Jethro Tull – Aqualung – Classic Music Review

Ian Anderson seems to get his knickers in a twist whenever someone refers to Aqualung as a concept album. After reading various comments he’s made over the years, I think what he’s talking about is intention; while Aqualung clearly has themes that weave together into a remarkable tapestry, those themes came together by good fortune rather than deliberate intent.

Concept album or not, Aqualung is one of the great albums of all time, a work of unusual depth, power and intensity. The lyrics are clearer and stronger than on any other Tull album, and the musicianship of Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, John Evan and Clive Bunker is simply extraordinary.

Yes, I specifically left out Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, one of the most inept bass players in history. Fortunately, they kept the bass parts on Aqualung limited to simple rhythm support so the others could strut their stuff.

The two main themes of Aqualung are the human condition (side one) and religion (side two). Side one is a series of portraits: two of people in the human underworld; one of Ian Anderson waiting for a train and musing on a visit to his father in the hospital; another of people seen on a stroll through Hampstead Heath; one a scene in the daily life of a couple; and the other of a working-class lout. It is the method (portraiture) that provides the unity, as opposed to any common theme or message.

The religious theme—or, more accurately, the corruption of religion theme—on side two is clearly intentional. The unification of the two sides is arrived by inferential logic (How can a God allow people like Aqualung and Cross-Eyed Mary to live such miserable existences?) or implied (the line, “We are our own saviors” in “Wond’ring Aloud”).

The opening portrait, “Aqualung,” is unapologetically graphic, searing into the consciousness:

Sitting on a park bench
Eying little girls
With bad intent.
Snot running down his nose
Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.
Drying in the cold sun
Watching as the frilly panties run.
Feeling like a dead duck
Spitting out pieces of his broken luck.

These lyrics are backed up by exceptionally strong, no-bullshit power from the band. The intensity abruptly turns into a quiet acoustic segment with Ian Anderson’s voice moving back in the sound field through heavy reverberation that distances the narrator from the experience of watching Aqualung’s rituals of survival. John Evan’s piano enters the fray and provides a marvelous transition to a new segment of intense urgency. One of the everlasting strengths of “Aqualung” lies in these rhythmic and dynamic shifts within the arrangement that constantly keep the listener immersed in the experience. The fourth segment is Martin Barre’s brilliant solo, a piece that has such a strong counter-melody that I’ve often found myself humming the notes when the song slips into consciousness. Segment five is another quiet acoustic piece that arrives in shocking contrast to Martin’s six-string explosion. The song wraps up with a return to the first verse, an ironically triumphant conclusion indeed. The triumph is in the exceptional structure that makes the repetition of the first verse a fitting conclusion to this incredible song.

Tull albums are usually pretty high on the intensity scale, and Aqualung is the most consistently intense of all. After the powerful opening number, there’s absolutely no let-up when we move to “Cross-Eyed Mary.” Another exceptionally well-arranged song, the band frigging rocks here: Ian’s flute is enthusiastic, John Evan adds some fabulous touches, Martin does his usual thing and Clive Bunker delivers a super performance on the skins. The intro, nearly a minute long, transitions beautifully with an emphatic trill from the flute. Like “Aqualung,” the song deals with the underclass (a schoolgirl hooker), with appropriately graphic and earthy language.

“Cheap Day Return” is a short vignette of Ian waiting for a train to visit his father in the hospital. The oscillation here is between musing on the mundane (“Brush away the cigarette ash that’s falling down your pants”) and the anxiety-provoking (“And you sadly wonder, does the nurse treat your old man the way she sh-should?”) Ian Anderson’s use of a third-person narrative makes this little song a powerful bit of poetry; had he written it in first-person, the perspective might have been far too contaminated by emotion.

“Mother Goose” is a precursor to the “heavy wood” sound that Tull would move to in later years, a semi-surrealistic stroll through a city park full of strong imagery and clever lines. “Wond’ring Aloud” is a lovely reflection on closeness; the more romantically ideal passages that open the song are made even stronger by the all-too-human act of spilling toast crumbs on the bed where the couple had been locked in sweet embrace moments before. Side one ends with the drunken British machismo of “Up to Me,” a song where the narrator blindly looks for some excuse to kick someone’s ass in order to maintain some sense of comparative worth.

The religion side, entitled “My God” in sync with the opening number, deals primarily with how organized religion has destroyed the human connection to God (or spirituality, if you prefer), in a complete reversal of its alleged intention. The emphasis is on exposing the absurd hypocrisy that always accompanies organized religion, and as an exposé, it’s a smashing success.

I heard a live version of the song “My God” years ago on a crappy bootleg version of one of their concerts that must have taken place after Benefit but before Aqualung. The device the idiot used to make the illegal recording must have been malfunctioning because it sounded like a 45 played at 33 1/3 with Ian’s vocals sounding like drunken mud. Regardless of the sound quality, I still vividly remember two things about the song. One was the line “and the graven image you-know-who” was sung “and the graven image Catholic.” I’m glad Ian decided to change it. The other was the first verse, as memorable a piece of songwriting as there ever was:

People what have you done?
Locked him in his golden cage,
Made him bend to your religion,
Him resurrected from the grave.
He is the God of nothing if that’s all that you can see.
You are the God of everything: he’s inside you and me.

