Umm. Er. Huh. Hello? What the fuck?
I mentioned previously that my Tull-devotee parents went to see Jethro Tull every time they came to the Bay Area (and even flew down to L. A. for the War Child concert). This was not literally true. Following the pattern, Dad immediately bought Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die the second it was released and rushed home to share it with his beloved. An hour later, the mood of anticipated delight was replaced by complete and utter deflation.
“I thought Ian Anderson had lost his fucking mind,” Dad remembered.
“A mad act of debasement. Not so much a sellout . . . more of a misguided attempt to bring in the mainstream audience,” my mother opined.
Needless to say, my parents skipped the promotional tour and waited for Ian Anderson to reconnect with reality (which he did in glorious fashion with Songs from the Wood).
Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die is clearly the outlier in the Tull catalog (though one could make a decent case for Under Wraps as well). It has no connection to the progressive rock that came immediately before it (Minstrel in the Gallery) or the progressive folk that followed (Songs from the Wood). It’s the sore thumb, the pimple on the ass, the unsightly ingrown hair . . . it’s a fucking mess.
Tull fans of various stripes have rightly pointed out that the music isn’t half bad. While there are too many compromises with convention, the musicianship is excellent and Tull’s intuitive grasp of syncopated departures from the base rhythm remains intact. Some of the tunes have nice melodies and once in a while a memorable line or two emerges from the mundane.
The main problems lie in the narrative and subject matter. Ian Anderson also has a problem separating himself from the lead character, but I’ll cover that comparatively small annoyance in the individual songs.
To understand why the narrative is problematic, I refer you to the album page on jethrotull.com:
The original idea for the album was to be a rock musical, similar to the Kinks’ mid-1970s outputs e.g., Preservation Act 1 (1973), Preservation Act 2 (1974) and Schoolboys in Disgrace (1975). It would follow an aging and retired rock star named Ray Lomas as he wins money on a decadent quiz show, but finds that society has changed so much that, with no one left like him any more, he has no way of enjoying his money the way he did in the 1950s. He then decides to commit suicide via motorcycle crash but fails and lands himself in a hospital in a coma for an undetermined amount of time.
When he awakes he discovers society has changed again, and his style of dress and music are now popular again. In addition, the advanced medicine he is treated with after disfiguring his face and damaging his body in the crash makes him twenty years younger. He has become an overnight sensation with the young kids who now try to dress and act like him.
However, much of this story is only explained in a cartoon strip included with the album. The actual score of the album does not follow the strip exactly, leaving out details or, in some cases, changing the plot.
You can’t begin to appreciate the width of the chasm between what’s in the comic strip and what’s on the album without a blow-by-blow summary:
Comic Strip Narrative: Ray Lomas is bummed out because disco styles and music have supplanted rock ‘n’ roll. In his frustration, he falls for a pitch to appear on a TV quiz show produced in London, sends in his cut-along-the-dotted-lines application and miraculously lands the gig. Under the pressure of the klieg lights he gives the MC the correct answer and becomes a flash-in-the-pan celebrity. He decides to take his new-found wealth to Harrods and rejects the urge to buy a bunch of useless expensive crap. Trolling along the blackened London sidewalks he bumps into an attractive blonde with a big rack who goes by the unlikely name of Salamander. Recognizing his mug from the telly, she invites him to a party. Unfortunately, there are no legal transportation options available, so Ray, taking advantage of an absent cabbie in search of a urinal, suggests to Salamander (now familiarly known as Sally) that they steal a taxi, and she agrees. Ray drives, Sally sits in back, an arrangement that allows Ray to admire Sally’s tits in the rearview mirror and Sally to privately opine that despite the likelihood of Ray having a big dick, she simply cahn’t see herself fucking this lower-class lout, dahling. Sally resorts to the old freshen-up ploy and tells Ray she’ll meet him at 8. Ray is dumb enough to believe it and waits until 9:30 before realizing he’s been had by a bad, bad bitch. He tops off his action-packed evening at a pub where, as luck would have it, an old beatnik fills Ray’s ears with his memories of those glorious days of ban-the-bomb and bebop; Ray couldn’t care less. Depressed about life, London and lack of pussy, Ray heads for home, gets on his motorbike for one last spin and breaks cranium and armbones in a dramatic crash. When he gets out of the hospital, he sees that rock is back in vogue, his sense of style is the latest rage, teenage girls flock to his bed and at least one record company wants to turn one of his demos into a hit.
