Tull fans who follow this blog have probably wondered what the hell has taken this broad so long to get around to Heavy Horses. Ignoring the middle piece of the “folk-rock trilogy” that began with Songs from the Wood and ended with Stormwatch (both of which I’ve reviewed) leaves an obvious hole in my Tull narrative. The Heavy Horses tour also gave us Tull’s first live album (Bursting Out), so the album has added significance in Tull lore.
Well, here we are, and I’ll use a famous quote to explain my reluctance to engage with Heavy Horses.
“I yam what I am.”
Truth is, I have a hard time relating to the country farm environment depicted in some of the songs in Heavy Horses. I’m a city girl. I’ve lived in cities for most of my life. I feel more comfortable in an urban milieu. I’ll take a sidewalk over a forest path or a furrow anytime.
I’m glad Mother Nature is there. I just don’t want to hang out with her. You can read the introduction to my review of Woodstock to learn more about the trauma that bitch inflicted on me at a very tender age.
As for farms . . . I’ve only been to a farm once in my life (not counting vineyards). As a consequence of that experience, my brain has identified farms as smelly places that trigger my allergies and has forbidden me from coming within ten miles of a barn or silo. Old MacDonald can bring his wares to the farmer’s market and allow me to shop with my feet firmly planted on brick or concrete.
Many of the characters in Heavy Horses are animals—mostly farm animals or animals that have become acclimatized to farm dynamics. Mice are featured in two songs (in one a victim; in the other a hero of sorts). We also have a murderous cat, a scarcely domesticated hound dog, a gaggle of moths, a team of draft horses and a rooster in the role of meteorologist. I love animals, especially those animals who sit on my lap and give me little kisses and who obey the order to shut up and leave mommy alone when she’s fucking. None of the animals on Heavy Horses meet those qualifications, but overall, I consider the animals a plus.
Biases and idiosyncracies confessed, it’s time for the review!
Sharp-eyed readers may have already noticed that the cover depicted here differs slightly from the original release. Down at the bottom you’ll see the words “The original 1978 album remixed in stereo by Steven Wilson.” While I generally prefer to review the original recording without enhancement or improvement (if available) and try to avoid promoting “deluxe editions” that cost more and often fail to deliver much in the way of “deluxe,” I strongly recommend Steven Wilson’s remix. Wilson has remixed and remastered several Tull albums, but his work on Heavy Horses qualifies as exceptional.
Unfortunately, Wilson couldn’t do much with Ian Anderson’s less-than-stellar vocals, the sound of a voice run ragged by overuse, a condition that would become more serious during the Under Wraps tour in the 1980’s. Sometimes the roughness works in the context of a song; in other places I miss the vibrato he commanded in songs like “Wond’ring Aloud” and “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day.” As for the rest of the band, I would label their performances as spirited and tight, with the proviso that you can never have enough Martin Barre on a Tull record.
“And the Mouse Police Never Sleeps” seems a curious opener, but if you look through the playlist, there really isn’t a signature opening song in the bunch. This is one of those songs that only Jethro Tull could have created, with its 3/4 time signature cleverly disguised by splashes of flute, guitar and bass that fall on and off the beat. The clarity of Wilson’s remix allows you to follow any disparate part you choose, and all I can say is I would have loved to have been in the studio when they worked out all the details—the arrangement is a marvelous creation. As for the subject matter, I think Ian Anderson did a fine job depicting the contrary nature of a cat (“Savage bed foot warmer/Of purest feline ancestry”) and (“From warm milk on a lazy day/To dawn patrol of hungry hate”). The contrary nature of the feline is exactly why I steadfastly refuse to own a cat.
They’re too much like me.
