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11 March 1972
Chris Welch reviews the live premiere of Jethro Tull's new work, Thick As A Brick
One-legged pop flautist Ian Anderson caused a storm in the press world this week when he refused to comment on his latest 'pop' recording, Thick As A Brick, or his recent concert at Portsmouth Guildhall described in many quarters as "obscene", "disgusting", and "deafening".
From a telephone box, somewhere in Beckenham, his representative told an MM reporter on Sunday night: "Ian doesn't want to talk about his concerts or the album until he has read the reviews."
Whitehall experts, China watchers and spokesmen said early this morning: "This latest development will be viewed with some concern. Does it mean the end of the entente cordiale or is it a subterfuge to throw the Western alliance into confusion? These are the questions informed sources will be asking themselves — tomorrow afternoon. News At Ten, Catford, Monday."
So Jethro Tull won't talk eh? Never mind, this is nothing new in the 'pop business'. In 1932 the Canadian pop singer George Smith refused to speak to local radio stations for many weeks until he received an official apology for being described as "that awful singer" during a broadcast discussion. Again, in the late Fifties, rock balladeer Brian Barnes was notorious for his refusal to comment on his rare performances.
But it remains a disquieting moment when the clamp-down of silence comes and we are left to blindly form our own opinions. Stumbling through the morass of conflicting evidence, I can only say that ... Thick As A Brick is a work that will receive as much acclaim as Tommy, and cause the trans-oceanic cables to hum with an excited chatter.
The album work forms a major part of the new Tull stage act, and is based on an impressive poem by one Gerald Bostock. It's one of those poems that fixes one with a penetrating gaze and snaps somewhat bitterly: "I may make you feel but I can't make you think." It goes on to say: "I've come down from the upper class to mend your rotten ways."
Well you'll just have to read the poem, and fortunately it's all included in a massive sleeve note to the album, produced to read and look like a local newspaper.
Whate'er the interpretations placed upon Mr Bostock's lyrical flight, it has certainly inspired the men of Tull to new heights. The opening night of their first British tour in a year, at Portsmouth, was the best rehearsed and most cleverly executed show staged by a rock band.
Their performance came somewhere between the musical excellence of Yes and the inventive audacity of the Mothers Of Invention. Many groups have tried a little stage 'business', but few have succeeded in pulling it off so well.
Even if their humour is not always hilarious in its written aspect, the natural humour of any Ian Anderson performance, and the perfect support he receives from Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond and John Evan, produces an impact that is quite unique.
Their timing is superb and their ability to virtually play with an audience is quite fascinating. Near my seat in the back of the Guildhall, there were a few lads ready to shout the odd comment in their rustic simplicity. But even they were slightly stunned by the barrage of pre-recorded tapes, startling use of stage props, lights, and dynamics that in turn baffled, amused and finally delighted a crowd who responded by roaring great cheers of approval.
My first impression of the album (described elsewhere in this issue), were not enough to gain a full appreciation of 'Brick'. And I still would prefer to hear them playing this massive work 'live'.
At the concert they opened with a complete version of the 'Brick' saga which lasted some 45 minutes, with barely a pause. In fact Jethro were so ready to give us a mass of music, Ian was moved to apologise for the discomfort caused to patrons glued to their seats for a show that eventually lasted nearly three hours.
"It's a bit like Ben Hur," he admitted solicitously.
Despite the security clamp-down word has filtered through that the Tull men would prefer us not to reveal all the little dodges they get up to during the show, and as it would be rather like yelling "Tony Perkins dun it," at a second house queue for 'Psycho', I shall merely say that I enjoyed the telephone, the tent and the men in white coats.
And the playing was pretty good as well. New drummer (to Britain at any rate), Barriemore Barlow, proved a fast, accurate and hard-hitting percussionist, who played a dynamite solo and snap-locked on to the arrangements with great tenacity.
