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) . . . with one exception. 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 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 the 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 forms of advertisement encourage 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 may not be any of the heretofore-mentioned persons 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 may not be any of the heretofore-mentioned person or persons unknown) bemoans the lack of available transportation options and 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 may not be any of the heretofore-mentioned person or persons unknown) sings an ode dedicated to a woman who rejected his advances. Yet another person (who may or may 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” 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.
I get the impression that the real reason Ian Anderson wanted to produce an album dealing with the rock-disco divide of the mid-70s 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.
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 toward a life of toxic masculinity.
If it sounds like an opus and feels like an opus, 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.