JETHRO TULL – ” Aqualung ” Classic Album Released 19th March

Posted: March 19, 2015 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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“Sitting on a park bench…” It’s one of the iconic opening lines in rock music, set against one of its most distinctive riffs, the listener’s introduction to the world of Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung“, released on March 19th, 1971.

Jethro Tull’s, “Aqualung” most famous sound Dun dah-dah, dah DUN DUN, allowed Ian Anderson and company to make an album that was two concepts in one. Side A is about some perv street person and Side B is a rumination on organized religion. This split is also reflective of the accompanying music: one part hard rock and one part British folk. Dun dah-dah, dah DUN DUN. “Aqualung” features Ian Anderson on his distinctive flute, acoustic guitar and vocals; Martin Barre on electric guitar; and Clive Bunker on drums and percussion for what would be his final album with the band. Rounding out the line-up were newer recruits John Evan on keyboards and Jeffrey Hammond

Jethro Tull had already hit the top spot on the U.K. album charts with their 1969 release, “Stand Up“, Their third album, 1970’s “Benefit”, came close to the U.S. Top 10, but stopped one mark short, landing at No. 11. It wasn’t until the band issued their landmark album “Aqualung” in 1971 mainstream acceptance flung open in a big way. The album, a deft mix of pastoral folk-rock, thundering proto-metal and nascent prog, is generally regarded as Jethro Tull’s undisputed masterpiece. But as Ian Anderson wasn’t initially sure that the record’s broad blend of styles was a slam-dunk.

“We were getting quite esoteric on the album, and I felt that we might have pushed things too far in that regard,” he says. “What gets you noticed in one territory might not have the same appeal elsewhere. The record had a lot of more acoustic singer-songwriter material on it, and Jethro Tull had become thought of as more of a rock band. The riffy rock material had a pretty immediate appeal to live audiences, so I felt reasonably confident and gratified. But you never know until you put it out, and then the record did very well, so it all worked.”

It was never a concept album in my eyes said Anderson. Yes, it certainly set out with the idea that there would be a few songs that kind of hung together, but there were a whole bunch of songs that didn’t have anything to do with the others. When it came to the artwork for the album cover, which I rather left in terms of the pictorial images to our then manager, Terry Ellis, I thought that that would be best illustrated in terms of text by trying to give it some sense of order, by making it hang together a little bit more as a package. I guess that’s what made people think it was a concept album.

There were just a few songs as I say that were in a similar vein and on a general topic of, I suppose, religion and growing up, and I still to this day would not call it a concept album by any means. Of course, speaking to the concept album question, I said, “I’m going to get my comeuppance next time around,” and we did with “Thick as a Brick“, something quite surreal and preposterous—and we got away with it. [Laughs]

‘Aqualung’ has some incredible riffs, like the title track, “Hymn 43″, “Cross-Eyed Mary” and “Locomotive Breath“. They all began very much on the acoustic guitar, and then you try to imagine taking them into the world of large-scale rock rather than hearing them as singer-songwriter acoustic-y things.

This was the first album with keyboardist John Evan as a full-time member, the first with bassist Jeffrey Hammond, and it was the last album with drummer Clive Bunker. Anderson commented It was a rather dark mood, actually, and it was a bit frustrating for me because the recording was being done in the then new Basing Street Studios, which was a converted church that Island Records had bought and turned into a pair of studios. Led Zeppelin were working in the smaller studio downstairs, which is a much nicer acoustic room, much cosier and more like a proper recording studio. Upstairs it was the big, cavernous church hall, which had a rather spooky and threatening atmosphere. It was quite difficult acoustically and technically there were problems and shakedown issues with the equipment and wiring. It was a real struggle.

The contrast between the tramp’s socially unacceptable behaviour and the descriptions of his condition—his “leg hurting bad as he bends to pick a dog-end” and his reliance on the Salvation Army for comfort—is mirrored by the musical complexity. Anderson’s vocals are at once grisly and howling, then delicate and soft. Meanwhile, the band channels heavy rock, with Barre delivering searing riffs and solos. They point to their blues roots, then alternate to folksy intimacy. That’s not to mention the stark contrast between heavy rock instrumentation and Anderson’s flute. As an opener, it’s an introduction to the revitalized Jethro Tull, to their story-based songs, and to the themes that would carry on through the album. 

The beginning tells the story of the character “Aqualung”. It’s an unforgettable Jethro Tull song as is “Cross-Eyed Mary”, kicking off the album on a strong note. There are many primarily acoustic tracks like “Cheap Day Return”, “Wand’ring Aloud”, “Slipstream” which are short and sweet and act as “bridges” between the main songs.

Some personal favourites include “Mother Goose” (actually one of my all time favourite Jethro Tull songs), “My God” and the adrenaline releasing “Locomotive Breath”, with their great folky melodies and arrangements.

It’s followed by perhaps the most personal song on the album, a love ballad called “Wond’ring Aloud.” “We are our own saviours as we start both our hearts beating life into each other,” Anderson sings against his acoustic strumming, punctuated by orchestral swells and the occasional weaving piano line. The song was originally recorded as a seven-minute epic, leftover pieces of which can be heard on “Wond’ring Again” on the 1972 compilation album “Living in the Past”. A complete alternate version of the suite turned up as “Wond’ring Aloud, Again” on a 2011 expanded reissue of “Aqualung“.

The side closes with “Up To Me.” It’s a riff-heavy blues-rock burner featuring winding electric guitar leads against Anderson’s gentle acoustic guitar and snaky flute lines, a perfect contrast to the breezier songs that precede it and a primer for the heavier material to come.

