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Jethro Tull's controversial parody concept album still holds together 50 years on

When is a concept album not a concept album? Jethro Tull's loquacious lampoon Thick As A Brick turns fifty

Jethro Tull - Thick As A Brick cover art detail
(Image: © PLG UK)

Disgruntled by critics labelling the previous year’s Aqualung a concept album, Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson ramped up his perversity and constructed Thick As A Brick, an oft-misunderstood parody of one. One long track spread over two sides, the very idea was meta and postmodern and hifalutin words like that, before pop had even considered eating itself. An affectionate satire of prog, it has of course since become established as one of the sacred texts of the genre. There’s a lot more to it than a bloke with a flute.

Its half-century is celebrated here with a half-speed remaster of Steven Wilson’s 2012 remix, clad in the original’s mock newspaper packaging. Anderson and crew spent as long on the in-jokes and mythology of that as on recording the album, so it’s good to see it returning as something loftier than fish-and-chips wrapping. (The 40th anniversary CD/DVD is reissued soon too).

Multiple levels of irony aside, clearly there is more to this, in substance and themes, than it being “just” a subversive spoof. The music hasn’t intrigued for five decades without having some dynamically thrilling sections, and the lyrics appear to be a kind of state-of-the-nation address, something Anderson’s essayed repeatedly on Tull albums. His stream of words is wilfully opaque here. 

It’s unclear who he’s singing to during the opening phase: “I really don’t mind if you sit this one out” isn’t exactly a “c’mon everybody” rallying call. But then he morphs into The Narrator (“I can make you feel, but I can’t make you think”), before adding, “your sperm’s in the gutter, your love’s in the sink”. He’s essentially calling the listener, or the subject of his tirade, a wanker. How Punk! It’s enough to pin you to your seat as he rattles on about the “moral melee”, wise men, bedwetters, poets, soldiers, fashion, the class system, judges, crooks and comic-book heroes. This is England. Or was.

It hits and misses, but you admire Anderson’s pluck in having a go. And the music holds together, somehow keeping its momentum up, an effective edifice of accessible complexity, lulls and flurries. 

At least throughout Side One, climaxing with jagged staccato stabs which mess brilliantly with your expectations. Side Two, after opening with a million ideas, jabs and jigs, then wheezes a little to carry it over the finishing line. Thick As A Brick, far away from its controversial birth, still works, as an enthused, motivated statement. It’s not stupid.

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.