Probably one of the most stout statements from the lyrics in a song about a dirty old man in town and the band’s biggest selling album and most well known album and song in their almost fifty year career since starting out in the shambles of 1968.
I’ve always had a fight with “Jethro Tull” to whether or not; are they Prog Rock, Folk-Rock or a just Rock band with a guy playing flute? All of the above? More likely but not a full on Prog band because they went all over the map with their music depending on what decade I was and even within decades they varied their tastes and styles. At their Proggiest one could say that “Thick as a Brick” from 1972 and 1973’s “A Passion Play” hold the crown for that but 1971’s “Aqualung” record is where we will start. With an opening guitar riff as familiar as playing any of the following heard in most guitar music shops like; “Paranoid”, “Purple Haze”, “Roadhouse Blues”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and of course, “Stairway to Heaven” the first song and title track has one of those catchy riffs you just have to learn and then play it to death at every campfire or jam session because that’s all you know or someone throws something at you to stop. The album was and still is considered to be a “concept album” about God, religion and the mentality/duality of man yet Ian Anderson insists that it isn’t conceptual at all, listener’s choice I say. Certainly common themes do crop up and commonly share the same air space as the song before or after it giving it that conceptual feel and vibe to it throughout its play. Their previous couple of albums were a great collection of songs and didn’t have any commonality to a particular theme but all things good and well English. like the fate of the band I am tossed whether this is a concept album or not, I levelled on that it’s just a damn good one.
Eleven tracks of Aqualung’s Folk-Rock-Prog inventiveness helped shape 1971 to be a formidable year for Prog with albums the likes of; “The Yes Album”, “Meddle”, “Pawn Hearts”, “Islands”, “Acquiring The Taste”, “Nursery Cryme”, “Tago Mago” and “Tarkus” to name a few. Quite a list to compete with but at a time when many riffs were still unwritten originality was at its best time in the 60’s and 70’s because bands like this went beyond the three chord progressions of the early Beatles, Elvis, Bill Haley and pretty much all of American country music which wasn’t even a blip on the UK radar in 1971. Skiffle was long gone by the time the first wave of the British Invasion came about, a trio consisting of a washboard, acoustic guitar and snare drum if you’re lucky but once bands started making the scene Skiffle was gone and kids wanted Rock n’ Roll now.
Jethro Tull’s album definitely impacted audiences because with Prog you never know what you’re going to get, kinda like a box of chocolates eh Gump? Anyways, the scene had never heard the likes of a group using flute before, saxes, horns sure, but flute? New and inventive absolutely and garnered much attention around for their singer, one Mr. Ian Anderson; who would appear on stage in a half torn red plaid housecoat as so he could lift one leg up and not have it caught tumbling him over on stage, the frazzled hair of what looked like licking a light socket was in order every morning and facial expressions that would get your average bloke locked up and the key thrown away then add a flute in to the mix?! Interesting indeed! A must see for concert goers in the seventies that’s for sure.
So the opening track, “Aqualung” catches your attention with a crisp guitar riff heard around the world now and you wonder what’s happening then, “Sitting on a park bench….” the story begins to tell a tale about a dirty old codger watching school girls and how he wonders around the park lonely, depressed, grubby and disheveled to which I believe that Anderson imitated this look for some time to build up appeal to the record possibly. But he also adorned this look even before ’71 so who knows, it probably helped a bit regardless. The song regales the old man’s life and falls in to an acoustic refrain that quiets the song down to a somewhat sombre tone but then picks up brightly and picks up speed to fire off in to a sailing guitar solo only to come back to the park and do it all over again. “Cross-Eyed Mary” sneaks in with a trill of a flute to amuse us with a song about a schoolgirl prostitute who doesn’t get her kicks from boys her own age and yearns for as the song says, “a letching grey”. She knows who has the money and plays the game very well throughout. A hard rocker type with a split guitar and flute solo to satisfy one’s taste for electric and breath it follows up nicely as track 2.
