Jethro Tull – A Passion Play – Classic Music Review

A victim of scathing reviews by stupid people. Click to buy.

The critics of the time skewered A Passion Play—and Ian Anderson was the object of most of those cruel thrusts. All found the story unintelligible; some criticized Ian for minimizing the flute in favor the soprano saxophone; others attacked what they perceived to be self-indulgent pretentiousness. Robert Hilburn of the L. A. Times found it “agonizingly tiresome” and full of “instrumental repetitiousness.” The most brutal barbecue was served by Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone (of course), who revealed his blood lust in the very first sentence: “A Passion Play is the artsiest artifact yet to issue from the maddeningly eccentric mind of Ian Anderson.”

Translation: “I’m a moron and my brain hurts when musicians do things I don’t understand.”

Mr. Holden continued to spew venom throughout the review:

A Passion Play strangles under the tonnage of its pretensions — a jumble of anarchic, childishly precocious gestures that are intellectually and emotionally faithless to any idea other than their own esoteric non-logic . . . Like Thick As a Brick, the aesthetic of A Passion Play is desperate zaniness, but here it is carried to even further extremes . . . As a whole, the score is far less substantial than Thick As a Brick, itself a suffocatingly fey concoction. Finally, one leaves A Passion Play with the feeling of having been subjected to 45 minutes of vapid twittering and futzing about, all play and no passion—expensive, tedious nonsense.

What really pisses me off here is Mr. Holden’s self-puffery and fundamental dishonesty when he references “the score.” I seriously doubt that there could have been a full score available for A Passion Play so soon after its release, yet he uses that word to imply that he is in possession of superior musical knowledge that the rest of us could not possibly grasp with the tiny peas we have for brains.

The savage beating Ian Anderson endured for A Passion Play became his own trip to Golgotha, but unlike the original victim, he simply couldn’t turn the other cheek. He got quite snarky about the experience in the song “Only Solitaire” on the follow-up album, War Child. He still sounded a bit wounded (but more honest and vulnerable) on parts of Minstrel in the Gallery, and I don’t think he totally regained his moxie and focus until Songs from the Wood. In later years, he would refer to A Passion Play as “a bit one-dimensional . . . It’s certainly not one of my favorites . . .”

Well, I’m not going to trust the opinions of a group of lazy, self-important music critics or those emanating from the wounded ego of the artist. Martin Barre was much closer to the truth when he said on The 25th Anniversary Review, “I think that, out of all the records that we have made, more people talk about Passion Play than a lot of albums. It’s a memorable album. I think it’s an important album . . .”

No shit, dude! While it has its flaws, A Passion Play is a work of musical genius that deserves a more prominent place in modern music history. I would have to say that if I could take only one Tull album with me into the afterlife, it would be A Passion Play—not necessarily because it’s my favorite (that’s a mood-based decision)—but because its musical richness and diversity create a dynamic where the listener always discovers something new each time through.

I put off reviewing A Passion Play because I knew that to consider it properly I would need the score that Mr. Holden implied he had studied. Given the difficulty I had locating a score in our advanced googlicized universe, I can officially call bullshit on Mr. Holden. I finally had to settle for a hybrid: a midi file that I could view in Logic Pro and a decent version of the written score on the NWC Scriptorium. Neither are perfect, but good enough to see the patterns and the thinking that dominated Ian Anderson’s “maddeningly eccentric” mind at the time. There is no way you can look at the score and conclude that it is “instrumentally repetitious” as Mr. Hilburn claimed. The score is far more substantial than Thick as a Brick, something even a dipshit like Mr. Holden would have figured out had he actually read the damn thing.

Wow! I’ve out-snarked Ian Anderson! Let’s move on.

The Apparent Story and the Real Theme

Our tale allegedly begins with the funeral of a young man named Ronnie Pilgrim, who witnesses the formalities in spiritual form. An angel appears, validating his continuing existence. A group of gentlemen arrive to guide him across the icy wastes to the first stop in the afterlife: The Memory Bank. Taking liberties with the common mythology that life passes before our eyes prior to death, Ian Anderson makes Ronnie’s first post-death experience a critical review of his mortal existence. The screen reveals a life of petty concerns and frivolous activity that seemed vitally important at the time, of choices largely based on the constant need to be someone in the eyes of others. After an intermission, Ronnie finds himself in the “business office of G. Oddie and Son,” a sort of purgatory where free will can be exercised. Humiliated by the experience of the Memory Bank and questioning the assumption that one must lead a perfect life to get into heaven (“mine is the right to be wrong”), Ronnie opts for hell. Finding Satan to be a bitter, power-hungry drag, he heads for heaven and finds that place to be a yawner as well. Yearning for life’s simple pleasures (afternoon tea, old shoes, an old hat), he catches the first train back to Paddington. Looking back on his experience, Ronnie challenges the tyranny of the wise man (much as Ian had already done in Thick as a Brick), telling the archetypal character Magus Perdé (perder = to lose; translation = lost, confused wise man) to “take the hand from off the chain,” move beyond the tired dichotomy of good and evil and allow human beings the freedom to reach their full potential.

