Thick as a Brick, Live, its Newly-Released Sequel, and Musings on Tull

I went to see Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull yesterday evening at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. A friend of mine entered a competition run by Roland UK through Facebook and drew my attention to it, so I entered the competition too, not expecting anything to come of it (I can’t recall having won anything in my life, but there again, I don’t enter competitions normally, so I wouldn’t) It was more of a prize draw actually, to name your favourite Jethro Tull song, and the prize was a couple of tickets to see Anderson and band (not Jethro Tull) perform the whole 1972 Jethro Tull hit album Thick As A Brick in its entirety, followed by Anderson’s new solo album, and sequel to Thick As A Brick: Thick As A Brick 2.

The winner was announced, but promptly declared that he couldn’t make the gig. The competition organiser therefore offered the tickets to my friend, who in turn offered them to me. Cardiff is just over two hours away from where we live, so it is not that big a deal of a journey to make. Having made initial enquiries for a gig buddy at such short notice and drawn a blank, I decided that it might be a suitable time to introduce daughter number two, now aged 11, to a proper gig. More significantly, she was excited about going on another motorbike trip with me, and to Wales (a place we both like).

We headed down at 14:40, stopping for a bit of a break on the A449 and got to St David’s Shopping Centre car park for 17:30. After a little wander around the area, we had a drink and a bite to eat at the Starbuck’s near the venue, before heading over to the venue at around 19:00.

On enquiring about the tickets at the booking office, I was told that they didn’t have any reference to my name (or my friend’s come to that, nor the bloke who had organised the competition at short notice). I tried calling the organiser, who had left me his number on Facebook, but it was the wrong number. I left him a message on Facebook and then decided to try my hand with the ticket office again. The first woman there had been a bit short with me, but the second was friendly and instantly produced the tickets. They were under a completely different name, so it looks like they had been won elsewhere too, but the original prize-winner couldn’t make it. They were the only two prize tickets from Roland UK she had though, so she said that they must be for us and handed them over. We made our way up to the hall and found ourselves seated almost directly in front of the sound desk. On that basis, I knew we would be getting a good sound mix.

The audience was reasonably mixed. There seemed to be more people of around my age (40) than there were of those who would have been contemporaries of Anderson. On that basis, the Thick As A Brick album was as old as many of us. There were quite a few women present (they tend to be somewhat lacking at Progressive Rock gigs) and Philippa was pleased to see a girl of around the same age a couple of rows in front, along with a father of around my age who thoroughly enjoyed the whole concert, given his head movements, which Philippa kept pointing out.

Just before the gig started, slowly, but steadily, various people in Pythonesque brown overalls and flat caps appeared on stage doing all manner of preparatory work around the equipment. Straight away, a smile hit the audience. I’ve never understood critics’ loathing for Progressive Rock, when the humour behind a lot of it is so evident and disarming. It transpired that these people included the band, and they started the set still wearing the outfits.

The original Thick As A Brick album was conceived as a single, 44 minute song, designed as a humorous and tongue-in-cheek, but well-meaning send-up of the contemporary emerging Progressive Rock genre, its critics, and its fans. It was written in response to critics’ labelling of the band’s previous album, Aqualung, as a concept album. Anderson consistently denied this at the time, and continues to do so, but in response, he resolved to write what he considered to be the ‘mother of all concept albums’, and has continued to describe Thick As A Brick as such since Saddam Hussein popularised the ‘mother of all…’ phrase. The premise behind the original is that it was based on a poem by a young, fictional schoolboy named Gerald Bostock (the newly-released sequel, TAAB 2, goes on to explore what might have happened to Gerald Bostock in the intervening years). The thing is, people didn’t get the joke, and the album, as quintessentially British as it is, became a number one album in the US album charts and number five in the UK album charts.

