Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine: 10 Songs of Righteous Protest

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Ian Anderson called it, in ’74:

The ice-cream castles are refrigerated;
The super-marketeers are on parade.
There’s a golden handshake hanging round your neck,
As you light your cigarette on the burning deck.
And you balance your world on the tip of your nose
Like a Sea Lion with a ball, at the carnival.

Here are nine other songs of righteous and intelligent fury. Strength in sensitivity will provide both solidarity and sustenance for whatever lies ahead.

And when you lose control, you’ll reap the harvest you have sown
And as the fear grows, the bad blood slows and turns to stone
And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around
So have a good drown, as you go down, all alone
Dragged down by the stone…

They say there are strangers who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand…

We tried to speak between lines of oration
You could only repeat what we told you.
Your axe belongs to a dying nation,
They don’t know that we own you.
You’re watching movies trying to find the feelers,
You only see what we show you.
We’re the slaves of the phony leaders
Breathe the air we have blown you.

In the night he’s a star in the Milky Way
He’s a man of the world by the light of day
A golden smile and a proposition
And the breath of God smells of sweet sedition…

Hang your collar up inside
Hang your freedom higher
Listen to the buyer still
Listen to the Congress
Where we propagate confusion
Primitive and wild
Fire on the hemisphere below…

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane, all the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain, yeah
There’s danger on the edge of town
Ride the King’s highway, baby
Weird scenes inside the gold mine…

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

White collared conservative flashing down the street
Pointing their plastic finger at me
They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die
But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high, high
Wave on, wave on
Fall mountains, just don’t fall on me
Go ahead on Mr. Business man, you can’t dress like me…
(I got my own world to look through
And I ain’t gonna copy you)

No lyrics necessary; Charlie Hunter’s solemn, elegiac solo at the end speaks volumes about suppression, resistance and bearing witness.

And, of course, always, last and far from least:

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O Captain! My Captain!: The Unique Magic of Don Van Vliet (Revisited)

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As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately.”

And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would –and has— endorsed the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.

Now that he’s gone, many folks will—and should—rhapsodize about the album most agree is Beefheart’s defining work (even if they’ve never actually listened to it), Trout Mask Replica. Among its many quirky and/or quixotic charms, this is possibly the first album to be so arty it became anti-art. Deliberately cacophonous, even confrontational, it seems to be searching for magic inside of the discordant chaos. The results will mean different things to different people, but Van Vliet had a method for his madness: perfectly capable musicians playing behind, beside and beneath anything that, on first (or fifteenth) listen seems to make sense. The album could be considered one extended love song to insanity, or a smirking expense report from the other side of reality. It is one of the all-time cult following rites of passage: if you are down with this, you could conceivably be down with anything –for better or worse.

Needless to say, Trout Mask Replica is not easy going or easily recommended, and in fact, one could (should) start just about anywhere else. If anyone reading this is uninitiated, it affords me an excellent opportunity to talk about the most accessible option, which happens to be my favorite Beefheart album, Safe As Milk. It is the first album, and also, in my opinion, the best one. I do not expect that many people share this perspective, but I think everyone in the know would agree this is the ideal point of entry. If there was even a modicum of justice in our plastic factory world, this would be widely considered one of rock music’s most out there yet addictive barbaric yawps.

(Sidenote: was 1967 an all-time year for debut albums or what? In addition to Safe As Milk there were first albums by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. Most people, if they think about Safe As Milk at all, consider it a delightful little lark, a nice enough opening salvo. For my money, it’s more than that; a lot more. And it’s funny, because when we think about the Summer of Love (if we think about the Summer of Love), it’s all about love being all you need and how The Beatles dropped their definitive statement, Sgt. Pepper, which might happen to be the most important album ever, et cetera. Interestingly, two albums that did not get much press at the time, but have certainly found their audiences—however small—in the subsequent decades, seem to best represent the reality of what that seminal year meant, musically and culturally. I’m talking about Safe As Milk as well as Love’s Forever Changes. Maybe the ultimate reason these two albums, aside from their commercial failings, tend to not register in the facile narrative of hippie nostalgia is because both albums saw through the façade then, and in hindsight seem all the more remarkable for their refusal to pay lip service, lyrically and aesthetically, to the up-with-people ethos of the time.)


Look at the band on the back cover. They are characters from a Wes Anderson movie: all wearing coat and tie, one inexplicably sporting leather gloves, one rocking a stylish chapeau (who happens to be named Alex St. Clair Snouffer). Not pictured—and not credited—is young wunderkind Ry Cooder, who lent his considerable slide guitar skills to the proceedings. They look more like stockbrokers than songwriters, which only adds to the mystique since they, as it happened, made some of the more unsettling music on the scene.

How does music like this happen? How is Captain Beefheart even conceivable? Do you believe in magic? Well how about the Magic Band? We know that the world didn’t know what to make of this album, then. What can we make of it, now? Here are a few thoughts: it doesn’t sound of its time, or any time, and it is one of those (very) rare recordings that can be returned to constantly and somehow, someway remains unfettered and invigorating. Each song is a totally complete statement, whimsical, yet always with the air of danger: like a trip about to take a serious turn for the worse, but it never does. The creative energy and offbeat ebullience make this record approachable but indescribable; it’s all in there: blues, doo-wop, psychedelia, faux-pop and a handful of songs that sound utterly unlike anything anyone has ever done.

Listening to “Dropout Boogie” is like watching the rock and roll version of Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth for the first time: this quiet, weird dude you laughed at in gym class suddenly soaring in the air above you. You’ve never heard him speak but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s Superman. This track works as well as any (from this album, or from his entire oeuvre) in terms of epitomizing Van Vliet’s unvarnished and utterly uncompromised approach. If the Captain should be worshipped for one thing it’s that he never once pandered for the sake of critical or commercial expediency. Considering this album was recorded during the height of the “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” hysteria, a song like “Dropout Boogie” becomes a brave turd in the punch bowl, serving to question the long-term prospects of Timothy Leary’s call to arms. “And what about after that?” he asks, a line that joins Arthur Lee’s “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow” (from Forever Changes) as two of the most enduring—and prescient—from ’67.

Then there is a song like “Yellow Brick Road” that could almost make a white guy dance, and then wonder why everyone doesn’t know this and love it.

 

Safe As Milk was the one that introduced Don Van Vliet to the world and it remains a (Korn Ring) middle finger in the face of all the lame conformist who scoff at what they can’t understand. It’s not especially sad that this album did not find a widely receptive audience; its obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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R.I.P. Glenn C. (Remembering Glenn Cornick and Jethro Tull’s ‘Stand Up’)

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Glenn Cornick was, of course, Jethro Tull’s first bassist.

He and Ian did not get along (something that can be said for most of the other 10,000 ex-Tull musicians) so he hit the road after the third album, Benefit.

Nice piece on him, HERE.

I give him some love in the extensive appraisal of Stand Up, below.

Let it suffice to say, his presence on those first three albums is palpable, important and enduring.

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The first bit of good news regarding this “collector’s edition” of Stand Up is that you don’t need it. The second bit of good news is that for the most part it already exists, albeit scattered throughout a handful of previously released material. If you already own all of those sets, chances are you are a serious Jethro Tull fan, in which case you’ve probably already acquired this latest installment. To cut through the haze, anyone who has been meaning to pick up this excellent album should know it was remastered earlier this decade (and includes the obligatory bonus tracks), so you can pick that baby up for about a third the cost.

Now to be fair, there is a lot of good “extra” material included in this edition, and only hardcore Tull fans will have all of it in their collections. Various box sets and compilations have featured these BBC sessions as well as the Carnegie Hall concert from 1970. If you already own Stand Up and are interested in hearing some vintage Tull from that era, as well as an extended interview with Ian Anderson, you could do worse. That interview, conducted earlier this year, is the real draw here for fans that already have everything.