Since we know that Ian Anderson was not thick enough to believe in physical resurrection, A Passion Play must be interpreted as an allegory. We have all hit spots in our lives where we have “died” in a spiritual, emotional or intellectual sense; the “mid-life crisis” is the most well-known phase, but the truth is people face several such crises throughout their lives, from forging an identity once we are free of the parental nest to feeling that we spent our time on all the wrong things as we enter the golden years. At those points, we tend to isolate ourselves from our friends and lose touch with our true selves. Our first tendency when facing a soul-level crisis is to beat ourselves up for all the mistakes we’ve made (hence The Memory Bank), then tell ourselves how absolutely and uniquely awful we really are, reinforcing our essential loneliness (note the repetition of “alone” in The Memory Bank segment). We then go through a period where instead of accepting responsibility for our lives, we blame the accepted wisdom we chose to follow for leading us to this miserable state of affairs. During that phase of denial, people often experience wild swings in personality,  going from one extreme to another (from hell to heaven, for example). If we’re lucky, we will have an awakening, an experience that might be triggered by a shock, a memory, or a simple, comforting sensual perception (like warm bread with afternoon tea) that will eventually lead us to the realization that life is worth living and we pull ourselves out of the icy gloom.

A Passion Play is the endlessly rich story of the journey through life, of the social and mental challenges involved in reaching one’s potential and of discovering one’s unique path through the obstacles of conventional wisdom and oppressive conformity. As Jung pointed out, all growth (what he called “individuation”) begins with a symbolic death. The person you were must die for you to find the person you must become. That is what A Passion Play is all about.

Act I: Ronnie Pilgrim’s funeral – a winter’s morning in the cemetery

I/II. Lifebeats/Prelude
III. The Silver Cord
IV. Re-Assuring Tune

The sound of a heartbeat opened the two progressive rock masterpieces of 1973: The Dark Side of the Moon and A Passion Play. This one beats at a normal rate but increases in pitch over sounds of city noise—traffic and siren-like patterns indicating alarm; a rush along the Fulham Road. Through the beat and the noise comes John Evan playing a whirling pattern on the organ, expressing intense anxiety or hysteria—something’s wrong, someone’s being rushed to the hospital, something ominous is at hand. Two all-in chords bring us to the prelude. Largely in 9/8 time with occasional shifts to 12/8 and 6/8, the band handles the non-standard time signatures and the key-stretching melody with ease and grace. Barriemore Barlow begins to lay his claim as one of the greatest drummers of all time right here, and will provide us with further evidence as the work progresses. Readers of my Tull reviews know I have never expressed a whiff of satisfaction with Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond as a bass player, but in A Passion Play, even Jeffrey holds up pretty well. Tull fans of the time may have felt some sense of alarm when hearing soprano sax on the opening measures, but the flute appears in the second go-round, reassuring all that yes, this is indeed Jethro Tull. The prelude ends with whistling (passing the time on the death watch?), the heartbeat slows to nothingness, the lid slams on the casket. All growth begins with a symbolic death.

“Do you still see me even here/The silver cord lies on the ground,” sings Ian Anderson, a capella, followed by three abrupt chords, indicating finality. The silver cord is the life thread connecting the astral self to the physical self, a phenomenon reported by several people in near-death experiences. The scene is a bitter one: Ronnie’s friends barely managed to fit his funeral into their busy schedules and he knows the eulogy is the typical inflated bullshit that accompanies most deaths (“ripe with rich attainments—all imagined”). The music that used to give comfort is now dissonant; the experience of separation is one of distortion and disconnection. Even before he experiences the full-on assault of The Memory Bank, Ronny Pilgrim has the sense that life was a missed opportunity. Musically, the main melody is simply lovely, and kudos must be given to John Evan on piano and Martin Barre on counterpoint guitar for providing such gentle and sensitive support. The mourning music is suddenly and unexpectedly supplanted by a burst of mad intensity where Ian Anderson shows remarkable dexterity on the soprano saxophone. It feels like a wave of denial-based emotion—the detachment that had marked Ronnie Pilgrim’s voice in the verses is blasted away with the horror of realization: “Oh my fucking God! I’m dead! No!” This is one of the passages cited to support the argument that A Passion Play is “cobbled together” from scraps; I would argue that the music is emotional-intuitive and follows the uneven progress of the psyche as it tries to deal with incomprehensible experience.

Fortunately an angel appears to lay “her head upon my disbelief,” and to assure Ronnie that the soul is indeed eternal. Suddenly a band of gentlemen “in leather bound” whisk him away across the icy wastes to the necessary ritual of The Memory Bank. At this point, he is no one . . . but someone to be found. The journey of rediscovery has begun. 

