Sparkle in the Rain, released in February of 1984, went to #1 in the UK, even when it was a big turn in the road for Simple Minds. The release came on the heels of the more gentile New Gold Dream from the prior year, which had a production draped in layers of lush, romantic synth, and echoes of Roxy Music, Japan, and Duran Duran. In contrast, Sparkle In The Rain presented a muscular, aggressive version of the band, a demanding wall of sound produced by Steve Lillywhite, who had been at the helm for U2, Peter Gabriel, Siouxsie and the Banshees and others. It’s a classic album from the 1980’s that should be in every collector’s catalog.
The Album The album begins with a count in for opening track “Up On The Catwalk” (1,2, 1-2-3-4) followed by the crack of drummer Mel Gaynor’s snare in time with Mick McNeil’s ringing piano chords on his new Yamaha Grand. It’s a fantastic way to start the album – a powerful song with lyrics about hypocrisy in Britain, constructed from a riff and a promise that “I will be there” instead of a chorus, delivered with urgency by lead singer Jim Kerr. Throughout the record, guitarist Charlie Burchill’s adds rhythms, serpentine licks and washes of color to each track, often begging the attentive listener to wonder how he is achieving the sound. Again on this album as with their back catalog, bassist Derek Forbes, one of the absolute best players in that era, drives many of the tracks with his propulsive, creative leads – demonstrated by just a cursory listen to the hit “Waterfront” or “Kick Inside of Me”, the latter including fierce vocals from Jim that sounds as if he is actually shaking off fearful ghosts:
And we steal the world and live to survive
Shake out the ghosts and turn around
In spite of me, shake up the ghosts inside of me
Now full time drummer Mel Gaynor smacks his snare with what seems like Herculean might – and when he runs the toms from top to bottom its like the roar of approaching thunder. This coupled with Derek’s monster bass leads, establish the bottom end of the sound, and part of said wall, through which it often seems the bits of piano, synth and guitar emerge, shine, then fade back into the mix. Jim’s vocals work in and around the music structured more often than not in a scat-like rather than verse-chorus-verse form, something that made this band unique among peers. All of these elements combine to create the brilliant things found herein.
The Box Set Last week a newly re-mastered version of this landmark album was released in a box set format. It includes the original album re-mastered in stereo and various surround sound mixes by prog wizard Steve Wilson, an audio recording of a live concert from the era, a few videos, and live performances from the BBC and various TV shows, a beautiful re-print of the concert program for the tour, and a complete background on the album, with track by track liner notes. This is all aimed at the collector, rather than casual fans, and it is we who will be impressed.
The first disc presents the original album re-mastered with all the clarity and shine one would hope. Bass and drums appear warm, midrange is full without sounding muddy, and the top end is all shimmering clarity. The audio herein is of the highest quality – critical for this album because in compressed formats the engineer’s wall of sound can be noisy and overwhelming. Disc two has the B-sides and rarities – mostly edits or extended mixes of the album tracks – it’s the least essential of the set. Things get more interesting on discs three and four, which present a live concert from early in the tour, recorded at Barrowland Glasgow on February 28, 1984. It’s an excellent document that captures the band on their home turf and in their prime. Called the “Tour du monde”, the tour to support Sparkle… included a seven-night residency at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was the last tour of that period booked primarily in the smaller theaters. I caught it at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on a night that cemented their vaulted place in my heart. The recording herein is a potent reminder of the band’s live prowess at this time. After this tour, the next album Once Upon A Time took the band to stadiums where much of the subtlety found here was lost for a time.
Rounding out the forth disc are three performances captured at a Radio One Session in London 1983, including an interesting, more rhythmic, sparing sound for “Waterfront” and “The Kick Inside of Me” indicating perhaps what the record might have sounded like if the band continued more in the vein of it’s prior release.
The DVD presents the album in various 5.1 surround formats, along with a high-resolution stereo mix. These surround mixes are not always worthy, but in this case, they reveal details in the songs that reward the attentive listener. Uncharacteristically, bass and drums are presented strongly on the rear channels, allowing the guitar, keys and vocals more space in front. If you have a system for this, and ever find yourself spinning a CD and really listening to it, than these mixes are worth the price of the set.
