Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thick As A Brick

Jethro Tull/1972

When is a concept album not really a concept album? Well, you’d think if the artist who created it says it’s not a concept album, then that should pretty much resolve the issue. Yet, to this very day, there are critics and fans alike who still maintain the 1971 Jethro Tull album Aqualung is a concept album. Even after head maestro Ian Anderson set the record straight, referring to it as simply “a collection of songs.” So it was, when embarking upon the follow-up album, that a mischievous gleam appeared in they eye of merry prankster Anderson. “It’s a concept album you want? I GOT YOUR CONCEPT ALBUM!” Thus, Jethro Tull hunkered down in the studio, stitching together a few song fragments here, some chord progressions there, another motif or two in the middle for good measure, etc. The grand result? Thick as a Brick, consisting of two album-side epics with the minimalistic titles “Part I” and “Part II.” The concept and lyrics, deliberately vague with tongue firmly planted in cheek, revolved around the absurd adventures of fictitious little tyke “Gerald Bostock” and were strongly inspired by the then-exploding popularity of TV British comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In other words, it was all in good fun. If the concept itself was unfathomable and over the top, the music was unlike anything heard on a previous Tull album. For starters, the familiar bluesy, guitar-dominated riffs of Martin Barre were now replaced by the churning Hammond organ of John Evan. Now, Barre’s searing guitar lines would be used to simply orchestrate and punctuate the ever-twiddling keyboard parts. Things start out innocently enough with a quaint acoustic guitar and flute passage, creating a pleasant folky English vibe – although Anderson’s opening lyrics immediately throw down the gauntlet:

“Really don't mind if you sit this one out.
My words 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.”

Okay. This could get interesting. The folky atmosphere soon gives way to a typically heavy Tull guitar line, which is quickly jettisoned in favor of the now dominate, ever-present organ (sometimes doubled with piano). Musical passages segue and morph from one stately organ march to another – all topped off with Andersons jaunty, mad Pied Piper flute lines expertly laid over the top. If anything, this stuff sounded more like the prog chamber-rock workouts of early Genesis than it did a proper Jethro Tull album – complete with difficult time signatures and the melody shuffling of a typical prog piece. “Part II” tends to stumble out of the gate a bit, with a succession of herky-jerky, stop-and-start passages that don’t quite to catch on or establish any solid footing. These inconsistent meanderings are followed by an uncharacteristically (for this album) somber, minor-key dirge that tends to overstay its welcome. But fear not, for keyboard man Evan soon kick-starts it back up with the return of his growling Hammond, now churning and galloping its way to this epic album’s climactic conclusion – with many of the previous motifs from “Part I” briefly and frantically reappearing, before all this madness finally settles back down to the acoustic guitar picking that began the album, as Anderson sings:

“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.”

How does it feel to be thick as a brick? Don’t even try to decipher these lyrics or apply any logic. It’s best to just go along with the joke – which was reinforced with an insanely creative album cover that unfolded into “Gerald Bostock’s” imaginary hometown newspaper, complete with fully written articles, photos, puzzles, horoscopes, etc. Legend has it that it took the group longer to create the newspaper than it did the music. Thick as a Brick was a huge hit in its day, even as it alienated part of the band’s fan base that preferred the less cluttered, blues-rock/guitar-oriented music of earlier outings. It’s considered a Progressive Rock masterpiece, even as it skewers (albeit good-naturedly) the prog concept albums of the era. Jethro Tull/Ian Anderson would soon unleash yet another “concept album” in 1973 with the follow-up, A Passion Play. Unfortunately, nobody got the joke that time around. (For a lively discussion on the pros and cons of the much loved/much despised concept album, see my previous post.)

Essential tracks: This album should be heard in its entirety.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Watcher Observes From A Distance

Gabriel Bows Out of RRHOF Genesis Induction

To be snubbed or not to be snubbed. This is the conundrum facing the former members of Genesis, as they ponder the band’s upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – assuming their rightful position amongst recent or upcoming inductees/rock ‘n roll legends Abba, Madonna and The Dave Clark Five. Prog fans worldwide have groused over the years, complaining about the obvious lack of a progressive rock presence, as if bands like Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, ELP, etc., had never existed or didn’t really sell all those millions of albums and influence millions of musicians back in the glory days of 1969 through 1975. The Hall of Fame snub wasn’t really surprising, considering the American rock ‘n roll “intelligentsia” (if such a thing is even possible) led by Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner never really got Progressive Rock in the first place – thus, consigning it to illegitimate bastard/stepchild status among musical genres through predominantly negative reviews in his magazine. Until now. As Prog fanatics rejoice, merrily donning capes and prancing around their mellotrons in a fit of celebratory intoxication, there is still one snub yet to be snubbed. Seems former Genesis lead vocalist Peter Gabriel, lead singer – now a portly, white-haired and goateed gent – has decided to skip the induction ceremony, claiming he’s too busy planning his upcoming tour. For those not familiar with the history of Genesis, Gabriel left the band in 1975…a time when many claim the band had reached an artistic peak with their immense concept masterwork The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Gabriel then jumped ship, embarking on a long (and extremely slow-moving) yet highly respected solo career. This forced the band to morph, mutate and eventually become the polar opposite of its earlier quirky, groundbreaking, Gabriel-led incarnation – a slick, MTV-friendly ‘80s hit-making machine. Ironically, Gabriel himself scored a huge hit right around the same time with So…an album that itself contained several chart-topping hits. But along the way, Gabriel seems to have distanced himself from his old band mates. It's as if he’s protecting his artistic “street cred” by disassociating himself with the band he once fronted whilst donning bat wings, old man masks, and red dresses among other dramatic special effects – all to reinforce the unique fractured fairy tales put to classical rock music that Genesis had created in the early-‘70s. Now, nothing pisses of Prog fanatics more than an artist becoming an apologist for his former work…as if admitting, “Yeah, the critics were right and it was all just a bunch of crap back then…” Not that this is necessarily Gabriel’s intent with his Hall of Fame snub. When all is said and done, he was only with the band for about seven of its 20-something years of existence. And let’s face it – the casual fan on the street probably remembers Genesis more for Invisible Touch than for Nursery Cryme anyway. So, come time for the big induction ceremony, band mainstays Phil Collins, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford will most likely be joined by former members/guitarists Anthony Phillips and Steve Hackett for the big bash. Prog will finally be represented in these hallowed halls, gaining at least some critical respect, albeit a bit late in the game…but respect nonetheless. Yet, the guy who really helped lead Genesis to its historic progressive heights – the singer whom most fans fondly remember as fronting Genesis at its legendary creative peak – is passing on the party. The 800-pound gorilla in the room, conspicuous by his absence. Seems the Watcher would prefer to observe these festivities from the sidelines.

2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees: ABBA, Genesis, Jimmy Cliff, The Hollies and The Stooges. Also being inducted this year as individual recipients of the Ahmet Ertegun Award will be David Geffen and songwriters Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Jesse Stone, Mort Shuman and Otis Blackwell. The ceremony will take place on March 15, 2010 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.