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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.