I’M ALWAYS SUSPICIOUS of people who claim to have enjoyed their rite of passage from adolescence right through to early adulthood. For me, the whole thing was a nightmare – especially the first part. And one of the most traumatic incidents that occurred in my 13th year centred about the purchase of Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick.
I had heard and admired Aqualung at the squalid flat my older sister was inhabiting with a bunch of hippy friends, but I was too young to attend the group’s Auckland performance, being merely a ‘turd’ (3rd former) and not having the wherewithal to get from the boondocks (Hamilton) to where it all happened. I did get my sister’s ecstatic verbal endorsement of the show, however, and it set in motion a determination to save up my pocket money and purchase the group’s highly anticipated forthcoming album (which rumour had it, consisted of only two tracks) as soon as it hit the racks.
Somehow, I co-ordinated the release date with my paltry savings, and found myself in the local record emporium on the day of release. I must have looked through every rack in that store in search of this elusive album, but couldn’t find it. There was copious advertising material for Thick As A Brick all over the shop, however, in the form of a tabloid newspaper that was displayed in several different vantage points of the retail space. Frustrated, and thinking that it must have sold out already, I approached the very cool looking staff and asked if they happened to have Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick. I don’t remember exactly what Joe Cool at the counter said, but there was definitely a mocking tone in his voice as he revealed that the tabloid newspaper displayed around the shop (but not in the racks) was the album, and that I should just grab one of those. An exceptionally sensitive wee adolescent, a part of me died on the spot, and is still dealing with the trauma 40 years later.
Which brings us to this 40th anniversary edition of Thick As A Brick, which – despite that excruciating moment at the record shop – I loved from the moment the needle crashed into the album’s virgin grooves. 1972 was something of a high point for outrageous creativity in progressive rock, with brilliant albums like ELP’s Trilogy and Yes’s Close To The Edge, but Thick As A Brick was different from all the rest.
Jethro Tull had never really been a progressive rock band, although that particular phrase was barely used back then, in any case. Rather, they were part of the underground rock scene, which encapsulated any rock music that pushed the barriers and sought new ways to function in opposition to the tepid, cheesy pop scene. Up to that point, Jethro Tull had slowly developed an all but indescribable variant that still carried some of the blues and jazz influences of their first album, This Was, but was rich with singer/flautist Ian Anderson’s narratives and eccentric performative style. But on Thick As A Brick, they suddenly bore all the hallmarks of bands like King Crimson, Gentle Giant and ELP: extended song form, unabashed virtuosity, weird time changes, and any number of unexpected idiosyncrasies. Unlike those other bands, however, on Thick As A Brick, Jethro Tull came across with a very Monty Python-influenced sense of humour; one that carried through to the fake newspaper packaging.
But what I loved so much about Thick As A Brick then, and still do, is that it’s coherent as a song suite over two sides of vinyl, without a pause. That, and the way it never fails to retain my attention with its dramatic shifts of sonic character and group dynamic – apart from King Crimson’s 1969 debut, In The Court Of The Crimson King, I had never heard such fantastic juxtapositions between acoustic fingerpicked guitar and savage hard rock, and every shade in between. [And it’s partly the march of technology that allowed that thrilling, albeit quite unnatural, acoustic/electric juxtaposition]. It’s a long way from the sometimes clumsy segues and awkward attempts to create seamless thematic masterpieces that had erupted a few years prior in the wake of ‘rock operas’ by the likes of the Pretty Things and The Who. Thick As A Brick works brilliantly in an almost classical fashion, with various of its themes re-stated during its duration, but without a sense of stalling for time. In essence, there’s a small galaxy of musical ideas caught in its kaleidoscopic driftnet.
As a 13-year-old, I furtively read the newspaper, picking up on its satirical content, but always wondering whether its contention that the entire lyric was written by an eight-year-old boy could have any truth to it. Apparently, the boy had won a poetry prize with his epic, and then had it retracted when those nasty authority figures realised the words were rather racy and contentious. They were Anderson lyrics, of course, and described the rite of passage of a young man in a less than positive light. Sample: “See there! A son is born, and we pronounce him fit to fight. There are blackheads on his shoulders, and he pees himself in the night. We’ll make a man of him, put him to the trade. Teach him to play monopoly, and how to sing in the rain.” And so on.
