Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address
Please accept the terms
‘A Passion Play’: Behind The Drama Of Jethro Tull’s Sixth Album
In Depth

‘A Passion Play’: Behind The Drama Of Jethro Tull’s Sixth Album

A theatrical bolt from the blue, Jethro Tull’s sixth album, ‘A Passion Play’, has been embraced as a cult favourite by prog-rock fans.

Back

While Jethro Tull’s 1972 album, Thick As A Brick, is frequently hailed as their magnum opus, it is the group’s divisive follow-up release, A Passion Play, that has quietly gained a cult following among progressive-rock enthusiasts. Unconventional and unpredictable, Jethro Tull’s sixth album was released in 1973, only to be lambasted by music critics, though there are many fans who rightly feel it deserves to be reappraised as a conceptual marvel that found the group at the height of their outlandish ambitions.

With dramatic and exaggerated arrangements that showcased songwriter Ian Anderson’s most complicated lyrical narrative yet, A Passion Play defied conventional musical boundaries and immersed listeners in a theatrical and experimental sonic journey of near-Shakespearean proportions. Blending melodic and baroque elements with moody and eccentric undertones, the album also featured cryptic lyrics that only added to the enigma. Stripped bare of the satirical humour that characterised Thick As A Brick, Anderson’s words left listeners both bewildered and intrigued in equal measure.

Though it’s easy to see why A Passion Play is regarded by many as an outlier in Jethro Tull’s discography, it nonetheless remains a fascinating listen. Here is the full story behind the album, from its theatrical complexities to its progressive nature and the reasons behind its enduring appeal…

Listen to ‘A Passion Play’ here.

The backstory: “We found it to be a complete nightmare”

In the early 70s, many rock stars were fleeing Britain to become tax exiles, particularly in the wake of the UK government imposing a top income-tax rate of 83 per cent. Jethro Tull songwriter Ian Anderson was no exception and, by the summer of 1972, he had applied for Swiss residency and holed himself up in a rented apartment in Montreux, Switzerland. It was here that Anderson began composing music and plotting out what he hoped would form the basis of the highly anticipated follow-up to Thick As A Brick. For this new album, the pressure was on to deliver a work that would not only meet but surpass the lofty expectations set by Jethro Tull’s previous release.

When the time finally came to record A Passion Play, Jethro Tull relocated to Château d’Hérouville, a residential studio near Paris that dated back to the 18th century, and which was renowned for hosting esteemed British rock acts such as Elton John, Pink Floyd and Cat Stevens. However, Jethro Tull’s experience at the Château was not regarded fondly by the band. Technical glitches plagued them throughout the recording sessions, with equipment frequently malfunctioning. “We found it to be a complete nightmare,” Ian Anderson recalled in the book Original Jethro Tull: The Glory Years, by Gary Parker. “Everything was going wrong technically every day, and we were really, really struggling to make this album.”

To compound their troubles, the band discovered that the Château’s dilapidated state left much to be desired. Unsanitary bedrooms previously inhabited by “dirty unpleasant rock people”, as Anderson described them, only added to the group’s dismay. Worse still, a parasitic infection befell one of their sound engineers, making it incredibly hard for the band to focus on creating new music.

As if these challenges weren’t enough, the culinary situation was also dire. Mysterious slabs of meat and unlabelled, fruit-fly-infested red wine ensured that Jethro Tull’s entourage endured bouts of food poisoning. “They used to cook really weird meats and things,” guitarist Martin Barre recounted to Record Collector magazine. “God knows what they were, but I’m sure we ate every songbird in the book.” Eventually, the band reached breaking point.

Illness, technical mishaps and frequent trips to the loo forced Jethro Tull to abandon the Château d’Hérouville venture entirely. Returning to England, the band made the bold decision to scrap all the music they had recorded in France. And yet, the ill-fated Château d’Hérouville experience became a defining moment for Jethro Tull. Not only did it mark the end of their chapter as tax exiles, but it also set the stage for their new album, A Passion Play. Sweeping aside feelings of disappointment, the group decided to start completely afresh.

The recording: “It was time to make an album that wasn’t a spoof”

Recorded at Morgan Studios, in London, in March 1973, six months after the disastrous Château d’Hérouville sessions, A Passion Play, quickly emerged as an imaginative stream of ideas that pushed the boundaries of progressive rock. Guided by Ian Anderson’s narrative vision of a four-act play, the band aimed to create a sprawling work akin to their previous album, Thick As A Brick, with each side of the original vinyl forming a long and continuous piece of music.

However, as the recording progressed, it became evident that A Passion Play would be a departure from the surreal Monty Python-esque whimsy of their previous album. Anderson’s lyrics delved into darker territories, and the album’s conceptual themes seemed to call for a more sombre tone. “Now we thought it was time to do something a bit more serious and make an album that wasn’t a spoof and wasn’t meant to be fun,” Anderson told Guitar World in September 1999. Inspired by TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, the lyrics for A Passion Play offered up a poetic and thought-provoking exploration of the afterlife.

Anderson drew upon biblical references and religious notions of purgatory, weaving a tale centred around a man named Ronnie Pilgrim, who meets his demise in an accident on London’s Fulham Road. In many ways, Anderson’s story echoed John Bunyan’s 16th-century Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, as both seemingly follow an everyman’s trials and struggles in the next world. “It was a fascination which I had about the possibility of a hereafter, that touches upon the conventions of popular religion and Christianity in particular,” the singer explained. “It recognises that age-old conflict between good and bad, God and the Devil, and tries to bring it to character.”