All that being said, a question those unfamiliar or unimpressed with Jethro Tull might ask is: what does it matter? It matters because, all other considerations aside (deluxe packaging with original pop-up inside cover, liner notes from Ian Anderson, the first full and unedited version of “With You There To Help Me/By Kind Permission Of” from the Carnegie Hall show (wherein new pianist John Evan does his best Ludwig Van), 5.1 surround sound—but no footage—of the concert), Stand Up is a crucial album in many regards. In addition to serving as the first testament of the band Tull became, and would become, it endures as a meaningful document from what turned out to be a very transitional moment in rock history.So, if this somewhat superfluous new release affords the opportunity for a sustained reappraisal, all the better.

Stand Up may be Jethro Tull’s second album, but it is more like a first than a follow-up, in almost every way. This Was, their proper debut, illustrated the direction which that band might have gone in (keywords: that band). Mick Abrahams, original lead guitarist and co-leader, was no slouch and to his credit knew exactly where he wanted to go. A dedicated acolyte of the blues, Abrahams was all about the old school and dirt-under-the-nails authenticity. His approach is mostly successful on This Was, with songs such as “Move On Alone”, “It’s Breaking Me Up” and the garage rock aggression of “Beggar’s Farm”. On other songs the sound is overly derivative and while never boring, the results are not exactly memorable, unless the design was to sound like third-rate Cream (it was a dubious decision to include “Cat’s Squirrel”, a song featured on Cream’s debut, which suffers by comparison and betrays an opportunism that would have been more honest—and less misguided—if they’d called it “Copycat’s Squirrel”).

In any event, by 1968 that formula (British bands earnestly mimicking American blues legends) was pretty well played out, no matter how convincingly rendered. Even Cream’s debut sounds dated, particularly in comparison with their stunning follow-up Disraeli Gears. In other words, Abrahams had hitched his axe to a locomotive that was going backwards (where he contentedly rode it into semi-obscurity with Bloodwyn Pig), and it is understandable that Ian Anderson envisioned bigger and better—or at least more original—fields for Tull to plow.

Enter Martin Barre, a young but game guitarist whose primary credentials were his lack of experience, which ensured Anderson would never again compete with anyone for control of the band. It is, then, to Anderson’s considerable credit that the resulting album—recorded less than one year later—represents a development that was, and remains, staggering. The dividends Barre delivers are immediate, and well-represented throughout the recording. While one can detect the flute-driven energy of “Beggar’s Farm” in “Back To The Family”, the latter is less a jam and more a proper “song”. Interestingly, both Abrahams and Barre, like every other guitarist in the mid-to-late ‘60s, were listening to a lot of Clapton, and the first two Tull albums are tributes of a sort to the first two Cream albums. To be certain, Barre is less interested in aping Clapton’s riffs and although the blistering outro on “Back To The Family” is a bit of a nod to “God”, it possesses its own unrefined power. While Barre’s playing is not as technically proficient, it’s debatable whether even Clapton can match the emotional heft uncorked on “We Used To Know”, which is cold-finger, raw hangnail material.

There is also ample evidence of the first-rate lyricist Anderson would quickly become. There have not been many 22-year-olds in rock music history who could half-convincingly write songs like “Look Into The Sun”, “We Used To Know” and especially “Reasons For Waiting” (the best song you’ve never heard). These songs are a universe apart from anything on This Was and provide early evidence of the incredibly warm and full sound Anderson gets from his acoustic guitar.

Then there are the familiar songs, some of which continue to get airplay on classic rock radio: “Bouree”, the jazz-rock riff on Bach; “Nothing Is Easy”, the flute-cake manifesto; and the band’s first huge hit, “Living In The Past” (not released on the original album, but included as a bonus track). “A New Day Yesterday” is an ideal opening statement, teasing with nods to the black-and-blues soundscape from ’68, then exploding into Technicolor as Barre’s guitar solo bleeds into Anderson’s frenetic and reverb-laden flute breakdown. Finally, the jocular “Fat Man”, featuring both mandolin and balalaika, a first signal of the folk and eastern influences that would permeate the band’s mature work. There is still a blues sensibility driving most of this material, but Anderson—who clearly had ability and creativity to burn—is already showing signs of developing the multi-faceted approach he would bring to each successive effort.

A few words must be said about Clive Bunker and Glenn Cornick, the drummer and bassist who would not be long for this band (Cornick lasted one more album; Bunker two). While it’s hard to quibble with Bunker’s excellent replacement, Barrie Barlow, Bunker was the perfect drummer for Jethro Tull’s early work. He does restrained as well as explosive, but his accompaniment is always ideal for whatever a particular song calls for. Songs like “Back to the Family” and “For a Thousand Mothers” would be unthinkable without his contributions. Cornick was a top-notch bass player and each new remaster reinforces how busy and brilliant he was in the pocket. He gets room to shine on “Bouree” and “Nothing Is Easy”, but as is often the case with the best bassists, you almost don’t realize he’s there until you stop and consider what a particular song would sound like without him. The charisma and stage antics of Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond became indispensable components of Tull’s charm and overall history, but the loss of Cornick (see: artistic differences, rock music’s version of the pink slip) affected the later music more than Anderson might ever care to admit.

1969 was not merely the conclusion of a decade, it was the end of a succession of eras. These include the British Invasion and the aforementioned blues-by-numbers of those bands (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Cream, even early Led Zeppelin), psychedelia, art-rock and the eventual, inevitable marriage of precision and pretension that brought us the dreaded “concept album”. By 1970 many of the bands that would become most closely associated with progressive rock (or Prog with a capital P), like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and ELP, were already off the proverbial reservation, crafting side-long suites and noodling away in the manner that captivated listeners and confounded critics.

Stand Up, then, remains rather unique. It is a document created in a rapidly closing artistic window, pre-prog but post-British blues and psychedelic rock. Within two years Jethro Tull would unleash Aqualung and fully, if warily, enter the prog-rock arena (literally and figuratively). Their second album continues to age quite nicely as a hybrid of many sounds, and a reflection of Ian Anderson’s restless vision. Stand Up boasts an ambition and vitality we usually associate with most successful debut albums, but the band is more seasoned and confident, with accordingly impressive results. It still manages to sound unspoiled, an ideal balance of daring and the deliberate.

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Reappraising Jethro Tull’s ‘Minstrel in the Gallery’

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Jethro Tull, again? Seriously? Yes, seriously.

The reason Tull warrants continued discussion is because unlike just about all other prog rock acts of the mid-‘70s, they were—in their businesslike, seemingly obligatory fashion—cranking out one masterful effort each year.

In 1975, progressive rock was, we now know with the benefit of hindsight, already on its way to the dinosaur pit. Pink Floyd was, arguably, hitting their prime stride, releasing possibly their most cohesive and satisfying album Wish You Were Here, but many other acts from the great old days were on the ropes, running out of steam or gone altogether. Yes was on a hiatus, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and The Moody Blues were not dead but shells of their former selves, Rush was just getting into the game, and King Crimson had called it quits. Genesis soldiered on, and made a string of respectable albums with Collins at the helm (and then made a longer string of increasingly commercial, successful albums), but many would agree that things were never the same once Peter Gabriel rolled up his freak flag and went it alone.

So, aside from Pink Floyd, who were now an album every-other-year (at best) outfit, Jethro Tull were the kings of the hill, in terms of consistency and quality. The benefit of hindsight makes their proficiency, and the quality of the work, more obvious and more important to acknowledge. Where some (much?) of the material from prog rock’s heyday is decidedly of its time (for better or worse) and, lyrically, is often acknowledged with a wink and a shrug, Jethro Tull’s work in general, and on Minstrel in the Gallery in particular, needs no defense nor any nostalgia to be appreciated.

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One of the reasons the genre seemed stale or at least more than a little played out, circa 1975 (hello Emerson, Lake & Palmer), is because the formula was no longer sufficient to inspire fresh work, or at least be heard with fresh ears. Indulgence for indulgence’s sake was rightly losing favor with a wider audience, and at the mid-way point of a new decade, new approaches were necessary. As the first punk bands proved, a radically different approach would be rewarded. Punk, with its lo-fi lack of proficiency or pretense, was in almost every regard anti-prog (for better or worse).

