~ "Jethro Tull, Progressive Rock 

and Thematic Approach" ~

By Dave Morris

University of Rochester, Spring 2000

Click to see the full front page of the paper

Jethro Tull began their recording career in 1968 with their album This Was and have released a wealth of material since, including 19 studio albums, 2 live albums, and 9 albums of an “anthology nature.” Beginning as a band that sought to utilize Black American Blues to build a British brand of blues-based rock, Jethro Tull strayed from the blues and into the area of quasi-Progressive Rock. Of Jethro Tull’s departure from Rolling Stone-type blues-based rock, Ian Anderson said, “When we started out we thought the Rolling Stones were fantastic, but soon decided there was no point in being another Rolling Stones. We didn't suffer from that Eric Burdon complex of wishing we were black. Sooner or later you have to own up to the fact you are Whitey and have to play white music” (Welch). They have continued to record and experiment with blues, classical, jazz, and electronic idioms over three decades and into today.

Although they have been widely recognized, even by the band themselves, as a member of the Progressive Rock Movement, Jethro Tull can be set apart from the staple bands of the prog canon such as Genesis, Yes, ELP, and King Crimson. Tull differs from these bands in several ways, including their use of deep thematic material in lyrics and album art. While the music of Jethro Tull has many counter-cultural themes in common with other Progressive Rock bands, the band chose to focus on different areas of those themes and use different methods of exploring those themes. Through a deep exploration of the thematic and musical material in the 1972 album Thick as a Brick, I plan to show that Jethro Tull’s approach to the illustration of themes in albums was different than the approach of other Progressive Rock bands. Ultimately it is difficult to find many similarities between any of these bands; they all have their unique sound and approach. Jethro Tull just may be “more unique”--or at the least, unique on different grounds--than the others.

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Jethro Tull’s 1972 album Thick as a Brick, on musical, lyrical, and visually artistic levels, is among the most complex concept albums ever made, featuring an album-long song full of stylistic changes and a full-length, mock small town newspaper as a record jacket. On the interview track of the 1998 remastered Thick as a Brick, Ian Anderson said that the goal of Thick as a Brick was to “come up with something that is the mother of all concept albums, and is really a mind-boggler in terms of what was then relatively complex music, and also lyrically was complex, confusing, and above all, a bit of a spoof. It was, quite deliberately, but in a nice way, tongue-in-cheek, and meant to send ourselves, the audience, and the music critics, perhaps, though not necessarily in that order, a bit of a message.” It is somewhat difficult to define exactly what the “concept” of Thick as a Brick is; it is not an attack on the evils of capitalistic society like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, nor is it an exploration of artistic awakening and the role of the artist in society, like The Who’s Tommy. It can be seen more as an artistic attack on nearly everything in mainstream society, including attitudes toward children, art, war, and general materialism. “Thick as a brick” is an English colloquialism meaning, roughly, “full of shit.” The concept album being titled Thick as a Brick is not only indicative of the album’s assertion that mainstream society is “full of shit,” but the critiques found in the album as well.
While the newspaper artwork--it is titled “The St. Cleve Chronicle”-- features many allusions to the lyrics of the song, the allusions are mostly of a tangential nature. For example, there is a short article in the newspaper entitled “Sand-Castle Man Calls It a Day;” the article describes a man who wins contests for sand-castles he builds on the beaches of England. Sand-castles are mentioned twice in the lyrics of Thick as a Brick. The first is in the couplet:

“and the sand-castle virtues are all swept away 
in the tidal destruction, the moral melee” 
the second is later on in part one:

“And the youngest of the family 
is moving with authority.
Building castles by the sea, 
he dares the tardy tide
to wash them all aside.”

No matter how hard interpretation is stretched, it is difficult to connect “Sand- Castle Man Calls It a Day” and the references to sand castles in the lyrics in any way, other than the word “sand-castle.” This is just an example of tangential allusions; there are many others.
Although parts of the newspaper do relate to the music, an in-depth exploration of the newspaper as a separate work of art is possible. The main “headline”--and connection to the music--of “The St. Cleve Chronicle and Linwell Advertiser” revolves around an eight-year-old boy named Gerald Bostock and his “epic poem” “Thick as a Brick.” Gerald’s poem had won a literary contest for children sponsored by “The Society for Literary Advancement and Gestation (SLAG).” However, when he read “Thick as a Brick” on BBC television, “four leading child psychiatrists” said that “the boy’s mind was seriously unbalanced and that his work was a product of an ‘extremely unwholesome attitude towards life, his God, and country.’” On the basis of the psychiatrists’ statement, judges disqualified Gerald and gave the grand prize to runner-up “Mary Whiteyard (age 12) for her essay on Christian Ethics entitled ‘He died to save the little children.’” There follows an entire article about Gerald “Little Milton” Bostock, but the opening two paragraphs are enough for pages of analysis. 

