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No. 27, August 1973

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The biggest thing from Blackpool since Reginald Dixon's organ

With 'A Passion Play', Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull have acquired a degree of complexity which almost sank them in the Empire Pool. Did they achieve complexity, or was it thrust upon them? by Bob Edmands

A PASSION PLAY, the world's longest double A-side single, is available in a specially edited version for American disc jockeys, who presumably could not be trusted with it otherwise. The idea is that they can pick out the bits they like best without having to plod through the rest. Sensible, really. 'A Passion Play' has been unanimously greeted with the sort of eye-rolling reception normally reserved for eclipses in Hollywood jungle flicks. People who saw the Empire Pool debut of this work tend to describe it as 'complex', if they want to hide their doubts. And complex it certainly is, although the big question really is: did Jethro Tull achieve complexity, or was it thrust upon them?

Jethro Tull first came to most people's attention via the cheap sampler called 'You Can All Join In', which also featured the likes of Traffic, Free, Fairport Convention, and others of those de-luxe bands Island were building bridges for in 1969. Tull's contribution was 'A Song for Jeffrey', which was something of a blueprint for much of what followed. Ingredients included Ian Anderson's Gas Council flute churning out the Roland Kirk phrases, that peculiarly mutant version of the Bo Diddley beat which Tull have made their own, and Ian Anderson's voice. The said voice was still feeling its way at that time, rather like Jagger's on 'Come On'. Anderson's vocal chords sound a little strangled on 'A Song for Jeffrey', like he's a bad ventriloquist with a singing dummy. But there's that curious phrasing already, lumbering across the notes like Anderson's own ungainly stage movements. And, of course, there's Jeffrey, who now plays in the band, but who in those days was a subject for song in the way horses were for singing cowboys.

'A Song for Jeffrey' came from 'This Was', the band's first album which made the charts. It featured Jethro Tull with powdered hair on the sleeve, surrounded by hundreds of dogs like it was a Pedigree Chum breeders convention. 'This Was' was loud and raucous, and sounded great and tinny on ten quid record players. A stand-out track on the album had guitarist Mick Abrahams ripping the nuts of 'Cats Squirrel'. Abrahams quickly fell victim to the Blackpool old boys network, but he'd already reached his finest hour. Fans tended to think Ian Anderson was actually called Jethro Tull, anyway, so it's only fair perhaps that he should eventually reach his present ascendency. Anderson is the brains behind Tull's current superstardom. Presumably. And what a neat trick it has all been. Let's be honest, once you've got one album of Jethro Tull music why do you need six? Two million sales of 'Thick As A Brick', Tull's last album, amount to nothing short of a miracle.

The remoteness of Jethro Tull from the fans who bought their early albums probably obscures the scale of the band's success. 'Time' magazine set it in context in a feature called 'Inside Pop Records'. The record industry sold 3.3 billion dollars worth of cheap vinyl worldwide in 1972 says 'Time'. 'Today's pop-rock pantheon is the new Hollywood; its principal gods have filled the void left by the Harlows and Gables. Any number of the pop world's superstars could serve to illustrate the process. Four who exemplify its various aspects as vividly as any are balladeer Carole King, Hard-Rocker Ian Anderson, Pop-Jazz Songstress Roberta Flack and Fey Troubadour Harry Nilssen.' If Ian Anderson comes on like a rummage sale with St Vitus dance, wouldn't you, to be in that league? Records are outselling Hollywood at a ratio of two to one, according to recent reports.

Jethro Tull had such furious energy on 'This Was' that the only thing left to do was cool out, and their albums have become increasingly less frenzied, starting with number two, 'Stand Up', an altogether gentler set. By the time Ian Anderson tackled his first concept work, 'Aqualung', the emphasis had shifted emphatically to acoustic material, a far remove from the spastic RnB of 'This Was'. Even at that stage, however, Tull were performing what were quite clearly songs, albeit in a slightly less than conventional style. Anderson's lyrics often seemed somewhat different in length to his lines of music, but applied vowel shrinkage here and there only added to that distinctive gottle of geer vocal sound.