It’s easy to see why. Anderson’s songwriting, much of it written in great haste on the morning of band rehearsals and presented to the band as though it had been written weeks in advance, is brilliant, both lyrically and musically. According to an interview I heard with a few members of the band who played on the album, the band took on Anderson’s ideas, learnt parts, suggested musical and arrangement ideas, rehearsed the whole piece in two weeks, and then went on to record it completely in just over a week. In fact, they claim it took them longer to put together the full mock newspaper which came as the original album sleeve than it did to do the music.

Back to the concert… The band played the original album in its entirety. Anderson has assembled a collection of very talented musicians to accompany him on this tour. There is no doubt that they are all great players in their own field, and rather than rearrange the original, they have learnt their parts more or less completely faithfully to the original performances, which, I am sure, many fans appreciated. If we can’t have the original members on stage, it is at least a fitting tribute to them to hear someone else perform their parts as faithfully as possible. I do wonder though why Anderson chose to do this particular tour under his own name, rather than as the band Jethro Tull, particularly when the line-up of musicians includes two musicians, bassist David Goodier and keyboardist John O’Hara, who have been with Tull for a few years. Perhaps long-standing Tull guitarist Martin Barre wasn’t so keen on revisiting and performing the whole of the original album. In interviews, Barre has stated how very difficult it was to perform such complex music in its entirety on the original album tour. So perhaps Anderson was respecting Barre in touring it under his own name.

In my case, I paid special attention much of the time to the drum parts played by Scott Hammond, and he did recreate the original parts very well, albeit with his own feel. For the trained ear, drummers have a distinctive style of play, and, although Hammond remained pretty faithful to the original parts, he didn’t play them with Barriemore Barlow’s feel. That’s not a criticism by any means – just an observation.

The band played the first part (or side A, as the original fades out and back, due to the limitations of the original vinyl album format) of Thick As A Brick, and then had a short break while Anderson tackled the subject of the importance of regular prostrate checks for men in the audience, having lost quite a few of those dear to him (and us, as music fans) to prostate and colon cancer. This was done in a light way, and involved a couple of supposed random audience members in a mock prostate check behind a screen, accompanied, by humorous shadow-puppet-esque video backdrop. It was a serious message handled in a humorous way though, and very well done.

The second half of the song followed (introduced with photos on the backdrop of those, such as Frank Zappa, who have been victims of these cancers) and then we had a short interval, complete with ice-cream tubs. Now, that’s what I’m talking about! Philippa certainly appreciated that.

After the interval, the band performed the whole of Thick As A Brick 2, which, thanks to the longer format of albums now, weighed in at around an hour. All those on stage partook in the recording of the album, with one exception – Ryan O’Donnell, who acted out parts of the music throughout the gig and handled (very well, it must be said) all the vocal parts from the original which Anderson can no longer sing. I say that, but I suspect O’Donnell does actually sing briefly on the album. I can’t lay my hands on my copy of the CD at the moment to confirm this, but, it does indeed sound like him singing on part of Swing It Far on the recording.

Which brings me neatly on to the subject of Anderson’s voice. Now this may upset or anger the type of uncritical fan, but I’m afraid that Anderson’s voice is completely and utterly shot. If he is a stickler for good performance, he needs to be a little more self-critical. To be fair, either he clearly is, or someone has had a frank word with him, since he has recruited O’Donnel to the live show to assist with the vocals. And yet, even there, I can’t find any reference to Anderson conceding that he simply can not handle those parts any more. It’s almost like he fears to admit it. He makes reference to having been foolish in the arrangement on the original TAAB album, by having acoustic guitar, flute, and vocals simultaneously, and all performed by him – a valid reason, it would appear, to recruit a vocalist, and yet O’Donnel is not even mentioned as part of the touring band on the band’s website. Why not? Hard-core fans (the type that won’t accept any kind of criticism of their idols) will come up with all manner of excuses for the poor quality of his voice, and many of these explanations are perfectly fair and valid. But explaining why his voice is bad does not alter the fact that it is bad. Even my eleven-year old daughter picked up the fact with no prompting from me and mentioned it straight away in the interval.

“I’m enjoying it, but he can’t sing very well. The young one is a much better singer.”