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The first and most obvious is the acronym of the Society for Literary Advancement and Gestation: SLAG. “SLAG” implies waste and garbage, as though the society whose purpose is to promote literary achievement in children is in fact “advancing” garbage; this can be seen as a criticism of mainstream society, for it suggests that societies like “SLAG,” which are seen as highly sophisticated products of intelligent thought meant to promote intelligent thought, are actually “thick as a brick.” 
Another relatively obvious joke in the first two paragraphs is Gerald’s prize being stripped and instead awarded to an essay entitled “He Died to Save the Little Children.” The society went from awarding its highest praise to “a product of an extremely unwholesome attitude toward life, God, and country” to an essay on Christian ethics. The teachings of Christ, as seen by a member of the counter-culture in general and by Ian Anderson, a man responsible for the anti-organized religion Aqualung, specifically, are at the very top of values held by “the establishment.” SLAG awarding the prize to Mary Whiteyard is evidence of an agenda; though Gerald’s poem is obviously the product of an incredibly talented poetic mind, the poem and the poet do not promote the right values.

Something a little more insidious is hiding in the story of Gerald’s disqualification. The judges of the literary contest initially awarded first prize to Gerald’s poem, and, by doing so, they did the job of “SLAG:” they promoted the advancement and gestation of literature by recognizing an incredible poetic talent in Gerald. It was only when the judges “accepted the decision of four leading child psychiatrists” that they decided that Gerald’s poem was not fit for the award and instead awarded the prize to a girl who’s mental stability certainly would not be questioned; after all, she had towed the line of the establishment. These judges had betrayed their own artistic integrity by allowing themselves to be swayed by four experts--not in literature, but in psychiatry--in to disqualifying the poem they had initially preferred. Their decision to promote counter-cultural leanings was called, and so they reversed it. The implication is that the judges know full well that Gerald is a talent and not at all “unbalanced,” but are willing to accept that he is in order to satisfy the mainstream of the society to which they belong; in other words, they are willing to “sell out.”

The implication of the whole Gerald story is that children who think independently are somehow punished, or at least seen as “unbalanced.” The front page of “The St. Cleve Chronicle” features two more small pieces about young Gerald. The first is headlined “G--R,” and is a story of Gerald using an obscenity in an interview on BBC after he had read his poem. The article quotes “The Producer of ‘Young Arts’ Michael Fenwick” as having said, “We have come to expect that sort of language from adults on television these days, but to hear it from a child of eight is particularly depressing. When I was his age, I did not even know what g--r meant.” Aside from the joke that there is no obscenity (that I know of) starting with “g” and ending in “r,” the story also asks one question: if adults can say g--r on television, why can’t Gerald? “Because he is a child” is the obvious answer, but the article questions whether or not that idea really holds any weight. Gerald is a particularly intelligent child; why shouldn’t he be treated the same way as an adult of similar intelligence?

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The last article concerning the story of Gerald is headlined “Little Milton in School-Girl Pregnancy Row.” Gerald is accused by his friend, fourteen-year-old Julia Fealey, of being the father of the child she is now carrying. (Incidentally, Julia is the young girl pictured on the cover who is subtly lifting her skirt.) The story has three important points: the first is that Julia’s doctor does not consider making Gerald take a medical test, “since the girl was obviously lying to protect the real father;” the second is that Julia, “in her state of anxiety, showed no sign of changing her story;” the third is that Gerald’s mother says Julia “has always been jealous of my Gerald.” Of course, it’s rather preposterous that an eight-year-old boy could father a child. However, it is not even considered because, after all, he’s just a child. Julia’s showing “no signs of changing her story” suggests--albeit rather ambiguously--that perhaps she is telling the truth. However, this medical test won’t be given, and instead the story is passed off as “jealousy” by Gerald’s mother. The point is simply that, once again, Gerald is being dismissed as too young to think a certain way or have done something.

