Years before the chattering rock press had begun to puncture the facade of prog rock — all under the cover of digging the “authenticity” of punk — Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull were ready to call bullshit on it all.
Having felt their breakthrough 1971 album Aqualung had been unfairly categorized as a concept album, and chafing too at the idea that Tull was a progressive rock act at all, Anderson set about writing a pomposity-popping caricature of every over-stuffed, time-shifting set-piece album of the time.
From its cheeky, often unintelligible themes (said to be an eight-year-old prodigy’s poetry-competition scribblings), to its packaging (a mock newspaper with dry, Monty Python-esque stories like “Sand-Castle Man Calls It a Day” and “Mongrel Dog Soils Actor’s Foot”), to its very construction (as one continuous, sometimes seemingly free-form track, with only the only original break arriving as you flipped over the old vinyl LP), Thick As A Brick was meant, it seemed, to incite as much hilarity as it did ruminations on where the whole genre was headed.
Instead, the damn thing went to No. 1 in America. Turns out, even when Jethro Tull was trying to make fun of those extended noodling passages, they couldn’t help but add their own smart flourishes — stirring in not just the expected classical influences, but also jazz and (in what had become Tull’s calling card) no small amount of snarky folk. If anything, the band plays with more touch and finesse, but also more power, than it did even on the celebrated Aqualung.
Credit goes, on first blush, to new drummer Barrie Barlow, a lighter touch who had replaced the hard-driving Clive Bunker after Jethro Tull’s initial four albums. But the attention to detail, willingness to follow rhythmic cross patterns, and general musical camaraderie is undeniable across the entire ensemble — something that’s underlined by the necessary form that these sessions took back then. Guitarist Martin Barre, bassist Jeffrey Hammond, keyboardist John Evan, Barlow and Anderson did much of the basic tracking for Thick As A Brick (and even some of the vocals and solos) in single takes, since stopping would require the group to go back to the very beginning of the lengthy piece.
That gives the album this present, fizzy energy that’s often missing among typically layered, overdubbed prog efforts. In this way, Thick As A Brick, with its earthy, effects-free sensibility, sounds like little else from its own era. Too, that tabloid-inspired sleeve couldn’t have been more different than the magical fantasy worlds that often graced their contemporaries’ albums. Audiences may not have gotten all of the jokes, but they loved trying to sort out its many clues, anyway.
Jethro Tull, and this may be the funniest part of all, ended up making one of the most distinctive prog albums ever — even as it tried to spoof the very idea.
Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick As A Brick: 40th Anniversary Set’ includes the original album in its entirety, and a DVD featuring a new 5.1 mix — in both DTS and Dolby Digital — by Steven Wilson, of Porcupine Tree fame. The massive 100-page booklet (yes, it’s actually almost as thick as a proverbial brick) has the original St. Cleve Chronicle newspaper reproduced in its entirety, as well as a color supplement with articles and reminiscences from the band and crew, as well as many rare and previously unseen photographs.