An introduction to "Thick
As A Brick"
With 'Thick As A Brick' Jethro Tull in
1972 released their first true concept album. It
consists of a whole of several varying pieces of
music, linked to each other with practically no
intervals. Some of the musical themes are repeated in
a different setting. Different musical approaches are
combined: folk, rock, jazz and classical elements.
The lyrics consist of one long poem,
written by fictitious child prodigy Gerald Bostock,
who shares his socalled views on society with us.
When looking more closely at the lyrics eleven
differents 'acts' or parts can be distinguished, or,
as Paul Tarvydas has put it "a series of
vignettes which swirl about a central theme". It
is the music itself that connects these acts. (On 'A
Passion Play' it's just the other way around: on this
album the story is the connecting factor, not the
music!). The main themes are an elaboration and
further exploration of the themes in 'Aqualung', as
we will see below. The central theme of the album
however is: a description of how society stifles
individuality and pigeon-holes people to suit its own
In spite of the fact that the lyrics
were heavily criticized by the press, the album made
the band very popular in Europe and America and is
even by 'adversaries' considered as 'a classic case'.
come down from the upperclass to mend your rotten
Picture taken during the US leg of the Thick As A
Brick tour in 1972, probably during the concert at
the LA Forum, June 23 or 24.
(Original source unknown; digitally remastered by
On the album Ian's creativity is
abundantly present. It is almost possible to 'see'
him at work in his associative way of imaging ideas,
that subsequently call up new images and how this all
finally materializes in his poetic language.
Interpreting the album therefore is hazardous. Just
analyzing it by a cognitive approach will only bring
up a very limited interpretation. To understand it
better one will have to make use of a more
associative/imaginative way of reading and thinking.
Reading the lyrics than really becomes challenging
and great fun. Like Paul Tarvydas I do not claim to
know it all - far from it. But we both hope that our
views on these beautiful lyrics - that btw do not
contain any factual information - will eventually
lead to a new or heightened sense of meaning. Have
fun reading and bear in mind the advise of the
jester: "Think for yourselves!".
* Jan Voorbij
The expression 'Thick as a
Brick' means not very smart, dumb or in some
cases apathetic, numb. Here are Ian's own words on
the subject, from a US radio show: Ian Anderson,
23/12/91: 'In The Studio - Thick As A Brick':
"'Thick as brick'; it really is a slang
phrase from the north of England, where I spent my
(well, some of my) growing-up years. To
describe someone as being 'as thick as a brick' meant
to describe them as being stupid, basically.
You know, to be 'thick', as in 'thick-headed'; thick
as a 'brick' being a small, dense object. So I
was really talking about people being intellectually
incapable of absorbing whatever it might have been
put across in those slightly spoofish, bombastic
terms in the lyrics of the album."
* Neil R. Thomason, Scc Vol. 10, Iss. 2, January
is an introductory to the album and describes the
nucleus of the problem. Ian poses himself like some
kind of court jester and starts his criticizing right
off with an insult, intended for a wider audience -
for all of society's leaders, elders and parents.
don't mind if you sit this one out.
My words but a whisper your deafness a SHOUT.
I may make you feel but I can't make you think.
Your sperm's in the gutter your love's in the sink.
So you ride yourselves over the fields and
you make all your animal deals and
your wise men don't know how it feels to be thick as
Right off the bat, Ian dismisses the
whole bunch of them, presuming that they won't listen
to what he's got to say. But also the masses that are
so 'comfortably numb'. His voice, having an air of
self-righteousness is just one, pitted against many.
He says:'You (modern western society) are driven by
lust and greed. The only way I can make an impression
on you is to appeal to your basic senses. Your morals
have sunk to the lowest point possible and your
ability to think and to love has disappeared. You
move through life without stopping to think, no
better than mere animals. (The animal deals might
refer to his feelings regarding American society-
JV.) Those "wise men" you worship aren't so
wise and all-knowing. Just to prove it, here's a
question which they can't possibly answer - what does
it feel like to be stupid? I.e. don't let others do
the thinking for you. You are yourself responsible
And the sand-castle virtues
are all swept away
in the tidal destruction the moral melee.
The elastic retreat rings the close of play
as the last wave uncovers the newfangled way.
But your new shoes are worn at the heels
and your suntan does rapidly peel
and your wise men don't know how it feels
to be thick as a brick.
