Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

The Tull Perplex

Some thirty-two thousand Long Island longhairs communed with Jethro Tull at Nassau Coliseum over the past two nights, and it's safe to say that even they don't know exactly why there were there. Tull defies analysis so successfully that it has inspired no imitations while building its following in nine U.S. tours over three-plus years. Any bunch of funky opportunists can come up with a variation on white blues or country rock or Memphis boogie. Tull's concept is much more complex and more difficult to execute.

Because its fans have been known to get involved in riots--not only the modest ticket melee that preceded this appearance but at least one major tear-gas affair, in Denver in 1971--and because it has spawned groups like Blodwyn Pig and Wild Turkey, there is a tendency to lump Tull with the so-called heavy bands. This is like calling the Mothers psychedelic because they entitle an album Freak Out! The analogy is doubly apt because Ian Anderson, Tull's vocalist-flutist-guitarist-composer and conceptmaster, is both an admirer and, it turns out, an imitator of Frank Zappa. If Jethro Tull can be categorized at all, it is as a supercommercial Mothers of Invention.

Like Zappa, Anderson doesn't seem to like rock music or its audience and refuses to traffic in the good-time boogieing rhetoric that has become so commonplace. Although he is not as ambitious musically as Zappa, he does control his band and obviously plans its sudden shifts and turns. Tull's stage act is interspersed with comedy bits--most of which elicit not so much laughter as respect of the "He's really weird" variety--and is defined by its distance from itself. The musicians parody their own rock star roles--one moment that is quite funny comes during the drum solo, when all five members of the group appear on stage, thrashing tiny cymbals--and Anderson goes a step further. Secure in his reputation as a madman, a dervish, the Fagin of rock, and master parodist, he now parodies that.

Yet Anderson is careful to give the audience its all-important money's worth. If the people pay for weird, he will be weird for a while. If they pay for heavy, he will program in one of those tedious unaccompanied solos. If they pay for rock, he will include several of the brilliant, intricate, hard-driving passages that are well within his reach as a composer and his band's reach as technicians. If they pay for meaning, he will perform religious commentary like "Aqualung" and "Windup."

There's no need to belabor the obvious when Frank Zappa himself has set it down in an album title: We're Only in It for the Money. The real question is whether the audience gets value, and the answer is "probably." Despite Anderson's veiled contempt, people seem to have their own good time, clapping spontaneously on many occasions, getting off on the drugs that Anderson himself eschews. However unoriginal Anderson's attacks on organized religion--and for that matter, on the rock star trip itself--may appear to the matoor observer, they obviously serve a function for the audience that's listening. And Tull's music does have its virtues, summed up for me by one young fan: "It isn't corny."

But a young fan's corn can be an older one's manna, and when I want to see an embodiment of the spirit of self-conscious critical intellect on the stage, I'll wait for Mick Jagger, who seems positively innocent because he is still capable of having a good time. The Tull concert lasted over two hours, and I got pleasure from perhaps ten minutes of ensemble playing. Such ratios are antilife, and all the anticlerical bull in the world will never redeem that dead time for me. I wonder how the percentage really ran for the rest of the thirty-two thousand.

Newsday, May 1972
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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