Why music reached perfection in 1974

Go to see a band play live and chances are you’ll get pretty much the same thing every time. A few songs from the new album, a few old favourites, and encores of the biggest hits. Occasionally you might get a cover, if you’re lucky. As a devotee of all things prog, and indeed ressive, I’ve recently become fascinated by Jethro Tull bootlegs from the early 70s, as it seems they were determined to be different.

1972’s Thick as a Brick was already a pretty left field proposition as an album. Ian Anderson now claims it’s a parody of overblown prog rock concept albums, but I’m not sure I’m convinced. Much of their work from that period revolves around the themes of religion, education, class and hypocrisy, and TAAB seems to be an examination of at least some of those themes, as one, album long song.

On stage, the band played (nearly) all of the album, interspersed with a few solos and (fairly interminable) jam sections (seemingly de rigeur for bands of that era that came out of the British blues scene). In addition to this there were interruptions by telephone calls, roadies in costume, musical commentary (suspiciously similar to a section of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells which followed a year later) and a news and weather report (which related to the original album cover, a parody of a local newspaper). The influence of Monty Python lies heavy on all this stuff, and the band were definitely going for a “look at us wacky English eccentrics” vibe (as you can see…)

It’s not that Thick As A Brick has a story that needed to be acted out (like say, Genesis’ prog rock magnum opus surrealist mindfuck¬† The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway) but it clearly needed something other than a standard rock gig, just as the album had been packaged in a non standard cover. The follow up album A Passion Play is even more opaque, ostensibly following the deceased “Ronnie Pilgrim” through a peculiarly bureaucratic afterlife.

This time, they played the whole thing, start to finish, with less dicking around, but with a couple of films shown to augment the performance, including this amazing piece of creepy, none-more-English whimsy…

Yes famously ditched half of Tales From Topographic Oceans partway into the tour for that album, as audiences were (understandably) finding the unbroken string of lengthy pieces a bit indigestible. Similarly, later on the A Passion Play Tour, the Tull inserted an older song into the middle of the piece, My God from 1971’s Aqualung. Maybe this was to grab the attention of the audience whose interest may have been flagging in the middle of a long, unfamiliar piece, but another reason may have been that, as postulated here, My God was already conceptually linked to A Passion Play, so it became a legitimate part of the longer piece. They even played some unreleased songs such as No Rehearsal and Left Right which were lyrically connected to the concept, as they had been originally written for the album.

I like the idea of that. Plenty of bands have played specific albums in their entirety, (more recently many have done so as special, nostalgic or anniversary shows), but to put a concert together where every element plays into the concept seems to be a pretty rare occurrence. Take That may have an album called The Circus, and adorn their concerts with acrobats and fire eaters, but they’re still bashing out Relight My Fire and Shine, neither of which, to my knowledge, are about sad clowns or evil ringmasters. And how much cooler would it be if they were?


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