In this metaphor Ian describes society's
fickle virtues and morals by likening them to
sand-castles. They easily crumble whenever a new fad
(wave) hits. As each wave recedes in elastic-band
fashion, nothing of the old fad is left in its wake
(the close of the play) and a completely new moral
fad is rebuilt. An irony is revealed to the listener
- we, the listeners, know that waves repeat and knock
down every sandcastle which is built. The subjects of
this song - the elders, the unthinking public - just
don't see this irony. Note the usual craftsmanship in
Ian's choice of words: the word "elastic"
describes the motion of the waves, yet at the same
time alludes to the malleable (plastic/elastic)
nature of fickle morals and religious beliefs. We
also observe the first sighting of the concept of
"The Play", a theme which Ian develops in
later on 'A Passion Play', 'War Child' and 'Minstrel
In The Gallery'. Whatever is shiny and new (i.e. a
new moral/religious fad) quickly becomes dull and
worn, just like a suntan which looks good on you, but
only for a short while. The new shoes refer to new
yet fickle ideas and beliefs people are apt to base
their life on. Then, at the closing of this act, a
warning: don't let your wise men do the thinking for
you, they can't know everything. Think for yourself.
Be independent in your analysis of the world, your
religious beliefs and morals.
Ian criticizes the quality of what modern western
society imparts to its young, the one-sidedness of
education that aims only at implanting morals,
behaviour and capabilities that are needed to keep
the society's system going.
And the love that I feel is
so far away:
I'm a bad dream that I just had today
and you shake your head and
say it's a shame.
The perspective changes in this act: the
subject here is a youngster, who has succumbed to
integration into society. They've managed to
brain-wash him. He used to feel " love",
but he's rid himself of any sense of conscience. The
sense of loss of his own individual identity troubles
him and he complains about it, but those around him
say "that's too bad, but don't worry about
it". In spite of these reassurances he decides
to dig down in his past to see how he has managed to
lose his conscience. This self-examination makes
clear it happened when he was still a child: he was
not allowed to look at reality and to form his own
opinions of it, nor was he encouraged to develop his
own personal qualities. (The atmosphere of the music
supports this search and reliving his past
Spin me back down the years
and the days of my youth.
Draw the lace and black curtains and shut out the
Spin me down the long ages: let them sing the song.
The youngster has spotted himself, right
at the beginning of his own life. He is following his
own life-line to see where he became brain-washed.
Right from the beginning, society imprints him as
being a "man", a son who will stand up in
See there! A son is born
and we pronounce him fit to fight.
There are black-heads on his shoulders, and he pees
himself in the night.
We'll make a man of him, put him to trade
teach him to play Monopoly and to sing in the rain.
He hasn't even made it through puberty
yet: he still pees himself like a child, but he is
getting zits like a teenager. This verse contains a
summing-up of what society wants him to be: he must
become a "man", he must be put to useful
work, he must learn to play at Business (Monopoly)
and he must love all of the things which define the
current culture (Monopoly, the game, Hollywood-films
("Singing in the Rain"?), etc) and - on top
of that - feel happy with it! It becomes clear to
this youngster that he thus is corrupted, urged as he
was to trade his own individuality for adjustment to
We now enter the most complex part of the album,
lyrically speaking. Here, the same subject is
discussed, but from a different angle. What has our
youngster actually done to assert his independence?
Did he ever try? Let's see...
The Poet and the Painter
casting shadows on the water
as the sun plays on the infantry returning from the
The do-er and the thinker: no allowance for the other
as the failing light illuminates the mercenary's
Once again Ian uses the image of water
(sea/waves) as a symbol of new fads, fickle trends in
society and its culture. Imagine: it is sunset at the
"beach", the latest moral sandcastle has
just been swept away and a new one is about to
arrive. The Poet and the Painter - the embodiment of
thinking, caring people - are there contemplating,
ready to comment and keep people alert by means of
their arts. However their influence on the masses is
very limited, as we see the infantry, the mercenary's
creed return, gloriously illuminated by the setting
sun. It seems their sandcastle-morals once swept away
are 'en vogue' again as they 'are returning from the
sea'. Society seems not to be able to make allowance
for both, do-er's and thinkers. In the end, only one
wins out, and as the sun sets and the dark night
approaches (!), we see that the victor is the
Mercenary (the do'er) - the Mercenary's, not the
Thinker's, the Artist's creed is illuminated for all
to see and to follow.
The home fire burning: the
kettle almost boiling
but the master of the house is far away.
The horses stamping , their warm breath clouding
in the sharp and frosty morning of the day.
Life goes on. The Master, father, who
should be at home tending matters - doing the
thinking and teaching - has gone off somewhere, now
when he is needed so badly. Likely, he's gone off to
war, taking his responsibilities like an upstanding
citizen. Metaphorically, the youngster is reaching
the stage of being able to think for himself - the
home fire is burning: the child's mind is almost
ready (boiling with ideas and plans for the future).
He feels his growing mental power and wants to put it
to effect. The vacuum that stems from the abscence of
his father urges him to undertake action. Like a
stamping horse that wants to go at work he is
impatient, eager to start fulfilling plans and
realizing ideas and 'moves with authority'. He lacks
the mental support of an experienced person like his
father. Yet, the father, the one who should be
teaching the child to stand on his own, who should be
stirring the pot and making sure that it cooks
evenly, is effectively missing. If not physically,
then he's mentally missing. The father has been
feeding dogma to the child in his early youth but now
the nature of his questions on life have changed, it
becomes clear to him that his father never challenged
him to think for himself.
poet lifts his pen while the soldier sheaths his
And the youngest of the family is moving with
Building castles by the sea, he dares the tardy tide
to wash them all aside.
