Friday, March 18, 2011

Sitting On a Park Bench: Jethro Tull's Aqualung is 40

 Jethro Tull - Aqualung
Jethro Tull
Rating: **** 1/2

1971 was an interesting year for music. Many of the albums that came out during that time often make it on lists that celebrate the best albums ever made. On March 19 (and on May 3 in the US), Jethro Tull released their fourth album, Aqualung. The album became a success and is still regarded as one of the band’s best albums. Forty years later, the album and the music on it is still as good as it was when it first came out. For its fortieth anniversary, I will go inside this amazing album.
            Jethro Tull was formed in 1967 by singer and flutist Ian Anderson. Along with Anderson was guitarist Mick Abrahams, bassist Glenn Cornick, and drummer Clive Bunker. The band’s debut album, This Was, was released in 1968 and did very little. When Abrahams left in 1968, Anderson approached guitarist Tony Iommi. Iommi stayed in the band briefly and performed with the band in December of that year for the Rolling Stones’ Rock N Roll Circus. Iommi left quickly as he was already committed to his own band, Black Sabbath.  Anderson then hired guitarist Martin Barre, who is still in the band to this day. The band’s second album, Stand Up, was released in 1969. It was stronger than the debut but didn’t do much except give the band a hit single with “Living In the Past”. Benefit followed in 1970 but that would prove to be Cornick’s last album: he left later that year. Anderson replaced Cornick with long-time friend and bassist Jeffery Hammond. Anderson also added another old friend of his, John Evan, on keyboards. With the new line-up in place, the band were ready to record their next album. The band recorded Aqualung at the newly opened Island Studios. Although the band was promised that the studio had the latest technology, they were wrong: the studio was horrid. The music sounded awful but somehow, the band was able to make the album. Anderson remembers that Led Zeppelin were also in the studio at the same time, mixing their untitled fourth album.
            The self-titled track has something in common with “Smoke On the Water”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Paranoid”, and “Highway to Hell”: it had one of the greatest opening guitar riffs ever. The lyrics, written by Anderson and his then wife Jennie, tell the story of a homeless man. The lyrics describe the character of Aqualung very carefully, even the nasty things (“Snot running down his nose/Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes”). “Aqualung” is certainly one the band’s best songs and it is indeed one of those songs that could sum up classic rock itself. The next song, “Cross-Eyed Mary”, is another gem. The song tells the story of another character, except this time it’s a female: a prostitute schoolgirl (“she signs no contract/but she always plays the game”). In the lyrics, we learn of her preferences: “Laughing in the playground/Gets no kicks from little boys/Would rather make it with a letching grey”. This might tell us that Mary prefers having sex with old men rather than men her age. It’s an unusual topic for a song but at the same time, it’s a great topic for any song. You got to love Evan’s keyboard breaks in this song. “Cheap Day Return” is one of the three short acoustic numbers on the album. Anderson wrote this song after visiting his ill father at the hospital, which sets the tone right there. “Mother Goose” is something one might call whimsical and they’d be right. The song is based off from a trip Anderson took to the Hampstead Fair. In the song, we meet a foreign student, a bearded lady, and a chicken fancier. “Wond’ring Aloud” is another short acoustic piece. In this song, Anderson sings some very romantic lyrics (Last night sipped the sunset/my hands in her hair) which just make the song what it is.
“Up to Me” is a little bit of a rocker. The lyrics are very remorseful since the person in the song has people coming up to him, thinking he should help them. Martin Barre’s guitar playing on this track is superb. “My God” is as religious as the album gets. Anderson dives deep into his belief in God and how organized religions are pretty much bogus (at least that’s what this writer and other people get out of the song). Anderson’s flute solo on here is not to be messed with: it’s amazing. “Hymn 43” is probably one of the most underrated songs by Jethro Tull. It’s a strong rocker, with more religion-strong lyrics. “Oh Jesus save me!” Anderson cries after each verse before the band rocks out in the chorus. In a word, “Hymn 43” could be called a prayer (and why it isn’t played in church services is a mystery to me…okay, maybe not!). “Slipstream” is the last of the acoustic shorts while “Locomotive Breath” chugs out as a classic song not just for Jethro Tull, but for rock music itself (specifically progressive rock). The album couldn’t have a better closer: “Wind-Up”. The lyrics are strong and the song reaches to the level of epic. The lyrics, once again, are religion fueled about organized religion and just people in high power in religion (in other words, it could sum up the religious themes on the album). With a lyric like “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday”, how can you go wrong?
            Aqualung did fairly well in the charts. It peaked at #4 in the UK and at #7 in the US. For Jethro Tull, Aqualung was a boost in their career and it was much deserved. This renewed interest in the band and even introduced some people to the great music of Jethro Tull. Critics praised the album at the time and still do. However, there are those critics who believe that Aqualung  is a concept album. Ian Anderson denied this decades later, saying that he doesn’t consider it a concept album (despite the religious themes and the instrumentation). In 1972, Jethro Tull have the critics a concept album for sure: Thick As A Brick, which some believe is the band’s best album. No matter what, Aqualung is a classic album. It’s one of those albums you can just listen to over and over again without getting bored. For me, Aqualung ranks as #21 on my list of favorite albums.

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