Why Is Prog Rock So Inadequate, Simplistic, Reductive, Portentous and…Perfect? (Revisited)

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It’s always crucial, when talking trends—musical or otherwise—to contextualize the times and remember that wardrobe malfunctions, chemical excess and unspeakable atrocities like porn-star mustaches never exist within a vacuum. To properly remember, and assess, the good, the bad and the ugly of what accelerated (or, in some cases, stunted) our collective forward progress, we should feel obliged to stop, look and listen. And taste, and smell. And always make sure to program our perspective and especially our sense of humor for what we’re about to experience. For make no mistake: when it comes to lessons learned, unfortunate choices and free comedy, progressive rock remains a gift that keeps on giving.

Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend started crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut.

And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million air guitars. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome.

So it behooves us, if we want to have a sober discussion of which music from this era is worthwhile, and why it endures, to remember just how much overly produced music was made by overindulged acts throughout the ‘70s. The excesses—both aesthetic and recreational—informing the scene also sorted the field, separating contenders from has-beens and assorted flavors of the Billboard Hot 100. Put bluntly, these were the not-so-good old days when coke-snorting executives in leisure suits green-lighted hit singles by acts destined for the dustbins and oldies circuit. Put even more bluntly, acts like Barry Gibb, The Bay City Rollers and K.C. and the Sunshine Band all managed to be millionaires.

No need to invoke Dickens; it was neither the best nor the worst of times. At one extreme we had dancing queens and dry ice edging ever closer to the public (and publically accepted) stage; at the opposite end of the spectacle we witnessed the emerging proposition of punk rock. To its credit, the punks’ do-it-yourself ethos scorned the self-parody of both dinosaur arena acts as well as the aforementioned jungle boogie bandwagon jumpers. This raw wave crashed in a spray of broken glass, safety pin piercings and bloody spittle that served to shake up the power-pop vanguard. The prevailing formula had suffocated on its own self-importance, and the new fashion harnessed hairspray and spite in equal measure to establish brand new ground rules.

Or at least that’s the generally sanctioned version of events we tend to hear entirely too often. Raise your hand if you’ve read (one time or one hundred times) the facile and hackneyed account of how punk killed progressive rock so that we could all live miserably ever after. The reality, as it stubbornly tends to be, is much messier and more complicated. Progressive rock came and went (and came back), but opinions differ on what specific years it covered and which artists epitomize it. Perhaps this is unavoidable, because this so-called era isn’t easily packaged into a particular time period or specific aesthetic, and what we are left with is the all-encompassing moniker of prog-rock, which manages to be inadequate, overly simplistic, reductive, portentous and… perfect?

A form of musical expression that, for lack of a better cliché, transcends time and place is created and exists on its own terms, so there is no barrier of language, ideology or agenda that prevents it from finding its audience. The only requirement is a sufficiently open mind and ears (or eyes) capable of picking up what is being put down. Of course this same criteria can be—and typically is—applied to any artistic expression. So why is it different, or at least more complicated, when it comes to assessing the pros and cons of prog rock? Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to snootily dismiss the more elaborate (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s.

One of the many reasons progressive rock remains controversial, and taken less-than-seriously by the so-called serious critics, is because fairly or not it frequently gets associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Matters of musical proficiency aside, it is true to suggest that little of the material holds up especially well, lyrically speaking (of course that is true of most rock music—a topic for another time). This is not a sufficient—or necessarily legitimate—cause to dismiss it as is usually the case, but defenders can only get so much mileage discussing the unparalleled chops of, say, ELP, Yes, Rush, et al.

“I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think”. This line, from Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, serves as a succinct summation of why prog rock did—and does—inspire such intense adoration and/or aversion. The people who reject it (then, now) likely would ask, and not without merit, who wants to think? Music typically fails if it can’t burrow past your beer gut.

It’s fair to suggest that, regardless of its merits or lack thereof, the most successful music of this genre made you think. Inevitably, the artists who were too self-conscious for everyone’s sake; the ones trying a tad too hard to make you think—especially the ones who wanted to make you think how clever they were—crossed the verboten third rail of pretension and have been punished accordingly (then, now). But the best practitioners, through their lyrics, themes and conceptual ideas that occasionally spanned entire albums, went for your head as well as your heart.

