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Jethro Tull, Bricks, Plays, and Flirting with D'Isaster

Jethro Tull is one of progressive rock's longest-running bands. But is it progressive rock? If not, Ian Anderson and Co. have some explaining to do when it comes to Thick as a Brick and Passion Play.


Jethro Tull's Thick As a Brick and A Passion Play: Inside Two Long Songs

Publisher: Indiana University Press
Length: 266 pages
Author: Tim Smolko
Price: $25.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-10
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It may seem hard to believe that an album containing one 43-minute song would top the album charts and that the band that created said record would follow said record with a 45-minute (give or take) tune covering both sides of an album and that that would also reach a peak position among record buyers.

But both happened.

In 1972 Jethro Tull released Thick as a Brick, a smart (and sometimes smart-assed) epic that poked fun at progressive rock and its conventions and still managed to become one of the quintessential albums of the genre. Ian Anderson and Co. followed it up a year later with A Passion Play, a record that, to some ears, doesn’t have all the verve of its predecessor but may be all the more interesting for its lack of perfection.

Tim Smolko, Tull enthusiast and musicologist, delves deep into the past in this new work to bring us the story of these two albums as well as a painstaking analysis that allows us to see not only the particular genius of Tull but the important role both records played in shaping ‘70s rock. He writes that his intention is to focus on the musical analysis and that Tull, a band that has sold over 60 million records around the globe, has probably “received the least attention in terms of musical analysis.” True or untrue (and it almost certainly is the former), Smolko’s passion for the subject matter and ability to wax enthusiastic about the smallest details makes this volume worth reading.

He begins by establishing the context for the record, writing that many of Tull’s peers were also experimenting with “a broadened harmonic palette, large-scale forms, polyphonic textures, avant-garde sensibilities, virtuoso technique, and the use of the latest advancements in instrument and studio technology”. Anderson and friends were anti-drug and if not anti-sex, then certainly able to refrain from public celebrations of lemon squeezing and the like. There were hints of the psychedelic in Tull’s music but, as with most progressive rock, there was a tendency to favor older sounds and older forms. His peers may have been in love with either Chuck Berry and/or LSD but Anderson preferred Roy Harper, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and, on occasion, a nice imported beer.

He was also of two minds about the world in which he found himself: Smolko writes that Anderson wasn’t fond of all prog rock conventions, nor was he enamored of typical rock structures. It makes sense then that the author finds these albums to be “a blend of rock, folks, and classical music” on which “the five band members [display] expansive instrumentation and virtuoso technique.” Thick as a Brick is the more sound composition of the two, he adds, finding that A Passion Play wants for continuity in places and lacks its predecessor’s sense of urgency.

These records did not appear in a vacuum. The British folk revival and interest in early music had been alive and well in Great Britain since the late '60s and Anderson’s stage persona often mirrored that of a performer from that bygone era rather than that of a golden-haired, open-shirted sex god. Thus, the sounds and form of the music were simply being brought to a new extension by one more outfit and, it should be added, housed in a sleeve that was very much in tune with British sensibilities of the era, in particular humor from the Monty Python school.

As Smolko writes, “Thick as a Brick not only looks like a newspaper, it actually is a newspaper, the St. Cleve Chronicle & Linwell Advertiser,” a 12-page rag “filled with dozens of inane, preposterous stories and advertisements plus the lyrics (supposedly written by an eight-year-old boy genius), a mock review of the album, a crossword puzzle, and a naughty connect-the-dots puzzle”. In fact, the packaging for Thick as a Brick was more time consuming (if not as labor intensive) as the actual creation of the music.

There are inside jokes galore, references to the band members themselves, and a host of other treats for those with the life-size vinyl version of the record. (The aforementioned album review read, in part: “Poor, or perhaps naïve taste is responsible for some of the ugly changes of time signature and banal instrumental passages linking the main sections but ability in hits direction should come with maturity.” Tables included in the book not only show us the song forms but the shifting pitch centers and time signatures.

A Passion Play had a more labored gestation. The band thought that perhaps instead of a parody, a more serious long song would be in order. An attempt to record in Switzerland at the Chateau d’Herouville was plagued with technical problems and personal sadness. The group managed three sides of a double album there but binned the results after flying back to England. That material has come to be known as The Chateau D’Isaster Tapes. Some of the lyrical themes (a certain fascination with animals prevails) would crop up again on future albums such as War Child and here and there on the finished A Passion Play and even some of the actual tracks would emerge from the vaults.

The cover, most of the lyrics, and much of the music itself found on A Passion Play lacks the spark of Thick as a Brick and yet in some ways because of its flaws and its difficult birth, the record is the more interesting of the two. It’s darker, the meters are more prone to shift or to be less stable, and it’s clearly a “serious” work through and through.

Time has shown what Tull’s audience thought of each: A Passion Play was not the commercial giant that Thick as a Brick was; an edit of “Thick” still crops up on classic rock radio, it’s hard to find anything from A Passion Play that has the same visibility. Anderson remains ambivalent about the artistic success of the later and Tull biographers range in their attitudes from enthusiastic to bored to mixed.

Smolko finishes out this volume with an examination of each record’s legacy, concluding with a brief look at Anderson’s recent sequel to Thick as a Brick. This is a fine conclusion to a volume that excites with its intelligence and sense of observation, two of the many qualities that will actually find you give this book more than one read.

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