The song also reminds us of another unpleasant aspect of nature: it thrives on the cycle of life and death. The cat may be “domesticated,” but its animal instincts remain: “Eats but one in every ten/Leaves the others on the mat.” If you scolded and shook your finger at the cat when he dropped off his prey on your front porch—“Bad cat—no kill mice!”—the cat would give you one of those laser-focused feline stares that says, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” Ian Anderson clearly accepts this gruesome truth that natural survival entails killing; I cry whenever I watch one of those nature shows where the lions eat the gazelles. “That’s horrifying,” I might remark . . . while taking another bite out of my cheeseburger.
My hypocrisy regarding nature is showing.
“Acres Wild” is an Ian Anderson love letter to his relatively recent bride, offering her the opportunity to make whoopee in both rural and urban environments. The first verse anticipates the couple’s purchase of the Strathaird Estate on the Isle of Skye (the “Winged Isle”); the second depicts a drearier environment in an unnamed U. K. city, most likely London. While the offer may have been tempting to Shona Anderson, I don’t find “deep brown rivers that slither darkly” a particularly romantic image (“slither darkly” calls up images of snakes crawling all over my naked body), and the song pales in comparison to the delightfully kinky “Hunting Girl” and darkly erotic “Velvet Green” on Songs from the Wood. That said, the Steven Wilson remix manages to give the song some life, largely by cranking up the volume on John Glascock’s outstanding bass performance.
Steven Wilson’s greatest contribution has to be his work on the instrumental passages in “No Lullaby.” I suggest that readers head over to YouTube, find both the original and Steven Wilson versions of the song, and compare the two renditions of the introductory passage. Martin’s superb lead solo is brighter and cleaner, Glascock’s bass features more punch and Barriemore Barlow’s drums are rescued from the muddiness of the original. Martin’s extended solo in the middle of the piece also makes me very happy. As for the song proper . . . ugh. It’s one thing to suffer from parental paranoia (all good parents have a tendency towards over-protectiveness), but this is a bit over the top:
Keep your eyes open
And prick up your ears
Rehearse your loudest cry.
There’s folk out there
Who would do you harm
So I’ll sing you no lullaby.
There’s a lock on the window;
There’s a chain on the door:
A big dog in the hall.
But there’s dragons and beasties
Out there in the night
To snatch you if you fall.
Even if a baby can’t understand the language, they can feel the vibes, so I hope Ian didn’t actually sing this song to baby James or encourage him to use his rattle to develop his swordsmanship.
“Moths” is a lyrical mess that begins with trite imagery and moves steadily in the direction of unintelligibility. An attempt to liven up the proceedings with a sudden key change falls flat, and Ian’s vocal problems are on full display here, his sandpapery voice rather grating in contrast to the gentle arrangement. I do like the use of truncated measures, and as I’ve said before, I don’t think Tull gets enough credit for their rhythmic excellence.
The milieu shifts to urban with the song “Journeyman,” a word that originally meant “a worker, skilled in a given building trade or craft, who has successfully completed an official apprenticeship qualification” but now is generally used to describe a crappy relief pitcher assigned to mop-up duty. Ian absconds the term and assigns it to the drone on his daily commute. Unlike the muddled poetry of “Moths,” Ian combines concrete imagery and wit to offer us a vivid picture of modern meaninglessness:
Sliding through Victorian tunnels
Where green moss oozes from the pores.
Dull echoes from the wet embankments
Battlefield allotments. Fresh open sores.
In late-night commuter madness
Double-locked black briefcase on the floor,
Like a faithful dog with master
Sleeping in the draught beside the carriage door.
To each Journeyman his own home-coming
Cold supper nearing with each station stop.
Frosty flakes on empty platforms
Fireside slippers waiting. Flip. Flop.
Sadly, our journeyman doesn’t have time to “stop for tea at Gerard’s Cross,” a rail stop considered a bit posher than most. The band is nice and tight here, engaging in several mini stop-time moments to accentuate punch lines.
“Rover” explores the ways and mores of canines in an arrangement that could have fit nicely into the mix on Songs from the Wood. Cats will be cats and dogs will be dogs and there’s hardly anything a dog loves better than to escape the leash and taste a precious moment of blessed freedom:
The long road is a rainbow and the pot of gold lies there.
