Jethro Tull and the Long Song

John Covach

Progression Magazine

Summer 1996


I must admit that as I considered which Jethro Tull album to focus on for this column, I had a hard time deciding between Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play.  Both LPs are classics of 1970s British progressive rock, and interestingly, these two albums are in some ways very different from Tull records that precede and follow them.  Perhaps the most obvious difference is the lack of separate songs on either album (the CD versions list just one track); or perhaps it might be better to say, Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play can each can be thought of as one very long song.  In this issue's column I'll focus mostly on the ways in which Thick as a Brick is structured, emphasizing elements of musical form and tonal organization.  But I hope to return to A Passion Play in a future column, since it is in some ways an even more sophisticated piece than Thick as a Brick

When Thick as a Brick was released in 1972 it caused something of a sensation.  The reaction among fans was overwhelmingly positive; the album spent 20 weeks on the Billboard Top 40 Album chart, two weeks at number one.  But some critics were beginning to complain that the group were taking themselves far too seriously--a complaint that was to become well-known to most other progressive rockers in the mid to late 1970s.  Thick as a Brick was quickly labelled a "concept album," primarily because the entire album focussed on the central topic of a poem that we are to believe was written by the eight-year-old Gerald  ("Little Milton") Bostock.  The album packaging, like almost all of what Tull has done, was the brainchild of Ian Anderson (though he worked on this closely with Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond); and it is intimately coordinated with Little Milton's "poem."  The original LP release featured an ingeniously designed gatefold cover that opened out to become a 12-page community newspaper, The St. Cleve Chronicle (dated Friday, January 7, 1972).  Here we read all about Gerald's prize-winning poem and the scandal surrounding his disqualification for the award on grounds that the boy is "seriously unbalanced" and that his poem is "a product of an 'extremely unwholesome attitude towards life, his God, and country.'"  Accompanying this front-page story is a photo in which Little Milton's 14-year-old girlfriend (Julia Fealey) can be seen in the background slightly lifting her shirt as she stares alluringly into the camera, her legs apart just enough to reveal her underpants; a story below describes how she has accused Little Milton of causing her pregnancy. 

The St. Cleve Chronicle is densely packed with references that bear upon the lyrics to Thick as a Brick.  Perhaps the most important to the basic theme of the "poem" is a small story on page 5 under the headline "Visiting Prof. Gives Talk"; here we learn that a certain Andrew Jorgensen (a name created out of "Anderson") tells his listeners that "man must learn to function as an independent observer of mass-behavior and develop the right of each individual to intellectual freedom on the particular level of which he is personally capable."  The story goes on: "Unfortunately the lecture was terminated by flying bottles which hit Mr. Jorgensen below the left eye."  Jorgensen/Anderson's point-of-view is at the heart of the lyrics, as is the incomprehesion of such ideas (another story tells us that the bottle thrower is Albert Innes, a name created out of "Ian") by those who are kept "thick as a brick" by church and state ("the wise men").  Considering the trouble and care lavished on this bogus community newspaper, it seems curious that Ian Anderson has claimed that the album is not really a concept album.  Anderson's point seems to be that the album does not tell a story, and this is important to note.  The lyrics instead provide a series of glimpses into the life of the average middle-class Englishman, dealing in turn with birth, youth (including sexual awakening), school, military service, and organized religion.  But the whole thing does hang together around a central group of themes, and the elaborate sleeve design plays a crucial role in the way one understands the record.  During an era in which album packaging seemed in many cases to have been as creative as the music inside (or at least as interesting), Tull set a new standard with Thick as a Brick.  

While its album-cover art is perhaps the most obviously innovative aspect of Thick as a Brick at first glance, and while the lyrics can be seen as an impressive accomplishment in terms of their sheer scale and complexity, the music itself constitutes an important achievement both for Tull as well as for progressive rock.  In fact, Thick as a Brick seems in many ways to come out of nowhere musically: one can find precedents for creative sleeve design in a number of late-1960s and early-70s LPs; and the cynicism and rebellion of Thick as a Brick already played an important role in the group's previous LP, Aqualung; but there's not much in Tull's music before Thick as a Brick that prepares us for almost 45 minutes of continuous music, broken up only by the mandatory change of sides inherent in the LP format.  It is therefore worthwhile to consider the path that led the group to Thick as a Brick.

