Featured Album – Thick as a Brick – Jethro Tull

“By the time the 1970s had begun, bands like ELP were a little up their own arses. Everything was too serious and too overblown. So we set out with Thick as a Brick to show up this side of the genre.” – Ian Anderson

Really don’t mind if you sit this one out
My word’s but a whisper, your deafness a shout
I may make you feel but I can’t make you think
Your sperm’s in the gutter, your love’s in the sink

So you ride yourselves over the fields
And you make all your animal deals
And your wise men don’t know how it feels
To be thick
As a brick

When Jethro Tull first started -= back in Blackpool, Lancashire in 1967 – they were essentially (like so many others) a blues-rock outfit. But they loudly (if in a subtle way) announced their departure from that genre by calling their debut album This Was. Founder Ian Anderson later admitted that blues elements and black American folk culture were “not part of my life and I couldn’t keep doing that – I’d look like a complete twit.” (Fortunately, this didn’t stop all the other Brits who pursued blues with a vengeance.)

It’s always been really hard to pin Tull down to just one genre. In fact, Wikipedia lists their genres as “progressive rock, hard rock, blues rock, folk-rock, jazz fusion. (Were it me, I’d add in whatever you call that uniquely British, vaguely medieval-sounding thing that bands like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention had going on.)

What made me think of Tull recently was that – for whatever reason – I’ve been somewhat in a prog state of mind lately. I picked up a couple of issues of Prog Magazine (yes there is such a thing) and found out that – lo and behold – Tull are now considered a prog-rock band. (Well, sort of. Ian Anderson says they had their “prog years” and let us not forget that they famously (or infamously) once beat Metallica out for a Grammy for best hard rock album. (1987’s Crest of a Knave.)

Anyway! No matter what genre they are, I have always dug Tull. Now I cannot say that I have followed them all that much recently and like a lot of people, feel their heyday was back in the ’70s. Starting in 1968, they had a string of really good albums (This Was, Stand Up, Benefit, Aqualung) that led to 1972’s Thick as a Brick.*

And how did this concept album come about? Well, by actually being a send-up of the then-current prog (King Crimson, Moody Blues, Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer) bands of the day. Ian Anderson sets you straight and it starts with Aqualung (my friend):

“However much I insisted that Aqualung wasn’t a concept album, the media still persisted in treating it as such. They seemed to believe the whole record was a major religious story. The truth was that three or four songs were linked by questioning the nature of religion… I thought, Ok, we’ll not only now do a real concept album, but we’re going to make it the mother of all concept albums.” (Apparently, he had never heard of Tommy. Oh wait, that’s a rock opera. This is a concept album. Difference?)

Wikipedia: “The original packaging, designed like a (12-page!) newspaper, claims the album to be a musical adaptation of an epic poem by fictional eight-year-old genius Gerald Bostock, though the lyrics were actually written by the band’s frontman, Ian Anderson. (Tull’s manager said that Jethro Tull is Ian Anderson and Ian Anderson is Jethro Tull. I think the other guys – particularly in these days – were as much contributors as sidemen. But the vision (and songwriting) in Tull has always been Anderson.)

The album itself is just shy of 44 minutes long. It is effectively one long suite but in the original vinyl was divided into Sides One and Two. Interestingly for me, Side One works better as a coherent suite of songs. (Which is what it is). It’s somewhat akin in that sense to Tubular Bells in that Side Two is good but Side One is the draw.

Anderson was fortunate in that he had one of the best incarnations of Tull in this band’s long existence. In addition to Anderson on flute and acoustic guitar, the musicians were Martin Barre, electric guitar; John Evan, piano, organ, harpsichord; Jeffrey Hammond, bass guitar; Barriemore Barlow, drums.

Anderson: “There are so many weird time changes and musical innovations on the album. I would never compare what we did back then to jazz rockers like Weather Report or Mahavishnu Orchestra but we were a little more sophisticated than the usual riff rockers.”

So why do I love this album? Because it all just works! It is by turns melodic, rocking, odd, driving – the band is totally 100% in synch. Everybody sounds on top of their game. I loved this album when it came it and I love it to this day. Do you know I listened to this album four times this week? I never do that. I cannot get or its lyrics out of my head:

You put your bet on number one
And it comes up every time
The other kids have all backed down
And they put you first in line

And so you finally ask yourself
Just how big you are
And you take your place in a wiser world
Of bigger motor cars
And you wonder who to call on

Coming on the heels of Aqualung, the album was a worldwide smash reaching Number One on the Billboard charts. (Consider the possibility of anything like this getting on any kind of popular chart today assuming it would even get recorded.) Tull decided to tour behind it and, well, let’s say it was an interesting experience:

“At the start of the show, men wearing capes appeared onstage and began sweeping the floor, counting the audience and studying the venue; after a few minutes, some of them revealed themselves to be members of the band and began to play. During some shows, the entire band stopped mid-performance when a telephone rang on stage, which Anderson would answer, before carrying on performing. News and weather reports were read halfway through the show, and a man in a scuba diver outfit came onstage.”

The Japanese did not get the humor and alas, my fellow Americans were not kind to Tull, yelling out for Aqualung and other tunes they really preferred to hear. In fact, my fellow citizens really outdid themselves on this one (arseholes):

Anderson: “It was in America where I met my match. [They wanted to hear] the band responsible for “Locomotive Breath” and “Aqualung” … so waltzing into town with Thick as a Brick = even though it was Number One – well, people were shouting us down with hoots and whistles. … At the end of the American tour, I nearly hung my hat up. I said to our manager Terry Ellis, ‘That’s it, I’m done!’ I don’t want to do this anymore and I’m never coming back. It took me quite a while to recover from it.”

