As I said, Abrahams quit right after cutting This Was and was replaced by… Martin Barre? Nope, by Tony Iommi; and that’s not a stupid joke. Tony even played a couple of gigs with them, you can even see him on the Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus. Imagine what could happen if he’d decide to stay! Jethro Tull embracing heavy metal and Satanism? At least, there would be no Black Sabbath, that’s for sure… (Mind you, I’m nor saying that would be a good possibility. I’m trying to be careful in order not to offend any Black Sabbath fan. I just have a bone against evil music, that’s all…)
However, history can’t be re-written, so we have to digest the fact that Tony didn’t really get along with Ian. So Martin Barre came along – forgetting his amplifiers and spilling coffee on his guitars. He also played them – and did it much better than Mick Abrahams and maybe even better than Tony Iommi; at least, in the early days he had some incredible guitar tones, a good knack for mighty riffage and a heavy fuzzy lead attack that could have easily rivalled Jimmy Page’s and sometimes even beat it. Before he switched over to generic crappy metal in the late Eighties, that is.
Meanwhile, Ian got some more flute practice, wrote some more songs and finally decided they just had to develop a style – it was 1969, by gum, and if you didn’t have a style back then, you pretty much sucked. Those were the days, eh? To that end, there’s just one blues number on the entire record, and even so it is an absolute Tull classic. And why? Because of the great ‘double-descending’ riff which you don’t hear that much on a generic blues number.
Of course, I’m speaking of ‘A New Day Yesterday’ – what else could I possibly be speaking about? And you just don’t know how I love an original and memorable guitar riff every now and then – helps me more than aspirin. The leap from ‘My Sunday Feeling’, the ‘blues groove’ that opens This Was, to ‘A New Day Yesterday’, the ‘blues groove’ that opens Stand Up, is indeed astonishing: the band now sounds like a rip-roarin’ blues tank, with a skillfull mastery of overdubs, a steady twin-guitar-flute attack and Clive Bunker’s perfected drumming style.
And the other numbers? Hard to believe it, but they’re all absolute rippers. For starters, there’s a couple of resplendent ballads in a glossy pop style which Ian has never been able to reproduce again: even though ‘Look Into The Sun’ and ‘Reasons For Waiting’ sound rather alike, they are just beautiful oh so beautiful, with some strings popping out now and then in the right moments and Barre’s acoustic guitar shining through, with subtle shift of dynamics (watch, for instance, the solemn and tender verses of ‘Reasons’ seamlessly flow into the ominous, strangely menacing flute refrain, then just as seamlessly flow back into the main guitar melody – that’s what perfection is).
And the album’s main highlight is Anderson’s flute arrangement on Bach’s ‘Bouree’, one of the most stunning rock-classic fusions ever. The flute, bass and guitar mingle together to incredible effect on here; the song is thus like an ‘elder brother’ to ‘Serenade For A Cuckoo’, but it’s a trillion times more effective, catchy and beautiful.
Taken on the album scale, however, it’s the hard numbers that really make this record. People might rave on about Aqualung, but it’s Stand Up which is doubtlessly their most hard-rockin’ album before the infamous metal period in the late ’80-s, and they really could play ‘hard rock’ (as opposed to ‘heavy metal’) better than almost any of their contemporaries – better than Beck, better than Led Zep! In order to be convinced, just take a listen to the gargantuan coda on ‘Nothing Is Easy’, with that bitchin’ aggressive interplay between Barre’s guitar and Ian’s flute (another trademark, that one), and to the accelerating drum pattern in the end (the one that goes ‘bang – bangbang – bangbangbang – bangbangbangbang’, and the ‘stone-rolling-down-a-hill’ conclusion).
Nobody made music that rocked so bleedin’ hard in mid-1969! ‘Back To The Family’ is another fearless rocker with Ian spitting out satirical lines about how he’s being neglected in the forkin’ suckin’ society before the final frantic battlecharge of all the instruments; ‘We Used To Know’, whose eerie melodical connection with ‘Hotel California’ has often raised many weird hypotheses, features breath-taking, cathartic wah-wah solos; and ‘For A Thousand Mothers’ closes the album on another hard note, even though I don’t like it quite as much as the other numbers, maybe because of the fact that Ian’s vocals are unexpectedly buried down deep in the general chaos.
And finally, I nearly forgot to mention the Indian-flavoured ‘Fat Man’ with Ian complaining about his gaining weight. It is certainly to be considered the ‘groove’ of the record: some jolly sitar-imitating lines contribute to the funny atmosphere, while the lines ‘Don’t want to be a fat man/People would think I’m just good fun/Would rather be a thin man/I’m so glad to go on being one/Too much to carry around with you/No chance of finding a woman who/Will love you in the morning and the night time, too’ are probably among Ian’s best lines of all time.
I’ll admit right here and now that I do not consider him a great poet (all the prog-rockers liked to think of themselves as tremendous lyricists when in reality they were just overbloated humbugs), but for the time being he was no prog-rocker ‘cos prog-rock didn’t exist as yet which meant he actually had to take pains to think over his lyrics instead of committing to paper all the nonsense that came into his head.
In fact, this is certainly the best advantage of this album, and the reason I prefer it to Aqualung: this is no prog rock, just a great collection of rock’n’roll songs. Buy it now, if you haven’t heard it you’ve no idea of how great they once were. Hell, Melody Maker nominated them second best of 1969, right after the Beatles but even before the Rolling Stones. I wouldn’t go as far, but it’s definitely a fabulous album all the same, and certainly the best ‘hard-rock’ record of the year, if not all time. Prog-rock? Forget it!
