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~ Aqualung ~



An introduction to "Aqualung"

Jethro Tull's fourth album, released in March 1971, would become one of their most important ones, both lyrically and musically: 'Aqualung'. The sales have exceeded five million to date. It consists of eleven powerful songs, containing a lot of criticism on various aspects of society, that certainly didn't lose their expressiveness over the years. "My goodness, now Ian Anderson wants us to think!" headlined 'Disc and Music Echo', one of the music magazines in those days. Judson Caswell has pointed out, that there are three major components of the album. First, there is the social commentary of the lyrics on God, religion, and poverty. Second, the popularity of his acoustic pieces is reaffirmed with "Wond'ring Aloud," "Slipstream," and "Cheap Day Return". Finally there is an increasing vulgarity in his lyrics.

The lyrics affirm his criticism regarding organized religion, especially Christianity e.g. Church Of England. In David Rees' book 'Minstrels in the gallery, a history of Jethro Tull' (1998) Ian is quoted: "They are not, as some perceived, an attack on God, but more on organised religion, the hypocrisy of organised Christianity. I don't mean to sound as heavy as it might, and I have no arguments with anyone's personal religious beliefs. I'm sure there is a God, but nobody can possibly know what form he or it might take" (p. 43).

The lyrics are pretty clear, often referred to as "blatant" or "naïve" by critics. More interesting is the vulgar portrayal of the lower class in songs such as "Aqualung" and "Cross-Eyed Mary": "Laughing on the playground, get's no kicks from little boys / would rather make it with a leching grey" is a good example of Ian's dealing with lower-class sexuality in "Cross-Eyed Mary." And he certainly can't be accused of valorizing poverty with lines like "Sitting on a park bench / eyeing little girls with bad intent / snot running down his nose / greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes" from 'Aqualung'.
These, in light of the emphasis placed on the acoustic pieces on this album, seem to draw an ever-widening chasm in the music: from the raucous to the serene, from the gentle to the the uncompromisingly hard. Ian's expressive vocals go perfectly along with the type of songs on the album: the acoustic songs are sung in a clear and warm timbre, while on the rock songs his singing is raw, angry, bitter perhaps.

The nucleus of Jethro Tull over the years: Ian and Martin.
This picture was probably taken during the Benefit or Aqualung tour (1970/1971).

So we see the growth of the acoustic/electric dichotomy. There are six songs which prominently feature heavy electric guitar while the remaining five are mostly acoustic. Even in a few of the more raucous songs, acoustic and electric instruments are pitted against one another: "My God", "Wind Up" and the title track "Aqualung". This dichotomy parallels the almost irreconcilable (in the minds of the fans) differences between the lyrical and musical content of the songs and the stage presence that performs them. What began as a "penchant for a tatty overcoat and manic stage presence" (in the words of Phil Hardy), became something Lewis described as the "hopping, grimacing, twitching, gasping, lurching, rolling, paradiddling, gnawing and gibbering" Jethro Tull. Much ado is made about Ian's "low humor" (Hardy). Countless fans report memories of Ian's phallic flute waving, his ranting, cavorting, acting like a man "possessed."
The increasing suggestiveness of his lyrics on Aqualung parallels the increasing vulgarity of his stage act. Ian explains this in interviews: "There came a point for me when I started doing it [the antics] for myself, and it gradually evolved into being, for me, at any rate, a true physical expression of the music we play" (Lewis).

John Benninghouse argues, that the album does not only show us Ian's views on the less valorous aspects of human nature as seen through the lower classes, but also as seen through the upper class as well: "I interpret the album as being (perhaps unintentionally) about - at its core - human nature or at least one aspect of it: the songs portray people as egoïstic and self-serving. The songs critiquing religion also critique the upper classes.

  • "... don't call on Him to save you / from your social graces..."
  • "Oh Father high in heaven / smile down upon your son / who's busy with his money games...."
  • "Well the lush separation enfolds you / and the products of wealth ..."
  • "In your pomp and all your glory you\rquote re a poorer man than me...."

If Anderson uses organized religion as a pretext for criticism of the upper classes, then he is all too direct when criticizing the lower classes. There are no paeans to those less fortunate. Instead we find Aqualung, a dirty, old bum who eyes "little girls with bad intent" and Cross-eyed Mary, a poor school girl who sexually services poor men and steals from those who have little, like herself, rather than from those who are wealthy. The rich abandon the substance of religious tradition and use the empty shell of liturgy to suit their own needs. The poor are no better. They prey on each other for their own gain".