“Cheap Day Return“, a short acoustic number and second shortest on the record but equally as important a song as the rest of the album tells about a nurse’s treatment to Anderson’s ailing father and how she asks for his autograph once she finds out who he is. Sometimes you don’t need a long song to get your point across and the finger-picking in this song is absolutely brilliant. A surreal look at fictitious nursery rhyme type figures in the jovial “Mother Goose” comes next and has a Medieveal fair feel to it with what sounds like a bodhran being played. A lighthearted folk feel to this one but a favourite off the album with minimal electric guitar in it and more what sounds like a campfire request than a major rock band offering. “Wond’ring Aloud” gives us the acoustic guitar and a string quartet to complete this soft interlude that lets you feel like you’re walking in a quiet park listening to birds sing, children in the distance having fun as you think about your life and all its goodness that it’s brought you. “Up to Me“, a bouncy flute intro with a screeching guitar riff opens up this one telling about how some guy always wants to help it seems and feels that it’s his lot in life brings the band in to a swing like feel and joins in the bouncing along with the song.
We flip over to side two to the stellar questions about religion with, “My God“, “Hymn 43” and the last song “Wind Up“. My God applies the Prog recipe quite intently with its start/stops, Medieval church like harmonies and Anderson’s display of lyrical troubadour-isms that speak/sing of whether religion is all or nothing depending on who you follow. The band is punchy and taut with one of the heaviest songs on the record giving it the flare of a crowd favourite for years to come. Live versions as seen in the video above gave Anderson a bit of Carte Blanche with the flute interludes to have some fun with the audience and remind them they’re there to have a good time still and not take things so seriously all the time considering the potential furor that this song could have easily won acclaim for.
“Slipstream“, the shortest song on here that sounds more like a word from our sponsors with the acoustic guitar and string quartet making their second appearance about someone to me who seems like they’ve had it all but aren’t ready to check out of life just yet. “Locomotive Breath” crowd pleaser and personal fav on the album as it opens up with a very ‘N’Orleans’ piano riff with a sultry guitar in the background then everyone else jumps in for a romping good time. About a guy down on his luck, end of his road, spiralling in to oblivion losing everything in his life; wife, kids, self worth etc. “Old Charlie” who stole the handle and the train won’t slow down now could be a reference to the devil perhaps or just how life itself ran ahead of him as it’s sung how he “picks up Gideon’s Bible, opened at page one” could be his last few minutes on planet earth as he looks for salvation before he fades away. A salient flute solo fills the mid-section tightly as the song tromps forwards shifting chords like rusty gears on that train that won’t slow down. This record be it concept or not certainly contains many of the Prog elements that one would find in other Prog masterpieces of the time but is it Prog? Compared to “Thick as a Brick” and “A Passion Play” and to a slightly lesser extent, “The Minstrel in the Gallery” from 1975 maybe not so much but certainly in the annals of Prog history it is pretty PROGgish with the prominent flute solos and harmonies, start/stops, time and tempo changes etc. The rest of band pick up the pieces where the flute can’t cut it but having an irregular instrument in what is a form of “rock” music then it’s got some good Prog facets to it.
Jethro Tull somewhat faded off the Prog map after 1975 with Minstrel in The Gallery being their Prog swansong Lp as albums that followed it seemed to be more folk based and they managed to fall in to the swing of how the rock music scene was flowing with the times. Now that’s to say that they didn’t go in disco, certainly not but but more softer edged music and nothing that substantially stood out as a major hit for Tull from there on in until 1987’s “Budapest” from “Crest of a Knave” but for die-hard Tull fans the show was really kind of over as they continued to release albums but they didn’t have the panache and strife that the earlier Lps did in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Tull came under flack and fire with 73’s Passion Play album as the premiere of it was confusing and critics really kind of hated it as they compared it to this album, Aqualung and found it boring especially with the screen film that started off as a dot that grew bigger and bigger till it presented itself more clearly to the audience as a ballet dancer. Crazy antics by Anderson continued but were more subdued by the mid to late 70’s and his reclusiveness became more and more evident as the tours and writing swept onward.
Like many other bands of the period in the 70’s Tull was Prog and then let the pressures of record companies, the times, the fans, the press, the critics all get in the way and they began to write more and more shorter and radio friendly music causing a shift in their fan base and gaining new fans but losing some of the old hardcore ones to pop culture clap traps but even then when you listen to Tull albums from the 80’s they sound nothing like the classic tones and words that roared out of the 1971 epic masterpiece that is, Aqualung.
Jethro Tull is certainly the concierge in the Halls of Prog for they helped pave the way for many bands that came after them and along the way and they show you how many future sounds and styles came from their albums. The army’s up the road Aqualung. Enjoy salvation a la mode and a cup of tea on me you poor old sod. Cheers.