Kids sometimes say things that adults don’t like to hear. Even my gut-reaction was to defend him, but there’s nothing to defend. It’s there for all to hear. If you deny that his voice is bad, then I would have to question the quality of your musical ear. Whether his voice problems are down to years of chain-smoking (I suspect that didn’t help), illness, or just years of constant singing, doesn’t change the fact that he does have big problems with it. He can’t hit notes, strains to hit others, with Blakey (from On The Buses) facial contortions, is not able to sustain notes, does vocal glissandi to approximate notes, and sings consistently behind the beat, or off the original beat of the vocal line. If I were Anderson, I would recruit someone (possibly O’Donnel) to take over pretty much all but the easiest vocal parts on a permanent basis, make him the lead singer, and concentrate on doing the other things I do well. It’s not like Jethro Tull will be anything other than Ian Anderson’s band for so long as he plays any part in it, even if he just wrote the music and didn’t play flute and guitar so brilliantly.

Anderson is a very clever guy, excellent lyricist, and fantastic musician, but he is also gifted in the ego department (something every good frontman needs). Everything I’ve read recently suggests that he has been almost blind to the key role the other musicians have played in the success of the band. He just nudges over the line of where ego becomes claiming others’ glory. This is evidenced in the wording of his introduction to Thick As A Brick 2, which begins

“In 1972, I wrote and recorded the Jethro Tull Progressive Rock classic album Thick As A Brick…”

I’m just the slightest concerned that this leaves the impression that it was all his doing, and that’s a bit sad, because he doesn’t need to claim all the glory. There is glory enough for Anderson as the conceiver and writer of Tull’s work over the years, and the man who has kept the band/brand alive. He remains a great musician and multi-instrumentalist. It would be nice to hear him heap more praise on his former compatriots from time to time, regardless of the status of any relationships or bad feelings which may or may not exist between the now very extended members of the Tull family. To give him credit, it is probably his dedication, workmanship approach, and yes, probably discipline, which has made the band the worldwide success that it has been and remains, but we Brits don’t tend to like a show-off who takes all the credit, and I’m afraid that for me (and just for me – other fans may, and probably do, feel different), he sometimes sails a little too close to that mark for comfort.

The albums which resonate with many fans as the outstanding albums are those which feature certain members (for me, it is the albums which span Barriemore Barlow’s tenure – not just because of Barry).

For someone as smart as Ian to underestimate the importance of the contributions made by past band members, as he seems to do, is perplexing, and my Tull-fan friends seem to feel the same way. This is not just a question of age either. I am 40, and consequently not old enough to remember these ‘classic’ albums of the ’70s as formative albums in my life at their time of release. Nevertheless, they simply stack up as an amazing catalogue of work, featuring wonderful musicians and musicianship.

Now, if Ian can claim to have told these musicians exactly what to play rather than a rough approximation of what to play, he can take full credit and he is even more of a musical genius than I already think he is, but given that the style of the band’s playing changed considerably after the loss of Barlow, Evan, Glascock, and Palmer, I suspect that this is not the case.

As a musician myself, I can at least identify a person’s playing style. I have also observed that pretty much all bands which comprised the Progressive Rock genre have failed to match the excellence of their output from the 1970s, with very few exceptions in individual albums.

Interestingly though, this failure to recognise the importance of a band’s performance is not unique to Ian. Even the band’s former drummer, Barriemore Barlow, has been extremely self-critical of his own ‘overplaying’ on some of his work with Tull. While I get the idea of overplaying, I couldn’t disagree with Barry more (bad pun intended). His drumming finesse and deft touch in playing some very complex lines are key to the pieces on which he plays and it does not detract from any other aspect of the music. He does not ‘play all over the song’, but rather ‘play all under the song’. He is just downright wrong and it was clearly his ‘overplaying’ which led John Bonham to describe him as the finest rock drummer England had produced. Again, this is clearly an inability to recognise the very aspect which has brought oneself fame in the first place. “Barriemore Barlow – that great drummer who plays simple 4/4 beats all the time.” Erm, no.

