Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The grandiose madness of Thick As A Brick

So there I was. It was a few weeks back, and I was slouching around behind my computer on a rainy Tuesday night. By all intents and purposes I should, as ever (or so it seems these days) have been working on writing a paper for one of my courses, but, also as ever, I was procrastinating the fuck out of it. So instead, I was absent-mindedly browsing upcoming concert dates for some of my favorite bands. After a bit of looking here and there I arrived at the website of Ian Anderson’s eclectic British rock outfit, Jethro Tull. While they only had a few tour dates for the UK for 2012, they did have one of those countdown boxes at the top of the page, usually used to count down the time left until some big announcement. Wondering what it was for, I decided to bookmark the site and check back when the counter ran out, and went on with what I was doing (which was mostly thinking of more ways to delay writing said paper for a bit longer).

Imagine my surprise when I loaded up the website about a week later and it contained not only an announcement that Ian would soon start touring Tull’s classic 1972 album Thick As A Brick in full for the first time since the year that record was released, but that he’d also be releasing a sequel: Thick As A Brick 2 (not exactly the most creative of titles, but hey, what’re ya gonna do).

Of course, I have to be a bit skeptical about the whole sequel thing; Ian is a talented musician and all ‘round creative guy, but doing a sequel to an established classic is always something of a risk – hell, one’d be tempted to call it a cash-in, but the guy really seems genuinely invested in the project. It’ll be another while before Thick As A Brick 2 hits record store shelves on April 2nd though, so in the mean time, I thought it’d be a fun exercise to cast our minds back to 1972 or thereabouts and take a look at the album that started it all: Thick As A Brick.

Thick As A Brick is one of those records that comes ‘round once in a blue moon, where no matter what sort of criticism one might level against it there’s something about it that works, something that clicks, a sort of energy and cohesion that truly make it into more than the sum of its parts. That’s not to say it’s a simple album. In fact, it’s exceedingly complex. Of course it is: this is a progressive rock album, a genre that developed at the tail end of the sixties and into the seventies. After The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper showed the world it could accept rock music as a full-fledged, independent form of modern art, prog rock arrived to take rock to the next level, incorporating incredibly long and complex song structures, intricately poetic and often indecipherable lyrics and, quite often, a range of instruments so diverse it’d have even the Fab Four bow their heads in shame. Thick As A Brick is usually considered one of the early masterpieces of the genre. In true prog fashion, the album is grandiose, majestic and intricate – and, frankly, kind of ridiculous.

It was also made in a basement.  

But let’s back up for a minute or two. Before talking further about Thick As A Brick proper, it’d be interesting to say a few words about the genesis of this album: for it is an interesting one. 

The band in '72, from left to right: John Evan, Jeffrey Hammond, Ian Anderson, Martin Barre and Barriemore Barlow. I hear the baby auditioned to be on bass but didn't make it.
It was 1972, and Jethro Tull was basking in the glow of the success of their latest album, Aqualung. A departure from their humble blues-rock beginnings, with Aqualung the band took a turn towards a more heavy and intricate sound, but it paid off, as the album was enthusiastically received. But something was bugging Ian Anderson. The critics seemed to be in agreement that Aqualung was meant as a concept album: a sort of parody on John’s Gospel centered around a straggly hobo named Aqualung who appeared on the album cover. Ian vehemently denied this, stating that the album was just a collection of songs with a few incidental links between them here and there. But no one would have any of that, and interviewers and fans constantly congratulated him on what a terrific concept piece he’d written. This pissed off Mister Anderson to no end – so much so, in fact, that one day he decided to gather up his bandmates in a dank, badly-lit Bermondsy basement that he’d rented from The Rolling Stones (who were probably laughing all the way to the bank) to record an album that would be “a mind-boggler” and “the mother of all concept albums”.

