In 1989, thrash metal pioneers Metallica were the biggest band in metal and were on the verge of becoming the biggest band in music. As such, their high-speed, ferocious assault on the American dream, And Justice For All, was everyone’s favorite contender for the newly introduced Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Performance. At last, heavy music was getting some of the recondition it deserved. Then the unthinkable happened!! The envelop was opened and the award went, not to Metallica… but to long shot Jethro Tull, for their new album Crest of a Knave.
The producers raced to cut to a commercial, as some audience members booed. The disappointed shock was understandable. The members of Jethro Tull did not even attend the ceremony, since they viewed their winning as extremely unlikely. Much of the rock community was oblivious to the fact Tull was even still together, much less that they had recently released an album. Furthermore many still do not consider their music to be hard rock, much less heavy metal. After all, their albums tended to be dominated by acoustic pieces, they are highly influenced by British folk, and most of all: their singer plays the freaking Flute!!!!! Their confusing name, and even more confusing lyrics also do not help. Ironically, when Metallica did eventually win in 1991, they made a point of thanking Jethro Tull for not releasing an album that year.
Arguably, the 1989 Grammy win was not purely for Crest of a Knave, which is a solid release, but for the group’s legacy of inventive music that was exemplified by their fourth album and commercial break through 197 1’s “Aqualung“. I always found it interesting that Tull never developed the fandom among the younger generation that their contemporaries Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and David Bowie did. I discovered Aqualung around the time, I got into these others and found it to be a very compelling release, that was any many respects much ahead of it’s time.
The album features an unsavory look lower class life, tales of debauchery and a harsh criticism of organized religion, that dominates the second half of the record. The title track, which has become a staple of classic rock radio, introduces it’s titular character: an aged homeless, drunk who eye young girls “with bad intent”. All this is put to a nasty proto-metal riff that must have sounded wild when it came out in 1970. The next track introduces us to a school yard prostitute and we role through a mess of snarling vocal, British folk sensibilities and random flute solos. Just the subject matter alone was more than most bands at the time were willing to tackle.
The second half opens with a track called My God, which subversively tells us that religious practitioners have locked their God in a golden caged and forced his resurrection. “He is the God of nothing if that’s all that you can see. You are God of everything, he’s inside you and me” the song states, expressing a great dislike for the preachings of “the bloody church of England in the chains of history”. Despite this some of the lyrics do leave room for at least some possible belief in a vague spirituality. The track describes Jesus as follows:
And the graven image you-know-who —
With His plastic crucifix —
He’s got him fixed —
Confuses me as to who and where and why —
As to how he gets his kicks.
This dislike of Christianity spreads, through the remaining tracks. Hymn 43 describes a heavenly father smiling upon his children, who are occupied with money, women and guns. It also, alludes to Holywood’s positive spin on the murder of native American’s in the name of the Christian God. The closing track Wind Up, laments the enforced conformity and drudgery of religious schooling, which has is implied to teach children to wind their gods up on Sundays.The album’s art work features images of poverty juxtaposed to alcohol driven partying, moralism and commercialism. It also features the following faux bible verses:
In the beginning Man created God; and in the image of Man created he him. And Man gave unto God a multitude of names,that he might be Lord of all the earth when it was suited to Man… And Man became the God that he had created and with his miracles did rule over all the earth.
I cannot say I know what the message of the album is supposed to be, but it definitely celebrates British life while, throwing the finger at Victorian religious hypocrisy. It laments the loss of a human spirit which it speaks of in religious terms, and definitely indites post-Victorian Christianity for stifling the human spirit. At least that’s what I think.
Needless to say, the album makes for a fun, raw and rather dark offering for fans of seventies rock. It’s strange mix of English folk, proto-metal guitar riffs, abrasive vocals and flute-oriented Jazz remains quite unique, and it’s take on taboo subject matter makes it way ahead of it’s time and an interesting listen.