Reviews were mixed at the time of release but over time this album has gained the reputation it has always deserved in the opinion of your humble reporter. In 2014, Progย magazine listedย Thick as a Brick at number 5 in the list “The 100 Greatest Prog Albums of All Time,” voted for by its readers.

Rolling Stone listed the album at number 7 in their Top 50 Prog Albums of All Time. Thick as a Brick is ranked number 3 in the user-managed website Prog Archives’s top albums list, with an average rank of 4.64 stars. Rush’sย Geddy Leeย has saidย Thick as a Brick is one of his favorite albums as didย Iron Maiden’sย Steve Harris. And no less a personage than the ubiquitous Steven Wilson has remastered it.

So what are you waiting for? Put on some headphones and spend the next 45 or so minutes finding out what a great album sounds like when all the right elements come together. And try to get those melodies out of your head.

So you ride yourselves over the fields
And you make all your animal deals
And your wise men don’t know how it feels
To be thick
As a brick

*Anderson produced a follow-up to the album in 2012, focusing on the adult life of the fictional Gerald Bostock. (Thick as a Brick 2). I will have to give it a spin some day.

The downloadable version of the 40th-anniversary edition splits the overall suite into eight separate parts:

  1. “Really Don’t Mind” / “See There a Son Is Born” โ€“ 5:00
  2. “The Poet and the Painter” โ€“ 5:29
  3. “What Do You Do When the Old Man’s Gone?” / “From the Upper Class” โ€“ 5:25
  4. “You Curl Your Toes in Fun” / “Childhood Heroes” / “Stabs Instrumental” โ€“ 6:48
  5. “See There a Man Is Born” / “Clear White Circles” โ€“ 5:58
  6. “Legends and Believe in the Day” โ€“ 6:34
  7. “Tales of Your Life” โ€“ 5:24
  8. “Childhood Heroes Reprise” โ€“ 2:56

Sources: Prog Special Edition – Jethro Tull’; Wikipedia

26 thoughts on “Featured Album – Thick as a Brick – Jethro Tull

        1. I can’t recall if I ever responded to this. Ok, so I listened to this. I would say I neither love nor hate it. There are parts of it that are really good. But overall, to me it just sounded like they were trying to hard to recreate the “Brick” magic and fell short. Where “Brick” is sometimes light and melodic, sometimes heavy and driving, this just doesn’t grab my ear as much and I had a hard time getting all the way through it. I’ve seen it on some “best prog” lists but I can’t say I agree.

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        2. Thanks for trying it! I like how they pushed the boat out a little bit further – kind of a noble failure. I like how someone once said that you can tell whether a record store is good or not by if they file Jethro Tull records under J or T.

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        3. It was interesting enough that I will likely give it another spin one day. I would rather listen to some other prog and then come back to Tull and listen to ‘Heavy Horses,’ ‘Crest of a Knave.’ and ‘Songs from the Wood.’ Notwithstanding this album, I still think they are a great band and their music has given me much enjoyment over the years.
          As to the record store quality, what better judge of quality could there be than how they file Jethro Tull? To do otherwise, one would have to be thick as a … slab of concrete.

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  1. This is a very cool and unusual album. While my exposure to progressive rock has been limited, I don’t believe I’ve heard anything quite like “Thick As a Brick.”

    Oftentimes, I tend to feel less is more and that you can overdo it with complexity in music. But as you said, in this case, it all fits neatly together! It doesn’t feel like Jethro Tull decided to make things complex just for the sake of showing off their technical skills. It’s truly a masterpiece!!

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    1. Much prog-rock feels like it could go off the rails any moment or just get bogged down in un-melodic wanking. (To use the British word.) The whole thing really is built around a number of songs that sound good together and the playing is top-notch. Side Two has them sometimes going up their own arses a little bit. But overall it’s a joy to listen to.

      Aphoristical suggests giving the follow-up album “Passion Play” a spin. The music world is divided on that one but I’ll go to it with an open mind.

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  2. I’ve been listening to it as I catch up this morning. Good one Doc. I like this band and this album. Still sounds real good to me. I love the Tull sound. They were their own guys.
    We’ve talked about them before and where they came from and some off the offshoots (Blodwyn Pig). I ate this stuff up as you know. I always thought JT had more of a rock edge but that’s me. I’m getting Tulled, Vinyl Connection just had a blurb on Benefit.

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    1. It definitely does have more of a rock edge but prog-rock term definitely covers that. I was as surprised as anybody to hear them listed that way. I don’t think of them as in the same breath as Genesis, Yes, etc. It’s weird but I think I’ve written about Tull 3 or 4 times now. I’ll have to check out VC’s take. “Benefit” is where I came in and the era around where I got drunk and saw them first, not necessarily in that order.

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        1. Probably. Actually it was just a couple of us sharing a six-pack before a show just to get a little buzz. We weren’t into wacky weed at the time. We were kids; this was a Fillmore show. I got lucky and my time in NYC overlapped with most of that time.

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        2. Love those stories.. When I seen the Who for the first time, my buddy got in a scrap right when the show started. They tossed the other guy out . I never seen a guy get bounced so fast. Mt friend was a hot head and should have been tossed also. Alcohol was involved.

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    2. “Blurb” is right on Benefit. One paragraph. I can’t deal with those “Here are my five million favorite albums” posts so I’ll pass. Information overload.

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      1. I found it interesting what VC was listening to at the time. Some common ground and a few I missed that I’m interested in checking out.
        I like short snappers, sort of like your Serpico take.

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        1. Yeah, that was a live version but you should be able to find a studio version if need be. Worst case, dial up ‘Proud Mary’ by Ike and Tina on Spotify. i guarantee you will get a thrill up your leg.

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