Act 2: The Memory Bank – a small but comfortable theatre with a cinema-screen (the next morning)f

V. Memory Bank
VI. Best Friends
VII. Critique Oblique
VIII. Forest Dance #1

The acoustic guitar shifts to a strum in a quicker tempo, ending on a note of dissonance. The full band powers up as Ronnie is welcomed to The Memory Bank, where he learns that the “faces smiling in the gloom” are bureaucratic ghouls who hand him an I. D. and inform him in a tone of rude delight that his entire life has been captured on film. The intent here is not one of thoughtful reflection, but brutal humiliation, and the music reflects that with its relentless intensity. The long instrumental passage featuring one of Ian’s most intense flute solos (multi-tracked and multi-layered) expresses both the mad intensity of Ronnie’s hosts and, just as likely, feelings of unimaginable anxiety in the eternal soul of Ronnie Pilgrim. Barely able to contain their glee at the arrival of another innocent victim, they take great pleasure in providing him with previews of his miserable, superficial, hypocritical existence:

Take the prize for instant pleasure, captain of the cricket team
Public speaking in all weathers,  a knighthood from a queen.

The passage glides with a nifty little shift to the “Best Friends” passage and its R&B style rock ‘n’ roll. Ian belts out the lines in the mocking tone of Ronnie’s accusers, ending the sadistic orgy by repeating the words “you alone” over and over and over again. This is not the feeling of sadness that Jackson Browne expressed when he wrote “in the end there is one dance you’ll do alone,” but the sickening coldness of harsh, unforgiving judgment—the forgiving Christ is nowhere to be found. Ian Anderson’s take on judgment day is hardly a spiritual experience, but a macabre horror film about one of our deepest fears: the fear of being judged, exposed, found out—a fear that generates the massive amount of secrecy and pretense around which we construct the public personality. The two passages “Memory Bank” and “Best Friends” are a whirl of shifting rhythms and syncopation and once again I have to applaud Barriemore Barlow for being the Super Glue that holds it all together.

In “Critique Oblique,” Ronnie is now firmly ensconced in the viewing room. This a scene that always calls up imagery of a terrified Malcolm McDowell with his eyes forced open to film therapy in A Clockwork Orange. Musically and lyrically, this is easily one of the most powerful and compelling passages of music Tull ever produced. The opening build picks up in tempo while changing time signatures in nearly every measure until settling into a driving 4/4 with hot kicks to separate the melodic lines. The instrumentation is heavy and powerful, with a touch of organ from John Evan that adds to the rising tension until it too settles around Evan’s pounding piano and Barriemore Barlow’s toms. Ian’s vocal in the role of inquisitor is forceful and suitably unsympathetic to the victim as he peppers Ronnie Pilgrim with insults and a series of seemingly unanswerable questions:

Tell me: how the baby’s made
How the lady’s laid
Why the old dog howls in sadness . . .
Tell me: how the baby’s graded
How the lady’s faded
Why the old dogs howl with madness . . .

We now see that Ronnie is playing the role of Everyman and must be held accountable for the crimes of humanity. By extension, this is a powerful indictment of the human race and our inability to accept any responsibility for the suffering and degradation of others, from the child forced into the straitjacket of a dull education to the psychological abuse of women, who only have value as long as they have the looks. In this sense, the argument for the sadistic approach has some validity, for it is true that human beings rarely change for the hell of it—we only change when pain forces us to change. The semi-whispered line, “All of this and some of that’s the only way to skin the cat” prescribes rough therapy, but perhaps shock treatment is the only way to restore humanity to the human. I hope that’s not the case, and apparently, Ronnie’s torturers share the same hope:

Man of passion rise again, we won’t cross you out:
For we do love you like a son, of that there’s no doubt.
Tell us: is it you who are here for our good cheer?
Or are we here for the glory, for the story, for the gory satisfaction
Of telling you how absolutely awful you really are?

At this point, Ronnie has been stripped of all pretense, all superficial forms of personal identity. The person you were must die for you to find the person you must become. As most of us know, personal growth is rarely a walk in the park: it’s a painful experience that involves letting go of many things we held dear but in truth were actually holding us back.

Act 2 fades into “The Forest Dance,” a pleasant piece of music and a necessary bridge during the era of the two-sided LP. We are then treated to an intermission.

IX. Interlude – The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles

With due credit to Small Faces, who first introduced fairy tales to rock music in “Happiness Stan” on Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond’s talking animal tale is well-told and supported with exceptionally well-arranged background music. The lesson of the story is simple but effective: listening to others tell you how blind you are is a waste of time and energy. What makes the story more poignant is that The Hare at first buys into the bullshit the rest of the menagerie is laying out, illustrating the fundamental weakness of human beings in our other-directed modern society: we live for others (parents, bosses, friends, co-workers) and allow their expectations and judgments to define us. This also happens to be part of the lesson that Ronnie Pilgrim is well on his way to learning, as demonstrated by the exposure of the dominant force that drove his less-than-stellar earthly existence: the drive to live up to the common expectations of society.

