Let me just say up front that I believe Steven Wilson should be taxed with remixing everything ever recorded.
I have to confess that I liked A even before Wilson worked his magic. I use the word “confess” because I assume I’m in the minority. Many Tull fans hated the record when it first came out, including my father.
I didn’t even know the album existed until I was about fourteen; I accidentally discovered it one night when my parents had gone out to dinner. For some reason, I had an overwhelming urge to listen to Aqualung, and since my father has always organized his albums using the artist-first-then-alphabetical-order methodology, all I had to do was go to the J’s, finger my way to Jethro Tull and pull out the first LP. . . or so I thought. The albums were packed pretty tightly, so when I pulled out Aqualung, A came along with it.
I forgot about Aqualung and put my discovery on the turntable. I remember having a generally positive reaction, and when my parents came home I ambushed them at the door.
“What’s this?” I cried, waving the album cover in their faces.
“A Tull album that isn’t a real Tull album,” my father responded. “It was supposed to be Ian Anderson’s first solo record but Chrysalis forced him to release it as a Tull album.”
“So why haven’t I ever heard you play it?”
“Because it sucks, Sunshine,” opined the male parent. “Too much synthesizer, not enough Tull.”
Maman begged to differ. “I think your father is sometimes . . . à l’esprit fermé.” She has always found the English construction “closed-minded” rather awkward.
I can understand why Tull fans found A somewhat discombobulating. The band had essentially fallen apart after Stormwatch, with Barrimore Barlow, John Evan and Dee Palmer all departing and John Glascock falling victim to a fatal heart attack. After the smoke cleared, Jethro Tull consisted of Ian Anderson and Martin Barre—two very talented human beings indeed but not enough to make up a band. For all intents and purposes, Jethro Tull had temporarily ceased to exist. As the band’s blow-up hadn’t diminished his creative drive, Ian Anderson’s decision to release an album under his name seemed a logical course of action (hence the title A for Anderson).
That decision was vetoed by the suits at Chrysalis, who insisted that the album appear under the Jethro Tull moniker. I suspect that Tull fans who bought the album immediately upon release rushed home with their purchase, plopped it on the turntable and let out a collective “What the fuck?” The rather abrupt departure from the folk-rock vibe of the three preceding albums and the full embrace of the synthesizer must have come as quite a shock. Had A been released as an Ian Anderson album, Tull fans might have been more forgiving of the sudden change in sound and viewed A as an experimental electronic album from Jethro Tull’s mastermind.
Ian Anderson has expressed regrets about caving into the label’s demands, ceding to A a rather awkward spot in the Tull discography. Awkwardness aside, I would suggest that Tull fans give the Steven Wilson remix a shot, as the sound is much cleaner and parts that were muted in the original mix are given new life via a combination of panning shifts and EQ adjustments. As noted in an in-depth dive into Wilson’s processes on Sound on Sound, his work is all about “remaining true to the artist’s original vision: he stresses that his stereo remixes provide an enhanced version of the original and not a wholly new experience.”
Ian Anderson’s electronic vision for A demanded that he fill the gaps in the lineup occasioned by the three departures. He rebuilt the rhythm section with Fairport’s Dave Pegg on bass and American drummer Mark Craney, both of whom proved themselves more than capable of handling Tull’s often tricky syncopated rhythms; Pegg would become a regular for several years thereafter. Ian also brought in “special guest” and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson, an outstanding keyboardist, synth master and violinist whose work with Roxy Music, UK and Frank Zappa would eventually earn him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2017 Progressive Music Awards.
Lyrically, Ian doubled down on his interest in contemporary themes and socio-political issues as displayed in the songs “North Sea Oil, “Dark Ages, ” and “Flying Dutchman” on Stormwatch. The songs on A cover the threat of nuclear war, the state of the working man, our deteriorating environment, social uniformity and the 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege. There are a couple of light moments, but for the most part, the lyrics and the music reflect the ever-present tension of a very dangerous period in human history. The good news is that Ian’s lyrics are generally well-written and at times quite impactful.