The main story is mainly an objection toward mainstream society’s treatment of children, a theme also dealt with by Pink Floyd in The Wall. As far as Thick as a Brick goes, this “mistreatment of children” theme is not limited to the artwork but is also touched on many times throughout the songs; I will go into detail about that later. Though Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull are very serious about their objections, they make them in a much more tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic manner that is full of a slight undercurrent of bitterness. Pink Floyd’s The Wall, on the other hand, is angry, sad, and above-all, not a joke. Jethro Tull’s approach, apparently, is to make people laugh as they think.
This desire to make an audience think is common to all Progressive Rock groups; their long, multi-part songs and conceptual artwork and lyrics are evidence of as much. Where Jethro Tull differs is the directness with which they attack what they see as foolishness in mainstream society. Other bands choose far less direct methods; Genesis and Yes chose to incorporate odd and surrealistic album artwork to illustrate some point, such as whatever they were trying to illustrate with the artwork of Close to the Edge and Foxtrot. Jethro Tull does not employ surrealism; rather, they come right out and accuse mainstream society of being “thick as a brick” and tell a funny story driving home the point. It may not force an audience to think quite as hard; however, it leaves room for personal interpretation without risking total and complete misinterpretation, like the fox-woman on the cover of Foxtrot might do.

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Musically and lyrically, Thick as a Brick takes old literary, classical and pop conventions and distorts them into a virtually unrecognizable form. The lyrics are frequently referred to as an “epic” poem; Gerald was disqualified “after the reading of his epic poem.” The definition of an epic is “An extended narrative poem celebrating the feats of a legendary or traditional hero,” or something along those lines. Epic can also be used to describe a work that tells a grand story along the lines of Beowulf or Milton’s Paradise Lost; for instance, Genesis’s pieces “The Knife” and “Supper’s Ready” could be described as “epic,” for they tell grand stories of battles and revolutions. However, Thick as a Brick tells no one story, has no specific hero, and does not revolve around any “legend.” The only real qualification it shares with an epic is that it is long. The misnomer “epic” can be seen one of two ways: The first, most likely, and less interesting explanation is that Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull were simply misinformed about what constitutes an “epic.” The other explanation is that Tull decided to defy the conventional epic. The poem dealt with grandiose themes such as the evil of conventional mores, why shouldn’t it be titled an epic? Another possible explanation is that they deliberately set out to put a false label on the poem; to call it “an epic” would be “thick as a brick.” At any rate, there is some convention being defied here, whether it be unintentional, serious, or self-mocking. Unlike other Progressive bands such as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer or Genesis, Jethro Tull does not even bother making their “epic” even remotely epic; this differs from, for instance, Genesis, who at least attempted to put battles and other epic conventions in their epic songs.

The lyrics and music relate in many ways and at many points to the album artwork. Most of the lyrics are rather “mind-boggling,” and so I shall attempt to elucidate some of the less cumbersome passages. “Thick as a Brick edit one” (track 1 0:00-3:00) immediately establishes the theme of the album. The first line, “really don’t mind if you sit this one out,” suggests that what is to follow will be, like all of the things the song is poking fun at, “thick as a brick.” The following couplet--“My words but a whisper--your deafness a SHOUT”--imply that the message will not get through to those for which it is meant because their “deafness is too loud,” or that they have trained themselves not to hear a message. The lyrics following contribute more to the “thick as a brick” theme, suggesting that what is on the surface is not to be trusted: “But your new shoes are worn at the heel / and your sun tan does rapidly peel / and your wise men don’t know how it feels / to be thick as a brick.” Surface flash--a sun tan, a pair of new shoes--fade away, and underneath is a more ugly reality. The same can be said of the lyrics and music; underneath this complexity and cleverness is a message relatively simple and straightforward. During edit one, the music is also “thick as a brick.” The guitar plays a relatively simple repeating pattern in modal F. The flute melody is extremely “hummable” and really quite silly; it is reminiscent of the sort of music played during a particularly silly, tongue-in-cheek moment of a television show like Star Trek. It is almost a musical joke; to take it seriously is laughable. The music and lyrics here pretty much sum up “The St. Cleve Chronicle.” For instance, the entire way in which Gerald’s situation was handled (as discussed above) is “thick as a brick;” when Gerald tried to write about the “unwholesome” ends of “life, his God, and country,” he was punished and the prize was awarded to the girl who wrote about the decency of Christian Ethics.
Edit two of Thick as a Brick (3:00-5:00) more directly addresses the theme of mistreatment of children. The opening stanza of this section is:

“See there! a son is born
and we pronounce him fit to fight.
There are blackheads on his shoulders 
and he pees himself in the night.
We’ll make a man of him; 
put him to a trade
teach him to play monopoly
and how to sing in the rain.”

