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Jethro Tull – Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die – Classic Music Review

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.

Jethro Tull – Stormwatch – Classic Music Review

My parents, who saw all the shows in Tull’s heyday, claim that the Stormwatch concert was one of their favorites, ranking it third on the list, right after the Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play. 

I have to admit that I responded to that claim with more than a little skepticism, and may have included an “oh, for fuck’s sake” in my response. I had no doubt that Tull put on a great show—by all accounts, they were an excellent live band. I just had a hard time believing that a concert filled with comparatively weak material could have been a more satisfying experience than one where the pre-encore setlist was filled with great songs (like Aqualung or Songs from the Wood). While the album has its moments—some great moments—I don’t think Stormwatch is one of Tull’s best works.

The news that a 40th Anniversary Edition of Stormwatch (The Force 10 Deluxe Edition, no less) is on its way reminded me that I hadn’t done a Tull album in quite a while and still had plenty of holes to fill in the Tull narrative. Since I prefer to review original presentations, I decided to get off my beautiful ass and get on with it before the (hopefully) “new and improved” version hits the shelves.

The critical response to Stormwatch at the time of its release was both unfavorable and unfair. What was unfair was that nearly every review I read lumped Stormwatch into Tull’s “folk period” along with Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses, a view still prevalent to this day. This massive display of groupthink begs the question, “Did any of those critics actually listen to the fucking record?” I count one folk song on the entire album, with two others somewhere in the ballpark. You could make a much better case placing Stormwatch in the genre of progressive rock, but really, the music is all over the map. I would define Stormwatch as a transitional album between the folk-rock lean that preceded it and the more electronic sound that followed it. The evidence supporting the transitional label is strengthed by the many changes in the band lineup after its release—mainstays John Evan and Barriemore Barlow decided to split, and sadly, bassist John Glascock died of heart problems during the tour. Combine all those personnel changes with the irrepressible restlessness of Ian Anderson and it’s hard to see how Stormwatch could have been anything but a transitional album.

I’ve always felt that the variability in the quality of Tull albums was driven more by the quality of Ian Anderson’s songwriting than style, instrumentation or vibes in the studio. What weakens Stormwatch more than any other factor is the lack of clear thematic intent. He had a strong metaphor to work with; there were plenty of signs in the ’70s that potentially destructive “storms” were gathering on the horizon and exerting a destabilizing effect on societies across the globe. Unfortunately, through a combination of incredibly poor track placement and the tendency of the creative mind to chase butterflies, he allowed the theme to dissipate almost to the point of irrelevance. While the new edition may clean up the inconsistent quality of the production, some of the songs are simply unsalvageable because they weren’t very good songs in the first place and don’t fit particularly well with the other songs on the album.

Stormwatch is also the album where Ian Anderson began dabbling in current events, with seriously mixed results. “North Sea Oil” is one of the weaklings in the litter, and its placement in the pole position immediately lowers listener anticipation. The problem isn’t with the musicians—Ian’s flute fills are spot-on and Martin Barre gets in a few good licks—the problem is with the blah lyrics, very awkward melody and curious chord progression. The odd shifts in tempo add nothing to the piece and the spoken word passage interferes with a relatively high-quality Anderson-Barre duet. And what’s that “Before we all are nuclear—the better way!” crap all about? Rule #142: Never open an album with a song that sounds like the third page of the Business section.

I rather like “Orion,” especially once Ian stops channeling Milton (“Let’s sip the heavens’ heady wine” is particularly annoying) and plants his feet on terra firma:

And young girls shiver as they wait by lonely bus-stops
After sad parties: no-one to take them home
To greasy bed-sitters and make a late-night play
For lost virginity a thousand miles away.

The melody in the verses flows very nicely, and the mix of acoustic guitar, strings and piano blends exceptionally well. I would have preferred more clarity on Martin Barre’s rough guitar in the choruses, but that loss is offset by the excellence of Barriemore Barlow’s responsive drum patterns. This is one song that could benefit from remastering, and I hope the deluxe version cleans up the mix.

