Classic Rock Review

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Jethro Tull Thick As A Brick (1972)


1972 was, without a doubt, The year of prog-rock: the year when prog had finally conquered its rightful niche and ruled supreme in the minds of the critics and among the musical preferences of the rock-oriented public.

Having consolidated its positions, having provided most of the groundbreaking ideas in the previous two or three years, but never wishing to reside in peace upon their laurels, mature proggers went on forward to conquer new heights – to blow their resplendent bubbles further and further, pumping out mastodontic epics and endless suites with no seeming end to the process. The world was not yet beginning to see prog-rock as its worst enemy, and it’s no surprise that many people still regard many of 1972’s anthemic prog albums as all-time masterpieces.

Just see here: Yes’s Fragile and Close To The Edge, Genesis’s Foxtrot, ELP’s Trilogy, Gentle Giant’s Octopus, King Crimson’s Islands all came out in 1972 (well, Islands appeared in Dec. 1971, but I think I can still judge it as a 1972 album)! And all of these albums are something and anything (despite my preference of, say, Fragile and Foxtrot over most others).

But, more than anything, it was this incredible album that said it all about prog-rock. Blowing away all competition, Ian had occupied the entire album with only one song on this album (well, ‘Thick As A Brick’, naturally) – quite an innovative move at the time, since, while sidelong compositions were slowly becoming the norm of day, nobody had yet dreamed of dividing one single tune over two sides of one record.

And it is divided: you might not have noticed it, but the second side of the record begins with the fading in of the winter winds and the thump-thump-thump melody that end the first side, so the continuity is never really broken. Not to mention, of course, the bits of melodies and themes that keep being resurrected; this also adds to the impression of the record all being one lengthy suite as opposed to a bunch of unconnected songs.

So what is Thick As A Brick all about, actually? Essentially, it is a masterful epic poem (and a hoot: Ian credited the lyrics to a certain Gerald Bostock, a fictitious 8-year old kid who won a prize for it but was disqualified after numerous protests from the audiences. I wonder who got the royalties?) that is destined to serve as some kind of ‘Bible According To Ian Anderson’; only if Aqualung was its clumsy Old Testament, Thick As A Brick is definitely the New One (followed by the Apocalypse of Passion Play, by the way), with a far more complex concept and more fully thought-out lyrics.

It was even provided with a really bombastic album cover, disguised as the “St Cleve Chronicle” newspaper with about twenty pages of partly fictititious, partly real news material, that among other things told in details the story of the poor Gerald Bostock. As for the actual lyrics, they mostly continue Ian’s society-bashing line, only this time around they are more subtle and far less straightforward, mixed with vague medieval imagery and a potload of romantic and psychedelic visions that are hard to decipher, but still, ten times less hard than whatever followed on A Passion Play.

Most of these lyrics are really cute – passages like ‘See there! A son is born and we pronounce him fit to fight/There are black heads on his shoulders, and he pees himself in the night/We’ll make a man of him, put him to a trade/Teach him to play Monopoly and how to sing in the rain’ are obviously inspired.

But then again, I don’t really give a damn about the concept – it suffices for me to know that it does have some actual meaning. I just enjoy the music. Again, that’s what prog rock was all about, wasn’t it? Meaningless lyrics and bombastic melodies.

Speaking of the music, this album could have easily worked at a short-song level, as well: it’s easy to pluck out a lot of separate sections and listen to each one separately (although, unfortunately, the CD does not index them as different). While all the sections are linked to each other with short, sparing instrumental passages, they are quite different by themselves and never become boring. It’s like a true encyclopaedia of various musical genres: these beautiful, ultra-catchy melodies range from quiet acoustic folkish shuffles (the sly, charming introduction section) to painfully complex but gorgeous ballads (‘do you believe in the day?’), organ-driven fast’n’furious rockers (‘see there! a son is born…’), Elizabethan ‘pedestrian’ war marches (‘I’ve come down from the upper class…’), nice guitar/keyboard shuffles (‘so where the hell was Biggles?’), nursery rhymes (‘you curl your toes in fun…’), Zappa-type noises (beginning of Side 2), and many more passages that avoid direct definition. Zillions of instruments, clever use of sound effects (the Benefit legacy is fading away), crystal clear production – wow!

Yes, I admit it might be hard to get into, you simplicity-loving music addicts, but I got into it at about the third listen, and I still can’t dig that Lizard thing by King Crimson! Can you? Just goes to show that some “prog” is “proggier” than other… Even the instrumental breaks and links are often breathtaking: listen, for instance, to Martin Barre’s insane solo in between the two verses of ‘the poet and the painter…’ – the triumph of minimalistic technique over soulless class at its most evident.

No wonder the public was so eager to send this sucker to No. 1: never again did any band achieve such a perfect, never breaking balance between the complex/serious/intellectual and the catchy/accessible/radio-friendly. Thick As A Brick is one of those rare records that can function equally well as great party music and a deeply personal, intimate experience. It’s hardly danceable, of course (although you can certainly march a lot to it), but that’s about the only general flaw, and not a deeply lamented one.

Anyway, where was I? As you can see, I hold the opinion that this record presents us with a hodgepodge of wonderful musical ideas which the Tullers couldn’t keep up any further than that. Indeed, this is the last record to feature some uncompromisedly great Tull music throughout all of its duration, and in that respect it is totally idiosyncratic, whatever that may mean in the case.

If not for a couple more reprises than necessary and the ugly avantgarde noise section on the beginning of Side Two that nearly ruins all the previously amassed “cathartic energy”, this would be one of the easiest tens I’ve ever given out – as it is, a very, very solid nine, and one of the Top Five albums of 1972, together with such masterpieces as Ziggy Stardust, Exile On Main St., Foxtrot, and… and… whatever

January 4, 2014 Posted by | Jethro Tull Thick As A Brick | | Leave a comment