Act 3: The Business Office of G. Oddie and Sons (two days later)

X. Forest Dance #2
XI. The Foot of Our Stairs
XII. Overseer Overture

Recovering from the trauma of The Memory Bank, Ronnie Pilgrim finds himself in a sort of purgatory (not in heaven, as the Wikipedia article claims—there are no spiders in heaven!). While others reminisce, Ronnie considers his two choices: heaven or hell. Outraged by his perception that his “guides” (or captors) seem to be demanding perfection from his all-too human self (“mine is the right to be wrong”), he muses bitterly over the hypocrisy and utter ineffectiveness of religious dogma (“Show me a good man and I’ll show you the door/The last hymn is sung and The Devil cries, ‘More!'”). The music in this section alternates between 6/8 and 9/8, beginning with the spare sound of an acoustic guitar before introducing exclamation points from the band to mirror Ronnie’s flashes of insight and anger. When Ronnie’s musings finally begin crystallize into clarity, the acoustic strum takes over on the “Jackrabbit Mister” line, and on “More!” the full band comes in for a jazzy passage featuring the soprano saxophone and the endlessly satisfying sounds of Martin Barre crunching it out and driving the rhythm with sharply cut power chords. The passage ends with a ponderous church organ, a perfectly ironic introduction to Ronnie’s choice: “that forsaken paradise that calls itself hell.”

Hell is introduced with one of the most exciting passages in A Passion Play, the “Overseer Overture.” Dissonant sounds, grunts and groans dominate the soundscape of hell, but when Satan makes his appearance, the rhythmic pattern becomes insistent and terribly exciting, an excitement created in part by adding and subtracting extra beats to the measures (4/4, 5/4, 6/4, 4/4). The melodic theme here is also one of the strongest on the record, definitely worth repeating in the instrumental coda that ends the passage. In some ways, Satan isn’t what Ronnie was expecting: his touch is freezing (love the way they vocalize the shivers on that word) and his persona rather peevish and indifferent to it all. Satan affirms the lessons Ronnie divined in The Memory Bank—that much of the evil in the world has to do with keeping up appearances and trying to hide our flaws and crimes; Satan’s main business activity is “offering services for the saving of face.” Ian Anderson chooses to access Miltonian syntax on occasion here (“occasional corn from my oversight grew”), which some might argue is a nod to Paradise Lost while others might view it with the same disdain T. S. Eliot heaped on those who dared distort the English language. To my ears it does sound a bit pompous, but the music is so strong and devilishly playful here that I can forgive Ian his poetic sins as well as his painful puns (“primitive rite (wrongly)”). More important from a thematic standpoint, Satan is associated with the natural world—the world we experience in the passing of the seasons (hence the reference to the maypole, a pagan rite merged into Christianity). The natural world is a sensual place, and religion tends to demonize the sensual . . . a truism that will have a powerful reverse impact on Ronnie Pilgrim’s process of becoming, as played out in the final act.

Act 4 – Magus Perde’s drawing-room at midnight

XIII. Flight from Lucifer
XIV. 10:08 to Paddington
XV. Magus Perdé
XVI. Epilogue

One of the understandable errors that interpreters of A Passion Play consistently make is believing that a scene begins or takes place entirely in the place named in the description of the act. It is more accurate to say that the act descriptions sometimes tell us where the acts begin and sometimes refer to the scene where the most important action occurs, which may or may not be the first scene. In Act 3, for example, the action begins in The Business Office of G. Oddie and Sons, but moves to hell. In Act 4, the play does not resume in Magus Perdé’s drawing-room (the place mentioned in the act’s description), but in heaven, where Ronnie Pilgrim has found refuge from Lucifer’s icy clutches.

The rhythm here is similar to the rhythm used in the hell passage, subtracting beats but differentiating the pattern with a 5/8 kick towards the close of the melodic line. Ronnie finds that heaven has little to offer but to serve as the other pole of the dichotomy of good and evil, which leads him to his epiphany that both extremes are to be avoided because they are philosophically abstract dead ends, cut off from life itself . . . a life full of simple, sensual pleasures that he misses terribly:

Here’s the everlasting rub: neither am I good or bad.
I’d give up my halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once had . . .
I would gladly be a dog barking up the wrong tree.
Everyone’s saved, we’re in the grave:
See you there for afternoon tea.
Time for awaking the tea lady’s making
A brew-up and baking new bread.

After all, “a little of what you fancy does you good—or so it should.”

His “awaking” is the realization that to grow, thrive and enjoy the experience of human existence, he must return to the passion play, end his journey of self-absorbed reflection and rejoin the human community. Dropping his wings and practically leaping into his old shoes lying there on the platform, he catches the 10:08 to Paddington to resume his part in the play. A sequence of dreamy, gentle music accompanies him on his journey, as if Ronnie Pilgrim is both reflecting on his strange experience and feeling snuggly and warm in his old, flawed but utterly human self.

