Album Of The Week Club Review: Jethro Tull - Aqualung

Jethro Tull's fourth album, Aqualung, is the biggest selling of the band's 50-year career. But is it a concept album? It's not, says Ian Anderson

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In April 2015, Sex Pistols’ frontman John Lydon took to the stage at London’s 100 Club for a Q&A session with fans. Asked about his music taste, he said, “I love anything made by anyone… Just don’t play the fucking flute.”

When someone in the audience shouted out Jethro Tull’s name in response, he changed tack. “I like Jethro Tull!” he said. “I do! No, you gotta get this: this is the nonsense, thinking ‘what’s punk and what’s not’. Fuckin’ hell, Aqualung, that’s a fuckin’ stunning record, you know? It is!

You can see draw parallels between Lydon’s snotty onstage persona and the leering, sneering Aqualung character who inhabited the album of the same name. And both Lyon and Anderson share a loathing for organised religion. But such was the strength of Anderson’s character that many assume Aqualung to actually be a big issue concept album.

“It had two or three songs that were kind of about difficult topics, about organised religion, about homelessness, prostitution, whatever it might be,” Anderson told Newsweek. “But also there were whimsical, fun, upbeat songs that I felt quite deliberately should be there in order to balance the album up so there wasn’t just too much of the same thing.”

Listen to Aqualung:

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Here’s what we learned about Aqualung…

Background

In 1970 Jethro Tull released Benefit. It just failed to make the US Top 10, and Ian Anderson knew the band had to push themselves to reach a mainstream American audience. Aqualung did that: it was a deft mix a folk, prog and hard rock, with at least a couple of proto-metal riffs thrown into an already bubbling stew. At first, Anderson wasn’t sure if they’d got the balance right.

“We were getting quite esoteric on the album, and I felt that we might have pushed things too far in that regard,” he told Music Aficionado. “What gets you noticed in one territory might not have the same appeal elsewhere. The record had a lot of more acoustic singer-songwriter material on it, and Jethro Tull had become thought of as more of a rock band. The riffy rock material had a pretty immediate appeal to live audiences, so I felt reasonably confident and gratified. But you never know until you put it out, and then the record did very well, so it all worked.”

It really was. The definitive Jethro Tull album, it was evidence of the band’s constant musical evolution, aided and abetted by a bewildering, ever-changing cast of musicians alongside leader Ian Anderson and his long-time lieutenant guitarist Martin Barre. The title track and Locomotive Breath are among the most celebrated and heavy tracks in Tull’s enormous repertoire, with acoustic tracks like Mother Goose providing the light relief.

Other albums release in March 1971

  • Alice Cooper - Love It To Death
  • Leonard Cohen - Songs Of Love And Hate
  • Black Oak Arkansas - Black Oak Arkansas
  • Jimi Hendrix - The Cry Of Love
  • Delaney & Bonnie - Motel Shot
  • Steeleye Span - Please To See The King
  • Humble Pie - Rock On
  • Amon Duul II - Tanz Der Lamminge
  • Mott The Hoople - Wildlife

What they said

“From the packaging to the music it contains, this album is a complete work and this is from a group who were considered basically a live act. They improve every time out.” (Sounds)

“While Anderson is adept at conceiving a musical approximation of an idea, his lyrics are overly intentional, ponderous, and didactic. It would be possible to ignore the lyrics, as lyrics can usually be ignored, except that Anderson sings them so melodramatically. Nor is his theatricality appropriate to the ideas or words. The over-enthusiastic delivery is probably meant to compensate for his inherent vocal limitations, but the original problem is Anderson’s choice of subject. At a time when the more arcane varieties of religious experiences are trumpeted far and wide, and atheism and agnosticism still more than hold their own, it is difficult for the modern temper to get worked up over good old-fashioned Christian hypocrisy” (Rolling Stone)

“More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius. (Pop Matters)

“Ian Anderson is like the town free thinker. As long as you’re stuck in the same town yourself, his inchoate cultural interests and skeptical views on religion and human behaviour are refreshing, but meet up with him in the city and he can turn out to be a real bore. Of course, he can also turn out to be Bob Dylan–it all depends on whether he rejected provincial values out of a thirst for more or out of a reflexive (maybe even somatic) negativism. And on whether he was pretentious only because he didn’t know any better. (Robert Christgau)

“The leap from 1970’s Benefit to the following year’s Aqualung is one of the most astonishing progressions in rock history. In the space of one album, Tull went from relatively unassuming electrified folk-rock to larger-than-life conceptual rock full of sophisticated compositions and complex, intellectual, lyrical constructs. While the leap to full-blown prog rock wouldn’t be taken until a year later on Thick as a Brick, the degree to which Tull upped the ante here is remarkable.” (AllMusic)

What you said

Shane Hall: This album, like Beggars Banquet the week before, puts the “classic” in classic rock. With Aqualung and its preceding album, Benefit, the classic Jethro Tull sound solidified. After the blues influences of This Was, Tull began to integrate English folk and create its own brand of progressive rock. Forget the endless debates of “concept album” or not; Aqualung and much of Jethro Tull’s recordings for the remainder of the 70s are just essential classic rock.