So if this is a concept album, what exactly is the concept? Basically, if this album seems kind of silly and overblown then that is by design, for it’s meant as a parody on the idea of the concept album. It’s also a giant put-on. Ian claimed that the lyrics for Thick As A Brick were an epic poem written by the eight year old Gerald Bostock, who even won an award for it… which was later revoked because psychiatrists found the child’s mind to be unhinged, the poem being a product of an “extremely unwholesome attitude towards life, his God and his Country”. That quote’s not from an interview or anything, by the way. It’s from a newspaper piece in the St Cleve Chronicle & Linwell Advertiser… a periodical that was about as real as little Gerald (read: not at all), but that didn’t stop Ian and his mates from concocting a twelve-page issue of it, complete with a review of the album itself and a rather disconcerting item about a fourteen year old girl who claimed Gerald to be the father of her unborn child. The newspaper served as the record sleeve for the album (one of the more creative ones I’ve seen in my life) and apparently took more time to put together than to record the actual music they laid down on vinyl. It’s only the hors d’ouevre though – it may be funny, sure enough, but the songs, boy do they kick ass.

Wait, my bad, did I say songs? I’m sorry, I meant song, as in singular, for Thick As A Brick contains only one song (named, well, “Thick As A Brick”). 

The record sleeve for Thick As A Brick, a fold-out version of the fictional St. Cleve Chronicle.
Of course at about forty minutes long, said song is certainly no slouch. While other prog rock outfits such as Yes had been experimenting with sidelong compositions at the time, to my knowledge Tull was the first to actually come up with (or at least, act on) the crazy idea to fill an entire record with only one track. Well, alright, it’s two tracks covering each side of the vinyl; but they’re acoustically and thematically linked into a continuous whole.

Lyrically, Thick As A Brick is about as intricate as they get – well alright, it’s not as inscrutable as 1973’s sequel A Passion Play or the metaphysical ramblings of Jon Anderson of Yes (no relation) but as far as albums with any kind of concrete message go it’s still pretty far out there. On a whole, it seems to be continuing the societal criticism featured on Aqualung in songs such as “My God”, "Wind Up" and of course that album’s title track, but conveys it in much more abstract terms. The poem being framed as little Gerald Bostock’s attempt to come to terms with the trials and tribulations of growing up in twentieth-century England, Thick As A Brick seems to thematize how modern society shapes its citizens’ lives and personalities through their upbringing (with particular attention to father figures). The singer asks the song to “spin me back to the years and the days of my youth”, recalling his birth and his upbringing through which he was enticed to confirm to societal standards, with even such seemingly spontaneous outbursts such as singing in the rain revealed as being taught as part of the process of instilling conformity:

See there, a son is born
And we pronounce him fit to fight
He’s got blackheads on his shoulders
And he pees himself in the night
We’ll make a man of him, put him to a trade
Teach him to play Monopoly
And how to sing in the rain

The singer is asking the masses, who through this process of brainwashing have become “thick as a brick”, to escape from the vicious cycle in which man has been trapped by society. But to do that, it is imperative that they learn to think for themselves, for as the opening verse goes, “I may make you feel / But I can’t make you think”. The young, in particular, hold the key to bringing about a change for the better, for mending our “rotten ways”, but can only achieve this if they pull their heads out of the sand and break free from the fantasy world they have willingly trapped themselves in. What is the following verse, set to John Evans’ ferocious Hammond Organ and Barriemore Barlow’s roaring percussion (and preceded by an ringing alarm clock, a literal wake-up call), if not a call to arms to bring about a change for the better:

So come all ye young men who are building castles
Can you state the time of the year
And join your voices in a hellish chorus
Mark the precise nature of your fear
See the summer lightning casts its bolts upon you
As the hour of judgment draweth near
Will you be the fool stood in his suit of armor
Or the wiser man who rushes clear

The young are called upon to step forward and take charge, to “rise up from the pages / Of your comic books, your super crooks / And show us all the way”. But any attempt at improving the lot of man in this context seems doomed to failure, for after this bombastic call to arms “Thick As A Brick” ends on a reprisal of the song’s opening lines, the singer informing us in a melancholy tone that despite everything, men still “make all their animal deals” and are still “thick as a brick”.