So Jethro Tull, never especially fashionable, soldiered on without much regard for critical acclaim from the so-called establishment, powered by the industrious engine of Ian Anderson, who was just hitting his stride.

Discussion of Anderson’s lyrical prowess is inevitable, and appropriate, and mentioned in previous reviews. Where he did not shy away from autobiographical elements (especially on Benefit), his specialty was linking the personal with a reporter’s eye for both absurdity and the universal (especially on Aqualung); on Thick as a Brick he displays a sociologist’s eye for societal mores, and in his inimitably impish way, took his sledge hammer to all manner of very British sacred cows (class, religion, etc.); on A Passion Play he used every tool in his musical and intellectual arsenal. On Minstrel in the Gallery we have less of the sneering post-adolescent angst and rage and more of the wizened perspective of an adult who has toured the world, seen some things and is able to comment accordingly.


If the title track is a bit too literal (get it? The musician seeing himself in the crowd…), it’s also a tour de force of sorts that, in Andersonian fashion, takes the piss out of the cult of self/celebrity while also offering some quite poetic observations on the ways artist and audience interact:

The minstrel in the gallery
Looked down on the rabbit-run
And he threw away his looking-glass
He saw his face in everyone

Anderson, who has always been an underrated acoustic guitar player (most folks, understandably, see him as the wide-eyed and one-legged flautist), started pushing himself, notably during the band’s Holy Trinity. While his work, pound for pound, on A Passion Play may be his best, Minstrel in the Gallery represents his most singular and sustained acoustic achievement: his work throughout is memorable and masterful.


It would be a mistake to describe this as either an acoustic or restrained affair, as evidenced by “Cold Wind to Valhalla” (containing some of Martin Barre’s tastiest shredding), as well as the rocking sections of the title track and “Black Satin Dancer”, but the acoustic is ever-present and it’s easy to see how these tunes grew from solo excursions to full collaborations. If it’s once again necessary to single out drummer Barrie Barlow for the way his busy sticks augment and embellish the proceedings to delightful effect, than let it once again be stated.

The secret weapon here, more so than any earlier album, is David Palmer, previously employed to judicious and exhilarating effect (think the soaring orchestral flair toward the end of Thick as a Brick, or the subtle, gorgeous string embellishments on “Reasons for Waiting”) is now a full equal; for the first time it’s both appropriate and accurate to draw comparisons to what George Martin was doing for The Beatles: not “merely” adding dignified touches here and there or inserting informed color commentary at key moments, but completely in the mix, the orchestral effects as important as the guitars and keyboards. (Not for nothing, either, since this album is so heavy on the acoustic touches, the fastidiously remastered sound does, indeed, bring out nuances and touches not previously detectable.)

Palmer takes already remarkable compositions to that rarefied “other place” on the album’s twin highlights, “Requiem” and “Baker St. Muse”. On the former, a gentle tone poem, we can now appreciate, courtesy of the previously unreleased early version, the way this simple (sounding) song evolved from whimsical allegory to a fully realized and devastating take on the clichéd romantic break-up. (Initial lyrics describe a leaf; the final song replaces the leaf with a bird, which of course works as British double entendre for a woman).

Well, my lady told me, “Stay”
I looked aside and walked away along the strand
But I didn’t say a word, as the train time-table blurred
Close behind the taxi stand:
Saw her face in the tear-drop black cab window
Fading in the traffic watched her go,
And taking in the morning, heard myself singing, “Oh Requiem”
Here I go again, it’s the same old story…
Well, I saw a bird today, I looked aside and walked
Away along the strand.


As with previous Steven Wilson-supervised special editions, we get refined sound courtesy of the 5.1 surround and remix, as well as a truly generous and authoritative booklet complete with lyrics, anecdotes and interviews. Much of that material ranges from quirky to superfluous but, of course, insight from the actual band proves priceless. Most fans will concur that Minstrel in the Gallery seems as autobiographical as any Tull album, before or after, and there is a vulnerability and sensitivity that the songwriter (obviously, with hindsight) was simply growing into.

Anderson himself provides salient insight into his writing process, and also does a service for anyone who has tried to understand (or explain) the impulse to turn the “personal” into something less self-involved and applicable: “As a lyric writer I think that leaving some space is an important ingredient, that you don’t answer all the questions in the lyrics, you do leave the listeners to put something of themselves into the scenario and think about it in the light of their own experiences, or indeed experiences they’ve not yet had.” (Liner notes.)

Perhaps the finest distillation of the aforementioned reportorial eye, balancing obvious autobiography with imagination, is “Baker St. Muse” which, put plainly, showcases Anderson and his band at an absolute pinnacle of composition and execution. Polite golf-claps all around (but more, as ever, reserved for Barre and Barlow), an especially hearty hurrah for Palmer, and all-time hero status for Anderson, who would never again display this combination of brilliance, confidence and creative attainment. It could be considered (yet another) semi-side long suite, or else an epic prog statement (like Thick as a Brick or A Passion Play) in miniature, or it could, correctly, be appraised and appreciated on its own terms: a story of how the present-day minstrel prowled the streets looking about for explanations, or at least inspiration. We see the (usual?) parade of freaks and outcasts but, for once, the songwriter turns the microscope on himself and we see some of the concerns and obsessions that feed that distinctive muse.

For anyone curious, but unsure, about whether this 40th Anniversary edition is a compulsory acquisition, consider the (requisite) bonus discs. As mentioned, there is the 5.1 remaster and the Steven Wilson remix; there’s also a complete concert from July 1975 (Paris) that has never before been available. On one hand, it’s yet another sampler of hits (“My God”, “Cross-Eyed Mary” and, of course, “Aqualung”) but on the other, it’s a document of one of the best Tull line-ups. There are also the odds and sods of demo versions and out-takes (like the delightful lark “Summerday Sands” and, even though, like the master take, it’s less than one minute long, the alternate version of “Grace” is a special treat for Tull enthusiasts.

To summarize, these annual remaster projects are appropriate because Jethro Tull was making an album every year in the ‘70s; they are necessary because even people who tolerate prog rock or give it a courteous mention still limit themselves to a handful of “classic” albums that few people will protest. One need not be a prog aficionado to understand that many outstanding efforts were produced as a matter of course in the early and mid-‘70s; Minstrel in the Gallery is one of them and it’s a crime to think fans who think they know aren’t aware of this near-masterpiece.

*Originally published 8/5/15 in PopMatters, my latest installment for my series on prog rock, The Amazing Pudding.

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Ripe with Rich Attainments: Jethro Tull’s ‘A Passion Play’, Reassessed (Revisited)

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For prog-rock aficionados, the hits keep coming, and one man above all deserves our gratitude: Steven Wilson.

Whether it’s Yes, King Crimson, or Jethro Tull—all of whom he has worked with in recent years—the question arises: how much is too much with these deluxe reissues? The answer, naturally is: it’s never enough, assuming there are ample fans interested or insane enough to keep coughing up the coin to procure them.

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Once again, it must be said that, like the previous Wilson-affiliated productions, this is no half-assed cash grab offering the same-old, same-old with ostensibly improved fidelity. Rather, this is an elaborate undertaking, with a proper remix, a 5.1 surround sound (nerd alert!) and, not least, a fairly exhaustive booklet which details everything except where the Hare left those lost spectacles.

Let’s get the potential controversy out of the way, right up front. As always, purists will be given pause by some of the liberties Wilson takes, albeit with Ian Anderson’s blessing. What listeners will notice is not a straight remastering but a full remix; which is to say, in many regards a reimagining. For those purists the original versions are sacrosanct, supposed warts and all. Personally, I won’t quibble with any artist or producer’s acumen when it is stated forthrightly and without apology. However, I also reserve the right to wrinkle my nose a tad, just as I have regarding Pete Townshend’s tinkering with Quadrophenia (See “The Past Is Calling: Reconsidering The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’”).

