Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
In 1971, Jethro Tull released their landmark album, Aqualung. The album became a major turning point for the band, kicking off a long career of critical and commercial success for the group. From the physicality of the title track’s opening riff to the cerebral musings on religion and urban decay – Aqualung charted its own path in rock history.
Jethro Tull was formed in 1967, in Blackpool, England. The band has had a varied line-up over the years, including in its earliest iterations. Singer and flautist Ian Anderson has been the consistent figure throughout all of these changes, as well as the primary songwriter. Like many of his peers in the 1960s, Anderson first picked up the guitar, imagining himself the next great guitar hero. However, when he started to hear players like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, he wanted to find something to set himself apart. He explained:
“I didn’t want to be just another third-rate guitar player who sounded like a bunch of other third-rate guitar players. I wanted to do something that was a bit more idiosyncratic, hence the switch to another instrument. When Jethro Tull began, I think I’d been playing the flute for about two weeks. It was a quick learning curve … literally every night I walked onstage was a flute lesson”
In many ways the flute in Jethro Tull bridges the gap between the band’s more acoustic, folk-influenced tracks and their harder rock. In Aqualung, Anderson’s idiosyncratic flute playing merged these two worlds, creating a unified album out of some admittedly very different sounding tracks. As one of the only rock bands to have a lead-flute player, Jethro Tull’s sound is always their own. Even after Aqualung, Jethro Tull continued to be known for their eclectic influences and have worked in a number of genres, but Anderson’s flute playing and instantly-recognizable voice have served as unifying elements, creating a style that is always, undeniably Tull.
While Anderson has repeatedly disregarded any attempts to call Aqualung a concept album, there are some clear themes to be found. The album’s second side, in particular, deals with topics related to organized religion and spirituality with tracks like “My God”, “Hymn 43”, and “Wind Up.” However, Anderson has made clear that the album is not anti-faith or spirituality: “My God’, the first track, isn’t a song against God, or against the idea of God, but it is against Gods and the hypocritical church of the Establishment; it’s a criticism of the God they choose to worship” The critique is articulated though the way the band takes acoustic, self-reflection, and couples it with a hard-rock, aggressive edge. “My God” even breaks into a flute solo over a section of a capella singing – imitating the early vocal music traditions of the Church.
“Wind-Up” is also particularly fascinating for the way it brings different sounds together. The song begins with a short piano vamp, followed by Anderson’s dry vocals, accompanied only by sparse strumming of an acoustic guitar. As the song progresses, the track adds depth, along with instrumentation. Martin Barre’s guitar and Clive Bunker’s heavy drums build alongside the intensity of Anderson’s voice. Interestingly, the lyrics simply repeat what Anderson had previously sung, so that the intensity of the critique of religious establishments comes through his performance, rather than a change in the lyrics. At the end of the 6 minute long tracky, the entire texture suddenly pulls back, and the song finishes again with single strums on an acoustic guitar and Anderson’s voice. The constant change in texture and depth is striking and adds to the poignancy of the song’s critique.
Other tracks on the second side are less explicitly dealing with religion, but still seem to have a spiritual element to them. Songs like “Slipstream” and “Locomotive Breath” take a very philosophical outlook on life, with several references to God or the bible. Locomotive Breath was the biggest hit from the album’s second side. It also takes a philosophical outlook on life. Anderson uses classic blue train imagery to write a song about concerns of overpopulation. Anderson explained: “It was my first song that was perhaps on a topic that would be a little more appropriate to today’s world. It was about the runaway train of population growth and capitalism, it was based on those sorts of unstoppable ideas. We’re on this crazy train, we can’t get off it. Where is it going?”
The song begins with John Evans playing an expressive, jazzy piano introduction. Martin Barre’s guitar enters to create a bluesy duet with Evans lasting a full minute and 20 seconds before the track breaks into the full band, and the train heads off the rails. Jeffrey Hammond’s bass and Clive Bunker’s drums drive the whole thing forward. Anderson’s flute solo in the middle brings another layer of maniacal chaos to the sound of a runaway train. Although it didn’t chart on its initial release in 1971, in 1976 it made it to the charts in both the US and Canada, and the song remains a Tull favorite to this day.
