~ Thick As A Brick ~



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 needs.

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'.

"I've come down from the upperclass to mend your rotten ways"
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 Steve Gugerty)



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 1999.

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Part 1

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.

Really 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 a brick.

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 for that.'

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.

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Part 2

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 wonderfully.):

Spin me back down the years and the days of my youth.
Draw the lace and black curtains and shut out the whole truth.

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 life's competition:

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 society.

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Part 3

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 sea.

The do-er and the thinker: no allowance for the other
as the failing light illuminates the mercenary's creed.

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.

And the poet lifts his pen while the soldier sheaths his sword.
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.

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 sea:
the builder of the castles renews the age-old purpose
and contemplates the milking girl whose offer is his need.

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.

And the 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 capabilities.

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.

" the sun plays on the infantry returning from the sea....."
" the failing light illuminates the mercenary's creed....."
"...but the master of the house is far away...."
"...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.

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Part 4

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 done?

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 Paul 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.

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The "Thick As A Brick" tour programme with guest Tir Na Nog (1972).
By kind permission of Pete McHugh
(Electrocutas - The Jethro Tull Archive).


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Jan Voorbij (1998-2009)