Jethro Tull’s Long, Exceptional, Songs

Jethro Tull      photo @Barry Wentzell
Jethro Tull photo @Barry Wentzell

I’ve been on record for a long time in these pages as to my love for progressive rock music, and in particular, the work of Jethro Tull. This superb band, led by prolific composer and multi-instrumentalist Ian Anderson, released about 20 studio albums over 30 years after forming in the late 1960’s, beginning with This Was in 1969 and ending with J-Tull Dot Com in 1999. This along with a number of collections, live albums, and a Christmas album from 2003 represent one of the great rock collections in music history. Last year I reviewed a wonderful book by Brian Rabey on the group’s legacy, which included extensive interviews with Ian Anderson and many of the band members through the years. Afterwards I went on the hunt for the next book on the subject, and was elated to discover an incredible and unique study of their two finest progressive rock albums.

JT_TwoLong_CoverThe book is Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play – Inside Two Long Songs, by Tim Smolko. Tim holds master’s degrees in Musicology and Library Science and as such he takes a scholarly approach to coverage of these two albums, along with the band itself, and the nature of progressive rock music in general. The subject albums, Thick as a Brick (1972) and the subsequent release, A Passion Play (1973), both topped billboard charts despite each being one long song lasting over 40 minutes. Both are considered progressive rock masterworks, taking that mantle alongside other luminaries such as Yes’ Close to the Edge, Gentle Giant’s Octopus, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, and Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Both albums have been re-released over the last two years as definitive re-masters assembled by the illustrious Steve Wilson and are thus ripe for re-examination!

JT_brickpassion

For any fan of Jethro Tull, progressive rock, and in particular these two albums, this book is an absolute revelation. I’ve not read another tome on a musician or their art that delves as deeply as this into the origin and context of a work, the compositional approach taken, it’s presentation, or it’s place in music history. The book contains some exhaustive passages documenting both compositions from a musician’s perspective. Dedicated fans who know the musical themes and lyrics in these long songs will enjoy this most while more casual fans may skim through some of the more detailed parts of the study.

Tim begins by establishing these records in the context of the 1970’s period of rock music, focusing on how Ian incorporated elements of medieval and Renaissance culture and music into the work, which had been shaped mostly by American blues and British folk influences. Tim outlines how an interest in preindustrial culture arose within Britain in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and how this was related to the ecology movement, the popularity of fantasy and medieval stories, and explosion of contemporary folk on both sides of the pond.   Of particular interest is his explanation of the extended form of song known as the medieval “lai”, how the form was used by troubadours, beginning in the thirteenth century, and how it was incorporated by Ian into these compositions.   One aspect of the structure that is relatable is the potential repetition of material from the first stanza into the last, with all that comes between employing an unconstrained framework – some parts even improvised. These are aspects of both Jethro Tull albums familiar to fans, such as the two repeated refrains:

And your wise men don’t know how it feel
To be thick as a brick

There was a rush along the Fulham road
There was a hush in the Passion Play

and the sometimes abrupt changes in meter, key, and song structure throughout. After this fascinating introduction, JT_TAABTim delves into Thick as a Brick first, followed by A Passion Play, including a segment detailing the aborted Chateau d’Isaster recordings that preceded the latter. He explains the strophic, AABA, verse-chorus and compound forms using examples most readers will know, including Tull’s but also Led Zeppelin, Queen and others. Then he writes a detailed study of the artwork, lyrics, music, and meaning of each. In order to illuminate the content of these long songs, Tim maps out the musical structure of each – reprinting lyrics and detailing and comparing different sections from several angles. This results in elaborate tables displaying each vocal and instrumental section mapping the song form, meter, pitch, lyrics, and time codes to these so that the informed reader may follow and gain insight as these complex compositions progress from start to finish.

One table that is quite useful maps entire length of each album into it’s numbered vocal and instrumental passages, in order, showing which band member or collaborator played what instruments in each. As I’ve always been fascinated by the few years during which Ian played soprano saxophone, it was wonderful to see those occurrences mapped out across each album. This was also how I confirmed before talking to Dee Palmer about this period, my recollection that strings were utilized only in the last instrumental segment of Thick as a Brick and “The Hare” segment of A Passion Play. Strings came back to the fore in Tull for the follow-up albums Warchild and particularly for Minstrel in the Gallery. In this way, Tim’s scholarly approach and detailed reporting adds much to a listeners understanding of what they are hearing.

JT_PassionTim goes on to recount the live concerts staged for each of these albums, the critical reception, the curious impact of Monty Python and even the availability of any live audio and video content (which for the record is, not much!)   The conclusion brings focus to these complex, sometimes inexplicable works, with some final commentary. Inevitably, there is a comparison and Tim joins most observers in naming Thick as a Brick the better of the two, possibly just so that A Passion Play fanatics like me have something to argue about.

For those readers who are not musicians and for whom “motives”, “pitch” and “song form” are foreign concepts, segments of chapters in the book will be challenging. Fortunately, the writer employs a clear, readable text to accompany these sections, so that even if one may feel a bit lost in the most technical parts, we are always returned quickly to relatable information, quotes from Ian Anderson himself, and other anecdotes. It’s worth spending a little extra time to study the text, so as to come away with a greater understanding of how pop/rock and progressive rock music is constructed. Ultimately it’s a rewarding celebration of these two outstanding albums and a reminder that the prog movement has created some of the most important and interesting musical art of the ages. It’s one of the most thoroughly researched, scholarly, and informative books on this genre ever released. Having poured over these albums in every format over the years, I was surprised to arrive at the last page with an even greater understanding of and passion for their mastery. “Geared toward the exceptional rather than the average” as Gerald would say. Highly recommended.

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