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30 June 1973
CRIME OF PASSION
CHRIS WELCH, more in sorrow than in anger, reports on a failure: the debut of Jethro Tull's Passion Play at London's Empire Pool, Wembley.
One and a half hours solid good music by Jethro Tull at the Empire Pool, Wembley, would have been sufficient to send home many more contented fans. Instead, an over-long over-produced marathon seriously impaired their impact — and their reputation.
The Passion Play which constituted the first part of the concert, and is the basis of their next album, was a disappointment. And time-wasting tactical errors like the back-projection spun-out proceedings to such length that final items like 'My God' and 'Locomotive Breath' became a test of endurance for those glued by duty to the hard seating of the Pool, instead of a rewarding musical experience.
As a fan of Jethro Tull, I had hoped not to fall into the general clamour of critical abuse that has been heaped on them in recent months. Tull are a band who always set themselves high levels of achievement. They spend such long hours in perfecting stage presentation, great chunks of arranged music, and volumes of words, that it seems almost churlish to raise a voice of protest and criticism.
I'm sure Ian Anderson feels that too. During his greetings to the large and ecstatic audience, he bowed elaborately to the VIP enclosure (in which I was seated), and said:
"How are yer? Panel of judges. You always win in the end."
Come, come Ian, let's not squabble. Any band can over-reach itself, make mistakes, err or commit acts of folly. Let it first be understood that my comments are made purely in the spirit of constructive criticism, and are no way intended as personal slights, insults or wrong-headed prejudiced, jaundiced, short-sighted, purblind, one-sided, superficial, illiberal, intolerant, warped, dogmatic hyper-criticism.
Instead I come as Solomon would among the squabbling wives, and 'midst a clap of thunder and sheet lightning cry: "Enough!"
First of all it must be positively stated that the concert last Friday was a success as far as the vast majority of the audience was concerned. Long and loud were the cheers. Fans to the left and right of me were beating time with their hands, heads down and feet stomping. It was the first time they had seen Tull in well over a year, and they were determined to enjoy all that came before them.
Even Robin Trower's band got healthy applause for their opening set of Hendrix-borrowed guitar licks set to seven-year-old riffs. The band actually managed to play their last two numbers at the same tempo, in the same key on the same tune. But their set was distinguished by some fine drumming by Reg Isadore.
Then came the longest gap I can remember since waiting three hours for Bob Dylan to appear at the Isle of Wight in 1969. Not quite as long this time, but the tension building device of a small dot pulsating on the lowered cinema screen in time to a metronomic heart-beat, was enough to drive a man to criminal violence.
Fortunately, there was a palliative to relieve this monotonous situation. Paper dart throwing broke out in the upper tiers of the vast sports centre, and for the twenty-five minutes or so that the dot grew larger, patrons amused themselves by watching the darts twisting and turning on the rising air currents. One particularly fine hurl (I think it came from seat B 28), earned a round of hearty applause, as a dart shaped like Concorde travelled in a neat parabola before executing a perfect landing in the centre aisle.
Reviewers of Tull concerts seem to spend a lot of time glancing at their watches, and I found myself checking out the time at frequent intervals. According to my Accurist (21 jewels, anti-magnetic), it was 9pm when the screen came down and the dot started pulsating. But later I found my watch was fast, and after brief calculations, ascertained that it was in fact 9pm when the first bout of slow-hand clapping broke out, five minutes before the first flight of paper darts were stacked up and circling over the arena waiting for clearance.
At 9.7½ pm the tone changed to a higher pitch, and quite a few people looked up at the screen to notice the dot had got larger. It occurred to me that this was one of Ian Anderson's little games with audiences, and it could have been more effective if the sequence had been shortened and if the house lights had been turned out. In a place as brightly lit and vast as the Empire Pool, attention cannot be focused on a distant grey screen for long.
But it was a good time for meditation and a pause in the hurly-burly of life. I found my mind wandering back to past glories at the Pool — the recent David Cassidy concert, the Grateful Dead, and further back, the Glad Rag Ball when Donovan and Frankie Vaughan shared the bill and were pelted with equal amounts of loose change. Ah, happy days. But where are we — sitting on an intolerably hard seat waiting for Jethro Tull. Come on, lads, get it together for Chrissake.
But lo — what was this? The dot was replaced by a frozen shot of a ballerina. Brilliantly this came to life, slowly, and gathering momentum, until the young lady leapt through a mirror. A stunning shot, and well worth the wait. By this time all the delay had been forgiven, and another brilliant stroke — Martin o' the guitar leapt on stage in a flash and puff of smoke followed by the rest of the band.
Settle down chaps — it's all happening now — I thought. The Passion Play was about to be unleashed. The music seemed fast and powerful, Ian swopping 'midst that Tullian expertise at the lighting controls, from flute-with-band to acoustic guitar-unaccompanied-out front.