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Upon being born, the child is pronounced “fit to fight.” However, it is obvious that this child is not at all “fit to fight,” as there are “blackheads on his shoulders and he pees himself in the night.” The parents are determined, however, to “make a man of him.” “Fit to fight” does not have to be taken literally; it can mean that the child is simply expected to fit into the “fight” of everyday life in normal society. However, some children, despite the best efforts of those raising them to follow the path of the mainstream, march to the beat of a different drummer. Instead of being tolerated and encouraged for then talents they have, they, like Gerald Bostock, are declared “unbalanced.” The statement of these lyrics and the Gerald Bostock story is that society should be encouraging, not punishing, independent thought, for to punish it is as ridiculous as it is to expect a child who “pees himself in the night” to “fight.” The music in this edit is hard, driving, and a little angry. The guitar is heavy, distorted, and playing a repeating 5/4 pattern. The sound is what Edward Macan in his book Rocking The Classics would call “masculine,” and what could be referred to as “unnatural.” This “unnatural” music reinforces the negative connotation of the treatment of this child. The music is angry, and expressing anger over the unreasonable demand put on the child in question.

In part two of Thick as a Brick from 2:55-4:00, the music is not angry but incredibly chaotic. A frantic drum solos dissolves into what sounds like musical chaos; the music disintegrates into a crazy “non-melody” with no discernible rhythm or meter. The music is reminiscent of some of the crazier sections of continuous harmony in certain pieces by The Soft Machine. Over this insane backdrop comes the mumbling voice of bass player Jeffrey Hammond, saying several nonsequiteur statements, including “We will be geared toward the average rather than the exceptional.” This one statement drives home the theme of the Gerald story once again; the average--Mary Whiteyard’s essay “He Died to Save the Little Children”--wins over Gerald’s exceptional poem “Thick as a Brick.” The insane music helps back up the idea that it is insane to be “geared toward the average rather than the exceptional;” the suggestion is that the exceptional should be recognized and encouraged, not encouraged to become “average.” 

Like other works of Progressive Rock, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick attacked aspects of “the establishment” through album artwork and music. There are differences, however. Once again, Tull’s method is much more direct in the music as well as in the lyrics. According to an interpretation by Macan in Rocking the Classics (see Macan pp. 87-95), Emerson, Lake, and Palmer put together a piece of music-- “Tarkus”-- that attempted to illustrate the possible dangerous effects of technological development. It did so, according to Macan’s interpretation, by contrasting musically “chaotic,” or “unnatural” parts that represented the Tarkus beast versus aspects of the natural, such as “the manticore.” It is difficult, however, to arrive at this interpretation without also viewing the paneled artwork of the album, which appears to show Tarkus in battle with several beasts and defeated by the only “natural” one, a Manticore. This interpretation of Macan’s makes sense; however, “Tarkus” is open to interpretation and a person could come to a much different conclusion than Macan’s. In Thick as a Brick, however, Jethro Tull appears to have been trying to be a little more direct. Though the way the music matches with the lyrics leaves a great deal of room for flexibility in interpretation, the artwork and words in general are fairly direct; this is obviously a joke, and it is obviously going to tell you that something is “thick as a brick.” It is up to the reader/listener to decide what is “thick as a brick,” and just how “thick” it is. This is a fundamental difference between the art of Jethro Tull and the staple prog bands (I do not include Pink Floyd; everything I have just said about the “directness” applies to The Wall); Jethro Tull seems much more anxious to get a point across, while the music of Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, and ELP is much more surreal and open to interpretation; “Tarkus” is one example of that surreal and open approach.

The question of whether Jethro Tull really fits into the Progressive Rock genre is a difficult one to answer. Ian Anderson once described the musical position of Jethro Tull in these words: “Stylistically, I've always said that we can't be a heavy riff group because Led Zeppelin are the best in the world. We can't be a blues-influenced r&b rock and roll group because the Stones are the best in the world. We can't be a slightly sort of airy-fairy mystical sci-fi synthesizing abstract freak-out group because Pink Floyd are the best in the world. And so what's left? And that's what we've always done. We've filled the gap” (Frith). And so maybe they have filled in the gap; did they share it with the other Progressive Rock bands? Perhaps, but they have seemed to fill a different part of that gap.

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Frith, Simon. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Squire.” Creem. June 1978: NP.

Jethro Tull. Thick as a Brick. Chrysalis, 1972.

Jethro Tull. Thick as a Brick (special edition remaster). Chrysalis, 1998.

Macan, Edward. Rocking the Classics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Welch, Chris. “In Search of the Pied Piper.”Melody Maker. 27 May 1978: NP.


I wrote this paper in my second year of undergraduate school as a project for a course called “Progressive Rock” at the University of Rochester, taught by Professor John J. Sheinbaum.

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