“Quite hard to play, and a lot to remember.” — Martin Barre
Some albums are more famous for factors other than the music. Chinese Democracy, for example. Anyone reading this can say “that’s the one that took Guns N’ Roses 17 years to make.” Meanwhile, the same can be said for Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick. Even if you have never heard the album, you probably know “that’s the one that came with the newspaper inside”. You might even know that it’s only one, long 44 minute song.
All true. You had to flip the song midway on the original LP, and that side break still exists on CD as the song is split into two tracks. The 1997 Anniversary edition replicates most of the newspaper too, and though you will be wary of completely unfolding it and getting it back inside the case again, it is still a marvel. With campy articles, crosswords, horoscopes, ads and news stories, you could read this paper for as long as it takes to listen to the album. It is certainly among the most fabulous extras ever included with any release, LP or CD. Top ten album packaging list? Somewhere near the top.
The main feature of the newspaper is the “fake news” story of Gerald Bostock, the fictional author of the “Thick As A Brick” lyrics. After an “epic” reading of the words on the BBC one night, a flood of complaints rolled in, and young Gerald was disqualified from the poetry competition. The concept of the album is that you are to think you are hearing this controversial poem that raised such a ruckus. Of course, the words were really written by one Ian Scott Anderson.
It’s also one of the most storied Tull lineups to go with the epic album: Anderson, Martin Barre, John Evan, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, and Barriemore Barlow with Dee Palmer. Barlow was the new guy, replacing original drummer Clive Bunker. The piece is credited solely to Anderson.
Opening with delicate picking, it is soon joined by light flute. Then drums, electric guitar and piano, building bit by bit. The first three minutes have been used as an edited version for compilations. They are probably the most accessible three minutes of the song, but it is well worth hanging on! A jazzy rhythm here, some wailing guitar there. Sections of beautiful piano melody. Absolutely stunning flute playing. Vocals return, stronger and more forceful. This holds together for a long time as a pretty singular work, with lengthy instrumental sections between the vocals. Then 12 minutes in comes the organ solo.
The song bounces back and Ian returns to the front, ranting about class. It’s a surprise when the familiar opening guitar figure returns, but it is all one song after all. This ushers in a folksy section, which eventually comes back to the power of progressive Tull. A loud, rhythmic guitar outro takes us to the end of the first side with a hefty serving of organ.
The second side could not possibly open with as much panache as the first, nor should it, being the middle of a song. After a brief respite, we are back into the heavy progressive Tull, and then a drum solo. Exotic melodies dominate the first few minutes, when the drums do not. The acoustic guitars return as they eventually must, and the song resumes a path like the one that it began with.
From moment to moment, Tull are not at all shy of showing you how smart-guy they are. Those who adore challenging rock music will be right at home, drinking in every sudden time change and rippling solo. The second side is thick with daunting rock. Those who find this too pretentious to take seriously are already out of the room. They’ll miss the thundering timpanis and cascading organ/flute duos. Their loss.
What makes Thick As A Brick special is not the packaging. From section to section, the song remains compelling. Every part has some kind of hook or performance that draws you back. By playing the 3:03 version, you are missing too much action. You can’t pretend that such an album isn’t ostentatious. You either like it (usually admiring and aspiring all the while) or you are repulsed by it.
The 25th anniversary CD comes complete with a 12 minute live rendition from much later, in 1978, from New York. That means it’s John Glascock on bass, as Hammond had left in late 1975. This abridged version has some of the majesty of the album, coupled with the excitement of the live stage. Finally there is a 16 minute interview with Anderson, Hammond and Barre. They explain the organic construction of the music, and the painstaking process of the packaging. Though you can also get the 40th anniversary boxed set remixed by Steven Wilson, if you are just looking for the original album on CD, this edition is the obvious one.