Aqualung proved to be a popular album in America. During this time the band were featured in Rolling Stone magazine with Ian on the cover. Of relevence here is a quote from the article refering to America: "Everybody is sort of grabbing at something, out for themselves. Particularly on the East Coast....You get the feeling that you're in the midst of some incredible game....everybody is rude, pushy, grabby". (We should bear this in mind when Thick As A Brick, War Child a.o. are discussed).

We have seen Ian's dissatisfaction with "stolen" Black American blues. We have seen aspects of his disapproval of contemporary culture, particularly American culture. We have seen his first original compositions as acoustic-oriented music, and the possibility of his themes deriving meaning from historical context. At this point he is both entertainer and critic - both insightful and tastelessly vulgar. And he claims that his stage presence is his physical manifestation of all of this. Is it possible to link all aspects of his music? As with Roland Kirk, is it possible to place all aspects of performance and composition into one framework that will reconcile the contradictions? And can a framework be found to place the music in a historical context? We will try to find an answer to these questions when the next album 'Warchild' is portrayed.

The 'Aqualung' album was and is often considered as a concept album - both by fans and critics as well - though Ian stated several times it was not. The first six songs are mostly about the sordid side of life of 'the man in the street', while the last five contain Ian's criticism on organized religion. However, in each song he takes a different perspective to the subject, as I will try to point out below.
* Jan Voorbij; Judson C. Caswell (Minstrel in the gallery, history in the music of Jethro Tull - 1993); John Benninghouse (Songs from the wood, the music and lyrics of Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull - 1994)

The "Aqualung" tour programme, announcing also supporting act Steeleye Span(1971).
Note that some of the pictures were borrowed from the "Benefit" programme.
By kind permission of Pete McHugh (
Electrocutas - The Jethro Tull Archive).


In an article, originally published in Disc and Music Echo, 20th March 1971, are some relevant passages, all quotes by Ian: "All songs on Side Two somehow deal with the concept of God, from a personal standpoint".


  • "'Aqualung': It's about a rather pathetic character, someone socially degraded. There's something marvellous about that situation.  I would like to see the concept of God put into that situation."
    * Ian Anderson in Disc and Music Echo, 20th March 1971.

  • The title song portrays an old and homeless, asthmatic man, who wanders the streets in a big city. Ian drew his inspiration from a project his first wife Jennie was working on. See: ).
    She had been photographing homeless people, living their harsh lives in the streets of London near Thames river. From an interview with Ian in 'Guitar World' magazine, November 1996:
    "I was very briefly married at the time, and when we got married, neither she nor I wanted her to play the role of the faithful housewife, but thought she should study something or do something. She'd had an uncle who was a professional, fairly well-known portrait photographer in London, and she decided she wanted to take up and study photography. So she went off to college to do that. One of the first assignments she had was to record images of homeless people - living in cardboard boxes in a certain part of London. And she came back with some photographs that she'd taken and developed. I think she had scribbled a few lines on the back of one of the prints, or on an accompanying piece of paper, with lines describing this guy. I hadn't seen the person; I had only seen the photograph. In trying to encompass something that was just a black-and-white image - just a grainy, Kodak Tri-X student photographer image - there was a certain degree of detachment that led me to romanticize the character, and add to her few words. It just developed into a song - the first verse, 'Sun streaking cold, an old man wondering lonely," blah blah blah, is the bit that I think was my first wife's contribution. But the introductory heavy-riff bit almost certainly is a musical idea of mine with a lyric that ties in. Start looking a little bit, a little bit deeper, and I think the nice thing about writing is to be able to write on more than one level at once, you know, to write songs that have an apparently simple and direct meaning but, but, you know, have another layer of meaning underneath that that people may or may not gravitate to if they wish".

  • Since we know of Ian's disapproval of contemporary culture, especcially its greed and egoïsm, it might be very well possible that he criticizes the way our society treats her dropouts - people who somehow cannot cope with society.

  • The first verse describes Aqualung's lamentable condition. His bad health, being asthmatic and probably suffering from rheumatism or gout, his filthiness, his loss of values ("eyeing little girls with bad intent"/ "watching as the frilly panties run") and his dependence on institutions like the Salvation Army for his meals. So he is really down and out. Then, in the second verse ("Sun streaking cold, an old man wandering lonely") the song changes from electric to acoustic and we hear how the narrator expresses his compassion with Aqualung, pitying the condition he is in. Being isolated from other people and chased away as a nuisance time after time, he became distrustful towards anyone who approaches him: "Aqualung my friend, don't you start away uneasy, you poor old sod you see it's only me". In the last verse first we see how Aqualung's life comes to an end, in "agony" with "rattling last breaths". And life goes on as if nothing has happened "....and the flowers bloom like madness in the spring".
    * Jan Voorbij

