Lp you need to listen at least once in your life: Jethro Tull - Aqualung
Reviewing one of my favourites album, background stories, meanings and fun facts of a masterpiece of prog rock.
I can't remember the first time I've heard the song that gives the title to this album by Jethro Tull, but as often happens with music I loved it at first, then listening to the full LP, it has become one of my all time favorites. It's old stuff, prog rock from the seventies, complicated lyrics, long tracks and short almost instrumental pieces mixed together, a sort of concept album that is not a concept album, I just love it. But who's Aqualung, and why there's a clochard on the cover of the LP?
Let's start from the beginning, because sometimes I feel like I'm the only one knowing this band. Jethro Tull is a British band founded in 1967, their name comes from a famous British agronomist of the past, an unusual name but pretty cool. Their music is a mix of folk, blues, hard rock and progressive, and as a distinctive trait there's the sound of the traverse flute played by Ian Anderson, founder, vocalist and also guitarist of the band. Their discography it's pretty huge, 21 studio albums, plus lives and compilations, but Aqualung was and still is their most successful LP, thanks to tracks like "Locomotive Breath" and "Hymn 43" and of course to the main song that carries the same name of the album. Released by Chrysalis Records in 1971 and produced by Anderson himself and Terry Ellis , the band's manager, the Album has 11 tracks, for 42:55 minutes of great music.
Track 1 - Aqualung
The main track of the album, one of the greatest guitar riff ever, and the reason why there's an homeless man on the cover. "Sitting on the park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intents"... From the first lines of the song, Aqualung, this the name of the man, doesn't seem the most lovable chap in the world. He's dirty and shady, glazing at schoolgirls, the music gives a sense of danger at first but then it smoother as the songs keeps going, because after all he's just a poor old sod, an homeless man, suffering the cold weather of an icy winter in London, breathing badly, feeling alone, forgotten by everyone and left behind by society, that instead of seeing the pain and misfortune of an human being, only sees a disgusting and dangerous creature, accentuating the hypocrisy of the so called "Salvation a la mode". A miserable life that will end only when he'd "snatch his rattling last breaths with deep sea diver sounds and the flowers bloom like madness in the spring"
Fun fact, the name Aqualung was inspired by a diver's devices brand, because recalled the idea of the heavy and rattling breaths. The cover of the LP was inspired by a picture taken by Anderson's wife (also co-writer of this song) to an homeless man in Thames Embankment. The original picture that I would pretty much like to see, is basically lost, as well of the original artworks for the cover made by artists Burton Silverman.
Fun fact number two: the man on the painting resemble to a shabby version of Anderson himself, but the author swear it was a self-portrait.
Fun Fact number three : When the guitar solo was recorded in studio, the band and guitar player Martin Barre had a special guest observing the recording session, Jimmy Page. I guess that playing under the eyes of such a great guitar player influenced the performance in a positive way, that pressure due to the unexpected guest given an extra charge to the solo.
Track 2 - Cross-eyed Mary
A gloomy crescendo of flute and piano introduces a new character in Jethro Tull's London scenario, Cross-eyed Mary. Like Aqualung, who makes a cameo in this song as well, Cross Eyed Mary is another person that did't uniform to society, an outcast, a schoolgirl that sells herself, and looks for the company of people who are at the borders of legality and decency. From Highgate to Hampsted she "goes jumping in again , she signs no contract but she always plays the game". The music like in the previous track changes in the middle, the flute plays in a sort of jazz way accompanied by the electric guitar and the mellotron, giving a more light twist to the song, because after all "She's the Robin Hood of Highgate, helps the poor man get along" . The main theme of the album strikes again, there's something good in everyone, we're all good God creatures after all...
Fun Fact: Iron Maiden did a cover of this song, it's been published in 1983 as B-side of the single "The Trooper" and was also pretty successful on US radios.
Track 3 - Cheap day return
My favorite track of the album, short in the lyrics and in the melody but sublimely performed. If I close my eyes I can figure out the scene clearly, next time I'll be in London I'd go on Preston platform and brush away the cigarette ash that's falling down my pants...The music is calm and melancholic, sweet even and gives the idea of a travel back after a bittersweet day.
