Their Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus Has a Really Big Top...

Lester Bangs

15 Min Read

Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in the May 1973 issue of Creem. One of the magazine’s most famous and beloved pieces, it is emblematic of the spirit of both the rock rag and the author.

An awful lot of kids cut school last November when it was announced that Jethro Tull would play two shows at Detroit’s Cobo Arena. The lines, longer than Cobo management had ever seen before, started forming at 7 a.m. By the time the ticket office opened — three hours later — there were 4,000 kids milling around outside. One observer described it as looking like “the third day of a three-day rock festival.” People were buying 50 and a 100 tickets at a time, and the first show sold out in three hours. The second was sold out the next day. In the meantime, a riot had been narrowly averted, the TAC squad called in and barricades erected. All this in spite of the fact that ticket prices had gone up a dollar over the $5.50 rate of the previous May’s tour when only a thousand people were turned away and four doors to Cobo were smashed by frustrated Jethro fans.

The violence may not have been typical of Tull tours — yet — but the numbers were indicative of a new fever. Jethro Tull’s following has grown until it has become vast enough to qualify as one of the success stories of our time. The band itself has evolved quickly from its early blues derivations into artier, more melodic and complex stuff. By the fourth album, it was getting into grand conceptual suites on a scale unmatched this side of the Moody Blues. “Aqualung” was two LP sides of unmitigated social moralizing, weighty lyrics in musical settings so heterogeneous (rock, Rock, a bit of rock ‘n’ roll, a lot of mostly borrowed jazz and folk strains both British and American, as well as the odd “classical” gambit ) as to have become a recognizable style.

Jethro Tull has still never had an AM hit single in this country, and is one of the prototype cases in which an “underground” group has become an international sensation strictly on the basis of its albums. By “Aqualung” it almost had to, because by that time (1970), the band’s musical scenarios had inflated to a point that left no room for the traditional two- or three-minute whambam-thank-you-ma’am single. You had to take the whole pie at once or not at all.

The focal point was Ian Anderson, a wild-eyed, waistcoat-wearing, tail-whipping dervish who played long, violent, echo-chambered flute solos.

Meanwhile, Jethro Tull consolidated its position by tightening up its stage act. The band’s drawing power increased by geometric leaps every time it toured the states, and it wasn’t only the music. The crucial element, the focal point was Ian Anderson, a wild-eyed, waistcoat-wearing, tail-whipping dervish who played long, violent, echo-chambered flute solos as if he were boxing with the instrument — the Eric Clapton of wind. Anderson has always trotted out old Rahsaan Roland Kirk riffs: flute vocalisms, overblown, even the histrionics that became the eye of his stage business. Roland Kirk never to my knowledge stuck his flute between his legs in the crudest sort of phallic stage ploy, as Anderson does. But Roland Kirk was the original Wild Man of the concert flute, and Anderson should admit the debt he owes him.

I doubt if he would. I was unable to talk to him, but I spoke to Jethro’s drummer Barrie Barlow in the hotel bar after a gig last spring, and he scoffed at the idea of Ian being influenced by Roland Kirk or anyone else. The band’s music, he went on, came totally out of the minds and experience of Jethro Tull, had no precedents, fit into no tradition and was completely original. Which probably represents the general sentiments within the band.

In any case, the group has earned the right to be arrogant. “Aqualung” was a giant and the followup, “Thick as a Brick,” was over a year in the making and even bigger. Bigger in every way: the only time in rock history previous to this that a single song had covered two sides of an LP was Canned Heat’s “Refried Boogie” on “Living the Blues,” and that was just an extended jam. “Brick” was a moose of a whole other hue: a series of variations (though they really didn’t vary enough to sustain 40 minutes) on a single, simple theme, which began as a sort of wistful English folk melody and wound through march tempos, high-energy guitar, glockenspiels, dramatic staccato outbursts like something from a movie soundtrack and plenty of soloing by Anderson, all the way from the top of side one to the end of the album.

The whole thing was built around a longish poem by Anderson, which itself set new records in the Tull canon of lofty sentiments and Biblically righteous denunciations of contemporary mores. The very first line was “I really don’t mind if you sit this one out,” a classic hook that set the tone for the entire piece, which was crammed with couplets like “The sandcastle virtues are all swept away/In the tidal destruction the moral melee.”

Where was this stuff coming from, anyway, and what did it say about the way not only Anderson and Tull but perhaps most of their audience related to the world around them? Did they really feel that self righteous about things in general? Or was it, like “American Pie,” just a bunch of words that could have as much meaning as you wanted to invest or none at all, and happened to fit the music nicely? Ask a Tull freak and you’ll get a blank look; most of them, it seems, have never stopped to analyze it. They just know what they like, which is fine.