Tull were among the pilgrim fathers of the second English rock invasion of the States and they had staying power. Even if there were the usual tiffs about jostling each other's riffs, there seemed a never-ending line of Blackpool deck-chair attendants ready to turn their hand to virtuoso instrumental work at the merest hint that they were needed. Some Americans apparently thought Tull were a West Coast band, and in a sense, of course, they were. After all, rock in San Francisco was probably no less sugary than in Blackpool. So Tull were getting their face — Ian Anderson's — known in the States, but they needed something to give themselves the edge over other starlets with big licks. The answer, by accident or design, was complexity. Depth. Intellect. Cerebral muscle. And that's what you get with 'Thick As A Brick' and 'A Passion Play'. Two million albums means a lot of sales to people who never leave the safety of their parents' own homes, so it's not just a soundtrack of a hit stage show that's selling.

Ian Anderson has tenacity. He's worn the same costume and hairdo for the past six years and that takes discipline. He's established that outfit as remorselessly as Batman did when he was on the way up. Anderson's image of hip integrity is so complete, and he's so self-confident about it, you wonder if he was born looking like a biblical prophet. Tull were bearded weirdies almost before the last flower power petal fell. Anderson looks like whatever it is Roy Wood is parodying with his Wizzard costumes. Appearance is so vital in all walks of life, needless to say, but it's not always enough. Tull needed that extra intellectual edge, that dash of mysticism which borders on gibberish to transform themselves from run-of-the-mill million sellers into financial institutions.

* * *

The first Tull concept album, 'Aqualung', actually provided two concepts for the price of one, and thought doesn't come cheap these days, y'know. Side One featured concept number one and was about Aqualung himself, the subject of a poem by Ian's wife Jenny. Aqualung was a dosser, and the words described him graphically, if a little brutally: 'Sitting on a park bench eyeing up little girls with bad intent. Snot running down his nose. Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes. Drying in the cold sun. Watching as the frilly panties run. Feeling like a dead duck. Spitting out pieces of his broken luck.'

Anderson spat the words out with real feeling over a suitably meaty guitar riff. The title track was the heaviest on the album in all senses. Anderson's own words had metaphors as wispy as his acoustic backings, both in the remaining five songs of the Aqualung side, and those on the flip which went under the heading of 'My God'.

Still, there was much that was effective in among the indecisive verbiage. Anderson's lines brought vivid images to life from time to time during 'Aqualung', and his cynicism towards religion on 'My God' was most welcome with 'Jesus Christ Superstar' on the ascendancy. But there was a feeling of haphazard experiment about both sides of the album, and this sense of tottering on the edge of coherency has been maintained to date. Instead of concentrating on specific situations, Anderson decided to assume the guru's mantle and issue a series of statements on the nature of life in the form of Tull's second concept outing, 'Thick As A Brick'.

Anyone who contrasted Pete Townshend's masterwork 'Tommy' with his earlier singles would immediately have realised two things. Concept albums lack the consistent energy, wit, imagination and skill of concept singles. Concept albums are loved by the Americans. Who wants to be hailed as a poor genius? Of course, no such mercenary considerations probably ever entered Ian Anderson's head, except in the general sense of needing to break the American market. No doubt he had an instinctive artist's desire to tackle a work on the biggest possible scale. 'Thick As A Brick' showed promise as a first attempt. 'A Passion Play' possibly indicates it should have been his first and last.

* * *

THICK AS A BRICK was, basically, a typically Jethro Tull number which dragged on for forty minutes or so across two sides. The occasional guitar, keyboard, drum, and inevitable flute solo here and there added a touch of variety. Barriemore Barlow's drum solo, in particular, was refreshingly tasteful. He hammered the shit out [of] a row of leaden tom-toms, but he did it briefly.

After two sides of non-stop Tull, it's hard to remember how many different themes you've heard. This is for two reasons. One is that Anderson's tunes aren't very memorable[;] even if individual clusters of notes are attractive, he never quite sustains it to the end of a line. The other reason is that Anderson's songs do sound very similar to one another. The uneasy juxtaposition of words and music has already been commented upon, and despite Tull's enormous energy when it comes to plodding round the States, there's an inevitable feeling that Anderson simply lacks the will to turn his musical doodlings into full-blown tunes. Hence the explanation for the unnerving directions the music takes on 'A Passion Play' in particular. It could be that Anderson deliberately sets out to make his melodic themes as complex as possible. Chances are he can't avoid it. Both 'Thick As A Brick' and 'A Passion Play' sound as though the music has been written around the tortuous lyrics. How do you write a melody line to this:

'So! Where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday? And where are all the Sportsmen who always pulled you through? They're all resting down in Cornwall — writing up their memoires for a paperback edition of the Boy Scout manual.'

