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Jethro Tull : Gutter Prose, 

Kitchen Rhymes, Art For Your Time

By Lawrence Moseley


Recently (November 2002) on the TalkTull Internet newsletter a question arose about art and poetry. Namely: is Jethro Tull art and are the lyrics of equal value to what is regarded as poetry of a high rating in terms of artistic depth? In this essay Lawrence Moseley explores the boundaries between art and popular culture and tries to answer the question where Tull should be positioned in this regard.

Poetical and lyrical technique is one subject from which I will eschew. That is best left for someone who knows more on that subject. I also do not purport any expertise or great understanding of the more esoteric nature of Ian Anderson and Tull lyrics; again that is someone else’s area. My appreciation is that of a plebeian nature with a fair experience of lyrics from the classical and rock fields. And the music. Mainly.

The question broadened as a question of this nature will do and it prompted these few thoughts from me, worth such as you may find.

Popular art is that which is designed to appeal to the lowest level of appreciation. It is easy to accept into the appropriate senses; it requires little work and is designed that way for fashion culture purposes. It was designed to be disposable. High art is not disposable, it is essential. It is worthy of preservation and continued evaluation. It’s origins are as varied as it’s results.

Results are the only defining criteria of art. Not in the intention, it may fail, nor effort at performance. Just the final product. Sketches of the Mona Lisa may be fascinating but then there is the finished work.

Usually Poetry has certain structures from haiku (5-7-5) to non-structured free form stream of consciousness. Lyric writing has certain structural constraints, particularly with the popular song. Is it defined by the medium? Give the e.g. ‘Journeyman’ lyric to someone at a school, and have it taught as poetry. Thus you have poetry. Sing it and you have a song. Read it and you have…what? Lyrics or a poem. It may not matter other than from the import obtained given from within the context it has been communicated. That is, heard or read?

Of course an expressive reading by the lyric’s author gives the listener a start at receiving impressions, but reading the lyric and ‘picturing’ in one’s mind may give another or further impressions. Or it may not. I say “it might” if it is artistic by result. There have been many lyrics on paper that look rather impoverished. Give them to a top singer and the presentation is given more significance than these words deserve superficially.

This is not the case with our ‘Journeyman’ example quoted in the original question. Check the lyrics out to see what I mean. Or listen to it. Or both. It is a song often regarded critically as a makeweight on the Heavy Horses album. True, it has some very hard competition on that album of rich musical and lyrical wealth. Too bad. Who loses? As a lyric it is, by itself, substantial. Who knows? Perhaps it’s ultimate function is to be as a poem.

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Giving a form of expression that originates from within popular culture an artistic merit is regarded as pretentious. This is usually if the artistic merit is intended by the originator. Perhaps the fan wanting the favoured piece to be so regarded may over reach the listener’s own ambitions to be an appreciator of something more meritorious than a mere song. Popular culture is supposed to be disposable. Or if it has not been disposed of, as so much has, then it is still pop. Mundanity just being kept alive by those fearing to venture further, not wanting to risk the validity of their youthful memories on something as harsh and unforgiving as change. Or the challenge of perceived cultural value.

Further ambitions by anyone of anything in this field of popular culture in terms of historic and significance are frowned on, oddly. Much in the same way as anything popular in the classical arts are frowned on by the guardians of the artistically meritorious. Whichever way this regard of artistic merit or otherwise of music and lyrics is directed we then have elitism.

Elitism is to me a necessary evil. There are many out there who seek your money. They manipulate a quasi-art form (e.g. popular music) and subject the process to a marketing analysis and demographic consensus. Thus we have age defined popular music, films and television. Good for whatever that’s worth. Many wish these forms to have greater significance. Yet these people often shy away from applying stringent criteria. Calculations are to be distrusted, chart is all. Possibly the hardest yet most manipulated criteria of all.

Today contemporary art must break these corporate barriers down, that is one objective of art. The more usual intention is to allow expression and impression in an audient / viewers mind on a level different to that of the mundane. Commerce is a function but not an artistic value. Beethoven has sold more units than Michael Jackson but is this relevant culturally? Usually this level is perceived as higher as though a more lofty parallel makes something ‘better’ by being higher. It is not but it should be deeper and broader. Perhaps higher, perhaps lower levels of appreciation. These levels are subjective and it is at this point we have elitism, accusations of pretension where some people regard an artistic venture as being over their heads.

