Sunday, October 18, 2020

Thick As A Brick | Lefsetz Letter


“Really don’t mind if you sit this one out”

Actually people have been sitting Jethro Tull out for decades. Ian Anderson is not a warm character, he kept changing the band’s members and then he stole Metallica’s Grammy through no fault of his own, the Grammy voters erred, but the stink is, unfairly, upon the group.

Jethro Tull emerged in 1968, when singles no longer mattered. Sure, months after the release of “Disraeli Gears,” after tons of FM airplay, “Sunshine of Your Love” crossed over to AM, but Jimi Hendrix never did, most of the acts with cred today never did.

And then Tull changed sounds. I won’t say it was a completely different band, but “This Was,” the debut, definitely derived from what came before, i.e. the blues, whereas the new band with its new album, “Stand Up,” was the Jethro Tull you know today, sui generis.

Not that “Stand Up,” the band’s best album, got a ton of radio play. This was when we listened to the radio to know what to buy, to know what to play at home. Cross that with press and word of mouth and there were tons of bands that had a place in the public consciousness that most people had never heard of, that were not really exposed much on the airwaves. There was a schism in listening, those in the know, the explorers, and those who were being led by the machine, then again, the machine back then was different from the one today. The Beatles had demonstrated that there was much more money in music recordings than ever previously thought, by a multiple. Same deal with concerts. But it took years for ticket prices to reach into the stratosphere, they didn’t really reach market value until the twenty first century and Napster, when acts could no longer depend upon recording income.

Not that there were any scalpers back then, not in most markets, no StubHub to buy and sell tickets right up to the moment the curtain, if there was one, was raised. You lined up, that’s how you got your tickets, and most shows sold out, at least the ones you had to line up for.

But then came 1970’s “Benefit” and the backlash began, finally Tull was getting radio play, just as FM was reaching into the hinterlands, and those who’d been there before were angry that the band’s sound was more commercial, easier to get, more acceptable.

That’s when I got in. With “To Cry You A Song.” A riff on riff rock. You only had to hear it once to get it. With its bass line and spacy vocal. Never forget, the critics, the early adopters, always think they’re better than the audience, they even decried Led Zeppelin and the Doors. If they’re just like the listener, how can they feel good about themselves?

But just like the previous Tull albums, “Benefit” was eminently playable, you didn’t have to lift the needle to skip tracks, you could let a side play through. And I must profess that I liked the second side best, the one that opened with “To Cry You a Song.”

“A Time for Everything” was a jaunt through the hills, you immediately locked on and became animated.

And “Inside” contained the opposite ethos from today:

“I’m sitting on the corner feeling glad
Got no money coming in, but I can’t be sad”

Then again, this was when you could make it on minimum wage, when you could depend on the government for a safety net.

And the side-ender, “Sossity: You’re a Woman”…it was dreamy, it hearkened back to “Stand Up,” but the critics had already decided Jethro Tull had jumped the shark.

And then came “Aqualung.”

Actually, first came “My God,” that’s what radio played first, in advance of the album release if you were in the right market. This fit right into the oeuvre, at the end of the free-format era, a seven minute exploration that was dark and sometimes heavy, both in sound and meaning.

“My God” opened side two.

The title track opened side one. And it was instantly embraced across the land. Now the message was clear, it was FM that counted, that’s what America’s youth was tuning into, and like “To Cry You a Song,” “Aqualung” had a heavy bass line, and had a pseudo-heavy meaning, that was seen as pretentious, but this was back when most of the public was way behind New York and Los Angeles, where the critics lived.

But it didn’t stop with “My God” and “Aqualung.” “Cross-Eyed Mary” was ubiquitous, but even more you heard “Locomotive Breath,” you still hear “Locomotive Breath.” And “Hymn 43” and “Mother Goose” and… Jethro Tull had crossed over. First they were an insiders’ band, now they were everybody’s band.

Then came “Thick as a Brick.”


I needed to hear Jethro Tull. Happens every once in a while, it’s the only thing that will satiate me, it takes me to another place, not one of depression, but of hope, where I’m alone in my identity and it’s just fine.

Whether I start with “Stand Up” or “Benefit” depends on my mood. If I need soothing, I begin with “Stand Up.” If I need to be exuberant, if I need music to ride shotgun against this unfair world, I play “Benefit.”

This time I started with “Benefit.”

