Favourite rock/metal concept albums (Part 6) – Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick

After covering rock concept albums from the mid-70’s through to the early 90’s, I’ve taken a U-turn and gone back to the heyday of concept albums in the early 70’s. The Beatles, with the incredible success of their 1967 release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, opened the floodgates and over the next few years, there were a number of high profile releases from the likes of the David Bowie, Eagles, Elton John, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd, The Who and Yes, all built around a single concept or narrative.

Into this mix arrived the fifth studio album from the up-and-coming British rock group Jethro Tull. Having released one album a year since their debut in 1968, they had steadily evolved their sound from blues-rock to something quite unique and folksy, built primarily around Ian Anderson’s vocal delivery style and flute playing prowess. Their 1971 release Aqualung was mistaken by some critics to be a concept album, so to set the record straight (no pun intended!), the band decided that their next effort would be a proper concept album, going to the extreme and releasing an LP with just a single 43 minute long song suite split across the two sides.

Jethro Tull in 1972 (from left to right): Barriemore Barlow (drums), John Evan (keyboards), Ian Anderson (vocals/flute), Martin Barre (guitar), Jeffrey Hammond (bass)

Band: Jethro Tull

Albums: Thick as a Brick (1972)

Genre: Stream-of-consciousness poetry, laced with humour and satire

Narrative theme/concept: The album is positioned as a musical adaptation of an epic poem co-written by band frontman Ian Anderson and a fictitious 8-year-old prodigy named Gerald Bostock. The fictional narrative of this collaboration is detailed in the fake newspaper cover which forms the sleeve of the album; many fans mistakenly believed all this to be true.

Best parts: Really Don’t Mind / See There a Son Is Born, The Poet and the Painter, Childhood Heroes all from Side A: Thick as a Brick, Part I.

What makes it special: Thick as a Brick became the first album from the band to fully embrace elements of progressive rock, characterized by extended musical passages and changes in time signature. For the 40th anniversary edition, the band provided titles to different sections of the suite, which now makes it much easier to talk about specific parts of the album. For the longest time, I had only listened to the 3 ½ minute edit of the first section of Part 1, titled Really Don’t Mind / See There a Son, as this is what had been featured as the song Thick as a Brick in compilation albums. That section in itself is brilliant, featuring Ian Anderson’s playful opening flute riff, accompanied by acoustic guitar as he delivers the immortal lyrics:

Really don’t mind if you sit this one out
My word’s 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
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

The second section titled The Poet and the Painter, starts off with a mellow sound accompanied by lyrics that carry a certain epic majesty. The second half of this section is an extended instrumental, with Martin Barre in full flow with some outstanding wailing bluesy guitar in the style that was popular at that time. Section three titled What Do You Do When the Old Man’s Gone? / From the Upper Class, has a greater role for John Evan on the keyboard, with lots of interplay with Anderson’s flute. The music here feels a bit repetitive and I usually switch to “background music mode” when this part comes on. There’s another change of pace at the start of section four titled You Curl Your Toes in Fun / Childhood Heroes / Stabs Instrumental, which kicks off with some oddly playful lyrics and then moves to the fantastic middle passage (where the orchestration of the keyboards, acoustic guitar and flute along with Anderson’s vocals is just perfect), before ending with the appropriately titled Stabs Instrumental.

I really find it difficult to get into Part 2 of the album after the exhausting (in a good way!) journey of Part 1. And unfortunately, the opening section titled See There a Man Is Born is a bit experimental and sounds quite discordant. Thereafter, the music is predominantly acoustic and keyboards for Clear White Circles and Legends and Believe in the Day, but the whole package isn’t very melodic and doesn’t really work for me. I again go into “background music mode” for Tales of Your Life, but happily Part 2 ends with a 3-minute reprise of Childhood Heroes (the piece I loved from section four of Part 1), accompanied by some wonderful orchestral arrangements and these elevating lyrics:

So! Come on ye childhood heroes!
Won’t your rise up from the pages of your comic-books
your super-crooks
and show us all the way.
Well! Make your will and testament.
Won’t you? Join your local government.
We’ll have Superman for president
let Robin save the day
.”

It is truly an incredible 44-minute musical journey and a must-have experience for any fan of Tull’s music, who may have previously only listened to the 3 minute Thick as a Brick extract from their compilation albums.

In his later years, Ian Anderson as a solo artist revisited his Gerald Bostock alter ego with two albums, Thick as a Brick 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock? (2012) and Homo Erraticus (2014), but neither of these are able to recreate the magic of the original.

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