Also included on the DVD are three videos, followed by television appearances of the same tracks – “Waterfront,” “Speed You Love To Me,” and “Up On The Catwalk.” The latter two live videos, though truncated by credits, are taken from a performance on the Oxford Road Show at the end of January 1984, just before the album was released. Of all the television and live concert appearances of the band at the time, this is one of the greatest – as the two tracks are played faithfully to studio versions, allowing us to be witness to just how their sound was achieved, certainly answering the question, “just what is Charlie playing!”
Because Sparkle in the Rain sits in their catalog between the romantic New Gold Dream, and the subsequent more commercial smash Once Upon A Time, it might escape the attention it deserves. In fact, booklet liner notes suggest the album promised that greater things were to come from the band. There is an assertion that the album might be considered transitional – even Jim Kerr is quoted as saying the songs on the second half of the album needed more time to develop and that while the album showed their evolution, it was not a landmark, favoring instead the more song oriented follow-up Once Upon a Time, produced by American Jimmy Iovine. Of “Speed Your Love to Me” Jim opines that “with a less puzzling arrangement it could have been …a huge hit” for the band adding that he wished they had left “Street Hassle”, a Lou Reed cover, off the record. Perhaps these comments make the best argument for a re-evaluation of this work, and the box set treatment with engineering from Steve Wilson.
Instead for this observer the album’s true place is as their landmark creation, besting its follow-up, more directly commercial cousin as the pinnacle of their achievements in the 80’s. It is as one fan called it “art school rock with fantastic bombast.” Before deciding for yourself, check out this set in all of its grandeur.
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.
The 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!
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, Tim 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.
Tim 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.
Jethro Tull’s classic period extended from 1968’s This Was up to 1979’s Stormwatch. During that time, composer and multi-instrumentalist Dee Palmer (then David) wrote orchestrations for Ian’s dramatic music. While other progressive rock artists such as Rick Wakeman, Camel and The Moody Blues included orchestra on one or more recordings, strings were an integral part of Tull’s work up to 1979, and at the hands of Dee they were emotive and compelling. By the Too Old to Rock and Roll: Too Young to Die! tour in 1977, Dee was playing with the band in concert, and by Songs from the Wood the next year she became a member of the band in studio as well – tracks like “Velvet Green” and “Ring Out, Solstice Bells” highlighting her contribution to the groups multi-layered prog-folk sound.
Dee’s first work with Jethro Tull was for their debut release This Was (1969) and the track “Move on Alone.” Subsequent albums, Stand Up, Aqualung, and Living in the Past all incorporate the best early examples of her work. Songs like “Reasons for Waiting,” “Life is a Long Song” “Sweet Dream” and “Cheap Day Return” employ strings in a way that greatly enhances and is intertwined with the sound of each track.
The two albums that came after Living in the Past – namely Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play contained little of this orchestration (outside of “The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles”). But, this reversed course with Warchild, when the strings became much more pronounced, and for which we now know, a set of orchestral compositions were developed for an abandoned film project. The additional orchestrated music is now seeing the light of day in the newly re-mastered release of Warchild. Dubbed “The 40th Anniversary Theater Edition” the set includes sensational remixes by Steve Wilson including the main album, eleven associated tracks from the period (3 previously unreleased) and the “Warchild Orchestral Recordings.” Some of these orchestrated cues contain themes from the album cuts we already know, “The Third Hurrah” being particularly effective, but others are separate compositions, and all of them are wondrous to behold.
I asked Dee about the Warchild recordings, and her experience with Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull:
By the time of Warchild it had been six years since I was at the Royal Academy of Music. I had been very fortunate in successfully breaking in to the burgeoning studio music scene and just like a Doctor in general practice or a mechanic in a car garage I was asked on a daily basis to heal, improve, change, and embroider music, written by other people. From when I’d started working with Ian on This Was – by the time of Warchild, we were then far down the line. I understood how to work with him. As he doesn’t read music, we found a language to communicate in. I was never ever given any instruction as to what to do or indeed how to do it – I was just given the tracks and told we would like you to work on these. That kind of trust engenders within any musician worth their salt to give it their best. Nothing ever left my desk until I was absolutely sure it was the very best offering I could add to enhance these tracks.