As the story goes, Jethro Tull began as a rhythm and blues group playing in the style of British electric blues made famous by groups led by John Mayall and Alexis Korner.  They took the name an eighteenth-century agriculturalist (and inventor of the seed drill) as part of a practice of changing names often in order to get re-booked into clubs.  If their first single--a song by guitarist Mick Abrahams entitled "Sunshine Day" and erroneously credited to Jethro Toe--didn't make their r & b roots clear, their first album did.  This Was appeared in 1968 and it stays for the most part strictly within the blues-rock boundaries of its time, giving no indication that Mahleresque musical dimensions are only three or four years up the road.  The group at the time consisted of Anderson and Abrahams, along with Glenn Cornick on bass and Clive Bunker on drums.  Abrahams left the group in late 1968 over musical differences--he went on to form Blodwyn Pig--and with his departure the Tull sound began to emerge.  Abrahams was replaced by Martin Barre, but the change in sound had less to do with Barre's joining the group (though he has played a key role in the group's music ever since) than with Anderson's uncontested role as musical leader of the group.  Already with the next album, Stand Up, as well as with the singles "Sweet Dream" and "Living in the Past," Tull began to incorporate the soon-to-become-familiar elements of acoustic folk music and classical music into their arrangements.  And of course, Stand Up included Anderson's famous adaptation of J. S. Bach's e-minor Bourée, given a Roland Kirk-ish treatment much like the version of Kirk's "Serenade to a Cuckoo" that had appeared on This Was.  But with songs like "A New Yesterday" and "Nothing is Easy" it was also clear that Tull were not about to abandon the blues-based aspect of their sound completely.  Interestingly, Stand Up was the group's most successful LP in the U.K.; it rose to number one on the Record Retailer chart and stayed on the chart for 29 weeks. 

In 1970 the group released Benefit, which continued their move away from the sound of British blues and went a long way toward establishing what would become the characteristic Tull sound for much of the 1970s.  Ian's old friend John Evan was brought in to lay down some piano and organ tracks for the LP.  He's mostly mixed deep in the background on the tracks on side one, which, like much of the album, prominently features the guitar playing of Martin Barre.  But on side two Evan's keyboard playing comes to the fore in "Teacher," "Play in Time" (reversed-tape piano), and "Sossity; You're a Woman."  Evan's roots were also in British rhythm and blues, and he and Ian had played together in such pre-Tull groups as The Blades, The John Evan Band, and John Evan's Smash.  But Evan also had a background in classical music, which can be clearly heard in his long solo in "By Kind Permission of," recorded during Tull's 1970 tour of the US and contained on the double LP, Living in the Past.  Amid a number of other things found in this almost nine-minute free-form improvisatory showpiece are large bits of the first movement of Beethoven's op. 13 piano sonata, which frame quotations taken from Debussy, blues, and 60s jazz. 

With Aqualung (1971) another old friend and former Blade joined the band; this time it was bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, who replaced Glenn Cornick.  With Thick as a Brick drummer Barrie Barlow would also join the group, and thus complete a reunion of four of the five original Blades.  It hardly needs stressing that Aqualung, while it may not be Tull's most progressive album, is certainly a classic of 1970s British rock in its own right.  Out of this album come such heavy-duty FM radio perennials as "Locomotive Breath," "Aqualung," "Hymn 43," and "Crossed-Eyed Mary."  But it is also with this album that Anderson's acoustic side begins to bloom; tunes like "Wond'ring Aloud" and "Cheap Day Return" are based on the kind of simple folk-music guitar-and-voice performance style that would increasingly play a role in Tull music throughout the decade.  The folk feel is further reinforced in "Mother Goose" by the use of alto and descant recorder.  On Aqualung these quiet acoustic numbers reportedly began as contrasting connections between the four much heavier numbers listed above; but they soon grew into tunes in their own right, and thus did not end up as acoustic interludes between the heavier numbers on the finished LP.  The album also features a more central role for John Evan's piano and organ playing, now augmented through the use of that most important piece of progressive-rock equipment: the Mellotron.

Now all this brings us back to Thick as a Brick, and if I've told my story properly we should be able to see that the group's sound changed dramatically over the four years since This Was.  But we can also understand that the sound changed somewhat gradually, too; it didn't exactly happen overnight.  If all that is right, why would I want to claim that Thick as a Brick comes as an important departure for the group?  To begin with, as much as one can connect up the cynicism of its lyrics with previous Tull numbers like "My God" or "Wind Up," the lyrics to Thick as a Brick are conceived on a much grander scale than either of those songs.  Musically speaking, almost all of the previous songs are all just that--songs; they last in each case less than ten minutes (mostly much less, more like five minutes) and stick pretty closely to the verse-refrain format of much rock music.  But Thick as a Brick is not really a song in that sense--unless, as I suggested above, you think of it as a very long song.  And finally, the album packaging is almost as important in figuring out the themes addressed in the lyrics as the lyrics themselves; and this creates a crucial interdependence between the music, lyrics, and packaging that was unprecedented in its day.  Putting it in a nutshell: Thick as a Brick was a musical undertaking on a far grander and more elaborate scale than anything close to what the group had taken on previously. 