The answer is you write it with difficulty. There are no rhymes, solid or otherwise, and the natural rhythms of speech seem notable by their absence. Okay, it may be a funny idea, almost. But writing music to fit these words seems like sheer perversity. That particular example's from 'Thick As A Brick'.

With 'A Passion Play' the domination of words over music has been taken even further. There's a sense of arbitrariness about all the melody lines. The whole composition [of] both words and music is reminiscent of the philosopher's joke about the manuscript left by an open window. The pages weren't numbered and they blew about the room. Someone collected them up later and nobody noticed the difference.

To make matters worse, Ian Anderson has largely abandoned his flute for this album, which is rather like Sparky pushing his magic piano off the mountain. Those asthmatic warblings are sadly missed. Anderson's opted for some Ian Underwood-style electrified reeds, and much of the instrumental works come across like some of the denser passages from 'Hot Rats', side two. Where Anderson used to coast breathily over the most grotesque melody lines, here the added nimbleness of the reeds allow him to scamper along with every twist and turn. What 'A Passion Play' is about is not entirely clear. Side one is a real mystery tour. But there is Anderson's voice to go by, and that makes it clear the lyrics are very, very heavy indeed.

First track, side one, from a DJ's point of view, is a sprightly instrumental outing, like Soft Machine played at half speed. It has great potential, you feel, as a possible theme tune for 'Hector's House', or the like. Track two starts with unaccompanied vocals, and Anderson adopts the tone of one of those melancholy opera singers with deep bass voices, who look like Orson Welles in tights and go in for a lot of furrowed brow and double chin. Okay, he's not got the voice, but his manner's right enough for a local operatic society not to notice.

Fans used to Anderson's light baritone are in for a shock. That guy was quite a crooner. It's a shame he got so serious. So Harry Secombe likes to sing opera, so what? Maybe Anderson's singing this way because this is the only way you can sing a dirge, and a dirge it definitely is, moving like a hearse with a broken choke. Still, the tempo perks up again, and by the end of track two there's more 'Hot Rats' pastiche. Track three gets very melodramatic. Much strumming of acoustic guitar strings, like the bad guy's about to push open the cantina's batwing doors. Eclectic. That's what this music is, eclectic.

Halfway through side one, there's almost a return to the familiar Tull sound, with Anderson brushing the dust off that flute for a quick burst, but overall the music's dominated by electronic keyboards. Anderson's crooning again, but to little avail. He's written the sort of melodies here that ELP are so fond of. They're like real tunes, but with a few notes stuck in the wrong places somehow. John Evan's keyboard work is remarkably similar to that of the athletic Emerson.

Side two provides the first substantial clue to what this is all about — animals in waistcoats. Ian Anderson was clearly very taken with the film version of Beatrix Potter's stories. The side opens with just such a tale read over strings — the sort of mush Ed Stewart plays on 'Junior Choice'. A voice, which sounds like a bad impression of Stanley Holloway, announces: 'This is the story of the hare who lost his spectacles.' Jeez. The remainder of side two is much the same as side one. Impenetrable.

Only a three minute section in the wake of the Beatrix Potter routine comes close to anything the band's put out in the past. Words and notes actually match up, and Anderson sings a fairly plaintive, if mannered melody for several bars. Otherwise, the unanimous hammering this music's had seems well deserved.

* * *

Jethro Tull may be the biggest thing from Blackpool since Reg Dixon's organ, and 'A Passion Play' may well outsell 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', but Ian Anderson's musical ambition seems to have over-reached his competence and his judgement this time. It's not just that creeping veteran rocker's lethargy has overtaken the band, and that they seem to be displaying more paunch than raunch. Tull genuinely seem to have lost their way. If only Ian would go back to writing songs about Jeffrey. Now, a Jeffrey concept album would really be something.


Thanks to The Jethro Tull Forum for this article.