And I forgot one other reason I love listening to Tull today, why it calls out to me, it’s the Steven Wilson remixes. Normally I’m against remixing, it’s sacrilegious, you don’t want to change the sound of classic albums, it’d be like some horror movie where someone rearranged your memories, which are set in stone. But somehow Wilson just manages to scrape away all the detritus to allow all the instruments to shine through, the remixes are positively revelatory, no matter what playback and listening system you’re using. They’re astounding. Suddenly, “To Cry You A Song” is not a morass of sound, but two distinct channels, oftentimes with separate guitars in each, you feel like you’re in the studio, you’re closer than you’ve ever been.

And at this point, my favorite track on “Benefit” is the aforementioned “A Time for Everything,” which there certainly no longer is, as I get older in this age of Covid. But that searing, incisive guitar, Martin Barre is never mentioned as one of the great guitarists, but he deserves to be.

But the first side of “Benefit” was not as rewarding as the second. It starts with “With You There to Help Me,” which is the opposite of a blistering Stones opener, rather it’s an invitation as to what is to come.

So I shifted to “Stand Up.” But the truth is “Stand Up” is darker than “Benefit,” it was bringing me down, it was depressing me, so I shifted to “This Was.” And unlike the later albums, “This Was” sounded like a period piece, it sounded like 1968, and that was creepy, I wasn’t nostalgic, I was looking to be propelled to a different dimension.

So I played “Thick as a Brick.”

This is the record that’s denigrated the most. Somehow people have forgotten “A Passion Play,” the opus which followed it, which is inferior. You see it’s easy to criticize those who test limits, who do something new, especially if you’re predisposed to laugh at the act to begin with.

After “A Passion Play,” Jethro Tull changed course. It returned to putting out albums with the traditional ten tunes or so, and radio and the public embraced this work. Tull was all over the radio, I’m sure you remember “Bungle in the Jungle,” and they sold out arenas everywhere, and when this arc finally ran its course, the band had an unsuspected comeback with “Crest of a Knave,” this is the album that won that Grammy back in 1989. And it certainly wasn’t metal, but it truly was a comeback. “Farm on the Freeway” could have been on any of the big hit albums, and radio played it incessantly, along with the four other singles the label released from the album. And that’s another thing, let’s never forget that Tull built Chrysalis, no band, no label.

And the truth is so many acts were jealous, they were done. They’d had their hits, they were already on the oldies circuit, how had the derided Jethro Tull come back? Well, maybe it’s because Ian Anderson had a sense of melody.

But let’s go back to 1972, and “Thick as a Brick.”

There was heavy anticipation, after all “Aqualung” was a smash, and this was back in the era where you bought the album after the hit unheard, without asking any questions, without knowing much about it. And when you dropped the needle, and that’s how we listened to it, this was not only before CDs, but cassettes, although 8-tracks had some penetration, you were immediately invited in. A sweet acoustic guitar from over the hills and then Ian’s vocal and flute being the pied piper that kept you listening. And listen you did. Because you’d bought it, and you didn’t own much, and what you invested your money in you played over and over until you liked it.

Today, on streaming services, they say there are eight songs on the LP, but that’s not how it was back in ’72. There was the first side and the second. Just one continuous groove on each side, you couldn’t drop the needle for a specific track, you had to listen all the way through.

And what an adventure it was. The sound changed. There were movements. Alternately heaviness and sweetness.

Of course FM played an excerpt. Unlike with “A Passion Play.” But really “Thick as a Brick” was made for home listening. Over and over again.

As for the lyrics…they didn’t seem to matter. Sure, someone was thick as a brick, a basic concept, but where was the band going?

One thing was for sure, they didn’t care where anybody else was going. Not only did no one sound like Tull, no one was making albums with one song only. It was a risk, and they pulled it off. This was quite different from the commerce of the late seventies and eighties, where albums were labored over for a year and then singles were dripped out to the public over a period of years, trying to reach the largest audience possible.

“Thick as a Brick” was not made for newbies, but fans. And Tull certainly had them. To the point where “Thick as a Brick” was just seen as another element of the canon.

But then there was the packaging. This was in the era if you didn’t have a gatefold cover you were nobody. But there was more than the gatefold, the album resembled nothing so much as an entire newspaper. All referring to the themes in the album. There was a whole universe, you could listen and read, you could belong. You didn’t purchase “Thick as a Brick” on a whim, but one thing was for sure, if you purchased it you dove deep, there was so much information to be gleaned.

And by this time, 1972, it was the big stereo age, not made fun of until “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in 1982. You saved your pennies, you worked menial jobs just to save enough money for the best stereo you could buy. People discussed not only speaker and amplifier brands, but cartridges, what stew of ingredients was going to reveal the best sound, so you could literally go inside the music.