This kind of a big project raises all kinds of music-technical questions.  Perhaps the most important one for the purposes of the present discussion concerns how one writes 45 minutes or so of continuous rock music.  There are at least two tried-and-true ways of creating music of extended length in popular music.  The first is the "medley," in which a number of independent tunes are played one after the other with no break in the music and sometimes with a bit of transition to ease the way from one tune into the next.  Perhaps the most famous rock medley of this type is the second side of Abbey Road, where tunes follow one after the other to fill up one whole side of the LP.  A second way of creating pieces of extended length is to "stretch them from within," so to speak: in such a case a song of conventional length is extended by creating a long jam session in the middle, and something like "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is a pretty good example of this.  Here the song and its reprise act as bookends surrounding the extended soloing in the middle. 

The interesting thing about Thick as a Brick is that while Tull employ both of these techniques, Tull also employ a technique of varied and developed thematic return, coordinated with tonal return, that is far more common in classical music than it is in rock (though this technique appears in a lot of progressive rock).  To understand what I'm getting at, let's turn to the music (I'll indicate spots in the piece by giving the CD timings and the first snatches of lyrics).  It's important to note as we begin that there are four key areas employed in the piece: F (mostly major), c minor/dorian, g minor/dorian, and D (major and minor/dorian).  Of these, F major is the principal key area for the entire work.  The music from the beginning to about 16:19 works through these key areas in pretty distinct sections: 0:01-3:00 in F, with turns to f minor ("Really don't mind . . ."); 3:00-5:05 in c minor ("See there!"); 5:05-about 12:29 mostly in g minor, with some wandering to other keys ("The poet and the painter . . ."); and 12:29-16:19 in D major and d minor ("I've come down from . . .").  The way in which these sections follow one another gives the feel of a medley; and there are places inside each section where the material is stretched with longish guitar solos.

The first sense we get of the use of the third technique I mentioned occurs when F major comes back at 16:19; the acoustic guitar intro returns, but then with the lyrics "You curl your toes" the music heads off in what seems to be a new direction, though still in F.  But it turns out that this new melodic material is closely related to the flute lick so prominent in the first F-major section, and thus we can think of this section as developing out of the earlier one.  As new music in F seems again to be introduced at 17:23 (with the organ melody that turns into military march music at 18:13), a little comparison with the first F section reveals that the chord progression here--cm7 to F--is drawn from the first two chords of the earlier section, though these occur in reverse order at the beginning of the piece (F to cm7).  There are other important moments in the piece where F major returns, and if you can get your CD player to do it easily, take a listen to passages at 24:14 (melody from 16:19 returns but in C major), 26:36 and forward (the acoustic guitar intro returns and then heads off into new music in F at 26:50), and 40:33 (which brings back music from 17:23).  When you hear these passages back to back you will pick up on connections that are tougher to hear when the music is spread out over 45 minutes' time; but those connections are definitely there, and really hearing it that way makes the piece hang together in a fresh way. 

I could go on and on about these kinds of connections, especially since this piece is loaded with this kind of thing.  But I'll reign in my analytical enthusiasm and make one more point about two sections that I haven't said much about so far.  As I noted above, at 5:05 a relatively long section in g minor begins.  Now g minor does not return in a big way until the section beginning at 29:00, and especially in the "Do you believe?" section that follows it.  These are really the only two places in the piece where g minor is the principal point of tonal focus; thus a comparison between the two seems unproblematic.  The music in the second of these sections is related to the earlier music mostly through the prominent use of the g minor-to-F chord progression, which is central to both sections.  So there's no real problem thinking of the second section as in some ways developing from the first.  There is something about the common tonality of g minor that makes me want to reflect on the lyrics, though.  In the first g minor section the focus of the lyrics is on sexual awakening, as the young master goes after the milking girl "whose offer is his need."  In the second g-minor section the focus is on the power of the state and organized religion, and the images in the lyrics return to the poet and the soldier.  I suppose it's possible to follow this connection forward to uncover the basic urge for dominance inherent in sex, politics, and religion.  I'll only point out here that the structure of the music helps to draw our attention to these two spots in the lyrics; it's like a kind of musical cross-referencing that connects up the two sections by way of a shared key and similar chord progressions. 

My basic point about the musical structure of Thick as a Brick is that this long song is more than a medley or extended jam; the piece hangs together more the way a piece of classical music by Beethoven or Brahms does.  And like much classical music, its structure is complicated and rewards repeated and careful listening.  Combine this with the lyrics and the packaging, and Thick as a Brick becomes fascinating on a number of levels.  Tull's next release, A Passion Play, continues to develop the band's hybrid mix of rock, folk, and classical music further, though with the short film to accompany "The Story of the Hare Who Lost his Spectacles" we can add yet another dimension in which Tull's music becomes complicated.  But I have reserved that topic for a future column, so I'll simply close by saying: to be continued.