CD Review: Jethro Tull – Aqualung


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aqualungArtist: Jethro Tull

Label: Capitol

Release Dates:

Original: March 19, 1971
CD: June 18, 1996

Discs: 1

Aardvark’s Rating (out of 5):
fiveaardvarks

 

 

 

Sitting on a park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent,
Snot running down his nose, greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes

With those lines one of the more enduring tunes in the classic rock pantheon was born; lines I might add that were taken, almost verbatim from a conversation Ian Anderson had with his first wife following her photo shoot of homeless people.

Just goes to show you that you should always listen to your spouse; you never know what you could miss. Couple those words with one of rocks more memorable guitar riffs and an album which many consider to be Jethro Tull’s masterpiece is off and running.

A fan of Jethro Tull in general and this album in particular I just recently re-listened to it’s 25th anniversary incarnation. As the songs passed by like old friends seldom seen it struck me; this is  a microcosm of all which Ian and company would ultimately become best known for; Prog rock, acoustic noodling s, straight ahead rock and roll. This album has it all.

Anyone just learning about Jethro Tull could do one hell of a lot worse than start here. Prior to this release the band had moved from the blues roots of their inaugural record This Was with tunes like “Someday The Sun Won’t Shine for You”, “My Sunday Feeling” and their take on the old blues chestnut “Cat Squirrel” to the electric folk of “With You There To Help Me” and “To Cry You A Song” from 1970’s Benefit.

Then came Aqualung. Musically diverse and lyrically dense the band tackle no less topics than homelessness, teenage prostitution, organized religion and death. Common enough themes maybe in the ensuing years but in 1971 it was a revelation. The critics labeled the album a concept piece, something which Ian Anderson the bands writer / singer / leader has always vehemently denied.

Yet one can’t deny the inherent division apparent on the original vinyl release; side one dealt with the homeless nearly sub-human Aqualung… a species of man so named because of the rattling breath sounds it / he / she emitted. Side two had a distinctly anti religion bent. Anti religion mind, not anti God as so many religious fundamentalists have always claimed. The flip side dealt extensively with the mockery which man has perpetuated in the name of the almighty, a theme introduced in the inner sleeve of the original album’s gate fold:

In the beginning Man created God; and in the image of Man created he him.
2. And Man gave unto God a multitude of names, that he might be Lord over all the earth when it was suited to Man.
3. And on the seven millionth day Man rested and did lean heavily on his God and saw that it was good.
4. And Man formed Aqualung of the dust of the ground, and a host of others likened unto his kind.
5. And these lesser men Man did cast into the void. And some were burned; and some were put apart from their kind.
6. And Man became the God that he had created and with his miracles did rule over all the earth.
7. But as all these things did come to pass, the Spirit that did cause man to create his God lived on within all men: even within Aqualung.
8. And man saw it not.
9. But for Christ’s sake he’d better start looking.

A lurching flute driven rocker follows the titular track as we are introduced to the under aged vixen Cross-Eyed Mary, a victim of her own insatiable wants and needs who seeks out the company of a “leching grey” or perhaps a dalliance with the predatory Aqualung.

Cross-Eyed Mary finds it hard to get along
She’s a poor man’s rich girl, and she’ll do it for a song
She’s a rich man’s stealer, but her favour’s good and strong
She’s the Robin Hood of High gate, helps the poor man get along

The electric machinations are temporarily suspended here as the band flex their acoustic muscle. Cheap Day Return documents a day trip that Anderson made to visit his ailing father by way of British Rail; expressing in the all to brief reading the concerns that any man’s son might have for his not to long for this world father.

And you sadly wonder, does the nurse treat your old man
The way that she should. She made you tea, asked for your autograph
What a laugh

Followed closely by the surrealistic ramblings of the infinitely hum able Mother Goose; Aqua Velva ingested hallucinations anyone?

And the lady said to me, if you start you raving and your misbehaving
You’ll be sorry. Then the chicken-fancier came to play
With his long red beard (and his sister’s weird, she drives a lorry)

Can Aqualung truly know love? The way the Ian tells it, he most certainly can… for one night at the very least. Wond’ring Aloud is a beautiful, melancholy acoustic piece that survives in the Tull’s set list to this very day.

Wond’ring aloud, how we feel today
Last night sipped the sunset, my hands in her hair
We are our own saviors, as we start both our hearts beating life
Into each other

The raucous Up To Me disrupts the pastoral acoustic styling’s, barely hinting at the cacophony which is to follow. A cacophony that succinctly lances the foibles and shortfalls of organized religion with such heart felt passion that only the most zealous of religious fanatics can resist the blatant imperative to revisit all that they have “known” and recant that very knowledge.

My God, the song formerly known as the start of side two pulls no punches and takes no prisoners in it’s inquisition. Organized religion has done more over the years to alienate the faithful from the very God that they seek to get closer to than any atheistic army could ever have hoped to accomplish. Anderson’s beef against “the church” had less to do with the concept of God himself and more to do with just what it is that we, as human beings, have managed to make of the whole thing which we call religion.

People—what have you done, locked Him in His golden cage
Made Him bend to your religion, Him resurrected from the grave
He is the god of nothing, if that’s all that you can see
You are the god of everything, He’s inside you and me
So lean upon him gently, and don’t call on him to save
You from your social graces and the sins you used to waive
The bloody Church of England , in chains of history
Request your earthly presence, at the vicarage for tea

The follow up to My God, Hymn 43 still has the deep rooted resonance that all songs of substance must posses if they hope to stand the test of time. It deals with the concept of Jesus Christ as a logical progression of what he must become if in fact He was a product of our grasping imagination.

