In this extract from Mike Barnes’ new book A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & The 1970s, Mike reveals how the manager of Jethro Tull and editor of Melody Maker concocted a fake news story long before present day politicians.
The 600-page book, published last week by Omnibus Press and edited by yours truly, examines the myths and misconceptions surrounding prog rock. Mike paints a vivid and at times amusing picture of the Seventies and the milieu which enabled prog to thrive and, in some cases, throw up groups like Pink Floyd and Genesis who went on to long-lasting international and commercial success.
It is 1972 and Jethro Tull are smarting from criticism aimed at their album Thick As A Brick. However, whatever barbs caused the group to chafe over these reviews was nothing compared to what would happen when their next LP landed on reviewers’ desks.
The press were now primed for Jethro Tull’s increasing ambitions, and the overall critical view of the equally ambitious A Passion Play would be almost universally negative. And with hindsight this is much easier to understand.
A Passion Play is basically a concept album about a recently deceased person (Ronnie Pilgrim) and his journey through the afterlife. This has come to light more recently, but at the time it came across like an ill thought out mystery film, where the audience is fed cryptic clues as if when they all fit together, but at the completion of the puzzle some pieces don’t quite fit and others seem to have become lost, leaving everyone scratching their heads.
And, indeed, the album was intended to be made into a film, but that venture fell through, although video footage was shown during the group’s live shows. The album has its many champions and was again number one in the US and number 13 in the UK. It was also critically savaged.
Lyrically, Thick As A Brick was at least partially comprehensible and poetically quite attractive. A Passion Play has some interesting imagery, but is less comprehensible. But all that could be forgiven if the music had been of better quality. There were times on Thick As A Brick when its complexity seemed a tad gratuitous. But that was nothing compared to its successor, where everything feels over ornamented in a way that both fails to serve the song-sections and produces a huge accretion of detail that quickly becomes wearisome. Some parts are impressive – the ‘Overseer Overture’ in particular – but if ever a Seventies progressive rock album warranted a panning for being over-wrought, this is the one.
It includes a faux children’s tale, ‘The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles’. This was meant to serve as light relief – and its chamber ensemble backing is quite sweet – but the recitation, with its groan-inducing punch line “The hare had a spare pair” delivered by Jeffrey Hammond in a toe-curling, exaggerated comedy Northern accent, makes one so glad that it’s over that for a minute or two, it’s actually a relief to be plunged back into more of the brain-curdling bombast.
But why was it all so indigestibly over-egged? Ian Anderson offers these views: “It’s a pain in the arse,” he admits. “There is just too much going on, but it was done with a cheerful innocence. Not only I, but members of the band, would come up with ideas of layering things and complex rhythms that were demanding on the ear. We all got carried away and as a record producer, I should have had more discipline and taken a bunch of stuff out of the arrangements.
“But it was difficult to tell enthusiastic musicians in a band, to ‘just play 4/4 drums through this [section]’. You feel like you are hampering somebody and taking something away from them, because they want to be creative and do something interesting.
“But I would be the first person to say – and I knew this pretty soon on as when we started playing it live on stage – there is too much stuff happening; it’s too incessant. There are sections where the music opens right out, and there are quiet and rather stark passages that are slower and more open but when the band come crashing in it does tend to get a bit daunting.” He also picks out his “bloody saxophones” as something the album could have done without.
Anderson’s relationship with the music press always seemed uneasy, especially around this time, but now seems to have become rather ameliorated through the passing of time.
“It wasn’t uneasy on my part,” he asserts. “It was just that people understandably couldn’t be supportive if they didn’t’ like something that you did or they felt that your time had come and gone, and they shouldn’t be in hock to your record company or you just because you were pals.
“So for example Chris Welch of Melody Maker decided that he’d be supportive of us, but had to be seen to be an independent mind, dish out some bad reviews and not be tarnished with the idea that you were somehow a tame journalist.”
