“Really don’t mind if you sit this one out,
My word’s but a whisper -your deafness a SHOUT.”
Fifty years ago, this month, was born, as per my estimate and that of hundreds of millions of my fellow devotees, the best rock album ever. Many critics and neutral observers also agree.
It is a revolutionary album. It is groundbreaking. It stretches boundaries. It explores the unknown. Yet it remains accessible to the discerning. It demands respect; a patient hearing; your complete attention. It requires you to close your eyes and focus. The reward is huge – an upliftment of mind and soul so gratifying that the listener can never imagine; an edifying occurrence that visits us rarely; a warmth and a glow when one undergoes a spiritual experience.
The feeling remains the same even after 50 years, even after countless listening. It’s as fresh as the morning dew. It is a compelling piece of work in terms of wealth of music, lyrics, theme, and use of humor.
Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull.
But before one closes one’s eyes to begin the magical tour, the album cover holds one in thrall, eyes wide-open in awe and amazement. The visual treat is the first port of call after embarking on the aural journey into the wonderland. The whole package of the cover and the music inside holds your head and heart in a tight grip.
The album would not have seen the light of day had the media not behaved the way it did with Jethro Tull’s previous album Aqualung (1971). The album was wrongly perceived as a conceptual piece – that the whole record was a major religious story. Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull’s heart, soul, and body) was both irritated and amused. However much he insisted that Aqualung wasn’t a concept album, the media persisted in treating it as such. The truth was that three or four songs were linked to each other by questioning the nature of religion; but the rest were stand-alone tracks.
Ian Anderson set out, tongue-in-cheek, to not only now do a real concept album, but make it the mother of all concept albums! Another motivation to do the album was Ian Anderson’s belief that the ‘progressive rock’ genre had become too self -important, needing to be pulled down a peg or two from its majestic pretensions.
When ‘progressive rock’ started out in the late 60s, it was about bands moving beyond the influence of American blues and taking on board diverse musical ideas. Large-scale forms were used to create works of extended length. The genre was exciting and dynamic. However, according to Ian Anderson, by the time the 1970s had begun, the music had become too serious and overblown. So, he set out to show up this side of the genre. Like Monty Python lampooned the British way of life, but in a manner that made the British laugh while celebrating it, Ian Anderson did that with this album. He was spoofing the idea of the concept album, but in a fun way that didn’t totally mock it.
Jethro Tull began as a rhythm and blues group. This Was appeared in 1968 and it stayed strictly within the blues-rock boundaries of its time. Stand Up (1969) began to incorporate elements of acoustic folk music and classical music into the band’s arrangements. In 1970 was released Benefit, which continued the band’s move away from the sound of British blues toward establishing what would become the characteristic Jethro Tull sound for much of the 1970s.
Aqualung (1971) was a classic of 1970s British rock. But alongside, Ian Anderson’s acoustic side also began to bloom -simple folk-music guitar-and-voice performance style that would increasingly play a role in Jethro Tull’s music throughout the decade.
Thick as a Brick came as an important departure for the group. It was a musical undertaking on a far grander and more elaborate scale than anything close to what the group had taken on previously.
“I may make you feel but I can’t make you think,
Your sperm’s in the gutter -your love’s in the sink.”
The centerpiece of Thick as a Brick is a poem, ostensibly written by 12-year-old Gerald Bostock – a fictitious character, created by Anderson. Despite attempts over the years to uncover the identity of the poet, Bostock has no connection to anyone from Ian Anderson’s past. However, the poem itself does draw from the Ian Anderson’s childhood. There’s an autobiographical element in what Ian Anderson wrote. As a child, he was a rebel and stood apart from others of his age. He drew on this for the character of Gerald Bostock.
On 16th and 17th Feb,1994, Jethro Tull played at Mumbai’s Rang Bhawan as part of their 25th anniversary tour. A few months earlier, Ian Anderson had visited Mumbai. I attended the press conference at a hotel, a curtain raiser, for the concert to follow a few months later. I asked Ian Anderson about Gerald Bostock and Thick as a Brick. His reply is posted below.