He is shaken from this pleasant but dormant state by a clarion call to action. The music that opens the scene of his return is raucous and joyous, with Martin hard-picking a crunch-toned riff over a shaking, shimmering, slamming tambourine. The celebratory mood then shifts by turns from insistent to what is best described as “brimming with impatience to get on with life” as the tempo accelerates. The lyrics here are highly symbolic, metaphoric and classically poetic, a combination that can indeed be confusing and off-putting. What Ian Anderson is trying to express is the unlimited power of human potential, so his language does tend to the extreme (“Bring the gods, the gods’ own fire/In the conflict revel” and “the flame of ever-life”). While I would have preferred more concrete, earthy imagery, I find the intense passion driving those words suitable compensation, for the tone is of a man who believes deeply in human potential and in breaking Magus Perdé’s chains of authoritative wisdom. The music shakes with a sense of discovery; Ronnie Pilgrim’s realization that life is better on the “knife-edge” between good and evil has opened his eyes to a possibility of a third way—the human way, one that accepts our faults and vices but recognizes our ability to grow and change for the better. The frenetic build-up to the final quatrain clears the air, and the ending of this sequence gives me the chills every time I hear it:

Man, son of man—buy the flame of ever-life
(Yours to breathe and breath the pain of living): living BE!
Here am I! Roll the stone away
From the dark into ever-day.

The meaning of this passage is that true enlightenment has to do with escaping both conventional wisdom and the belief that the gods are behind it all (hence “son of man”) and come to the realization that we alone are responsible for our lives. We cannot survive or thrive by delegating responsibility for existence to the abstract entities we refer to as gods, or summarize life’s lessons in the simplistic context of good versus evil. “Here am I” is not an expression of egoism but Ronnie Pilgrim’s triumphant realization that his life has both meaning and value. He has experienced a symbolic death, touched bottom and is eager to resume the passion play.

A Passion Play ends with a variation on the primary refrain: “There was a rush along the Fulham Road, into the Ever-passion play.” Ian Anderson used Fulham Road as the symbol of life’s progress and passages (there are three hospitals on Fulham Road, providing plenty of opportunities for both the first and final passages). We will all ride that road, experience the flow and play the play as long as we inhabit this “miserable sphere.” Each of us, possessed with infinite possibilities, will have a different tale to tell in the end. A Passion Play, therefore, is the story of human life and of the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth.


As I said at the beginning, I believe A Passion Play is a musical masterpiece. The richness of the melodies, the excitement of the ever-changing rhythms that mirror both story and the emotional subtext, and the exceptional quality of musicianship that every band member brought to the studio all combine to make A Passion Play a musical tour-de-force. Lyrically, it has its weaknesses, but those weaknesses are not due to a lack of intelligibility. Anyone who has taken a freshman poetry course or two (one that includes a bit of Milton), and paired that with mild exposure to Jungian Psychology (Man and His Symbols will do) can grasp where Ian Anderson is taking us. Only in the final act do some of the lyrics disappoint, and while that means that “Wind Up” remains Tull’s best-ever album-ending track, the ending still represents a satisfying finish to a remarkable piece of work.

I love listening to A Passion Play. I find the experience absorbing, uplifting and intensely engaging. Those are, of course, my opinions and my feelings, and I realize that music touches us all in different ways. Still, I wish the critics of the time had made a serious attempt to reflect on the value of A Passion Play rather than dismissing it as a defective product that somehow escaped the inspectors on the music industry assembly line. While I realize that reviewers then and now have their deadlines and need to keep that assembly line moving, music is more than just another consumable good, and the craftspeople who create that music do not spend the entire day screwing the same bolt into the same hole. Ian Anderson has always been an explorer, a “voyager into life,” and while sometimes his journeys may go off-course—as they do with all artists—he is always worth the time, the consideration and the respect. What he created in A Passion Play was unique, original and daring—and very much worthy of deep respect and admiration.


For a line-by-line interpretation, visit this page on A Cup of Wonder.

A Passion Play, full version:

33 responses

  1. This is an absolutely first-rate analysis. I bought Brick when it came out; I’d never heard anything like it (nor had anyone else). When A Passion Play was released it just seemed like more of the same – OK, but not as ground-breaking as Brick. I was too young to appreciate the amazing lyrical and conceptual sophistication of APP. As I’ve matured (at last!) I’ve come to see A Passion Play for what it is, and your essay has helped to cement my impression of it as a work of genius.

  2. williamreinhardtwilliams | Reply

    This is one of the best literary critiques I’ve read in years and an astounding performance besides.
    That you can also dissect the music, identify time signatures and credit the musicians responsible is so admirable. You’ve gone the extra mile to right a wrong that was perpetuated by critics who wanted to stuff rock music back into a simpler box of their construction, rather than allow for the more ambitious evolution that Ian Anderson & Co. had designed.

    Passion Play has a feel of danger about it. You are immersed in the passing strange from the get-go and the propulsive music ( A Tull trademark) never lets you settle. That’s the goal of art, to be compelling, to floodlight the senses and to engage, relentlessly. When you’re in the presence of something beyond your immediate understanding and instead of frustration you surrender to its gravity and ask questions. You revisit.

    I’m sure I’d enjoy reading anything you published. I hope I come across more.

  3. This is so, so good … About my all-time favorite album. Thank you, thank you.

  4. Geoffrey Perrin | Reply

    What a wonderful review. It seems we live in a world where the unusual, the brave and the unique are often ridiculed and dismissed. Your writing is a breath of fresh air, brilliant..

