Let me show you what a real concept album means, singer Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull must have thought. It was irritating/frustrating for him that the band’s previous album, “Aqualung”, was labeled a concept album. According to him, it wasn’t. Jethro Tull’s new record would revolve around a fictional poem by fictional high school student, Gerald Bostock, entitled “Thick as a Brick”. Said poem, conceived by Anderson himself, would serve as lyrical content for the album. One long set of lyrics for 44 minutes of music. That’s a proper concept album. There was only one problem. You have to flip LPs halfway through, so the concept is cut into two pieces. For younger readers: a record is a piece of vinyl printed on both sides with grooves. Music comes out when you put a pick-up needle on its surface. That’s somewhat different from a CD. Which is only printed with music on one side. A 10-year-old nephew recently tried to turnover a CD disc, but it was no use. I then explained to him what an LP is. His 13-year-old teenage sister said: So you can’t shuffle tracks on an LP, can you? No, I said slightly irritated, indeed you can’t shuffleplay an LP. You can indeed do that on your Spotify. Moreover, there is no shuffling possible on “Thick as a Brick”, because it consists of only the one song, I wanted to say, but I managed to restrain myself. I wallowed in admiration for Ian Anderson; the original inventor of the concept album in the first place.
A good concept album should also include a matching cover, preferably about the theme. Anderson and his bandmates decided there should be a newspaper. They came up with ‘The St. Cleves Chronical’ and wrote stories for it all. They wanted it to be a real newspaper, to be folded around the album instead of a regular record sleeve measuring 33 by 33 cm. The record company objected. Way too expensive and impossible to produce. Anderson persevered and found E.J. Day Group prepared to print the newspaper as a cover. It became a mega success. Part of the twelve-page newspaper was folded over, so that it initially resembles an LP cover. But when you open the cover you suddenly have a real newspaper in your hands. (That’s if you have an original UK pressing. The reissues were released in a much cheaper way, without the twelve pages and simplified to a regular album cover).
For younger readers: A newspaper is a stack of printed sheets of paper that you get in your letterbox every day, if you have a subscription. A newspaper contains current affairs and background stories about what is happening in the world. Often there are supplements about sports or science, but also crossword puzzles and comics. You don’t have to read a newspaper from A to Z like a book, but you pick and choose the articles that interest you. But those are very long texts; my teenage cousin (the same one from the shuffle play) remarked, when I showed her a local newspaper: “But then I would have to read”. For a moment I had the urge to put her through the meat grinder, but I just managed to control myself. “Yes, then you should read and that is very good for you. You can’t watch TV all day.” How about that Anderson. Managed to keep the original idea for the newspaper alive in the end.
And then there’s the music. The band members were so well attuned to each other that they only needed a few days in the studio. Some of the musical structures were devised in advance. For the rest, all band members cut loose in the studio on this record. And that’s clearly audible. It’s one of my favorite prog rock albums. In retrospect, producing the newspaper turned out to have taken much more time than recording the album. The columns were mainly filled with anecdotes from the band members’ childhood. One of them, of course, being the story of Gerald Bostock and his poem ‘Thick as a Brick’. The poem was an ode to youth and an indictment of adults. When the girl next door accused Gerald Bostock of being rude to her and also said a dirty word on TV, Gerald Bostock had to hand in the prize he had won for his poem. It’s all so well written that you almost start to believe it. Wonderful reading material for a Sunday morning, with a cup of coffee.
Oh, yes “Thick as a Brick” roughly translated means ‘being stupid’. The English use the proverb when someone acts stubborn or just too stupid to even think straight. Like my sister-in-law, at least when it comes to music (other than that she is very nice and smart). She took her daughter, the shuffle-play and reading fanatic, away from me when I put on Jethro Tull’s LP. “Don’t listen too much to your uncle,” she said. “He’s forever stuck in the 1970s.”
By Gerrit-Jan Vrielink
Translation Alex Driessen