With Warchild I was again asked to work on an album that was largely completed – to engage a symphony orchestra for the album and the music that was to accompany the film. There was a terrific responsibility placed on my shoulders to come up with the goods. There was never a contract between Ian and I like there are between most employees and employers. Our relationship was significantly different from the normal trend of the record company engaging an arranger by contract. So I accepted the task, which in retrospect makes me feel there was an amount of respect from Ian for my God given gifts and the likelihood for my turning up with what was expected of me.
I would listen to the rough tracks, or mostly finished songs, and write the orchestrations to fit the music. For instance “Bungle In the Jungle” – there’s a line “Just say a word and the boys will be right there, with claws at your back to send a chill through the night air” – its burglar music – like a 1920’s horror picture. It was sound echoing sense, ie: reflected in the music. My job was to weave into those textures the stuff that resides in my head and ears – and then it would gain approval.
When I was in the band I thought Ian was unique as the guy up front, and during those years his writing was quite brilliant. Ian encapsulated the mood of the topic he was writing about. Warchild is largely redolent of the work of Kurt Weill who wrote with Bertolt Brecht in the early 20th century. When Ian gave me that track I didn’t think he knew those types of harmonic progressions. He gave me “Warchild Waltz” on just guitar – I was amazed at the way he had been able to construct such a piece, with clear influences of composers with whom he was not at all familiar.
Also, on Warchild the instrumentation includes a fair amount of saxophone, which Ian was still playing at that time, and piano accordion, played by the immensely talented John Evan.
On Warchild, the band was getting an early 20th century “in between the wars sound”. The saxophone had been invented before that era, but it had its first real outing in the world in the 20’s, coming back into popular music. Ian played it the way he wanted to play it – but it was the right instrument for that album. John played piano accordion which also fitted the theme. It’s like using the harpsichord – once you use the harpsichord, you’re into the music of the baroque. And once you put a piano accordion in, the result is, it’s the music of anywhere – either a street or a club or cafe in Italy or France. He used it judiciously within the context of the fabric of the orchestration. It’s like pointillism, a few dots of something –like a dash of pepper – it enhances the flavor of the whole dish.
With the Warchild album the strings seem like such a natural part of the music – tracks like “Queen and Country”, “Sealion”, “Bungle in the Jungle” – it was doing more than accentuating the songs, it was an integral part. Then there was the orchestration planned for the movie – was that your work as well?
Yes, I orchestrated all of the music that we were going to use in the film. One cue is called the “Warchild Waltz”. There is a version of Warchild on “A Classic Case” which I wrote for the film. Ian heard it and said “I’ve never heard anything so dramatic in my life!” In the case of the film soundtrack it was more than orchestration it involved composition as well, particularly the Mahlerian ending slowly bringing the piece to its close with the magic of the chord of the three trombones at the very last. If you listen carefully, it sounds like the last breath of a dying man. I suppose all you have to give me is two or three notes and I’ll make it turn into whatever you would like it to be.
In casting the movie some collaboration was resorted to. I had made contact with John Cleese to enlist him for that film. I was the musical director of the Cambridge University footlights review at the time of John Cleese and Graham Chapman, and they were the two Cambridge Monty Pythons. John and I are great friends and I enlisted him for the movie.
After the film project was shelved, the album was released in it’s 10 song format – how was it received?
The record company didn’t like it – when we sat in the studio and played it for Terry Ellis he said well, what I think we should do is get DP with Shirley Bassey to sing this lot – that’s what he said. Terry was sitting there in his businessman’s suit making commentary on a body of work we had been working on for a long time, questioning music that was exploratory and not just banging out the same riff. He wanted another Aqualung, which was also the case with Songs from the Wood. They wanted something less adventurous and exploratory. Thank goodness fortuity prevailed and what we had done ended up on record and not something occasioned by the suits.
On the Warchild tour, a string quartet was hired for the live performances. Were you involved, and how was it incorporated into the show?
I did all the writing and then was on the road supervising it until it worked in the pattern of the show. For the first portion of the show it was not easy to incorporate the strings in the material I’d written for the album. What they actually did was play on the “catalog” material – earlier songs from before Warchild. Those girls in the quartet were something else! They looked great in black dresses and platinum wigs and they were good players and had a bit of hedonistic fun on the tour. I can’t tell you what went on – if my mother knew what was going on –if she knew I might do those things she might have ended my life! I was on the road with them until they played themselves in, then went home.