  5. I was clicking through your old reviews, and I stumbled across this wonderful review gem. I saw Tull perform “A Passion Play” in Seattle in 1973, soon after it was released, and it was one of the most amazingly theatrical rock performances I’ve ever seen and heard. Here was the opening. A film onstage showed a ballerina laying on her back, apparently dead. I’ll bet everyone in the audience thought it was a typical rock prop: Here, Tull fans, is the black-and-white photo on the cover of their latest album. But it was so much more. The ballerina lay on her back for a minute and I and I suppose everyone in the audience quickly ignored her. Then odd swirling music fit for a 50s horror flick started playing through the sound system and a heartbeat played as blood started dripping from the ballerina’s mouth. The “dead ballerina” very slowly moved as the heartbeat increased, and you realized with a shock that she wasn’t a photo but a live ballerina. Someone in the Seattle crowd screamed. The ballerina slowly rose, twirled around on a stage in the film and did a Grande Jeté through a mirror and crashed through to the other side. As she broke on though, Tull hit the opening notes of “A Passion Play” and played the first section of the album, which is in a complex duple meter. It was a spectacular opening to a rock show. I can’t think of any other band from that era–and very few today–that could’ve pulled it off.

    You can watch the ballerina film here:

    People today forget that Tull was both a musical and a dramatic group, and they had stellar chops and instincts in both. They anticipated the theatricality of, say, Prince by a decade. They’re probably the most underrated band of the classic rock era. “A Passion Play” wasn’t their best album, but if you saw it live, you never forgot it. Thanks for reminding me of that lo these many years later, Altrockchick!

  6. After an hour of reading these wonderful reviews and responses of the Tull records up to the Passion Play , I will cut it off here as I noticed I was starting to skip over sentences, and clearly you put some real thought into these reviews. Much of what I am reading is at the peak or above my skill level in fact. But it has done what I suppose good reviews do, I am now going to listen to, as opposed to merely have playing, the Passion Play. In fact pretty sure this Steven Wilson remix version from 5 years ago I have never actually sat down and listened to. I listen to alot of music over genre as it seems you and the people responding do. Including every thing Ian Anderson has recorded, probably nearly 200 live shows of either Tull or Ian band I have too, many never heard at all. So in a case like Tull entirely possible for something not to get listened to in years. But that was the Tull record that began my having all releases from them the first day available, a pace I maintained up thru 95’s Roots to Branches. I will say of the six acts I hold most dear, re Tull, Beatles, Jimi, GDead, Miles and Coltrane while it is Tull I love the best, they are also the one that I like with the least regularity. I liked an assessment you made earlier that broke Ian Anderson’s character into thirds, lol. Won’t say I flat out agreed with it but interesting anyway.

  7. Both Think and Brick and A Passion Play are probably the most underrated music Epics ever reviewed; simply because of their mastery of music and lyrics that are beyond the Critic’s comprehension. I’m glad a review such as this come to bare and given A Passion Play and Ian the praise they deserve.

    Thick as a Brick was a challenge for listeners and Critics alike. The “disaster tapes” were a much more direct in your face “since you pea brains can’t decrypt metaphors and musical allegories.” There are many comments on how APPLAY was quickly written… well if that’s quickly what would have a standard time turned out to be? Another hangup I’ve read a lot is about “Magus” and that it wasn’t a real word and thus dismissed everything else, and of course the Hare story; pretty obvious to the few but not to the masses.

    Ian’s music seems to have always been about breaking the norm, like Yoda pointing the way with Wind-up, Skating away, and others putting an exclamation point on the previous works. The sheep can either follow or not; the choice is to be freed or not.

    1. If you go to the recent Desert Island Disk posts, Tull did very well. I chose A Passion Play, my dad went with Aqualung and my mother picked two: Thick as a Brick and Stand Up! When I last listened to A Passion Play I was struck by how incredibly melodic it is . . . the overture is a delight to hum along to.

      1. I like your mom (no, not like that; I like her desert island choice of Stand Up and Thick as a Brick!)

      2. Flutists tend to stick together, and when she heard Tull for the first time it was after years of classical training. Ian Anderson was a key player in her liberation!

  8. Wow what a wonderful review of this majestic, deep, masterful trip of an album. You really nailed it, and crystallized some of the imagery that I’ve kinda sorta had floating in my mind for years when I listen to it, but never quite to that cinematic scope. Thanks for the great review! Should be mandatory reading for everyone not quite sure about Passion Play. In fact, I read it slowly along with the album and it was a nice enhancement of something I’ve listened to probably a hundred times or more.

    BTW… what do you think of Steve WIlson’s remix? I think it’s an improvement with a couple exceptions. For example – I feel Ian’s epic flute solo in Memory Bank is diminished by the inclusion of so many additional takes all competing for attention. Overall though, a great upgrade to the mix I think.

