This past weekend, Jethro Tull’s “A Passion Play” album turned 40 years of age. The album was originally released in the UK on July 6th, 1973 and it happens to be my favorite album of all time. And that my friends will be the topic of discussion this morning.
The year 1973 was such a landmark in the music industry for so many reasons that it would take me many pages to explain why. Last year I once toyed with the idea of writing about the year in music that 1973 was and to try and get interviews with all of the major players but that was just wishful thinking. There’s no way in hell that musicians would grant little ol’ me interview time for such a subject, so that notion was quickly forgotten and cast aside to the scrap heap of grand concepts that I’ll never chase.
To put it into perspective, in 1973…all of these albums were released: Pink Floyd – The Dark Side Of The Moon, Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans, Emerson Lake & Palmer – Brain Salad Surgery, Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, The Rolling Stones – Goat’s Head Soup, The Who – Quadrophenia, Led Zeppelin – Houses Of The Holy, Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells, the debut album by Queen, The Allman Brothers Band – Brothers & Sisters, Genesis – Selling England By The Pound, Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band – Greetings From Asbury Park, The Stooges – Raw Power, King Crimson – Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, David Bowie – Aladdin Sane….and the list goes on and on and on.
Elvis had his big comeback concert broadcast from Hawaii in 1973 as well, so you can see that the stars were weirdly aligned that year for great music to be produced. Which is pretty ironic considering that the Oil Embargo Crisis started late that year and caused a shortage in actual vinyl production which caused albums to be delayed.
Let’s get to the actual album in question….
Jethro Tull had an auspicious beginning to 1973 thanks to the lovely country of France. The members of JT were in France, specifically the Chateau D’Herouville studios. This was the famed studio where Elton John recorded his Honky Chateau album during 1972. “Rocket Man” was composed there so it’s got to have something good there, right? wrong…
In August 1972 after being on the road touring behind their last release “Thick As A Brick”, Ian Anderson (JT band leader and lead vocalist) set up camp at the Chateau to write and record with the rest of his band. Why not record in Old Blighty, you ask? Simple reason…..JT garnered huge success with TAAB and it netted them a healthy profit. This in turn made them prime candidates for Britain’s insanely high tax bracket for the wealthy. So, in essence…they became tax exiles for half the year and France was the locale of choice.
As Anderson has mentioned over the years, nothing seemed to go right at the Chateau. From tape machines not working to recordings being mysteriously wiped…it was just a bad vibe all around. Anderson and band came back to Britain at the beginning of 1973 with some of the Chateau material to work out the kinks. Some of the material was reworked and rearranged and became the genesis of A Passion Play. Most of the original material that was written at the Chateau seemed to revolve around a concept album dealing with animals of which one song (Bungle In The Jungle) would later be revisted and released in altered form on the following album “Warchild” in 1974. An hour’s worth of the Chateau sessions (both the early versions of A Passion Play and the Animal-themed songs) were released on the Nightcap compilation album in 1993.
Anderson composed APP as a story dealing with the afterlife and where one goes after they check out of the living world. The protagonist in this story (Ronnie) begins by viewing his own funeral and ends up going to Heaven during the first half of the piece. Realizing that Heaven is…well…rather boring….he talks to the head steward at the business office of “Heaven” (playfully, the company is called “G. Oddie & Son”) to request a trip to that other place. He gets there and realizes that he really doesn’t fit in there either and ends up in the end reincarnated (at least that’s how it seems to play out during the last lines of the piece).
There’s a fabulous website devoted to this album (http://www.ministry-of-information.co.uk/app/index.htm) dealing with the possible themes and covers pretty much the whole period of that album (tours, etc.)
Ian Anderson has had a rocky relationship with this album as it did brisk business in the charts for a short period in the summer of 1973, even hitting #1 on the Billboard Charts for a week in August before tumbling downward. It didn’t help that JT’s publicist famously declared that JT were going to retire due to the negative press reviews they were getting in relation to the album. All of this retirement talk of course was behind IA’s back and it really damaged their credibility with some of the British public.