This central message is not remotely as straight-forward as I am here presenting it to be though, for Ian adorns his lyricism with a wealth of poetic imagery that often feels very symbolic, though I’m not always entirely sure what it’s supposed to symbolize exactly – the song even contains several verses driven by vague medieval British imagery a la early Genesis (think “Selling England By The Pound”, which came out after this album, but shut up, that's not the point). Compared to the relatively restrained Aqualung, Ian really let his poetic capacities flow freely on this one, and the casual listener might find himself lost trying to decipher much of his more enigmatic, ponderous poetic ramblings. Still, the imagery is well-constructed, evocative and oftentimes rather beautiful, and if Ian indeed aims to make us “feel” moreso than making us “think” then I would say he accomplishes at least that.

Ian playing an abridged "Thick As A Brick" in 1978: a magnficently fun, energetic performance that has to be seen to be believed.

And hey, I don’t mind an album having some lyrical chaff as long as the music is good. People don’t listen to prog rock to hear what it has to say, they listen to it to be blown away by intricate, rocking arrangements and exquisite musicianship; and musically, Thick As A Brick is no less complex than on the lyrical level... and more importantly, the entire record is just simply damn catchy.

Tull does prog rock tradition proud, as there’s tons of instruments on display here. The main one most of you’ll notice is Ian Anderson’s flute. Ian was one of the first people to really bring the instrument into rock music, and the way he plays it truly is rather unique (check out this seven minute(!) flute solo, it’s the craziest thing I’ve seen in a while). His prowess is on display in several sections of this album, such as the flute-driven marching music of the “So come on ye childhood heroes” section. But apart from the flute and the basics like drum and guitars there’s also harpsichords, pianos, glockenspiels, saxophones, a tambourine and perhaps even more instruments I’ve as of yet been unable to pick out of the mix. The musicianship is, needless to say, immaculate, or at least it sounds pretty excellent to my tone-deaf ear: all that rehearsing in that dank little basement sure did pay off, for the band reportedly finished the actual recording sessions for the album in little over three hours time.

And despair not: the fact that this record contains only a single song doesn’t mean it gets boring, for as the great variety of instruments employed would have you expect, Thick As A Brick is a magnificently varied record. George Starostin mentions that it could have easily worked on a short-song level, as the album’s various segments are quite different from each other and mostly linked through sparring instrumental passages. I’m not sure I’d agree with this assessment entirely: while an album like Quodrophenia by The Who is indeed a collection of quite distinctly separate songs linked together via instrumental bits, the aforementioned “So come all ye young men” bit or the “Poet and the painter” segment feel, despite their differences, like they are each part of a bigger whole. Still, I see what he’s getting at in underlining the record’s diversity this way, and it is indeed easy to pick out your favorite bits to go back and listen to after taking in the album in as a whole. Rather than labeling the “Thick As A Brick” composition as a song it might more accurately be called a suite, which would simultaneously underline its unity and the diversity of its various pieces, and would also be a nice nod to the classical influences displayed by the record and by seventies prog rock in general.

The album contains a wealth of musical ideas that make it simply a joy to listen to. There are tons of different kinds of tunes here that all flow perfectly into one another, each working in unison with the lyrics to underline the intended mood of the moment, be it calm and serene, enchantingly beautiful or energetic and urgent. Some of the more memorable bits include the exquisite folksy acoustic guitar section that starts off the album, with Ian’s flute poking in and out as the lyrics lay down the song’s central thematic premise (“And your wise men don’t know how it feels / To be thick as a brick”). The charming tune quickly turns somewhat dark and ominous, however, as the singer voices the call to be swept back to his childhood - then quickly develops into a fast ‘n furious rocker backing the aforementioned “See there, a son is born” section. The verses dominated by Ian’s medieval imagery are marked by bombastic and complex yet beautiful balladry, and there’s even something that sounds like a nursery rhyme in there, albeit with somewhat twisted lyrics that contrast amusingly with the upbeat tune they’re set to  (“You curl your toes in fun / As you smile at everyone / […] / And you laugh most ruthlessly / As you tell us what not to be”).