For some reason the gatekeepers of the Establishment (many of whom are the ultimate hipsters, poseurs and baby-boomers; many of whom are men; many of whom, coincidentally, have written for Rolling Stone) seem embarrassed by the notion that rock music can—or should—be capable of eliciting thought as well as feeling. That it can be unaffected without the face-saving cynicism too many songwriters, the ones predictably lionized by these same besotted journalists, feel compelled to employ. What is it about prog rock in general that makes these self-satisfied scribes so uncomfortable? That is a rhetorical question.

There is, ultimately, something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where opportunism and cold calculation are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

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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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The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull

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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Ian Anderson: Living in the Present

However unwittingly, Ian Anderson wrote his artistic epitaph all the way back in 1976. “Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young To Die!”, the hit from the album of the same name, used music as a metaphor (or vice versa) where he, understandably, wondered if—or when—a musician might be reasonably expected to retire. The answer, of course, has always been straightforward: when the musician feels like it. Whether written off by critics, ignored by trend makers or still selling out arenas, only the artist can decide when it’s finally time to walk away.

For an iconoclastic prog rocker who is currently enjoying his 44th year as leader of Jethro Tull, it’s at once ironic and appropriate that his first single, from 1969, is entitled “Living in the Past”. The next sentence is inevitable: whether or not Anderson is figuratively wallowing in the brighter glow of glory days long gone, he soldiers on. As it happened, he was—and is—not yet too old to rock and roll. (That sentence was inevitable as well.) Jethro Tull continued to make remarkable music throughout the ‘70s and was steady if not always impressive during the ‘80s. Things slowed down dramatically in the ‘90s and no new material has surfaced in almost a decade. Nevertheless, Anderson has been an indefatigable performer, leading his ever-evolving line-ups on tour pretty much without pause. If his voice was effectively shot many moons ago, the crowds still turned up for the shows.

Was he supposed to fade away or quietly tend to his salmon farms? We tend to mock our elder statesmen when they get lazy or lose inspiration. (This begs the uneasy question: is rock and roll almost exclusively a young musician’s game? With few exceptions in terms of both quality and consistency, the answer is a resounding yes.) And so: what is there to say about someone who continues to make music past retirement age? Fair play and cheers to anyone who is willing and able to stay in the game. All of which is to say it was surprising, but not disheartening to hear a new album was in the works. On the other hand, revisiting—and updating—a progressive milestone and masterpiece? Hmmm.

Ian Anderson, who has cycled through sidemen the way his more hedonistic compatriots once speed-dialed through dealers, has yet another cast of characters for this recording. The gentlemen from the ‘72 line-up have been gone for ages. The one exception, throughout, has been Martin Barre, lead guitarist from the second album on. Distressingly, if revealingly, Barre is nowhere to be heard on these proceedings, which are intriguingly (if revealingly) entitled Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson: TAAB2 (Thick As a Brick 2). Hmmm.

Expectations were moderate, to put it mildly. Simply, if harshly put, the notion of this entire enterprise seemed like a recipe for fiasco, an exercise equal parts ill-advised nostalgia, indulgence and obvious lack of inspiration. Recent years have not been kind to either Anderson’s voice or, judging from the scarcity of new works, his muse. In the great old days, these were the two sharpest arrows in his quiver.

And yet, here he is, pressing on because he can; because he needs to. The verdict? It’s not terrible. It’s not even bad, actually. And yet, it is difficult to determine if it’s really very good. It is not remotely an embarrassment which, given the stakes and circumstances, is not an inconsiderable achievement. Of course there will be fans prepared to protest Anderson’s audacity: how dare he meddle with the legacy of a dearly-loved album, etc. Those unforgiving, unimaginative folks are advised to give this one a miss, though they may in fact be missing out on material that is interesting and more than occasionally quite satisfactory.

Martin Barre is sorely missed (on principle if nothing else) but in fairness, his young replacement Florian Ophale acquits himself more than adequately. The rest of the band, including drummer Scott Hammond, bassist David Goodier and keyboardist John O’Hara may not make anyone forget the ’72 crew, but—again, in fairness—few outfits (then, now) could.