    1. I think Wilson did a pretty good job, but I agree with you on the Memory Bank solo: it feels almost chaotic, like music in a room full of mirrors. The Chateau recordings certainly confirmed the disaster aspect of that attempt, but I thought it was enlightening to learn how Ian managed to put together all those half-baked fragments into a superb composition. I don’t have 5-1 technology, but I’m curious how that played out.

      1. Thanks for the reply! I don’t have 5.1 either but I would love to hear it. At home I mainly listen to records at home, have a vintage system, etc. Not getting rid of the old school set-up, and didn’t want to get into having two systems. But these 5.1 releases have me wanting to pick one up pretty much solely for these reissues… I don’t think my wife would get behind that investment! haha

  9. Today I ran into a used LP for $6.00. Bought it, brought it home and carefully cleaned it in my RCM. Put it on my turntable and… I think my jaw is still on the floor!

    What a fantastic record! I thought that “Thick as a Brick” is their best masterpiece, but sounds like this one is right there. I would need to listen to it some more, but for now it is at least as phenomenally good as “Thick as a Brick” is. And to think how much so many people despise this masterpiece… morons!

    Thank you for this writeup. I don’t really care much for the lyrics, I’m mostly into music and sound. Which, btw, is to die for on this LP. The overall sound is absolutely brilliant, they literally rock the house! One of the nicest, warmest sounding LPs in my large collection.

  10. What a great site this is! I tripped upon by it accident the other day, looking for insight into some old Kinks albums I acquired on the cheap. Forty-eight hours later, I’ve read just about every review you’ve written. You’ve put a great deal of yourself into this, which I appreciate. I understand, I think, why you might want to move on to something else. But I’m quite glad to have discovered your voice. Your writing exudes intelligence, taste and (above all) joie de vivre. Your reviews are inspiring me to take a fresh look at the LP collection I’ve had fun building over the last few years. There are a few albums I’ve acquired, in the belief that they’re likely to be good, but simply haven’t gotten around to giving the attention they deserve. One such album is *A Passion Play*. Since I have absolutely nothing to do tonight, I thought I would break out *A Passion Play* and listen to it intently, with your review and a bit of Scotch as accompaniments. I will let you know what I think.

    1. Thank you so much! I did put a great deal of myself into the reviews (my mother would say too much!) and I appreciate that you noticed. Please feel free to comment to your heart’s content as I love reading different perspectives. Cheers!

  11. If I had to make a single criticism of progressive rock, it would center on compositions that threaten to go somewhere but wind up getting lost along the way musically and/or lyrically. When the loss of direction, focus, cohesiveness… you name it is musical, I’ll move onto something else as a great lyric can seldom justify shitty music. When the same occurs lyrically, I tend to forgive it, especially if it maintains any poetic virtue, but behind my game expression, there’s really very little mental activity happening aside from an overly-generous appreciation of phrases well-turned (vacuous though they may be).

    Inscrutability seldom justifies itself as inscrutability for inscrutability’s sake. Word-salad can be a tempting meal, but it leaves me unsatisfied and hungry for something more substantial. Of course, a lyric can make perfect sense and be unsatisfying for reasons involving anything from dead-horse beating (I’m talking to you, Roger Waters, how many times can you write the same fucking song?) to stating the obvious or wallowing in despair without an original or compelling insight that might make me feel a little sympathy or at least… something, anything, please?

    Having recently stumbled across your reviews, I find myself fascinated. Whether I agree of disagree, I appreciate well thought-out opinions delivered with humor and a playful tickle as well those delivered via a ten pound sledgehammer swung with brutal precision. I suppose the difference between me shouting, “Preach it, sister!”, or “Dafuq is that crazy women talking about?” is whether that ten pound sledge is being brought to bear upon the heads of my sacred cows.

    Insofar as my screed has anything to do with A Passion Play, Ian Anderson deserves nothing but praise for the work. As you discussed elsewhere, the worst relationship one can rightly have with the album is to declare it a rather large beet, pulled fresh from the soil and presented proudly to someone who, among their virtues, beet appreciation is absent.

    My wife happens to love beets, I buy them for her canned or in jars, and she’ll readily let me know when I’ve strayed from her high standards of beet appreciation, “You bought the wrong kind!”, she’ll scold me. What can I say? I could be apologetic, “I’m sorry, I’ll make sure not to get those next time”, but she would rightly suspect I’d been replaced by a doppelganger because that’s not what I’d say… ever. Instead, I’ll simply raise an eyebrow and remind her, “They’re all the wrong kind.”

  12. I gave it a couple listens last night on a four hour car trip to see the family. My wife tapped away on her phone throughout, ostensibly face-booking (any damned thing can be a verb these days) with her friends while savaging the music, “Appalling! atrocious! distressing! dreadful! horrendous! noxious! off-putting! unpleasant!” “The fuck?”, I said, “You’re having at it alphabetically!” That she finds the music I like tedious is one thing, but it takes a certain impishness, which she possesses in abundance, to surreptitiously consult an online thesaurus to communicate that she’s not on board. I had an ace tucked up my sleeve, and damned if I wasn’t going to play it. As Jeffry launched into, “Hare loved to sit quietly…”, I mimicked word for word. If Jeffry’s exaggerated Lancashire accent was painful, mine was excruciating. Defeated, she sunk into a resigned silence while I reveled in Ronnie’s visit to Hell, Heaven, and his rebirth into the ever passion play.

