Classic Music Review: Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull

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Once I asked my parents what was the best concert they’d ever seen. This was fairly weighty question. My parents had been regular denizens of Fillmore West and Winterland; they’d been to Monterey Pop and several major festivals (though they opted out of Woodstock); they’d seen everyone who was anyone several times.

My father has an annoying habit of answering in the opposite, so the first thing he said was, “Well, the worst was The Doors at this two-day festival they staged at the Santa Clara Country Fairgrounds. They were headlining on day two, following Country Joe & The Fish and Electric Flag. Good luck following Mike Bloomfield! Anyway, Morrison comes out, his dick half hanging out of his open fly, looking dead fucking stoned and crashes into the mike, sending it flying into the first few rows. Robby Krieger stood there during the entire set with an out of tune guitar just staring at the fretboard like he’d never seen one. Ray Manzarek kept his head down, like he was trying to hide from it all. God, they were awful!” My mother shook her head in sad agreement.

“Great story, Dad, but what was the best?”

My dad was about to start another side trip down Memory Lane when my mother interrupted.

“Jethro Tull. The Thick as a Brick show. Oakland Coliseum.”

My dad disagreed at first. “Yeah, Tull was great, but do you remember who opened for them? The Eagles, for chrissake!”

“Hors de propos; ça ne fait rien!” My mother always shifts to French when irritated. “Jethro Tull. Thick as a Brick,” she repeated with conviction.

“Well, if you’re going to go with best performance in a concert, okay, but I was looking at the whole lineup,” my father nitpicked. My mother shot him a glance of pure French ice. “Yeah, okay, I’ll go with that,” he whimpered.

It’s so easy to control a man! My mama taught me everything I know!

I had to admit I was rather surprised by the choice. Thick as a Brick wasn’t one of my favorite Tull albums, landing somewhere in the middle of the pack. I put off reviewing it for a relatively long time, choosing to do Minstrel in the Gallery, Stand Up and Aqualung, which (along with A Passion Play and Songs from the Wood) are at the top of my Tull favorites list. I knew I’d eventually have to review it because of its prominence in the TulI catalog, and when the time finally came, I listened to the album straight through then immediately jotted down the causes of my resistance:

  1. Not enough Martin. To me, Tull’s sound is just as much a product of Martin Barre’s electric guitar as Ian Anderson’s flute. He’s there on Thick as a Brick, of course, but not in full force. Even on the relatively restrained Songs from the Wood his presence is critical to songs like “Hunting Girl” and “Pibroch (Cap in Hand)”. In Thick as a Brick, he’s usually playing counterpoint; John Evan’s organ takes center stage most of the way.
  1. Ian Anderson is a professional bullshitter. I don’t believe Ian Anderson when he says it was a mock concept album designed to make fun of the genre and that A Passion Play was the real concept album. For one, he’s simply not that good at humor. For another, the only evidence of satire is the album package; you can’t find a scintilla of it in the music. Finally, there are too many strong and insightful poetic lines for this to be a joke. Whether he said it to deflect potential criticism with a “we didn’t mean it” excuse or is simply a lousy satirist . . . I’m not buying it (but it may explain why the work as a whole is somewhat uneven).
  1. Jeffrey sucks. I despise Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond’s absurdist musings in the intermission here, and his so-called bass-playing is endlessly annoying. 

After the requisite three spins, though, I began to appreciate it more, particularly the first side. It’s still not one of my top five Tull favorites, but that judgment has to be placed into context. I’d certainly rather listen to Thick as a Brick than Exile on Main St., Honky Château, Chicago V, Catch Bull at Four or Seventh Sojourn . . . some of the other albums that made #1 on the Billboard charts in 1972.

Thick as a Brick certainly begins in a compelling and engaging manner, with that quiet and flowing opening guitar pattern introducing Ian in fine voice. I love how precise the arrangement is here: the flute blowing a pastoral counterpoint, the single loud power chord in isolation, the gentle entry of John Evan on piano, the way it all comes together before the fade into the next sequence. Both the musical and poetic themes are exceptionally strong. The opening passage establishes the poet as one apart from the larger human community, one that unthinkingly and blindly follows its own established wisdom

Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.
My words but a whisper your deafness a SHOUT.
I may make you feel but I can’t make you think.
Your sperm’s in the gutter your love’s in the sink.
So you ride yourselves over the fields and
You make all your animal deals and
Your wise men don’t know how it feels to be thick as a brick.

Following the opening and the subsequent burst of energy in the “See! There! A Son is Born!” passage, (featuring John Evan on organ and a too-brief appearance from Martin) we move into the sequence, “The Poet and the Painter,” opened by an all-thumbs two-note bass intro by the talent-starved Mr. Hammond-Hammond. The music here has a feel of grandeur as Ian Anderson plays with numerous high-level cultural conflicts: art vs. war, father vs. son, future vs. past. As Blake pointed out in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” opposites are necessary to human existence. Since conflict is what drives dramatic tension, Ian Anderson made a wise artistic choice to build Thick as a Brick on a foundation of opposing forces. Martin does have a long solo here, but this isn’t the kind of music that allows him to show his best stuff. The thing you really begin to notice is newbie Barriemore Barlow, who winds up delivering one of my favorite drum performances ever on Thick as a Brick.