“Home” is a relatively pedestrian love song where Ian expresses garden-variety rock star guilt about leaving the main squeeze behind while he traverses the planet on a jumbo jet. This time David Palmer overdoes it on the strings, and Martin’s electric guitar fills feel quite out of place with the tender mood expressed in the lyrics. The slight lift in energy from “Orion” vanishes pretty quickly, a phenomenon that usually points to a problem with track placement, but trying to resolve that issue uncovers another problem. “Home” is one of those wistful, reflective songs that belongs near or at the end of an album, but unfortunately, there’s already a wistful, reflective number in the closing spot, the uninspired instrumental “Elegy.” The problem isn’t track placement but a shortage of sufficiently diverse, quality material.

“Dark Ages” can be dispensed with in short order: nine minutes and fourteen seconds of poorly-arranged, generally uninspiring music supporting a set of thoroughly incomprehensible lyrics. There’s a brief moment two-and-a-half minutes in where Martin Barre launches a machine-gun attack from the fretboard and Barriemore Barlow sounds like he’s getting ready to let it rip, but the anticipation dies a horrible death when Ian cuts off the power to give us another dull verse.

Side one wraps up with the sprightly instrumental “Warm Sporran,” where Ian shines on both flute and bass (filling in for the ailing Glascock). This is one of the tightest band performances on the album, with Evan displaying superb touch and Barlow masterfully handling the diverse drumming demands. It’s also one of the best-engineered tracks on the album, so I hope the remastering doesn’t mess with it too much.

If you’re hoping that side two is any better, guess what? It is! I’ll never understand why an album titled Stormwatch didn’t open with a song charting the path of a fierce storm gathering in the near-distance. . . especially WHEN ONE OF THE SONGS ON THE ALBUM DOES EXACTLY THAT. “Something on the Move” would have made a far more compelling opener with its ripping guitar, energetic flute and . . . it resonates with the title of the fucking album! And goddamn if Ian didn’t nail the poetic imagery:

She wore a black tiara
Rare gems upon her fingers
And she came from distant waters
Where northern lights explode
To celebrate the dawning
Of the new wastes of winter
Gathering royal momentum
On the icy road
With chill mists swirling
Like petticoats in motion
Sighted on horizons
For ten thousand years
The lady of the ice sounds
A deathly distant rumble
To Titanic-breaking children lost
In melting crystal tears.

Let me just say that I deeply resent the decision to shift to gender-neutral names for hurricanes and tropical storms. Only a woman could make such a dramatic, dominating and icily mesmerizing entrance, paralyzing men in their tracks as they struggle to understand how they could possibly sport an erection in a sub-zero environment. Because cold bitches are hot, dummies! I love the rhythmic differences between verses and chorus, the former marked by almost funk-like syncopation and the latter more kick-ass rock. I’m almost always happy when Martin Barre is prominent on a Tull song, as he seems to feed off the energy of the others while returning the energy in full.

As for the follow-up, “Old Ghosts” is a nothingburger of a track, a reminder that even excellent musicianship can’t save a song if the song fucking sucks. Cut it out entirely and you wind up with “Dun Ringill” next in line, the perfect complement to “Something on the Move,” a song that presents a different form of intensity while strengthening the storm metaphor. Dun Ringill is the site of an Iron Age fort on the Isle of Skye, a place within walking distance of Ian Anderson’s digs at the time of the recording. The soundscape is hauntingly beautiful, integrating the sounds of storm and sea with precisely strummed and arpeggiated acoustic guitar. The windswept nature of this ancient place on a far northern isle is captured in the brief bursts of vocal echoes, like human sounds carried on the wind bouncing between the rockfaces. It’s a song that evokes images of shadowy pagans gathered amidst a stone circle (a la Stonehenge), united in ritual as they contemplate the destructive power of nature:

We’ll wait in stone circles
‘Till the force comes through
Lines joint in faint discord
And the storm watch brews
A concert of kings
As the white sea snaps
At the heels of a soft prayer
Whispered

Ian’s voice is particularly fine on this track, his tone alternating between matter-of-fact acceptance of fate and soaring when offering his companion a stroll to this magical, darkly romantic place. It will forever befuddle me (no blonde jokes, please) that Stormwatch did not open with the pairing of “Something on the Move” and “Dun Ringill,” as those two songs back-to-back make for an intensely compelling introduction while clearly establishing a strong central theme.