All that aside, this latest project is an obsessive’s ambrosia: four separate discs of Jethro Tull’s most controversial album. If you have even read this far, you probably already know whether or not this box set is something you’d acquire, much less be interested in.

For anyone still on the fence, here’s one fanatic’s perspective. It can be argued, as both Anderson and Wilson do, that the decision to bring focus to a more basic mix (emphasizing vocals, guitar, bass, and drums) imbues an otherwise unattainable clarity. Or, for the perverse super-purists, restores integrity to the initial vision, assuming this after-the-fact tinkering better approximates primary intent.

To take one instance of intent vs. implementation, Anderson is on record as being unconvinced about his soprano sax playing (which this writer believes to be an unqualified success). As such, the instances here where it’s diminished or eliminated(!), will be either a revelation or a travesty, depending upon who is listening. To further muddle matters, I find it to be a bit of both. I love the material enough to enjoy an alternate version, especially one that attempts to realize some of what Anderson initially envisioned.

On the other hand, Anderson has always been ambivalent about this album, which complicates things on at least two levels. One, this album has polarized audiences (and pumpkin eaters), even Jethro Tull fans, for over four decades, so some acknowledgment, if not respect, should be granted to those who took the time to “get” and ultimately savor the music. Two, if Anderson has never been crazy about A Passion Play, how unaffected are his intentions, giving Wilson his goodwill to “reimagine” the album? And perhaps more importantly, who cares?

Most people would agree that once a work of art becomes public property, it ceases to be the sole proprietorship of the artist. Indeed, it could be more convincingly speculated that the moment it becomes public (not to mention paid for) the artist ceases to have any proprietorship. In any event, for those seeking richer fidelity featuring the original sounds, this edition may indeed be too much of a…great? thing. And down the rabbit hole we go.

Speaking of rabbits, Intermission Time!

Obviously, as most Tull fans are already aware, there can be no proper reappraisal of A Passion Play without inclusion of the aborted Château d’Hérouville sessions that preceded it. Not-so-affectionately referred to, by the band, as the “Château d’Isaster” tapes, portions of this material have been doled out in various incarnations over the years. The three-part “Scenario/Audition/No Rehearsal” was a more than a very agreeable novelty upon its first release on 1988’s box set. It begged the tantalizing questions: is there more of this material and, if so, is this Tull’s lost masterpiece? The answers turned out to be: yes, and not so much.

However, the collected tapes from these sessions (discussed in the liner notes) represent an earnest, if uneven attempt at a double LP: a conceptual piece of sorts that is heavy on the animal imagery and God-as-Director of the Passion Play we’re all acting in. And if that sounds at once wholly of its time and too-pretentious-by-half, it was. But some of the ideas are executed to near perfection (the aforementioned “Scenario/Audition/No Rehearsal”, and experimental tone poems like “First Post”, “Animelée”, and “Tiger Toon”). Some of the material was repurposed later (“Only Solitaire” and “Skating Away”) and, of course, some of it resurfaced, in more polished form (“Critique Oblique”, the melody of “Law of the Bungle Part I”), on the subsequent A Passion Play. The rest of it ranges from lackluster to banal, and it’s easy to understand why Anderson contentedly left it on the cutting room floor (“Sailor”, “Left Right”, and “The Big Top” all sound like half-baked works in progress, heavy on the pomposity, light on emotional or aesthetic impact).

It’s fascinating and enlightening to hear, in its unvarnished entirety, all the work the band did during that ill-fated journey to France (the same studio, incidentally, where such beloved works as Elton John’s Honky Château and Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds were recorded). Where Anderson has given some of these songs face-lifts (flute here, vocals there) in past reissues, he agreed, again, with Wilson to present them as they were initially recorded, without embellishment or upgrade. As such, they are now genuine historical documents, and fans can ascertain what worked, what could have been, and why Tull decided to quit while they were ahead (or behind) and start over from scratch.

It remains astonishing that A Passion Play, adored and/or derided as a complex, occasionally impenetrable progressive opus, was indeed conceived and executed in a matter of weeks. For better or worse, it sounds (at least the first several dozen times) like the result of considerable deliberation and agonizing. Perhaps Anderson & Co. had gotten all the bad vibes out of their systems, and by the time they returned to the friendly turf of Old Blighty, they were unencumbered, fully unloosing that pent-up creativity.

Whatever the explanation—and it might be as simple as the fact that, circa 1973, Ian Anderson was locked in like few rock musicians before or since—A Passion Play is a work that, especially following the successful and user-friendly Thick as a Brick, was practically destined for backlash. And the backlash came quickly, at least from critics. It’s illuminating that during a period when, shall we say, ambitious prog-rock albums were at worst tolerated, this work was simply too much for the average columnist. The fans, nevertheless, were picking up what the band was putting down, and the album hit #1 stateside.

Writing about this album in my assessment of Jethro Tull’s “Holy Trinity” (see “The Holy Trinity: Jethro Tull”), I offer the following thoughts:

It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

Anderson would go on to do work that was better received (say, Songs from the Wood) and, arguably, plain better (Minstrel in the Gallery), and to this day he keeps on keeping on, always finding audiences wherever he roams. Still, whether fans concur, or whether the artist himself agrees, at no point was Anderson as brazen, adventurous and near-infallible as he was during the recording of A Passion Play.

It was, as the generous and most welcome new liner notes indicate, not the most pleasant or, initially, most productive few months. Nevertheless, their pain remains our pleasure: it makes little difference what critics, certain fans or the authors of a particular work have to say; as is always the case, meaningful art will find an audience. A Passion Play endures, and matters, because it continues to confront, excite, and defy easy explanation. A touchstone from a ceaselessly maligned genre, Anderson’s 1973 masterpiece represents an eternal J’accuse to conformity and cliché, and its very refusal to be pigeonholed or even clarified will ensure that it continues to delight and surprise listeners. Scorning convention, after all, is what prog-rock of this era, at its best, attempted to do, and few did it better than Jethro Tull.

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Jethro Tull: Back to Basics (Sort Of)

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Jethro Tull, again?

It’s Steven Wilson’s fault.

Actually, it’s Jethro Tull’s fault. That is, the fact that we have yet another deluxe reissue of another Jethro Tull album has everything to do with the fact that this was one of most productive and consistently excellent bands, progressive or otherwise, all through the ‘70s. So in this regard, it’s not Jethro Tull’s fault that we’re getting a new reissue each year because, back in the day, they were knocking off classic albums every year.

Still giddy with all the goodies on offer from the recent reissues of Aqualung, Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, we now get the next album in the Tull canon, 1974’s WarChild. First, the easy part: this is yet another embarrassment of riches. The original album itself is generally rated an upper-tier Tull recording; this generous box set package, replete with bonus tracks, previously unreleased songs and an 80 page booklet (!) makes it (yet another) imperative purchase for Jethro Tull enthusiasts.

Jethro Tull’s output can be broken into a series of trios, with their first three being transitional affairs while the band honed their approach and purpose. The next three, their Holy Trinity, remain an undisputed high water mark not only of Jethro Tull’s history, but must rank among the upper echelon of prog era masterpieces. Their next three, commencing with WarChild and including the misunderstood, maligned or wrongly unheralded Minstrel in the Gallery and Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! are most ripe for reassessment. (The next three, the “pastoral trilogy” are considered a return to form, and then there’s the series of snyth-laden efforts, and after that everyone pretty much wrote the band off, even though they ended up winning the controversial Grammy for 1987’s Crest of a Knave. More on all this, someday soon.)

After the back-to-back-to-back brilliance of the Holy Trinity, a letdown seemed inevitable, due either to creative or physical exhaustion. Impressively, even amazingly, Ian Anderson & Co. not only kept pace but, in some regards, raised the bar a bit. It is to Jethro Tull’s considerable credit that they returned to a more succinct, song-based structure. While both “one-song” album epics were successful, critically and artistically (and financially), it is likely because—and not in spite—of their effective execution that Anderson decided, correctly, that he had done all he could do, at least without resorting to repetition or self-parody. This, of course, is something fellow prog acts, particularly Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, failed to embrace or accept, to their ultimate chagrin.