That era has never returned. First it was overtaken by cheap all-in-ones, which were inherently crappy. And then boom boxes. And then headphones. To the point where today we’re used to bad sound, and the bass in recordings is turned up because otherwise it would go unheard, no one has a 12″ woofer, and not many have a subwoofer either. Music is not stationary, it’s listened to on the move, and it’s background.

Now since it was only one long song it’s not like you could run around singing the songs in your head, never mind out loud. About all you could reproduce was the above words, “Really don’t mind if you sit this one out…” But every time you listened to the LP, you learned more, more emerged, because it was quite a chunk to digest all at one time. And sometimes the sound washed over you, and then other times it made your ears prick up.

So I’m in front of the computer, listening to “Thick as a Brick.” Working. I can only really concentrate on what’s on the screen if I know the music by heart, which is certainly the case with “Thick as a Brick.” Still, elements still sounded new.

“I’ve come down from the upper class to mend your rotten ways
My father was a man of power whom everyone obeyed”

This was a surprise, right there in the first side, when Tull seemed to be in a long instrumental adventure, suddenly there was this lyrical couplet that sounded straight out of a hit song, and then the band went back into its adventure, the verse was almost a wink to the audience, showing that the players were still aware you were there, were you listening?

And let’s never forget the dynamics. The track would go from exceedingly loud and in-your-face to quite quiet, it resembled nothing so much as classical music, which we’d all been exposed to, at home and in school. This was in our wheelhouse.

The second side is darker. Cathedral-like at first. The riff sounding like clarion bells. And then comes the gravitas:

“The poet and the wise man stand
Behind the gun, behind the gun
And signal for the crack of dawn
Light the sun, light the sun”

The band is still breaking ground, long after it’s made its point, it’s still exploring, this is an entire movie, an opera.

And then there’s another movement, there’s a sense of majesty. There’s action taking place.

“So come all ye young men who are building castles
Kindly state the time of the year
And join your voices in a hellish chorus
Mark the precise nature of your fear”

This was light years more interesting than what was happening in class, where aged professors taught us the lessons of history, where it was anathema to live in the now.

So the track is racing along and then it goes into a march.

“So come on ye childhood heroes
Won’t you rise up from the pages
Of your comic books, your super-crooks
And show us all the way
Well make your will and testament
Won’t you join your local government
We’ll have Superman for president
Let Robin save the day”

Comic books? Superman and Robin? How did we go from the moors to the present-day, how did we go from darkness to light?

But then comes the surprises. The string flourishes, sounding closer to a ballet than rock. And some squealing keyboards.

And then that acoustic guitar intro comes back once again, for a final time:

“So you ride yourselves over the fields
As you make your animal deals
And your wise men don’t know how it feels
To be thick as a brick”

Whew, how did he do that? How did he bring us back to where we began, when we least expected it. This was an aural thrill ride superior to anything at an amusement park. A ride built for one, that we all took individually, in houses and burgs throughout the planet. This was otherworldly, it fit no norms, the album came on a round platter, but that was about it.

And when the LP quietly ended, when you were set down gently back in your chair, with your feet on the ground, you were left in silence, with only your thoughts, pondering what you’d just been through. You hesitated to flip the album over, you weren’t quite ready for a breaking of the mood.


Chances are many deriding Jethro Tull listened to the band in its heyday. But whatever cool the band had evaporated after the second LP, so these arbiters of cool reject the act, if for no other reason they’re fearful of being judged.

And Chrysalis shifted to Blondie and Pat Benatar and was ultimately sold and today it’s all ancient history.

Unless you were there. You drop the needle, press play, and you’re brought right back. Steven Wilson has restored the sound to pristine brightness and depth. It’s all there on wax, on tape, in the files, essentially the same as it ever was, in an era where almost nothing is, especially yourself.

And it’s not of a time, because Jethro Tull was never part of the scene, being outside it the music is as fresh today as it was yesterday.

Then again, there was context, evolution. If you were alive in the era you knew the band’s roots, you knew where it came from, you were prepared for where it was going. But with no reference points, it’s somewhat hard for the younger generations to understand. The music is more comprehensible than the finally anointed prog rock of Yes and its compatriots, but it still has not been accepted as worthy of comment, of renewal and exploration.

And with no champion it will remain this way. Until one day Ian Anderson dies and then everybody will come out of the woodwork and say how great he was, how majestic and singular the music he created was. Can’t we do this while he’s still alive?


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