Thursday, March 18, 2021

50 Years Ago - Aqualung - The Most Cerebral LP in Rock

Quantify the King Crimson catalog and most of us put the band's debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, at the top. A myriad of artists came out of the gate with that kind of finesse. Others, like Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull wouldn’t hit their stride without an album or three behind them.

Aqualung is the fourth studio album by Jethro Tull and the first that many of us recognize, dismissing the earlier offerings as irrelevant. Hardly, with Stand Up a stellar work and Benefit clearly the catalyst for the band's progressive zenith, but it was Aqualung, recorded between April 1970 and February 1971, that vies for the top spot on the Tull docket.
With or without its rumored concept, Aqualung is among the most cerebral LPs in rock. One is hard-pressed not to acknowledge its musings on faith, homelessness and the underbelly of Britain, concepts that extend the metaphors of Dickensian England and inspired a series of photographs of the homeless on the Thames Embankment from Ian Anderson's wife, Jennie. The appearance of one man, in particular, caught the interest of the couple, who together wrote the title song. The first side of the LP, also titled Aqualung, contains several character sketches, including the eponymous character of the title track and the schoolgirl prostitute, Cross-Eyed Mary.
Recorded at the new Island Records Studio in London, it was their first album with John Evan as a full-time member and new bassist Jeffrey Hammond. Led Zeppelin was recording their untitled fourth album at the same time in the smaller, more intimate studio 2. Anderson said the studio had a "horrible, cold, echoey" feel. A converted church, it appears the dank studio space guided the LP’s Victorian feel.
The second side, titled My God, contains three tracks — "My God," "Hymn 43" and "Wind-Up" — that address religion in an introspective and irreverent, manner. Despite the subtitles of the album's two sides, Anderson has consistently maintained that Aqualung is not a "concept album.” (Phooey, it is.)
Drummer Clive Bunker believes that the record's perception as a concept is a case of "Chinese Whispers" (what we might call “Telephone"). “You play the record to a couple of Americans, tell them that there's a lyrical theme loosely linking a few songs, and then notice the figure of the Aqualung character on the cover, and suddenly the word is out that Jethro Tull have done a concept album.”
Anderson went on to say, “If they thought Aqualung was a concept album, Oh! Okay, we'll show you a concept album" ( meaning Thick as a Brick, but we’ll tackle that next year for the 50th anniversary).
The album's original cover art by Burton Silverman features a watercolor portrait of a long-haired, bearded man in shabby clothes. Ian Anderson recalls posing for a photograph for the painting, though Silverman claims it was a self-portrait (and there is a Silverman portrait of Anderson). The artwork was commissioned and purchased by Chrysalis Records head Terry Ellis at the paltry rate of 1500 quid (pounds sterling – kind of like our saying “bucks”), especially considering that the portrait, at least using LPs as a metaphor, is as famous as the Mona Lisa or The Girl With the Pearl Earring. The original artwork for both the front and back covers are now privately owned by an unknown family, apparently stolen from a London hotel room.
In April 1971, Aqualung peaked at No. 4 on the UK Album Chart at No. 7 on the Billboard pop albums chart in the U.S. The LP would go on to sell over seven million copies and is the band's best-selling album.
Ian Anderson – vocals, acoustic guitar, flute, producer
Martin Barre – electric guitar, descant recorder
John Evan – piano, organ, Mellotron
Jeffrey Hammond (as "Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond") – bass guitar, alto recorder and odd voices (and backing vocals on "Mother Goose")
Glenn Cornick – bass guitar (played with the band at rehearsals for the album in June 1970, some of which may also have been recording sessions – especially in the early versions of "My God" and "Wondring Again/Wondring Aloud" – although he is not credited on the album)
Clive Bunker – drums and percussion
John Burns – recording engineer
David Palmer – orchestral arrangements and conduction
Burton Silverman – album artwork
Terry Ellis – executive producer

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