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BBC RADIO, WORLD SERVICE
THE JETHRO TULL STORY
Part 3: Thick As A Brick to Passion Play
[Song]: 'Life Is A Long Song', which was a hit single for Jethro Tull at the end of 1971 and marks yet another personnel change for the band.
I.A. "'Life Is A Long Song' is a song that came out of a session along with four other tracks which were recorded just after Clive Bunker had left the group, and Barrie Barlow, who had been in the original John Evan Band, was brought down from Blackpool to have a try-out with the group. We decided that the fair way to do it ... rather like Jeffrey who had begun his active life in the Jethro Tull group by going into the studio and playing rather than having to try and learn to play the songs that his predecessor had played ... it seemed the best way to do it with Barrie. So we went into the studio to do a few tracks and let Barrie play on them to see how it worked out, and that was one of those tracks, and we released all five of those tracks as a maxi single."
The introduction of Barriemore Barlow was the start of a long period of stability for the band: the line-up of Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, John Evan, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond and Barriemore Barlow remained the same for the next five years, producing a new-found confidence as their next recording, the ambitious concept album Thick As A Brick, demonstrated.
"The band got its biggest boost in confidence at the time when Jeffrey was wholeheartedly in the band, around the making of Thick As A Brick, and Barrie was also in the group, which as you mentioned has been fairly stable up until recently when Jeffrey left. Certainly throughout that Thick As A Brick year it was a very confident time because the group had a great sense of identity; we really felt very different to all the other groups that were around. It was at that time when the so-called underground groups of the late 60s / early 70s had given way to the progressive groups of the early- to mid-70s."
Thick As A Brick was released in the spring of 1972 and was an immediate success on both sides of the Atlantic, quickly reaching number 1 in America. As we've already mentioned it was a concept album containing one continuous piece of music packaged in one of the most elaborate sleeves ever. The whole thing unfolds into a very satirical imitation of an English small-town newspaper, which contains reports of the literary achievements of an 8-year-old local prodigy named Gerald Bostock, and he turns up on the label of the record as co-author of the lyrics. We asked Ian to explain.
"He's the little figure that I'm sort of saying is me as a little lad, who was supposed to have everything going for him, a really quite precocious little lad, very bright, very clever, read books, and knew a lot of things at an early age, but was well into opting out of that and making his own way ... a sort of exaggerated version of me as a similarly-aged child. I find myself looking back on Thick As A Brick and thinking ... well I have to play quite a lot of that every night ... and it's one of the few albums that I just don't know what the hell it was about at all, now, which is an interesting thing because it was obviously about something very meaningful to me at the time, and indeed to lots of other people who bought it and listened to it and seemed to know what it was all about at the time.
"It's a very abstracted thing, as was Passion Play, even more abstract, after it. There's a lot of verbal imagery: a lot of growing up, a lot of finding your way in the world and struggling against all sorts of odds, all sorts of conventions ... it's all of that, sung very much in the first person. It is perhaps more autobiographical, but when you are singing what you really feel and singing from your own standpoint, rather than make it black and white, where it can be very trite, you tend to make it a little bit hazy, a little bit abstract, and very subjective in the way you put it across ... defensively, because you don't want to be too black and white about what you say because you know you're going to change your own mind, your own viewpoint."
Typical of the articles in the newspaper forming the album sleeve is a review of the record, credited to Julian Stone-Mason BA, and which Ian admits to having written himself and which is not entirely uncritical. The paper also includes all the features one might expect in a local newspaper, from advertisements and the crossword to sports reports and births, marriages and deaths. Clearly, such an intricate piece of work was going to cause problems for Ian and Terry Ellis, the head of Tull's record company.
"I announced to Terry that I wanted to do an album cover which was a newspaper. He pointed out all the difficulties from the record company's standpoint of producing an album cover which was in newsprint and the enormous expense, and I said wait a minute, if they can put out the Evening Standard which has 30-odd pages or 40-odd pages, and comes out every nights and costs you (then) sixpence, you know, why does our album record cover have to cost any more? It was the cheapest sort of paper imaginable, it's very bad reproduction of both print and photographic material, it must be incredibly cheap to do. He finally accepted that perhaps it could be done cheaply, and indeed it didn't cost very much to do; it was just the problems of putting it together in Israel or somewhere, or South America ... some of the countries just literally couldn't do it. There was no problem anywhere else in Europe in doing it, it was just a matter of stapling it. Obviously it was a matter of something a bit special being done but it wasn't very expensive to do.