I firmly believe that it’s time to hit the reset button in relation to A. Steven Wilson has given the album a new lease on life, making it easier to appreciate the musicianship, arrangements and compelling tales. I fully endorse John Aizlewood’s assertion in his Louder review that “A isn’t one of the great Jethro Tull albums, but it’s more than the runt of the litter.”
“Crossfire”: I’ll use a paragraph from the Wikipedia article on the Iranian Embassy Siege to set the stage:
At approximately 11:30 on Wednesday 30 April, the six heavily armed members of DRFLA (Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan) stormed the Iranian Embassy building on Princes Gate, South Kensington. The gunmen quickly overpowered Police Constable Trevor Lock of the Metropolitan Police’s Diplomatic Protection Group (DPG). Lock was carrying a concealed Smith & Wesson .38-calibre revolver, but was unable to draw it before he was overpowered, although he did manage to press the “panic button” on his radio. Lock was later frisked, but the gunman conducting the search did not find the constable’s weapon. He remained in possession of the revolver, and to keep it concealed he refused to remove his coat, which he told the gunmen was to “preserve his image” as a police officer. The officer also refused offers of food throughout the siege for fear that the weapon would be seen if he had to use the toilet and a gunman decided to escort him.
Now let’s compare two dates:
- Iranian Embassy Siege: April 30-May 5, 1980.
- Recording of A: May 16-June 6, 1980.
Ian Anderson was one intrepid, on-the-spot reporter!
The story obviously doesn’t end there. Police Constable Lock managed to earn a modicum of trust from the terrorist group’s leader, planting doubts in his mind about what the rescue squad was up to. When the “hard men” finally broke into the embassy, Lock tackled the leader, enabling the rescue squad to speedily dispose of the bastard. Lock was rightly lauded as a hero and received the George Medal for his efforts.
Reporter Anderson chose to ignore the climactic moment and instead focus on what was going through Lock’s mind as he weighed his odds of coming out of this mess in one piece:
I’m just a soul with an innocent face
A regular boy dressed in blue,
Conducting myself in a proper way
As befitting the job that I do.
They came down on me like a ton of bricks,
Swept off my feet, knocked about.
There’s nothing for it but to sit and wait
For the hard men to get me out.
Caught in the crossfire on Princes Gate Avenue
In go the windows and out go the lights.
Call me a doctor. Fetch me a policeman.
I’m down on the floor in one hell of a fight.
I think Ian made the right call. By avoiding the denouement, Ian emphasized Lock’s humanity—“a regular boy dressed in blue” in a very tough spot rather than the inaccessible hero on a pedestal. We can put ourselves in Lock’s shoes and wonder how we might have reacted in such a terrifying situation.
I’m pretty sure I would have pissed myself.
The chord progressions are very clever, moving from a C minor key in the verses with the curious pattern of Eb5-Cm-Am-Dm in the first four lines followed by a more logical Ab-Bb-Cm pattern in the next four, resolving to the transitional chord C major to set up the chorus in the key of G minor. I love the contrast between Martin’s rough guitar stylings on the right and Eddie Jobson’s tinkling piano on the left, supported by a stellar performance by Dave Pegg on the bass. Ian’s in fine voice on this one, his voice marked by a touch of empathy for the poor soul caught in the crossfire. The event may have been exceedingly unpleasant, but “Crossfire” is a pretty solid opening track.
“Fylingdale Flyer”: More than any other song on the album, this is the one that knocked my socks off when I first heard it and fueled my anger at my father for stashing the album in nowhere land. This is one of my favorite Tull songs EVER! It has everything that I love about Jethro Tull in one exciting package—the heavily punctuated syncopated rhythms combining stop-time with sharp shots of power, Ian’s flute trills, Martin’s guitar tones, the piano alternating between sweet counterpoints and crashing chords, and a deep, pulsating bass line. The syncopated rhythms here also reinforce the drama of the storyline, which Ian again narrates from the perspective of the person at the center of the drama—in this case, the humble, low-on-the-military-totem pole fellow working at the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station at Fylingdales Moor in Yorkshire, assigned to keep watch on the radar screen for a sign that a missile loaded with a nuclear warhead may be headed straight for London. Think of the series of syncopations as “bated breaths” and you’ll appreciate how they add to the story’s undeniable tension.