Fun fact : This song has been written by Anderson while waiting for the train, back from the hospital where he visited his father, the song could have been longer but the train arrived...
Track 4 - Mother Goose
The guitar and flute accompany the listener in a walk in Hampstead Fair to the bathing point. A sequence of characters wander around, on top of them all there's Mother Goose leading the walk and the development of the story. The songs if full of puns, Anderson plays with assonance creating funny lyrics and a surreal scenario. My second favorite song of the LP, and a good reason to take a bath at Hampstead Fair.
Track 5 - Wond'ring Aloud
Just a word, love. In less than two minute this song gives you the feeling of how love actually feels, few words describing something simple but complicated, tiny gestures that only highlights a sensation of happiness accompanied by a sweet piano melody. A short and little gem in an album full of great songs that at first listening can pass almost unnoticed, but as you pay attention sneaks into your heart helplessly.
Track 6 - Up to me
Open to many interpretations "Up to me" is the track that closes the A side of the album, that as I already said is not a concept album but seems to have a link with a song to the other. Weird characters and wordplay entwines in the lyrics of most of the tracks, I've read a few theories about the meaning of this song and I still didn't find one that truly convinces me, from speaking to God , drugs addictions or about a sociopath who believes that everything is up to him. I like to read it as a continuation of the previous track, the main character of the song gets dumped by his girlfriend, makes a scene at the pub, gets a Bentley Silver Cloud, and (argh!) plays golf, then he meets again that girl he loved so much but nothing feels as good as it used to be and life just goes on. Yeah I know it's a very unusual interpretation...
Track 7 - My God
A ferocious critic not to God itself but to religious institutions, seen as a way to wash people's sin and as a facade mask to look respectable, other than an excuse to commit horrible things through the centuries, fighting against each other, starting from the "The bloody Church of England". The music is grave, Anderson's voice sings an accusation and a pledge to that Christ that's now a mere plastic symbol.
Fun fact: The song wasn't received well and apparently some people throw broken vinyls ' pieces to the band while they were performing.
Track 8 - Hymn 43
On the same lines of "My God" this song gets along with Anderson personal take on religion. "Hymn 43" sounds almost like a fusion between soul, blues and rock, with a general feeling of hearing a preacher singing his sermon like in those very American functions full of gospels and dances. A pray not to Jesus but for Jesus because "If Jesus saves, well He'd better save Himself from the gory glory seekers who use His name in death". A truly enjoyable sound and a thorny topic mixes together perfectly in this second single released out of the Album.
Track 9 - Slipstream
Only a minute and twelve second for a sweet melody about death. A light but meaningful interlude that leads the listener to the more heavy and riveting sound of the second last song of the Album...
Track 10 - Locomotive Breath
When you are living in the same era of great guitarists like Clapton or Page you can feel a little under pressure, Anderson although realizing that he wouldn't ever be as good as his fellow guitar players, decided that at least he could have been the best flute player on the rock scene, and I can say that he had a brilliant idea. Listening to Locomotive Breath, a song about how life helplessly runs away heading to death, like a train with no brakes, the mastery of his skills with the flute is amazing, giving the idea of the shuffling and chugging of a locomotive running helplessly. The intro is a delicate piano track, and then after the initial calm the music speeds up, dragging the listener in the unstoppable travel of the train.
Fun Fact : The song was written by Anderson and despite the more obvious interpretation is meant to be a metaphor of world overpopulation issue. Old Charlie, who's mentioned in the song, is, sticking with the thread of the album, God.
Track 11 - Wind it up
A quiet beginning leading to a rhythmic rock song about, again, not following what religion tells us, and that God "He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays". Faith is a bigger thing and doesn't mean uniform your thought to what you've been told since you're born. Think with your brain, do your best and don't care about what people says...
Thanks for bearing with me in this long trip through one of my favourites LP. I simply love this album, that mixes a great variety of stiles and twisted and meaningful lyrics.