"It would have been expensive had other people been commissioned to do the album cover and to have written all those articles: in man hours, the wage bill for even a small local newspaper is quite a lot, to get all the ads together and do the lay-out and write everything. But since it was three or four people doing it for nothing it didn't really cost a lot of money; it just took time. And it was amusing to do. All of that album cover ... in fact the album cover, and I've said this before and it's absolutely true, took longer to put together than the album. I'm not suggesting it's any more important, but it took a long time to write all of that."
Was it all yours?
"No, I did, I suppose, more than half of it; Jeffrey did quite a lot and John Evans did a bit, and it was put together, put into columns and laid out, by Royston Eldridge at Chrysalis. Prior to that he was a rock journalist, prior to that he was a journalist on a local small-town newspaper; he'd actually been involved in all that sort of thing, so he was given a couple of weeks off from the record company to help us do the album cover, which he did. In fact he actually got the Album Award for it. There's lots of things about that album cover ... it's particularly enjoyable for me as an album cover because I can go back to it and find lots of things that I don't know why they're there because they were Jeffrey's parts: I didn't look over his shoulder while he was writing his contribution. I've really got to look very very hard at it and really think about it before I can even guess at what he's getting at, which is amusing for me, just as it's hopefully amusing for some of the punters.
"I mean Jeffrey's crossword puzzle in the middle: it is possible, even for an American without a grasp of the English vernacular that the crossword puzzle employs, it is possible to get it. We've had two or three crossword replies sent to us which, bar maybe one word, have been right; and somebody's really worked hard at getting it and nearly got it. From there to joining up the dots ... there's a rude picture, you see. What is more important about that album cover is the obvious relationship between that and the crystallisation of a lot of British humour at that time, starting off with the Goons and ending up with Monty Python before they went over the top and lost John Cleese. At its best it's contemporaneous with that, and without copying the Monty Python thing I think we felt ... a lot of English pop groups as well, felt very responsive to that sort of humour, very nasty aggressive humour, very rude, schoolboy-ish, 6th form-ish ... something that everybody felt very close to. A very important time in humour, and it's gone now. It's not there any more."
Only a few months after the huge success of Thick As A Brick, the double compilation album Living In The Past was released. It contains a wide variety of material, with some early singles and some live album tracks.
"A lot of peculiarly British material, the British singles, had never been released in America. It was a bit late to release them in America: they were already two or three years old. So it seemed like a good idea to put all those singles and their b-sides and the best of Jethro Tull plus some live material all into a double album package so that America could catch up with Britain and Europe which had the benefit of this extra year or two's material. It was done for that reason, to make it more of a global package; it wouldn't have been a lot of use selling that album in Europe because it was a lot of b-sides and whatnot, so by including the live material as well it seemed to add up to a saleable, international product for the record company and they were quite keen to have it that way. So it was a scrap-book kind of album, with various pictures of the group in various situations ... a friendly, warm album to all the people who didn't really know what we were about, who'd maybe heard one or two albums. It was a good 'best of' album, because it was the best of Jethro Tull in lots of different ways."
[Song]: This was one of the early British hit singles appearing on the album, its title track 'Living In The Past', which was now released as a single in America and reached number 11 at the end of 1972. Meanwhile, plans were being made for the next studio album.
"We had a big problem after Thick As A Brick because we started work on a double album of a non-conceptual nature, as different as we could make it from Thick As A Brick, a double album of lots of nice songs which we went to Paris to record: the Chateau d'Herouville, where Elton John had recorded one of his albums. We found it very difficult to work there: technically it was not what we were used to, it was very primitive. We had a lot of problems getting music down on tape that sounded OK, and we abandoned it after we'd recorded most of the backing tracks. We listened to everything and decided that it just doesn't sound very good, you know, it isn't right. So we abandoned it all and came back to Britain, and rather than start recording the same material all over again, which is very difficult when you've done it once and it just hasn't clicked, we thought, better just forget it all and start again; write more music and do something else. At that point in time the only thing we could quickly do was something that was conceptual, that could be written and rehearsed and recorded in one great block of music and had some sort of identity. And Passion Play was written quite quickly, although it involved an awful lot of hard work and the intense cloistering of the group into the confines of a British rehearsal room and just working away down there until we'd got it and could play it. It was still done relatively quickly."
Song: Passion Play ('The Silver Cord')
A section of Passion Play which was released in the summer of 1973. In the elaborate stage performance the music was accompanied by a film and other effects, and one critic said of the show that it "created a new universe, a new world of being, a new mental high." Unfortunately, few other journalists agreed with him.
"It was met with a great deal of harsh criticism who up till then had been very staunch Jethro Tull supporters. To us the album seemed like a progression, finally, from Thick As A Brick ... not exactly mad about the fact that it was unfortunately the same way of making music, uninterrupted by separate tracks and blank spaces in between, and that musically it was quite complex and difficult to play on stage ... we would rather have not had another album out like that just then, but that was how we had to do it because of the failure of the thing we tried to do in France. So we were not prepared for the level of harsh criticism that we got, but nor could we really honestly say it was unjustified because we felt a little bit bad that it was, to us, a bit too much like Thick As A Brick."