  • "the army 's up the road, salvation à la mode and a cup of tea"
    Probably a reference to the Salvation Army handing out free meals to the homeless during winter. One interpretation of the expression 'à la mode' in this phrase (though not necessarily the one Ian intended!) might be to imply the indifference and impatience of society towards the homeless. Everyone knows the Salvation Army help the homeless (i.e.  it's the prevalent, or 'fashionable' attitude. Just because it's fashionable doesn't mean it's justifiable!), so a common public attitude might be "Don't come to me asking for money; it's not my problem, can't you go to the Salvation Army? Get out of my way!"
    * Neil R. Thomason

  • "Aqualung"
    An Aqualung is a Scuba diving equipment, in fact an underwater breathing apparatus. Scuba is an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. But there is another story behind the name Ian chose for this character. First of all, our tramp is suffering from asthma, making all these wheezing sounds when breathing: "and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep-sea-diver sounds". It is less known that there was a problem with Tull specifically using the word 'Aqualung': 'Aqualung' is (was?) a fully copyrighted tradename of the 'Aqualung Corporation Of North America'.  The company wasn't happy about the unauthorised use of their tradename and sued. Ian had a specific image in mind when naming 'Aqualung' - he was reffering to the asthmatic wheezing accompanying the underwater scenes of 'Mike Nelson', the diver character in the US TV series, 'Seahunt'. BTW, the lyric sheet insert for the vinyl also gives this credit: "Aqua-Lung® is used in the United States with permission of U.S. Divers, Santa Ana,California", though, curiously, no later releases bothered to give such credit!
    * Neil R. Thomason, Jan Voorbij

  • "He goes down to the bog to warm his feet"
    The bog is English slang for toilet and in England public toilets are often below ground. Urinating on your feet to warm them up is the "standard" way of warming feet when there is no other option.
    * Matthew Korn 

Cross-Eyed Mary

  • "'Cross-Eyed Mary'  is a song about another form of low life, but more humorous. It's about a schoolgirl prostitute but not in such coarse terms. She goes with dirty old men because she's doing them a favour, giving people what they want because it makes them happy. It's a fun kind of song."
    * Ian Anderson in Disc and Music Echo, 20th March 1971.
  • The song is about a poor schoolgirl/prostitute, who sexually services poor men and steals from those who have little, like herself, rather than from those who are wealthy. The first four lines of the song suggest she would not, if she wasn't that poor: "Who would be a poor man, a beggar man a thief, if he had a rich man in his hand...". In spite of her 'work' she stays poor, dining "on expense accounted gruel", finding "it hard to get along". However, to the poor men who can afford her services, she is a most welcome distraction from everydays' misery: "she's the Robin Hood of Highgate, helps the poor man get along". The line "The jack-knife barber ", who dropped her off at school, suggests she just had an abortion, since barbers were the original surgeons. Being precocious she feels she doesn't belong among her peers and is attracted to men instead of boys: "Laughing in the playground, gets no kicks from little boys, would rather make it with a lethcing grey...". Having not much choice, she's not too particular when it comes to choosing her 'customers'.
    * Jan Voorbij
  • "Who would be a poor man, a beggarman, a thief" - This quotes from the children's rhyme "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief." The rhyme is used to define future careers. 
  • "And who would steal the candy from a laughing baby's mouth if he had a rich man in his hand?" - This is derived from the American expression "like stealing candy from a baby". "if he could take it from the money man?" - These rhetorical questions state that if fate has placed you in a position where you feel you need to obtain money dishonestly or disreputably, it seems reasonable to prefer to take the money from the rich, if you have a choice.
  • "Cross-eyed Mary goes jumping in again. She signs no contract but she always plays the game." - The expression "to play the game" means "to act fairly". But it is clear that Cross-Eyed Mary is also "on the game", that is to say a prostitute.
  • "Dines in Hampstead village on expense accounted gruel," - Hampstead village is a wealthy and expensive London suburb. Mary is entertained there by wealthy clients using their business expense accounts. I don't know why the word "gruel" is used here other than to rhyme with "school", although it might be implying that the clients are not as generous as they seem. 
  • "and the jack-knife barber drops her off at school." - This line is intended to shock, as this is where we discover Mary is a schoolgirl. It has been suggested that the jack-knife barber is an abortionist because of the historical relationship between barbers and surgeons. However abortions, and particularly illegal ones, do not usually involve surgery. In my view, the jack-knife barber is someone who carries a concealed knife and is skilled in using it. Possibly, he is Mary's pimp. 
  • "She's a poor man's rich girl and she'll do it for a song." - "Going for a song" means "at a very low price" or "next to nothing". Mary charges her clients according to their means. "It" is often used as a euphemism for sex.
    * Alan Jolley
  • "On expense accounted gruel": Most Western people born in the 1950s or after associate “gruel” primarily, if not exclusively in pop culture terms, with Dickensian England, specifically the moment in Oliver Twist when he asks for “more.” Oliver Twist is of course a huge influence on Anderson and Tull on several levels, from the concern for the underclass in that book to its view of the oppression of children to the popular conception of Anderson on stage as “a mad-dog Fagin.” And so “expense-accounted gruel” is clearly a phrase offered analogously to the lives depicted in …Twist: As the poor children in Dickensian England humbly beg for their meager meals, so does Cross-Eyed Mary humbly dine on the higher-class* meals nevertheless offered just as condescendingly by her more upscale patrons.
    * Tom Silvestri

