Jethro Tull is one of the groups that shaped the unique and gone musical style of progressive rock. Prog had a uniqueness of variety in sound, with every single group using a different mix of styles and traditions to make their music. Many different combinations of instruments, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, were flourishing during the 70s in order to give some of the greatest musical monuments of the 20th century.
However the 70s are already quite far, more than 40 and up to 50 years, half a century ago. We should get used soon to call with this word another decade, one to come in our century, which is nearer in time. How old is therefore the music produced back at this time? How a song from the 20s, the 1920s would sound back then and how this rock sounds today? This is a story that was told by Jethro Tull, through the music and lyrics of Ian Anderson, in their 1976 album: “Too Old To Rock’n’Roll: Too Young To Die?”.
Back then this album was way underrated. It is quite impressive that it’s the only Jethro Tull album of the 70s that didn’t obtain the “Gold” certification. The critics weren’t nice with it, neither. It was considered a low quality story, narrated over some good music composed and played by some of the most talented bands of the time. That was exactly the “advice” of the Rolling Stone magazine to Jethro Tull and personally Ian Anderson: “stick to music, because he most definitely is not a storyteller”.
Almost half a century later one can see this story, bigger than any rock magazine. From the Rock’n’Roll of the 50s, to the Classic Rock of the 60s, the Prog of the 70s and soon the Punk that broke the stages in the late 70s and early 80s, in order to close the epic rock dream. Babies are born today and live in this music, grow up with rock, put their rock posters on their walls and dress as rock stars of the 80s, the 70s, the 60s in their rebellious teenage.
Is this a cycle? I wouldn’t say so. I mostly see it as a resistance in time. It’s like the old good quality silverware that we don’t want to use anymore and after some time we take it from the cellar to the display case. The difference with this music is that we can use it again, and again, and again… It’s a never ending pleasure, resisting the all-subduing time.
And now comes the question: how can you tell this story if you’re in the middle of it? The answer comes through life. One has not to tell the story of the music but the story of people. The fate of rock music is not unique, is the same for all the human works that resist in time and more interestingly, it’s the fate of humans who live their life by building personalities on time resisting qualities. Therefore, here’s how to tell such a story: through the eyes of a person, who is always smaller than time, but time turns to be very kind with them.
This is the story told in the 9th Jethro Tull studio album, which is one of my favorites and, so, wanted to include in one of my tributes that I transform into articles. This is a great lyrical story, because out of its allegoric meaning about the “resisting in time” concept, for things and music itself, it contains a big part of human feeling explanation, the ups and downs of people who grow up and try to follow the social evolution, not be forgotten or indifferent in their social environment. In the end, it’s a lesson for caring, protect and give to the young as cherishing and love the older, from their explosive and rebellious starts in life to their encores. Because if something is time resisting, this is life, for sure, with its cycles, that have the power to revitalize every breath, every thought and every emotion, for long, longer that we think that we can keep it around.
Let’s go to this narration, now. The story of Ray Lomas, an “old” rock star who is lost into a changing music and fashion. The name Ray Lomas isn’t referred in the lyrics and this is something important about the methodology of this storytelling. If someone listens to the songs, it’s not so easy to understand all the details of the story, which is in parallel explained and evolved in the cartoon strip that was drawn on the sleeves of the LP album.
I found this fact quite interesting, because if someone just ignores the cartoon strip, the meaning of the songs can immediately become more abstract and lead to a deeper reflection of the story concept. Maybe those 70s critics would have to give a chance to this approach as well, if they wanted to truly judge the content of the work to all its extent.
In the original album, the Prelude is not referred and therefore in some early CD versions it is part of the first track (the following one). However, I consider it a true prelude, using the most popular theme of the album and serving as character presentation. That moment of “the old rocker” in the pub is the necessary picture in order to show the hero of the story.
Even if we’ll come back later in this snapshot, a narration without it in the beginning would miss a very important portrait. The chosen lyrics concern only the musical taste and the clothes of the hero, like a photo of him, in order to be able to imagine him. The ballad rhythm is a brilliant introduction and the theme is going to stay in mind through the following variety of rhythmic styles.
Do you remember the nice ballad in the prelude? Forget it. Welcome to reality, a miserable reality, with a lot of distortion. The first song of the album refers to a miserable opportunity that the character finds in a decadent knowledge show in London. We understand that he’ll have to leave home, go down in London, in a different world, where the adventures will take place.
