Monday, 2 June 2014

Greasy Kids' Stuff

Posts may be a bit thin on the ground over the next two weeks, as I will be in Innsbruck, Austria, in the lead-up to the opening of my exhibition, A Tourist from Mars (6 June - 5 July, Fotoforum, Adolf-Pichler-Platz 8), and then staying on to make some photographs in the area.  I will have a laptop and internet access, but may not have much time.

So, just to kick off June, here's one of those posts that I find from time-to-time lost behind the figurative blog fridge.  Feel free to comment, but bear in mind that I may not get around to "moderating" your comment for some days.

Greasy Kids' Stuff

The other week, I was loading up Spotify, when it collared me and said, Hey, you've recently listened to X, Y and Z, have you ever listened to ... Aqualung?

Oh, what?  Well, yes, of course I have, but not for forty years.  But I was sufficiently taken by surprise to think: Jethro Tull?? How did they know?

It's not uncommon to fall out of love, suddenly and profoundly, with your youthful musical enthusiasms.  I've watched it happen to my own children, as they have moved through adolescence into young adulthood and their tastes have evolved.  This in turn has reminded me of the way certain albums went from the front to the back of my own record box, and were eventually quietly discarded.

When I was 17, three albums defined the limits of my taste.  Cruel Sister, by Pentangle (an acoustic, jazz-inflected album of traditional folk-song arrangements); Blue, by Joni Mitchell (which should need no more introduction than Hamlet); and Aqualung, by English prog-rock combo Jethro Tull.  An odd combination, perhaps, but that was me, as triangulated in 1971.

For a few years I was a true Tull fan, despite loathing full-on prog acts like Yes or Genesis.  Something about band-leader Ian Anderson's gift for wry, smart lyrics, set to memorable melodies, dynamically arranged with over-the-top showmanship, just hit the spot for me.  There was also a pervasive acoustic and melodic "folk" layer to Tull, subtly underlying the blues and bombast, that leavened the mix nicely.  It seemed sophisticated stuff, at least to a folkie-cum-headbanger from small-town England; in a way,  Tull was the yang that balanced the Joni Mitchell yin.

Then off I went to university.

It's hard to appreciate now, in these solipsistic days of iPods and streaming, but back then music-listening was very much a communal, bonding experience.  You'd spend an evening sitting in a group -- often as many as a dozen people -- in someone's room, passing joints and discussing the Meaning of Life until the small hours, all the time listening to the host's record collection.  Done well, it was like DJ'ing a room, matching record to mood, and establishing a suitable vibe.  Make a wrong choice, signalled by a collective groan, and the mood was wrecked.  I noticed any Tull album would immediately evoke groans.  After a while, I began to see why, and fell out of love with the music.

Greasy kid, 1973...

Why?  Well, the times were changing. Ian Anderson's music is slick stuff, that commands your attention and invites admiration more than collaboration or consent, and the fashion then was growing towards a more participative, DIY aesthetic, as pioneered by leather-clad minimalists like the Velvet Underground or the hand-knitted krazies of Gong.  The punk and the teepee years were approaching.  In the end, a Tull album or concert had a lot more in common with a visit to a West End musical than a speed-driven night in a grubby cellar club or getting blissed-out in a muddy field.

Worse, the long-form, "concept" albums like Passion Play and Thick as a Brick were a giant step in the wrong direction, doubling up the tedious, virtuosic noodling pioneered by the likes of Yes.  They are halls of mirrors, those albums, that refuse restlessly to settle into a groove, and are built almost entirely out of annoying, repetitive ear-worms.  Lyrically, Anderson had become obsessed by his music's negative critical reception and by the phoniness of the whole pop enterprise [ linked, possibly? Ed. ].  The moaning and point-scoring of a rock superstar make for truly dull listening.  Curiously, Joni Mitchell was heading in the same direction, too, bewailing her self-entrapment in a golden cage. Well, boo-hoo.

Worst of all, Ian Anderson loves to get you going, then bring you down, or trip you up.  He pokes and sneers and passes judgement.  His persona is the guy that doesn't get asked twice to parties, but turns up anyway, the one with the all-purpose grudge and the smart mouth that hurts people's feelings.  If you knew me back then, I suppose that might have reminded you of somebody.  I am embarrassed, now, to recall some of the things I did and said back then.

So it was with a certain reluctance that I revisited what had once been a favourite LP, but which now -- forty plus years later -- was firmly in the category of "greasy kids' stuff". What surprised me, from the opening bars, was the strength of the waft of instant nostalgia; it was like opening a wardrobe and finding it hung with my old clothes from 1971, all now a size several sizes rather too small.

But, once past that, what really struck me was that I had completely misremembered the album.  Its main theme is not the misogynistic leering of some meths-drinking tramp, set to swaggering pomp-rock riffs, but -- amazingly -- the distinction between authentic divinity and inauthentic religion.  "He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays..."  An improbably cerebral theme if ever there was one, and a million miles from the brain-addled rhyme-dictionary ranting of most rock lyrics.

Despite the grandiosity of its themes, though, it's all a bit schoolboyish, getting its thrills from its own hollow challenges to the order of things.  "Rip it Up" it ain't.  Anderson, it is clear from later interviews, is and always was quite a conservative chap, who kept well away from all the sex and drugs swirling around band tours.  He is a showman, a calculator, a businessman-survivor, with the calmly-inflected voice of a successful dentist.  I expect he gives motivational courses,  these days, on "building your brand".  Jethro Tull is nothing if not an exercise in brand.

However, I think another Ian Anderson appears in his quieter, less histrionic, acoustic outings.  He might have made some memorable music, if he'd followed the Roy Harper route, but would certainly have made rather less money.  The track from Aqualung that has stayed with me from my nostalgic visit on Spotify is the brief, luminous "Wond'ring Aloud" ("Will the years treat us well?"), which is a pure evocation of the simple, profound pleasures to be discovered when embarking as young adults on an intimate relationship; no gods, priests, headmasters or, um, out-of-control locomotives required on the journey.  "We are our own saviours"...

It's a quiet, grown-up moment which probably went straight over my head in 1971.

1 comment:

Zouk Delors said...

That picture of Anderson really reminds me of someone, but I can''t quite put my finger on who.

Good luck in Innsbruck.
PS Did you mean to say "make photographs rather than "take".