Incidentally none of it is (over your heads, that is) but you may have to try harder to appreciate; the rewards are so much more substantial provided the artistic purpose succeeds with the audience. Results! Beware of those elitists who wish to impose this pretention, which is something has greater merit because they say so, find out for yourself. Conversely beware those who seek to warn you of the dangers of that which has merit as if that were a bad thing. They want to keep things on their perceived lower levels. It is so much easier to review that way…

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My concern with art is in the appreciated and maligned in equal proportions field of progressive rock. Maligned not so much for it’s intention to express music on a level taken away from it’s popular culture origins, but also to operate within the popular culture environment to express lofty ideals yet sell merchandise in the foyer. It is a contradiction apparently. Rock that seeks to be regarded that high art way? In a rock concert arena? No real reason why not. The performers have to both live and seek their audience.

If Ian Anderson chooses to perform flute concertos with the Royal Philharmonic (or any) Orchestra and also tour as leader of one of the longest lasting names in ‘disposable’ culture where do you put his poster on your bedroom wall? Obviously you don’t. Listen and dance. It is not difficult, not really, it may not be your flute of Château Lafitte, I mean cuppa char (best never to lose that common touch) but it is still just music. Progressive rock is just given more gravitas by some including me for it’s more substantial composition and performance difficulty than one of your 1000 songs to play with just three chords. Still do not forget those all-important results, listen to the music. The merits of popular culture are also timeless. Just not necessarily art, it has to break away from commercial culture. It can still be relevant in either idiom but the break is necessary.

In the 1950s a new teen idol was rejected because his devoted audience found out his age. He was Bill Haley and he was 29 years old. Never mind that these teenagers went wild over the song ‘Rock Around The Clock’ and knifed up cinema seats in joyous youthful expression. ‘Rock Around The Clock’ may not be art as such but it has a popular culture value equivalent to artistic values, as do many songs. Rock Around The Clock’ and others are just in a different arena of value yet no less culturally valid. They are appreciated for the same merits now as then. So, not art, not a problem at all. And that is also important if for no other reason than to avoid imposed elitism.

Popular music was a growing form and thirty years ago it did something like no other form of what was juvenile expression and grew up. It developed and retained it’s integrity. God almighty, rock has integrity!!! It grew up and before punk rock it grew to have ambitions, pretensions, hopes, dreams to be even high art. Of sorts. It progressed on many levels. Here is where the elitism comes in but in ways some may not expect beyond the normal over our heads variety. Elitism is understood usually to keep so-called lower mentalities away from the purity of an art form. It is unsullied by commerce etc. Which is a barrier itself and art must break these barriers assumed by it’s own guardians. So we grow up. Who wants to listen to their teeny bop music forever? Nostalgia is all very well, it seems as though everyone wants their nostalgia by this afternoon nowadays. But it is good to have something to look forward to as well as look back on. Never mind a release date, high art music transcends such trivia. It can be listened to and appreciated, or rejected on it’s own merits or lack thereof according to the listener. Imposing current (date) value only, on popular music, artistically oriented or otherwise, is also elitism. ‘Oh, that old stuff…’ as though music’s quality is defined by it’s years of existence.

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Another way to use elitism is to protect your money and mind from the manipulations of commercial art when the sole purpose of that commercial art is to make (take) money. That is also a purity of a sort. There is no pretension nor is there artistic purpose. It is the only sort of elitism I will heartily endorse. Caveat emptor folks, they just want your money and give you misplaced child hoods with a penny change.

When Damien Hurst had one of his exhibits thrown out of the Tate gallery by a cleaner who thought it was actual rubbish that was also a kind of purity. The woman had no idea it was serving a higher purpose and that was because it did not. Her totally non-biased approach to judgement, that is, she had no idea she was judging, served a great purpose nonetheless, it got rid of some rubbish.

Essentially art is expression that is born of an idea to express and then an application of learning, technique and work to ensure it’s purpose is allowed to happen. Let’s face it, anyone can have an unmade bed, some can have a flying bed and to others a bed is a source of income. The art here is that someone constructed a bed in the first place. Of course bed construction is not art, it is a craft and functional and therefore has another equally valid existence outside of the artistic world. Art is expression that must be non-utilitarian, (ref. Robert Fripp). Art must appeal to the mind via the particular instinct which defines it’s existence and purpose. It is not there to prop up tables, although I have more than a few paperbacks doing that. The paperback is not the art but the words therein. It is my shabby treatment of these words that could be open to criticism.

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Back to the point (at last!!): Ian Anderson is like us all, many things. We are concerned with his being a composer, lyricist and musician. He is an artist. You cannot use his output for anything other than a mental pursuit. Maybe dancing to ‘Aqualung’ but this is a cerebrally originated impulse anyway. He writes lyrics that also serve as poetry. ‘A Passion Play’ is hardly a song, is it? I’m not sure it even has a song in it. Forty odd minutes of multiple levels of expression. It would hardly need such in depth analysis as provided by the Ministry Of Information or of this Cup Of Wonder website if it were a Top Of The Pops type disposable effort. Same with ‘Thick As A Brick’, I read another analysis of that piece elsewhere on the Net, the analysis of this also paralleling the lyrics.

