Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Thick as a Brick

Summer of 1972, my family packed up our Travelall, and made our annual summer trek to Utah.  My Dad loved our summer vacations, planned them carefully. The idea was, what interesting places could we visit somewhere between Indiana and Utah?  We'd visit it en route.  Sometimes, our en route destinations could be dangerous--my great-grandmother Mary Markham once refused to feed us on arrival because we'd stopped at the Truman library on our way to see her.  That's a Republican, by golly.  But I digress.  See what I did there?--talking about travel digressions by digressing. 

Anyway, visiting Utah meant visiting cousins, which meant, in turn, visiting the Steves.  I have two cousins that are about my age, and both, as it happens, are named Steve.  I don't get to see the Steves much these days, but we're still close, and I still think of both as treasured friends.  Anyway, I was a classical music nerd--Beethoven, Bach, Verdi, Wagner.  I knew some rock music, and I vividly remember when my friend's older brother let us listen to his brand new Beatles album--Sgt. Pepper's, but only if we promised to be very quiet and not bother him.  And we lay on the floor, listening, and it was basically one of the great religious experiences.  But Steve D was very into it, much more than me, and in the summer of 1972, he'd gotten tickets for me and Steve M and him: Jethro Tull in concert, at the Salt Palace. 

I'd never been to a rock concert before--didn't know what to expect.  We arrived, a band got on stage, started performing. It was awful: loud, boring, an assault on the ears.  I gave it a half hour, couldn't take it anymore, said to Steve D "man, I'm sorry, how offended would you be if . . . .."  I never finished the sentence. "That's the warm-up band," he said. "That's not Tull. I agree, they're awful.  Just hang in there, okay?" And soon enough they finished, to scattered, unenthusiastic applause.  "Okay, Tull's next," Steve told me. 

Okay, so the band cleared off, a bunch of roadies got on-stage, moving instruments around, plugging amps in.  They were dressed, for some reason, in white lab coats.  This took awhile, I'm sitting there wondering what was going on.  One of them picked up a guitar, was messing with it.  I heard these opening chords.  Suddenly, the guys threw off their lab coats, house lights go down, stage lights up, and they launched into "Aqualung." 

The concert had two acts--the first included all the songs on Aqualung, and the second was the entire album Thick as a Brick.  That link shows a live concert in '78, six years after the one I saw.  I was blown away by all of it.  For one thing, their lead singer also played guitar and . . . flute?  The sound, it was like this mix of folk music, classical music, jazz, and very tight rock and roll.  It had dynamic levels and nuance, it was complex, interesting music.  It was brilliant.

When I got home, I bought both albums, and wore them out listening to them. I still love Aqualung.   And Thick as a Brick was unlike anything else anywhere.  For one thing, the entire album was one, 45 minute song.  It told a story, a long, involved, complicated story--a king, an army of some kind, a coming-of-age.  Plus the lead singer was a baritone! Yay!  I could sing along with him.  And, boy,  did I. 

It was my favorite album ever, and still is.  And that summer of '72 was the last time they ever performed the entire thing live.  The clip above is what they've mostly done since--a twelve minute truncated version.  About which more later.

A bit about the band. I assumed that the lead singer/flautist was named Jethro Tull.  That's wrong--Tull is the name of the band, his name is Ian Anderson.  Early in their career, their music was so different from anyone else's, they had a hard time getting repeat bookings, so kept changing the band's name.  One of their managers was a history buff, and suggested they name themselves after the 18th century agronomist Jethro Tull--their first concert using that name, they got invited back for the first time, so that's the name that stuck. 

They're really Ian Anderson's band, in a lot of important ways.  He's their singer, he writes all their songs, and his flute is their signature sound.  Since 1969, Martin Barre has been their lead guitarist, and he's phenomenal, a superb musician who is sufficiently ego-less to subordinate his own technical genius to the band's overall sound.  During their peak, in the '70's, Barrie Barlow was their drummer, and John Evan their keyboardist.  Jeffrey Hammond, Anderson's closest childhood friend, played bass, but not terribly well--in the albums, Evan and Anderson would quietly sneak back to the studios and re-record the bass line.  Hammond eventually quit and is now a renowned painter--he was replaced by John Glascock.  David Palmer, who did a lot of their arranging, joined as a second keyboardist--their songs sometimes used piano, synthesizer, harpsichord, organ and mellotron, so a second keyboardist was helpful.  That's the lineup in that '78 clip.  Then Glascock, the new bass player, died of a heart attack, and Barlow, his best friend, quit, depressed. Evan and Anderson had a falling out--there have been many changes over the years.  Only Anderson and Barre have been constants.  When I saw them in Salt Lake in 2007, David Pegg and Doane Perry and Andrew Giddings joined Anderson and Barre.  Great concert, BTW. 

When I was in high school, Tull was my favorite band, and my favorite kind of music was what was called prog-rock.  Progressive rock.  Bands like Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, The Moody Blues and Genesis (back in their Peter Gabriel years) were all prog, as was the greatest prog band ever, Gentle Giant. I saw all of them in concert many times, especially Gentle Giant, who me and my friends sort of followed around, like some people did with the Grateful Dead. Dave Matthews is basically a prog band today--for sure Arcade Fire is one.  It's related to fusion jazz, to Herbie Hancock and Oregon and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  It was all an attempt to fuse rock, classical music, folk and jazz together, to, as Gentle Giant put it on their Acquiring the Taste album, to "expand the frontiers of popular music at the risk of being quite unpopular." Here's a taste.

It's also kind of un-cool.  None of the bands above have made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is frankly preposterous.  But Rolling Stone magazine HATED prog.  Just HATED it.  It's actually officially on their mission statement: "to advance rock music everywhere, except for prog rock, which we HATE." Prog rockers did concept albums.  Shudder.  They had cellos and flutes and glockenspiels and harpischords.  It was pretentious.  It was laughable.

Except it's not.  It's great music.  It's genuinely great. Complex, original, never uninteresting.  Moving, powerful.  Smart, thoughtful music, that also moves my soul.  I love the late Beethoven string quartets, I love Wagner's operas, I love Bach's St. Matthew;s Passion.  And I love Tull. 

And now, Ian Anderson has written and recorded Thick as a Brick 2. That was my daughter's Father's day gift to me--I've listened to it four times already, and it's great.  This fall, he's touring it, and the original Thick as a Brick. They're coming to Salt Lake.  My wife bought me tickets for my birthday.  My best friend Wayne and I are going. 
I.  Can't.  Wait. 


  1. Try this: Read, Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars" while listening to Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans (a very under-rated album IMHO). My buddy, John Munoa discovered the psychic connection there. I'm sure "John Carter" would have succeeded much better if they'd used that music for the score.

  2. Thanks - that was very fun to read. It all resonates with my experiences. Love Gentle Giant. Nothing like listening to Knots with headphones.

    Were you also a fan of the prog band Camel? Loved Camel. And an Italian band - PFM.

    Thanks for jogging the memories.

    1. I wasn't into Camel as a kid, but then I married a massive Camel fan, and love that band. I'll look up PFM!