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8 May 1976

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Could this be the real retirement?

Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll: Too Young To Die


Where do you start unravelling Ian Anderson's latest concept agony? The problem is that Anderson's yarn can be interpreted in basically two different ways.

Firstly, as exactly that: a yarn, or a piece of entertaining fiction, based on the ancient fable of rags to riches. Old greaser hits the telly screen, goes through the weirds of being famous, becomes disillusioned with London, returns home, almost kills himself in a motor bike accident, recovers, and the Once Upon A Time ending is he becomes famous and popular and loved.

I'll explain later.

Or, and possibly this has more credence, the yarn is merely a superficial gloss over some pretty solid woodwork. Strip the story line away and you'll experience some profound observations. Filed under The Pain Of Being A Star, Anderson draws an analogy between his own role (which it obviously is) with that of the old rocker who wins Telly Quiz Game and becomes public property.

And in this context the weirds become more significant, the disillusionment and return home (to reappraise his early roots) more pertinent. The ending is then far from being happily optimistic, but instead forebodingly euphoric. A modern tragedy, if you like.

You've heard the story before, perhaps read between the same lines, and such a generalisation obviously makes the album sound trite. But it isn't. When you get into it you'll discover it's exceptionally clever.

But first back to those important basics.

Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll: Too Young To Die it's called, and the story begins in the cartoon strip on the sleeve gatefold.

The central character is an old greaser called Ray Lomas who can't accept or adopt the changing modes of fashion. But, for some reason unexplained, he enters and wins the TV quiz ('Quiz. Kid'), is asked to return the next week, and so checks into a Kensington Hotel, getting his first experience of London ('Crazed Institution'). He meets a desirable trendy ('Salamanda') who's seen him on the box, and he steals a cab ('Taxi Grab') so they can hit a party together.

But Salamanda has second thoughts — "I bet he's well hung ... but I couldn't make it with a working class lout like him" — and she dumps him in a pub to wait for her. Here he meets and talks with another has-been ('From A Dead Beat To An Old Greaser'). But when Sal's 90 minutes late for their meeting Ray bitterly realises he's been stood-up ('Bad-Eyed And Loveless') and so returns home the next day where he fondly remembers his past glory ('Big Dipper').

Then he leaves home on his motorbike, crashes, and finds himself in hospital ('Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll: Too Young To Die').

Healed in body, he comes out also healed in mind, and discovers the latest teen rage to be a group of Lomas look-alikes. Once again he's in fashion and able to pull chicks ('Pied Piper'). The story ends with him winning in the rat-race ('Chequered Flag') and receiving a cable telling him to phone a record company who're interested in recording him.

Continued next week — Ray Lomas becomes a pop star!

But don't cry with happiness, the sad cycle is merely restarting. So now do you get it? The story of Ray Lomas is probably the biggest red herring in popular music. Discard the cartoon, turn your attention to the songs and there unravel the real meaning of the album.

Perhaps it's all Anderson paranoia, or maybe just his dry humoured sense of cynicism, but with what probably amounts to his most imaginative lyrical excellence Anderson's pulled off something quite unique: The classic Rock 'n' Roll Joke.

And the first clue's in 'Quizz Kid', which aside from a brief snatch of the title track presumably to establish the thematic core, opens the set.

"May your answers not be wrong
May your head be on your shoulders
May your tongue be in your cheek
And most of all we pray that you may
Come back next week!"

Who asks the questions in the rock world? Who treats it as a silly game? How many artistes don't come back next week?

Answers on a £5 note, please.

Basically Anderson is, to an extent, with tracks like 'Salamander', 'Taxi Grab', 'Pied Piper' and 'Big Dipper', romanticising from within the rock biz; the paradox being, of course, that the superficial sneer humming through the lyrics (and going back to the Great Press vs Tull and vice versa Controversy — hence the lyric quote) only partly hides his awareness of the realities that exist within the business. Which he makes obvious with 'Crazed Institution':

"And you can ring a crown of roses around your cranium
Live and die upon your cross of platinum
Join the crazed institution of the stars
Be the man that you think (know) you really are."

And perhaps, just perhaps, the title track is really a crystallisation of Anderson's thoughts on the subject, using the image of the old rocker merely to represent himself: how he falls from critical favour for unreasonable reasons as he sees it (A Passion Play) but with the power to return for similarly unreasonable reasons.

Quote ...

"The old Rocker wore his hair too long, wore his trouser cuffs too tight,
Unfashionable to the end — drank his ale too light."

The casualty of fickle fashion fads, eh?

Ironically though, Tull's reaffirmation of their strength (War Child, but particularly Minstrel In The Gallery) was obviously a determined effort: working to achieve recognition.

And similarly this album has the lyrical depth, which we've already covered, but a musical one too.

The songs have simple structures and rely in the main to Anderson's vocal, acoustic guitar and flute, with the band lending unobtrusive musical support — Martin Barre excelling himself on guitar — to what are mainly excellent melodies.

'From A Dead Beat To An Old Greaser' and 'The Chequered Flag' are the highlights, while the band numbers 'Big Dipper' and 'Taxi Grab' are aggressively chaotic, which of course may be the whole point. Symbolisms of revolution and all that jazz.

The surprise track of the album, in much the same way as 'Cold Wind To Valhalla' was on 'Minstrel', is the blues lament 'Bad-Eyed And Loveless', where Anderson uses sexual metaphor in much the same way as Bessie Smith did:

"I'm self-raising and I flower in her company
Give me no sugar without her cream."

But the punch line to Anderson's Rock 'N' Roll Joke is the final track, 'The Chequered Flag', which reveals his absurd sense of the theatric.

And the question which posed itself was: Is this Anderson's epitaph?

Is this his last album?

After all, the tracks are full of mockery, cynicism, bitterness, disillusionment and, we should quickly note, a sense of humour normally present in a person who rationally appreciates his own position and is able to turn the joke in on himself.

"The deaf composer completes his final score
He'll never hear his sweet encore
The chequered flag, the bull's red rag
The lemming-hearted hoards running ever faster to the shore singing
Isn't it grand to be playing to the stand, dead or alive."

Conceptual agony and submission, or astute hilarity and remission? The answer is too personal for me to answer for you.

And anyway, I'm still not sure.



Note: the photograph is from March 1973.

Thanks to Mike Wain for this article.