Jethro Tull- Aqualung
Written on December 12, 2012
Classically in through the progressive out door…
Jethro Tull started as a blues band in the late 60’s, and then they transitioned into a classic rock band with their second two albums Stand Up and Benefit. Then in 1971, they released Aqualung.
They started recording Aqualung by capitalizing on the strengths and ideas of their previous two classic rock albums, which is why the album is hailed as a classic rock masterpiece, but at the same time, the finished product was bursting with progressive rock tendencies, so it is also hailed as Tull’s first venture into progressive rock.
The most interesting part of the classic rock/ progressive rock juxtaposition on Aqualung is that Ian Anderson never considered Jethro Tull a progressive rock band, at least not in the sense that King Crimson, Yes, ELP, and Genesis were considered progressive rock bands, and Ian has stated this in many interviews.
Ian Anderson has always had a penchant for writing complex and creative music, and because Aqualung is both complex and creative, it was lumped in with the progressive rock movement. On top of that, Aqualung was even called a concept album, to which Ian Anderson was vehemently opposed. So, here comes the ultimate irony. Because Aqualung was called a concept album (although it was clearly not in Ian Anderson’s view), it lead Jethro Tull to create the Thick as a Brick album a year later to mock concept albums and progressive rock in general. However, by doing this, it made Jethro Tull into a full-fledged progressive rock powerhouse, and Thick as a Brick is so good, it really can be considered one of the most classic concept-progressive rock albums ever released.
In 1971, progressive rock was actually a dominant force in popular music and the concept album stamp was being placed on loads of albums during that period, so it’s not surprising that it was placed on Aqualung. However, I have to side with Ian on this one. There are some central themes running through the album, but there are several different themes and not just one central concept. You have some songs about the homeless, some songs about organized religion, and then you have some general ballads and rockers that don’t adhere to any running themes. So, it’s definitely not a concept album in my book.
I think Ian took such offense to Aqualung being called a concept album because Jethro Tull didn’t set out to write a concept album, or a progressive rock album. With Aqualung, Jethro Tull just set out to write a good album. The sound of the album is rooted in classic rock, but it is also bursting with odd time signatures, complex instrumentation, classical piano sections, and dynamic vocal hooks, all of which are hallmarks of progressive rock. However, there is a major difference in how the elements of complexity on Aqualung compare to elements of complexity on the other major progressive rock albums released in 1971. I think the other major progressive rock acts knew that they were part of an emerging movement (the progressive rock movement), and they liked creating complex music because it was complex. In other words, the complexity of their music was intentional, whereas I think Jethro Tull was just writing music, and the complexity of their music just effortlessly seeped out, so the sound is a perfect blend of classic and progressive rock; nothing sounds forced, and nothing seems out of place.
As for the songs, they are all winners; there is not a weak moment on the album, and it absolutely flies by when playing it. There are harder edged songs like the title track, and “Cross Eyed Mary.” There are more progressive natured songs like “My God” and “Locomotive Breath,” and then there are ballads like “Cheap Day Return,” “Wondering Aloud,” and “Slipstream.” I could easily highlight any of these, but “Aqualung,” “Wondering Aloud,” and “My God” stand out above the rest for me.
“Aqualung” starts out with one of the recognizable guitar riffs and lyrical openings in all of rock history. As soon as Martin Barre hits those opening sinister notes, any classic rock fan knows that it’s “Aqualung;” it is simply unmistakable. Thematically, the song is about a homeless man that is nicknamed Aqualung because of his hacking cough. Musically, the song has a biting edge to it, which is completely driven by Barre’s guitar— and on a side note, Martin Barre is one the most criminally underrated guitarists in all of rock. As mentioned, the opening notes and lyrics might be the most recognizable part of the song, but my favorite aspect of the song is its diversity, which comes in the fourth verse, when there’s a major pace change, and my favorite lyrical section of the song:
“Do you still remember/ December’s foggy freeze/ when the ice that clings on to your beard is screaming agony/ And you snatch your rattling last breaths/ with deep-sea-diver sounds/ and the flowers bloom like madness in the spring.”
Anderson’s wording here is extremely visual, and his description of the Aqualung character followed by the description of blooming flowers is a really interesting contrast, and it completely resonates with me (Click here to listen to Aqualung).
In addition to the biting rockers like “Aqualung,” you also have beautiful ballads like “Wondering Aloud,” which is completely moving and one of my favorite ballads of all time by any band. It depicts Anderson’s relationship with his new wife Jennie Franks, who he had married in 1970. My favorite verse is the last line, where in all candor Anderson sings…
“And it’s only the giving/ that makes you what you are.”
There’s an interesting twist to this song as well: it has a sequel called “Wondering Again,” which came out a year later, so it doesn’t appear on the record. It features very similar music, but with much darker lyrics, and the lyrics to the key verse mentioned above are changed from “And it’s only the giving/ that makes you what you are,” to “And it’s only the taking/ that makes you what you are. This could be commentary on Anderson’s view of his relationship with Franks, which was deteriorating, and they ultimately divorced in 1974. Nonetheless, “Wondering Aloud” is a completely moving love song. Here are both songs to compare:
The last song I’ll highlight is “My God,” which in my view is the album’s one full-fledged progressive song (whether Ian intended it or not). Work began on “My God” before Aqualung was released, and they even played a very early and rough version live at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. Lyrically, Ian sings venomously about organized religion with lines like…
“So lean upon Him gently/ and don’t call on Him to save you/ from your social graces/ and the sins you used to waive/ The bloody Church of England/ in chains of history/ requests your earthly presence at/ the vicarage for tea.”
Musically, it is easily the most complex song on the album, and the tone of the instrumentation sounds just as poisonous as Ian’s lyrics, especially Ian’s flute playing, which culminates with a 2-minute flute solo mid-way through the song. The song is absolutely one of the many shining moments of the album, and it is certainly one of my personal favorites (Click here to listen to My God).
All in all, it doesn’t really matter how you label Aqualung, but one thing is for sure, it is quintessentially Jethro Tull, which makes it completely unique. Personally, I think it is the epitome of classic and progressive rock fusion, which is why it has appealed to fans of classic rock and progressive rock for over 40-years.
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