What are your thoughts on the film soundtrack material now seeing the light of day on this reissue?
It’s a kind of respectful cleaning out of material from the attic. Its material that Jethro Tull aficionados would like to have but a lot of it is archival. It may have stayed in the archives but as Ian owns the material there is the opportunity to make it available. I appreciate the release even if at times its like someone going through your underwear drawer – there are some pieces you wouldn’t mind seeing but there other rather grey, over-washed items which you would rather consign to the duster bag rather than the fans!
After the release of Warchild, and subsequent tour, Dee worked on the next two “classic era” albums, Minstrel in the Gallery (1975), and then Too Old to Rock and Roll: Too Young to Die! (1976), joining the band for that tour. Dee then became a full time member for the group for the next three albums. I asked Dee how the collaboration and writing process changed.
It actually changed with Minstrel In the Gallery, which came just after Warchild. We went across to Los Angeles and sat down in a very nice house in the canyons and worked on the songs for Minstrel and for the first time I was there at the beginning of the writing. It would be immodest in the extreme, and I consider myself to be a humble soul, with a bias towards self-deprecation, but Ian by then I think had probably realized what my real abilities were. If you listen to that album and divide the aural field in two – one part is largely Ian playing his guitar and singing with the band – then listen to what the rest of those tracks are and depend upon –it’s me with a string quartet – nothing more than a four person string quartet.
Most of those familiar with Jethro Tull will know of the wonderful record Minstrel in the Galley. Many fans consider it to be Ian’s finest vocal work, and the strings really become front and center with that record. The song suite “Baker St. Muse” is unique in the Tull catalog – it’s a rich and beautiful composition that leans towards the acoustic, with Dee’s orchestral work gracing each passage.
Again, what I had to work from was Ian playing his guitar. Somewhat immodestly I will say, that was enough – I can just do this – I can sit down and write music until I have to go to sleep. I can sit down and write music in a moving train, a taxi cab, a darkened hotel room, a restaurant or in a studio while we are recording something else I can be writing music for tomorrow. So its one of those curious gifts that one comes with – a lot of it probably has to do with my aural ability which God gave me as well.
One of the few things I wrote for Ian is “Elegy” – I wrote it when we were writing a ballet, and my father died and I wrote it as a dedicated piece to him. John Glasgow died shortly afterwards so I included John in the dedication.
“Elegy” appears on the Stormwatch album, the last release of the 1968-1979 period and the last to feature Dee and John Evan. “Elegy” must go down as the prettiest piece of music in all of Tull’s history. It also appears on Dee’s “A Classic Case – The London Symphony Orchestra Plays The Music of Jethro Tull.” I asked Dee about the end of that era, just after the Stormwatch tour, as Ian’s first solo project instead became the Tull release “A”:
At that time, we were all exhausted from the non-stop recording and touring cycle. I wanted the band to stop touring and take a year to write – get together, and sift through it and see what we got and then go back out again, but playing in small clubs where the audience were near. We had lost that contact factor which is so important. During that time, Ian ended up collaborating with Eddie Jobson. For me, as a classical composer, the heavy electronics approach was something I did not agree with – it was taking Jethro Tull up an Einbahnstrasse – a one way street!
The 1970’s music scene was the flowering of a lot of talent. There were some pretty fine musicians and session singers – it’s a period of music writing and recording and performance that’s gone forever – things are so different now. Music is for change – it must progress, I just regret Ian discarded a formula that was so proven.
Ian’s ability as a performer and a writer is something I’ve always admired. My attempts at live performance are couched in different terms from Ian’s presentation. I know from standing behind him playing my keyboards and watching him lead our show from nine until eleven o’clock at night without flinching or forgetting, was a work of great art and mastery. Dee, after the breakup of classic era Tull, you went on to produce your “Classic Case” series of records. The first was for the music of Jethro Tull. How did you make decisions on the track list for A Classic Case?