    Cheap Day Return

  • "'Cheap Day Return'  is about a day I went to visit my father in hospital in Blackpool.  I caught a train at nine, spent four hours travelling, four hours with my father, and four hours to get back again.  It was a long song mainly concerned with the railway journey, but the section on the record is about visiting my father.  It's a true song."
    * Ian Anderson in Disc and Music Echo, 20th March 1971.
  • A 'cheap day return' is a type of rail ticket. Ian explained this in various interviews. He was living in London, but travelled to Blackpool for the day, to visit his father, very ill in hospital: "... does the nurse treat your old man the way she should ...". He returned by train. The rail route from Blackpool to London isn't direct; there's a local train from Blackpool to Preston, where one can join the intercity Glasgow - London train.Whilst waiting for the connecting train, Ian expressed his slight melancholia by writing a song. Apparently, he didn't have to wait long, which is why the song is so short (I think he was joking...). Once you know the background, the lyrics make sense - it's a straight narrative. The song "Nursie" was also inspired by this trip to his father.
    * Neil R. Thomason, Jan Voorbij

Preston Platform (Coutesy: Dave Bevis)

Mother Goose

  • "'Mother Goose'  is completely untrue, it's nonsense. It's the same sort of abstract idea as 'Cross-Eyed Mary', imagery of 100 schoolgirls all crying; it's full of surrealism. It's amusing."
    * Ian Anderson in Disc and Music Echo, 20th March 1971.
  • In The Complete Lyrics Book Ian states that 'Mother Goose' is about various images that he saw as he wandered around Hampstead Heath. Really not tied together through any coherent theme, just images.
    * Matt Willis
  • "Four and twenty labourers were labouring digging up their gold. 
    I don't believe they knew that I was Long John Silver."

    The nursery rhyme 'Sing a Song of Sixpence' contains the phrase: Four and twenty blackbirds Baked in a pie I'm pretty sure Ian is directly quoting this phrase; the only question is why! It may be that he's simply reinforcing the nonsense rhyme image of the song. However, there's a further aspect, that might simply be coincidental - or maybe not. This nursery rhyme was originally a coded recruiting song for the pirate Blackbeard in the eighteenth century - each line has a more sinister double meaning. I don't really see why Ian would refer to this in the song, yet he does seem to hint at it, as the next line of 'Mother Goose' refers to Long-John Silver, a fictional pirate. See <> for further explanation of the nursery rhyme's origins.
    * Neil Thomason
  • "Sing a song of Sixpence" has been mentioned in relation to "Mother Goose". "Four-and-Twenty" is another antiquated expression that is only familiar because of this song. "Mother Goose" is the name of a famous collection of these "nursery rhymes". Concerning Blackbeard: Even the web site that is cited doubts that "Sing a Song of Sixpence" was actually used by Blackbeard: "It's most definitely apocryphal, if not outright fabrication".
  • * Alan Jolley

    Real Player video clip of
    "Mother Goose", performed live at NBC Night, April 6 1996.
    By kind permisson of

Wond'ring Aloud

  • Right in the middle of his cynical description of various scenes of 'lower class life in the street', Ian places one his most beautiful acoustic songs. The song is full of love, harmony, happiness and breathes a laid-back atmoshere; the lyrics speak for themselves. Since Ian leaves nothing to chance, I suspect he wants to make clear that there is more to life than the misery and cruelty we see happen in the streets and that we should value relations of friendship and love and the moments we share with our loved ones. In songs like 'Aqualung', 'Cross-Eyed Mary' and 'Up To Me' we see how people experience life as full of struggle, finding it hard to cope and try to take advantage of eachother in order to survive. In 'Wond'ring Aloud' however, we see how 'giving' affects us and how we benefit from it. Here is beautifully phrased - both lyrically and musically - how love, one of the best things life can offer us, is experienced.
  • It's interesting to compare this song to 'Wond'ring Again' from the 'Living In The Past' album from which it was derived. In the first one "taking" is the keyword, in the second one "giving".
    * Jan Voorbij
  • "'Wond'ring Aloud' is a bit of personal nonsense, it's a love song. It's difficult to write love songs if you write songs a lot; love is a separate, personal thing. But this is the most satisfying thing I've made a record of. It's well played and sung quite well. It's a pretty song".
    * Ian Anderson in Disc and Music Echo, 20th March 1971.

