September 11, 2022

It’s hard to imagine a more suitable Jethro Tull album to reissue on vinyl than their colossal 1972 concept record Thick As A Brick, and that’s no small statement considering its stiff competition. Of course, the preceding album Aqualung is widely considered the crown jewel of the mighty Tull oeuvre with its monster signature pieces, still selling like hotcakes to this day like some sort of flute-laden counterpoint to Dark Side Of The Moon. And 1969’s Stand Up remains a pricey and sought-after title on original vinyl, with its novelty pop-up gatefold sleeve causing miniature versions of the band members to spring to life each time it is opened. But whatever your favourite might be, there can be no debate that when it comes to vinyl, the original Thick As A Brick is the heavyweight champion of the Tull catalogue, and the reason is its delightfully eccentric packaging.

Despite numerous reissues over the decades, this new 50th anniversary edition marks the first time the original 12-page newspaper has been faithfully reproduced to form the actual album sleeve, as it was back in 1972. The mock paper was written by Ian Anderson, John Evan, and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, and allegedly took longer to create than the music did to record. It also led to a legion of fans genuinely believing the lyrics were penned by the fictional child character on the cover, Gerald Bostock, rather than Anderson himself. It’s a hilarious experience to thumb through, and far more immersive in comparison with the average LP which tended to offer simple liner notes and lyrics. Python-esque humour abounds (with such headlines as ‘Mongrel Dog Soils Actor’s Foot’ and ‘Non-Rabbit Missing’), in the television listings (‘Bible Stories – This Week’s Guest: Aleister Crowley’), and even crossword puzzles and connect-the-dots. How many crate diggers over the years have stumbled upon originals and flipped straight to these pages to ensure they weren’t defaced by enthusiastic fans or their unknowing children, dragging the value down with every stroke of the pen? Plenty, I’d wager.

I’m quite sure Thick As A Brick would’ve been very different-sounding if somebody else had played drums other than Barrie Barlow.

Ian Anderson

It’s an absolutely brilliant and one of a kind album sleeve, and takes us back to an age where one sat in front of the stereo reading along with the accompanying material. In fact, It might take longer to read the paper than it does to listen to the music! Having never owned the original myself (hey, it came out the year I was born, gimme a break), I must say it’s a delight to finally experience it in all its glory, and I now understand why it was such a bugbear for record shop owners who complained that it wouldn’t sit properly in their racks. It even feels strange, almost exotic, like no other record I’ve held. I’d only ever owned budget LP reissues or versions with miniature replicas of the newspaper reformatted to fit CDs and boxed sets (later this fall, the decade-old CD/DVD surround sound edition is also seeing a reissue, hopefully taming the monstrous secondhand price tags which grow ever skyward). Even the 2015 vinyl reissue converted the packaging to a more modern booklet. It’s surprising that it took this long to finally reproduce an authentic newspaper edition, but then what better opportunity than the album’s 50th anniversary? A word of caution however: the record itself is housed only in a paper sleeve (an odd oversight for a project of this scope), so some protective measures right from the word go would be a wise move. Thankfully, most vinyl-heads have a stockpile of poly sleeves at the ready for just such an occasion. And if you’ve ever seen fifty year-old newspapers, you know they yellow and tear easily, so perhaps the whole thing should be housed in a more preservative sleeve to keep it in tip-top shape as it whiles away the coming years on your shelf.

photo by Didi Zill

As we know, the music itself is as dazzling as the sleeve. And although asking ten different fans for their favourite might garner ten different answers, it’s hard to argue with anyone who cites Thick As A Brick as absolute peak Tull. Certainly the lineup was rock solid, and the band’s foundations had not been so rattled as in later days when 30 or so members had come and gone. There had been only three changes at the time of Brick‘s birth, and newest boy Barriemore Barlow was keen to impress with his chops and skill on his first full album with Tull. The extended title opus – spread across the two sides of vinyl – became the band’s most elaborate to date, and the music was more complex and cleverly arranged than ever before.

