This new recording of Jethro Tull’s classic rock album Aqualung was produced for XM Radio’s “Then Again Live” programme. This is a show that aims to “re-create the most important albums of all time . . . offering total creative freedom for artists to re-visit their milestone recordings [in order not to] rival the original, but to re-experience it.” Well, I haven’t experienced Aqualung for many years, apart from a few songs heard on the radio; but the recent book by Allan Moore which provided a track by track analysis and this new recording have brought me back to the album with new ears.
When Ian Anderson was first approached with the idea of re-recording the album, he claims (in the liner notes) “[his] first inclination was to politely humour the fine gent but think of a good excuse to be doing something more urgent that day — like polishing my hair.” We should be glad he thought about it a bit longer. He goes on to say that “the notion of re-recording the Aqualung album began to exert its charm, especially since some of the songs had never been performed since the days when they were recorded back in January 1971. And, of course, the current band line-up apart from Martin and me, were babes-in-arms; or even more embryonic in the case of bassist, Jon Noyce when the original was made.”
So they learned their parts and performed the album in its entirety in front of a small and enthusiastic audience of invited guests. Only 40 fans, who won their tickets via replies to a Web site invitation, were admitted; and only two retakes were required. Otherwise, this is it. The whole thing. Start to finish. Okay, they’ve added a few of Anderson’s comments called “patter, banter and bunkum” as an addendum, edited and tacked on after the music. These comments add some insights on the riffs, the lyrics and others’ interpretations of the album, and prove to be entertaining but in their wise placement do not interfere with your enjoyment of the music.
It all begins pretty much as you recall, heavy guitar by Martin Barre, “Do-do-do-do-dooo-do!” a drum beat (Doane Perry), the riff repeats and Ian Anderson’s vocals, “Sitting on a park bench / eyeing little girls with bad intent. / Snot running down his nose / greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes. / Drying in the cold sun / Watching as the frilly panties run.” It moves on to a second section, with piano by Andrew Giddings, all ably supported by the young Mr. Noyce’s bass. This Tull sounds very . . . Tull-like, but then is not the sound of Tull that of the imagination and direction of Mr. Anderson? And, of course the masterful guitar work of Martin Barre, who shines throughout. His was one of the two retakes, according to the liner notes. A “technical glitch in ‘Slipstream,'” and a slip by Giddings in the piano introduction of ‘Locomotive Breath.’ Otherwise, apart from a smattering of applause, the album proceeds uninterrupted, and sounds very much like you will remember it.
“Cross-eyed Mary goes jumping in again / She signs no contract / but she always plays the game / She’s the Robin Hood of Highgate / helps the poor man get along.” Is she helping old Aqualung himself? Or any “old man” who happens by? Not sure, but Anderson’s flute frills bring back memories again! The music was played, and then Anderson took the “essentially live and unadulterated” tapes back to the studio to edit them. He ended up with what he describes as “being in your living room, really, but with the record player cranked up to 11.”
Hasn’t Spinal Tap had an influence on modern music! My record player still only goes to 10, but the immediacy of this recording begs for as much volume as your system will turn out. And that is how Jethro Tull was designed to be listened to. Listening in the office one feels cheated, and several times I closed the door and turned it up to get as much ambience as I could.
The acoustic guitar, played by Anderson himself, is marvelous. There is nothing like an acoustic guitar, recorded well, and played back at high volume. Think of the Stones, or the Who, both of whom utilized the sound . . . and then discover Tull’s application, mixing acoustic with electric, for an otherwordly sound that is a thing of beauty.
“Cheap Day Return” speaks of old men too; this is probably why people thought there was an overriding concept behind the whole thing. “Brush away the cigarette ash that’s / falling down your pants. / And you sadly wonder / does the nurse treat your old man / the way she should.” “Mother Goose” finds a frightening image transported into the pastoral sounds of the flute and acoustic guitar, “As I did walk by Hampstead Fair / I came upon Mother Goose so I turned her loose / she was screaming.” Poor Mother Goose.
And the album continues with its images of God, madness, calls to Jesus, and the working man. Perhaps the theme of the album is, simply, life.
There’s a sense in which re-visiting the past can limit our understanding of a piece of art like Aqualung, turning it into a museum piece. And by breaking down lyrics, and even chord structures and looking for meaning behind every bush, we turn essentially vibrant and dynamic pieces into static objects. If the creator of the piece can find new enthusiasm for a 24-year-old song collection (and he does) then perhaps rather than worrying about interpretation we need to simply crank our record players up to 11 (or at least as high as they will go), and dig the sounds of this classic, must-have recording!
Thanks to Ian Anderson and the current lineup; and thanks to XM Satellite Radio for reminding this listener just what an exciting and vital album Aqualung was . . . and IS.
(R&M Records, 2005)