Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Thick as a Brick


I can still remember the first time that I heard “Thick as a Brick”. Scott and I were in the back of our grandpa’s truck on a camping trip, driving from Salt Lake City to Fish Lake. It was either 1973 or 1974. My brother, Scott, had just gotten a cassette tape of this wild haired, flute fronted rock band from England and wanted to play for me the craziest new album.


ONE SONG! . . . Forty-three minutes long!
One song on the whole album. How audacious. Crazy?

Kind of cool though.

And the second I heard it – BRILLIANT! Beautiful, melodic, soaring, gritty, funny, technical.
I was completely engrossed in the artistic masterpiece, the stunning transitions from soft acoustic guitars to hard electric riffs, to orchestral passages that literally float away. The contract between acoustic and electric in this album is second to none.
This was Tull’s real transition from being a blues based band to being considered one of the leaders of the “progressive” rock world. It all started out as a parody, conceived by leader and songwriter Ian Anderson (who many thought was actually “Jethro”), in response to the audacious progressive rock being produced by groups like Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer. The lengthy lyrics were also supposed to have been written by the fictional character, Gerald “Little Milton” Bostock, a nine-year-old boy from St. Cleve, England. Anderson's response to the critics was: "If the critics want a concept album, we'll give the mother of all concept albums, and we'll make it bombastic and so over the top."
The album was recorded in a whirlwind fashion in December of 1971 at Morgan Studios in London. The whole album was written by Ian, and pieced together by the band at essentially the same time. Ian would spend the evenings huddled away alone writing the next several passages of music and lyrics, then bring it the next morning to the rest of the band. The band would rehearse the new sections and promptly lay down the new passages on tape. Through this process they spliced together the whole album to make one long song, labeled as “side 1” and “side 2”.
“Thick As A Brick” charted to Number One in the Billboard 200 in 1972.  Radio stations at the time would typically play the opening “single edit”, that clocks in at 3 minutes. It is still played worldwide on classic rock stations. Even more, it holds up today better than ever. To really capture the breadth of TAAB, one has to devote the time to sit down and listen to the album from top to finish, which is a commitment that few have in these days of hectic schedules and “Attention Deficit” digital media disorders.  The varied instrumentation of the album is impressive – guitars, flute, timpani, xylophone, violin, lute, trumpet, saxophone, and a string section – and went to establish Jethro Tull as a band second to none when it comes to musical proficiency, technical prowess, and creativity.

Here is 23 minutes of part two. See how long it can keep you entranced. 

And there I sat, listening to TAAB with Scott from a small cassette deck in 1974 in the back of our grandpa’s pickup camper truck, travelling to Fish Lake in central Utah, mesmerized.  This was the album that really made me a Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson fan for the rest of my life. I had to get a copy of my own! So I got back home and bought the album. It was then that I found out that the album packaging was as creative and brilliant as the music itself. The album cover was designed as a multi page small town newspaper – The St. Cleve Chronicle. Hours of fun reading to be had if you dig into the tiny details, all in the very English Monty Pythonesque style.
I still remember grabbing an acoustic guitar in my room and beginning to pick apart the opening riff. Capo on the 3rd fret, major key picking soft opening passage, followed by the vocal refrain of “Really don’t mind if I sit this one out…”!
In 1972, Tull embarked on a worldwide tour where they played the entire album start to finish. The performance got huge attention because of their musical prowess and the theatrical aspects of the band, especially the wild-eyed, long-haired Ian Anderson. He was establishing himself as one of the consummate entertainers in rock, and is still going to this day.  I remember vividly one of my first Tull concerts, and the image of Ian stepping out on stage to begin the night picking the opening acoustic riff to “Thick As a Brick”, and instantly getting goose bumps.
Jump to 2012, and with the 40-year anniversary of the album’s release, Ian Anderson wrote a follow up to TAAB, promptly titled TAAB2. It is a concept album that takes the juxtaposition of, “whatever happened to little Gerald Bostock” (now that he is approaching 50). The musical technicality of Ian and his current band are stronger than ever, and there are many great moments on the album (I give, it’s a CD). I definitely have a copy on CD and iPod, and it is good listening - but it doesn’t quite capture the lilting structure and grace of the original.
What was brilliant, however, was the 2012 World Tour of Ian Anderson, where he played the original TAAB in its entirety, for the first time since 1972.  Scott & I were able to get great seats to the show while on their US leg, and while Ian has lost his hair and some of his voice, the musical show was still majestic and far beyond what you will find in most concerts today. Even my wife (who is not a big progressive rock fan) came out of the show shaking her head saying she couldn’t believe how good that band was and how detailed the music and performances were.
So there it is. It’s one of my top 5 albums of all time. When you have 43 minutes to spare (a rarity, I know), it’s worth every minute. It’s also a great driving song on your next road trip.

Eric Winger

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