Looking Back (and Forward) on Jethro Tull's 'Thick As a Brick'

Groundbreaking in its form, length, packaging, lyrics, and concept, the work remains one of the most significant and beloved albums of its genre 40 years onward.

Jethro Tull

Thick As a Brick

Label: Chrysalis, Reprise
US Original Release Date: 1972-10-03
US 40th Anniversary Release Date: 2012-11-06
Artist Website

In the late '60s and early '70s, popular music sought to break new ground as often as possible. Along with the reinvention of established artists came the emergence of an entirely new genre -- progressive rock. Often categorized by its lengthy durations, incredible musicianship, and eccentric timbres, as well as the inclusion of of odd time signatures, bizarre narratives, and wildly imaginative artwork, the genre gave birth to some of the most unique bands of all time, including Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Pink Floyd, and ELP. However, perhaps no group at the time (or since, for that matter) had a more brilliant, unique, and charming mixture of catchy songwriting, complex instrumentation, poignant lyricism, idiosyncratic vocals, and sonic evolution than progressive folk pioneer, Jethro Tull.

Lead by flutist/singer/songwriter/guitarist Ian Anderson (whose earthly yet embittered voice and live theatrics were a crucial part of their persona) and made even more distinctive by the impeccable techniques of guitarist Martin Barre, Jethro Tull has always been respected for its potency and purpose. Sadly, like with most artists, many people only regard the band for a handful of their songs, such as “Aqualung", “Locomotive Breath", and “Bungle in the Jungle". While these tracks are certainly worthwhile, only true fans and genre aficionados grant the group proper revere for pushing boundaries and challenging conventions as thoroughly and consistently as it did.

Case in point -- their 1972 masterpiece, Thick As a Brick. Groundbreaking in its form, length, packaging, lyrics, and concept (more on that in a bit), the record saw Anderson’s most extravagant vision (up to that point) brought to colorful life with the help of his troupe (which, aside from Barre, included pianist John Evan, bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, percussionist Barriemore Barlow, and string arranger David Palmer). Full of catchy melodies, incredible musicianship, prophetic words, and flawless segues, the work is still one of the most significant and beloved albums of its genre.

First, the form of Thick As a Brick deserves attention. While many of Jethro Tull’s aforementioned contemporaries concluded their albums with a twenty-or-so minute track, Jethro Tull took it a step further by crafting a single forty-four minute piece. Not only did this bold approach allow the band room to experiment with density, arrangement, and continuity, but it set the stage for some of their latter output, including the album’s superior follow-up, A Passion Play. In an interview with Classic Rock Presents Prog earlier this year, Anderson recalls, “…it was more demanding and incessant because it was continuous music….it involved lots of repetition, lots of reiteration, lots of variation, [and] lots of development of themes in other guises.” Naturally, such a revolutionary tactic indelibly left its mark on the genre; in fact, many of today’s contemporary acts have released similarly structured songs, such as Echolyn’s Mei, Dream Theater’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, and Phideaux’s Snowtorch.

On the surface, the album centers on a fictional schoolboy named Gerald Bostock who submitted a poem (which humorously explores the troubles of childhood) called “Thick As a Brick” to a contest. Anderson says, “The concept was a hard thing to sell… we all lived through the era of surreal British humour… The Americans found it more difficult because they found it hard to separate the fiction from reality…”

Of course, that’s just the superficial story behind the album; the real motivation for Thick As a Brick was an attempt to comment on the pretention of the genre and the misguided critical assessment of the group. Anderson explains, “… [Aqualung] was, in my mind at least, unreasonably described as a concept album, which I maintain that it was not.” He goes on to say that while some songs, like “My God,” were filled with religious commentary, the album as a whole was not meant to make any substantial statement. In response to such wild allegations, Anderson admits, “[I thought] ‘Okay, then we’ll give them the mother of all concept albums next time!’ So we did the completely over-the-top spoof concept album of Thick As a Brick.”