Lyrical Narrative: Some form of advertisement encourages a person or persons unknown to submit an application for a chance to appear on a television quiz show. The narrator or pitchman encourages participation through contradictory messages: some that seem to abhor the cultural decline that led to quiz shows in the first place while others describe the numerous benefits attached to an appearance. A person or persons unknown then appears out of nowhere to bemoan the celebrity culture and its associated materialism. A person (who may or be not be any of the heretofore-mentioned person or persons unknown) recites a brief ode to an amphibian that ends in a metaphorically-expressed desire for either self-immolation or sex with the amphibian. A person (who may or be not be any of the heretofore-mentioned person or persons unknown) bemoans the lack of available transportation options then suggests to someone named Sally that they abscond with a temporarily-abandoned taxicab; the narrative fails to specify whether or not they are able to execute the proposed criminal exercise. From out of nowhere an aging beatnik appears in a pub, bemoaning the passage of time and trend that has removed Parker, Kerouac and Magritte from public consciousness. A person (who may or be not be any of the heretofore-mentioned person or persons unknown) indicates that he doesn’t give a shit. A person (who may or be not be any of the heretofore-mentioned person or persons unknown) sings an ode apparently dedicated to a woman who rejected his advances. Yet another person (who may or be not be any of the heretofore-mentioned person or persons unknown), a member of a group of young hoodlums sings of the teenage joys of roller coasters, penny arcades, male bravado and vomiting. A narrator then enters the fray to tell us the story of an old rocker with a fetish for motorcycles who is depressed that all his rocker friends have gone straight. Said rocker then crashes his motorcycle into an object or objects unknown. The narrator seems to imply that because he was “too young to die” that he survived the crash, then interrupts the story to remind his listeners that “you’re never too old to rock ‘n’ roll.” We leave the scene of the accident to encounter a character named “Ray,” and can reasonably deduce from the line “they patched him up as good as new” that Ray was the old rocker who totaled his bike. We then learn that Ray has become a pedophile who somehow encourages “little girls with their bleached blonde curls” to take up cigar-smoking and submit to sexual intercourse, using his ten-inch penis as a final nudge to seal the deal. A narrator then appears to talk about auto-racing, old men in nursing homes, still-born children, Beethoven and lemming-hearted hordes.
Whew! And I thought Tommy was a fucking mess.
The problem with the subject matter is simply this: Jethro Tull was never a classic rock band. I can see somebody like Bob Seger putting out an album with this title, but not Jethro Tull for fuck’s sake! Their origins were in the blues, not rock, and the closest they ever came to classic rock was the song “Teacher.” Tull could rock with the best of them, but not in the traditional form of three or four chords with an emphasis on the backbeat. Tull music may be rock-influenced and flavored, but what made them special was a unique integration of multiple influences and striking rhythms. Ian Anderson has cred as a mad genius, but no cred at all as a small r “rocker.”
None of the songs on the album should appear in any best-of-Tull list, including the more famous title track. A verse from that piece opens the album, serving as an overture of sorts, and leads directly into the always thrilling sound of Martin Barre on heavy distortion delivering the opening licks of “Quizz Kid.” The arrangement of the song is fantastic, with several rhythmic flips, superb and versatile drumming from Barriemore Barlow and the infinitely improved bass contributions of John Glascock, who makes his Tull debut here. As a song satirizing the niche genre of quiz show psychology songs, it’s pretty good; as an introduction to the story of Ray Lomas, it’s a complete bomb.
Listen to “Quizz Kid” on YouTube.
I get the impression that the real reason Ian Anderson wanted to produce an album dealing with the rock-disco divide of the mid-70’s was that he was deeply and personally offended by the mere notion of platform shoes. The first mention of platforms comes in “Crazed Institution,” a song that attacks those who shop at Harrods and the very existence of Harrods itself (which appears as Horrid’s in the comic strip). He describes a female shopper as having a “platform soul,” which I suppose is to accuse her of a bad case of trendy materialism. We’re also not sure if this is Ray Lomas talking or Ian Anderson or both—the first of many indications that Ian Anderson can’t separate self from character. Musically speaking, it’s a bore.
Despite his aversion to honeypots dressed like a million bucks, Ray (or Ian) finds himself drawn to (and later quartered by) a cool, well-appointed blonde in furs who for some obscure and hopefully not kinky reason goes by the name of Salamander. I don’t get the advantage of bearing the name of a slimy creature who lives in a swamp, but the brief song devoted to this beauty is a musical delight with its hypnotic acoustic guitar duet featuring Ian Anderson in stereo. I could listen to that introduction all day long for its carefully attenuated dynamics, the integration of folk and blues leanings and the precise guitar harmonies. The vocal is pretty good, too, but I can’t get the image of a second-rate lizard out of my mind.
“Taxi Grab” is an abominable waste of good recording space, a nothing song with a nothing chorus that is repeated for what seems like all eternity on the fade. It’s followed by the love-it-or-hate-it song, “From a Deadbeat to an Old Greaser.” I’m more on the love side; I admire the barren, ghostly mood of the song, a combination of simple acoustic guitar, a restrained string arrangement, precise and well-placed counterpoints and low vocal harmonies. This is also the one song where Ian Anderson clearly distinguishes himself from the characters he plays, and underscores what Ian himself said was the point of this enterprise: “to illustrate how his style of music may go out of popularity with every other fashion and fad, but he is determined that if he sticks to it, everything comes back around and the style will rise again.”