The song opens ominously, with synth strings approaching from deep in the background to be greeted by Jobson pounding the piano chords of the central motif in syncopated rhythm (ba-ba-rest-BA!-rest-BA!BA!BA!BA!) then repeating the pattern for emphasis. Talk about a “something wicked this way comes” moment! After a brief pause, Ian enters with the first verse, providing lead and harmony vocals; the first two lines are delivered a capella; the band comes in just before lines three and four, adding syncopated punch in support of the lyrics:
Through clear skies tracking lightly from far down the line
No fanfare, just a blip on the screen.
No quick conclusions now everything will be fine,
Short-circuit glitch and not what it seems.
He says “everything will be fine” but the sharp syncopation (the bated breaths) dished out by the band tells us that is an “uh-oh” moment. The band shifts to straight drive in the chorus, as if to say, “Okay, let’s move on.”
Move on, my ass.
Fylingdale Flyer you’re only half way there,
Green screen liar for a second or so we were running scared.
They are scared, no doubt about it. The instrumental passage that follows sounds like “music to accompany people who are busy at work,” and I would imagine that the appearance of an unexpected blip would have set a whole lot of people in motion. The second verse reminds us that the staff are only human—in this case, English humans trained to form a “stiff upper lip” in times of crisis:
On late shift, feeling drowsy eyes glued to the display.
Dead cert alert, lit match to the straw.
One last quick game of bowls we can still win the day.
Fail-safe; forget the things that you saw.
The legend that Sir Francis Drake played a quick game of bowls before beating the shit out of the Spanish Armada is more than likely a myth, but myths don’t have to be true to teach us valuable lessons. The worst thing you can do in a moment like this is freak out. Stop, think, investigate all possible explanations and forget about the billions of lives who depend on you to get it right. That’s the spirit!
The busy music reappears, followed by a repetition of that ominous central motif. This go-round is turbo-powered by guitar, drums and bass, with Ian adding flute trills in the empty spaces. In the closing verse, we learn that the blip turned out to be a nothingburger:
They checked the systems through and they read A-O.K.
Some tiny fuse has probably blown
Sit back; relax and soon it will just go away,
Keep your hands off that red telephone.
A round of stiff drinks for those stiff upper lips! Hear, hear!
The fade begins in haunting fashion with a heavily filtered a capella rendition of the chorus that suggests that the fear occasioned by the close call will linger for quite a while. Brilliant song, brilliant arrangement and easily the strongest piece on the album.
“Working John, Working Joe”: The message in this song is straight and to the point: work sucks. Whether you’re working at the bottom of the heap, working your way up or working in the higher reaches of the hierarchy, work sucks.
Let me qualify that statement. Work sucks if you’re only working because you need the money or are burdened by the urge to make as much money as you can in order to impress other people. If your work involves something you really love to do, work is inspirational, energizing and fulfilling. The challenge is that it’s difficult to find work you really love that also pays you enough money to meet your needs.
Ian presents us with three working stiffs at various stages in the work-go-round. The first is a humble young man in need of money who bought into the belief that his low-paying shit job involves “doing what I know for God and the economy” and is thankful for “the unions who protect me at all levels.” The second is a man who also appreciates the unions for the pay-based seniority that has him “mortgaged to the hilt” and spending beyond his means; he’s also under the delusion that he’s “equal to the best of you and better than the rest of you,” a fantasy that Mrs. Thatcher will soon blow to smithereens. The third is one who has climbed to the top “with seeming consummate expertise” (i.e., “empty suit”) and has earned not only money but also executive perks: “two ulcers and a heart disease and a trembling feeling in both knees.”
When I lived in the States, I always bristled when either political party talked about jobs. The Democrats promised “good-paying jobs” while the Republicans were in love with job creators whose efforts would result in more jobs. No one ever talked about meaningful jobs, less stressful jobs or jobs that challenged you to think. Though Ian Anderson is one of the lucky ones who found a job that meets all of those criteria, it’s nice to hear that he hadn’t lost touch with the dreary reality of those who aren’t so lucky.