That was really quite fluid – choosing most on my own, but I did let them badger and beat me into using drums, bass, and guitar! I didn’t want to use those instruments, and they said “but its rock music”, and I said don’t think for one minute I can’t make rock music sound like rock music without the drums bass and guitar – don’t you worry – but they just insisted. Of course once I’d done that album, all the other record companies from EMI to Sony all wanted me to include drums, bass, guitar from the originals – and I said look, you’re missing the trick – I can create a new music here – but it’s the suits that got me! Nonetheless, for these classic case albums – Queen, Yes, Sgt. Pepper, Genesis, and Pink Floyd – you listen to those versions and then listen to the original and think it’s kind of a magic thing…is it?
Indeed the classic case albums are themselves now classic – the first soon reaching it’s own 30 year anniversary. That Jethro Tull Classic Case release is once again available from Gonzo Multimedia here: A Classic Case. And in fact, the title track from Warchild is arguably the best of the set list, perfectly suited to full orchestral treatment, while “Rainbow Blues” and “Bungle in the Jungle” from the same record also shine brightly. A classic take on the best of “classical rock” and a showcase for Dee’s brilliant work with Jethro Tull, as are the magnificent orchestral works now uncovered 40 years on from the Warchild project.
For many Jethro Tull fans the complex prog-rock epic A Passion Play (1973) is the band’s finest hour. I for one agree – the musicianship on the record is off the hook, Ian’s vocals were never better and those soprano and sopranino saxes he picked up and dropped shortly after this and it’s followup Warchild added a melodic intensity and acoustic coloring not found on other Jethro Tull albums. For anyone already familiar with it’s glories, or to the dedicated Tull fan, the newly remixed edition of that seminal album will be a cornerstone of their music collection.
Steve Wilson has been going through Tull’s releases, remixing and remastering them for stereo along with 5.1 surround sound playback, uncovering sonic details in the process that enliven and refresh these classics. Of his work so far, 1970’s Benefit and 1971’s Aqualung stand out as now definitive versions of those albums. As 1972’s Thick as a Brick is also complete, he moved on to A Passion Play.
The set is spectacular, including two CD’s, two DVD’s and an 80 page booklet, all housed in a sturdy, properly bound package the size of a multi-disc DVD set. CD 1 contains the new Steve Wilson stereo remix, CD 2 includes the most complete Chateau sessions to date, clocking in at over 60 minutes. DVD 1 is the main album remixed for various surround sound modes, which reveal amazing detail hard to discern in stereo versions, and also including the ‘Hare’ film, and the ‘intro’ and ‘outro’ film footage used in the tour of 1973. Finally, DVD 2 contains the full Chateau sessions all presented in several surround sound formats. Original 1973 mixes are also included.
Of the remix itself, it’s powerful, organic and straight forward on the stereo CD, complete save for a couple snippets of saxaphone. And, it is expanded – now including an additional minute at the 1:52 mark of “The Foot of our Stairs” adding two verses to that section found spliced to the end of that reel. The DVD 1 which sports surround sound is the most exciting remix in that format of any progressive rock album I’ve heard. It seems every bit of the dense mix is included, yet separated out in the overall field of sound, to lend understanding and appreciation to each musician’s parts, even the smallest details, and in particular Ian’s playing, including the infamous soprano/sopranino saxes. There is an immediacy and urgency to the delivery which is highlighted here, along with the true brilliance of Ian’s vocal presentation. Listen to part 1 and 2 alone – “Lifebeats/Prelude” and “The Silver Cord” and easily pick out Martin Barre’s jazz guitar licks, juxtaposed against Ian’s amazing renaissance like vocal melody. It could easily be argued that the double flute solo on “Memory Bank” backed by drummer Barriemore Barlow’s intricate playing is Ian’s best, save for live performances. As presented here I heard bits never audible in any prior presentation.
According to the liner notes in the lengthy and informative booklet, Ian tried to convince Steve to mix out his saxaphone parts, in part due to Ian’s distaste for it, but also due to the dense, crowded work that the album is. It’s something we who love this record would have considered blasphemous and in the end Steve prevailed and trimmed only two short bits while managing somehow to give sounds that had been unclear a little space to breathe and be heard. Over these many years, I’ve never understood Ian’s decision to drop the saxophones, but in the booklet he offers an explanation of his distaste for it that finally resonates for me – the “fiddling about with reeds” which were “wet and soggy” made it less enjoyable that his trademark flute, and marks this album for him with unkind memories. For me, the sound he achieved with these extra winds made Tull “swing” for a short couple of years, making these works unique and wonderful.
