Ian v. Ian


Jethro Tull: Thick As A Brick (Rhino/Parlophone)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of an album that is near and dear to my heart, an album that is considered among the most important and even influential progressive rock albums ever created. I am talking about Jethro Tull's brilliant 1972 release, Thick As A Brick. So I still have a few weeks before the anniversary is over to weigh in on something that has been bothering me.  It has to do with comments made by Jethro Tull's founder, singer/flautist Ian Anderson.

First, on a personal note, the album holds unique significance to me since it was, coincidentally, the first album I smoked pot to, the first album I tripped to, and the album that was playing the first time I made love. A true trifecta.

But I have been bothered by the following comments Mr. Anderson made about the album: that the album was intended to "satirize the progressive rock genre that was popular at the time"; that it was "a spoof to the albums of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer…"; and that the album was a "bit of a satire about the whole concept of grand rock-based concept albums."

Now, it may seem a bit more than cheeky for me to gainsay Mr. Anderson's comments about his own work. But then, I have never been one to back down from a light-hearted rowdy-dow.

Having literally "written the book" (or in this case, the multi-part article) on concept albums, and having been a progressive rock historian and semi-professional writer on that genre for well over two decades, I believe I have some standing to address this matter.

With regard to the claim that Thick As A Brick is a "satire about the whole concept of grand rock-based concept albums," this is actually a somewhat bizarre, and easily "refutable," claim since the timing doesn't work. Thick as a Brick was written during the second half of 1971, recorded in late 1971, and released in early 1972. By mid-1971 (as Mr. Anderson was still writing the album), precious few concept albums had been released. The most significant of these would have been Frank Zappa's debut album, Freak Out! (1966) and most of The Moody Blues' albums up to that point, particularly their sophomore album, Days of Future Passed (1967) -- arguably the first concept album to be broadly acknowledged as such. (I have discussed the status of Sgt. Pepper as a "concept album" elsewhere. Ultimately, it is only marginally a "concept" album.)

Other artists who would become known for producing concept albums (specifically including "Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer," but also including Genesis, Gentle Giant, Nektar, and Pink Floyd) would not release their first concept albums until well after Thick As A Brick. There were a couple of concept "suites" (i.e., one side of an LP) that had been created, including Pink Floyd's "Atom Heart Mother" (1970), ELP's "Tarkus" (1971), and even Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" (1968). But given that the music and overall concept of Thick As a Brick has little or nothing in common with Freak Out! (which was not widely known at the time), Days of Future Passed, or the three "suites" mentioned above, what, exactly, was Mr. Anderson "satirizing?" Mr. Anderson admits that he was a bit taken aback when some reviewers and fans called Tull's previous album, Aqualung, a concept album. Perhaps Thick As A Brick was actually satirizing his own work?

With regard to satirizing "the progressive rock genre that was popular at the time," "the time" would have had to be prior to mid-1971. Yet here, again, the timing doesn't entirely work. "Progressive rock," as that genre is now widely understood, may have begun with early albums by Frank Zappa, The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Nektar, Yes, ELP, Gentle Giant, Genesis, and others, but the album that has come to be acknowledged as the true "beginning" of progressive rock is King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King (1969). Between In the Court and Thick As A Brick (which came out a little over two years later), many "progressive rock" albums had in fact been released. But even given all of those albums, progressive rock was hardly "popular" at the time -- particularly compared to, well, every other genre of rock. In fact, it may be that Mr. Anderson is simply too humble to admit that Thick As a Brick -- "parody" that he may believe he was writing -- ironically may have done more to popularize progressive rock than any other album. Indeed, it became something of an early standard-bearer for the genre, and one of the most beloved progressive rock concept albums of all time.

As for "spoofing" Yes and ELP, this claim that has the most basis for support. Personally, I do not hear the album as a "spoof" of these two bands (just as I do not hear the album as a general "satire" on progressive rock). But I do get that the music on Thick As a Brick has a combination of the elements associated with Yes (and, in fact, most progressive rock; e.g., shifting time signatures, lengthy instrumental sections, use of non-standard instrumentation) and the "bombast" and "theatricality" of ELP.

Mr. Anderson also noted that, in writing Thick As a Brick as a "satire" and a "parody," he also wanted to "come up with something that really is the mother of all concept albums." In this regard, he succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, given the place the album holds in the pantheon of both progressive rock and concept albums.

So, Mr. Anderson, that is my thrust: I look forward to your parry!

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