The song is the least electronic of the bunch but what I love about the music is that it grinds. The beat is steady mid-tempo and Martin’s guitar reflects the daily grind through a combination of distorted power chords and strategic use of muffled strings.
“Black Sunday”: I found this quote in the discussion around “Black Sunday” on songmeanings.com:
“I wrote the lyrics to Black Sunday just before I went on tour, which is the sort of sound it has although I tried to write it in the kind of way that anybody would feel if they are having to go off to work and always wondering if, when they come back, they will find things the way they left them. It is just full of the kind of images that I see when I travel.” — Ian Anderson
The song is really a rant about the endless inconveniences of air travel—a damned accurate rant, but still a rant. What pisses me off is that he’s describing air travel in the early 80s and his rant is still valid to this day:
And down at the airport are probably waiting
A few thousand passengers, overbooked seating
Time long suspended in transit-lounge traumas
I will not fly through Heathrow . . . I will not fly through Heathrow . . .
Ian sings it like a man under stress, annoyed with the widespread inefficiency of air travel that has even spread to the airport shops: “Two best-selling paperbacks chosen at random/No sign of sales-persons to whom I might hand them.”
When I first heard the song I found the contrast between heavy synth passages and the straight rock passages somewhat grating, but somehow Steven Wilson managed to arrange the mix so that the two soundscapes flow into one another. And I absolutely adore Martin Barre’s solo, but to be honest, I can’t think of a Martin Barre solo I haven’t liked.
“Protect and Survive”: Ah, the British gift for dark humour.
Fuck. How can I get Grammarly to stop correcting my use of British spelling?
Where was I . . . ah, yes, dark humour. Ian’s source for his biting condemnation of government public service announcements was a public information campaign named (you guessed it) “Protect and Survive.” The government’s advice on how to survive a nuclear attack was so absurd that protest groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament distributed thousands of copies in the valid belief that “the pamphlet could only discredit the government’s policy.” I read a copy in the Wilson Center Digital Library and I couldn’t stop laughing. My favorite part was the advice for those who live in caravans (trailers): “If you live in a caravan or other similar accommodation which provides very little protection against fall-out your local authority will be able to advise you on what to do.”
Allow me to propose a slight edit: “If you live in a caravan or other similar accommodation, you’re fucked.”
Most of the absurdity in the document comes from the assumption that readers would actually have the time to build suitable shelters before the missiles hit. If Putin decided to nuke the Brits on a whim, the payload would arrive in about fifteen minutes. That’s not even enough time to get in a good fuck before you’re vaporized.
The song begins at a very fast pace with Ian blowing like mad, as if has to get either the anger or the laughter out of his system before he presents the lyrics. The rhythm in the verses flips to something more sinuous and slightly tragi-comic, while Ian adopts a somewhat meek and helpless tone as he paints more accurate pictures of what would happen to human beings if the missiles were to crash into the neighborhood:
They said protect and you’ll survive– (but our postman didn’t call)
Eight pounds of over-pressure wave seemed to glue him to the wall
They said protect and you’ll survive
E.M.P. [electro-magnetic pulse] took out the radio– (and our milk-man didn’t call)
Flash-blinded by the pretty lights, didn’t see his bottles fall
Or feel the warm black rain arrive
Big friendly cloud builds in the West (and our dust-men haven’t called)
They left the dual carriageway at a hundred miles an hour—
A tail wind chasing them away
A bridge set to a stronger beat follows, describing how the powers-at-be managed to escape the raging nuclear storm:
And in deep shelters lurk below, sub-regional control
Who sympathize but cannot help to mend your body or your soul
Self-appointed guardians of the race with egg upon their face
When steady sirens sing all-clear they pop up, find nobody here
The last verse involves a shift to a first-person narrative and a pithy assessment of the damage:
And so I watch two new suns spin– (our paper man doesn’t call)
Burnt shadow printed on the road– now there’s nothing there at all
They said protect and you’ll survive
With Putin threatening to up the stakes with tactical nuclear weapons, the danger of nuclear holocaust is alive and well . . . and we won’t be. “Protect and Survive” is a brilliant protest of the absurdity of having nuclear weapons in anyone’s hands at any time under any circumstances.