Steven Rosen of American magazine Circus spoke to Anderson in 1975, by which time Jethro Tull had been generally accepted back into the critical fold. But it exemplifies the power of music journalists who could dish it out and then retreat back to their bunkers. Readers who sent letters into the Gasbag page in New Musical Express would almost inevitably end up slightly humiliated as the more articulate, older journalist editing the column would always have the last word. Anderson clearly found all this frustrating. One needs to recall that he was, at this time, only a young man thrust into the spotlight and trying to make sense of the dichotomy between huge sales and critical opprobrium.
“If somebody says, ‘I think your music is shitty’, that’s like saying, ‘I think your wife’s a whore’,”, he told Rosen. “And I get very angry when people say that behind my back or via the unassailable media of the press. Because I’m not in a position to defend it and I won’t be brought out or taunted by public criticism into answering it back in the same medium. Because I can never win, I’m not a journalist, and I’m not in a position to see that my words remain undistorted or in the true context when they finally appear in print… I have a fairly low opinion of the press because I think it plays way below the average level of intelligence of the audience who reads it.”
Record companies spent a considerable amount of money taking journalists on a press junkets in the hope of good reviews. Chris Welch recalls being flown to Tokyo in 1972 by Island Records to see Emerson, Lake & Palmer, where he saw the rivalry between Progressive rock’s rising stars at first hand:
“We arrived at the Hilton Hotel in Tokyo and just as we walked in – Keith [Emerson], Carl [Palmer] and myself, and a photographer – through the other glass doors came Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull. They were playing a concert in Tokyo that night, and because we were at the Hilton, Ian Anderson took one look at them, said, ‘I’m not saying at the Hilton with ELP’, turned around and stormed out. They walked out and booked themselves into another hotel. It was exactly like Spinal Tap.”
Welch’s album review of A Passion Play and assessment of Jethro Tull’s live show live show were both critical, but seem fair and considered. Speaking to the journalist now there is no sense that he suddenly felt obliged to mete out a panning. Fellow Melody Maker writer Chris Charlesworth offers a second opinion: “I sat next to Chris Welch during A Passion Play at the Empire Pool. We were both bored stiff. The audience was bored too, and were making paper darts out of the programme and flying them around.”
What happened next was the single most bizarre outcome of a clash between the music press and a group. Jethro Tull announced their retirement.
Jethro Tull’s manager Terry Ellis told Rob Partridge, news editor at of Melody Maker, that his charges were retiring due to the “abuse” that they had received from critics
“I say abuse and I mean abuse – it certainly wasn’t fair criticism. In a lot of cases critics have been taking advantage of their unassailable position to be abusive,” he told MM.
“Ian Anderson is extremely brought down by it all. When he reads in the music papers ‘Passion Play is bad’ he feels terrible, his life is music. The abuse is psychologically wearing him down and he feels it’s not fair to perform under this pressure.”
In their statement last week the band announced their retirement would be for an indefinite period. But how long is “indefinite?”
“If I could say one month or even 10 years, it would be a definite period.”
At the time fans didn’t know what to make of it. This hugely popular band suddenly seemed revealed as a bunch of cry-babies because some people had the temerity to point out to them that A Passion Play was such a towering folly.
“This gave the impression that the band had broken up and I was somehow responsible,” Welch explains. “The MM ran a ‘shock’ front page news story about the decision. It wasn’t until some years later I learned that the story had been the result of deal between MM editor Ray Coleman and Tull manager Terry Ellis, without reference to me. As it turned out JT came back with a new album War Child a year later in 1974 and announced a long world tour to promote it. My feelings about it all? Well, I was surprised the editor felt greater loyalty to the music biz than to his staff but at least I hadn’t upset Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin and caused them to ’break up.’ That could have been rather more awkward.”
Anderson had been cited as being part of the perpetrators of this story, but he puts the blame squarely on Ellis and Coleman and opines now that the whole scam was “ridiculous”.