Wednesday, July 15, 2009

So, where the hell was Biggles?

18 Jethro Tull, ‘Thick As A Brick’

The English sensibility is something I think I share. I certainly like the whimsical and eccentric elements that hive away in the British cultural landscape. My reading matter prior to University years was clearly dominated by British writers. Swallows and Amazons was a huge early favourite but I loved all of those adventure style books where children my age messed around in boats or found old houses that had lots of secret passageways. I was a tad unusual in that I didn’t read the Famous Five, Narnia or Just William style books. Instead it was Billy Bunter and Biggles that held my attention before I discovered Tolkein’s whimsical and eccentric Middle Earth. An early obsession was Billy Bunter. I collected every Billy Bunter book I could and devoured them like Billy would a cream bun.

This early grounding in English culture crossed over into my love of Wordsworth and the Lake District. When I lived in England I chose not to visit this area because I was partly scared that it wouldn’t live up to my imagination. I should have though, because visiting the Welsh area around Tintern Abbey was a clear highlight from my travels.

The English countryside has pressed itself into my psyche from my readings and from Turner and Constable paintings. English music has been a dominant force as well, although when I was growing up and listening to music I didn’t differentiate between American or British styles. It was all music and I loved The Doors and Led Zeppelin equally. Although New Zealand culture, in the mid 70’s onwards, became increasingly Americanised. Television was still a mixture, but film was Hollywood, and the war in Vietnam dominated our consciousness and conscience. I remember seeing US troops on R and R in Sydney in the mid 60s and it had an effect.

Suddenly I wanted an NFL jersey and my Arsenal obsession came second for a bit. Luckily this coincided with a series of dire Arsenal teams in the late 70’s and 80’s. During my University years I was definitely heavily influenced by American culture. Luckily I went to live in England for a while and the world is now back on its axis in terms of my influences - BBC, The Guardian, Hard-Fi. For a while there, though, I was playing exclusively American music and largely ignoring Van Morrison and that quintessential English band – Jethro Tull. One album that did manage to remain a constant though was the much maligned Thick As A Brick, which, of course, is also the only song on the album. Curious, isn’t it, how TAAB works – well it does for me – and A Passion Play, which followed it, stinks all over the place.

I think the trick is simplicity actually. Yes I know it was a lavish newspaper package full of whimsy and eccentricities, and yes I know there is a tendency to become pretentious when you make one song last for nearly 44 minutes, and YES, it’s got a lyric that defies understanding, to whit - ‘your sperm’s in the gutter, your love’s in the sink’…you what?? I often wonder about how Ian Anderson pitched this to the rest of the guys: “Yes Jeffrey, it’s a rather long song – nearly three quarters of an hour – and it starts off by (snigger snigger) us telling the listener they can sit it out if they want to. It’ll be huge!” And, of course, it was!!

At its heart TAAB is a basic folk song and an autobiographical slice about Gerald “Little Milton” Bostock (I’ve covered whimsy and pretentiousness haven’t I?). It’s certainly not a ‘difficult’ prog rock opus in terms of its music.

I love the way it unfolds and I love the evocation of an English childhood and the pastoral days of yore pose it adopts. What other lyric name checks Biggles for goodness sake? I love the acoustic guitar and here Ian Anderson is at his idiosyncratic best. I also love the bravery. Rather than being in ‘naive taste’, as the self deprecating sleeve notes would have you believe; by allowing this song to breathe and stretch out they hit a creative peak. Just a pity they had to then thoroughly overreach themselves with A Passion Play. But as Dylan says, ‘there’s no success like failure, and failures no success at all’.

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