The impetus of this endeavor is a doubling-down of sorts, revisiting a gambit employed for the original. Thick As a Brick, as the elaborate faux-newspaper packaging declared, featured lyrics from an eight year old wunderkind called Gerald Bostock. Now, 40 years on, Anderson imagines the various paths this fictional character’s life may have taken. As such, careers ranging from banker to soldier to preacher are explored, with varying levels of effectiveness.

The lyrics are mostly okay, but seldom encroach on the rarefied air Anderson occupied for the initial decades of his career. The music is, frankly, better than any reasonable fan could hope for. At least the instruments are all being played by human beings and there is a merciful minimum of studio tinkering and technological trickery (thanks in no small part to mixing engineer—and prog rock MVP—Steven Wilson). The vocals? There is no way around it, the vocals are weak. At this point Anderson utilizes a strategy of necessity, half-speaking in a sing-song style. Unfortunately there are also sections of deadpan narrative delivered in an unembellished speaking voice. These moments are aesthetically disappointing, more so for their unoriginality and the last resort of sorts that they signify than anything else. Overall, there is sufficient variety, in terms of the pacing and the sounds, to result in a discernible, sporadically pleasant flow. The packaging is neither as clever nor as impressive as the original, but the old version didn’t come with a bonus DVD featuring interviews, a making-of feature and lyric readings (this one does).

The key question remains: is it memorable? Will it be returned to with any regularity? Check back in a month, or a year, or a few decades. Grading on the curve, it seems unsporting to be excessively harsh. This project could never replace or even compare favorably with the first one, but not many albums could. To this listener (and long-time fan) the results are much more lively and worthwhile than anything Anderson has done since the early ‘90s. That he had the tenacity to pull this off without resorting to self-satire puts him in a better light than most of his peers who are safely enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and/or debasing themselves during the Super Bowl.

Bottom line: the effort does little to affect the impact of the ‘72 release. Or any of the albums that preceded or followed it. It puts the clearest perspective possible on the question only the most ardent fans bother to ask (and, as such, serves as a curious kind of public service): what would happen if Ian Anderson had stuck around for another 40 years after he created Thick As a Brick? Answer: this is what would have happened.

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The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs of All Time: Part Four

10. The Who, “Underture”

The Who were not a prog-rock band. While both Tommy and The Who Sell Out could—and should—be considered crucial touchstones that helped pave the way, Pete Townshend’s feet were always rooted too firmly on terra firma to do anything other than what he was doing, which was quite brilliant thank you very much. Nevertheless, the all-instrumental “Underture” which, along with the album-opening “Overture”, bookends the first two sides of Tommy, is in many ways a blueprint for what other bands would build on. It is rather unlike anything else in The Who’s catalog, both in terms of length and style. Moon and Entwistle are in typically torrential form (Moon’s playing on this track managed to prompt kudos from jazz legend Elvin Jones), and Townshend employs acoustic guitar dynamics he never equaled (or needed to) again. If a slash-and-burn could conceivably be described as subtle, that is what The Who accomplish on “Underture”: it is propulsive and furious, yet dark and exquisite. It would be impossible, and pointless, to try and pick a single song from a writer as prolific and influential as Townshend, but these ten minutes might represent the most undistorted evidence of his compositional genius and infectious imagination.

9. Pink Floyd, “Time”

There is a simple reason Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most talked-about and beloved albums in rock history: it is one of the best albums in rock history. Enough said, sort of. People tend to forget, if understandably, that it’s not as though Floyd waltzed into Abbey Road Studios with the knowledge that they were about to create a masterwork. Dark Side was the natural and inevitable progression of a path the band had been on since 1968, and many of the ideas and imagery they render so perfectly had already appeared, in brief snatches and bursts, on previous work. For this album Roger Waters finally figured out how to write meaningful, penetrating lyrics with an economy of words and maximum emotional import (few, if any in rock have improved upon his style). The band was focused and each individual track received their full attention as they explored the themes of madness, money and faith in modern society.

The track that manages to incorporate all these concerns and still address, seemingly everything, is “Time”. The verses, sung with harsh authority by Gilmour, assess (and assail) the concerns and tribulations that preoccupy each of us, while the choruses (rendered as mellow counterpoint by Rick Wright) are crooned, lulling you to sleep, kind of like life will do if you are not paying attention. Special mention must be made of Gilmour’s guitar solo: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail.

