The Meandering Hexagon
In Defense of Too Old Too Rock 'N' Roll
Ok, so it's not exactly a fan favorite or a critical darling, but I've always had a soft spot for Tull's 1976 outing. Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die was the 9th album in the Jethro Tull catalog and it follows the immensely strong Minstrel in the Gallery release of 1975, which, in my opinion, is something of a renaissance for the band after they wandered into slightly more abstract territory with War Child and the preceding Passion Play.
Some fans don't like this record. Critic George Starostin's review is pretty 'meh' as are the various reviews on Rolling Stone and Allmusic. Longtime Tull antagonist Chris Welch claims "there are no outstanding songs to speak of" with the exception of track 5. But what true fan gives a rip about Melody Maker any way?
Too Old is, like a lot of Ian Anderson's work, widely misinterpreted. It is not in any way autobiographical (as the songwriter frequently insists) and it was intended to tie in with some other form of media– a stage musical along the lines of Bye Bye Birdie or West Side Story some say.
One might imagine from the accompanying cartoon that it was supposed to be a marriage of rock and comics.
The truth is, it is a bit quirky. And not traditional Jethro Tull quirky either. The eccentric Britishness the band was known for is a bit more muted by American themes here, although the story seems to be set in Britain based on the references to the A1. It's a bit of a hodge podge of the Tull soundscape with Jimmy Dean inspired lyricism.
But it's really good.
Quizz Kid opens the album with a reference to the title track, that seems operatic. The song proper has a kicking riff and a flamboyant acoustic bridge that's totally Tull. The game show theme is very much in keeping with Anderson's ongoing critique of consumerism and post-war culture.
Crazed Institution is one of my favorite Tull tunes of all time. As the high hat kicks in around the second verse, I can't help but get really excited. Ian winks at the audience as he welcomes them to the Universe... a bizarre place full of platinum crucifixes, rosy crowns, and platform soles. This is Jethro Tull at it's finest. Anthemic rock laced with a sense of irony and wit. As causticly irreverent as it is bombastic.
The dual acoustic guitar of Salamander is equally iconic and timeless. When the lyrics swoop in, the tune changes for the worse I feel, but it's still a good number.
Tax Grab is another seminal piece. It's decidedly a hard rocker in the spirit of New York City, and unlike anything else Tull ever recorded. Martin Barre really shines on slide guitar here and the addition of harmonica makes the whole thing pop. I've heard this suggested as a must-hear for new fans. It's easy to understand why.
The aforementioned From a Dead Beat to an Old Greaser is one of the most popular songs on here. It's a touching ballad about times gone by. Tull was never completely of their time anyway, and this nostalgic glance at the past suits them very well.
Bad Eyed and Loveless has always been my least favorite, along with the Chequered Flag, but both have grown on me over the years. They are slower paced, but they have a lot to say.
The other songs that round out the record are a highlight for me. Big Dipper is a carnival-esque tune soaked in pirouetting flute riffs and doused in gallons of humor. Anderson's cheekily offers: "If you're 39 or over, I'll make love to you next Thursday..."
The titular track is an unusual ballad to be sure. It's theatrical even by Jethro Tull standards and the melodramatic chorus somehow reminds me of Fiddler on the Roof.
But I have to admit, this song is absolutely captivating. The lyrics about the aging rocker are haunting. Slowly but surely, all fashions and art movements fade with the passage of time and those who don't evolve get left behind by society quick as a wink. It's a strange ecclesiastical curse on mankind that it's not enough to simply find happiness and joy– one has to hang on to it or else keep searching for the moments over and over again. I often feel like Ray Lomas– as though no one understands just how beautiful yesterday was and how things can never be quite the same again. Like Ray, I want to throw up the finger and drive my bike off a motorway into the sunset rather than face the oblivion of mindless "drinks on a Sunday– work on Monday."
But in Pied Piper, Anderson comes full circle. What was once cool becomes cool again and Ray is back in style. Keeping up the theme of Ecclesiastes– "there is nothing new under the sun."
Really, it's a powerful record. Full of some of Tull's most powerful rock tunes and some philosophical musings on the aging of a medium that was expected to quickly die out. Remember, this was 1976. Pop stars came and went and home video was in it's infancy. The idea of such popular art having a lasting legacy was pretty new too.
And the legacy of this album should last for years to come.
Labels: Jethro Tull