What the ten tracks from the original album indicate, beyond question, is that Ian Anderson continued to grow as both tunesmith and lyricist. If some of the material does not hold up quite as well, there are a few songs that can be considered alongside the best work he ever did. To start with the most confounding of the bunch, “Bungle in the Jungle”. Still remarkably—and annoyingly—radio friendly, this was one of the band’s rare hits, and it’s unfortunate it remains amongst the handful of tunes non-fans associate with Jethro Tull. Lyrically, an obvious antecedent to Peter Gabriel’s superior “Games Without Frontiers”, with jungle shenanigans sending up our human foibles, the sing-along quality of “Bungle” makes it innocuous and more than a little cloying. Not prog enough, perhaps?

There is the matter of leftover material from the aborted A Passion Play sessions (more about those in this article, “Ripe with Rich Attainments”). Both “Only Solitaire” and “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day” were left on the cutting room floor once A Passion Play took shape, and while they were not appropriate for that opus, they function wonderfully as standalone songs. Indeed, Anderson’s concerns with the environment and snarky critics seem admirably prescient in our climate-change denying, Internet chat-room present-day. And for anyone looking for a definitive take on eschewing the spurious, superficial spoils of super-stardom, “Only Solitaire” continues what Anderson started with “Nothing to Say” (from Benefit) and “Cheap Day Return” (from Aqualung). Anderson kept it real, then, and his refusal to acquiesce to convention remains refreshing, today.

“Two Fingers”, which closes the album, is a reworked and overly polished version of “Lick Your Fingers Clean”, which never made the final cut for inclusion on Aqualung. “The Third Hoorah” and “Queen and Country”, complete with accordion and bagpipe embellishments, satisfy prog’s more-is-more penchant for exploration and discovery, circa ’74. Speaking of exploration and discovery, Anderson expanded his already-impressive instrumental repertoire to include saxophone (featured extensively on A Passion Play). While he generally disparages his efforts in the liner notes, he’s being, at best, too self-critical by half.

In fact, the sax, particularly on the title track, makes the music more adventurous and less predictable, imbuing a certain elegance when augmented by the swelling strings: there is real craftsmanship at work that skirts pretentiousness and manages to elevate a song that would otherwise be merely ambitious and intelligent. The judicious employment of sax and carnivalesque accordion throughout lend the proceedings a mingled vibe of high and lowbrow: collectively the songs alternate in pace, topic and intensity, but the whole is convincingly unified, even tasteful in a way Jethro Tull never was, or necessarily wanted to be, before.

And who on earth but Ian Anderson could pivot from interrogations of geopolitics and war to a couple of ironic, almost touching odes to women-for-hire? “Ladies” and “Back Door Angels”, if not the most complex topics (lyrically or conceptually), are given, respectively, a gorgeous acoustic backdrop and raucous counterpoint between Anderson’s flute and Martin Barre’s electric guitar. Taken together, they offer further evidence that Anderson’s conceptual and intellectual acumen was a notch, or more, above most of his contemporaries.

Special recognition is warranted for “SeaLion”, which represents the whole as well as any other selection, and also offers (yet another) yardstick to determine whether or not one is really a Tull fan, or if one gets prog rock, and particularly if one understands—and appreciates—that it wasn’t all twenty minute marathons of instrumental overload. Sending up society and/or show business, distilling the animal-kingdom-as-metaphor-for-the-human-race formula that dominated the “Château d’Isaster” sessions, and penning some of his sharpest lyrics for what some may consider a throwaway tune, all in under four minutes? That’s just how Ian Anderson rolled.

And, once again, it warrants repeating that Anderson is, without question, the preeminent lyricist of this era (more on that in this article, “Jethro Tull: Aqualung (40th Anniversary Special Edition)”). If, for instance John Lennon or, better yet, David Bowie ever had written the lines “The ice cream castles are refrigerated/The super-marketeers are on parade/There’s a golden handshake hanging round your neck/As you light your cigarette on the burning deck”, audiences and, importantly, critics would wet themselves, and rightly so. And, let it be stated (once again), that while Martin Barre is amongst the most inventive and underappreciated musicians of the decade, Barriemore Barlow, mixing propulsive beats and sick syncopation, is the best drummer not enough people know.

As the numerous bonus tracks make abundantly clear, Ian Anderson was insanely productive, even by his standards, throughout 1974. At this point, Jethro Tull was averaging one album per year, and this pace would continue through 1980. More, Anderson toyed seriously with the idea of writing a screenplay with the aim of making WarChild a motion picture. Wiser, or less pretentious heads prevailed, and those extravagant plans were scrapped, which Anderson wryly recalls, with typically self-deprecating fashion in the liner notes. Speaking of the liner notes, this deluxe edition, as mentioned, features an 80 page booklet, replete with lyrics, interviews and a track-by-track analysis by Anderson himself. Even fanatical completists are likely to be satisfied, possibly sated, by this generous packaging.

The bonus tracks will, naturally, elicit different reactions from different people. There is a great deal of material that was understandably left off official albums, including a handful that have remained in the vault until now. As curiosities or, again, fodder for incurable completists, they are now available (and remastered, to boot!). Some, like “March, The Mad Scientist”, “Rainbow Blues”, “Quartet” and “SeaLion II”, have appeared on various collections and are welcome inclusions to this set. Others, like the extensive classical renditions of WarChild songs/themes, range from mostly pleasant to unoffensive, and occasionally hint at something like grace (“Pan Dance”, “The Beach”, “Waltz of the Angels”).

As always, the liberties Steven Wilson takes with the remixes will enlighten, thrill or offend, all depending on how infatuated or open-minded the individual. As usual, Wilson’s obsessions with voice and drum sounds move these elements to the forefront; as expected, the listener can discern certain vocals or effects scarcely noticeable in previous editions, and we ultimately get a fresh presentation that does not stray unnecessarily far from the original. Whether we want, or need, the 5.1 surround (in 96/24 LPCM and AC3 Dolby Digital for those keeping score at home) is entirely up to how discerning one’s ears happen to be. If at times the clarity is (typically) astonishing, occasionally we are too aware of a fidelity-obsessed fetishist who wants to show the world what they should have been hearing all along. A little tinkering goes a long way, and, fortunately, Wilson’s handiwork is never excessive to the point of distraction. By this point we know Wilson’s heart is in the right place and, after all, he has Anderson’s full blessing.

This set is not essential for the casual fan; interesting for the open-minded, and probably a requirement for the faithful. Bottom line: this ongoing series of remixes brings welcome focus on albums that are indispensable cogs in the Big Prog Machine and, as significant, works that merit reappraisal from critics and, best case, new discovery by the uninitiated.

Originally published at PopMatters on 3/20/2015.

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The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull (Revisited)

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I, like too many prog-rock fanatics to count, was delighted when Rush received their overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I still hold out hope that Yes will join them, along with some other eminently worthy compatriots, like King Crimson.

One band should have been enshrined years ago, and it is with regret and resignation that I hold no expectation that they will ever have the opportunity. The band: Jethro Tull. The reason: it’s not because they’re not good enough, but because they are too good. (And if you think I’m joking, then I’m just a one-line joker in a public bar.)

Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.

It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.

With bands like Yes, who still have a chance, the “serious” people can wink and nod and point to the excesses of prog-rock as a quaint or cute stylistic quirk; an awkward rite of passage rock music went through before it emerged, leaner and meaner (and much improved) after punk rock set things straight. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a tad too indulgent, or took themselves too seriously, and bands like Jethro Tull, who neither courted nor seemed to care about what anyone said, are still ripe targets for facile disdain.

So should we shed tears for a group that has moved more than 60 million units, played to packed (if steadily smaller) audiences for almost five decades, still receives substantial radio play and is generally recognized for making at least two seminal albums in rock history? Not necessarily. Let it simply be stated, without equivocation, that Ian Anderson is one of the more intelligent, capable and, for a run as long as any other icon, consistent frontman in music.

