~ Ian's Central Theme ~

Aqualung revisited

By Jeroen Louis


Like most of us, to me the music itself comes first. I mean, even if Ian would be singing 'dadada' all the time, I'd still be a devoted Tull fan. I don't regard Ian as some philosopher who happens to make some music merely as a vehicle for his thougths. But he doesn't sing 'dadada' or trivial 'I love you's' all the time. Quite on the contrary, the lyrics are just wonderful. The words add so much to the music. Although I don't always share Jan's or other people's interpretations of the lyrics, the views stated on Jan's Annotated Lyrics Page are a wonderful source of inspiration to play the old records once again, listen carefully and explore the ideas behind the words.

One great aspect of it is that most of Ian's themes and ideas, lyricwise, prove to be very coherent throughout the years. The fact that Ian was so young when he started makes it all the more amazing to me. Above all, discussing the lyrics it's just a lot of fun. It is all rock and roll, and boy do I like it! Jan's essay on Aqualung tickled me to write this little piece with some thoughts of my own. Aqualung. I think the title song touches on a common theme in Ian's work, which is his empathy with the dropouts of society, in this case the homeless old bums of the big city. This empathy shows throughout the years in a variety of songs, for instance in 'Orion' (Stormwatch): "I know you're watching as the old gent by the station scuffs his toes on old fag packets lying in the street" or 'Strange Avenues' (Rock Island): "The wino sleeps cold coat lined with the money section. Looking like a a record cover from 1971". (with an obvious reference to Aqualung) or 'A Small Cigar' (Nightcap): "By the tube station, there's a drunk old fool who sells papers in the rush hour. I hand to him ten small cigars. He smiles, says, 'Son, God bless you' ", or 'Baker St Muse' (Minstrel In The Gallery): "And there sits she no bed, no bread, no butter on a double yellow line where she can park anytime".

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My guess is that Ian, being an artist, feels somehow connected with these unfortunate vagabonds. Artists too don't fit into the oppressive moulds of society, the difference with the homeless being that the artist has found a way to articulate and communicate his thoughts and feelings and therefore rises 'above' society, instead of dropping down and out. But even then, in everyday life the artist feels the pain of rejection and misunderstanding. Ian refers to this in a lot of songs, especially in the early years, e.g. inWind Up: "I didn't mind (...) if they said I was a fool", in Singing All Day: "Nothing to see but the crowd keep a-staring at me", in Thick As A Brick and most of all in Just Trying To Be.

I think this theme in Ian's work, i.e.the dropout or artist versus society is even broader: it's the individual vs.the masses, i.e. society, organized religion, the government or other institutions. Think of Thick As A Brick, Farm On The Freeway, Working John, Working Joe, et cetera. In many songs Ian seems to take sides for the individual, artist, thinker, working man, or at least show empathy in observing their struggle. This is also the battle of individuality, creativity and independence against the faceless, nameless but ever present Big Brother. Ian's scepticism towards politicians (as representatives of the powers that be) is eminent in a number of songs ("don't ask me to the party, won't be around").

In respect to the critique towards organized religion I feel that the 1971 album Aqualung is linked to the 1995 album Roots To Branches, especially the title song . Another aspect of Aqualung as an album is that it is part of a series of rather 'London' based albums, with references to Hampstead, Highgate, Picadilly Circus, Baker Street.
Later began a series of albums of the woods and countryside. Personally, I wouldn't say there is a 'chasm' between the acoustic and the electric 'rock' side of the music, as Jan states on his Annotations. On the contrary, I'd say one of Tull's most striking features is the 'integration' of acoustic music (on flute, mandolin, and so on) with heavy rock. Martin is - apart from being a great soloist - also a master of the heavy riff and well-placed power chord. In my opinion, this 'integration' goes for every Tull album, from the very beginning right to Roots To Branches. To me, this aspect is one of the many things that make Jethro Tull so interesting and outstanding, both on their studio albums and live on stage.
* Jeroen Louis

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Jan Voorbij (1998-2009)