The music style is very Jethrotullian (these are three words, yes) of the 70s. Rhythmic guitar, a heavy bass, some acoustic guitar reefs and many solo flute passages, as if the track was made in some of the previous albums, mostly reminding the Aqualung style, with all its homonymous song content of sympathy to a miserable character.
The Crazed Institution is obviously the crime scene of that misery, the television stage and all of its decadent tv stars, who become popular and famous by the nonsense delirium in the studios that define their everyday “performance” than by the admiration of people for their artistic talent and production, as happened with the rock star who is joining now this dark side.
The major scales in the music are offering a mostly indifferent happiness to the ambience. It’s this kind of gray happiness, the concept of a gay emptiness which is given by the indifferent repeating chords. The melody of the chorus replicates the equally indifferent music of the tv shows. However, the composition is of different quality, in order to be able to describe the miserable scene but not to be miserable itself, as some great reefs of keyboard, guitars and flute are continuously filling the joyous background.
Salamander is an animal associated with witchcraft in the dark ages and in the album it is the name of a gorgeous woman who approaches the hero. As said earlier the personal adventure can be considered allegoric to the popularity of music, fashion, ideas of the past. The “old rocker” doesn’t need the popularity that an idea is seeking in society, but as any heterosexual man, the warm hug of a gorgeous woman, who is shining and coming from another age and another style. She is the perfect one to validate that the rocker is still in the game, he would give everything to win her, he is breathing through her. “Burn for me and I’ll burn for you” is the poetic line of the loving call…
The music definitely changes from the joyous indifference of the first two tracks. The rapid acoustic guitar introduction and brilliant accompaniment by Martin Barre is the carpet, for only 4 lines of lyrics and a long bass and flute musical dialogue performed by Ian Anderson and the late John Glascock. The style reminds some transition from the rock’n’roll to the hippie rock era.
It’s the time for the big step in the rush hour of London. The absence of transport that will take the love for Salamander to a safe place makes Ray to be a rock hero again. They jump in a taxi and he drives them away. He’s thinking of her but she live the contemporary dream, just a daytime adventure. It’s the battle of feelings and fun, what is a necessity for one is a crazy time for the other.
The style is reminding some hard rock moments with the harmonica of the early Jethro Tull albums. The crying guitar with the harmonica are actually brilliantly painting the scenic background of the megacity traffic.
From a Dead Beat to an Old Greaser
The joyous and then emotional rush of the first part is ending with this ballad. This is the first presence of nostalgia in the whole album, and the first narration of hero’s thoughts and his previous life. There is a contrast in music which reflects a contrast in the style of life of that previous era of beats, with Jack Kerouac and René Magritte, to the modern fashion of the telly and the plastic doll women. The title itself describes the desperation for the never returning days, for the fact that the modern beat of the 50s is considered 20 years later just an old greaser, with nothing new to bring to the art, the fashion, the society.
The song is a pure ballad, very emotional, that could be sung with every drink of all these beat, beatniks, hips of the 50s, the counter-culture boys and girls, who traveled the world naked, humiliating the all-joyous post-war world that they were offered. The orchestral strings and the saxophone played by David (Dee) Palmer, is painting in dark but warm colors that era of glory. The harmony is exceptional, in order to make a huge contrast with the repetitive rhythmic reefs of the previous songs.
Bad-Eyed and Loveless
The self-reflection gives way to thoughts about the object of desire, the young woman who changed the perception of time for the rocker. He tries to find a way to defeat her in his mind, as he realizes that he was betrayed, in his old fashioned dream. The only way to do it is by giving way to his best of feelings, his true advantage. He is ready to be helpless for her, because this is the only way to be in advantage. However he understands that she is just a revitalizing vision in his dream to live again the glory of the past.
The music gives way to the blues! An amazing guitar playing by Martin Barre, totally acoustic, in a pure unplugged track, with no other instruments. Ian Anderson’s voice is singing sweetly and ends almost talking, following the emotions reflected in Ray’s thoughts. The poetry is one of its kind, with some ingenious lyrics, playing with the English dictionary in a purely British way.
The rocker has to fight back, re-find himself, his aggressiveness and manly quality as even in his old age he feels that he doesn’t deserve to be defeated by his feelings for a female “treasure”. He thinks about his past, when he was the most attractive thing around, when he could use his charming in order to make life everyday better without caring about the far aging future.