Whether by accident or intention, albums such as Thick As A Brick, Songs From The Wood, and Heavy Horses, simply stand out as examples of superlative band performances. The fact that Ian and even his fellow band members underestimate the key role their ‘overplaying’ had in making these albums the great albums they are is very telling.

Sorry to say, but albums subsequent to Heavy Horses show a clear change in style, but not for the better. In deliberately losing the sheer musicianship in performance, Tull, along with many of their contemporaries lost a key part of their appeal. Sure, Ian’s songwriting has remained exceptional in subsequent albums – notably on Broadsword (which I love, but don’t consider a true Prog album), but half of the ingredients of an exceptional album are missing.

I grant that this is not an opinion shared by all, but it stuns me that so many Prog musicians, in an effort to ‘mature’ musically, decide to abandon or shun the very aspects of them which made them great in the first place. At a time when there is renewed appreciation of good musicianship and kids are having to reassure these musicians that their early work really is bloody excellent, it’s sad to see that so few of the musicians involved (Steve Hackett of Genesis is a rare exception of someone who stands proudly and vocally by his former band’s work, and continues to produce such work) actually seem to understand this.

Progressive Rock fans are fans of that genre because it is complicated music; it challenges musicians and offers lots of variety. We are an impatient and demanding lot. We like to hero-worship real musical talent, turning up to gigs and thinking, “Right then. Let’s see you play that stuff live.” When our heroes deliver live, we love them all the more. However, it’s not just about complexity for the sake of it. We require good, catchy melodies, great beats, memorable riffs, and superb musicianship. Oh, and that brilliant little musical section we absolutely love… whereas other musical mortals would extend that out to a whole song, along the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle 8, chorus, structure… we want less than a minute of that, before you move onto the next one. Yes, we’re impatient like that. Start playing undemanding stuff that we know any standard pub band could play (I include myself there) and we’ll switch off eventually. Some will stay out of loyalty to a band, but others are more fickle.

Unfortunately, TAAB 2 does not stand up to the original. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad album. It may even be Anderson’s/Tull’s best in years. Progressive Rock music generally requires several listens until it really starts to reward. It’s ‘slow burn’ music. However, it is instantly apparent that Thick As A Brick 2 is not in the same league as its mother (of all concept albums). There is a little too much attention to story-telling and less emphasis on clever little musical parts, interesting time-signatures, and all round musical inventiveness. There is too much music in common time (4/4) and down-beat slow parts. Where changes do happen, they tend to be abrupt rather than clever segues, follow definite song breaks, or bits of narration. The drum parts are certainly not as interesting as Barlow’s on the original, and one is left with more of a feeling of the whole piece being more of a musical, given the narrative. Even the narrative is a little less subtle than Anderson’s previous writing, making rather obvious clichéd references to Wooten Bassett, bankers, and eBay. Anderson is trying a little too hard to be relevant, perhaps.

TAAB 2 is simply too different a beast from the original to be considered a sequel. If Anderson intended to make a reasonably good rock album, he succeeded. If he wanted to create a true sequel to TAAB, with all that this entails, I’m afraid he fell short of the mark. He may be content with that and solely interested in what appeals to him (it’s that kind of attitude which made bands great in the first place – unconcerned with seeking mass appeal), but boy, does it miss those truly progressive, constantly shifting arrangement ideas, and that small matter of the people whose own playing style made the band a great band.

Having said all that, Jethro Tull remains one of my favourite bands. Sure, they may have gone off the boil for me after 1983, but I am glad that Anderson still tours – on his own, or fronting Jethro Tull, whoever happens to be in the band at the time, and despite what may seem like a barrage of criticism from me here, I do love Jethro Tull. Best friends should be honest with each other, and all that. The band has created some wonderful moments, and much of that magic is indeed in large part down solely to Ian Anderson’s vision and musical skill.

Moreover, both Philippa and I really enjoyed the evening, so thanks to my mate and Roland UK for the tickets!