On this record, Ian’s vocal work is amazing- arguably his best ever recorded. It’s a more operatic style – as he now states: “it’s delivered in quite a theatrical and natural voice; it’s not rock singing, it’s a baritone singer singing relatively clear and precise tunes” which he now remembers more fondly than at the time. Add to this that its the first time John Evan used synthesizer to any large extent, and it’s certainly the most unique of Jethro Tull’s early work. Though not a favorite of guitarist Martin Barre, it is most fondly remembered by Barriemore Barlow, and by bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, and now, though still a bit begrudgingly, by Ian Anderson.
Prior to writing and recording what became A Passion Play, Ian and company made an attempt to do so in the famous Chateau d’Herouville near Paris. Most of the band recall getting food poisening, and living there under very “scuzzy” conditions. There’s a long story to what happened but basically the band returned to England and scrapped the recorded material, starting over with what became A Passion Play. Subsequently on their 1988 20th anniversary box set, a small selection of recordings from the Chateau where included, then almost all the remainder in 1993 on the Nightcap compilation augmented by added flute and treatments. As the booklet explains, Steve wanted to keep the recordings as they were, without heavy processing, and including around 10 minutes not previously heard, and convinced Ian to do so. The material is a mix of more aggressive passages akin to those that ended up on A Passion Play, which lyrically point to life as being just as a theatrical production, along with many lighter bits, which are from a competing idea of making a concept album around man as a member of the animal kingdom. How these were to be woven together remains a bit of mystery. Nonetheless the material is compelling – most of it first rate, and as core fans will know, some of it ended up on the followup Warchild and elsewhere. It is presented in this package as never before, and as every fan would want it.
Many critics were not pleased with A Passion Play, and it’s accompanying tour, and there were some very unflattering articles written at the time. This prompted a scheme on management’s part to suggest Tull quit the business due to the media coverage, which was not approved by Ian and the band. This nonsense further marks the work as the brilliant creation that it is – the best musical art is very often misunderstood in it’s time. It is true, A Passion Play can be difficult listening for many – the work always has been uncompromising, and it still requires attention to unwind it’s charms. But if you know the material, or believe you could open your mind and your ears to it, this new package is the right way to do so, and comes highly recommended.
2013 has been quite a year for live music. We made it to over thirty shows including a few festivals – Coachella in Palm Desert, Outside Lands, and Not So Silent Night in San Francisco. I had the chance to travel to Britain twice – once for the Stone Roses followed by two Rick Wakeman shows, and later this fall for a long weekend of gigs including Steve Hackett, Brian Ferry, Peter Gabriel and Camel – what a amazing time that was! The day after Steve’s show we met Peter briefly at the train station in Manchester before the last night of his “Back to Front” tour. I told him we had been to see an old friend of his and that tears were shed during “Dancing a With The Moonlit Knight.” He seemed pleased 🙂
There were a couple of bands we missed – I know if we had been able to see Steve Wilson, Ozric Tentacles or Atoms For Peace they would have made the list – having said that here are the top 13 shows we did attend, in order of rating:
1. Camel, the Barbican Theater, London – speaking of tears being shed, they flowed for Andrew and company at this amazing display of talent so long absent from the stage. “The Snow Goose” was wonderfully recreated along with a second set of classic Camel tunes. To be in London in an auditorium of adoring fans, cheering long for this oft forgotten band was an amazing experience.
2. Steve Hackett‘s Genesis revisited tour, Royal Albert Hall, London – Just attending a show at the RAH was one thing, but to have it be Steve playing all early Genesis tracks, and including “Return of the Giant Hogweed” and the aforementioned Dancing was heaven. Ray Wilson joining to sing two of the tracks was priceless. The show was really a dream came true for this one, being raised on Genesis and loving it all. Looking forward to seeing them again on Cruise to the Edge in 2014.
3. Rick Wakeman, family show, Gloucester – I flew over from California with my son to this show and the next night’s stop in Cheltenham. Have to put this one at the top of the list, as Rick played alongside three of his children, now all grown, as they each performed a couple of tracks, told stories, and even explained Jemma’s bedtime routine to the song of the same name from Family Album. An afternoon I hope never to forget!
