"Thick as a Brick" Through Glass: Prog Rock Countdown #7

"Thick as a Brick" Through Glass: Prog Rock Countdown #7

 

Cover of  Thick as a Brick  featuring Gerald Bostock on the newspaper front page.

Cover of Thick as a Brick featuring Gerald Bostock on the newspaper front page.

Coming at Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (1972) as I did more than thirty years after its release and during my infancy as a progressive music fan, I can’t say the parodic aspects jumped out in any way, nor can I really distinguish the album musically from serious progressive music. Ultimately, the initial role as satire makes no difference since the album has taken its place in the hall of fame of progressive albums – number seven by Rolling Stone’s estimation. The playful, poetic lyrics form a part of the album’s apparent satire of progressive music; I’ve read that fans and critics alike often missed the joke, and it seems of the kind that requires some careful scrutiny to really appreciate. Obviously, the album is not truly based on the poetry of the fictional child Gerald Bostock, and while I have not had the opportunity to peruse the complete fake newspaper that is the original album art (my CD liner notes are greatly truncated), I have to imagine that it rivals the likes of The Onion in its silliness and obvious satire – which is to say, of course many people thought it was real.

I love some of the lyrics on this one. I’m always reminded of a story my friend tells of our grade school English teacher, who when targeted for a mugging, resisted his urge to resist by thinking about the early lines: “and your wise man don’t know how it feels / to be thick as a brick.” Somehow this was a reassurance to the man that he should make himself thick as a brick, unfeeling and unthinking, while he allowed himself to be robbed. I can’t say the lyrics to any part of Thick as a Brick have ever been anywhere as meaningful to me, but I sure do love to belt them whenever I can. “The Poet and the Painter” section in particular is a lot of fun for its series of contrasts and mirrored structure, and would be a worthy focus of some closer parsing – perhaps another time.

My favourite Tull happens to be another of their prog albums, The Minstrel in the Gallery (1975), which I heard first, incidentally, because of a different teacher. In a history of philosophy course co-taught by two professors, one would begin the class by playing some music – usually a classical excerpt, often opera – that was thematically connected to the lecture. The other prof played apparently whatever he felt like (I’ve adopted an in-between practice for my own lectures). One day, perhaps not feeling up to teaching for an entire hour-and-a-half, this professor began the lecture with the centrepiece of Minstrel, the sixteen-and-a-half-minute-long “Baker Street Muse”; I’ve been a fan of the band ever since. The prof. confessed to having no idea what the song was about, and I remain equally perplexed. All this to say two things: If they are memorable and singable, who cares what the lyrics mean, and Jethro Tull was at their peak when they got ambitious and weird.

Cover of  The Minstrel in the Gallery . Maybe the eighteenth-century woodcut style is a part of the album's appeal for me.

Cover of The Minstrel in the Gallery. Maybe the eighteenth-century woodcut style is a part of the album's appeal for me.

But getting back to the mirror structure. It’s one thing for a single section of the song to have the lyrics “and the poet lifts his pen while the soldier sheaths his sword” followed up shortly by “and the poet sheaths his pen while the soldier lifts his sword”; it is quite another when such lyrical contrasts are just a small instance of a forty-minute song doubling back on itself, returning to musical themes in barely recognizable ways, and at times repeating them almost exactly. Perhaps this sort of thing is not so rare in progressive music, or classical, (or jazz?) but it is such a delight to listen closely to this album and notice more pieces of connection in surprising places. The most obvious are the bookending effects at the beginning and end of each side. The album reprises the opening section as the conclusion, while side A ends with a jarring riff that continues on side B, albeit with echoing effects. These are not impressive, but hint at how much thought may have gone into the structuring of the album. I say “may have” because the mirroring is never perfect, and the repeated themes mostly occur in transitions between sections, suggesting they were afterthoughts, and rendering individual sections of the album effectively discrete songs.

I haven’t said much about the music itself though. Loyal readers may have noticed a very large gap in time between this post and the next most recent. That is mostly due to my being overwhelmed by an influx of work over the last several months. But my dread of writing this album review played a small part as well. I listened to Thick as a Brick many times over a period of weeks at the beginning of my hiatus, hoping I would be inspired to find some point of focus. But the meandering, sprawling, impenetrable world of this album offered me little to latch onto because its vastness leaves me lost. I love the blending of styles: classical, rock, folk, and the incorporation of many diverse instruments. It’s the folk aspect of the album that is its most definitive feature, I think, especially in the opening two sections. The album extends beyond itself, as the later folk trilogy – Songs from the Wood (1977), Heavy Horses (1978), and Stormwatch (1979) – recalls many of the musical themes stretched across Thick as a Brick and includes some of the band’s best music.

I may not have gleaned much to write about during those repeated listens, but the experience of full immersion was wonderful: Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick is an incomprehensible behemoth comprising a single song, arguably divisible into discrete sections, that’s as addictive as it is dense.  

 

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

ASK Rankings

  1. Yes – Close to the Edge

  2. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  3. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  4. Rush - Moving Pictures

  5. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  6. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  7. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

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