January 2, 2012

Loving Music on the Wrong Side of History: Jethro Tull’s “A Passion Play”; A defense of my favorite album as a teenager

There was a kid whose name I don’t remember who went to my High School in La Mesa CA and had the distinction of coming from a family who owned one of the local music stores. (Albert’s Music City). For casual interaction on the school Quad, this credential gave him a kind of extra rank when it came to musical discussion, and I remember him telling me with profound sincerity how much he loved Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon. I could tell by his hushed enthusiasm that he was into this album as deeply as I was into Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, and I remember comparing notes with him.

During those 70’s years the really big rock bands were Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and at the time Jethro Tull was considered nearly tied in popularity based on their very successful albums Aqualung and Thick as a Brick. Zeppelin’s audience was very crude then, lots of rougher kids in worn bell-bottoms and non-upper-middle-class upbringings. These same teens were the first ones to get stoned and make out openly on school property, and there would not be much discussion about the actual music.
Zeppelin at that time was a soundtrack to ditching school, drinking Annie Green Springs sparkling wine and hanging out at the pinball or pizza places, and that wasn’t strictly my personality. Privately I would feel the hair on my arm raise when I heard the guitar solos on songs such as Whole Lotta Love, Black Dog, and Stairway to Heaven, but I expressed my enthusiasm only to other guitarists and felt Led Zep’s popularity would run its course after their time was over.

Pink Floyd by contrast was largely considered a synthesizer band at the time and no one knew much about the musicians individually. We saw that the bass player did a lot of the singing, but in the mid-70’s we had the impression the keyboardist was the driving force behind their genius. So they were mysterious, and the themes were often about alienation, which except for their novelty went unnoticed in content until the audience grew older.

By very slight contrast to these bands, Jethro Tull seemed intellectual and still rocked hard, tackling the heavy themes of rebellion against religion and society (Aqualung and Thick As A Brick). The lyrics were clever and witty, and spoke to teenagers facing a potential future of decisions planned out for them by their parents. Tull seemed dangerous, but upon closer inspection they were moderate, even intriguingly critical against drug use in interviews. The fact that they had layers of intelligence to be discovered after liking the band’s sound made them a perfect band for me during my High School years.

After I wore out the two copies of Aqualung and Brick I had borrowed from the older sister of my best friend, I went to Wherehouse Records (the word “Wherehouse” is flagging me under spell-check, another reminder that my own kids are barely aware there were actual record stores then), and went looking carefully through the Tull section before picking out their latest: A Passion Play. It looked great: it seemed to be one long composition with an Intermission break in the middle, and came with a subtle lampoon of a Theatre Program featuring fake names, puns and in-jokes. This kind of humor was very popular then coming in part from Monty Python skits, so the jokes gave the album an up-front qualifier not to take it TOO seriously; after all, that was our parents’ mistake.

When I got home I was overjoyed with the difficult lyrics, the themes of life and death, and the questioning of Christian themes. It was Aqualung for College students, and I was the first in line.

I listened to this album each day the way the born-again Christian kids I went to school with read their bible. I studied each guitar part, and then began analyzing the keyboards, flute, drums, bass, etc. Everything on that record worked for me, and it seemed these guys played like one person. I loved how Ian Anderson unexpectedly picked up Soprano and Sopranino Saxes and blew the same fantastic solos he would do on flute without worrying too much about his tone, which sounded naïve in a very appealing way, another indication they were having too much fun to worry…

During this period Ian Anderson would give very charming interviews in which he would speak of various topics in a way that would charm the Queen herself, and then make a witty self-deprecating joke at his own expense. The Brits are great at this, taking the piss out of themselves, distinguishing themselves from stuffy posh types. It still works to this day.

“A Passion Play” was a huge and instant commercial success among their fans. Jethro Tull set concert attendance records that year (1973-4) and the album went Gold and Platinum in short order. But there was one very serious problem: the critics panned it unanimously. I remember pausing with concern when my Mother showed me the New York Times review with the headline “Jethro Dull”. But this didn’t bother me. I considered it a sign that older people didn’t get it, (and I had no trouble finding kids that agreed with me, because after Aqualung even the most disaffected teenager at that time would sit through anything Tull did in the hopes of another Locomotive Breath).

So the critical drubbing never got to me. But something else did: following these reviews Ian Anderson was announced to have hastily broken up the band for less than a week, then quickly reformed, the episode subsequently blamed on an “exhaustion breakdown” by his spokesman. Yet the music from APP was eliminated from future shows, even short excerpts despite frequent airplay. War Child was the follow-up, and featured many connections to A Passion Play, but talk of a film based on the album never materialized.

But I stayed loyal, even though I was moving on musically. Nothing would change my love of middle period Tull. As an audience member I would compare myself then and now to those old people that still cry when they watch Casablanca alone in a darkened cinema. For me, the mid 70’s was a time and a place that could never be repeated, but could be vividly recalled like Bogey and Bergman projected for those that lived through WWII.

But then the next betrayal came: Ian Anderson chose to disband the classic lineup of the band in the summer of 1980. I remember back-packing through Europe that summer when I saw the headline in New Musical Express: “TULL SPLITS!”. I threw down my back pack and spent half my lunch money on the newspaper, reading it to myself on a street in Italy, consumed in disappointment. Aside from the wise concession of keeping longtime guitarist Martin Barre, there was no explanation given other than “musical differences”. But this seemed like nonsense! This was as if Paul and John kicked out George and Ringo because they wanted the guys in Toto to play with The Beatles instead. This felt like some kind of control trip, and it seemed unnecessary.

Over the next decade it became apparent that between Anderson’s growing self-importance and the amputation of a great band, Tull was destined to go down as a footnote in Rock history, even sustaining humiliation when the Grammys bogusly awarded JT Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance over Metallica in 1989 and exposed a corrupt voting process. Tull then became the poster child for falsely rewarded insiders, the worst of all fates for a band that would have mocked their own success in their day.

My own hypothetical theory goes like this: perhaps if Ian had continued to integrate his interactions with the current musical world and not isolated himself critically or creatively with effectively hired musicians, he could have handily reversed his band’s destiny of irrelevance. The Stones did it. Neil Young did it. Bowie did it. The Eagles did it. Pink Floyd did it. Zeppelin did it. In six completely different ways, these bands could have all been ridiculous sounding in the present day if they were not handled correctly. In each case, these now-classic bands were carefully marketed over the years and had a special kind of personality to back up their claims. Their music is not considered a time capsule, it feels relevant because of the personalities that made it and their ability to grow along with us in interviews and current shows.

Incidentally, there is a very amusing Lester Bangs review of JT called “Jethro Tull in Vietnam” that was written at the height of the period discussed here. He made the case that Tull had no “rebop”, meaning a direct and sincere feel and emotion worthy of more genuine jazz , blues, or rock, and I respect his opinion. But of course, I disgree. Listen to the free jam that opens side two of Brick for instance and I submit this band had plenty of rebop.

It’s how they handled their career. If Ian had kept his playful dialog with the press, shown a sincere interest in current music and dispensed with the greatest hits concerts and sour grapes comments, his band could have been remembered differently. Ask Neil Young, a guy who very much does things his way but has reinvented himself over and over. If Neil had sung Southern Man too many times in the wrong situations and made irrelevant comments about himself and the best music of today’s world he could be in the same boat.

So thank you Jethro Tull, I will always love your mid-70’s period. And I will always feel your stuff was as good as the current classics, but for reasons that probably have nothing to do with the actual music, my devotion will always be on the wrong side of history.

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