Are these two pretentious? Some critics thought so. Sometimes Ian Anderson thinks so of ‘A Passion Play’. I think so many critics found they were out of their depth. As a listener, so was I but I’m like millions of others, was prepared to listen to something and get the value intended in it’s expression out into my impressions. To be fair: these critics did have a deadline to meet. To these people evaluating music is a job and they want to enjoy the drugs and fashions of the current trends as much as their intended readership. It’s also easier to knock than even admit ignorance. Possibly challenged egos may have been busy resenting apparently high minded people like the writers in the musical collectives of Yes, Tull, Genesis and others presenting substantial works and they having not the foggiest of what was going on. While not all of these elitists, just the ones who did not want to think, yet harboured desires to impose their own thoughts with little consideration for the impact their ill considered opinions gave from the printed and purchased page.

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Listening to these eight or twenty to eighty minute length works was not easy for my once teenage ears. I was out of my depth. Excellent. Value for money. What does one do then? One learns to swim and then you can go with it. How much of a stretch is it to listen to a forty minute album of songs all the way through? Yet the same album length merely through a lack of track division lessens a continuous work apparently. The work that went into creating is reflected by the effort applied at benefiting from these efforts. The rest (critics) scrambled back to the shallow end of the pool where it was safer and they could stand easily. By not providing more thought these opinions did there best to constrict art and expression to enable their own meagre satisfaction stake a greater precedence. For whose benefit? The elitist critics of course. Those critics should have been fired should promoting musical value have been their publishers’ intentions. Regrettably it is not, merely the sale of space. It is not the negative review necessarily but the ill considered one that conforms to their own fashion fascism that irked many others and me.

Certainly ‘A Passion Play’ and ‘ThickAs A Brick’ and others had moved out of the oeuvre of contemporary youthful expression, assuming Ian Anderson and his cohorts were ever there in the first place; these two pieces are works, not ditties. For that matter so is say, The Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’. This classic song was just more direct in it’s time frame and did it’s job defined by it’s own boundaries. So did ‘A Passion Play’ and ‘Thick As A Brick’ achieve within their time frames. ‘Thick As A Brick’s time is admittedly rather elastic in performance these days.

Still Ian Anderson is not subjecting his work to a demographic analysis, otherwise he would not have challenged and indeed upset on occasion when the change was quite dramatic e.g. the sudden use of synthesizers. Although Ian has commented that his audience have certain expectations of a Jethro Tull release or performance. Give them what they want? He gives quite a lot of different performances and his audience appreciate his efforts, both as a solo act and as leader of Jethro Tull. Perhaps by expectations he meant the presence of Martin Barre. That is my (only) expectation. Mr. Barre is the essential difference between a Tull album and an Ian Anderson solo album in my opinion.

There are few such as Ian Anderson, he is a poet, author, composer. These are all writing modes. The art is not defined by it’s means but by it’s (non -utilitarian) results. Jethro Tull is a musical collective, artists using sonic forms to create. The studio used to preserve is their tool and gallery. The intention is to appeal to those senses within us that allows greater impression.

Often elitism is perceived as a mere sophistication of those senses. Sophistication is a result of growth in mind, elitism is an imposition, it does not allow growth. There must be some reason why e.g. Westlife are as popular as say, Tull and share equivalent CD storage space in retail shops. But we would never know why judging from how contemporary media report events. Chart number ones define popular art and it’s merits. Its only criteria beyond opinion. Personalities expressing disfavour or otherwise can make or break someone’s efforts. No one wants to be seen as being out of step. Elitism comes in funny guises.

So time will see. Which is probably not the point of pop and some rock, time should not see and therein lies the defining criteria between art and commerce masquerading as art. Who’s the pretentious one here? Is e.g. ABBA art for being a musical (‘Mama Mia’) and some songs containing (still) dance floor immediacy. There are just different levels of acceptability. No, such pop is there for it’s immediate appeal only but is still equally valid on very different areas. ‘A Passion Play’ in a disco? Like hell you bloody will…

Anyway they (‘A Passion Play’ and ‘Thick As A Brick’) have become art. Incidentally these are just my examples because of these pieces lengths alone. I do not mean these are the apexes of the Jethro Tull catalogue. Far from it, there is everything else as well. It’s just that these two annoyed the critics the most merely for being ‘involved.’ Or something.

Speaking of cultural values, Ian Anderson is not above using low forms. Some earthy lyrical matter on the Château D’Isaster tapes, (the initial tapes from which ‘A Passion Play’ was given a long and difficult birth and are available on ‘Nightcap’) to achieve high results: ‘A Passion Play’ in it’s finished and final artistic form. As we know it anyway.

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