Like Duke Ellington, or at least David St. Hubbins, Anderson has led a band with an ever-rotating cast of characters (loyal guitarist Martin Barre his Billy Strayhorn), all employed in the service of realizing his singular and disparate musical vision. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album every single year, and none of them are less than very good. A handful of them are great. And three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band’s hall of fame coronation.

Interestingly, Jethro Tull’s holy trinity was recorded the same years as Yes’s (and the same years as Genesis’s, of whom we’ll discuss in the next column). This is less a coincidence than a commentary on how fertile the early ‘70s were, particularly amongst the practitioners of prog-rock. Considering the previously discussed Yes (The Holy Trinity: Yes) and King Crimson, ( King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study) along with Jethro Tull (just to pick a few) it’s difficult to find more different sounds and styles, yet such staggering creativity and execution.

This, again, is what makes progressive rock at once easy and impossible to describe. We know it when we hear it, and there’s general consensus regarding who did it best, and when. But it’s the variety and all-encompassing aesthetic that defines the genre: great proficiency sprinkled with pomposity and a genuine aspiration to be unique, substantive, and meaningful. None of these albums, by just about any of these bands, sound anything alike, yet they are all instantly recognizable as progressive rock.

Two years ago I wrote at length about Aqualung (Jethro Tull: Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition), wherein I attempted to put it, and Anderson, in perspective:

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough albums to be considered a significant act in their own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a rare entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

Aqualung necessarily takes its place alongside The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures as career-defining work by a band making albums that sound utterly unique and epitomize the band that made them. What’s fascinating and special about Tull’s tri-fecta is that it came fairly early in the band’s discography. That Anderson masterminded three albums this impressive, and indelible, in his early to-mid-20s is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle—meshing Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords—that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today.

Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2013), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson, like Townshend on Quadrophenia, spares no one, least of all himself, and since the primary targets—organized religion and social Darwinism—are so large and worthy of scorn, the barbs still sting, and resonate.

If The Dark Side of the Moon is, among other things, a treatise on the issues and concerns that can and do drive people over the edge, Aqualung got there first. Having the ability, not to mention the audacity, to get both priests and politicians in his sights, Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music (Barre and drummer Clive Bunker are at their devastating best throughout the proceedings), drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.

Anderson is prescient, depicting the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails, “no way to slow down” (“Locomotive Breath”); he sounds downright prophetic depicting the “products of wealth” pushing us into the abyss (“Slipstream”), and he sounds like an antidote for any ideology preempting God to justify violence or intolerance: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” (“Wind Up”). Aqualung is correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, but it’s more than that. It’s a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull and the progressive era.

Jethro Tull was on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick as a Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early to-mid-‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick as a Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog-rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, outdone in terms of scope and ambition only by its follow-up.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listens, less rewarding, A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

“I have no time for Time magazine, or Rolling Stone”, Anderson sang in 1975. Even then he seemed to understand, and accept, that it simply wasn’t in the cards for him to be taken as seriously as he should have been. That there have been few multi-instrumentalist bandleaders capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. That no one would ever rate his lyrical chops alongside justly venerated wordsmiths like Lennon, Dylan and Davies, even though on a purely poetic basis his ability arguably surpasses them all. That a world ceaselessly embracing one derivative, evanescent act after another hadn’t enough room for an old rocker who wore his hair too long, his trouser cuffs too tight and pulled one over on all of them, remaining too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young die.

No matter: in the court of public opinion the works persevere and will be alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners as long as discs still spin. In the end Tull’s not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/176304-the-holy-trinity-part-two-jethro-tull//

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R.I.P. Glenn C. (Remembering Glenn Cornick and Jethro Tull’s ‘Stand Up’)

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Glenn Cornick was, of course, Jethro Tull’s first bassist.

He and Ian did not get along (something that can be said for most of the other 10,000 ex-Tull musicians) so he hit the road after the third album, Benefit.

Nice piece on him, HERE.

I give him some love in the extensive appraisal of Stand Up, below.

Let it suffice to say, his presence on those first three albums is palpable, important and enduring.

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The first bit of good news regarding this “collector’s edition” of Stand Up is that you don’t need it. The second bit of good news is that for the most part it already exists, albeit scattered throughout a handful of previously released material. If you already own all of those sets, chances are you are a serious Jethro Tull fan, in which case you’ve probably already acquired this latest installment. To cut through the haze, anyone who has been meaning to pick up this excellent album should know it was remastered earlier this decade (and includes the obligatory bonus tracks), so you can pick that baby up for about a third the cost.

Now to be fair, there is a lot of good “extra” material included in this edition, and only hardcore Tull fans will have all of it in their collections. Various box sets and compilations have featured these BBC sessions as well as the Carnegie Hall concert from 1970. If you already own Stand Up and are interested in hearing some vintage Tull from that era, as well as an extended interview with Ian Anderson, you could do worse. That interview, conducted earlier this year, is the real draw here for fans that already have everything.

All that being said, a question those unfamiliar or unimpressed with Jethro Tull might ask is: what does it matter? It matters because, all other considerations aside (deluxe packaging with original pop-up inside cover, liner notes from Ian Anderson, the first full and unedited version of “With You There To Help Me/By Kind Permission Of” from the Carnegie Hall show (wherein new pianist John Evan does his best Ludwig Van), 5.1 surround sound—but no footage—of the concert), Stand Up is a crucial album in many regards. In addition to serving as the first testament of the band Tull became, and would become, it endures as a meaningful document from what turned out to be a very transitional moment in rock history.So, if this somewhat superfluous new release affords the opportunity for a sustained reappraisal, all the better.

Stand Up may be Jethro Tull’s second album, but it is more like a first than a follow-up, in almost every way. This Was, their proper debut, illustrated the direction which that band might have gone in (keywords: that band). Mick Abrahams, original lead guitarist and co-leader, was no slouch and to his credit knew exactly where he wanted to go. A dedicated acolyte of the blues, Abrahams was all about the old school and dirt-under-the-nails authenticity. His approach is mostly successful on This Was, with songs such as “Move On Alone”, “It’s Breaking Me Up” and the garage rock aggression of “Beggar’s Farm”. On other songs the sound is overly derivative and while never boring, the results are not exactly memorable, unless the design was to sound like third-rate Cream (it was a dubious decision to include “Cat’s Squirrel”, a song featured on Cream’s debut, which suffers by comparison and betrays an opportunism that would have been more honest—and less misguided—if they’d called it “Copycat’s Squirrel”).

In any event, by 1968 that formula (British bands earnestly mimicking American blues legends) was pretty well played out, no matter how convincingly rendered. Even Cream’s debut sounds dated, particularly in comparison with their stunning follow-up Disraeli Gears. In other words, Abrahams had hitched his axe to a locomotive that was going backwards (where he contentedly rode it into semi-obscurity with Bloodwyn Pig), and it is understandable that Ian Anderson envisioned bigger and better—or at least more original—fields for Tull to plow.

Enter Martin Barre, a young but game guitarist whose primary credentials were his lack of experience, which ensured Anderson would never again compete with anyone for control of the band. It is, then, to Anderson’s considerable credit that the resulting album—recorded less than one year later—represents a development that was, and remains, staggering. The dividends Barre delivers are immediate, and well-represented throughout the recording. While one can detect the flute-driven energy of “Beggar’s Farm” in “Back To The Family”, the latter is less a jam and more a proper “song”. Interestingly, both Abrahams and Barre, like every other guitarist in the mid-to-late ‘60s, were listening to a lot of Clapton, and the first two Tull albums are tributes of a sort to the first two Cream albums. To be certain, Barre is less interested in aping Clapton’s riffs and although the blistering outro on “Back To The Family” is a bit of a nod to “God”, it possesses its own unrefined power. While Barre’s playing is not as technically proficient, it’s debatable whether even Clapton can match the emotional heft uncorked on “We Used To Know”, which is cold-finger, raw hangnail material.