The youngster becomes aware of the fact
that he can basically choose from two role-models:
living his life like a poet or like a soldier (as his
father does). Which one will he choose? He is trying
out and thinking through a number of moral/religious
issues, thus developing his own identity. Being
young, he still thinks that he can beat the system by
setting his own standards ('building castles') and
repeatedly challenges the tide (of society) to break
down his strong will.
The cattle quietly grazing at the
grass down by the river
where the swelling mountain water moves onward to the
the builder of the castles
renews the age-old purpose
and contemplates the milking girl whose offer is his
While life goes on our youngster becomes
a full-grown man (succumbs to lust from time to time)
and since the castles he built were all swept away,
he tackles his uncertainty by chosing to be a man
like the soldier: identifying with society (renewing
the age-old purpose), becoming part of the system,
banning the poet out....
The young men of the household have
all gone into service
and are not to be expected for a year.
The innocent young master -
thoughts moving ever faster -
has formed the plan to change the man he seems.
He could - as we saw before - not turn
to his absent father for support, nor to his peers,
as the newest recruits to Society have all been
shipped off to do Society's bidding. These are the
choices which the child has. Use the pen and the mind
or use the sword and brawn.
And the poet sheaths his
pen while the soldier lifts his sword.
A dramatic moment in the story: the
choice is made. Due to isolation and uncertainty he
sees no other way-out than choosing for the sword and
the brawn. The poet in him is dismissed, the soldier
in him is the victorious one. And now that he finally
made up his mind he is determinded to maintain the
position he acquired while his father was absent. His
hands are firmed by his choice so strongly, that when
his father returns he battles him with his own arms:
sword and brawn and chases him away.
oldest of the family is moving with authority.
Coming from across the sea, he challenges the son who
puts him to the run.
So, at the closing of this part we see
our youngster leaving the battle as a winner. But it
is a Pyrrhic victory. He succeeded in maintaining his
position, is fully aware of his power and abilities,
but had to make choices that alienated him from his
own individual identity and creative, caring
I finally want to make a comment on the
imagery Ian uses in this part of the poem that
escaped other reviewers' notice thusfar. Apart from
the metaphores he uses there is another layer, or
maybe two: firstly, the images concerning the
infantry, secondly: the rural setting of the story.
"...as the sun plays on the
infantry returning from the sea....."
"...as the failing light illuminates the
"...but the master of the house is far
"...Coming from across the sea ......"
What we see here is that Ian appeals to
what I would like to call a historical notion, very
familiar to the people of Great Britain: warfare
abroad and the turmoil that is the result of it. For
over a thousand years young able men were drafted for
all kinds of military expeditions ("...The young
men of the household have all gone into service and
are not to be expected for a year...."), e.g.
the Crusades, the war(s) with France (1350-1450), the
naval expeditions in the Elizabethan era, the
colonization of large parts of the world, esp. in the
18th and 19th century, the First and Second World
War, the post-colonial wars etc. This often led to
social ("...but the master of the house is far
away....") and severe economical problems, one
of them being the re-integration in society of "
...the infantry returning from the sea....."
(Ian will apply this image once more in 'Queen And
Country' on the 'Warchild' album). In the context of
the albums to follow it is interesting to notice that
this whole part of the poem is placed in a rural
setting. Especcially on 'Songs From The Wood' and
'Heavy Horses' we see that rural life is depicted as
simple but harmonious, happy in a modest way.
In the line of the Renaissance playwrights, Ian
inserts an intermezzo in which he asks the listener
c.q. spectator to take a stand and develop his own
point of view. It seems as if Ian asks us: now that
you have heard the story so far, what would you have
What do you do when
the old man's gone - do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song.
Do you want to free him?
No one to help you get up steam
and the whirlpool turns you `way off-beam.
When it's your turn to take
responsibility, do you fall back on tradition and
repeat the mistakes of the past? Do you try to think
for yourself? Or, do you rely on others to help you
think? If so, you'll become brainwashed with the rest
of the masses (the whirlpool which sucks you down to
the lowest moral level) and you'll fall off of the
beam. The balance beam - life is a balancing act, if
you let greed and lust get the better of you, you'll
lose that balance. (Click for continuation).
* Jan Voorbij
My annotations are based on the
essay "Thick As A Brick, lyric analysis" by
Tarvydas (1997). You will find the
full unmodified text of his essay on Doug Smart's
site 'Thick As A
Brick'. I used the results of my own
research, added acquired insights, information I took
from interviews, comments of Neil Thomason and John
Benninghouse and elaborated Paul's essay. Without his
pioneering effort, this would not have been possible.