The lyrics provide a series of glimpses into the life of the average middle-class Englishman, dealing with birth, youth (including sexual awakening), school, military service, and organized religion. The lyrics comprise an assortment of characters, settings, and narrative viewpoints.
The album packaging is 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.
The album is housed in a faux 12-page multi-paged folded newspaper titled The St. Cleve Chronicle & Linwell Advertiser (dated Friday, January 7, 1972). The newspaper is densely packed with references that bear upon the lyrics of the album. On the front page, we read about Gerald (Little Milton) Bostock’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 his 14-year-old girlfriend 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 him of causing her pregnancy.
I still vividly remember the first time I set my eyes on the album. I was intrigued. Why did the band make the album cover into a newspaper? What was the text about? Who was the strange-looking boy staring back at me from the cover? The sheer thrill of unfolding the real–sized newspaper and turning the pages cannot be described. The attention to detail in terms of stories, sections and structures is mind-blowing. I have spent the most delightful time in reading the puns, discovering cleverly hidden jokes, playing the risqué connect-the-dots, reading an astonishingly frank review of the album written under a pseudonym by Ian Anderson, and other assorted interesting items.
During an era in which album packaging seemed in many cases to have been as creative and interesting as the music inside, Jethro Tull set a new standard with Thick as a Brick.
While its brilliant album-cover art is an innovative aspect of Thick as a Brick, and while the lyrics are an impressive accomplishment of the highest degree in terms of their sheer scale and complexity, the music itself constitutes a superlative achievement both for Jethro Tull as well as for progressive rock.
“So you ride yourselves over the fields and
You make all your animal deals and
Your wise men don’t know how it feels to be thick as a brick”.
The album consists of 45 minutes of continuous music, broken up only by the mandatory change of sides inherent in the LP format.
The music is complex, yet there is a sheer tunefulness to it. It is a blend of rock, folk, and classical music. All the five band members display expansive instrumentation and virtuoso technique. There are time changes and musical innovations. Even though the music consists of one continuous piece – of both vocal and instrumental sections – it is marked by the periodic return of vocal melodies, lyrics, mode/key areas, and instrumental motives. Such technique is more common in classical music than it is in rock. A near constant intensity is maintained throughout. The opening acoustic guitar pattern, the most identifiable section of the album (and one of the most recognizable in rock music) returns several times throughout the piece, but it is continually varied in some fashion, making it sound fresh. The whole music can be experienced as a unified work.
The album is fascinating on several levels. It is an album of paradoxes. The newspaper that comprises the album cover implies that the album is a spoof of concept albums, yet it is a classic example of a concept album. Its music is complex and layered, yet it is tuneful and hummable. Its lyrics are fragmented and puzzling, yet the music makes the disjointed images, characters, and ideas flow fluently. It is an experimental album not intended to please the general popular music audience, yet it hit number one on the Billboard chart.
The album got cultural recognition in the USA when it was featured in an episode of The Simpsons – Girls Just Want to Have Sums. Not only does the character of Martin Prince sing part of the song in the episode, but the original is used over the end credits.
I had a once-in-a -lifetime good fortune to see Ian Anderson perform Thick as a Brick live at Royal Albert Hall in July 2013. As a bonus, he also played its sequel Thick as a Brick 2 (released in April 2012). Both the albums were played back-to-back, with the intermission separating the two.
To celebrate the album’s 5oth year, I have re-activated the turntable at my house and resurrected the record – still in mint condition – after many years. The newspaper cover is a little frayed and yellowed. Gerald Bostock on the front page is scowling at me at his forced hibernation. Let me first re-live the joy of re-visiting the old and discovering the new in the newspaper. Thereafter, I will slip the record out of the sleeve, clean it, remove the static with the ant-static brush, place it on the turntable, lower the stylus on its outermost ring, and let the magic take over!