Even on the hundredth listen, Thick As A Brick is quite something to take in. Dropping the needle, we are instantly transported to a different age. The still young and strong-lunged Anderson ardently delivers tuneful vocals amid his own sputtering flute trills and nimble acoustic fingerpicking, while Martin Barre fires off formidable solos and accents the wild free-for-all sections with delicious lead lines. Barre was the single most important and valuable addition to the Tull lineup in my estimation, and Brick was really where he came into his own, flawlessly weaving his parts into ambitious compositions and even throwing in a dose of lute for good measure (in the ‘Poet and the wise man’ section on side two). Who says rock music can’t feature lute?

For that matter, there is a broader range of instrumentation here than in the past. Evan – one of the most underrated musicians in rock history and absolutely mesmerizing here – employs harpsichord and glockenspiel alongside his piano, organ, and synthesizer, and Dee (then David) Palmer provides her usual outstanding orchestral arrangements, just a few years shy of becoming a full-time member of the jolly Jethros herself. Anderson is also credited with violin, trumpet and saxophone, though the latter was not used as prominently as it would be on the following two albums (some might say thankfully so – including Anderson). This is all a long way from the sound of Benefit only two albums before. Even good ol’ Hammond (Jeffrey, not the organ) was executing sometimes tricky bass lines despite his own admission of not being a natural or professional player. Those sixteenth notes near the finale (leading into the reprise of ‘So where the hell was Biggles…’) are mighty impressive for someone who wasn’t even a ‘proper musician’ (again, his words). One can only imagine how swamped he must have felt in the middle of all this challenging music, but he executed it beautifully.

We all had that schoolboy sense of humour throughout the album… the humour of those times went into the cover.

Martin Barre

Steven Wilson’s well-received 2012 remix is used here, and it sounds spectacular, like the windows have been flung open and the sunlight and fresh air have come flooding in. It’s lively, crystal clear, and with untarnished dynamics. There is great depth, and details I swear I’ve never heard before (and for anyone interested, Anderson’s closing ‘Yeah’, inexplicably lopped off the 2015 reissue, has been restored). The record has a full, rich and vibrant sound courtesy of the half-speed mastering technique used, which results in a clearer separation of instruments and a boost to the trebly end (it’s said that this technique suits classical and jazz recordings for this reason, perhaps less appropriate for bass-heavy music like dance or hip-hop). Much ado will be made in certain circles about why this new edition was not pressed on 180 gram vinyl, but personally I’m of the opinion that there’s too much importance placed on that. Rest assured, this pressing is a winner.

Although the original mix was very good indeed, there was nonetheless room for minor improvements, particularly during the ‘bigger’ full band moments where there was occasionally a cramped atmosphere (nothing like the muddy Aqualung, mind you). Unlike some, I don’t automatically love everything Wilson touches, but of all his remix projects, the Tull albums are the ones that benefit (a ha!) the most to my ears. He is not radical in his approach, and the overall feel is not altered or artificially updated to meet some contemporary sonic ideal; it still sounds like the 1970s album that we love. Wilson surely could have opted for more sweeping changes, but he knows the Tull community well (being a card-carrying member himself) and I think he values his life too much to monkey around with a sacred masterpiece such as this.

There are moments on Brick that are so thrillingly stirring, one can’t help but be completely overtaken by them. I distinctly remember hearing for the first time one of the many climaxes (‘Let me tell you the tales of your life…’) and being so moved by it that I helplessly emitted a sound of pure, unbridled joy. This is how the best music can affect those of us who are so naturally invested in it. And Brick has literally dozens of those moments dotted across its long journey; from calm to chaos, whimsy to venom, poetry to drollery. For an album with such frequent shifts in meter, abrupt transitions, and no conventional song structure, it’s a remarkably accessible and timeless work. Word on the street is that only 2000 copies of this one were pressed. So come on, you childhood heroes… you really will mind if you sit this one out.