Some of the kinder comments made about the album described it as "half-baked posturing" and "arrant nonsense." But despite such criticisms, Passion Play did reach number 1 in America, although it did fail to match the group's previous four albums in achieving platinum status. It was less successful in Britain too, and, looking back, Ian has few illusions about its popularity.
"It was only number 1 in the States for one week, which meant that a lot of people went out and bought it on the assumption that Jethro Tull's last album had been at number 1 for several weeks and was a good album and they'd all loved it, and this next album must also be a great album and they would love it and they all rushed out and bought it, but it didn't generate throughout its initial sales period enough confidence in the album to sustain those kind of sales. So in the long run it didn't sell as many, in America, as other albums. In fact it only sold half as many. It was a gold album, but it didn't sell a million units or anything."
Song: Passion Play ('Overseer Overture')
"What happened with Passion Play when we came back to England was ... to quickly get something together, I had some sort of conception of a piece, and what the whole thing was about was the notion of what might happen to you when you die, and the idea that rather than just sort of be allotted a place in a notional heaven or hell one still had to make a choice, still had to work on towards other levels of post-death options, you know — you were still able to make choices and do one thing or the other in a post-death experience ... a bit sort of Buddhist in philosophy, I suppose. Anyway, that's what it was about, but deliberately couched in fairly abstract terms and a lot of verbal imagery that I wanted there because I didn't ... I wanted people to listen to it and form their own conclusions about what I was saying ... or what I might be saying.
"It's ironic that the countries in which that album was most accepted are non-English speaking countries, and they like it not because they don't know what it was about, but because they've had to take that much more trouble to decipher the English, you know, to actually translate it, and having made that bit more effort they seem to have got more out of it, whereas a lot of English-speaking countries, particularly ... I'm thinking of America ... they tended to think, 'Well, this is much too difficult for us. It's in the English language but we just don't really understand it, man,' you know."
When it came to staging the show, a great deal of care was taken over presentation.
"On the record there was a piece of totally programmed synthesiser music which faded out one side and brought in the second side, and when it came to doing that live on stage it was a bit soft, just having a two-minute gap of totally electronic music which we can't play on stage, so we might use a pre-recorded tape or something, but we stand there like dummies while it plays: that's not very good. If we mime to it that's cheating, and if we try to play it live it'll be a disaster because it's impossible to play live. And yet we can't just leave it out because then we wouldn't be playing the 'whole thing' on stage, which we very much wanted to do. So we came up with the idea of putting something in as a visual thing as an accompaniment to that synthesised piece of music and which would be an interesting little break in the middle of the show. And we decided to put it on film, which meant that we could all go off stage for a glass of beer and a cigarette while this thing showed.
"So what we did was to make a film: we wrote a little thing around Jeffrey's 'Story Of The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles' and the synthesiser music which was front and back of 'The Story Of The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles', and filmed that at enormous expense. Even back then it was a lot of money: a day's shooting with three camera crew, 35 mm, the real thing; catering trucks, unions, 6 o'clock calls, mobile dressing rooms ... it was about £12,000 it cost for a one-day shoot."
Song: Passion Play ('Forest Dance #1' / 'The Story Of The Hare' part 1)
A segment of Passion Play by Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, and that was part of the music for which a special film was shot. But it wasn't the only film footage used in the show.
"We opened the Passion Play with a little bit of movie which I shot with a high-speed camera: the ballet dancer being dead, in the position of the album cover, and slowly getting up in slow motion which is what results after you've shot it with a high-speed camera at 180 frames per second or something. It slowly accelerated as we cut frames out and put it back to normal time as she jumped through a mirror ... and ran away through the other side as I remember, and into the music. So there was an opening piece of film, the piece of film in the middle, and then a little bit at the end, so the whole thing (I thought) made quite a nice stage presentation. It was rather elaborate and rather difficult to do, because the movie screen had to be lowered from above the stage; at the critical moment the film had to go on, the music had to start ... to take this on the road every night was a real big number."
Despite the expense and all the time and trouble in the staging of A Passion Play, the live show also met with a hostile reception.
"The stage show got criticised by a lot of the same people who criticised the album, the same journalists, when they came to see the show. Obviously ... well, I would prefer to think it was because they had already made their minds up and were irritated by the slow-motion sequences at the beginning which were things put into operation, may I add, fifteen minutes before the show was due to start. It was not part of the show, it was part of what was happening when the audience walked into the hall, took their seats, talked to their mates, when what appeared to be a still on the screen came up, and a subsonic pulse began ... you couldn't even hear it, it was so low.
