Aqualung at 50: Jethro Tull’s Half Concept Album Hits Half a Century

After 50 years, you’d think we knew Jethro Tull’s Aqualung. But we got the damned thing all wrong.

Jethro Tull in 1971
Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images

“In the beginning Man created God,” reads the back cover of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung. “And in the image of Man created he him.” The album came out 7 million days later, on March 19, 1971. We’d only recently been told God was “a concept by which we measure our pain,” by John Lennon.

Aqualung is framed by two halves of a concept. The first songs on the first side tell the stories of the outcasts, those out of sight of the eyes of the man who created god. The B-side explains why organized religion blinds us. In between are songs which have nothing to do with either theme. First off, for those who don’t know, Jethro Tull is not a person, but a band. The songs on Aqualung were written by Ian Anderson, bandleader, singer-songwriter, guitarist, occasional saxophonist, and heaviest metal flutist to make Bach swing. Anderson maintained, throughout numerous interviews, Aqualung was not a concept record. He would go on to mock the very idea of it with the satirical prog masterpiece Thick as a Brick.

The Beatles suffered the same misnomer dilemma. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band wasn’t a concept album. Paul McCartney got the idea the band would play the album as if they were this other band. The concept lasted two songs and a reprieve. The rest of the album is a full immersion into the possibilities of the studio under the steady gaze of George Martin. Aqualung opens with songs inspired by true life candid shots Ian’s wife Jennie Anderson (now filmmaker Jennie Franks) took while studying photography. One was a homeless man, another an under-age prostitute. Other than that, the first side includes a beautiful love song, and hard and soft confessional pieces.

The first concept album is Woody Guthrie’s 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads, which stuck to one theme: the economic and ecological fallout of the devastating 1930s drought. Frank Sinatra explored loneliness and late nights on a pair of classic concept long-players unified by mood. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out!, from 1966, is the first concept album, as well as the first double-album, of rock, although every song on the Beach Boys’ 1963 album Little Deuce Coupe is about a car. The Who’s Tommy, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall are rock operas which tell full stories. Bands like the Kinks tried unifying songs with imperceivable segues and tone.

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Aqualung delivers a consistent tone. Sometimes the songs fluctuate between soft acoustic and hard rock, other times the individual pieces grow through progressive layering. The harder and more social pieces employ metric modulation, and the religious ones dabble in the chordal modulations of spiritual music. The acoustic songs are less folk than singer-songwriter stylings. The album revels in its contrasts. We get riff-rock ready-made for Madison Square Garden, and intimate nylon string fingerings to burn toast to.

Ian Anderson’s lyrics are filled with rich, detailed imagery, regardless of how pretentious critic Robert Christgau found him. The band mix progressive rock, hard rock, folk music, jazz, classical, and even medieval and pagan music, along with what Anderson would call “ugly changes of time signature and banal instrumental passages” on the Thick as a Brick album notes.

This Was

Jethro Tull formed in 1967, the same year Anderson took up the flute, on a whim. After realizing as a guitarist, he “was never going to be as good as Eric Clapton,” Ian “parted company with my Fender Strat, whose previous owner was Lemmy Kilmister, who was then the rhythm guitar player for the Rockin’ Vickers,” Anderson told Classic Rock. He then “bought a flute, for no good reason. It just looked nice and shiny.” Energized by Pink Floyd’s The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, the band was able to drop the twelve-bar blues songs which led to non-pop record deals in London.

Anderson got the name Jethro Tull from the 18th-century agriculturist who invented the seed-drill, which gave birth to modern agriculture. Their first album, This Was, was blues, but the band distinguished itself, especially live. They were the first band to perform at The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, though their part was mimed, with Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi on guitar. Martin Barre took over for the band’s original guitarist, blues specialist Mick Abrahams, and on their 1969 album, Stand Up, the band stood out, sounding unlike any other band. It was eclectic, incorporating Western classical, Asian music, English folk, and harder rock. The band continued experimenting melodically and rhythmically through 1970’s Benefit, which just failed to make the U.S. Top 10.

Jethro Tull has become known as a band of ever-changing instrumentalists. Aqualung was the bridge album towards reassembling one of Ian’s first bands. Anderson was 23 when he led Jethro Tull through Aqualung. When he was young, Anderson could be found in Dunfermline, Scotland, where he was born on August 10, 1947. But he was packed off to school in Blackpool, where he sang and played guitar and harmonica for The Blades in 1963. John Evans, who joined on piano, organ, and mellotron, had been a guest musician on Benefit. Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, who’d been mythologized in the songs “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square,” “Song for Jeffrey,” and “For Micheal Collins, Jeffrey And Me,” replaced Glenn Cornick on bass. Both had been in the Blades. Barriemore Barlow, also from the early sixties band, would replace Clive Bunker on drums after Aqualung.