The interplay between Ian and John Evan's educated piano and organ work was a source of great satisfaction, and stalwart Tullian, Martin Barre, while not a great soloist, lent just the right form of attack or subtlety, where needed. John's organ sometimes tended to be a bit over-loud, as did the whole band during their heavier moments.
Still a wondrous sight in this age of modern marvels is that of Ian Anderson, dancing about the stage like some mad Austrian music master. He once told me his brother had ballet lessons and some of it rubbed off. I can well believe this when watching Mr Tull arch his body backwards, hair cascading over narrow shoulders, while his legs splay in many directions.
He conducts his fellow musicians with mocking absurdity, and one of the funniest moments in the show came when John Evan, himself a strange gallumphing figure, like the male lead in a Chekhov comedy, began a berserk imitation of his leader, only to be lead gently back to the organ and put firmly in his place.
Amidst the clowning, as good as any vaudeville act in northern cabaret, Ian also plays a mean flute. It seemed to me his technique has been much improved, and that a considerable amount of practice has been put in. His melodic tone and ability to blow hard and soft on a difficult instrument has always been there. But some notably fast runs came through and some beautifully constructed phrasing that shows Ian ain't always fooling when it comes to fluting.
It will be interesting to see the show again after a few days on the road have elapsed. Will they be able to sustain the comic interludes? Will they tighten up the 'encore' which ran on too long at Portsmouth and gave us a surfeit of goodies?
Thick As A Brick was a lot of music to take for an audience that had never heard any of it before. Its success was self-evident. The cheers were for all the effort the band had put into writing and playing the stuff, and not, as is often the case, for instantly recognisable material, easy to assimilate.
The premiere of such a piece of craftsmanship is not an everyday occurrence, and Jethro Tull can be proud of their contribution to the arts and sciences of rock.
* * *
JETHRO TULL: 'Thick As A Brick' (Chrysalis)
As the album is already brilliantly reviewed on the elaborately produced sleeve, there is hardly any point in adding our own comments. Ian Anderson's latest work consists of a poem wrapped in a newspaper. And a local newspaper of doubtful authenticity — the 'St. Cleve Chronicle'.
I have heard informed observers remark: "This is the silliest cover ever seen." One can merely add that the joke at the expense of a local newspaper wears thin rather rapidly, but should not detract from the obvious amount of thought and work that has gone into the production of 'Thick'. There are some 12 pages of painstaking material in the cod newspaper, which must have given Gerald 'Little Milton' Bostock and Ian Anderson a lot of fun, and a considerable headache to the staff of Chrysalis, who spent a lot of time preparing the sleeve and photographs.
But what of the music? It's a lot to take in a brief test run of the album. It needs time to absorb. Heard out of context of their highly visual stage act, it does not have such immediate appeal. But there is not quite the same doomy quality that 'Aqualung' had; the ideas flow in super abundance, making me suspect this will receive similar if not greater acclaim. An intense level of performance is maintained throughout this long work, while not quite as battering as some of the extended works of, say, ELP.
Ian's flute playing seems greatly improved. Not to say that it was below standard before, but he does seem to have taken care over increasing his ability on the instrument. Barriemore Barlow is a fine drummer who roars around his kit with lightning dexterity, and punches home the arrangements, while the Tull sound blossoms forth under the combined efforts of Martin Barre's reliable guitar and John Evan's excellent keyboard work. The band seem to be more co-operate now and each member pulls his weight most effectively. As the sleeve note says: "Not blatantly commercial then, but a fine disc which although possessing many faults should do well enough." We'd like to add that only time can Tull.
Note: Main picture caption (top): "Thick as a brick — or rocks in his socks? Mad Ian, the terror of the acoustic flute, leaps on stage at Portsmouth Guildhall on Thursday last week [4 March], and opens a new chapter in the Tull saga. Their new album (reviewed on page 20) and stage act (see page 11), is a sensation. Thick As A Brick could take over where the rock operas left off. It's a 45 minute extravaganza, currently touring the nation. Take shelter, Mr Anderson could be coming your way."