    Freaking brilliant. A Passion Play is everything that it is not at a casual listen… crystal clear and brilliantly cohesive.

    1. Ha! The love-hate dichotomy of a A Passion Play has rarely been so vividly described. It may not be for the casual listener, but I’ve never quite grasped why it draws such vitriol.

      I just realized it’s Thanksgiving weekend in the States. Drive safely and enjoy the music.

  13. I was introduced to A Passion Play in 1981, and I’ve given this masterpiece a couple hundred listens at least. Each time, I’d tell myself, “This time I’ll figure out what the fuck this thing is about”. I’ve been saying that for three decades now.

    Your demystification of A Passion Play is beyond excellent so thanks and more thanks. It’s coming with me on my next cross country flight to be listened and re-listened to in a whole new light.

    1. Thank you! A perfect antidote to high-flying boredom!

  14. …but, just reprised on ‘Too Old To Rock and a Roll, Too a Young To Die’, and I am amazed to see how badly that album did on initial release ( by previous Tull standards anyway). What a cracker! Maybe I’m just way out of step with everyone else here, but this was Tull at their best with top back line, Glascock and BB on drums, Martin Barre and the wonderfully eccentric John Evans on keys…
    Really good, unpretentious rock!

  15. Well, I have just revisited ‘Passion Play’ in its tedious entirety, having read your revue, and I have to say that Mr Holden had it spot on (see above)!
    I remember listening with huge anticipation to a chunk of this awful album in a record store in Germany soon after it came out, having spent 9 months playing the first five Tull albums almost non-stop in what spare time I had from my job as assistant teacher in a comprehensive school in Oberhausen.
    ‘This Was’ is a one-off, sadly never to be repeated…
    ‘Stand Up’ is top class with, I think, anything that didn’t find itself on vinyl first time round finding its way onto ‘Benefit’ which would have indeed benefited from a better sleeve concept, which was sort of ‘Stand Up’ reworked but with less flare!
    ‘Aqualung’ is also top class on all counts and is a taster of the Tull classics that were to follow.
    ‘Thick as a Brick’ starts to run out of steam on side two although side one more than makes up for this…and then ‘Passion Play’…

    This is claptrap from start to finish and shows you what happens when a musical genius such as Ian Anderson is milked for product until he actually runs clean out of inspiration and musical ideas and has to settle for obscure, unfathomable, tuneless drivel, in the hope that we won’t notice…BUT I’M AGRAID I DID!

    The Emperor’s New Cothes if ever I saw them?

  16. Thank you altrockchick for this review. You’re not the only one who’s favourite Tull album is A Passion Play, it’s my favourite Tull album, too. It has always been my favourite because of it’s unique sound, it’s poetic lyrics and the obvious hard work that has gone into it. However, I never really thought about the meaning of the lyrics so much until your review (apart from the fact that they’re generally great). Thank you for this, you have added yet another facet in what I already considered a masterpiece.

    1. Thank you—that’s a nice message to wake up to! I worked hard on that review but I enjoyed every minute and the deeper I went, the more I found to enjoy. I was also delighted last month when this review became my most-read review on the site. It took a while, a few hits a day here, a couple more there, and I hope that people who were turned off by the absurd critical reaction to A Passion Play have reconsidered it and have begun to appreciate the wonder that it is.

  17. […] A Passion Play […]

  18. I too say bravo. Though I’ve long owned A Passion Play I’ve only recently “discovered” it. The complexity and virtuosity reward every repeated listen. I find myself listening to it over and over and not tiring of it. I felt that was about Thick as a Brick also, but with A Passion Play even more so. I look forward to more deeply reading your review.

    BTW until chancing on the Wikipedia review, I had no idea what the “plot” was, and didn’t care. I got the Miltonesque and other religious references, but overall would be hard-pressed to say what it was “about”. I didn’t care – the music and skill of its performance was enough. Now I look forward to appreciating it all on an even deeper level.

    I finally got to see Ian live at The Beekman a few weeks ago, doing Thick. What a treat. I love the guy. He stopped the show in the middle to do a PSA (no pun intended) about prostate cancer. I must admit I could have done without the acting-out behind a scrim of a rectal prostate exam.

    1. A PSA about prostate cancer? Wow. One thing I love about Ian Anderson is his unpredictability!

  19. Fantastic review of my all-time favorite Jethro Tull album. I’m so glad that you “get” this Tull masterpiece too. Bravo!

    1. Sorry for the late response—long vacation. I’m happy to meet a fellow admirer of A Passion Play! I listened to it in full again over the holidays and my God, what the hell is the matter with people that they can’t see how brilliant this record is? Sigh.

  20. […] A Passion Play […]

    1. This review is sheer brilliance.

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