A new innovation — Ian played soprano sax with a bug attachment, with considerable facility, which added a new tonal dimension to the band sound. Jeffery Hammond-Hammond their bass player charged around the stage in suit and panama hat, in a kind of Monty Python-ish silly walk that seemed a parody of the natural movements of a musician inspired by his music.
The piece continued unabated, and bearing in mind we haven't heard the album yet, seemed to take a considerable time to show any signs of cohesion. The structure had a kind of Elizabethan mode, with a plethora of changes that did not resolve into any satisfying or logical direction.
The drums had to pound home each change and accent in pursuit of the main line, and resulted in the group sounding like a circus band following the actions of a juggler. Hup — two, three, four!
It began to occur to me that this was very poor music indeed.
It was not that the complexity was daunting, simply that the musical structure was no longer a vehicle for self-expression. It was cold and unemotional. Not once during the evening did the music catch me in the pit of the stomach or cause hair to rise on the neck. Perhaps I was seeing Tull too soon after witnessing the glories of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
The lyrics or story of the Passion Play did not communicate one whit. At the end of the evening I had absolutely no idea what it was about. And I have sat and watched the Kabuki Theatre in Japan, where the actors howl and grunt in long-dead dialects, and their timeless plays of real passion shine with simplicity, that only the thickest brick could fail to understand.
Part of the play was taken up with a movie, filmed in colour featuring members of the group and a ballet company. This fell flat at first, greeted with yells of "No substitute," with which I was bound to agree, although a colleague who thought the whole show terrible, said the film was the best part, which at least shows how opinions can differ.
It was beautifully photographed, but what did it mean, and what was the relevance to the play? My feeling was if I had known we were about to attend a movie show, I would have chosen to see 'Soylent Green' at the Empire, Leicester Square.
The film portrayed various bees and newts prancing in some kind of provincial pantomime about a rabbit who had lost his spectacles. It was actually more pointless than Frank Zappa's '2000 Motels'.
Thence we returned to Ian singing endless baffling lyrics, and a singular lack of good improvisation or real melody from the band. The ballerina popped back out of the mirror and the audience cheered in the baffling way that audiences cheer when their critical faculties are numbed by misplaced loyalty.
At last now the Passion Play was out of the way, perhaps the band could afford to relax and start blowing. And Ian came on strongly with announcements that always entertain with their dry wit. To a heckler he touched his forelock and said:
Yessir, right away sir, what is it you want? Thick As A Brick? Right!
He told the audience they were looking really well and later said it was a pleasure to be back in Blackpool. When pianist John Evan did a run for the piano, featuring a neat forward roll on the way, Ian made me laugh aloud when he said:
"It's hard to believe he does this nearly every night."
Now the real Jethro Tull was going to stand up, and at 10.15 pm came the first enjoyable moment. A brilliant flute solo by Ian on Thick As A Brick, as full of life, invention and joy as the Passion Play had been drear and lifeless. Ian's playing was pure quicksilver. A unison passage with bells was sheer delight. And the band rightly received an ovation for a drop of good playing.
"I really must apologise to the fellow who said 'get on with it'," said Ian, harking back to his previous put-down.
It seemed a new spirit of instrumental creativity was infiltrating the group and then came the next highlight of Barriemore Barlow's exciting and entertaining drum solo. It followed a fairly predictable pattern in terms of construction, but he played a beautifully fast snare drum and the double bass drums thundered in the grand manner.
The by-play with a choke cymbal at the front of the stage was funny, and the final freak-out with every member of the group hitting cymbals and dancing in a strobe light was a knock-out. Barrie finished his solo wreathed in smoke and next the band launched into 'Aqualung', notable for more excellent fills by Barrie, swirling round the kit and ending with a crack on the snare.
The band left the stage, to return for an encore, Ian introducing Martin as "balding and diminutive," cueing him in for his guitar solo, not to mention a piano feature by the strangely strange John Evan. In his white suit and red tie he presents the appearance of a clumsy beach deck-chair attendant, and plays curiously cold piano in a kind of perverse, classically-trained style, where the occasional introduction of 'blue' or jazz notes sound almost quaint.
There was more stage 'business', with the famed telephone, which refused to ring, until the band had left the stage for good, when it rang twice and was symbolically unanswered. It was the signal for more yells and applause — but the house lights came up and the show was over.
After the show I felt uncomfortable and filled with inner torment. The combination of hard planks and hot dogs can play havoc with the nether extremities. Also the music could take some of the blame. Arguments will rage long and loud over the merits of the show, but my final conclusion was that it should have been sub-edited and presented in a proper theatre for maximum effect and greater satisfaction.
Before Jethro Tull jump through their next mirror — they should stop, and take a long cool look at themselves. The answer, my friends, is blowing in the flute.