There is also ample evidence of the first-rate lyricist Anderson would quickly become. There have not been many 22-year-olds in rock music history who could half-convincingly write songs like “Look Into The Sun”, “We Used To Know” and especially “Reasons For Waiting” (the best song you’ve never heard). These songs are a universe apart from anything on This Was and provide early evidence of the incredibly warm and full sound Anderson gets from his acoustic guitar.

Then there are the familiar songs, some of which continue to get airplay on classic rock radio: “Bouree”, the jazz-rock riff on Bach; “Nothing Is Easy”, the flute-cake manifesto; and the band’s first huge hit, “Living In The Past” (not released on the original album, but included as a bonus track). “A New Day Yesterday” is an ideal opening statement, teasing with nods to the black-and-blues soundscape from ’68, then exploding into Technicolor as Barre’s guitar solo bleeds into Anderson’s frenetic and reverb-laden flute breakdown. Finally, the jocular “Fat Man”, featuring both mandolin and balalaika, a first signal of the folk and eastern influences that would permeate the band’s mature work. There is still a blues sensibility driving most of this material, but Anderson—who clearly had ability and creativity to burn—is already showing signs of developing the multi-faceted approach he would bring to each successive effort.

A few words must be said about Clive Bunker and Glenn Cornick, the drummer and bassist who would not be long for this band (Cornick lasted one more album; Bunker two). While it’s hard to quibble with Bunker’s excellent replacement, Barrie Barlow, Bunker was the perfect drummer for Jethro Tull’s early work. He does restrained as well as explosive, but his accompaniment is always ideal for whatever a particular song calls for. Songs like “Back to the Family” and “For a Thousand Mothers” would be unthinkable without his contributions. Cornick was a top-notch bass player and each new remaster reinforces how busy and brilliant he was in the pocket. He gets room to shine on “Bouree” and “Nothing Is Easy”, but as is often the case with the best bassists, you almost don’t realize he’s there until you stop and consider what a particular song would sound like without him. The charisma and stage antics of Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond became indispensable components of Tull’s charm and overall history, but the loss of Cornick (see: artistic differences, rock music’s version of the pink slip) affected the later music more than Anderson might ever care to admit.

1969 was not merely the conclusion of a decade, it was the end of a succession of eras. These include the British Invasion and the aforementioned blues-by-numbers of those bands (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Cream, even early Led Zeppelin), psychedelia, art-rock and the eventual, inevitable marriage of precision and pretension that brought us the dreaded “concept album”. By 1970 many of the bands that would become most closely associated with progressive rock (or Prog with a capital P), like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and ELP, were already off the proverbial reservation, crafting side-long suites and noodling away in the manner that captivated listeners and confounded critics.

Stand Up, then, remains rather unique. It is a document created in a rapidly closing artistic window, pre-prog but post-British blues and psychedelic rock. Within two years Jethro Tull would unleash Aqualung and fully, if warily, enter the prog-rock arena (literally and figuratively). Their second album continues to age quite nicely as a hybrid of many sounds, and a reflection of Ian Anderson’s restless vision. Stand Up boasts an ambition and vitality we usually associate with most successful debut albums, but the band is more seasoned and confident, with accordingly impressive results. It still manages to sound unspoiled, an ideal balance of daring and the deliberate.

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Ripe with Rich Attainments: Jethro Tull’s ‘A Passion Play’, Reassessed

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For prog-rock aficionados, the hits keep coming, and one man above all deserves our gratitude: Steven Wilson.

Whether it’s Yes, King Crimson, or Jethro Tull—all of whom he has worked with in recent years—the question arises: how much is too much with these deluxe reissues? The answer, naturally is: it’s never enough, assuming there are ample fans interested or insane enough to keep coughing up the coin to procure them.

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Once again, it must be said that, like the previous Wilson-affiliated productions, this is no half-assed cash grab offering the same-old, same-old with ostensibly improved fidelity. Rather, this is an elaborate undertaking, with a proper remix, a 5.1 surround sound (nerd alert!) and, not least, a fairly exhaustive booklet which details everything except where the Hare left those lost spectacles.

Let’s get the potential controversy out of the way, right up front. As always, purists will be given pause by some of the liberties Wilson takes, albeit with Ian Anderson’s blessing. What listeners will notice is not a straight remastering but a full remix; which is to say, in many regards a reimagining. For those purists the original versions are sacrosanct, supposed warts and all. Personally, I won’t quibble with any artist or producer’s acumen when it is stated forthrightly and without apology. However, I also reserve the right to wrinkle my nose a tad, just as I have regarding Pete Townshend’s tinkering with Quadrophenia (See “The Past Is Calling: Reconsidering The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’”).

All that aside, this latest project is an obsessive’s ambrosia: four separate discs of Jethro Tull’s most controversial album. If you have even read this far, you probably already know whether or not this box set is something you’d acquire, much less be interested in.

For anyone still on the fence, here’s one fanatic’s perspective. It can be argued, as both Anderson and Wilson do, that the decision to bring focus to a more basic mix (emphasizing vocals, guitar, bass, and drums) imbues an otherwise unattainable clarity. Or, for the perverse super-purists, restores integrity to the initial vision, assuming this after-the-fact tinkering better approximates primary intent.

To take one instance of intent vs. implementation, Anderson is on record as being unconvinced about his soprano sax playing (which this writer believes to be an unqualified success). As such, the instances here where it’s diminished or eliminated(!), will be either a revelation or a travesty, depending upon who is listening. To further muddle matters, I find it to be a bit of both. I love the material enough to enjoy an alternate version, especially one that attempts to realize some of what Anderson initially envisioned.

On the other hand, Anderson has always been ambivalent about this album, which complicates things on at least two levels. One, this album has polarized audiences (and pumpkin eaters), even Jethro Tull fans, for over four decades, so some acknowledgment, if not respect, should be granted to those who took the time to “get” and ultimately savor the music. Two, if Anderson has never been crazy about A Passion Play, how unaffected are his intentions, giving Wilson his goodwill to “reimagine” the album? And perhaps more importantly, who cares?

Most people would agree that once a work of art becomes public property, it ceases to be the sole proprietorship of the artist. Indeed, it could be more convincingly speculated that the moment it becomes public (not to mention paid for) the artist ceases to have any proprietorship. In any event, for those seeking richer fidelity featuring the original sounds, this edition may indeed be too much of a…great? thing. And down the rabbit hole we go.

Speaking of rabbits, Intermission Time!

Obviously, as most Tull fans are already aware, there can be no proper reappraisal of A Passion Play without inclusion of the aborted Château d’Hérouville sessions that preceded it. Not-so-affectionately referred to, by the band, as the “Château d’Isaster” tapes, portions of this material have been doled out in various incarnations over the years. The three-part “Scenario/Audition/No Rehearsal” was a more than a very agreeable novelty upon its first release on 1988’s box set. It begged the tantalizing questions: is there more of this material and, if so, is this Tull’s lost masterpiece? The answers turned out to be: yes, and not so much.

However, the collected tapes from these sessions (discussed in the liner notes) represent an earnest, if uneven attempt at a double LP: a conceptual piece of sorts that is heavy on the animal imagery and God-as-Director of the Passion Play we’re all acting in. And if that sounds at once wholly of its time and too-pretentious-by-half, it was. But some of the ideas are executed to near perfection (the aforementioned “Scenario/Audition/No Rehearsal”, and experimental tone poems like “First Post”, “Animelée”, and “Tiger Toon”). Some of the material was repurposed later (“Only Solitaire” and “Skating Away”) and, of course, some of it resurfaced, in more polished form (“Critique Oblique”, the melody of “Law of the Bungle Part I”), on the subsequent A Passion Play. The rest of it ranges from lackluster to banal, and it’s easy to understand why Anderson contentedly left it on the cutting room floor (“Sailor”, “Left Right”, and “The Big Top” all sound like half-baked works in progress, heavy on the pomposity, light on emotional or aesthetic impact).