To underline the various sections’ underlying cohesiveness as parts of a larger suite of music, a number of tunes pop up several times throughout the record, though often in slightly different ways. After the split between side on and two of the original record, which is marked by a short sound collage reminiscent of some of Frank Zappa’s more abstract moments, a foreboding, howling wind gives way to a flurry of drumbeats and a reprisal of the “See there, a son is born section”, albeit with modified lyrics and set to a much more bombastic, percussion-driven interpretation of the original melody. The upbeat, keyboard-driven “So come on ye childhood heroes” section is featured near the tail end of both sides of the record, with its second appearance eventually followed by the aforementioned reprisal of the song’s opening lines set to a somewhat slower, more melancholy reinterpretation of the charming acoustic ditty that the suite opened with, bringing us full-circle both musically and lyrically.

Flyer for the '72 Thick As A Brick tour, the only tour on which the full album was played live.
It’s funny that despite its status as an overblown parody of the idea of concept albums in general, Thick As A Brick ends up, in my mind at least, being a lot more interesting, enjoyable and downright listenable than most serious concept albums out there – indeed, apart from Animals and Tommy (and maybe Joe's Garage), I can’t really think of any that come close. Then again, the parody aspect might actually be what salvages this record from seeming too overblown and pretentious for its own good. Sure, the music sounds so bombastic as to occasionally border on the ridiculous, and the vague poetic ramblings of Ian’s lyrics with their rather preachy underlying message (which I do feel is quite sincere and heartfelt) might be a put-off to some people. However, when taking the album as a whole, from the amusing story of its conception to the whole Gerald Bostock hoax and the absurd live shows, which featured set pieces like a guy in a gorilla costume walking on stage to answer the telephone mid-performance, you get the feeling that despite the serious edge to the album and its message a lot of it is part of a big joke that we, the listeners, are in on. 

The year after Thick As A Brick, Tull would repeat the one-song concept album stint with A Passion Play, which, while it did chart high on both sides of the Atlantic, was a rather resounding critical dud. While the album (good as it is - give it a shot some time, it's not as awful as people make it out to be) was simply less musically diverse and interesting than Thick As A Brick, I feel A Passion Play's failure and lack of apparent accessibility also has to with the fact that, while similarly overblown as Tull’s previous effort, this time the idea was executed entirely straight-faced, with no offbeat tongue-in-cheekness to offset Ian’s preachy and now entirely enigmatic lyricism and no upbeat, silly melodies to give any solace on an exceedingly pompous and pretentious seeming album.

Thick As A Brick itself, however, still stands the test of time on all accounts, and Ian sure has a tough act to follow up on with Thick As A Brick 2. There’ve been some reports here and there that the new album is pretty good on its own terms (the 5.1 surround mix is done by Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson, who seems to be tentatively positive about the whole thing), so while I really can’t bring myself to be excited for it exactly, you can at least color me interested. So yeah, I’ll be there buying on the 2nd of April, and if old man Ian’ll be so good as to finally post up some tour dates for the Netherlands, I’ll gladly attend to hear his aging vocal chords struggle their way through a live performance of both albums (because really, comparing his old performances to some of his more recent ones I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t do well to just retire from singing at live shows). 
But whether Thick As A Brick 2’ll be any good or not, we’ll always have the original album to listen to. Don’t let the one-song format or the lyrical and musical complexity scare you away from this one. It might be hard to get into at first, but beat by beat, this is simply one of the coolest albums I’ve ever heard. “Really don’t mind / If you sit this one out” might be what Ian sings in the song’s opening line, but if you were to ask me, sitting this album out would be a dang shame.

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