8. King Crimson, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”

First they borrowed Jon Anderson (to sing on Lizard); then they inherited Bill Bruford once the great drummer bowed out of Yes. But nothing Yes—or King Crimson for that matter—had done to this point could have anticipated “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” (the title alone an eccentric ode to the creative path less traveled). Most of the work made during the prog-rock era can be described to some extent, especially when it is categorically dismissed as pretentious noodling. But this song (actually part one of two, and while part two is magnificent in its own way, that riff-laden workout is much more straightforward than the kitchen-sink sensibility of part one) is a high water mark for the ideas, artistry and inspiration that define the best music of this time. As ever, Robert Fripp’s guitar guides the journey, downshifting from proto-grunge shrieking to jangling melodicism. But it’s the exotic violin contributions from David Cross and the tumultuous percussion stylings of Jamie Muir that take this track to that other place.

The song travels from placid to ominous (the languid, building menace of Fripp’s entry manages to almost be frightening), and then, after the bird calls and an invocation of the Far East, the ultimate postmodern touch: urgent, scarcely audible voices (from a radio? movie?) are looped and spliced, becoming gibberish that somehow makes perfect sense. As the song winds down, courtesy of Muir’s ethereal glockenspiel, a gentle chime (like a grandfather clock) washes over and out, and you are left wondering what hit you.

7. Jethro Tull, “Thick As A Brick”

Jethro Tull were 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—and starkly—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 forty-five minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Frontman/mastermind Ian 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, and there are maybe a handful of lyricists who matched his output in terms of sustained quality and variety during this decade.

6. Rush, “2112”

Just over halfway into the decade, when many of the old guard progressive rock bands were out of ideas or on hiatus, Rush delivered one of the genre’s definitive anthems. 2112 is a harder edged music combining the proficiency of their influences with an aggression that captured the actual urgency attending the sessions. This album sounded—and still sounds—at once familiar and forward-looking, putting Rush somewhere on the sonic spectrum in between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision.

The rock media, which had not paid Rush much attention, now took notice and generally found the Ayn-Rand inspired storyline (the multi-track suite, filling up all of side one, updates Rand’s early novel Anthem and places the narrative in a dystopian future where music has been outlawed and long forgotten) unfashionably right-wing — an indictment the band found perplexing, and continues to be amused about. In these interviews, each member (particularly Peart, who wrote the lyrics and undoubtedly regrets his youthful shout-out, in the liner notes, to Rand’s “genius”) makes a convincing case that the inspiration had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements. Of course, plenty of pundits (then, now) find Rush –in general—and prog rock –in particular—pretentious, but the sentiment informing this particular album has more in common with the much celebrated punk rock ethos, with the added bonus that the band are actually quite capable musicians. “2112” remains the album that made possible what Rush would become, and it inspired both peers and pretenders to emulate their purpose and passion, if not their scarves and kimonos.

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It Was 335 Years Ago Today: A Brief History of Jethro Tull (Both of Them)

Most people knew Jethro Tull had been around forever, but more than three centuries??

Oh. You mean the actual British dude, Mr. Tull, whom the progressive band was named after? (Wait, so that isn’t the singer’s name?) Quite an arbitrary choice, though certainly more cerebral than many of its era (Strawberry Alarm Clock, anyone?); and considering one of the early choices was Candy Coloured Rain, I think we can all appreciate that less acid-addled minds prevailed.

So who was this Jethro Tull and why is he important, aside from being on the cover of this album? Well, do the words seed drill mean anything to you?

Eventually, as agricultural improvement became fashionable, more interest began to be taken in Tull’s ideas.  While several other mechanical seed drills had also been invented, Tull’s complete system was a major influence on the agricultural revolution and its impact can still be seen in today’s methods and machinery.

Suffice it to say, this was the iPod of its day. Arguably, the Agricultural Revolution would have taken longer to reach its full…flowering without Mr. Tull, and for that we can be grateful. No Agricultural Revolution, no Industrial Revolution. No Industrial Revolution, no electricity. No Electricity, no phonograph. No Phonograph…well, you get the picture. Without Jethro Tull…no Jethro Tull!

