Wond'ring aloud about Jethro Tull's finest hour


November 18, 2001



To describe it only by its lyrical themes, you'd think it was an album by one of the more probing, sociologically-minded punk bands. The first half is largely devoted to portraying the faces from the urban underground that most people never see: homeless men, prostitutes, assorted freaks and geeks. The flip side (these still being the days of vinyl albums) is a bitter, angry, and sustained attack on the hypocrisy of the Church of England, which gives such people false hope.

An effort by the Dead Kennedys, perhaps? Or maybe Bad Religion?

In fact, it's Jethro Tull's ''Aqualung'' (Chrysalis, 1971), the disc that stands as the long-running Brits' magnum opus and defining epic (though bandleader Ian Anderson insists to this day that it is not a concept album).

Named for an 18th century farmer and inventor, Jethro Tull was formed in December 1967 by singer-songwriter-flautist Anderson, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland. Initially the group was very much a part of the London blues boom, though Anderson was equally influenced by jazz (Rahsaan Roland Kirk is the model he's never properly acknowledged) and folk-rock (especially the pioneering Fairport Convention). His flamboyant stage antics--gesturing wildly, perching on one leg, and rolling his eyeballs like a madman--were also a world away from somber white bluesmen like John Mayall.

The group's lineup evolved through the course of 1968 and '69--Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi was the guitarist who appeared with Tull on its slot with the Rolling Stones' legendary ''Rock 'n' Roll Circus''--but Anderson eventually found his ideal partners in guitarist Martin Barre, a former architecture student, and David Palmer, who arranged the complex orchestrations on most of the group's best albums (although he didn't formally join on keyboards until 1977).

With hits such as ''Living in the Past'' and soon-to-be-trademark numbers like ''Bouree,'' Anderson's gonzo, flute-driven take on Bach, the band was moving slowly but surely away from blues-rock and toward a more unique hybrid on albums such as ''This Was,'' ''Stand Up,'' and ''Benefit.'' But ''Aqualung'' was where it really came into its own.

The title track (and arguably the vibe of the whole album) was inspired by Anderson's first wife, Jennie, a photographer who'd been shooting images of destitute men living on the streets of London. But the world that Anderson creates is hardly hyper-realistic. His London is not quite Dickensian and not wholly medieval, though there are elements of both eras, as well as jarring intrusions from the modern age. This is a postmodern city like the one in Stanley Kubrick's ''A Clockwork Orange''--close enough to our own to be recognizable, but strange enough to be dismissed as science fiction.

Over the course of his long career, Anderson has frequently been dissed by rock critics as a didactic and ponderous lyricist. At times, that's been true; woe to the college lit major pondering the ''meaning'' of ''A Passion Play.'' But the writing on ''Aqualung'' is actually vivid and starkly evocative: The ''poor old sod'' of the title cut is so-named because his labored breathing sounds like a scuba diver sucking from an oxygen tank (''You snatch your rattling last breaths, with deep-sea-diver sounds/And the flowers bloom like madness in the spring'').

There's also considerable humor in Anderson's portraits. The prostitute ''Cross-Eyed Mary'' dines on ''expense-accounted gruel''; the clueless tourist in ''Mother Goose'' asks if it's ''really true there are elephants and lions too in Piccadilly Circus,'' and all the while the army's up the road offering ''salvation a la mode and a cup of tea.''

The laughs are fewer and further between on the second side of the album as Anderson sets his sights on organized religion. But at heart, songs such as ''My God'' and ''Wind Up'' are examples of classic rock 'n' roll rebellion as Anderson rejects the conformist thinking that he was force-fed in public school. ''So to my old headmaster (and to anyone who cares)/Before I'm through, I'd like to say my prayers,'' Anderson sings. ''I don't believe you: You got the whole damn thing all wrong/He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.''

In any event, as with any great rock album, the lyrics are only a small part of the story. ''Aqualung'' succeeds because of the well-seasoned stew of musical influences: the frantic flute solos, Palmer's regal orchestrations and baroque choir parts, keyboardist John Evan's imaginative Mellotron work, Anderson's rich baritone vocals, Barre's mellifluous guitar lines, and Clive Bunker's deft and dexterous drumming, which is alternately intricate and fragile in the progressive tradition and minimal and propulsive a la the best hard rock. (Bunker would leave the group after this album to be replaced by the much less interesting Barriemore Barlow.)

Like Led Zeppelin, another British band with roots in the blues that struck perfection with its signature sound on a monumental fourth album, Jethro Tull had mastered the art of dramatic contrasts and swelling dynamics, shifting with seeming effortlessness from thunderous grandeur to quiet, folky introspection. The madrigal-like ''Wond'ring Aloud'' and ''Cheap Day Return'' are as plainly pretty as anything Sandy Denny ever recorded with Fairport Convention, while the rollicking, undeniable classic-rock-radio staple ''Locomotive Breath,'' the vituperative ''Hymn 43,'' and the viciously grooving ''Cross-Eyed Mary'' are as close to heavy metal as Tull ever got (the band's infamous 1988 Grammy for ''Crest of a Knave'' to the contrary).

In the end, though, as with Zep's ''Stairway to Heaven,'' it all comes back to ''Aqualung.'' This one track encapsulates all of Jethro Tull's musical variety and complexity in one handy package, intertwining three distinct parts: the nasty, hard-rock intro and exit powered by that monstrous, indelible guitar riff; the quiet, sympathetic acoustic interlude marked by Anderson's distant, treated vocals, and the majestic, pseudo-orchestral build-up that links the other sections.

Jethro Tull would proceed to make a lot of worthwhile music in all of these individual modes in the years to come--especially memorable are the more concise rock efforts ''Warchild'' and ''Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll, Too Young to Die!'' and the folkier outings ''Songs from the Wood'' and ''Heavy Horses''--but it would never do everything quite so well at one time again.

The other measure of success is that ''Aqualung'' created one of rock's great stage personas/alter egos. In the end, it's hard to tell where Ian Anderson ends and the dirty old beggar and lecher Aqualung begins. The watercolor portrait on the album cover looks an awful lot like the band's auteur, and from this point on, Anderson would loom large in rock fans' imaginations as a vaguely sinister, exceedingly flamboyant relic from another era. If Mark Twain imagined a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, here was a Medieval Merlin for the Modern Rock World.