So slip the chain and I’m off again
You’ll find me everywhere.
‘Cause I’m a Rover.
Heavy Horses is an album of exceptionally strong introductions, and “Rover” features one of my favorites with its perfectly-executed flurry of notes coming at you from all instruments in all directions. Ian and the band deserve lots of credit for turning a minor key song into something joyful and full of life. I also love Ian’s insight into the charmingly manipulative ways of the species—the couplet “I’m simple in my sadness/Resourceful in remorse” is brilliant, painfully true poetic economy.
My favorite song on Heavy Horses features Ian Anderson taking tea with “one brown mouse sitting in a cage.” Following another fabulous introduction featuring Ian’s stereo acoustic guitars, we hear Ian chatting at his furry companion in what seems to be a daily ritual:
Smile your little smile take some tea with me awhile.
Brush away that black cloud from your shoulder.
Twitch your whiskers. Feel that you’re really real.
Another tea-time another day older.
Meanwhile, in the background, a slow build begins with the introduction of vocal harmony, John Glascock shifting from root note bass to more complex patterns, the appearance of light orchestration and a very gentle touch on Barriemore’s drum kit. After building to a peak, Barlow signals a shift with a transitional fill, cueing Martin to let it rip with distortion-tinged power chords and a nice little run. This delightful bridge contains the essence of the relationship between man and mouse:
Do you wonder if I really care for you,
Am I just the company you keep?
Which one of us exercises on the old treadmill,
Who hides his head, pretending to sleep?
Cursed with our anthropomorphic bias, I don’t really know if it’s possible for a human to truly read an animal’s thoughts or accurately empathize with an animal’s feelings. Ian finds an ironic connection in the treadmill, a humble observation that raises valid doubts concerning human superiority. “One Brown Mouse” is one of Tull’s most delightful and most human creations, a song guaranteed to lift that black cloud from your shoulder.
It’s hard for me to evaluate the title track, since I have little interest in horses and couldn’t tell a fetlock from a feather. While Ian celebrates the noble breeds who work the land, I find myself wondering whether or not the horses really like doing the shitty work humans have bred them to perform. The most controversial passage ties the horses to our overdependence on the oil that feeds the tractors and, by extension, our overdependence on technology itself:
And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry
And the nights are seen to draw colder
They’ll beg for your strength, your gentle power
Your noble grace and your bearing
And you’ll strain once again to the sound of the gulls
In the wake of the deep plough, sharing
Putting aside the nostalgic, anthropomorphic projections, I have to say that while I think Ian’s desire for a life that maintains our connection with Mother Nature is admirable (and getting rid of fossil fuels even more so), he ignores the simple fact that returning to the horse and plow would leave billions of people starving on our overpopulated planet. That’s misplaced nostalgia, not a helpful solution.
As for the music, though the band executes their parts with the usual excellence, the transition from verse to chorus feels rather awkward and the shift to the instrumental section featuring Darryl Way’s violin solo equally so. I also think the violin gets buried in the mix, something not corrected by the Wilson remix.
The album ends with a generally uninteresting appeal to an inanimate object, a “Weathercock,” to be specific. I have no problem talking to animals or even plants but conversing with a metal rooster is too much for this gal. What I do like in this song is Ian’s mandolin work, reminding me how much I admire his ability to make any instrument he touches come alive.
Despite my experiential limitations, I still admire the hell out of Ian Anderson for sticking to the folk-rock path during a period when punks, post-punks and new wave artists were all the rage. Heavy Horses shows all the signs of a very stubborn artist and a band fully committed to the craft. Though I’m generally uncomfortable with nostalgic yearnings, the state of music today has led me to fully embrace nostalgia honoring displays of artistic commitment and excellent musicianship like Heavy Horses.
And that’s not “misplaced nostalgia.” That’s reality.
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.
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.
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.