Apart from some brief medleys of some of the material on the 1975 tour for Warchild, Jethro Tull never played anything from APP ever again after their 1973 tour. Fans were hoping that something could be resurrected this summer due to the 40th anniversary and due to the fact that IA has spent all last year playing all of TAAB with his solo band in celebrating that album’s anniversary as well as his new release TAAB2. But, due to the complexity of APP and also due to IA’s reticence on playing the material…it’s probably never going to happen. That being said, JT’s guitarist Martin Barre has included “flight from lucifer” from APP into his band’s setlists over the past year.
My story of this album started in the early 1990’s when I was buying up a lot of compact discs. All I had from Jethro Tull at that time was the Anniversary Collection, a double-disc set celebrating their 25th anniversary at that time (1993) which contained a lot of good stuff (aqualung, obviously…and pretty much all of their radio hits). It also contained an edit from APP and I really liked what I had heard. I went out and bought the album at Vinyl Solution the very next weekend and I was hooked. It was and continues to be an album that I go to almost weekly to listen to the whole thing all the way through. It’s almost therapeutic to me in that regard, no matter what kind of day I’m having…as soon as I listen to that record…it helps me greatly.
Sure, they had better songs commercially and some would even argue that they had better albums than APP but for my money, if you like the concept album thing…APP has you covered…if you like great songwriting, again APP has you covered….you like goofy Brothers Grimm style fables? Once again, APP has you covered, in between side one and side two…we have “The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” a charming story narrated by JT bassist Jeffrey Hammond which has a Peter & The Wolf type of vibe in places. Doesn’t Ian Anderson play anything else other than flute and guitar? APP is on the case….Saxophones…specifically, soprano & sopranino saxes….I’d suspect it’s because the fingerings are the same as the flute. I think he also played them on a couple of songs on Warchild, but I’m not sure…but it was this album (APP) where he started playing them. I have some experience playing saxophone, but it was Alto Sax and I’ve never played a flute so I couldn’t tell you if the fingerings on the smaller sax are similar to the flute. The final word on APP, It’s the best thing JT ever did and it’s the best album in my collection, bar none.
Finally, here are some images to round out the APP experience….
I guess at this point, I should chime in about the Ballerina….what’s up with her? Why is she on the album cover looking dead with blood dribbling out of her mouth? I don’t really recall anywhere where IA explained what the Ballerina had to do with the story, I do know that the image of the dead ballerina on the cover was part of a video that was shot to introduce APP live on tour. There was a circular screen behind the band and there was a tape of eerie keyboards and synthesizer music that slowly built up to a crescendo. While this was happening, the film shown on the screen showed the ballerina in a pose similar to the album cover and then slowly coming to life with small movements and then being shown jumping through a mirror which at that point would trigger a huge flashpot explosion with the band running out (literally) and playing the intro to APP. Sadly, they didn’t film any of their shows during this period and the only footage that exists is fan-shot footage via 8mm and 16mm films which can be found on YouTube if you look hard enough. I can only wager a guess and say that the Ballerina has a double meaning, perhaps the album cover shows a fallen angel (allusions to Lucifer who arrives later in the album) and also the symbolism of the ballerina relates to the “theater” nature of the piece and the literature that came with the album (almost like a program or a handbill of a play).
I should point out here that Jeffrey Hammond was my favorite member of Jethro Tull, he was in the band from 1971-1975. He’s not a bass player at all, he’s a painter and had to be taught how to play bass beforehand. He’s an extremely old childhood friend of Ian Anderson going all the way back to Primary School (If I’m remembering that right)…anyway, Ian thought so highly of him, he dedicated two songs to Jeffrey on JT’s first two albums in the late 1960’s (A Song For Jeffrey & Jeffrey Goes To Leceister Square).
Jeffrey cut quite an interesting figure on stage, he was known for running around like a lunatic and yet still was able to hold the basslines down. He’s also known for his sense of fashion…case in point…
Are you fucking kidding me? Zebra stripe getup and Zebra Striped bass? fucking brilliant man that Jeffrey
That sense of fashion extended to double bass too, apparently
His brilliance can even be extended to the current day, who’s aping his style…..you ask?
When Jeffrey walked away after the Warchild tour in 1975, he famously burned his stage clothes (The 1973 Panama Jack outfit, the aforementioned Zebra Suit, etc.) and never picked up a bass again. He has gone back to his paintings and is quite good at it.
The above was done by Jeffrey in 2007 entitled “Blackpool Promenade” which depicts his native Blackpool during the Carnival season. Really cool painting
that’s all for today, kids