Tull mythology says Hammond-Hammond didn’t know the instrument and had to be taught on a note-by-note basis. He may very well have had to have been coached through each specific part he was playing. They are often incredibly intricate runs, and often go against the grain of what is expected from the bass. He had to have been familiar enough with the instrument to click in with both Clive Bunker and Barriemore Barlow, each were virtuosos with vastly different approaches to rhythm. Bunker never met a beat he couldn’t undermine for unexpected force and dynamic. Yet, he could make a 5/4 song danceable.

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The ensemble playing is tight, the players moved easily through more intricate arrangements. The orchestrations are done by Dee Palmer, who later joined as a full-time member.  The British press coined the term “progressive rock” to describe bands like Frank Zappa, Yes, King Crimson and Genesis. Tull was prog, but more accessible than classical music enthusiasts Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Guitar Gods and Flute Solos

Jethro Tull is probably best known as the classic rock band with the lead flute. “Aqualung,” possibly their best-known song, has no flute. Martin Barre’s guitar solo was rated #25 in Guitar World‘s “100 Greatest Guitar Solos” reader’s poll. But it could just as easily have been a whirl of woodwind. “In those days, if you didn’t get a guitar solo in one or two takes, it might become a flute solo. It was, ‘Go in there and do it or else,” Barre told Guitar Player in a 2015 interview.

Aqualung was recorded in a large, cold-sounding studio that Island Records built in a converted church in London. Led Zeppelin were recording their fourth album in the moderate sized basement studio that had been the crypt. “The only thing I can remember about cutting the solo is that Led Zeppelin was recording next door, and as I was playing it, Jimmy Page walked into the control room and waved to me,” Barre remembered for Guitar Player. While there have been countless theories about why the players had the faceoff, both Tull and Zeppelin fans appreciate the dual pressure of the session. “And here was Jimmy, waving like mad – ‘Hey, Martin!’ – and I’m thinking, ‘I can’t wave back or I’m going to blow the solo.’”

The song “Aqualung” opens with one of the most recognizable riffs in rock, in the same league as Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” It has been venerated and mocked in equal measure, but in all cases lovingly. It opens the song with the drama of the four-note opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and becomes a motif.

“Aqualung” is “a tortured tangle of chords,” according to Ian, with atonal harmonies, meaning the root is open to interpretation. The chords themselves are a journey to the acoustic segment of the song, which then builds, like most songs on the album, one instrument at a time. The audio effect on the later vocals is called “telephone burbles,” which happens when all audio frequencies are removed except for a narrow band around the 1,000 hertz mark, making the voice sound like it’s coming through a megaphone. The song has a cold ending rather than a fadeout, which makes it perfect for stage performances.

Bad Intent

Ian got the title for the album and song from the TV show Sea Hunt, where the main character, played by Lloyd Bridges, wore an Aqualung for underwater breathing. Aqualung was a brand name, and the Aqualung Corporation of North America took legal action after the album came out. Artist Burton Silverman, who created the cover portrait, also sued, saying the likeness should not be used on merchandising, T-shirts, and promotional materials.

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Before the codpiece and the medieval minstrel suits and lutes, Ian performed in an overcoat, which had been stolen after a concert, but has been described as looking ratty. This led to further complications of identity. Because of Tull’s manager, Terry Ellis, Silverman’s cover portrait looks like Anderson, against the singer’s wishes. “I’m not this character,” he told Louder Sound. “I’m not a homeless person. I’m a spotty middle-class English kid. I’ve never had to sleep rough on the street, and I don’t want to be pretending to be that character.”

The character Aqualung, is a homeless man like the character in Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow.” Both characters are blank slates in everyday life and can have any association imposed on them. Besides inspiring the album through her photographs of homeless people living under the railway arches on the Thames Embankment in south London, Anderson’s wife Jennie also co-wrote the lyrics. “I had feelings of guilt about the homeless, as well as fear and insecurity with people like that who seem a little scary,” Anderson told Guitar World in a 1999 interview. The lyrics have more to do with the assumptions people make of Aqualung, like his predilection for little girls or frilly panties. But he also saw the angry man as “a free spirit, who either won’t or can’t join in society’s prescribed formats.”