Musically, A Passion Play aimed to challenge listeners’ expectations throughout. Featuring intricate instrumentation, unconventional time signatures and dynamic shifts in tempo, the album was notable in that it saw Anderson set aside his trademark flute in favour of playing the soprano saxophone, while keyboardist John Evan ventured into new territory by adding accordion and synthesiser to his repertoire. Having embarked on a transformative creative journey that skilfully merged profound storytelling with prog-based tenacity, Jethro Tull approached the completion of A Passion Play with immense anticipation. However, even they could not have foreseen the extent of the divided reactions the album would provoke among fans and critics alike…

The release: “We felt betrayed… and a bit bemused, really”

Released on 13 July 1973, A Passion Play, boldly challenged musical norms during an era when progressive rock was at its commercial height. Selling over 500,000 copies in the US, the album peaked at No.1 on the Billboard 200, proving that the band were at the peak of their popularity across the Atlantic. However, as far as music critics were concerned, A Passion Play was a step too far: “a desperate tortuous danse macabre”, as Melody Maker writer Chris Welch put it.

“We felt betrayed… and a bit bemused, really, as to why they didn’t like it,” Ian Anderson later reflected in Record Collector magazine.

Given its audacious mix of intricate compositions and convoluted lyricism, A Passion Play may have been less immediate than its predecessors – a body of work that already included Jethro Tull’s breakthrough classic, Aqualung – but the artistic risks the group took prove worthy of examination. As a gentle pulse gives way to jazzy trills of sax, A Passion Play, Pt.1 unleashes a flurry of endlessly colliding musical ideas. From bucolic acoustic guitars (Re-Assuring Tune, Memory Bank) to a megaphone rant over a doom-laden guitar stomp (Critique Oblique), the journey of Ronnie Pilgrim as he is guided by an angel through a purgatorial wasteland is jaw-droppingly ambitious. As Pilgrim meets a jury to determine his admittance to Heaven, it’s easy to see why some listeners also felt compelled to take sides.

After the nonsense poetry of Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond’s spoken-word interlude, The Story Of The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles, in which the bassist delivers Lewis Carroll-esque whimsy in a heavy Lancastrian accent, A Passion Play cavorts in the boundless playground of child-like imagination. Side Two resumes Pilgrim’s travels: feeling unsatisfied with life in Heaven, he travels to Hell and is similarly unimpressed, critiquing the moral certitudes of religion by drawing his own philosophical conclusions. “Here’s the everlasting rub: neither am I good or bad,” Anderson sings, “I’d give up my halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once had/I would gladly be a dog barking up the wrong tree.”

Clearly, A Passion Play sought to question the very nature of righteousness and piety. Through a whirlwind of musical motifs and lyrical musings, Anderson’s songwriting invites us to ponder the boundaries of our own beliefs and the limitations of traditional dogma. As his evocative vocals echo with a sense of disillusionment and yearning for something beyond the confines of prescribed morality, A Passion Play demands active engagement, rewarding those who dare to venture into its philosophical depths. It may not have been universally embraced upon its release, but its enduring legacy stands as a testament to the band’s artistic vision and unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of progressive rock.

The legacy: “It has become something of a cult album with some fans”

For fans, Jethro Tull’s sixth album has cast a long shadow as an enigmatic and perplexing curio among the band’s discography. Speaking to Guitar World, even Ian Anderson admitted of A Passion Play: “It’s certainly not one of my favourites, although it has become something of a cult album with some fans.” While the album may, indeed, bewilder some listeners, the combination of Dee Palmer’s spectacular orchestral arrangements, along with the band’s quirky knack for histrionic and stagey bombast, remains a testament to the fearlessness and unorthodox approach of the best Jethro Tull songs.

As an offbeat and idiosyncratic work of art that defies easy categorisation, A Passion Play proved the band’s willingness to go beyond their comfort zone, resulting in a mystifyingly esoteric journey through the afterlife that confronts listeners with existential truths. Its themes of mortality, spirituality and the complexities of the human condition are intricately woven into the album’s lyrics, which bear up under repeat listens, yielding new interpretations that further add to the album’s appeal.

Today, A Passion Play continues to mesmerise and captivate listeners drawn to its peculiar and unique blend of prog-rock, orchestral arrangements and old-fashioned displays of theatricality. Its legacy as a dense and puzzling concept piece has only grown over time, highlighting the strengths of Ian Anderson’s vision and bringing Jethro Tull’s reputation for musical experimentation to the fore. Notably, in early 2023, PopMatters ranked A Passion Play as the 17th-best progressive rock album of all time, solidifying the album’s status as a cult classic. Occupying a distinguished place in the annals of prog-rock history, if any Jethro Tull album deserves an encore, it is undoubtedly this one.

Buy Jethro Tull vinyl at the Dig! store.

More Like This

Scar Tissue: How Red Hot Chili Peppers Healed Their Wounds On A Classic Song
In Depth

Scar Tissue: How Red Hot Chili Peppers Healed Their Wounds On A Classic Song

Embracing sobriety and the return of guitarist John Frusciante, Red Hot Chili Peppers worked up one of their greatest songs, Scar Tissue.

‘Vol.3: (The Subliminal Verses)’: Behind Slipknot’s Mind-Altering Third Album
In Depth

‘Vol.3: (The Subliminal Verses)’: Behind Slipknot’s Mind-Altering Third Album

Bouncing back after the harrowing ‘Iowa’, nu-metal icons Slipknot made their mainstream breakthrough with ‘Vol.3: (The Subliminal Verses)’.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up