“It’s a masterpiece”: why the prog world loves Jethro Tull’s Aqualung

Cover art for Aqualung
(Image credit: Jethro Tull)

Compelling lyrics. Cutting-edge views. Captures Tull at their most powerful and cohesive best. These are just a few of the reasons why the prog world loves Jethro Tull’s 1971 album Aqualung. From Neal Morse to Jordan Rudess, these musicians tell us exactly why this classic album still endures over 50 years on from its release.   


Neal Morse: "It's still one of my favourites." 

“When I was 11 or 12 years old, someone brought the Aqualung album over to our house in suburban Southern California (as was very common in those days, my friends and I were always bringing our favourite albums over and listening to them over and over) and we listened to the second side first. 

“I remember my friend saying, ‘Wait for it... Check this out!’ setting up the moment when the guitars and the band kick in for My God after Ian Anderson sings: ‘With his plastic crucifix.’ What a killer moment! I was hooked from there on out. I learned to play Hymn 43 on the piano, and played it a lot in my early teens. When Mike Portnoy suggested that we record a cover version recently I jumped at the chance. 

“Side One is great of course, but I always preferred Side Two having not been raised with any sort of religion or spiritual direction I’d hardly thought about God at the time. So I found the lyrics really interesting and compelling as well. 

“Still one of my favourites, I found a used vinyl copy in good shape at a thrift store in Southern Oregon while I was on vacation last summer, and bought it once again. A classic!” 

Derek Shulman (Gentle Giant): “Tull reached their zenith with Aqualung” 

“In my opinion Jethro Tull reached their zenith in both creativity and entertainment with Aqualung. Together with Thick As A Brick, Ian and band were unique in their flawless ability to fuse blues, folk, rock and quasi-classical music wrapped up in a magical period in their career. 

Gentle Giant toured both Europe and North America in 1972 with Tull, and the cheer that went up when Martin Barre played the opening riff to Aqualung was always deafening! This still remains one of my favourite prog albums of all time. 

“The band’s stagecraft was also at its peak during this period, in that rather than appearing like pompous over-practised classical musicians they had fun onstage. This was reflected back from an audience that smiled, laughed and cheered together with, and for, the band.” 

Sonja Kristina (Curved Air): "Forward-thinking songs"

“In 1971 Curved Air toured extensively with Jethro Tull, as they promoted Aqualung in the US and I got to appreciate how impressive the band were. In recent years I’ve made guest appearances with the excellent Italian band OAK – a popular Jethro Tull-influenced band. Through them I have listened to Aqualung again, and this has reinforced for me just how forward-thinking the songs were. The album underlined that Ian Anderson, a Dickensian hobo/pied piper, was a weaver of intricate, evocative wordy tales.” 

Arthur Brown: “A tantalising and relevant album”

Aqualung is still a tantalising album. Still ‘in’ with cutting-edge views as far as conservative people in the church go, still relevant to social justice today. “Musically, this has its place in the development of various genres of music, yet it’s also a thing unto itself, which can be appreciated from different stylistic viewpoints. It includes classic rock, folk, jazz, heavy metal, blues, classical to name but a few. 

“It has enough delicacy for pure folk aficionados, enough oomph to keep the metal fans interested and just a touch of classical. It’s lyrically intelligent with an incisive mind, asking intelligent questions and taking a wide spectrum of humanity into account.” 

Andy Glass (Solstice): "Christ, they were good!"

“I first came to the Tull party with Minstrel In The Gallery and caught them live at their 1978 Hammersmith Odeon show. Christ, they were good! Ian was at the top of his game and the material was stellar, including, of course, Aqualung… twice! 

“About 15 years later, I became friends with Mick Abrahams and through him the wonderful Clive Bunker, who later joined Solstice for an album and supporting shows. I was producing a solo album for Mick when I met Ian, who came in for the day to record harmonica and flute parts. Next thing I knew I was Jethro Tull’s front of house sound engineer and spent the next couple of years touring Europe and the States with them. 

“They played Aqualung, My God and Locomotive Breath at every one of the 120-plus shows I worked with them. Cross-Eyed Mary made regular appearances too. That speaks volumes for the significance of this album, and the ecstatic audience reaction confirmed it every time. I never tired of hearing that incredible band, especially Martin’s playing, but for me personally, My God was the track that floored me every single time. What an album!” 

Dave Oberlé (Gryphon): "It's still one of my favourite albums from the 70s" 

Aqualung might have been released in 1971, but I didn’t hear it until 1972 after a friend’s recommendation.
“I had been a fan of Jethro Tull before this and loved the sound of Ian Anderson’s voice and virtuoso flute playing.This album, for me, had the perfect mix of acoustic and electric sounds, and the occasional sound of recorders. I had always been a fan of Clive Bunker’s drumming and Martin Barre’s great guitar playing. Favourite tracks for me are Aqualung, Mother Goose and My God. It’s still one of my favourite albums from that period of the 70s.” 

David Longdon (Big Big Train): "It is, without doubt, a masterpiece" 

“I’ve bought Aqualung four times during my life. It is, without doubt, a masterpiece. The album captures Tull at their most powerful and cohesive best. It creates a rich environment and offers an intense listening experience with highly articulate lyrics with subject matter that concerns itself with society and religion. 