They like it enough, in fact, that “Thick as a Brick” rocketed straight to Number One on the charts, and so far the band has done two sellout tours on the strength of it. On the second tour, the band sold out Madison Square Garden for a straight week. All this on the basis of an album — and a style — that on the surface would seem to tax anybody’s attention span. Tull concerts now are a real experience, and a unique one, for better or worse.

The band stands out by never failing to deliver a full-scale show, complete with everything it knows any kid would gladly pay his money to see.

Make no mistake: In terms of sheer professionalism, Jethro Tull is without peer. The band stands out by never failing to deliver a full-scale show, complete with everything it knows any kid would gladly pay his money to see: music, volume, costumes, theatrics, flashy solos, long sets, two encores. Jethro Tull is slick and disciplined: It works hard and it delivers.

What Jethro Tull delivers is one of the most curious melanges on any stage. If their lyrics generally take a moralistic bent, the members themselves come on like total goofballs, and the contrast works nicely. All of them dress to the teeth, usually in Victorian waistcoats and tight pants, and from the instant Ian Anderson hits the stage he works the audience with all the masterful puppeteer mojo of the Merlin he often poses as. He whirls and whips in total spastic grace, creating a maelstrom around himself, flinging his fingers in the air as if hurling arcane incantations at the balcony. His eyes take on a satyr’s gleam, get wild and pop from his head. He very effectively passes himself off as a madman reeling in riptide gales from unimaginable places. He exploits his flute exhaustively: baton, wand, sword, gun, phallus, club, virtuoso’s magic axe. He twirls it like a cheerleader and stirs the audience to frothing frenzies with it, then raises the ladle to his chops and puts everyone in a trance with an extended melodramatic solo.

Jethro Tull’s band members are such solid entertainers that even if you can’t stand the music, they’re usually providing something for you to gawk at. A lot of it is real vaudeville: Barlow walks up to the mike during a pause, holds up a toy cymbal, raises a drumstick and hits it with an extravagant flourish. As he does so he rises on left tiptoes and arches his right leg out behind him like a cartoon Nureyev, rolling his eyes at the audience and mugging shamelessly. He gets cheers and an echoing cymbal shot that seems to come from nowhere and puts him into similarly exaggerated perplexity. He looks around, scratches his head and hits the cymbal again. Again the echo. Getting really worked up, he hits the cymbal again and again, faster and faster, the echoes coming at the same pace, and suddenly the rest of the band converges on him, each holding an identical cymbal and stick and wildly bashing away. The audience eats it up.

Costumes are utilized too, in a manner that’s too calculated and too successful to be off the cuff. But what would you think if you saw a band stop an extended song in the middle to:

Read a bogus “weather report.”

Run through a bit where a band member walks to the microphone and begins to gesticulate and address the audience, while another member dressed as a gorilla stands behind him aping his every move.

Hop around the stage dressed as bunny rabbits.

Stop the music again, the silence broken by the ringing of a prop phone onstage that one band member answers: “Hello? Oh yes, I’ll see if he’s here.” Then he turns to the audience: “There’s a call here for a Mr. Mike Nelson.” So a roadie or somebody, dressed in full skin-diving gear complete with fins, mask and aqualung, flaps on from stage left, picks up the phone, wordlessly mimics a brief conversation, then flaps back as the band tears into a particularly wild passage from “Brick” to wild cheers from the gallery.

If that’s your idea of entertainment, scarf up a ticket the next time Jethro Tull hits town. If you can get one, that is. It’s a long way from my idea of rock ‘n’ roll, but then maybe that idea is dated. Or maybe this isn’t rock ‘n’ roll, and doesn’t need to apologize for being something else either. Jethro Tull is going to be around for a while, will undoubtedly get even bigger than it is now and its musical productions will become even more inflated — it’s hard to imagine the band pulling a Beatles “White Album”-type switchback. And perhaps there is a lesson in the group’s triumph for all of us.

If you’re a band or band manager and you want to make a lot of money, you should follow the methods laid down for the ‘70s by groups like Alice Cooper and Jethro Tull. You should find a style of music for which you have a certain affinity, develop that style till it’s honed to a fine edge, then wrap it in whatever current social or cultural readymades seem to fit best (sexual indeterminacy in Alice’s case, pompous wrath at social shibboleths and breakdown in Jethro’s), reducing the attitudes adopted, of course, to the lowest common denominator.

Then you want to work up some elaborate stage business. You can be pretty random about it at this point, because most bands haven’t begun to think in these terms yet. Besides, the more random you are, the more people are likely to call you “dada” or something equally impressive. Anyway, all that matters is that you give people some color and motion to look at so they won’t fidget while they’re listening to you. The final stage is to discipline yourself rigorously, rehearsing the whole shebang till it’s airtight, till you can go on and deliver one punch right after another all the way through your set without ever losing your balance. Polish the whole thing up and market it. It works.

