Jethro Tull’s follow-up to their breakthrough Aqualung album was Thick as a Brick. The LP was as notable for its packaging as much as the music it contained. In fact, it was just about the most elaborate presentation of an album I have ever seen. When you slipped off the outer plastic wrap, the cover opened up into a full-sized, 12-page newspaper. The fictitious St. Cleve Chronicle was meant to replicate a small town newspaper. Somebody put a lot of work into this, as it had articles, advertisements, a TV guide, a births, deaths, and marriages page, a (hilarious) crossword puzzle, and even a record review of Thick as a Brick!
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the album, Chrysalis Records have quite literally doubled-down on the original release. The newly remixed edition is presented as a hardback book, containing a CD, and a 5.1 DTS audio DVD, plus a 100-page book with all the original newspaper material, plus new interviews, pictures, and all kinds of cool stuff.
By the way, did I mention there is a record somewhere in all of this? I guess not. Well, the package is a little overwhelming, but Tull were at a real peak at that point, and turned in an excellent album. Or an excellent song. Both are correct, for the recording is comprised of the 43:40 title track. On the original LP, the song was split in two, due to the format of the vinyl album. But on CD, it is all one piece. It is really kind of the holy grail of progressive rock. Back in the day, the longest song on an album was always the best, but most bands stopped at a single LP-side long track. That was the case with Close to the Edge by Yes, just to name one example.
Jethro Tull upped the ante, and went all the way. One song stretched out over two sides. Although it sounds like the ultimate prog noodle-fest, the album was not really what one might have expected. “Thick as a Brick” was one continuous tune, but it was broken up quite well, and never got boring. There were a number of different moods in the piece, and it definitely was not some pretentious wank.
Mind you, I am a big fan of pretentious wanks such as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Tarkus, or Hawkwind‘s Space Ritual, which I think gives me every right to joke about them too. In any event, Thick as a Brick does not fall into that category. In fact, in an interview conducted in March 2012 with Ian Anderson for this set, he totally shocked me with his explanation of the genesis of the album. He was very happy with the success of Aqualung, which had come out the year before. But he hated the fact that critics called it a “concept” album. He insists it was not.
His quote says it all: “People thought that somehow we were guilty of making a concept album, so I thought ‘Okay, then we’ll give them the mother of all concept albums next time!’ So we did the completely over-the-top spoof concept album of Thick as a Brick.”
The whole thing was a spoof, a put-on? I find that particular bit of information to be absolutely hilarious. Call it what you will but the band succeeded in creating a pretty great record. I had not listened to this recording in quite some time, and when I did, I could not believe how much better it was than I remembered it. For the longest time, I considered this to be Tull’s second best album, behind Aqualung. To be honest though, my opinion has changed. I now believe this to be their finest moment.
As the principle songwriter, singer, and the most animated flautist in music, Ian Anderson has always been the leader of the group. In fact, a lot of people thought his name was Jethro Tull, and he just had some anonymous background musicians. This is actually the case today, as he mentions in that previously cited interview. But in 1972, Jethro Tull were a quintet who really clicked.
Besides Anderson, the group included Martin Barre (guitar), John Evan (keyboards), Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond (bass), and Barriemore Barlow (drums). I have no idea what happened between Anderson and Barre, but Barre was probably the most unsung guitar hero of the early ‘70s. His powerhouse riffing was the engine behind “Aqualung,” “Cross-Eyed Mary,” and “Locomotive Breath.” On Thick as a Brick, he plays heavy rock at times, plus plenty of lighter, acoustic fare as well. In fact, one of his credits besides guitar on Brick is lute. How many rock lute players have you heard of out there?
Special mention should be made of the remix, both the stereo CD, and the 5.1 DTS DVD. Credit Steve Wilson, of Porcupine Tree for this. The incredibly prolific musician is obviously such a fan of this album that he took time out from his busy schedule to remix Thick as a Brick.
He did a fantastic job. As a musician who I imagine was intimately familiar with this recording, he knew exactly what he wanted. His remix never changes the basic album, but he adds some nuanced touches.
I actually still have my original LP – who would get rid of such an item? – and decided to play it side by side with the CD. Wilson hits all the right spots, upping the piano and other instruments that were buried in the original mix, without ever overshadowing anything else. He did an excellent job.
The 5.1 DTS DVD is even better, literally surrounding the listener with sound. I could not help but be reminded of what the record companies were desperately trying to promote in the early ‘70s, “Quadraphonic Sound.” There was a huge push for it for a while, but it never took off. In a way, the 5.1 DTS DVD fulfills this dream. It is a bit more involved than “Quad“ was, but the idea is pretty similar. It only took 40 years for the public to come around, I guess.
The 40th anniversary Thick as a Brick package is marvelous, and credit goes to everyone involved. They even had the presence of mind to reproduce the original green Chrysalis label on the CD and DVD. It’s a great reissue, all the way around.