All of which makes it more difficult when you’re trying to convey to other musicians what you’re driving at. We had stepped away from the early Jethro Tull sort of music, and Clive Bunker found it sometimes beyond his points of reference. For Jeffrey Hammond, it was his very first album, so he was kind of just being given a list of notes and told how to play them. I was confident he would get it, but it was a little nerve-racking for him. Here, too, it was a little frustrating for me, trying to convey things to the other guys, which is why I just recorded some things on my own and then they came and overdubbed their bits afterwards.

The brief “Cheap Day Return,” clocking in at just over a minute, shows off Jansch-like guitar figures, along with complementary orchestrations by Dee Palmer. “[It’s] about a day I went to visit my father in hospital in Blackpool,” said Anderson in 1971. “I caught a train at nine, spent four hours traveling, four hours with my father, and four hours to get back again. It was a long song mainly concerned with the railway journey, but the section on the record is about visiting my father. 

“Locomotive Breath” was a particularly hard song to record because we just couldn’t get a metronomic, solid feel. It just kept being kind of a bit scrappy and whatever, so I went out and played tambourine or something, or maybe I clicked two drumsticks together or something. I played bass drum and hi-hat all the way through the song, and everybody overdubbed their parts to that. I think I played one of the electric guitar parts as well, just to try and get something that would convey the feel of the song to the other guys. Then John went out and recorded the introduction part, which we edited onto the body of the song. But yeah, it wasn’t a great atmosphere. By the end of it, I was quite relieved to get out of there.

When you were working on the record, did members of Zeppelin ever drop by? Did you pop into their sessions at all?. I think I might have popped my head downstairs. Some people quite like it when they get visitors, and they rather enjoy the camaraderie, but I felt like it would be very intrusive to go in while somebody else is doing a session, whether they’re working on a backing track or doing overdubs or whatever.

Once or twice we did manage to get some work done in the studio downstairs when Zeppelin weren’t in. The only time I remember seeing anybody from that band is when Jimmy Page came in when Martin Barre was recording the guitar solo for “Aqualung,” and Jimmy sort of was standing behind me in the control room and waving some support to Martin.

‘Aqualung’ has gone on to be the band’s biggest seller. Are you OK with that, or do you wish that distinction were for a different record? Well, I’m glad it was that album and not some other ones. It was at a time when there was kind of a maturity coming about in terms of my writing and my understanding of music, so for me it was a very important album. It marked my move towards a more dynamic range in music, my understanding of creating more tension between loud and quiet passages, between simple and more complex pieces. Anderson says I’m very happy how successful ‘Aqualung’ has been. It wasn’t a huge hit out of the box, but it was a steady seller over the years, and that continues to this day. It’s clocked up a lot of mileage, which has put it in that sort of top echelon of rock albums from that era. I’m quite happy with how it’s regarded.

The album was inspired by photographs of homeless people on the Thames Embankment taken by singer Ian Anderson’s wife Jennie.

A great classic album. Like Ian Anderson said, this isn’t a concept album (like the follow up was) but just a bunch of songs. What an excellent bunch of songs though! Overall, it’s much more engaging than “Benefit” and although the song writing is just as good, the music has a different feel to it. “Aqualung” is much fresher, more inspiring and heartsome.

Aqualung” has sold more than 7 million units worldwide according to Anderson, and is thus Jethro Tull’s best selling album. The album was generally well-received critically, and has been included on several music magazine best of lists. The album spawned one single, “Hymn 43”.

“Aqualung” explodes like “Jesus Christ Superstar” sitting on a keg of dynamite, here starring Ian Anderson as our self-appointed conscience. The light and dark tones of “Benefit” are put into sharper relief this time by alternating disarming acoustic songs with a theosophical din of diabolical intent. The addition of Jeffery Hammond-Hammond on bass (yes, the very same “JEFFREY” chronicled on their earlier albums) doesn’t change the sound of Tull much, nor does the full-time addition of John Evan, who gets buried in the band’s sonic onslaught most of the time. Ian Anderson the performer and “Aqualung” the character may be alarming to some, but wasn’t it just a natural outcropping of the rock opera movement? Music fans proved they were interested in the persona as much as the player, and Anderson gave them something to think about: a composite sketch of a demigod drawn from Jesus, Loki, and Merlin among others. It’s just that songs like “Aqualung”, “Cross-Eyed Mary, “Hymn #43” and “Locomotive Breath” are such epic clashes of morality and reality that “Aqualung” assumes the scale of a Greek tragedy. The acoustic breaks are sometimes no more than lovely little bits of fluff (“Cheap Day Return”, “Wond’ring Aloud”) and sometimes a mortal analysis of the world around us (“Mother Goose”, “Wind-Up”).

The closing track, “Wind Up,” is the culmination of all the ideas that had run thorough the album so far, but more directly a condemnation of organized religion as a charade and its influence on youth. As Anderson recalled in a February 1971 interview, “[My parents] sent me to Sunday school when I was young but I rebelled after the first visit and I was never forced back. I think my parents are the exception, though, and there is so much religion today forced onto children simply by virtue of their parents’ race or creed—and that in itself is inherently wrong.” Here, he describes religion as an action done to erase sins, something that becomes a performative ritual, but is never truly embraced as a pathway to enlightenment. “To me, religion is something that you grow up to find in your own way,” he said to NME in March 1971. “I am sure that a lot of other people believe in God the same as I do, that faith is a form of goodness around which you relate your life.”

“Aqualung” is a great leap from songwriter to storyteller, though some felt Tull slipped too far into the fabled woods for the inscrutable “Thick As A Brick” and “Passion Play”.

Jethro Tull released their 4th LP titled “Aqualung” on March 18th, 1971. Many people have thought that it was a concept album, but the band strongly disagrees with the thought. The records success marked a turning point in the band’s career, who went on to become a major radio and touring act.

Aqualung” would be a very memorable addition to your collection. 5 shining stars.

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