Written on the 17th of June 2014
It has been too long since I last wrote about the mighty Jethro Tull guys, so here I go again! Time to talk about 1972. In the seventies, these guys produced at least an album every year, so this will take time. Their fifth studio album is called Thick as a Brick, and I’d say it’s nowadays their best known one after Aqualung.
Thick as a Brick is not only the title of the album, but also of the song that, well, of the only song. A forty-five minute song, with sections and subsections and stuff but one song after all… a perfect prototype of concept album. Actually Ian Anderson did it for fun and it was supposed to be more like a parody of a concept album. Some critics labeled their previous album, Aqualung, as a concept album, so he decided to make “the mother of all concept albums”, combining complex music with a sense of humour, in Anderson’s words, a “bit of a satire about the whole concept of grand rock-based concept albums”. People liked it quite a lot, though.
The story here is that the album is supposed to be a musical adaptation of an epic poem by an eight-year-old boy called Gerald Bostock. Of course, Bostock doesn’t exist, and it was Anderson who wrote all the lyrics (and music). Funnily enough, some people actually thought the whole story was true.
The original LP cover is like a multiple-paged small-town English newspaper (The St Cleve Chronicle and Linwell Advertisers), full of articles, competitions and ads making fun of the typical parochial and amateurish journalism of local English newspapers. Chrysalis Records complained at first because of its price, but Ian Anderson insisted.
I haven’t had the chance to read that little newspaper myself (I have most Jethro Tull albums in their original version, and by this I mean I bought them… but not Thick as a Brick), but I’d love to, as apparently it contains lots of inside puns, a very frank review of the album itself written by Anderson under a pseudonym, and well, much more stuff. The best thing is the front page, which talks about the disqualification of Gerald Bostock from a poetry contest which he won with Thick as a Brick, disqualification that came after an avalanche of protest and threats because of the offensive nature of the problem and the boy’s psychological instability.
The newspaper was written mainly by Anderson, bassist Jeffrey Hammond and pianist John Evan. The cover took longer to produce than the music. Ah, those times when it wasn’t just about producing pre-made music and getting shitloads of money. I feel like nowadays so many so-called artists/ musicians just record whatever catchy stuff they can, get the money and run, and some years ago this was something different, the dedication was different. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always that way nowadays, but probably too often. I guess this sounds like a cheap cliché and I’m not explaining it properly, but whatever.
Regarding the music itself… ahem… maybe you’ve read about that Tull hipster side of me… yes, not my favourite. I’d probably choose four or five Tull albums over this one, but that’s also because I probably overlistened to Thick as a Brick during my Tull beginnings. I still think it’s an amazing album though. Critics were, and are, pretty enthusiastic about it, too. The review written in allmusic.com, for example, says stuff like this: “(…) a masterpiece in the annals of progressive rock, and one of the few works of its kind that still holds up decades later”, “(…) the group created a dazzling tour de force, at once playful, profound, and challenging, without overwhelming the listener”. The one in Rolling Stone, written in 1972, is much longer but equally positive.
I personally think, long story short, that the first half is outstanding, while the second is good but has some weak points. The whole thing is incredible though, so many themes, tempo shifts, time signature changes, instruments (apart from the typical rock stuff, other instruments featured are harpsichord, xylophone, timpani, violin, lute, trumpet, saxophone and a string section). Progressive rock, folk, so much stuff, such complex music, and yet it makes perfect sense.
As for the first half of the album, the first three minutes or so are probably the best known part of Thick as a Brick. Calm, acoustic, but soon Martin Barre’s guitar comes to stay. First tempo shift, first melody change. Of many.
The part that starts at 5.00, The Poet and the Painter (well, those are the first lyrics and I call it like that) is my favourite part of the album. Amazing, unbelievable, epic, damn I’m getting overexcited as I write this (while listening to that bit, of course). That section’s instrumental part is also excellent, the combination of Barre’s guitar and Anderson’s flute is eargasmic. The whole section goes on until 10.35 or so. I think that’s all I want to highlight from part one, but the rest of it is also excellent… equally excellent, so I don’t really know what else to say.
Part two features a good drum solo by Barrie Barlow (bah gawd what an amazing drummer he is) starting at 24.40 more or less. However, the first six minutes of this part are just not as good as the previous one. This section goes on for five minutes, and then there’s an instrumental bridge towards the next one. Because of course, every section is perfectly linked with the following one. The sped-up section at approximately 36.40 is also remarkable, but the rest of this part pales a little bit in comparison to the first half of the album. Still, Thick as a Brick is a must.
When playing live, the band mostly did shorter versions of the song, which is understandable. I think they’ve only performed the whole thing in 1972 and then forty years later, in 2012, when Ian Anderson produced Thick as a Brick 2. I was in one of the 2012 concerts and what can I say, Ian’s voice is pretty much gone and I’d rather have seen one of the 70s lineups but I can die happy now. Here’s one of the shorter versions.
Jethro Tull released another album in 1972: Living in the Past, a collection of singles and outtakes from the first four years of the band. There are different versions of the album (USA vinyl, UK vinyl, USA CD, UK CD, I think), and one or two songs may be, or not be there depending of the version. I’m not a huge fan of this album, but there are some very good songs in here too, such as Christmas Song (check out the lyrics!), Living in the Past(who can use a time signature of 5/4 on a song and make it sound good? Jethro Tull can), Witch’s Promise, Just Trying to Be, Wond’ring Again or Dr. Bogenbroom.
Bonus… tracks (?): here’s Thick as a Brick in a Hyundai’s commercial (Ian Anderson recorded this 30 second version for the ad) and also closing a Simpsons episode.