After a somewhat contrived transition, we arrive at the short piece, “What Do You Do When the Old Man’s Gone,” a high-energy burst sweetened by Barriemore Barlow’s fabulous fills, where the choice between manifesting the true self or submitting to expectations is dramatized effectively in a single couplet:

What do you do when the old man’s gone – do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song. Do you want to free him?

This leads to another awkward transition which takes us to the catchy little air that drives the sequence, “I’ve Come Down from the Upper Class” (Edit #4), a passage about generational rejection combined with lingering noblesse oblige. The music then eases into a nice little passage, “You Curl Your Toes in Fun,” where Ian Anderson makes sport of the concept of heroism, supported by lovely piano and glockenspiel. This one dissolves into an even better transition to “I See You Shuffle in the Courtroom,” where Ian’s basic message is that the fix is in and to pretend otherwise (through ritual and habit) is a particularly absurd form of denial. This bouncy, whirling passage that dissolves into the power-chord-and-melodramatic organ fade that closes Side One.

The story at this point is coherent: the young man wants to shake up the power structure and expose the hypocrites for who and what they are. At this point I’m fairly impressed with both the unity and imagination of the piece, with some reservations, but I’m curious as to how the clever Mr. Anderson will resolve the dominant tensions . . . or not.

My reservations intensify once Side Two begins. We get a repeat of the “See Here a Son Is Born” theme with new lyrics communicating cynicism, indicating the contras have discerned the threat of revolution and are ready to do battle in the background. Good start! We’re then treated to a pointless avant-garde jam ending with random phrases about babies wearing nylons courtesy of Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. This is where they begin to lose me.

A slightly-modified opening theme takes us to another acoustic piece, “In the Clear White Circles,” where the narrator is viewing an encampment of soldiers. Why? Where’s the connection to the themes established on Side One? Tull goes further astray to the sound of a funereal organ in the very, very long passage, “Do You Believe in the Day?” Rather than advancing the conflict established on Side One, Ian Anderson shifts to the opaque style of lyric writing that critics would (rightly) skewer him for in later works.

The musically complex link to the passage, “Let Me Tell You the Tales of Your Life” has the virtue of adding some desperately needed energy. The obscurity that haunted the lyrics in the previous passage vanish with the wind, and here Ian comes up with some of the best lines in the entire piece as he challenges those thick folks in power while recalling some of the themes from Aqualung:

Let me tell you the tales of your life
Of your love and the cut of the knife
The tireless oppression, the wisdom instilled
The desire to kill or be killed

Let me sing of the losers who lie
In the street as the last bus goes by
The pavements are empty, the gutters run red
While the fool toasts his god in the sky.

Following that stirring passage—and despite the the passionate exhortation, “Come All Ye Young Men,”—Thick is a Brick seems to run out of gas. I do like the clever way they reintroduce the musical themes from Side One in reverse order, ending in the now life-worn rendition of the opening verse. The problem is that the stronger music is entirely on Side One, and their energetic attempts to create an effective build to a stunning ending on Side Two may pull it all together from a musical standpoint, the thematic side crumbles and the expected emotional impact never arrives.

Thick is a Brick was a pretty courageous undertaking, and I congratulate the artists for their daring. It is often engaging, delightfully clever at times and musically interesting. What’s missing throughout is the oomph of rock, commonly provided by a great lead guitarist and strong rhythm section. Martin is MIA for too long here, and while Barriemore Barlow’s drumming is top-of-the-class, he got zero support from the so-called bass player. They managed to cover up Jeffrey’s severe limitations in Aqualung, but there’s no hiding them here.

But I can certainly see how this would have been a killer piece live, and since mom and dad swore off drugs in 1970, I can trust their judgment that Thick as a Brick was the best show they ever saw . . . especially when Ian Anderson stepped to the mike after Thick as a Brick and said, “And now for our second number” (a story my father has repeated ad infinitum).

Here’s a clip from a 1978 show at Madison Square Garden:

6 responses

  1. […] Classic Music Review: Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull (altrockchick.com) […]

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  2. I was at that concert in Oakland as well. Thanks for calling it to mind.

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  3. I was at that concert in Oakland as well. Thanks for bringing back the memory!

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  4. Those surreal word salads and campy performance art moments of Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond were the high points and were why this era of Tull had an edginess and genius that they were never ever table to capture again in later years. I can listen to Sea Lion 2 and The Story of the Hare who lost his Spectacles to this day and still be amazed at Jeffries mis-spent songwriting talents and possibilities in what Jethro Tull could have aspired to be with this line up.

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  5. I never bought the “satire of the genre” either — the album just didn’t carry that — but totally loved the album — probably more than you do. Still, great review. Thanks.

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