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After three impressive albums, Tull signalled that they were around to stay with the release of Aqualung in 1971, an ambitious quasi-concept album that dealt with organized religion and man’s inhumanity to man. The title track (which features one of the great rock guitar solos of all time courtesy of Martin Barre) and “Locomotive Breath” became, and remain, FM radio staples. It is (as is often the case with “classic” albums) the somewhat lesser-known tunes that retain their true staying power. The one-two acoustic punch of “Cheap Day Return” and “Mother Goose” are archetypes of a sort; the kind of whimsical British folk that Tull perfected: the songs seem straightforward and pleasant enough (and they are) but are cut by their topical, and occasionally unsettling, lyrical import. This is Anderson’s calling card, and nowhere is it in better effect than the one minute and twenty-four seconds of perfection entitled “Cheap Day Return”. In astonishingly succinct and effective fashion Anderson deals with his own alienation, offers a sardonic appraisal of his own budding super-stardom (What a laugh!), and his father’s imminent death, all in a song that sounds innocuous as a nursery rhyme.

They were on top of the world (and the charts) in ’72 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 one of the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics: the ones who bought this album on vinyl, then, and the brave souls who have no shame in their game, now. Simply put, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics (then, now) who were content to dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ’70s. And by works I don’t mean this but I do mean this (at least side one). And for every one of these there was one of these. And before he (rightly) became a more mainstream iconoclast, Peter Gabriel was the driving force behind albums like this and this and especially this. As could correctly be said of any artistic era, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of that same audience (more than a handful forever) with their next opus, the more challenging (and, upon initial listens, less rewarding) A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that 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 is a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades. All of the above is amply demonstrated in the opening section, embedded below. 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).

Tull plowed ahead, making music their own way, and cranked out an album per year through the entire decade. In another nice bit of art imitating history, Anderson recorded the second album of his “pastoral trilogy” (including the majestic Songs From The Wood and the fin de siecle-inspired Stormwatch), ’78’s Heavy Horses.

    

In 1731 he published his book, ‘The New Horse Hoeing Husbandry’, detailing his system and its machinery. It caused great controversy at the time, and arguments continued for another century before his eventual vindication.

We can hope that the scales of artistic justice will have a similar fate in store for Anderson, and that his tour de force (the title track) is fully vindicated in the eyes of critics and casual music fans everywhere (though it’s difficult to protest too much for an artist who has sold many millions of albums). Nevertheless, it’s an embarrassing commentary on how close-minded so many folks are that they probably have never even heard this song. Of course,  the professionals who write most often about rock music in the ’70s are not known for their fondness of multisyllabic words and material that obliges a modest understanding of world history.

The early ’80s were not particularly kind to Tull (or, put another way, the Tull of the early ’80s was not particularly kind to fans), and after the synth-heavy Under Wraps, it seemed like the time might be right for Anderson to turn more of his attention to salmon farming. But the (sweet) dream was not yet over: toward the end of the decade Tull unleashed back-to-back albums that recalled some of the better work of the past while being (mostly) entrenched in the here-and-now. The best moments on Crest of a Knave (’87) and Rock Island (’89) stand (mostly) alongside the best work the band did in its prime.

Farm on the Freeway:


Strange Avenues:


The ’90s were a time when bands who made double-albums in the ’70s replayed that material, live, to the retro crowd, working that nostalgia circuit in very profitable fasion. To Tull’s credit, they still toured regularly, and also made new albums from time to time. To say the results were mixed indicates a generosity that only the most unfaltering fan would deny. Still, Anderson had a few tricks left in his codpiece (figuratively speaking), like the surprisingly satisfactory Divinities: Twelve Dances With God. As the title suggests, it is a musical meditation on faith (all different types). The topic alone is cause for critics who wrote for Creem and Rolling Stone in the ’70s to suffer a fresh outbreak of the Herpes they contracted while covering The Sex Pistols, but the material holds up.

As some may be surprised to know, Jethro Tull still roams the earth, and while new albums aren’t being produced at the former pace (based on their post-’95 output, this is a good thing for all involved), they are still playing to crowds who happily pay to see them. If Pete Townshend decided he did not, in fact, want to die before he got old, it seems fair play for Jethro Tull and their fans to keep living in the past.

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