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Aqualung Was “The Tester”: Ian Anderson On Jethro Tull’s Classic Album

Aqualung Was “The Tester”: Ian Anderson On Jethro Tull’s Classic Album

A make-or-break album, ‘Aqualung’ has become Jethro Tull’s most-loved work. ‘I wanted to make a mark,’ frontman Ian Anderson tells Dig!


By the time Jethro Tull set about recording their landmark fourth album, Aqualung, the group needed a moment to catch their breath. The success of Aqualung’s predecessor, Benefit, had kept them on the road extensively throughout Europe and the US, but left them on the verge of collapse. Bassist Glenn Cornick was on his way out the door (to be replaced by the relatively untested Jeffrey Hammond) when rehearsals for the new album begin in June 1970, and drummer Clive Bunker, increasingly feeling the strain of the band’s gruelling touring schedule, wouldn’t be far behind.

“We were a bit exhausted,” Ian Anderson, singer, guitarist, flautist and principal architect of Jethro Tull tells Dig! “I, for one, as a songwriter and producer and whatever else, was feeling a bit jaded.” Though Benefit had helped Jethro Tull gain a reputation as a formidable live band on the burgeoning prog-rock scene, Anderson wanted to take his songwriting in a new direction for its follow-up and viewed Aqualung as “an opportunity to write something of a social documentary”.

“This was the one that was either going to mark the beginning of the decline,” he says, “or it would be another step on the ladder.”

Listen to Aqualung here.

“We judge things in the context of our own lives”

“I wanted to make more of a mark as a singer-songwriter,” Anderson reveals of his approach to what would become Jethro Tull’s most-loved album. “The tinselly, heart-on-sleeve, ‘I’, ‘me’ kind of work is not usually my forte.” Rather, Anderson was more interested in writing “things that, lyrically speaking, were a bit more relevant and hard-hitting, and not based on the more universal themes of love, lust, sex, drugs and whatever”.

Having always been drawn to the idea of photography as a form of social commentary, it’s fitting that photos taken by Anderson’s wife, of destitute people along London’s River Thames, inspired Aqualung’s title track: a character portrait of a homeless man whose breath rattles with “deep-sea-diver sounds” as he lives out his final days. “It’s always interesting to see something that the artist is privileged to see,” Anderson says, “whether it’s in a brothel or a strip club, or on a sunny afternoon having a picnic on the grass – there’s something that draws you into the apparent everyday, commonplace, but through the eyes of a painter or photographer or, indeed, a songwriter… It’s a bit like a theatrical stage: you have a context bound by a proscenium arch, for people and characters to bring life to you.”

It’s a sad indictment of our times that, over 50 years since Aqualung’s release, homelessness has only increased on a global scale, yet Anderson’s engagement with the issue – along with songs such as Locomotive Breath and Hymn 43, which, respectively, saw him tackle overpopulation and what he saw as hypocrisies in organised religion – has, in the long-term, ensured that Aqualung continues to resonate.

“We judge things in the context of our own lives,” Anderson says. “I think the sense of voyeurism and guilt that the singer of the song seems to exhibit is something people can share. It’s the embarrassment, the awkwardness, the mixture of emotions you have when confronted with the homeless – you perhaps feel a certain anger or threat, but you also feel this tugging at the heartstring in terms of someone who is so much less fortunate than yourself.”

“Jimmy page was a bit intimidating”

Fortune didn’t appear to smile on the band when, in December 1970, they settled into Island Records’ newly opened studios on Basing Street, in London’s Notting Hill area, to record the album. The facilities were “untried, untested and very difficult, acoustically and technically”, Anderson recalls – far from ideal for a band looking to capture their most ambitious work to date.

“We were stuck in this cavernous, awful room upstairs,” Anderson says. “It was a bit creepy and not a very comfortable place to work, so it wasn’t an enjoyable album to make, in terms of recording sessions.” Meanwhile, former touring partners Led Zeppelin “were in this little cosy studio in the crypt underneath”, recording what would become their own boundary-pushing fourth album.

But while the sessions were “fraught with difficulties” and Jethro Tull ended each day “just glad to have got something down”, the group received encouragement when Jimmy Page came into the studio, encouraging guitarist Martin Barre as he recorded his solo for Aqualung’s title track. “Jimmy let himself into our control room and was standing at the back, very visibly to Martin, and was sort of cheering him on,” Anderson says. “It was a supportive kind of thing, but it was a little bit intimidating because… we all saw Led Zeppelin as the superior race in terms of musical ability and stagecraft and skills… We were, in a sense, trying to struggle along in the wake of their success and see if we could in some way emulate or get close to that kind of standard.”

As with the album’s other riff-heavy songs – Cross-Eyed Mary, My God, Locomotive Breath – Aqualung’s title track, and Barre’s guitar work, cemented Jethro Tull’s place as a group capable of delivering the heaviosity required of rock bands in the early 70s, as the late-psychedelic era solidified into hard rock. “It’s got one of the iconic guitar riffs,” Anderson says of the song, though when he first played it to Barre on an acoustic guitar in a hotel during down time between shows, the guitarist wasn’t convinced it would work. “I said, ‘Now think of it through a Marshall amp turned up to 12 – that’s what this is going to be…’ And the first time he played it through a big amplifier, it all gelled for him – and for the guys in the band.”