The song is a classic rock with some elements of old-greaser rock’n’roll, even more clear in some vocal passages. It starts with some flute arpege that is followed by the same bass reef of John Glascock and is repeated through the whole track.
Too Old to Rock’n’Roll: Too Young to Die
This is the main song of the story, the peak of the album and of course the one who carries the album title. It’s a summary of the whole story in a poetic narration that can break the nostalgic feelings of the most cold-blood grown man, who had the chance to live some old-fashioned glorious days. This is an anthem to everything that is too old but resists to die, everything that is meant to be repeated again and again, like an always returning pleasure, in a spiral movement around the arrow of the time.
In the story, it’s the moment when the rocker decides to bring the old glory back to the present, in order to get out of all the blue feelings that dominated his mind while sitting and waiting in the Londonian pub. He looks as he was, with his death head buckle, his coughs too tight and his old hair. He never sold his soul down the line and this was actually what kept him not falsely young, but alive. All his friends admitted the truth of the time, gave up a lifestyle to make a life that waits for the end. But he was there to take turns again and again, up on the highway, with 120, with no room left to brake.
The heroic exodus is costly. In the peak of the emotion on the old bike the tears in his eyes make him really fly on a Triumph or Harley as he never did again. Because the returning emotion is always stronger than the first felt one. Even if the accident happens, the passage through this emotional zenith is the proof that no matter how old, if you don’t give up in life you’re always too young to die. And you’re never too old to rock’n’roll if you’re too young to die.
Martin Barre gives the intro in this track, tararam tararam tararam pam, tararam tararam tararam pam… A brilliantly composed ballad with an extremely balanced orchestration where every instrument of the band is visible and essential. The keyboardist John Evan transits from sweet playing to a fast rock’n’roll rhythm in the end. John Glascock participates with bass and vocals. David Palmer added also this orchestral background, with strings and winds that make the song a real epic anthem. The rhythm has it all, from the unplugged, acoustic verses, with Ian Anderson’s travel guitar, to the hard rock chorus and the rock’n’roll version of it in the end.
This is my favorite song, for its music, for its very clear meaning, for its emotional transition, for the sweet nostalgic pictures and every allegory that one can find in the blue suede shoes and the wind-whipped words that echo the final take. It’s my anthem, for every final take with broken brakes, that can brake the soul and the body, but is meant to be repeated, final again and again, in order to give that first feeling of everything, every time as it is meant to be the last one. But it won’t be the last one, as long as we’re too young to die!
The previous song leaves some questions about the fate of the hero. There is a sweet bitter taste for the accident. The catharsis is given immediately in the following one, the Pied Piper. The accident actually wasn’t too serious to give an end, because the rocker was too young to die. When he wakes up he finds out that the fashion that was thought old some time ago, is back again. Actually this was a reality at the time when the punk fashion reproduced the clothing of the rock’n’roll era with the leather jackets that had to be found in the darkest sides of the wardrobes. However, the rocker was the most original hero of his time, once again, ready to live the glory.
The song is written in a major scale, fast but certainly calmer than the first two songs that try to reflect the misery of the decadent post-greaser society. It has a very repetitive theme and it serves more as a comment in the whole story, a comment saying: “oh finally, everything is ok”.
The Chequered Flag
It’s certainly the most emotional song of the album, as it has the duty to tell why all this story is important. Life is never over when you think that your fashion and music are old, however there is a natural chequered flag in the end of it. But how this life has a meaning, not only for one who live is, but for all? As a true artist, Ian Anderson is talking about the seeking of eternity, which is an endeavor of poets, musicians, painters, every great artist in history. He blinks the eye to the history of music by referring “the deaf composer who won’t listen the encore”, making a direct reference to the greatest of all, Ludwig van Beethoven, and his true story. The ultimate desire is always to stay once again in the stand, it feels greater and greater that penultimate moments. However, these playings in the stand are those that made any life, any music, any fashion, any idea, truly great, not meant to be forgotten, serving not only as a memory, but as an inspiration for generations to come. These are the “fashions” of a Shakespeare and a Beethoven.
The music is based on the string orchestra, while the rock band is playing to a common style of ballad in slow tempo. The touches of every instrument are adding emotion, as they don’t consist any kind of virtuoso playing, but they are those that distinguish a great musical expressionist from a gifted hand user. The amazing guitar playing by Martin Barre in this song is the best example for this.
No, you’re never too old to Rock’n’Roll if you’re too young to die!