She’ll Do It For A Song

Cross-Eyed Mary” didn’t only capture the attention of Aqualung, she was one of the subjects in the photographic collection of the lesser people cast into the void: a child prostitute. The song transforms her into a squinty Mary Magdalene, whose jack-knife barber abortionist drops her off at school. In the lower income neighborhood Highgate, she’s a Robin Hood figure. In wealthy Hampstead Village, which was the site of the St. Mary Magdalene House of Charity in the Victorian era, she’s a business expense. The song opens with flute and mellotron rising in rhythm and pulse until the band kicks in. The interplay between guitar and piano is delicate, and the bass line buzzes with riff-worthy changes. Iron Maiden transformed the flute part into baroque metal guitar when they covered it.

“Cheap Day Return” is the first of three short acoustic songs on the album, each under two minutes. A “cheap day return” is a reduced-price round trip train ticket, and the song was written while Ian was waiting for a connecting train on his way to visiting his father, who was seriously ill in a hospital in Blackpool. In interviews, Anderson has said the song would have been longer, but the train arrived.

“Mother Goose” opens with acoustic folk guitar under Elizabethan madrigal sounding recorders played by Barre and Hammond-Hammond, who also provides harmony vocals. The electric guitar comes in late in the song, kicking the childhood Piccadilly Circus nursery rhymes into the adult playground of Johnny Scarecrow.

“It’s only the giving which makes you what you are,” Ian sings in “Wond’ring Aloud.” The second short acoustic piece is a simple love song made grandly beautiful by the piano and string arrangement. The longer version, “Wond’ring Again,” which appears on Living In The Past (1972), reached the opposite conclusion, but kept the idealistic romance at the center of the piece.  The third acoustic piece, “Slipstream,” from side two, presses Ian’s last dime on God’s waiter to pay the tab. The song is tideless, but the unreasoning strings paddle the way out of the mess.

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“Up To Me” opens not with a recognizable riff, nor a classical piano twist, but a whole hearted laugh which is as contagious as the song itself.  

Praying ‘til Next Thursday to All the Gods that You Can Count

Side two, subtitled “My God,” deals with religious hypocrisy, golden cages, and plastic crucifixes. If Jesus saves, then he’d better save himself. The song “My God” had been kicking around since at least the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. The imagery recalls William Blake and the metallic break-in sounds like Black Sabbath, both the band and the dark holiday. Once again, the song uses progressive modulation beginning with a solo acoustic guitar introduction like Evan’s piano on “Locomotive Breath.” But when Barre’s electric guitar takes over for the nylon classical fretwork, the song is full-blown metal.

Ian’s voice drips with as much disdain for organized religion as his songwriting does for musical structure. The song goes through the arpeggios of classical guitar, through hymnal chord changes, a metallic flute lead backed by instruments, another flute lead accompanied by a chorus of harmonizing bishops, inverted chromatics, and comes to a dark Pied Piper ending.

“Hymn 43” is a piano-driven soul-stirrer with enough propulsive licks to set the white man free.  Ian’s preaching to the faithless on this one, though. He bears witness in the city, on the moon and on that bloody cross. The guitar and flute interplay works like a gospel call and response, and Ian’s voice stings with insinuation.

If you want to hear Ian play electric guitar, you should give another listen to the rhythm on “Locomotive Breath.” He’s also on the hi-hat and bass drum which he laid out for the basic rhythm, allowing Bunker space for tom-toms and the cymbals. The song opens with Evan giving a jazzy spin to dramatic classical concerto piano. The song, which is about overpopulation, rhythmically careens like a train about to derail. It is a concert favorite and frequent showstopper.

“Wind Up” asks this God a question and learns it’s “not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.” The song is structured to grow on you, and age well. It begins with acoustic guitar and vocal, which is joined by the rest of the outfit until the climactic solos, and then reminiscences a second time symmetrically with piano grounding the build-up. In a fairly straightforward song, Bunker plays everything but a straight beat.

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Anderson concludes, in the liner notes which are cast in liturgical-style Gothic lettering, the Spirit that caused man to create his God lives on, but goes unnoticed. He advises listeners, “for Christ’s sake,” to start looking. The album has been pilloried and praised by people of all faiths and none. The title song gave a face to the homeless and inspired grassroots organizations to create aid. Musically, it is a constant irritation to sitcom characters and an equally steady inspiration to players. In spite of having to explain how flute was a heavy metal instrument after winning the Grammy for 1987 Crest of a Knave, Jethro Tull was a huge influence on heavy metal and hard rock. Even the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon ranks Aqualung among his favorite records.

It may be dinosaur rock to some, but Aqualung is far from extinct. Tracks like “Aqualung”, “Cross-Eyed Mary, “Hymn #43” and “Locomotive Breath” take up the bulk of Jethro Tull’s playlist on classic rock media outlets. After 50 years, Aqualung can still blow a wheezy breath of fresh air into stale misconceptions, even if he does have snot running down his nose.