At this point, the dual irritations of incomplete ideas and jumbled track order are really starting to annoy me, but Ian Anderson manages to save the day with what I think is one of his greatest and most impactful compositions, “Flying Dutchman.” Written during the period when the exodus of the “boat people” escaping Vietnam was at its peak, the song is unfortunately a timeless reminder of human resistance to providing haven for people fleeing violence and repression in search of a new life—resistance that is often tightly linked to racism and xenophobia. The symbol of the ghost ship of legend doomed to sail the seas for all eternity serves as a metaphor for the fear of outsiders. As the story morphed over time, the phantom ship came to be seen as a portent of impending doom, making the threat of the horrible consequences of allowing “foreigners” into one’s country a sick form of common wisdom. In truth, the Flying Dutchman is a creation of our own fears, a projection of our shadows.

The first verse describes an old woman standing at a harbor, sending warm wishes to the children who have set sail for distant shores. Their journey is doomed before it begins, as barriers to entry have sprung up in a multitude of countries, ensuring they will “come empty home again.” The music supporting the verse alternates between quiet moments and sudden thrusts, oscillating between quietly expressed hope and the natural fear that would accompany any journey into the unknown. The contrast between the gentle piano-flute duet and Martin Barre’s distorted, trebly guitar is quite dramatic, expressing in music the gap between innocence and hard experience. John Evan gives us a marvelous farewell performance in this piece, forming a compassionate counterpoint to Ian’s gentle, sadness-tinged vocal. As the verse ends, we hear Barriemore Barlow in the distance, executing a snare roll with military precision that cues a shift in style and tone for the chorus. Evan now switches to rhythmic support by adopting a style close to barrel roll, allowing Ian to deliver his first message to the first-worlders in the audience:

So come all you lovers of the good life
On your supermarket run
Set a sail of your own devising
And be there when the Dutchman comes.

The second verse describes some of the horrors faced by the boat people during their perilous journey in search of a home:

Wee girl in a straw hat: from far east warring
Sad cargo of an old ship: young bodies whoring
Slow ocean hobo ports closed to her crew
No hope of immigration, keep on passing through.

Ian’s second message is directed at parents with children, asking them to make the empathic leap: there but for fortune, those could be your kids:

So come all you lovers of the good life
Your children playing in the sun
Set a sympathetic flag a-flying
And be there when the Dutchman comes.

You may have heard of the boat disasters occurring in my neck of the woods: stories of thousands of immigrants crammed into barely seaworthy vessels drowning in the Mediterranean with appalling regularity. The horrors of such a death were also familiar to the boat people:

Death grinning like a scarecrow Flying Dutchman
Seagull pilots flown from nowhere try and touch one
As she slips in on the full tide
And the harbour-master yells
All hands vanished with the captain
No one left, the tale to tell.

Ian’s final message to the smug and comfortable attempts to remind them that the same fate awaits them unless they open minds and hearts to the fundamental truth that we are all human and our survival is dependent on mutual assistance:

So come all you lovers of the good life
Look around you, can you see?
Staring ghostly in the mirror
It’s the Dutchman you will be
Floating slowly out to sea
In a misty misery.

All it would take to put first-worlders in the same boat is one crazy bastard doing something to ignite a war, and given the recent ascendance of several crazy authoritarian bastards who are fully committed to fostering hatred between human beings, any of us could find ourselves taking a sail on the Dutchman in pretty short order. Ian Anderson has rarely written a song of such power and undeniable truth, and I hope with every fiber of my being that we learn to embrace that truth before it’s too late.

Mentioned previously, “Elegy” isn’t worth another word. I will now move on to the denouement.

Though I think it’s somewhat of a mess as an album, I definitely intend to purchase the deluxe edition when it comes out. All the Tull deluxe editions released so far have been of the highest quality, and I’ve always learned something new from the listening experience. In this case, I’m hoping that some of the excluded songs, demos or outtakes will provide substitute material for some of the weaker tracks so I can imagine a more perfect version of Stormwatch.

No, it’s not their best, but those few keepers make Stormwatch worth an edited spin.

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