ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, OCT. 23, 1997
By Steve Newton
Although I have no documented proof that I’m related to either Beavis or Butthead, I do harbour a couple of hazy teenage memories that keep me pondering that possibility. The one that has me most worried goes back to Chilliwack Senior Secondary School, circa 1974. During one so-called study break I snuck into the library to play a scratchy, school-owned copy of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung on one of those crappy portable stereos with the clunky tonearms.
With the cheapo headphones snugly in place and the volume cranked, I accidentally sent the needle skidding across the vinyl, where it screeched loudly before finding the groove near the beginning of the title track. In my rush to be rockin’ out on school time I’d forgotten to plug the headphone jack into the stereo, though, and before I realized it Ian Anderson’s booming voice rang out loud and clear, shocking the studious types nearby with the choice line “Snot running down his nose!”
That red-faced ordeal notwithstanding, Aqualung remains my fave Tull record. I always thought it was a wonderful concept album that examined the antisocial antics of the grubby tramp on the album cover—whom I took to be Aqualung himself—and his outcast associates, such as “Cross-Eyed Mary”. So I’m embarrassed yet again when Anderson calls from Poughkeepsie, New York, and informs me that—although there were three or four songs that “kinda hung together” on that album—it definitely wasn’t a concept album. It turns out that Tull’s first concept album was its next release, 1972’s Thick as a Brick, which was recently released in a remastered 25th-anniversary edition.
“Aqualung had been widely viewed by the critics as a concept album,” explains Anderson, whose band plays the Orpheum Theatre next Thursday (October 30). “So when it came to the next album I thought, ‘Let’s have a little fun with everybody, and let’s pretend this was written by a 12-year-old boy. We’ll give them the mother of all concept albums, and make it a bit of a spoof on the concept-album genre.’
“So that was the raison d’être for Thick as a Brick, and it was, as far as it went, an okay thing. And I’m gonna be playing maybe 10 or 15 minutes of it in almost all of our concerts, so it still has its relevance as part of what we do. I will probably even have to play a snippet of it in about an hour’s time when I go to a local radio station and they expect me to get up and be, you know, Mister Party Man, spontaneously and live. It’s the sort of thing you just kind of pick up a guitar and do a little bit of, and people say, ‘Oh, I remember that one.’ ”
Anderson says that Tull only made two concept albums per se, the other being 1973’s Passion Play, although there were others that leaned toward the concept idea, such as War Child (which had some “common ground” among its songs) and Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll: Too Young to Die (“a bunch of songs deliberately written and put together around a certain character”). If I had to pick one, my favourite concept album of all time would have to be The Who’s Quadrophenia, although mention of that historic treatise on ’60s Brit teen angst doesn’t elicit similar raves from Anderson.
“I’m not a Who fan,” he says bluntly, “so I can’t really comment on that. The Who were sort of okay as one of those British bands that kinda did stuff way back when, but I’ve never been really much of a fan of most British pop and rock music. There’s a few things that I think are pretty good. The Stones I liked, and I liked things like the Animals and Led Zeppelin.
“But probably the stuff that I liked in British music was much more influenced by black American music, which was my prime influence. Black American urban blues, ’50s and ’60s period. But then you add into that this mysterious and confusing contribution of Irish folk music, European classical music, Asian music, a bunch of other stuff, and it gets complicated after that.”
Anderson’s taste in music has remained diverse since Jethro Tull released its first album, the blues-based This Was, in 1968. The afternoon of our chat, the 50-year-old rocker was out buying a CD of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band recorded live in London in ’74. Prior to that, he’d invested in a disc by Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain, as well as the latest releases by Ben Harper and David Bowie. Even though his band was one of the most successful concept-album purveyors of ’70s rock, you won’t find any copies of Yes’s Tales from the Topographic Ocean or the Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination on his personal playlist.
“Concept albums were always a bit sort of raised-eyebrow,” he figures, “because it was very pretentious and very precocious of naive rock musicians to get up and do such grand and aspirational music that would be requiring people to sit and pay attention for 40 minutes. I mean, thank God there weren’t CDs around then, otherwise they would have lasted 60 minutes! I just count our blessings. I remember the first thing I heard that I would have thought was a concept album in contemporary terms was the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. I remember listening to that and going, ‘Wow, this is kinda serious stuff,’ and just thinking, ‘I’d rather be listening to Muddy Waters, you know, simple, three- or four-minute songs.’
“I still really feel that that’s the absolute thing in pop- and rock-music terms,” he adds, “this music that seems to have its vital, heart-and-soul value through its lasting three or four minutes. It’s a lot easier to write something that takes 10 minutes, because you can take things, you can develop them, you can extemporize, you can reiterate them—you can do all kinds of things to make something a lot broader. But if you want to distill all that down into just a few precious minutes of something really vital, it’s pretty tough to do.”