As a young teen at the time, this validated what I’d always thought about organized religion and made me a committed Tull fan for life.

“Hymn 43” is a kick-ass rocker that somehow turned into the one single off the album, as it’s hard to imagine this put-down of the absurdity of religious zealots making much impact on American ears. The killer line, “If Jesus saves, well, he better save himself” rings true every time I listen to Republican office-seekers testify about their faith.

“Slipstream” is another lovely small song a la “Cheap Day Return,” dealing with the odd pairing of Christianity and wealth, something that makes as much sense as a camel fitting through the eye of a needle.

The piéce de resistance of the album is “Locomotive Breath,” an extraordinary song about a man being ripped from the crutch of faith by modern progress and science. The locomotive was the symbol of destructive progress in Victorian England, and it was during that time that “Old Charlie” (Darwin) “stole the handle” with his theory of evolution. At least that’s my interpretation; you’re free to have your own.

The song would have been memorable if it had been recorded simply with Ian Anderson on acoustic guitar, but what makes it a masterpiece is the amazing arrangement. The opening passage is pure genius. It begins with John Evan playing a romantic-classical passage that slowly transforms into Gershwinesque jazz . . . at which point we hear Martin’s electric guitar play a soft and highly seductive riff. The two threads (one of innocence, one of experience, in Blakean terms) then play together for a short while until the raw, modern, destructive sound of distorted electric guitar simply overwhelms the natural sound of the piano. The passage serves as a mini-version of the song’s narrative: a simple man destroyed by something he can neither explain nor deny.

The song then explodes into the driving, syncopated rhythm of the main passage, an intensely exciting piece of music accentuated by Martin’s moves between cut and scream and Clive Bunker’s tight drumming. Of all the songs in my library, “Locomotive Breath” is the one I find myself playing back-to-back most often. I listen to it in sheer amazement every time, then I want to go back and try to pick up the endless subtleties that make it a great piece of music.

“Locomotive Breath” would be difficult to follow in any case, but Tull hit a grand slam with “Wind-Up.” This story of religious indoctrination in the school system is exquisitely sung, beautifully arranged and gives me enough Martin Barre to satisfy what by now has become an addictive craving. Ian Anderson sings the song with the perfect combination of puckish humor in the quiet passages and deep disgust in the up-tempo middle, where my favorite lines reside:

How d’ya dare to tell me that I’m my father’s son, when that was just an accident at birth?
I’d rather look around me, compose a better song, ‘cause that’s an honest measure of my worth,
In your pomp and all your glory, you’re a poorer man than me
As you lick the boots of death, born out of fear.

As we fade out on the plaintive line, “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays,” we have to take a long breath and reflect on the entire experience of Aqualung. We’ve taken a deep dive into ugly human reality and the equally ugly hypocrisy of organized religion. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve reflected. Despite the enormity of the problems Ian Anderson has described, we feel good at the end of the experience, as we do with all art that manages to cut through the much to reveal simple truths. Aqualung ends in hope, not despair, and hope makes us feel good.

And we also feel good because on Aqualung, more than on any of their other albums, Tull kicks fucking ass!

13 responses

  1. […] Altrockchick describes it as a precursor to the “heavy wood” sound that Tull would move to in later years, a semi-surrealistic stroll through a city park full of strong imagery and clever lines. […]

  2. Anyone with an appreciation for Aqualung should visit 1989’s “Rock Island”, at least in part. On the remaster of Rock Island released in 2006, Ian wrote a bit of an intro for each song. “Strange Avenues” is introduced with:

    “Strange Avenues is a little sequel to the Aqualung setting of 1971. Sometimes it is so nice to revisit an earlier song and re-create, for a moment, the subject in another piece of invaded personal space. Nice musical arrangement and dramatic stuff. Must play it live again some day.”

    While it isn’t certain or even important whether we’re revisiting Aqualung or one of his kind, the sentiment of “Strange Avenues” is sympathetic although it’s the brand of half-assed sympathy that I’ve been experiencing over the past month as I spend each Tuesday through Thursday in Berkeley while shuttling bleary-eyes cross country every Monday and Friday. Berkeley is a prosperous East-Bay town that maintains its esprit de 1969, and though Berkeley is at pains with their homeless, it supports, as well as can be managed, “a thriving homeless population” (larded with more than a grain of oxymoronic irony). There are certainly far worse places to be homeless, which is to say most of them. I’ve found myself keeping a pocketful of dollar bills as I roam the streets. This helps me to feel better about my aforementioned “half-assed sympathy” toward these people as I can dig a bill out of my pocket before one of Aqualung’s brothers can even finish with, “Spare some change, brother?” If I allow enough self-delusion to convince myself that my intentions are indeed brotherly, then I’m a shallow little prick. No, it’s worse. I’m still a shallow little prick, but for a much more cunning and cowardly reason. I’ve planned for a quick transaction that allows me to pass the buck without so much as breaking my stride or, God forbid, locking eyes. One shouldn’t feel good about doing something when the next wrung down the action-ladder is doing nothing. Oh right! Strange Avenues…

    “The wino sleeps cold coat lined with the money section.
    Looking like a record cover from 1971.
    And here am I warm feet and a limo waiting.
    Shall I make us both feel good? And would a dollar do?”

