I was fascinated by the long rock songs of the 1960s and early 1970s that could take up a whole side of an LP. Oddly, not “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which arguably started it all, but definitely the “album versions” of songs, like “Light My Fire” before they extracted the solos to make it a three-minute radio song. “Hey Jude,” of course. My favorite Pink Floyd song is “Echoes,” and I love the Yes of Close to the Edge.
Side 2 of Abbey Road is the pinnacle, the way those short little songs meld into a single work of art. The first time I heard “You Never Give Me Your Money” reprise in the middle of “Carry That Weight,” I squealed like a little girl. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I do really love Side 2 of Abbey Road, and Paul McCartney loved it, too, judging from how he repeated the experiment on songs like “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” “Band On The Run,” and “Venus and Mars/Rock Show.”
And so, when my buddy Ed told me about the Jethro Tull concert he’d attended at Waynesburg College in late 1971 or early 1972, I was more than intrigued.
“Ian Anderson said, ‘We’d like to play you a little ditty from our new album,’” he said. “And an hour and 20 minutes later …”
That was Thick As A Brick, Jethro Tull’s one-song album. As I recall without using a search engine, the boys were a bit amused by the reaction to their previous album, the immortal Aqualung. They didn’t intend it as a concept album, but with several songs touching on similar themes, the rock critics applauded it as such and poured more meaning into the album than had been intended.
With his sly sense of humor, Anderson responded with the musical equivalent of a Crocodile Dundee taunt, “Concept album? That’s not a concept album. Now this — THIS is a concept album.” The album is slipped inside a 12-page tabloid newspaper, the St. Cleve Chronicle, in which the lead story is about how young Gerald “Little Milton” Bostock was disqualified and stripped of his prize as winner of the Society for Literary Advancement and Gestation (SLAG) youth competition after his occasionally salacious epic poem, “Thick As A Brick,” was read over BBC Television the night before.
“Many of the viewers who heard Gerald read his work on the ‘Young Arts’ program on BBC 2 felt that it was not one poem but a series of separate poems put together merely to appear impressive,” the story says with a wink at the reader/listener. Like Abbey Road Side 2, that’s really what Thick As A Brick seems to be, starting with the title song, which flows into other songs that in a conventional album might be separated as songs called, say, “The Poet and the Painter,” “Come On Ye Childhood Heroes,” “Do You Believe in the Day,” et al, but instead is woven together in a wonderful tapestry.
Obviously intended as satire, the joke was on Tull — Thick As A Brick was as big a triumph as Aqualung, if not more so. Equal parts progressive rock and old English style folk music, the album is a garden of delights that holds together as a whole better than any album that came before or since. It was my favorite Jethro Tull album until they produced Songs From the Wood four years later, but those two LPs remain on my short list of all-time favorite albums by anybody.
I pulled out my original copy of Thick As A Brick the other day, after reading that it was released 50 years ago, and relived the magic. One thing that impressed me — beyond the sheen of the vinyl and the novelty of a rock album that is not separated into different tracks — is how crisp and clear the music sounds after a half-century. Cassettes and especially CDs were marketed as alternatives to vinyl, which can scratch and wear, but my experience is that if you treat your LPs with loving care and play them only on a very good turntable, they can last forever, too, or as close to forever as you need in one lifetime.
At the risk of sounding like a close-minded old fool yelling, “These kids today don’t know how to make music, and hey you, get off my lawn,” I do miss the spirit of adventure and fun that the musicians of the 1960s and ’70s poured into their work. I would love to see what a young version of Ian Anderson might contribute in 2022 — or maybe I should ask: Who are today’s musical explorers cut from this same cloth? I’d love to hear what they’re doing.
And another thing: Where the hell WAS Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?