The year 1971 was a momentous one for prog rock. Among the year’s signal albums were ELP’s Tarkus, Pink Floyd’s Meddle, Hawkwind’s In Search Of Space and Genesis’s Nursery Cryme, not to mention a brace from Yes. The three-minute pop song had become passé. In its place were labyrinthine epics about things like Greek nymphs, moon dogs and strange Russian hogweed. This was music with a default setting of ‘challenging’. Rock music was suddenly taking itself very seriously indeed.
Never mind that much of it actually sounded thrillingly original, the battle lines between new and old – between knotty-browed experimentation and straight-up rock’n’pop – were well and truly drawn. Enter Jethro Tull, who since 1967 had gradually morphed from a fairly conventional white blues band into avatars of something altogether weirder.
Fourth album Aqualung, released in March ’71, was a miasmic mix of folk, jazz and rock, wherein leader Ian Anderson vocalised all manner of thoughts on religion, consumerism and global poverty. It sold by the bucketload, sealed their reputation at home in the UK and made them big stars in America. But critics suddenly started lumping Tull in with the prog pack, which Anderson didn’t exactly take kindly to.
“When I wrote Thick As A Brick I tried to approach it in a humorous and satirical way,” Anderson says. “The whole idea happened very quickly. It was done in a fast and furious period of time. I’d just turn up at rehearsal every lunchtime with what I’d written that morning. Then the guys would dutifully grapple with it and we’d try to recap on what we did yesterday and the day before.
"By the end of 10 days we’d rehearsed to a performance level all the elements of Thick As A Brick. And we went in and recorded it, literally in a few days. The album cover actually took us longer than the music itself.”
So is Thick As A Brick a song, or an album? And was it intended as more than mere prog foolery?
"I drew upon my own childhood and my own early experiences for ideas for sections within the overall work. But I was also drawing very much on the world of the eight-year-old Gerald Bostock. It was part of the absurdity.”
“It was written very much as I went along, and was a very natural, organically evolving piece of music. There was an almost Monty Pythonesque idea in my head of this pastiche approach to creating this idea – ‘the mother of all concept albums’, as I’ve come to call it. It was presenting such a preposterous notion that an eight-year-old boy had written this saga in some poetry competition.
"Of course, you can then suspend disbelief and just go with it. But there were a lot of countries where they just didn’t get the joke. They thought it was a real story, that this precocious schoolboy had written this stuff and somehow I turned it into an album.
"You have to preserve the fiction to some extent, because that’s your starting point – the absurdity of precocious youth and complex ideas; that somehow Thick As A Brick is an album about what this youth might become and the distortion of his ideas as a prepubescent child. Essentially it’s setting out future scenarios of what might happen.”
So there was a serious side to it all?
“Some of the elements in the lyrics are quite serious,” offers Anderson, “where I drew upon my own childhood and my own early experiences for ideas for sections within the overall work. But I was also drawing very much on the world of the eight-year-old Gerald Bostock. It was part of the absurdity.”
Thick As A Brick was edited and released as a single in April 1972, a month after the album’s release. But skimming the cream from a three-quarter-hour masterwork was never going to be easy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it failed to make the charts on either side of the Atlantic.
The album, however, made No.5 in the UK, while over in the US it topped the Billboard chart for two weeks. It remains Jethro Tull’s second-biggest seller in America. Critics and fans generally adored it, but Anderson had all eventualities covered in any case. One section of The St. Cleve Chronicle has the audacity to contain a mock review of the album, describing it as being marked by “ugly changes of time signature, and banal instrumental passages”. Was he trying to make it all ultimately bomb-proof?
“It’s okay for me to say those things about my own work,” Anderson reasons, “but I don’t think it’s too cool if somebody else tries to do it, because I’m already well aware of it. There’s every scope to say that this is noodly, extreme, anal, pompous, bombastic, arrogant – all of those words are applicable to prog rock and definitely applicable to Thick As A Brick – but they’re there on purpose. And if you don’t get the joke, fuck off! Don’t start telling me something that I know full well, because I wrote it to be like that. That’s the point!”