Thursday, March 18, 2021

Aqualung

In 1971, the focus for American youth was the war in Vietnam, which had become increasingly unpopular since the mid-60s. The Laurel Canyon scene exemplified the realism of the American 70s, including the anti-war sentiment; such was not the case in the U.K. There, progressive rock, rock in general, followed a mystical path, one of spirituality, Hobbits (Zeppelin) and even Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha (Yes’s Close to the Edge). Indeed, Rick Wakeman worked his keyboard wizardry in a shimmering cape like an Edwardian gentleman. From the beginning of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Gentle Giant in late 1970, British rock had a whimsical sensibility that gained popularity in the States but was never a part of who we were.
But by 1975, the social and economic crises of the late 1970s in Britain gave rise to punk aggression, a response to a conservative British discourse about youth and conservative values. Punks used violence to react against cultural isolation, poverty, and the broken family. Suddenly, the whimsy of progressive rock was a mockery of British reality and its escapism was no longer enough. Progressive rock by 1976, at least in its first wave, was in its death throes (exemplified by the Notting Hill Carnival Riots).

Conversely, in 1971, only five years prior, came Aqualung, which, while as far from punk musically as one could get, resonated with punk attitudes about the woeful state of English affairs. The title song was Ian Anderson’s lament of the homeless population and inspired the LP. Anderson called it "A guilt-ridden song of confusion about how you deal with beggars, the homeless. It's about our reaction of guilt, distaste, awkwardness and confusion, all these things that we feel when we're confronted with the reality of the homeless” (in 50 years, nothing has changed).
In 1970, Anderson’s wife Jennie was taking photographs of the homeless along the Thames for a university project. She and Ian were shocked to hear their stories of how they receded from their normal, productive lives to another where they sought scraps of food in the parks and begged for spare change. One homeless man, in particular, caught Jenny’s eye – and the “concept” and the cover art of the LP were established. (An “aqualung” is the British terminology for the scuba breathing apparatus – a nickname applied to the title character for his wheezing.) While bands like the Eagles were conjuring up Hollywood imagery like that in “Tequila Sunrise,” Tull tackled poverty, the adverse effects of religious zealotry, and inner-city strife in a failing economy, a life much different from that in the U.S., despite the war in Vietnam.
"Cross-Eyed Mary" details the story of an under-aged prostitute who provides her services to the rich. “Locomotive Breath resounds with the very real concerns of overpopulation. These three songs exemplify the differences in class and how society casts aside and ignores the “less desirable.”

The burgeoning progressive movement, which in 1971 included The Yes Album (songs about chess and starships), Tarkus (mythical beasts), and Nursery Cryme (pseudo-Alice in Wonderland), was a magical place of giants, musical boxes, and soaring astral instrumentals. Aqualung, instead, was pure, unadulterated political commentary. 

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