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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.

Anderson and Tull Revealed

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 9.55.05 AMA Passion Play – The Story Of Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull
By Brian Rabey, 2013 – Soundcheck Books, LLP

As we get some perspective on the golden age of progressive rock, there have been a number of books written about the bands and people behind the music.  These include biographies both authorized and unauthorized about many progressive rock giants, including Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull.  Some of these are interesting, giving us insight into how the artists crafted their work, their inspirations, the interpersonal dynamics of the band members, and stories from life on the road.  Others are much more definitive, giving a deeper insight into the creative process, both musically and lyrically, and telling a more complete story about the band and their art.  The success of these tomes depends on the knowledge and skill of the author and level of involvement from the subject artists themselves.

In the case of the new biography, A Passion Play, The Story of Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull, we have a new and definitive look at the band and it’s driving persona.  Author, Brian Rabey, began the project already very knowledgeable about all things Tull, having learned the songs on flute during his teenage years, as a fan, and then interviewing and writing reviews on the band for years as a journalist.  For this bio, the author augmented that study with hours of new interviews taking time with many of the more than 20 band members past and present.  These discussions, in the bands own words, along with the author’s keen observations are woven together to create the whole.  It is a thoroughly researched, fascinating look at a band that’s endured for more than four decades with their stories told from many perspectives, not just that of Ian Anderson, who has led the band since it’s inception.

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 9.59.11 AMThe book is divided into two major parts – part I being a history of Jethro Tull, and part II dedicated to extensive interviews of Ian Anderson himself.  To begin part I, the birth of the band is covered in great detail.  We learn much about these early formative years, including the revolving door of early members, how they found gigs, and got their start.  We learn exactly how bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond (bass), and Barrie Barlow (drums) drifted in and out of the early bands, why Mick Abrahams (guitar) ended up on exiting after their first release, and how John Evans (piano, keyboards) ended up not appearing on the first two albums – making his more formal debut on the third release, Benefit.  This exhaustive early coverage is important to understanding the formative years of the outfit.

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 10.50.06 AMThe rest of part I is taken with a segment about each album, each of which interweave authors’ notes with observations from band members culled from their interviews.  Included with this are stories about the comings and goings of the various members, and their reflections on those times.  This section leads to my only quibble with this exceptional book, which is the uneven amount of text dedicated to each of the bands extensive catalog.  The deepest coverage is fairly awarded to the first seven releases – averaging a handful of pages about each album, including many key revelations, most notably a thorough explanation as to how A Passion Play (1973) came to be rewritten and re-recorded.  But this coverage tapers off after that release, such that the core mid period from – 1974’s Warchild, through 1979’s Stormwatch each receive just a page or so of space.  It’s as if the interviews and author’s added commentary tapered off for an intermission, and while picking back up never return to the longer more informative earlier passages.  In particular most fans would agree that Minstrel in the Gallery (1975) was a high point for the band, and while the author notes how solid the release is, and guitarist Martin Barrie is shown to agree, more coverage would have been useful in particular to illuminate the top notch acoustic center of this work spanning from “Requiem”, “One White Duck…” and the phenomenal “Baker Street Blues” suite.  In the end, a minor complaint, as many of the bands albums are so fully explored, along with the detailed interviews on all subjects.

IMG_0650As noted, part II of the book “The Thoughts of Ian Anderson” focuses on the man himself, Ian Anderson, via a series of interviews, and author’s framing commentary.  This an exceptionally presented, informative series of musings, admissions, and observations on the enduring music and legacy of Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson.  In one rare segment, Ian reflects on issues with his vocal performances during the last many years.  While not naming a specific malady or damage done during the “Under Wraps” tour of 1984, he notes honestly that given he is not a traditionally trained vocalist, the wear and strain of repeated performances and attempts to extend his vocal abilities in the early 1980’s has taken it’s toll.   I’ve not seen as much clarity in print as to Ian’s voice until this book captured it.

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 10.47.15 AMMore importantly, Ian muses about band members past and present, talks of inspirations, instruments and his ability with each (no more alto sax for Ian!) his writing and recording and a fair amount of reflection as to why he keeps going after all these years.  In addition the author captures Ian sharing many thoughts about the industry and his contemporaries in the music field.  There is even a bit about his family, although brief, acknowledging he’s always been rather private about his personal life.  The book wraps with some information on each of Ian’s own solo releases.  Of great interest are the thoughts on the creative process including Ian noting that he writes about pictures – visual imagery driving his lyrics.  Anyone who has puzzled over his writings will enjoy this segment.  Also within are some honest observations about other musicians including his enjoyment of Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart, and some bits about Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, and Lou Graham.  All told, very interesting interviews with this musical genius – there will be something new for even for well read fans.

Overall, this is an exceptional work from Brian Ramey – a solid presentation with rare photos – highly recommended to fans and others interested in this seminal band, and it’s reclusive leader.