4. Goblin, The Warfield Theater, San Francisco – their first time in the states will hopefully not be their last – a tight set of horror movie soundtrack gems, with backing film clips and a dancer, especially appropriate during “Suspiria.” This along with a handful of their progressive rock compositions made for a great night with the Italian prog pioneers.
5. Peter Gabriel, Back to Front Tour, Manchester – a great set that began with highlights from Peter’s catalog, followed by the entire So album in proper sequence, with two encores. It was hard not to miss the darker period just before So, particularly after rousing versions of “The Family and the Fishing Net” and “No Self Control” from his prior two releases. But all in all, amazing musicianship and exciting delivery recalling the original tour and mid point of Peter’s remarkable career.
6. The Stone Roses, Coachella, Palm Desert – somehow I missed this band on their first time out in 1989. This year I found their guitarist John Squire, vocalist Ian Brown and the rest of the guys to be a very pleasant surprise – their psychedelic sound revival finding its way back to the stage at what seems like just the right time. Had the chance to see them again in London a few weeks later with all of us – seemingly everyone in the crowd – singing at the top of our lungs. Music as the catalyst for love and devotion!
7. Black Sabbath, Shoreline, California – if you suggested in 2012 that these founders of heavy metal would make my top list this year I would have scoffed and made some crack about Satan and bats – but after releasing a stellar album 13 and clearly back in form, we found ourselves head banging joyfully to the actually somewhat proggy sound of these survivors. Am so glad to have seen and heard Tony live showing his riffs along with most of this band still intact.
8. Depeche Mode, Shoreline, California – These purveyors of doom and redemption sound as great as ever live and master writer Martin Gore may be in his finest voice – I find the drama in their sound goes straight to the soul. The Beatles of the ’80’s to these ears, with another couple decades of great work after that founding era.
9. The National, Outside Lands, San Francisco – this band delivered an awesome set of their moody fitful music, reminding me at times of Morrissey/Marr with less humor. When joined for a few tracks by guests The Kronos Quartet, the combination of this tight outfit with metered drums, horns, and strings brought some of their woeful best to transcendent conclusions.
10. Simple Minds, Orpheum Theater, Los Angeles – on their Greatest Hits+ live tour, Simple Minds finally returned to the states after a 10 year hiatus. Not as rewarding as the 5×5 show we went to see at London’s Roundhouse, but then we did not expect to be as excited about a hits retro above a show dedicated to their first 5 records, which had been spectacular. This band continues to sound excellent – we are big fans of lead singer Jim Kerr’s vocals and writhe delivery.
11. Heart with Jason Bonham, America’s Cup Pavilion, San Francisco – Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart still rock n’ roll, proving it this year in a double bill with Jason Bonham’s band opening, followed by his return for encore with Heart performing a handful of Zeppelin classics, including a smoking rendition of “Kashmir”, and a beautiful “Rain Song”. Heart’s best move – pulling off the classic “Mistrel Wind” from Dog & The Butterfly and building to it’s own Zep-like coda – show stopping excellence.
12. Alison Moyet, The Fillmore, San Francisco – Alison is back to electronica, with a great new album, looking fit and sounding as amazing as ever delivering her warm smoky vocals atop those cold synths. One of only three nights in the states, we felt lucky to be there for the show.
13. Muse, Oracle Arena, Oakland – as they’ve grown during the last dozen years, Muse has become for me increasingly more interesting, particularly live. An incredible amount of energy flows from the stage as they expertly build anthemic rock tomes to shattering crescendos of sound. Maybe a notch below the last time around, but a great concert to start off the year.
Honorable mention goes to: The Specials, The Warfield Theater, San Francisco – just had to mention – it’s been a dream of mine to see Terry Hall live, scowling through anything he’s been part of whether it’s The Specials, Fun Boy Three, Colour Field or solo. To me one of the greatest and most underrated British vocalists alive today.
That’s a wrap. Thanks also go out to Yes, Ian Anderson, Eels, Bryan Ferry, Fiona Apple, Sea Wolf, Pink, Bad Company, Fleetwood Mac, The Postal Service, Hall and Oates, Pearl Jam, Van Morrison, Capital Cities, and Paul McCartney for making it a great year in music. Looking at the list, I vow to make it to more new bands this year!