“We didn’t care whether people saw it as fitting”

By the time Aqualung was released, on 19 March 1971, it was ready to gel with the wider world. “It was a slow start,” Anderson says, “but it resonated with increasing levels of reverberation… Its impact, particularly in the US, was the big factor that really made it, for us, probably the long-term most successful Jethro Tull album.”

While, on paper, a British prog group singing about homelessness and critiquing organised religion would have “spelt doom and gloom for most artists” looking to connect with a US audience, following their own path is what put Jethro Tull ahead of their contemporaries. Against their record label’s predictions – “Oh no, you can’t do that – that’s not what they want,” Anderson recalls being told – Aqualung found a fanbase that not only took it to No.4 in the UK, but helped the group break into the US Top 10 for the first time, where the album settled at No.7. “They did want it,” Anderson asserts. “It just took them a few months to realise it.”

Noting that “Americans have always been pretty good at spotting the real deal – something that is authentic and not too desperate to achieve favour”, Anderson recalls how “the swashbuckling Led Zeppelin” stormed the US, leading the way for bands like Jethro Tull. “They didn’t give a toss if you liked them or not,” he says. “They just went out there and steamrollered their way across America in the way that Cream did a year or two before.” Without pandering, “Jethro Tull and a host of other British bands achieved success because we weren’t trying very hard. We were just doing what we wanted to do in the way that we were doing it, and we didn’t really care whether people saw it as fitting – in terms of genre, styling, image – to the norm… We did it our way, and that seemed to resonate that it had this authenticity.”

While songs like Aqualung and Locomotive Breath gained airplay in the US, the album also found some unlikely fans back home. Half a decade after Aqualung’s release, punk ostensibly waged war on everything prog rock stood for but, in 2015, Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon told a surprised London audience, “I like Jethro Tull!… Aqualung, that’s a fuckin’ stunning record, you know?”

“I was always disappointed that there seemed to be that Malcolm McLaren-generated hostility that was meant to somehow feather his nest in terms of being the manager and promoter of something that was an alternative,” Anderson says. “That you had to trash Genesis and Jethro Tull and all the rest of us. It was “understandable, it’s forgivable,” he continues, but punk “greatly appealed” to Anderson himself, who saw in it “great songs, great ideas, and it was very forceful”.

Not unlike Aqualung itself, then, whose charged social commentary can conceivably have influenced the nascent punks as they grew up in the early 70s. “If you look at the early performances of Johnny Rotten – a hunched, sort of slightly fearful and angry kind of creature – and then look at the front cover of the Aqualung album, maybe that’s not entirely coincidental.” Anderson says.

“It was never meant to be a concept album”

Years before punk tried to declare whether you could listen to Jethro Tull or not, Anderson sought to protect the group from other outside forces: critics who defined Aqualung as a concept album. A collection of thematically-linked vignettes, maybe, but Anderson remains resolute: “I’ve always said that three or four songs don’t make a concept album. There were perhaps three or four songs that you could conceivably have bundled together as the core of something that could have been built upon and would have delivered something like a concept album, but… it was never meant to be a concept album.”

Instead, the group arranged its 11 songs in a way that gave them cohesion, with Aqualung’s first half offering Anderson’s character sketches, its second featuring his critiques of organised religion. “It was divided into two sides of a vinyl record that had something you could build upon to give it a bit of intellectual tinsel,” Anderson says. The critics’ obstinance, however, led Anderson to create what he calls “the mother of all concept albums” with Aqualung’s follow-up, Think As A Brick: one continuous piece of music put across as a single 44-minute song. “Everybody said, ‘You can’t do that, it’ll never get played on radio,’” Anderson says, adding, “And of course it did. American radio stations played it in its entirety, top to tail, even though we did a segmented version for radio that broke things down into three- or four-minute sections. But a lot of the time they just put it on and had an extended pee break.”

For Jethro Tull, “Aqualung was the tester.” It opened up new creative pathways that led not only to satirical concept albums like Thick As A Brick, but increasingly ambitious works such as 1973’s A Passion Play, which followed a fictional character’s journey through the afterlife and saw Jethro Tull edge into multimedia live performances with video footage that helped bring the album’s storyline to the stage.

“A lot more people have become aware of Aqualung,” Anderson says of the album’s continued growth in stature. “Particularly the title track, and one or two other songs are still staples on rock radio… along with the other alumni of the 70s.” Not only a landmark album for Jethro Tull, but an early indicator of where prog rock would head throughout the 70s, Anderson is justifiably assured when he says: “It continues to have its place.”

Aqualung’s artwork may have inspired John Lydon; find out which Sex Pistols sleeve made the cut for our best 70s album covers.

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