“Batteries Not Included”: Sigh. Well, it had to happen; Tull’s winning streak ends at six. Despite strong performances from the rhythm section and Martin Barre, I find this song incredibly busy and annoying. And I hate the kid whining about not having batteries.
The smartest decision I ever made was to never enter the ranks of motherhood.
“Uniform”: This one doesn’t grab me either. The melody is weak, the arrangement is overpowered and the repetition of “uniform” in spoken language bugs the crap out of me.
“4 W.D. (Low Ratio)”: Oh, no! Three in a row! I really don’t give a shit about four-wheel-drive and Ian’s joy in driving one of those gas guzzlers through the mud compromises his credibility as a champion of the environment (see below).
“The Pine Marten’s Jig”: This instrumental presents something of a conundrum. I love the tune, Dave Pegg’s mandolin, Eddie Jobson’s electric violin and Ian’s flute—in other words, the musicianship on the song is unquestionably solid. I just have this nagging feeling that a jig doesn’t really belong on this album. Then again, I have a hard time imagining the piece on any of the folk-rock albums; if I had to pick one, though, I’d go with Stormwatch.
“And Further On”: Thankfully the album ends on a strong note with this melancholy assessment of our planet’s future. The synth orchestration is excellent, providing an often beautiful background wash for Ian’s flute, Martin’s guitar and Eddie’s piano. The lyrics combine a poignant love of nature with the unpleasant reality that human beings seem determined to destroy the natural world through environmental neglect and war.
The phenomenon of climate change had been identified as far back as 1896; evidence connecting carbon dioxide buildup to global warming was unearthed in 1939 via the Royal Meteorological Society. The environmental movement did not gain much steam until the 70s when two distinct manifestations of global impact appeared: the depletion of the ozone layer and acid rain. The first verse addresses the latter issue:
We saw the heavens break
And all the world go down to sleep
And rocks on mossy banks
Drip acid rain from craggy steeps.
Saw fiery angels kiss the dawn,
Wish you goodbye till further on,
Will you still be there further on?
As acid rain created “dead lakes,” people started to wonder if acid rain could create dead people. In response, governments took some action during the ensuing decades to limit the emissions that led to acid rain. As is the case with global warming, it should have never taken decades to do something about it, but the dream of global cooperation implied by the founding of the United Nations was fast becoming a fading memory as the “world order” began showing cracks and competition supplanted cooperation:
And troubled dynasties,
Like legions lost, have blown away.
Hounds hard upon their heels,
Call to their quarry wait and play.
Before the last faint light has gone:
Wish you goodbye till further on,
Will you still be there further on?
In the closing verse, Ian appears to be talking about the increased intensity of storms driven by climate change, but that involves interpreting his words through a 21st-century lens. He has frequently used the “storm” as a symbol of dangerous times ahead, so I think it’s fair to say that he sensed that our future will be marked by rough patches and that our days on the planet may be numbered:
The angry waves grow high
Cut icy teeth on northern shores.
Brave fires that flicker, cough
Give way to winds
Through broken doors.
And with the last line almost drawn:
Wish you goodbye till further on.
His perceptions are clarified with the altered closing line: “Will we still be here further on?” This is a question we should have asked years ago because we are running out of time to come up with an answer.
I had to go into SHE WHO WILL BE OBEYED mode to get my father to listen to the Steven Wilson remix and much to my delight, he admitted that the results were pretty impressive. He still insists that it’s not a Tull album, and as Ian Anderson feels the same way, I can’t deny him that sliver of self-congratulation. However you want to classify it, A is a solid effort featuring songs of undeniable power.
One of the reviews I read on the net was loaded with apologies about the record being dated. I assume the writer is a Millenial because I’ve found very few of my co-generationists who give a shit about history.
Let’s do a quick check on the relevance of A in today’s world:
- Are there still terrorists? Check.
- Are we still facing nuclear armageddon despite the end of the Cold War? Check.
- Do governments still provide us with useless information? Check.
- Is air travel still a hassle? Check.
- Does work still suck? Check.
- Is the planet in deep doo-doo? Check.
Fuck that moron.