Up To Me

  • "'Up to Me'  is another nonsense one, a song about selfishness".
    * Ian Anderson in Disc and Music Echo, 20th March 1971. 
  • The song depicts another aspect of lower class life. 'Up to me' seems to be about "me" (for lack of a better name since I do not know if this is autobiographical) telling his daily tale of woe to a weary bartender or patron. The opening verse sounds like a date gone bad after "me" tried to put the moves on too fast and he ends up ditching her at a restaurant.
    "Take you to the cinema
    and leave you in a Wimpy Bar
    you tell me that you've gone too far
    come running up to me."
  • The second verse sounds like a fight or brawl that has taken place at Cousin Jack's after having a few too many drinks, where "me" ended up punching Jack in the face: "that's one up to me":
    "Make the scene at Cousin Jack's
    leave him to put the bottles back
    mends his glasses that I cracked
    well that's one up to me."
  • The third verse seems to follow the same theme as 'Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll' would five years later. Except now "me" has chosen to live the high, trendy life:
    "By a silver cloud to ride
    pack the tennis club inside
    trouser cuffs hung far too wide
    well it was up to me."
    A Silver Cloud was a model of Rolls-Royce car. Arguably the sign of the nouveau-riche middle class - those who can afford a 'classy' car and want to show-off to their middle class peers. A genuinely upper class person might choose something more subtly tasteful, or *inherit* a Rolls-Royce!
  • A chance encounter with someone he'd just assume avoid. Perhaps (Cross-eyed) Mary?
    "Tyres down on your bicycle
    your nose feels like an icicle --
    the yellow fingered smoky girl
    is looking up to me."
  • The chorus lines are the lines that make it seem like he is telling someone about his poor self. He just a regular guy, with half a glass of beer and a sarnie. And he's willing to pay, even if he doesn't have the money, to have you listen to his story.
    'Bitter' is beer, so the line refers to a half-pint of beer, plus bread with jam - the basics of a stereotypical 1970s working class snack. It's not 'bitter bread'.
    "Well I'm a common working man
    with half a bitter -- bread and jam
    and if it pleases me I'll put one on you man
    when the copper fades away."
  • Finally it's time to go home. The first line here is similar in theme to "Another Harry's Bar," perhaps Ian was influenced by Hemingway early on? I take the day-glo pirate to be the setting sun as "me" laughs about the start of a new day and a host of new situations. But they are all choice "up to 'me'!"
    "The rainy season comes to pass
    the day-glo pirate sinks at last
    and if I laughed a bit too fast.
    Well, it was up to me."
    This refers to the narrator being fairly poor, but contented - he has what he needs and, within the limits of wider society, is free and self-governing; a 'law unto himself'.
    * Matt Willis, Neil R. Thomason
  • "A Wimpy Bar" is mentioned. It was (still is, but less popular nowadays) a chain of fast food restaurants, in the same vein as McDonalds, but where the food was usually eaten in the restaurant, with knife & fork - eating with the hands wasn't really acceptable in public in 1970!
    * Neil R. Thomason

    When looking a bit closer to ‘Up To Me’ and reading the relevant annotation I have found that Matt Willis, the author, must be wrong as for the third stanza, which, in my opinion, is a sort of threatening to the hearer of the ‘Me’ and the ‘copper’ is rather a cop (and not a coin), whose presence makes ‘Me’ to restrain from any violent action as e.g. of putting ‘the bitter bread and jam’ on his hearer’s face.
    * Maciek Rolski
  • "Well I'm a common working man with half a bitter -- bread and jam and if it pleases me I'll put one on you man when the copper fades away." - "I'll put one on you" is a threat of violence. "When the copper fades away" almost certainly means "When we are out of that policeman's sight". I don't think it makes sense for "copper" here to mean "coins" or anything else made with copper metal. The expression "fade away" doesn't seem very appropriate to either interpretation, unless it's used, as in The Who's "My Generation", as a teasing euphemism for "f--- off".
    * Alan Jolley


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