I’m still waiting for jazz to make a comeback, but I live in hope.
Listen to “From a Deadbeat to an Old Greaser” on YouTube.
Ray spews bittersweet regrets about Salamander leaving him with a hard dick and no suitable outlet for relief in the song “Bad Eyes and Loveless.” This song might have worked had Ian Anderson not chosen the line “She’s a warm fart at Christmas” to convey who-the-fuck-knows what. Needless to say, I would hardly consider such a metaphor flattering. It’s followed by another out-of-nowhere turkey, “Big Dipper,” where Ray recalls the good old days of sanctioned obnoxiousness on the part of male teens rushing headlong towards a life of toxic masculinity.
If it sounds like an opus, if it feels like an opus, so I guess “Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die” must be an opus, huh? Not really. First, what’s the point of writing a tribute to rock ‘n’ roll that’s 90% removed from rock ‘n’ roll? Only the ersatz double-time fade qualifies as rock ‘n’ roll, or, more accurately, how parents of the 1950s perceived rock ‘n’ roll. The song is melodramatic in the extreme, seriously overproduced and, because the narrative was flattened by a tornado of poor design decisions, we couldn’t give a shit if Ray croaks or not. The only moment of any value comes in a too-brief appearance by Maddy Prior. It’s always nice to hear Maddy Prior, and I’m flabbergasted that Steven Wilson wiped her from the tapes in his otherwise competent remix.
“Pied Piper” is frigging creepy, a dreadfully-upbeat celebration of statutory rape of teenage girls who “clump up on their platform soles.” The album proper blessedly ends with another “opus,” the completely muddled “Chequered Flag,” a song whose meaning would elude the most determined cryptologist. The edition I’m reviewing adds two bonus tracks. The first is “A Small Cigar,” which appears to have been marked for a spot in the narrative if Ray had actually made it to Salamander’s party. It’s an interesting piece, but I can also see why it wouldn’t have fit the narrative (such as it was)—the narrator is too witty and too urbane to pass muster as an aging rocker. “Strip Cartoon” doesn’t fit at all, as it’s the story of a lecherous politician who waits patiently for his stripper paramour to get off work and get him off in her kinky rubber gear. It’s an oddly joyful song that proves to be a fitting finish for the oddest Jethro Tull album of them all.
Sometimes an artist has to take a moment in time to clear out all the bullshit ideas that accumulate in the creative brain over time. Artists are forever creating, trying their best to share only those creations that they feel are deserving of public attention. The challenge is that artists are usually not the best judges of their work, and sometimes what comes out elicits a response from the public that goes something like this: Umm. Er. Huh. Hello? What the fuck?
That’s pretty much my assessment of Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Too Young to Die, but if cleaning out Ian Anderson’s creative cobwebs contributed in any way to Songs from the Wood, it was worth every wasted second.
[…] Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die […]
Aaaand yes. All of that. As usual this is nail on the head stuff.
My vinyl copy sat unloved on a shelf for years before I found out the whole thing had been planned as a stage musical. I’ve always had a deep seated loathing for musicals (*), so when I did find out, my only real reaction was to think “Well… that figures.”
(* If you’re a lover of musicals, I apologise profusely. It’s my problem, I know that. But… ugh. Fuck. No. Kill it. Kill it with fire…)
The band, of course, is brilliant. It’s all fantastically well played and it’s very nicely produced. Anderson sings as well as ever and some of the actual words themselves are pretty good (even if they are in the service of insipid nonsense). As a whole, though, it’s completely uninteresting. It slides by, leaving in its wake only confused irritation and a desperate need to listen to Never Mind the Bollocks.
As for the individual tracks…
In folklore, salamanders were reputed to live in fire. Anderson does sing “Burn for me and I’ll burn for you” so maybe… umm… yeah. Sorry. No. I got nuthin’. Well, nothing other than she’s a lady who likes it when things get hot. Oof. I suspect you were already aware of this and deliberately avoided mentioning it. That’s okay; fools rush in and all that.
I don’t think any other song will ever be in the running to beat the title track as my least favorite Tull song. It’s four fifths “Yikes! What?!” and one fifth gruesome pastiche. Actually, the pastiche is probably more than a fifth, given that Martin Barre spends the whole thing quite deliberately impersonating Hank Marvin.
Another problem, one that’s more general than specific, is that lyrically there’s nothing I can grab hold of. From beginning to end, I can’t “connect” to anything here. Anderson’s lyrics usually contain a hook, be it the straightforward meaning, an interesting concept, a sharp piece of observation, a skewed point of view or a well stated polemic. Here, there’s nothing. Anderson has some future form with this (for me, at least) in that I get a similar sense of being completely cut adrift and unable to connect whenever I listen to Under Wraps.