It’s fascinating and enlightening to hear, in its unvarnished entirety, all the work the band did during that ill-fated journey to France (the same studio, incidentally, where such beloved works as Elton John’s Honky Château and Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds were recorded). Where Anderson has given some of these songs face-lifts (flute here, vocals there) in past reissues, he agreed, again, with Wilson to present them as they were initially recorded, without embellishment or upgrade. As such, they are now genuine historical documents, and fans can ascertain what worked, what could have been, and why Tull decided to quit while they were ahead (or behind) and start over from scratch.

It remains astonishing that A Passion Play, adored and/or derided as a complex, occasionally impenetrable progressive opus, was indeed conceived and executed in a matter of weeks. For better or worse, it sounds (at least the first several dozen times) like the result of considerable deliberation and agonizing. Perhaps Anderson & Co. had gotten all the bad vibes out of their systems, and by the time they returned to the friendly turf of Old Blighty, they were unencumbered, fully unloosing that pent-up creativity.

Whatever the explanation—and it might be as simple as the fact that, circa 1973, Ian Anderson was locked in like few rock musicians before or since—A Passion Play is a work that, especially following the successful and user-friendly Thick as a Brick, was practically destined for backlash. And the backlash came quickly, at least from critics. It’s illuminating that during a period when, shall we say, ambitious prog-rock albums were at worst tolerated, this work was simply too much for the average columnist. The fans, nevertheless, were picking up what the band was putting down, and the album hit #1 stateside.

Writing about this album in my assessment of Jethro Tull’s “Holy Trinity” (see “The Holy Trinity: Jethro Tull”), I offer the following thoughts:

It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

Anderson would go on to do work that was better received (say, Songs from the Wood) and, arguably, plain better (Minstrel in the Gallery), and to this day he keeps on keeping on, always finding audiences wherever he roams. Still, whether fans concur, or whether the artist himself agrees, at no point was Anderson as brazen, adventurous and near-infallible as he was during the recording of A Passion Play.

It was, as the generous and most welcome new liner notes indicate, not the most pleasant or, initially, most productive few months. Nevertheless, their pain remains our pleasure: it makes little difference what critics, certain fans or the authors of a particular work have to say; as is always the case, meaningful art will find an audience. A Passion Play endures, and matters, because it continues to confront, excite, and defy easy explanation. A touchstone from a ceaselessly maligned genre, Anderson’s 1973 masterpiece represents an eternal J’accuse to conformity and cliché, and its very refusal to be pigeonholed or even clarified will ensure that it continues to delight and surprise listeners. Scorning convention, after all, is what prog-rock of this era, at its best, attempted to do, and few did it better than Jethro Tull.

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A Week of Americana. Part Two: Captain Beefheart

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Don Van Vliet (R.I.P.), with his idiosyncracies, individuality and iconoclasm, represents virtually everything that is profoundly beautiful about America both as a concept and actuality. Like his compatriots Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee (to name only two, both of whom figured prominently in the summer of ’67), he was possibly driven to –or past– the point of insanity by…what, exactly? His genius? Reality? The impossibility of adapting, much less conforming, to a society that has rules men like Van Vliet are genetically predisposed to circumvent? Never fully appreciated during his time, it’s painful to contemplate his ongoing legacy in a world of free downloads and celebrity-anointed idols. Captain Beefheart is an original American Idol, and an ideal American: artist, inspiration, human. He bypassed convention by becoming the possibility of what his impossible brain imagined. And we should all be grateful to have had him.

(From my December 2010 tribute O Captain! My Captain!: The Unique Magic of Don Van Vliet)

As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately.”

And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would –and did— endorse the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.

Now that he’s gone, many folks will—and should—rhapsodize about the album most agree is Beefheart’s defining work (even if they’ve never actually listened to it), Trout Mask Replica. Among its many quirky and/or quixotic charms, this is possibly the first album to be so arty it became anti-art. Deliberately cacophonous, even confrontational, it seems to be searching for magic inside of the discordant chaos. The results will mean different things to different people, but Van Vliet had a method for his madness: perfectly capable musicians playing behind, beside and beneath anything that, on first (or fifteenth) listen seems to make sense. The album could be considered one extended love song to insanity, or a smirking expense report from the other side of reality. It is one of the all-time cult following rites of passage: if you are down with this, you could conceivably be down with anything –for better or worse.

Needless to say, Trout Mask Replica is not easy going or easily recommended, and in fact, one could (should) start just about anywhere else. If anyone reading this is uninitiated, it affords me an excellent opportunity to talk about the most accessible option, which happens to be my favorite Beefheart album, Safe As Milk. It is the first album, and also, in my opinion, the best one. I do not expect that many people share this perspective, but I think everyone in the know would agree this is the ideal point of entry. If there was even a modicum of justice in our plastic factory world, this would be widely considered one of rock music’s most out there yet addictive barbaric yawps.

(Sidenote: was 1967 an all-time year for debut albums or what? In addition to Safe As Milk there were first albums by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. Most people, if they think about Safe As Milk at all, consider it a delightful little lark, a nice enough opening salvo. For my money, it’s more than that; a lot more. And it’s funny, because when we think about the Summer of Love (if we think about the Summer of Love), it’s all about love being all you need and how The Beatles dropped their definitive statement, Sgt. Pepper, which might happen to be the most important album ever, et cetera. Interestingly, two albums that did not get much press at the time, but have certainly found their audiences—however small—in the subsequent decades, seem to best represent the reality of what that seminal year meant, musically and culturally. I’m talking about Safe As Milk as well as Love’s Forever Changes. Maybe the ultimate reason these two albums, aside from their commercial failings, tend to not register in the facile narrative of hippie nostalgia is because both albums saw through the façade then, and in hindsight seem all the more remarkable for their refusal to pay lip service, lyrically and aesthetically, to the up-with-people ethos of the time.)


Look at the band on the back cover. They are characters from a Wes Anderson movie: all wearing coat and tie, one inexplicably sporting leather gloves, one rocking a stylish chapeau (who happens to be named Alex St. Clair Snouffer). Not pictured—and not credited—is young wunderkind Ry Cooder, who lent his considerable slide guitar skills to the proceedings. They look more like stockbrokers than songwriters, which only adds to the mystique since they, as it happened, made some of the more unsettling music on the scene.

How does music like this happen? How is Captain Beefheart even conceivable? Do you believe in magic? Well how about the Magic Band? We know that the world didn’t know what to make of this album, then. What can we make of it, now? Here are a few thoughts: it doesn’t sound of its time, or any time, and it is one of those (very) rare recordings that can be returned to constantly and somehow, someway remains unfettered and invigorating. Each song is a totally complete statement, whimsical, yet always with the air of danger: like a trip about to take a serious turn for the worse, but it never does. The creative energy and offbeat ebullience make this record approachable but indescribable; it’s all in there: blues, doo-wop, psychedelia, faux-pop and a handful of songs that sound utterly unlike anything anyone has ever done.

Listening to “Dropout Boogie” is like watching the rock and roll version of Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth for the first time: this quiet, weird dude you laughed at in gym class suddenly soaring in the air above you. You’ve never heard him speak but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s Superman. This track works as well as any (from this album, or from his entire oeuvre) in terms of epitomizing Van Vliet’s unvarnished and utterly uncompromised approach. If the Captain should be worshipped for one thing it’s that he never once pandered for the sake of critical or commercial expediency. Considering this album was recorded during the height of the “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” hysteria, a song like “Dropout Boogie” becomes a brave turd in the punch bowl, serving to question the long-term prospects of Timothy Leary’s call to arms. “And what about after that?” he asks, a line that joins Arthur Lee’s “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow” (from Forever Changes) as two of the most enduring—and prescient—from ’67.

Then there is a song like “Yellow Brick Road” that could almost make a white guy dance, and then wonder why everyone doesn’t know this and love it.

Safe As Milk was the one that introduced Don Van Vliet to the world and it remains a (Korn Ring) middle finger in the face of all the lame conformists who scoff at what they can’t understand. It’s not especially sad that this album did not find a widely receptive audience; its obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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