You can reach a point in the creation of something when the trappings and the tinsel and the construction become so important that it doesn’t really matter at all what’s inside.

You can reach a point in the creation of something when the trappings and the tinsel and the construction become so important that it doesn’t really matter at all what’s inside. The whole show can be a total contrivance: ultra-formulaic music, jive bits of business for punctuation, cabooses loaded with props, choreographed postures and preenings, even the audience enlisted to give it right back on cue, educated in the process through past concerts and festival movies. The whole thing can be just that vacuous and, because someone has taken the trouble to entertain them, everybody still goes away happy. Showbiz is funny that way.

Postlude: After the Fall

So I hassled and I hustled and I still couldn’t scope it out. What wall were these Tulls coating off of, anyhoo? No comprende. Till one day, quite by accident, I happened to play this album that had been moldering in my collection called “Music of Vietnam.” It was one of those things on Folkways, you know, arcane chants from the outback, and I had it because some liberal had loaned it to me once and then disappeared from sights forever. So I put it on because I was totally dunced out anyway, and IT SOUNDED JUST LIKE JETHRO TULL! Folk music from the jungles of Vietnam, some of it thousands of years old, and damned if the tonal clusters weren’t congregating in clots highly consonant with what Ian and the boys were laying down. The rhythms were similar, though not as stiff and archlike, and the reed cats on their bamboo flutes had Ian A. down to a “T.”

So I knew that there was only one thing to do. I got Warner Brothers Records to fly me to Saigon, just to get this whole thing sorted out, scooped straight from the horse’s mouth. So to speak. When I got there I strutted up to the Presidential Palace, bold as a buffalo, marched right in and planted myself square in front of President Thieu’s desk. Thank God for Mo Ostin’s Washington connections. History was being made here and now.

I wasted no time. “Look,” I said, “I got this here album by this bunch of Limey creeps called Jethro Tull, “ and I handed him a copy of “Thick as a Brick.” Thieu is cool as a cod: He opens the album, leafs through a few pages with a half smile, reads some of the lyrics, then turns to an elaborate Garrard component system behind the right side of his desk and puts the record on. Soon that same goddamn song is booming out of the giant Marshall amps in the east and west (hatch) corners of the room. Directly to my right in front of the President’s desk sits the Ambassador from Uganda, who had been conferring with the President when I barged in and is now obviously nonplussed, perhaps slightly offended. Breach of diplomatic protocol? Big shit! We gotta get this Tull trash sorted out for the good of America!

So while Pop Thieu is listening to the first five or ten minutes of “Thick as a Brick,” I run down the whole story to him. How Jethro Tull is so far off the wall that it ain’t even in the room. How I sprained my brain trying to get over or around ‘em and always found ‘em inescapable, so it was do or die and I was at the terminal. How I’d found the Folkways Vietnam album — then I shove that at him. Thieu looks it over with a chuckle, then hands it back. The Ugandan Ambassador is beginning to look interested. Thieu leans back in his swivel chair, puts all ten fingers together and listens to a few more bars of Jethro Tull. Then he takes it off, turns around and hands me the most patronizing smile I’ve ever seen in my life.

“It has always amazed me, “ he says, “how you Americans can feed yourselves the worst kind of garbage and still survive, but now at last I think I understand. I don’t like Jethro Tull either — I never have, not even when all my friends were bending my ear with ‘This Was’ — but not, perhaps, for the same reasons which have driven you to such extremes.

“I don’t like them because you are right. They do sound like Vietnamese folk music, and I’m no folkie! I despise that jerky, over-rhythmic, open-ended clatter. Give me progressive jazz anytime — Peanuts Hucko, ‘Big’ Tiny Little — and I am happy. A man must move with the tunes, and the times demand bop: How can a man in my position say that bop is wrong? I didn’t get here by swimming against the tide. I see the American GIs walking by the Palace every day with those bop records in their hands, and every once in a while I go down and ask them to show them to me. I speak to them in the language that they understand: ‘What’s the word, Thunderbird?’ And they reply that the word is ‘rebop.’ All these records they show me, all of these people, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, I have understood through my communication with your people, are rebop, be it good or bad.

“But, as anyone can see, Vietnamese music is not rebop. It’s not even bop. It’s just something frozen and awkward, but insistent for all of that. These old cultures die hard. Which is why they still play that wretched noise in the rice paddies, and why something like Jethro Tull is popular with your people. Because some people, you know, just can’t take rebop. And the reason for which I do not like Jethro Tull and, I would suspect, you do not like Jethro Tull is that they have no rebop!”

He leaned back again, point made, and smiled. I was still puzzling this one out when the African Ambassador leaned over and tapped me on the knee. “Say,” he said. “What is all this obsession with ‘rebop’ anyway?”

Published in partnership with Creem Magazine

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