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
American audiences needn’t be introduced to this album – as far as I know, lots of its songs are constantly recycled on the radio, and overall, if Jethro Tull are to be associated with anything by anybody, it’s probably the menacing heavy riff which opens the title track.
The biggest ever commercial whopper for Tull, it is that good indeed – even though the same American audiences were slow on the move to really appreciate Stand Up. Anyway, for aspeaking out loud, it’s tons better than Benefit, and a true all-time classic. I may easily say that there’s not a single bad song on the album – for the very last time in the entire Tull career (barring the one song albums, of course, one of which is all good and the other… ahem… well, read on, oh gentle listener).
Maybe it has something to do with a radical change in line-up – this is where both John Evan and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond stand up to the blackboard (well, Evan did play some keybs on Benefit, but that doesn’t count – he wasn’t even a legitimate band member). Maybe Anderson was desperately looking for FM radio hits. Maybe he just had a good day. I don’t know. What I know is that this is the last Tull record which is listenable at first listen and memorable at first memory (forgive me my silly analogies).
Actually, it is something of a bridge between the lovely early blues-psycho days and the later murky overblown pompous fantasy days. This is the first of Anderson’s multiple concept albums, but the concept is still rather just a basis for the songs than vice versa. The plot is as follows: Man created God and God created Aqualungs. Or was it the opposite? Oh, never mind. It’s all written in a parody on John’s Gospel placed on the album cover.
In other words, it’s a stupid, self-indulgent concept that bashes organized religion and sometimes borders on bashing the very essence of religion – especially on tracks like ‘My God’, although Anderson always takes care so as not to cross the thin borderline completely. That’s not to say that the lyrics are bad: the underlying ideas and principles are very simple, but this is Anderson at his most poetic and involving, and his imagery has never been stronger, considering that on here he’s still able to uphold the balance between form and content – since Thick As A Brick and particularly later on, his lyrics would go off the deep end completely.
Let us not forget the immaculate melodies, though. The radio classics include the multi-part title track, highlighted by the above-mentioned cool riff, very expressive singing that ranges from a special Anderson-style ‘vomit-inducing sneer’ to passionate and heartfelt, and a mad, ecstatic, rise-to-a-shattering-climax guitar solo courtesy of Martin Barre; ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’ with its gorgeous crescendo in the flute-dominated introduction and Anderson’s bitter condemnation of the middle class society; and especially my favourite – the bad luck anthem ‘Locomotive Breath’.
Have you ever heard a riff imitating the slow progress of a train? Then you haven’t heard ‘Locomotive Breath’, a song perfect from the first notes of the John Evan Bach-imitating piano introduction to the majestic fade out with Ian singing that ‘there’s no way to slow down’. If it ain’t my favourite song by Jethro Tull, that’s just because it isn’t on my turntable at the present moment. Yes, I admit it’s rather naive for a person who’s gone through the entire Tull catalog to announce that his favourite song by the band is the one radio standard that’s most popular among the beer-drinkin’ crowds, but what can I do if the song’s pure and clear genius? Forgive me, lovers of Tull. At least I don’t abuse beer.
But even if you don’t hear the other tracks on the radio every five minutes, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth of radioplay. ‘Hymn 43’ may not be great, but, once again, the riff is an absolute classic (and this is where you’ll find the famous line about how ‘if Jesus saves, he’d better save himself…’, so much hated by orthodoxal church abiders who intentionally neglect that the second half of the phrase goes ‘…from the gory glory seekers who use his name in death’). Barre and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond chug along on the track like mad, transforming it into a true hard rock masterpiece.
The plaintive, desperate ‘Up To Me’ is based on a cool repetitive flute line, ‘Mother Goose’ is just a funny tune (having nothing to do with the notorious rhymes), and the lengthiest track on here – the conceptual climax of ‘My God’ – also manages to keep the listener’s attention, going off from rifffests onto bits of Bach onto bits of Russian folk music (not that Anderson knew very well how to handle Russian folk music, but at least he made an entertaining try). Plus there are several short acoustic links which all the Tull-haters try to accentuate by saying all kinds of things about how they suck and so on, but I personally don’t see any trouble with them: Anderson is a decent classical guitar player, and anyway all the three are shorter than two minutes. No need to worry, Tull-haters!
‘Wind-Up’ is the only song I could live without on here, but maybe it’s just because it’s placed at the end. I’ve always thought that the best songs on any album should be placed in the beginning (so as not to let down the listener from the very start) and in the end (so as not to leave the feeling of being bored and deceived). As you see, Ian rarely fulfills the second part of the statement. But it’s not bad either way.
It’s still a little bit weaker than Stand Up, in my opinion, which is why the rating is a wee bit lower; the acoustic links and ‘Wind-Up’ and some instrumental bits on ‘My God’ and… well, little nasty tidbits now and there, couldn’t really grab ’em by the scruff o’ the neck cause they’re so tiny. But “near-immaculate classic” would be a suitable definition, too, and an album where many of the more reserved Tull lovers set a fat point. However, with all due respect, we’ll try and go dig a little deeper to see that Anderson’s talents were not yet exhausted. By no means no.