The new two-CD/two-DVD box set edition of Jethro Tull‘s 1975 album Too Old to Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young to Die! offers a chance for Tull fans to rediscover a worthy mid-period album whose memory is sometimes obscured by its unforgettable, anthemic, some say overwrought title track.
Some of the album tracks have a pop-rock feel that may not have fully satisfied the prog-rock expectations of some of the band’s mid-’70s fans. At the same time, Tull hadn’t yet fully developed the brilliant folk-rock language of subsequent albums like Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses.
Spending some time with the new box set and its 80-page booklet has given me a new appreciation of Too Old to Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young to Die! – and more knowledge about the project than I could ever have imagined I’d want.
The set’s most important element is a re-recorded version of the album that was created for Mike Mansfield’s TV show Supersonic in 1976. Musicians’ union rules forbade miming (lip-syncing) over the published recordings for a video broadcast. So, having been persuaded to put out an innovative “video album” but unable to use the album tracks, Ian Anderson and his lineup of top-tier musicians re-recorded the entire set for the occasion.
It’s a good thing they did, because the original multitrack recordings of five of the album’s songs have vanished.
The well-played and well-recorded TV re-creation, which has never before before released, gave engineer Steven Wilson a full set of songs on which to work his studio magic. Wilson did an equally fine job with the recent, similarly packaged Minstrel in the Gallery box set.
The arrangements are the same as those on the original album’s. But the video version has some minor variations, and a more live, slightly brighter touch. The original album is included too, as a flat transfer, for comparison, or if you want to re-create your 1970s vinyl listening experience. (My own vinyl, bought used in the early ’80s, is long gone.)
Wilson also remixed the multitrack recordings that remain from the original album: the sublime “From a Dead Beat to an Old Greaser,” the folk-bluesy “Bad Eyed and Loveless,” the psychedelic “Big Dipper,” the catchy “The Chequered Flag (Dead or Alive),” and the title track.
I’m actually having a better time with the TV versions of the great “Crazed Institution,” “Salamander” with its Jorma-esque acoustic guitar fireworks, “Taxi Grab” with Anderson’s bruised-sounding harmonica, and even the wondrously over-arranged title track, with its pizzicato strings (still sounding innovative) and its sax part that’s been disparaged by drummer Barriemore Barlow as “more suited to Benny Hill!”
That last tidbit is one of many historical notes in the included essay by Martin Webb and the song notes by Anderson. You’ll learn the singer-guitarist-flautist’s inspiration for the title song, for example, and his present-day attitude towards each song. More substantially, you’ll find details of the aborted plans for the stage musical for which many of the songs that wound up on the album – as well as the character outlined in some of them – were originally conceived.
Traces of that show-that-never-was are also found in the comic-strip story that came with the original album and is reproduced in the extravagant, glossy booklet.
The TV special itself is a goofy-fun immersion into a mid-1970s world of hyper-costumed, half-baked concept-album dizziness. A melange of mimed “concert footage” and prop-assisted set pieces, all introduced by close-up pans of the comic book art, it’s fun to watch, and it actually conveys a useful suggestion of the era’s rock-and-roll theater thinking.
For an old Tull fan like me, it’s also pure fun watching Anderson caper, while keyboardist John Evan leers insanely into the camera, stalwarts Barlow and guitarist Martin Barre do what must be done in TV Land, and nonchalant new bassist John Glascock makes his tricky, innovative parts look easy. Watching them even in these faked performances gives the music an added dimension and makes me appreciate even more how damn good these guys were.
The film audio is mixed in DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound and Dolby Digital Stereo, sounding clear and full-spectrum. DVD 1 also includes the TV audio and the five surviving original LP tracks in 96/24 stereo PCM, a format that makes everything sound more present and up-front, but also more trebly and almost unnaturally crisp – more CD-like, less vinyl-like. I’ll stick with DTS/Dolby here.
The second (audio-only) DVD contains a 96/24 flat transfer of the original 1975 album, a flat transfer of a 1976 quad mix in your choice of DTS 96/24 4.0 surround or Dolby AC3 4.0 surround, and a batch of bonus tracks – alternate versions, demos, and songs associated with but not released on Too Old to Rock ‘N’ Roll.
Of note among those are a sparse demo of the title track; an early version of “One Brown Mouse,” a song that didn’t see the light of day until 1978’s Heavy Horses and is recorded here in a chunkier and less folky arrangement than the one that was eventually released; and two versions of “A Small Cigar,” an interesting departure into 20th-century-songbook-style writing for Anderson, the kind of song Frank Sinatra might have sung. These tracks are also on CD 2 in normal stereo mixes by Wilson.
No doubt, stylistically this was a transitional album between the rawer Minstrel in the Gallery and the folky Songs from the Wood. But to my ear, with the perspective of time, it was a happy medium.