I’ve occasionally pondered on how a clunker like “Too Old…” ever could have happened, but the simplest explanation seems the most likely, and it’s that after eight albums Ian Anderson was hunting desperately for ideas. It’s an easily understood predicament for somebody to be in, especially if they’re chained to a contract treadmill. “A musical!” might just have been a convenient hook on which to hang his coat.
Still. We should retroactively give thanks to whoever it was that gave a copy of whichever book it was about pagan British customs to Ian Anderson in time for the next LP to be recorded.
You might be waiting for jazz to make a comeback, but honestly, at this point I’d settle for halfway decent rhythm sections making a comeback. (Rhythm section! Pfft! What are you? Three hundred years old?!) Of course, all of those fantastic 60s and 70s drummers got most of their moves from jazz players, so…
I am so with you in regards to musicals. Whenever I see a clip from a musical, I cringe with empathetic embarrassment for the performers and find myself filled with loathing for the “delighted” audience. Once I had a passing thought that I should review a musical because I claim to have “a particular interest in the history of popular (i. e., non-classical) music dating back to the 1920’s,” but the mere thought of listening to a complete musical soundtrack brought on a panic attack. The same goes for rap/hip-hop, the genres most responsible for the demise of the rhythm section (to say nothing of melody and harmony).
“It’s always nice to hear Maddy Prior, and I’m flabbergasted that Steven Wilson wiped her from the tapes in his otherwise competent remix.”
There are actually two remixes on the special edition: a remix of the original version and an original of the TV special re-recording. Since they didn’t have all the original multi-tracks for the original recording, it was decided to make the remix on the TV special the “main” CD of the set and the remix of what tracks were available on the second CD.
I definitely still hear Maddy’s vocal in the remix of the original, but I don’t think I hear her in the remix of the TV special, since she wasn’t there for that.
Ah! That explains it. All his remixes have been spot-on, so this was a curious omission. Thank you!
I honestly understand why this focus has shifted. I’m just a senior in high school, and growing up in the modern era, its taken me a long time to develop my taste in instrumentation when
A) Most modern music doesn’t rely on it, and
B) I have no musical background apart from a form of drumming that most describe as horse shit.
It’s just easier to listen to modern hip hop and pop, and it’s much harder to even find music that defies those genres, let alone listen and subsequently get into it when you can’t even have an instant appreciation for someone’s play-style based on some kind of musical background. If I hadn’t randomly stumbled upon the kinks when I was 8, I’d probably be listening to the same things my friends do. On top of all of this, jazz has been joked around with so much in the modern era that I doubt many people unfamiliar even take it seriously. same goes with country. You say to someone that you want to listen to Ethiopiques vol 4 and they look at you like you’re a pretentious nut job who’ll outgrow their edgy phase when they leave high school. It sucks.
A sad state of affairs indeed. The phenomenon extends beyond music; technology and our fetish with convenience have robbed us of craftsmanship in many areas. When I play an instrument, it’s an immersive experience that always involves an interesting challenge that tests my tactile and concentration skills and presents me with endless possibilities—it makes me feel alive, growing, engaged. When I hear a great musician, I appreciate the challenge they’re facing and the focus it takes to produce great music. I hate to think of musical craftsmanship as something “quaint,” but that’s where we are and it’s why I review “classic music” and gave up on contemporary music (with a few exceptions). Perhaps Ian Anderson was right in one aspect of the album: what’s out of favor now will be in favor someday . . . and the shift back to musical craftsmanship and exploration can’t come soon enough.
Loved your analysis of this album, your angry reviews tend to be short, punchy, and funny. And yeah I fucking hate this album. It feels like a shitty version of Tommy which I already despise. I still love Jethro Tull though, I really got into them because of your reviews about a year ago so thanks for that. If you want a good modern band who also play with time signatures, weird concept albums, and a flute I would check out the Australian band king gizzard and the lizard wizard. Closest thing to a modern Tull, even though I don’t think we’ll see the likes of them ever again. Also jazz does need a comeback sorely, why on earth did such a beautiful form of music get pushed to the underground?
I just realized I could have saved myself a lot of time by just writing “Yeah, I fucking hate this album.”
In my private world, I listen to jazz more than anything else, and have wondered the same thing. The prominent theory is that jazz lost its popular audience with the radical shift from swing to bebop, but when you scan the sales charts over the last 50 years, all forms of instrumental music have suffered. The popularity of Rap and Hip-Hop just demonstrates the unimportance of music to the general audience—all they want is hook lines and a beat. I don’t consider either of those genres music, but a form of spoken word. Today’s pop also de-emphasizes the importance of music by placing the emphasis on the video imagery. A sad state of affairs indeed.