Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Page 17: Aqualung

Jethro Tull's unlikely classic rock hit “Aqualung” examines homelessness and how others perceive the homeless. As songwriter and frontman Ian Anderson explains,
“Aqualung is a song about homeless people, but more importantly it’s a song about our reaction… It’s about our reaction, of guilt, distaste, awkwardness and confusion, all these things that we feel when we’re confronted with the reality of the homeless, whether it’s the slightly Chaplin-esque tramp figure on the Aqualung album or whether it’s a 17-year-old young criminal, drug-addicted or working in the sex trade or whatever it might be…I’ve seen it so often. You see someone who’s clearly in desperate need of some help, whether it’s a few coins or the contents of your wallet, and you blank them out.” (p. 8).
Jethro Tull's Aqualung (1971).
While the lyrics were inspired by photographs of homeless people taken by his photographer wife, the title itself occurred to Anderson while watching a television program about scuba divers. He imagined that his fictional anti-hero might have chronic bronchitis, thus earning him the nickname “Aqualung” because his breathing sounded somewhat like one. The result was a trademark complaint from Aqua Lung America.
“I didn’t realize it was a registered trade name. So they set about having a real go at us, but it was pointed out that the album was selling quite a lot of copies in the shops and that it was probably quite a good advertisement for the Aqualung Corporation of North America, so the action was subsequently dropped and never surfaced again.” (p. 11)
The slang meaning of the term has since entered into popular parlance.

At first the Aqua Lung Corporation claimed trademark infringement,
but later dropped its action against Jethro Tull. [Image source: Wikimedia Commons.]
Tull’s album of the same name features a painting by Burton Silverman of said homeless person…which looks—if I may quote myself—like an Ian Anderson “who had completely let himself go.” Indeed, Silverman photographed Anderson in an old overcoat as reference images. Anderson disliked the result, but the cover went on to become iconic. Its popularity resulted in threats of yet another lawsuit, as Silverman claimed that he never authorized his work to be used for t-shirts and other promotion. According to Anderson, “I just shrugged it off and said ‘It’s nothing to do with me, because I didn’t commission this artwork. You need to talk to the record company…’ And that was that.” (p. 11)

Reviewers of Aqualung annoyed Anderson by calling the record a “concept album” even though it wasn’t one. In fairness to reviewers, even if there isn’t a concept behind the lyrics, threads do run through the album: The song “Cross-Eyed Mary” contains the line “Or maybe her intention / Is drawn by Aqualung,” which refers back to the title track; and the album's recurring lyrical themes about religion invited yet more controversy. As Anderson recalls, “Because of the elements on Aqualung that were quite disparaging of organized religion […] they got a bit bent out of shape in some southern states, and had ritual burnings of the Aqualung album.” (p. 10)

Given reviewers’ insistence that Aqualung was a concept album, Anderson puckishly followed up with a piss-take on the genre, offered as the mother of all concept albums: Thick as a Brick. It remains one of my top three favorite albums of all time.

Aqualung wasn't a concept album, so with Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick (1972),
Ian Anderson set out—with tongue in cheek—to show reviewers what a concept album looks like.
For more than you’d ever want to know about Aqualung, you can pick up the 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition, or the 33 1/3 book Aqualung by Allan Moore. All of the above quotes from Ian Anderson are from the 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition book: it's well worth the investment if you like the album.

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