While the album’s B-side seems to have a running theme of religious and philosophical musings, the A-side is undeniably grounded in reality. The human experience is captured through both introspective tracks (like “Cheap Day Return” or “Wondrin’ Aloud”) as well as in hard-rocking songs (like “Aqualung”, and “Cross Eyed Mary”). “Cheap Day Return” is a personal look into a moment in Anderson’s own life. The title refers to an inexpensive single-day ticket in which you depart and return on the same day. In this acoustic, thoughtful song, Anderson sings about the experience of waiting for the return train home and reflecting on his visit with his ailing father. He sings: “And then you sadly wonder, does the nurse treat your old man the way she should?” Similarly, “Wondrin’ Aloud”, is another acoustic track in which the singer reflects on his life. The lyrics detail a day in the life of a couple and wonder if the years will treat them well.
“Mother Goose” stands as a rather unique song that brings together diverse sounds alongside fanciful lyrics. Most notable is the song’s use of recorders – a sound found on another famous 1971 track – Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” While both of these bands had a heavy rock side, England was in the midst of an electric folk music revival. Bands like Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin found themselves interested in the sounds of groups like Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention. To understand just how popular this electric-folk-rock sound was, keep in mind that Fairport Convention’s 1969 album Liege and Lief, hit number 17 on the UK Albums chart. The songs were mainly electric, rock arrangements of traditional folk tunes. When Jethro Tull picks up recorders, they are exploring this world, in a playful sonic experiment. Anderson recalls that they used “weird, genuine, Yamaha, plastic, school recorders” to record the track. He claims they were just “things we bought in the local school supply shop … little plastic-y things.”
The album’s title track, “Aqualung” opens the album, brilliantly bringing together the dichotomy of the different sounding songs on the album, all in one track. The lyrics describe the Aqualung character, sitting on a park bench, leering creepily at the school yard, while wiping the snot from his nose. Anderson co-wrote the song with his wife at the time,Jennie Anderson. The song’s topic was inspired by a photograph she had taken of a homeless man. 50 years later, Anderson looked back on the meaning of the song saying…
“It was the humanity and the sadness, the vulnerability of this person that made me say…’Let’s write a song about this character. Let’s imagine who he is. Whether he has a name. What does he do? Where does he live?’ But more importantly, it’s not just about him. It’s about our reaction to the homeless. Our feelings of compassion, of fear, of discomfort, of sometimes disdain.”
The character’s name comes from the sound of his rattling breathing (“And you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep-sea-diver sounds”) comparing the old man’s voice to the sound of an Aqualung – one of the first scuba devices. The sound of this character’s labored breathing becomes the central image of the song and the album, as the listeners are constantly confronted by his struggle. What makes the song so brilliant is how the music parallels the conflicted treatment of Aqualung in the lyrics. The electrified, heavy sounds heard in the track match the dark, threatening side of the man. And yet, there’s a sense of sympathy for him too. About a minute into the song, the song switches drastically, to an acoustic instrumentation as Anderson sings of the suffering of this homeless man on the cold London streets. The chorus lyrics are:
Sun streaking cold, an old man wandering lonely
Taking time the only way he knows
Leg hurting bad as he bends to pick a dog-end
He goes down to the bog and warms his feet
Feeling alone, the army’s up the road
Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea
Aqualung my friend, don’t you start away uneasy
You poor old sod, you see, it’s only me
Immediately following this pulled-back, acoustic chorus, Anderson breaks into an intense second verse, in which the electrified, full rock instrumentation works as a call and response with his vocal line, ending each phrase with an accented fill. From that moment, the verse breaks into a frenzied, runaway intensity. Jeffrey Hammond’s bass takes a starring role in the second verse. This bass line drives everything forward so that when the song continues into the second chorus (even with its more sympathetic lyrics) the band continues its phenomenal groove. This groove culminates in Martin Barre’s epic guitar solo, which Guitarist magazine named in their top 20 guitar solos of all time. Barre recounts recording the solo, just as Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin walked into the studio: “We’d locked ourselves away in the studio—us doing Aqualung, and them working on Led Zeppelin IV—and I hadn’t seen Jimmy Page at all. Finally, he walked into the control room to say hello, just as I was recording the solo to ‘Aqualung.’ Now, in those days, if you didn’t get a guitar solo in one or two takes, it might become a flute solo. It was, ‘Go in there and do it or else.’ And here was Jimmy waving like mad—‘Hey, Martin!’—and I’m thinking, ‘I can’t wave back, or I’m going to blow the solo!’” After Barre’s solo, the song returns to the acoustic instrumentation.
