JETHRO TULL – ” Aqualung “

Posted: April 9, 2020 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
Tags: , , , , , ,

Jethro Tull is one of those utterly amazing bands that is  sadly very difficult to explain to those for whom they seem to hold no obvious appeal. Although once one of the very biggest concert draws in the world of music—and don’t get me wrong, they’re still a popular group—their fanbase is getting older each year and I don’t think it’s exactly getting any bigger with the passing of time. But for the sake of “the younger people” who are reading this I’m going to try to get across why I think Jethro Tull are truly a great band and why they deserve your attention.

Rhino’s re-release of their classic 1971 long player “Aqualung”, an album that I’m absolutely crazy about, on a 2 CD/2 DVD box set. I hope my enthusiasm will be contagious enough that you’ll give it a listen yourself.

Critics remembered “the scuzziest hippies smoking skunk weed and listening to that piece of crap.” He was there. “who the fuck is the audience for this jester-hat-wearing Renaissance Faire bullshit?” while acknowledging that its multi-platinum record status indicated there must have been quite a large one. Some see Jethro Tull as the sort of group that “old bikers listen to at keg parties in Cincinnati,” in the same category with say, Steppenwolf.

All of these reactions are perfectly understandable. If you don’t really know what Jethro Tull are all about, being confronted with this scraggly-looking comically leering hirsute and freaky Dickensian hobo-sage character wearing thigh-high boots and a glittering codpiece playing the flute is simply confusing.

My familiarity with Jethro Tull’s music began with the single “Living In The Past”, one of the very first 45s that I ever bought for the most part I knew some of the greatest hits. Steven Wilson’s 5.1 surround revisioning of their 1970 “Benefit” album in the package with something else that I’d asked for. I’ll listen to anything Steven Wilson has remixed for 5.1 and I was utterly floored by Benefit. Because I had no expectations one way or the other, Benefit hit me like a bolt from the blue. I was completely smitten with that album pretty much upon the first listen.

I gorged myself on that album and fanned out through their back catalog. I liked their second effort Stand Up quite a bit and I also got way into their Living in the Past compilation. Their first album “This Was” I was less enthusiastic about—it’s just a basic blues thing, music they’d already outgrown before its release, hence the title—but the one that came after Benefit—that’s Aqualung—blew my doors off. If you consider yourself a fan of say, King Crimson, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa or even Nick Cave (who named one of his sons Jethro he was such a fan) you might have the same reaction I did: “How did I miss out on this?”

Obviously any discussion of Jethro Tull begins—and ends with the group’s leader, the singular Ian Anderson, a rather brainy and idiosyncratic figure surely seen in retrospect (if not necessarily at the time) as the unlikeliest of arena rock gods. Anderson always read very “old” to me. At the time Aqualung was recorded he was just 23 year of age, but what a wizened old 23 he seemed to be. Some people are born old men, I guess, but by this age his lyrics were already becoming quite dark and deep. Aqualung‘s brooding, philosophically sophisticated subject matter included seeing homelessness people and doing nothing about it; how whatever kernel of truth there had been in Christianity had been co-opted by the Church of England and a cynical ruling class; and in “Locomotive Breath” one of their signature numbers—humanity’s mad dash towards Hobbesian overpopulation.

Aqualung‘s liner notes included the following statement, an audacious sentiment to express in the early 1970s:

In the beginning Man created God;
And in the image of Man created he him.

2 And Man gave unto God a multitude of names,
that he might be Lord over all the earth when it was suited to Man.

3 And on the seven millionth day Man rested
and did lean heavily on his God and saw that it was good.

4 And Man formed Aqualung of the dust of the ground,
and a host of others likened unto his kind.

5 And these lesser men Man did cast into the void. And some were burned;
and some were put apart from their kind.

6 And Man became the God that he had created
and with his miracles did rule over all the earth.

7 But as these things did come to pass,
the Spirit that did cause Man to create his God
lived on within all men: even within Aqualung.

8 And Man saw it not.

9 But for Christ’s sake he’d better start looking.

Anderson’s decidedly bleak themes were backed by the majestic, intricately braided medieval tapestry of his acoustic guitar (Anderson’s thought of as the manic pirate flautist perched on one leg, of course, but his Bert Jansch-inspired guitar work is out-fucking-standing), his flute and the powerful dynamics of lead guitarist Martin Barre—one of rock’s single greatest riffmeisters.

The ensemble playing on Aqualung which also included Clive Bunker on drums and percussion, the incredible John Evan on piano, organ, mellotron and “Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond” on bass guitar—is tight and agile, possessing an almost “classical” element, but not one that was bombastic like Emerson, Lake & Palmer or even necessarily orchestral for that matter. Jethro Tull had a “thing” which was unique to them. Take for instance the gorgeous magical, swirling opening to “Cross Eyed Mary”: When I first started listening to Aqualung, I’d play that particular song over and over and over again. Try “Hymn 43”: The mighty and propulsive “Locomotive Breath” as used very effectively for a scene in ‘Fargo’

From Stand Up to Aqualung Jethro Tull were an absolutely incredible band. Admittedly after that my interest falls off slightly. Thick as a Brick, War Child, Passion Play, the inspiration seems lacking, probably from exhaustion, the band toured almost constantly in the 1970s—but at this point in my life as one of the world’s most inveterate rock snobs I’d have to say that I easily consider Aqualung to be the equal of any Led Zeppelin album (and incidentally it was recorded in an adjacent studio to where Led Zeppelin were recording their own fourth album at Island Records’ newly opened facility in London.)

Rhino’s latest edition of Aqualung is a more economical release of Steven Wilson’s spectacular 2011 “40th anniversary” remix (both in sparkly stereo and a beyond amazing 5.1 surround version) more in line with the packaging and formatting of their other classic Jethro Tull sets of recent years. Aqualung was never considered to be a good-sounding “audiophile” album. It was recorded in a large, cold-sounding studio that had only recently been opened, and where the kinks (and the wiring) still needed to be worked out. The resulting mix was thin and murky, but apparently Wilson was able to coax magic from the multi-tracks (he compared his job to renovating the Sistine Chapel). When you listen to the stereo mix of “Cross Eyed Mary” posted above, imagine how crazy gorgeous that sounds coming at you from six speakers.

thanks to Dangerous Minds

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