    I hadn’t though about that song in years. I’ll have to sit Aqualung down to dinner next week.

    1. I know Berkeley intimately, having spent many nights and weekends there in my punk-oriented teens, and I’m very, very familiar with the San Francisco-Berkeley homeless issue because I volunteered at agencies serving the homeless in the City until I left for Seattle in 2007. The strange dynamic with the homeless in the Bay Area was something I grew up with, but the extent of the homeless problem in the Bay Area became more jarring to me after I left and I’d go back to Noe Valley to visit my parents. I think it was partly because I’d “learned to live with it” while I lived in the City, but also because the contrast between ostentatious wealth and society’s dregs is sharper today. I’m glad Ian Anderson revisited the issue, because it’s an easy one for people to ignore, accept and dismiss.

      1. It’s been on my mind a lot lately since it’s something that’s never really been right out in front of me. I’ve always felt a responsibility to act upon the misery that presents itself to me, but my recent experiences have jarred me from any self-satisfied notions about my compassion toward the down and out. Via my employer, I’ve designated x-percent of my income to be automatically donated toward the charitable causes of my choosing, and I realize that it’s just another arms-length mechanism to help me sleep at night. It’s still a wrung on the same “ladder of action”, and it’s still one away from nothing at all… a Dickensian calculus of making it all go away, but more for myself than anyone else. Damn, what to do?

  3. I’ve always interpreted Locomotive Breath quite differently. In the first verse, we’re introduced to the all time loser riding a metaphorical out-of-control locomotive to his death. Old Charlie, God, has set the locomotive (the all time loser’s life) in motion and denied him any means of control “stole the handle” and the all time loser, bereft of control, lives his life a helpless passenger.

    In the second verse, his children abandon him to his fate “jumping off at stations one by one” while his woman and best friend betray him. “crawling down the corridor”, he continues his out-of-control ride, not so much trapped on the locomotive as having no notion to get off.

    The third verse is tougher for me, perhaps we see a belated acceptance of the loser’s fate and a hint of purpose “catches angels as they fall” It seems a bit unlike Ian to find purpose via religion “he picks up Gideon’s Bible”, but in the end, we see a direct reference to God (no more Old Charlie) and a first person thankfulness toward life, and perhaps acceptance of the journey, out of his control though it may be.

    1. Very interesting and it certainly fits the theme of turning to God when people can’t figure things out for themselves.

  4. Great review on one of my all time favourite albums, and probably my favourite Jethro Tull album (together with Bursting Out, Broadsword, Thick as a Brick and Stormwatch. The only thing I don’t understand is the bit about the bassplayer, which I as a bassplayer myself, find a very capable and inventive musician. What is that based on?

    1. Thank you! Compared to Glenn Cornick who preceded him and John Glascock who followed him, Jeffrey was a joke. He was Ian Anderson’s friend from way back and recruited after Cornick departed, more for companionship and comic relief than his bass skills. The inventiveness you’re hearing is Ian Anderson instructing him in great detail what to play. From Wikipedia: “Hammond had required considerable practice and rehearsal to play Jethro Tull’s music. Despite his being a friend of Ian Anderson this lack of acumen led to some friction and tended to drag out the rehearsal process.” Listen to Benefit and Aqualung back-to-back and the difference is striking. Jeffrey was primarily a painter, not a musician, and departed Tull to return to his craft.

  5. Thank you for reminding me of how good this album is. I haven’t listened to this in a while and now I have an urge to!


  6. […] Aqualung […]

  7. […] The original U. K. version replaced “Teacher” with “Alive and Well and Living In,” a very dull number that made it onto the U. S. version of that throwaway semi-compilation album, Living in the Past. I’m glad it didn’t appear on the stateside version, or I’d have to give Benefit a relatively low number of stars (if I gave out stars at all). As it is, I consider it a transition album, the close of the early period, and most of the lessons learned would be put to exceptionally good use in Aqualung. […]

  8. […] even think Thick as a Brick rated as one of Tull’s three best albums, as I’d reserved Aqualung, Stand Up and Minstrel in the Gallery for those three spots. I took a moment to enter […]

  9. Reblogged this on ringingtruenet and commented:
    A superb review of an album that still has meaning today and still sounds fresh.

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