With all these changes, the listener is never quite sure what to expect. The instrumentation and texture is constantly changing, even on repeated sections like choruses. The one part that does stay the same is that iconic opening riff; in every iteration, it maintains a hardness and an edge to it. Anderson recalls coming up with the riff on an acoustic guitar, while sitting in a Hotel room in the United States on tour:
“I suppose inspired in a little way by the drama of Beethoven’s opening notes of the Fifth Symphony. You take a few notes and you come up with some motif, which is powerful, and it establishes the whole nature of the song. It’s a great trick when you can do it. Deep Purple did it with “Smoke on the Water.” Cream did it with “Sunshine of Your Love.” When you come up with one of those simple, magnificent riffs, it’s a great thing to own. It’s a fine jewel in the musical firmament.”
Aqualung’s riff opens the song and sets the level of intensity on high for the rest of the rock tracks on the album.
Aqualung was recorded in the Island Studios in London. The building had just been converted from an old church into a recording studio – a history that fittingly parallels the themes of the Aqualung album. While Anderson looks back on the studio space as challenging, the album’s engineer, John Burns remembers it more positively. He explained that he preferred the new Island Studio on Basing St to Morgan Studio where the band had recorded throughout 1969 and 1970:
“[Morgan] might have been the first to have 24-track but Island basically was much better with a much ‘live-er’ recording room. Morgan was [acoustically] a completely dead room and also Morgan had a Cadac desk that was not particularly to my liking whereas Basing St (Island studios) had a Helios desk which was very engineer friendly. Ian didn’t want to use any reverb on the Aqualung album and I had mixed Clouds there in Studio 2 and I loved the desk and liked the vibe at Island and that might have been why we went there.”
Most of the album was recorded in Studio 1. In terms of the Equipment used on the album, Burns recalls using an AKG D20 of D25 on the bassdrum and a D20 (or possibly Neumann U87s) on the toms. He also remembers an AKG 224E on the Snare, an AKG 451 on the hi-hat and two Neuman U87s on the overheads. For the amps, he says he likely would have an AKG D25 on the bass, a D20 close up on the guitar and probably a U87 about 40 centimeters away. The piano was likely recorded using two Neuman U87s and vocals were probably recorded using U87s. Burns also recalls a 3M 16 track tape machine and a couple of studer 2-tracks. The studio also had EMT stereo echo plates and UREI 1176 compressors, and four 15” Tannoy Monitor Reds in Lockwood Cabinets for the monitors
Terry Ellis produced the album, as he did with their three previous albums – This Was (1968), Stand Up (1969) and Benefit (1970). He also was the co-founder of the Chrysalis record label – which Aqualung was released under on March 19, 1971. The album was a great success, peaking at number four in the UK Album Chart and number 7 in the United States. Despite its phenomenal achievement as an album and containing some of the band’s now most iconic tracks (“Aqualung”, “Locomotive Breath”) the album only had one charting single at the time, Hymn 43. The song barely made it into the Billboard 100, peeking at number 91. “Aqualung” was never released as a single, and “Locomotive Breath” didn’t chart until 5 years after the album’s release
However, the album itself experienced quick and lasting success. A year after its release, The Village Voice ranked it number 22 on its annual “Jazz and Pop Critic’s Poll” of the best albums of 1971. More recently, in 2013, Rolling Stone ranked it in its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. 50 years later it’s impressive legacy continues. It remains the band’s best selling album. It is a powerhouse record, holding its place as one of the most important and influential albums of its time and is a continued favorite to this day.
Watch the video below to learn more about Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’!