Maxwell Martello: A huge influence on heavy metal. I love some of the songs, but I could never get into the whole vibe. I put it on sometimes and I find myself either pushing the repeat or the skip button far too often.

Vinnie Evanko: Great, great album. It’s one of the best rock albums of the 70s (if not ever). The Steven Wilson remix and bonus tracks are great. This is one of those albums I played to death (with the help of FM radio at the time) so it doesn’t get as much playing time for me as other Tull albums but it is undoubtedly a classic and one of their best.

Pete Mineau: A true Classic Rock classic! Coming out in a year (1971) that produced a multitude of time-honored albums, Aqualung easily places in the top ten LPs of that era and is still, to this day, a great listen straight through! Martin Barre is one of the most underrated guitarist in rock. This album proves he has the chops to be compared with the greats of AOR.

Jacob Carman: There’s a lot of focus lyrically on this album about people who have had or are having a string of bad luck. Aqualung is a homeless tramp with impure thoughts, Cross-Eyed Mary is uglier than sin and Locomotive Breath’s life is completely falling apart like a train wreck. The lyrics are as brilliant as the music.

Lisa Lodsun Vanden Heuvel: This reminds me of sitting on the beach at night in Ocean City, Maryland, listening to it play from the pier. Great album!

Kaine Smith: It seems to be rooted in Folk music rather than Progressive Rock, which isn’t a bad thing at all, quite a welcome change for me in fact! I like the lyrics too, they definitely paint a picture and create great detailed imagery in your mind. The musical accompaniment is of a good standard, though a little flat in timbre in a couple of spots. Whether this is down to mixing and production limitations at the time, or just how Jethro Tull were, I’m not sure… Though on the contrary, none of the album seems forced and it is a particularly organic and natural listening experience that never outstays it’s welcome and is the perfect length for an album.

Jeff Tweeter: Hate to be the dick here, but I think this is an okay album. Much prefer Stand Up, Benefit, Minstrel In The Gallery - and even Crest Of A Knave and Roots To Branches.

Alistair Gordon: The Steven Wilson remaster of this is stunning thoroughly recommend listening to it rather than the original the remaster really brings it to life.

Mike Knoop: The Classic Rock Album of the Week Club is reinforcing my belief that the older I get, the more I like my music mean, loud, and HEAVY. Jethro Tull scores the hat trick with Aqualung. Ian Anderson’s vocals and lyrics spit venom as Martin Barre’s guitar matches the nasty tone with searing solos and raunchy riffs. While there are plenty of folksy acoustic bits, it serves as counterpoint to the crunchy stuff. And, man, do Aqualung, Cross-Eyed Mary and Locomotive Breath still crunch. Album tracks like Up to Me, Dear God, Hymn 43 and Wind Up might be less known but they keep the heavy groove going. I have long been a Tull fan at the “greatest hits” level but this makes me want to seek out more of their albums.

Harrison Wells: Overall a brilliant album with no especially weak songs in my opinion, while for me Aqualung, Mother Goose and My God are particularly excellent. This paved the way for my favourite Tull album - Thick As A Brick - perfectly.

Edward Victor: Edward Viator I’ve never been Jethro Tull fan. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I hit play and heard the opening song. Holy shit, it was actually good. The next song, Cross-Eyed Mary, blew me away. And I was beginning to think that maybe I had gotten it wrong. Then I heard the rest of the album. Nah, they still suck. I mean, am I at a renaissance fair or something? I just can’t get into the flutes and stuff. And I’m not a fan of the vocals. I was digging the intro to My God, and then the vocals kicked in and that was that. The whole album is like that; great moments interrupted by something lame. I can’t dismiss the album completely, because there’s clearly a lot of talent there, and I can see where some people may enjoy it. But it’s just not my style.

Jacob Carman: OK, so I sat down and spun this album in its entirety for the first time. Side A seems to have less of a focus on religion and more of a focus on life and people whereas Side B focuses more on religion. Ian Anderson insists that Aqualung isn’t a concept album and it isn’t really. Each side seems more like its own miniature concept album but only because of the shared themes.

NE MO: We had a party one night, all nighter, background music Aqualung. We forgot that most of us were working at the factory at 7.00am. We all stumbled in. Four got sacked and the rest had sympathetic supervisors. Hangovers all round but what a soundtrack.

Mike Bruce: Really enjoying getting to know this album better. In the past I’ve just cherry picked the title track, Cross-eyed Mary and Locomotive Breath so the rest of the album was almost an unexpected pleasure especially My God and Wind Up. Love the light and shade and yes, the flute. Although at times it gets a bit like the SNL cowbell sketch: We need more flute!!

Final Score: 8.6610 (319 votes cast, with a total score of 2764)

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