yet



Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick is still considered one of the best progressive rock albums ever made. But Tull will somehow always remain a stranger in the midst of prog bands that delivered the bulk of this genre’s top rated albums during the seventies. First of all, the band certainly could not be classified within this genre from the start. The sound on their early works for example is more connected to the blues rock of Cream’s Disraeli Gears than to the pure psychedelic rock that got bands like Pink Floyd started. But eastern and classic music influences made their entrance on Stand Up (1969), a keyboard player was added to the line-up on Benefit (1970) and suddenly there was Aqualung, a record that was generally acclaimed by the era’s musical climate as Tull’s first concept album. Parents, keep your children inside!

The early days of Jethro Tull go back to Blackpool 1962, when the Scott Ian Anderson formed a band called The Blades with some other musicians. After combining performances with this group with a daytime job for five years, Anderson moved to London in the search for any success. This proved to be difficult, as his original band mates returned back north after just a couple of days. Anderson started to search for other musicians again and found Glenn Cornick on bass, Mick Abrahams on guitar and Clive Bunker on drums. Anderson himself traded his guitar for a flute and called the gang Jethro Tull, after the man who had redefined the practices of agriculture by giving us the horse-drawn hoe.

This new band released its debut album in 1968: This Was. You got to love the satirical title, as it already indicates that Anderson (still sharing the songwriting with Abrahams) was not planning to stick to the album’s pure blues rock sound. Jethro Tull would release one album per year for the next 12 years, with another 8 albums following till their last one in 2003. Such a steady rate would presume a very stable band, but Jethro Tull rather was a wobbling ship in turbulent waters with Ian Anderson as its one and only Captain and Martin Barre as his First Mate. Anderson would navigate this ship with continuously changing crew through raw blues rock and the dangerous prog cliffs before ending up playing folk in the woods.

His path was clear after Abrahams was replaced by Barre following the debut’s release. As the band’s sole songwriter, he now immediately started to change the course of the band on the following two albums mentioned above, with the distinctive flute sound becoming the band’s trademark. Their fourth album (with bass player Jeffrey Hammond joining Anderson’s ship, replacing Cornick) would definitely establish their fame as one of the world’s biggest rock acts and still is their best album, both lyrically and musically. Come aboard.

The album is opened by the title song, which is the main reason for some people to call it a progressive concept album. The song was inspired by a picture (taken by Andersons wife) of a homeless man, given the name Aqualung. The album cover gives this person a face and he does reappear in one other song here (‘Cross-Eyed Mary’) but he can’t be compared to deeply elaborated characters like Rael on Genesis’ Lamb for example. Musically the song (being one of the rare ones without Anderson’s flute) is kind of a short suite, with three different parts creating as much atmospheres. These stylistic changes might indeed point to a conversion to progressive rock although that feature can of course not be completely claimed by that genre. Or would you qualify Aqualung’s five dimensional brother ‘Aquarius’ also as such?

So Aqualung makes a cameo in the second song, called after schoolgirl hooker ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’. The flute immediately compensates its absence on the first track with a great intro, building towards a peak where Anderson’s voice kicks in. This voice sounds hoarse and perfectly matches Barre’s guitar and the pervert lyrics about the young Mary who kicks on satisfying older rich men, while the dirty Aqualung is peeping through the railings of the playground.

The two harder songs are followed by a sweet trio of acoustic songs. First there’s ‘Cheap Day Return’, a personal intermezzo from Anderson about a visit to his dad in the hospital (with the song called after his train ticket). Within only 83 seconds he totally changes the atmosphere with a very fragile voice, thereby creating the perfect intro for ‘Mother Goose’. This is my absolute favorite of the album, with Anderson walking over a fair, meeting bearded ladies and chicken-fanciers. Meanwhile the acoustic instrumentation (guitar and flute) completely melts with his voice, shaping some kind of Medieval atmosphere (this is by far the most ‘folk-ish’ track on the album). Another short song closes the triptych of Anderson’s personal stories, with ‘Wond’ring Aloud’ being a simple love song garnished with a nice string section. One more song to go then on side 1, announced by its famous laughter in the beginning: ‘Up to Me’. Although the lyrics don’t make much sense to me, it’s musically one of the best with all instruments joining forces (featuring a flute-riff) to chase Anderson’s state of mind.

I’m about to turn the record over when I notice the album’s cover featuring our spooky friend Aqualung. He’s lost out of sight for a couple of songs now, so I bury the possibility of this being a concept album. Subsequently the needle lands on side 2 and serves me an entire side with tracks treating the hypocrite aspect of religion, more precisely Christianity. It starts with ‘My God’, introduced by the acoustic guitar after which the piano and Andersons’ moaning voice create the atmosphere of a dark church where Anderson is priest, preaching about the opportunist use of the lord. After a while the soloing electric guitar takes over and the flute solo countering the Gregorian chants gives the album its progressive feeling again.

‘Hymn 43’ is very similar to this track lyrically, maybe the reason that this song didn’t require an intro, kicking off immediately. It’s a riff-based song with great piano contributions and Anderson singing more loudly now, deeply expressing his thoughts of disgust towards the church. It’s followed by another short acoustic bridge with added string section: ‘Slipstream’, telling a story about buying your access into heaven and preparing us for the ‘grande finale’ of the album.

This final starts with the classical piano intro of ‘Locomotive Breath’, probably the bands’ most famous song. It suddenly turns into a heavy guitar song, with the pounding drums adding to the created sound of a steaming train. As the title suggests this train represents life with the song’s protagonist trying to catch a breath in his rushing life. Of course all this is finished off by a flute solo. Aqualung is finally concluded by ‘Wind-Up’, another song that starts off very gentle before building towards a great climax including another one of those sweet guitar riffs by Barre. It’s a well-chosen closing song as it sounds like Anderson is analyzing the thoughts he shared on the other songs on side 2 and concludes by addressing the people that forced him to believe some ridiculous ideas during his youth: You had the whole damn thing all wrong.

Aqualung was never meant to be a concept album although it was claimed as such after its release, leading to an irritated Ian Anderson. As his response he gave prog its ultimate concept album the next year with Thick as a Brick (featuring Andersons’ former drummer, turning Tull back into The Blades ft. Martin Barre). Whether or not this was an embrace or rejection of the genre, the album became one of Tull’s best appreciated works.

Classifying Aqualung as prog is probably just the only solution to the impossibility of putting it in another determined genre. Besides, if you strengthen blues rock in such a way that it approaches hard rock and start mingling this with very melodic folk songs, you can’t be surprised that people suspect you of doing some progressive stuff out there. However, the synthesizers and excessive drum solos are kept away here, so for everybody out there not familiar with this band: don’t be fearful of the dreaded Jethro Tull.

Top Tracks:

1. Mother Goose
2. Up to Me
3. Aqualung