Oh father high in heaven – smile down upon your son
Whose busy with his money games—his women and his gun
Oh Jesus save me!
And the unsung Western hero, killed an Indian or three
And made his name in Hollywood, to set the white man free
Oh Jesus save me!
If Jesus saves—well he’d better save Himself
From the gory glory seekers who use His name in death.

The brief snippet of a song “Slipstream” introduces the concept of death as a final reckoning; a settling up of the tab as it were.

And you press on God’s waiter you last dime
As he hands you the bill
And you spin in the slipstream, timeless—unreasoning
Paddle right out of the mess

Next up comes the other song which, next to Aqualung, is probably their most popular song to this very day. Locomotive Breath is life (and death) as a runaway train. Starting out with a lilting piano riff the song soon builds to a raging torrent which barely lets up for the remaining four minutes odd. The Grim Reaper as an engineer.

He hears the silence howling, catches angels as they fall
And the all time winner, has got him by the balls
He picks up Gideon’s Bible, it’s open at page one
Old Charlie stole the handle and the train won’t stop going
No way to slow down

But my favorite, the song which sums it all up for me, “Wind Up” finishes the original album off, speaking earnestly of a young boy, pure of spirit as only the young can be, growing more and more confused by the dictates placed upon him by his elders. Dictates that, even as a young boy, he could see as facile.

When I was young and they packed me off to school
And taught me how not to play the game
I didn’t mind if they groomed me for success
Or if they said that I was just a fool
So I left there in the morning with their God tucked underneath my arm
Their half-assed smiles and the book of rules
So I asked this God a question and by way of firm reply
He said—I’m not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.
So to my old headmaster, and to anyone who cares, before I’m through, I’d like to say my prayers
I don’t believe you, you had the whole damn thing all wrong
He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays

The whole concept of what it means to be a Christian has plagued better minds than mine. But the irony of what a man made concept makes of the almighty has always vexed me. Man is imperfect. Man is fallible. Why then rely upon the dictates of man to guide the way that we relate to the divine. It has never made sense to me. And until I discovered the final track on the original issue of Aqualung I felt as though I was alone in my vexation.

Now tell me true; who doesn’t know someone who is an outwardly pious person, attending church regularly, contributing to the rector’s discretionary fund, paying their tithes, attempting to get “good with God” through hollow gestures and monetary contributions. The whole concept of tithing sprang up from a church desperate for money… oh yeah, and the salvation of the faithful of course.

Thing is the rich and corpulent would gladly pay these tithes so that they could wipe out a lifetime of being a jack ass, abusing their fellow man, gouging everyone that they possibly could and generally being a certified grade “A” son of a bitch. But it was all good because they had coughed up some money, ostensibly so that God would look the other way.

“Sure the guy was a prick,” says God, “but he did donate $10,000 dollars to my earthly envoys last year so it’s all good.”

Yeah, sure. To quote Bono during one of his very frequent in concert rants:

“The God I know isn’t short of cash, mister.”

Which kind of emphasizes my point, I think, at the same time that it kind of exposes Mr. Paul Hewson’s idea of his place in the grand scheme of things.

“God? Yeah, I’ve got him on speed dial. Right after my accountant.”

But I digress.

By saying that God isn’t the “kind you have to wind up on Sundays” Anderson was actually saying that, to know God, you should feel His presence 24/7, 365 (366 in a leap year). The knock was against those who only ever felt the touch of the divine during designated business hours (read Sundays).

There are 6 bonus tracks on the 25th Anniversary edition and the subsequent regular edition release. Lick Your Fingers Clean was a track originally intended for the Aqualung release but was left off for reasons known only to Anderson. Perhaps it didn’t fit in thematically…. But what am I saying. After all, this isn’t a concept album, is it. A very good rollicking track nonetheless, finally finding the home initially denied it.

The Quad Mix of Wind-Up follows. Remember Quad? That was the 70’s attempt to take recordings to the next level. If stereo was exponentially better than mono, then surely four channels would be that much better than two.

Then again, maybe not. Now we have the 5.1 discrete channels of Super Audio CD’s and DVD-Audio. Back then it was a gimmick with instruments swirling around the four speakers with no rhyme nor reason evident for the effect. It was done because it sounded cool. It was done because a goodly number of those listening might well be on some sort of mind altering drug or another. It was done because, well, what the hell else were you going to do with four speakers to fill.

The third bonus track is actually Ian Anderson’s ruminations on the recording of the album and it’s place in musical history. The remaining are BBC recorded versions of “Song For Jefferey”, “Fat Man” and “Bouree” from their first three discs.
In the final analysis you shouldn’t let the religious overtones scare you away from this disc. At the end of the day it is a kick ass album, with enough rock and roll to get you Ya Yas Out, with enough underlying concepts to get you thinking, even if it is only subliminally. Aqualung is not the answer to anything. That being said, it may just be the catalyst that you have been looking for to get you looking for those answers.

Highly recommended.

Disc One: Aqualung / Cross-Eyed Mary / Cheap Day Return / Mother Goose / Wond’ring Aloud / Up To Me / My God / Hymn 43 / Slipstream / Locomotive Breath / Wind-Up / (Bonus Tracks) Lick Your Fingers Clean / Wind-Up (Quad Version) / Excerpts from Ian Interview / Song for Jeffrey / Fat Man / Buouree

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