"And it gradually went up in pitch, so it became noticeable at a low level and gradually built up as the figure started to move. Which of course, for me, as an artist, I'm supposed to do those sort of things, damn it, and I got a great deal ... a kick, and I watched that every night, I used to watch to see if I could spot the first person in the audience who said, "Here, she's moving! She's moving!" Because for me it was a great moment of excitement, the fact that she'd already been moving for about thirty seconds before anyone really noticed it, you know. And nobody knew when the show began, and I thought that was great: there was none of that programmed hysteria, "The show is now going to begin, ladies and gentlemen, Jethro Tull," you know, the show began, really, twenty minutes before it was supposed to begin and if you didn't like it, well, what the hell, because at 8 o'clock sharp, the show ... we were on stage, doing it, you know, and nobody had to wait longer than they expected to wait, it was just that it irritated them being given something sort of ... not quite entertaining, and being a bit confused as to when the entertainment did start. They didn't like that, whereas I found that to be really great fun, you know.
"It was like the end of the Thick As A Brick show, which used to end up with a tape being played of what happened when we went off stage ... I mean it was a fake tape obviously, put together, but again the audience didn't know when the show had finished. I remember, at the Albert Hall, people, half the audience ... we were already changed and leaving the place, and they were hearing on the speakers what they took to be a conversation by the group backstage as we left the theatre, you know, talking about, "Cor did you see that idiot in the front row, that bloke in the glasses, oh dear he was out of his brain that one," and going on and on like this, and sort of like rugby players' shower-room talk, so it was, "Have you got a towel" ... "Oh dear I've got the shits again, have you got any bog paper, there's no bloody bog paper in 'ere," and it's going on and on, this supposed backstage ... like somebody put a mike in our dressing room as we got there after the show.
"And the audience ... half of them listened to it, half of them thought "What's happening" and went home. And that irritated some people because they don't like to be ... confused. We were giving them the option of entertainment, after the time on their ticket said the show had finished, or in the case of Passion Play before we were supposed to be on stage, they had the option of entertainment, they had something else that they might consider looking at or might listen to other than waiting there doing nothing for fifteen minutes."
The group's reaction to this barrage of hostility was to cancel all touring plans for 1974. And then, the real bombshell: Chrysalis Records announced the retirement of Jethro Tull for 'an indefinite period'. But, as we all know, not everything's true that you read in the papers, and the group continued. So, was there ever any real intention to quit?
"No, there was none at all. That was a thing which the record company did which went terribly wrong. In order, somehow, to declare on behalf of the group the fact that we were very upset about certain ... a couple of journalists having done a 'number' on the last album ... they put out this story. It was a sort of PR thing that they were going to do, the record company: they were going to say this one week, and the next week they were going to say, No, we weren't breaking up, we were actually going to make a movie instead. It was one of those things where you keep the press guessing for weeks on end, that sort of thing. All your favourites, Yes, all the Rods and the Eltons and the Jethros, they all play these little games; or they don't, their press agents do. "Will the tour go on or won't it?" or "Is Rod really going to get married?" or "Has Elton really broken his leg?" or growing new hair or whatever. It's planned to release them at certain times to keep up public consciousness about the group so when the new album comes out it sells a lot of copies.
"That the theory. Sorry, Elton, Rod and everybody else, and Jethro, to have mentioned your names; but it serves as an example, although it's probably not true in those cases. It serves as an example of how people in record companies, PR people privately acting for musicians, do try to put out things and say the right thing at the right time to keep the public interest up in the group. We'd never done a lot of that, and the only times we have it's backfired awfully, like it did with that one.
"The group did not know. I knew that it was coming out, and I didn't like the idea and thought it was a silly thing and really didn't want it to happen. The record company said they wanted to do that, say that we'd broken up in a fit of pique or something. The rest of the guys in the group didn't know at all until they read it in the papers ... and of course it was absolutely untrue. Of course the group had not intended to break up, it was just a PR stunt that went wrong. And it was very stupid of me not to have put my foot down and said, "Don't be ridiculous, it's a silly story to put out, it will backfire, people will not feel sympathy, they will only think that we're a bit soft in the head for taking adverse criticism to heart." Now, we did take the criticism to heart, there's no doubt about it at all, and I would take it to heart if it happened over the next album, but we wouldn't break up as a result; that was a silly thing to have said. Silly for me to have allowed it to happen and even sillier for the record company to have suggested it, and I'm sure they'd never do such a thing again ..."
Song: Passion Play ('10.08 To Paddington' / 'Magus Perdé')
Interviewer: BRIAN MATTHEW