Looking outside of his circumstance, Anderson grants that Thick As a Brick also aimed to poke a bit of fun at progressive rock as a whole. In relation to the arguably convoluted, arrogant, and nonsensical fantasies some of his peers provided, Jethro Tull was quite grounded and traditional. Although he wasn’t exactly disinterested in the scene, he discloses that a focused mockery at others’ music was definitely there. “…We did see the slightly annoying spaghetti noodling of long, drawn-out instrumental passages, and we did kind of spoof that…there are some rambling, free jazz moments… that were more of a piss-take on some of the bands that were rapidly disappearing up their own arses.” Of course, there was always mutual respect amongst the genre greats, and Anderson is eager to concede that “…although we could have a little dig at them [King Crimson and ELP], you had to extend the hats-off credit to them for being extremely inventive...” In a way, then, it’s wonderfully ironic to consider how Thick As a Brick is actually superior to much of the work it satirizes.

Outside of the music, Thick As a Brick was equally remarkable for its packaging. Essentially, the album was housed in an extensive faux newspaper entitled The St. Cleve Chronicle and & Linwell Advertiser (named after Bostock’s school). The attention to detail in terms of stories, sections, and structure is still impressive, as it exemplifies both Anderson’s dedication to making Thick As a Brick as monumental as possible and the growing artistry and ambition amongst the ancillary elements of the genre. He evokes, “I suppose it was a bit radical to do an album cover that was a newspaper… but, of course, [it] was very successful. In crude commercial terms it was a marketing dream, really.” Forty years later, it’s still ranked among the best, most elaborate album packaging ever.

Naturally, Thick As a Brick wouldn’t be nearly as worthwhile in the grand scheme of music if it didn’t pave the way for modern progressive rock. I recently spoke to a few of today’s most adored genre artists about their thoughts on the record. Guy Manning reflects, “[It’s] a brilliant album,” while Randy McStine (Lo-Fi Resistance) says, “Thick As a Brick belongs on every list of iconic progressive rock music. By poking fun at the scene around them, Jethro Tull ironically delivered one of the strongest albums to help define the genre.” In addition, Phideaux Xavier (Phideaux) claims that “this spoof is deeper and more moving lyrically and musically than the serious efforts of most bands,” and Rikard Sjöblom (Beardfish) states, “Thick As a Brick is an amazing album.” Finally, Tom Hyatt (Echolyn) recalls, “I remember the first time hearing Thick As a Brick. I was eight or nine… it was probably my earliest foray into progressive music. All the bumper car time changes and abrupt mood sings… taught me how visual an audio experience can be.” Clearly, progressive rock wouldn’t be what it is today without this record.

A New Look

Recently, a special 40th Anniversary edition of the album was released, and it definitely a proper commemoration. Houses in a hardcover book, the contents include a CD of the original album (remixed) and a DVD that contains several versions of the piece, including new 5.1 DTS and stereo mixes done by modern day genre king, Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree). In addition, the book includes over 100 pages of supplementary material, which includes reprints of the entire newspaper, as well as glossy ads, pictures, interviews, and commentary. As for the music, well, it sounds better than ever. Every intense timbre and poetically poignant and playful word sounds lively and pristine; in fact, you’ll likely hear things you’ve never heard before.

Surprisingly, this special edition isn’t the only thing that emerged this year to celebrate Thick As a Brick. Far from it, actually, as this past April saw the release of its sequel, Thick As a Brick 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock?. Credited as an Anderson solo album, it connects both lyrically and musical with its predecessor in several places, including its opening and conclusion. Furthermore, the artwork of Thick As a Brick 2 is a subtle statement on technological advancement; whereas the first album was molded as a newspaper, this one sees The St. Cleve Chronicle as an online publication. In a way, one might conclude that “Thick As a Brick” is a 100-minute song that took roughly 40 years to complete.

A Revised Model

It’s easy to see just how important Jethro Tull’s original 1972 masterwork is. By pushing just about every musical boundary, the group firmly crossed over into the realm of progressive rock. Today, it represents not only a pinnacle achievement for Jethro Tull, but also a concrete example of just how adventurous and free artists used to be. More specifically, the recently released 40th anniversary edition is a perfect way to honor the record (let’s hope that A Passion Play sees a similar treatment next year), and its sequel is a surprisingly worthy follow-up. In the end, Thick As a Brick broke the mold and established what the genre could truly be; without it, progressive rock wouldn’t be the same.






Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.