But somehow, it wasn’t depressing – probably because the music was so engaging, and had a lightness of touch because of the humour.
Forty years on, I’ve still got my original vinyl – amazingly, it escaped the big cull of progressive rock at the dawn of the punk error – and, while it’s not a record I play often, it’s one I always enjoy when I do make a 40-minute commitment.
The album did get released on compact disc, of course, and the 1997 remaster sounds okay, although the more hi-def abilities of modern playback systems do tend to bring out a slightly harsh, toppy aspect, particularly to Anderson’s voice. But it’s never been reissued in all its original tabloid glory, and that’s something that this ‘40th Anniversary Set’ tries to address.
And it’s a beaut. It’s a hardbound book, with the whole newspaper reprinted – complete with slightly yellowed pages – along with a similar page count of group photos circa ’72, and remembrances from Anderson, other group members and other involved parties. It’s a really superb package, except for one thing: the extra typos that have crept into the newspaper. Shame!
In the book, Ian Anderson suggests that Thick As A Brick was more of a satire of progressive rock than an actual progressive rock album, which is a bit disingenuous, given that Jethro Tull’s subsequent release, Passion Play, is very much in the mould of prog-rock. But it’s true that the album has a levity about it that many progressive rock bands lacked. It’s also true that, even though the music on Thick As A Brick was clearly challenging for the group to master and perform, it’s nowhere near as complex as, say, Yes or King Crimson. But that’s hardly the point: Jethro Tull were a distinctive rock band who made a couple of albums that were clearly influenced by the style that was in vogue at the time, but never lost sight of their own character or vision. [It’s notable that the group hardly ever performed the work, partly because the numerous overdubs made it almost impossible to reproduce faithfully on stage, but I guess also, partly because it was so damn hard to play].
Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson has become the go-to guy for radical remixes, having restored the King Crimson catalogue by embarking on a long journey back to the original multi-tracks, and creating both new stereo remixes and surround sound mixes of the albums.
He’s done the same thing for Jethro Tull, and in the absence of endless practice runs and demos (thank Jehovah for that) the audio content, apart from a brief radio ad for the album, just different mixes of Thick As A Brick. The first, on CD, is Wilson’s new stereo remix (as opposed to simply a remaster) and for clarity and bringing out aspects of the production I’ve never heard before, it’s a revelation. What Wilson’s done, however, is created a more conventional, contemporary (2012) sound field. The original version contained lots of stereo-buggery, with some instruments appearing in one channel and suddenly popping over to another, and a tendency for the sound to come specifically from the left or right speaker, but without a really centred feel. Personally, I love that artificiality, but Wilson has squeezed most of the image between the speakers, and to be fair, it does sound less gimmicky as a result. On my hi-fi, however, I found that the pronounced dynamic between the soft and loud passages was somewhat flattened by this new mix, and in that respect, I felt a little cheated.
Over on the DVD, there’s a more hi-res (96/24 PCM) stereo mix, and the mix everyone’s been waiting for: the full 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital version. Unfortunately, I don’t have a home theatre system at the moment, so have been unable to indulge in this aspect of the album. Lastly, there’s the ‘original 1972 stereo mix flat transfer’ of the album, which I really enjoyed, but it does sound incredibly mellow by today’s standards, and is missing the tremendous clarity and detail of the new versions.
I’m picking that Wilson’s mixes do, in fact, bring out the best of Thick As A Brick on most hi-fi systems, and that my Martin Logan hybrid electrostatics can’t, for some reason, quite resolve some of the ‘dynamic tension’ between the soft and loud passages.
I’ve read some complaints about manufacturing defects on the 5.1 mix, so if you get a chance, taste and try before you buy, or make sure you can take your copy back should it prove faulty.
My original vinyl still sounds fabulous, apart from a few minor signs of wear and tear, but it can now retire gracefully. The 40th Anniversary Edition of Thick Of A Brick might seem excessive, but the album is a key work by a key band from a time when what came to be known as progressive rock briefly ruled the world. GARY STEEL
Sound = 4.5
Music = 5