“This was one of the first albums to be recorded at Island Studios, and was done at the same time as Led Zeppelin were recording their fourth album. There were technical teething troubles, and this resulted in the 1971 mix having an unusual timbre to the instruments. The 2011 [Steven Wilson] remix of the album greatly improves upon the listening experience.” 

Troy Donockley (Nightwish): "It hit me like a bus"

Aqualung, with its easy, heavy, natural sophistication, hit me like a bus. And it felt like it came from my environment – the sound of the local steelworks to the open drama of the Lake District. Wond’ring Aloud and Slipstream in particular shone for me; acoustic music rooted in something wonderfully British and romantic. It’s also a signpost to the mighty Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses.” 

Lynsey Ward (Exploding Birdsong): “An amazing example of individuality within prog”

“For me, Aqualung is an amazing example of individuality within progressive rock. It is impossible to listen to the album and not be transported, thanks to Ian Anderson’s observational and vivid style of songwriting. 

“I feel it’s fair to say that writing a song or an album based on a whimsical or fantastical concept is well within the comfort zone of most prog writers, whereas Aqualung relentlessly forces you into remembering you’re in the real world, and that sometimes the real world can be pretty disgusting! It seems to be up to the listener to decide whether or not the album is
a concept that explores the idea of religion versus God. Upon discussion, particularly with my dad, it’s Anderson’s ability to create a musical argument based on what someone would have to see and hear in everyday life to have these kinds of doubts that sets his writing apart. 

“The killer combination of witty lyrics and expertly crafted melodies solidifies Aqualung as a triumph in prog, and a masterclass in storytelling.” 

Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater): "It changed the world as we know it"

“There are only a handful of prog albums which, in my opinion, changed the world as we know it. Aqualung is one of them. Jethro Tull introduced an original sound which highlighted Ian Anderson’s unique voice and his cutting-edge approach to the flute. 

“Not to mention the fact that radio stations picked up on a few of the songs, and exposed their sound to the masses. It was a different time in the music industry, and this album sparked so much creativity and joy in all of us!” 

Ross Jennings (Haken): "It was love at first listen"

“I was just 14 when comic actor Owen Wilson, in a scene from Michael Bay’s 1998 blockbuster movie Armageddon, joked, ‘I’ll tell you one thing that really drives me nuts is people that think that Jethro Tull is just a person in the band’... only to be given the reply, ‘Who is Jethro Tull?’ 

“My knowledge and interest in rock music beyond Aerosmith had long matured by then, but Tull were not a band I was familiar with yet. From what I could tell at the time, Aqualung was generally regarded as the entry point record for anyone who dared explore the world of Tull. Most never look back and, after some back catalogue digging, this was also to be my fate! 

Aqualung was love at first listen, and came to me at
a very influential period of my life when I was discovering many legendary prog rock bands and albums. It’s rich in variety,
which makes it progressive yet still strong in its blues influences, which I absolutely adore and probably why it’s so widely accessible. The album contains some of Tull’s most memorable tunes in my opinion, and it also proved quite boldly that the flute can rock too! 

“Fast-forward 20 years from that ill-fated asteroid movie experience, and I happened to catch both Locomotive Breath and the title track performed by Martin Barre and his band on Cruise To The Edge; a reminder just how special that record actually is to me. The icing on the cake was meeting Martin briefly as we exited the ship, and discovering what an absolute gentleman he is! Whoever said never meet your heroes was wrong in his case!” 

Roine Stolt: "Ian's vocals sound great"

Aqualung came at a time when rock music was definitely expanding. Having followed the band from the very first jazzy/bluesy album, This Was, their fourth, Aqualung, offered more of everything – definitely riffing from the first bar. 

“For me personally, the opening [title] track wasn’t the best
– it may be the most well known, but what followed was far more interesting as it saw the band exploring both heavy riffs and folky scaled-down tunes, plenty of flute, odd time structures, more acoustic guitar and even some Mellotron! 

“Today, I tend to love the acoustic stuff a bit more and not the overblown orchestrations. These have very dynamic arrangements, all the musicians shine and Ian’s vocals sound great. As far as I’m concerned, this was the promise that was leading up to A Passion Play, in my opinion their best, most solid album. 

“Tull definitely had their own sound here – the blend of power trio riffing, some piano and the jazzy flute.” 

Sam Vallen (Caligula's Horse): “Vigour and attitude that was unique” 

“Although not as ambitious as its follow-up, there’s
a vigour and attitude to Aqualung that was unique in then-nascent progressive rock. The songs are structurally tight and punchy and Anderson’s socially and religiously minded (and often gruesome) lyrics lend a sophistication to the riff-heavy record. Whether it’s a concept album or not, it never feels bloated or pompous, clearly a factor in its significant commercial impact in addition to its lasting stylistic influence.” 

Originally printed in Prog Magazine #117

Malcolm Dome

Malcolm Dome had an illustrious and celebrated career which stretched back to working for Record Mirror magazine in the late 70s and Metal Fury in the early 80s before joining Kerrang! at its launch in 1981. His first book, Encyclopedia Metallica, published in 1981, may have been the inspiration for the name of a certain band formed that same year. Dome is also credited with inventing the term "thrash metal" while writing about the Anthrax song Metal Thrashing Mad in 1984. With the launch of Classic Rock magazine in 1998 he became involved with that title, sister magazine Metal Hammer, and was a contributor to Prog magazine since its inception in 2009. He died in 2021