Up the Downstair

Being a weeklie podcaste from Madison, Wisconsin featuring several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of live music from divers artistes

Ears of Tin

October 13th, 2006

The latest issue of Madison’s alternative weekly, Isthmus, has a little blurb about the tomorrow’s performance by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull here in town. The piece’s author, Eric Lipton, wrote it in faux Elizabethan English. For example, here’s the opening:

Good morrow to ye, m’lords and ladies of Madisonshire. Pray sit as I give tell of a minstrel of goodly repute a-visiting our fine village.

On the one hand, I thought it was amusing. But on the other, I’m pretty sure that it was meant as an insult; to disparage a fairly major musician whose visit can’t be ignored yet, at the same time, can’t be embraced. There can be little doubt that Isthmus won’t greet Bo Diddley’s appearance here next week by writing a piece in faux Mississippi vernacular and ending by commenting on who built the stage upon which he is to perform. None of this should be surprising, however, as the music press has generally been hostile to progressive rock over the years.

Concomitant to Lipton’s piece is The Onion’s Inventory this which is a list of 17 Essential Books About Popular Music. The list has books by Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, and Robert Christgau who, perhaps along with Simon Frith, could be considered to be the Founding Fathers of pop music criticism. None are (or were) particularly favorable to progressive rock with Marsh & Bangs, at least, having been quite derisive in the past decades.

Most of the animosity of the pop music press towards prog stems from the Marxist approach pioneered by the likes of the folks above. These critics argue that, since rock’n'roll stems from the music of the lower classes – blues/R&B and country/bluegrass – then “good” or “legitimate” rock music (and pop generally) has very tenable links to the lower classes. From its beginning to its heyday (1969-1975), many and the most popular prog bands looked to Western art music for inspiration and adopted or adapted some of its forms. For critics who came of age during the rebellious late 1960s, the appropriation of the music of the bourgeois severed the links between this type of rock music and its plebian origins. While I don’t have the quote at hand, Marsh once wrote something along the lines of “Progressive rock is divorced from the taproot of the music – blues and folk.” This notion that prog is simply a translation of Bach into rock belies the fact that prog has always been a rather large tent that encompasses a variety of bands, many of whom didn’t appropriate Western art music. Unfortunately, this approach to progressive rock became pervasive and I think that it still prevails today.

Going back to Lipton’s piece, I do want to point out that attendees are not likely to hear “Songs From the Wood” as he writes. While it may be inserted into the set, the song has not yet been played on this orchestral jaunt across America. However, concertgoers will hear “Thick as a Brick” and “Aqualung”. Interestingly, these 3 songs have absolutely nothing to do with the “Elizabethan rock” image that Tull acquired in the mid-70s. If there is a Jethro Tull album which would inspire you to start talking like Shakespeare, it would be 1975’s Minstrel in the Gallery with its cover featuring a jester entertaining a group of courtiers. Aside from an album cover or two and Anderson’s stage outfit from 1974-75, Tull’s has had little to do with the late 16th century.

On other hand, Anderson has cultivated the jester image through most of his career even if he adopted the uniform for only a year or so. But his persona as well as his flute playing also owe a great deal to jazz musician Rashaan Roland Kirk. Tull’s music and Anderson’s lyrics have never really been enamored of the Elizabethan Age. They started out heavily influenced by blues & jazz; they moved on to hard and then progressive rock; in 1982, they successfully fused rock and English folk with the then-new synthesizer; later Tull efforts have looked to the Asian Sub-Continent for inspiration and color. So, while sounding like Shakespeare is somewhat apt in a comedic sense, it’s unfortunate that a discussion, however brief, of the wonderful and varied music that Anderson and Tull have made for nearly 40 years escapes most writers.

Related posts:

  1. PROG @ The Overture Center
  2. PROG Returns
  3. PROG @ High Noon
  4. Ian Anderson Returns to Madison
  5. ProgFest in Madtown?

6 Responses to “Ears of Tin”

  1. The concert was amazing by the way.

    I am still hoping for an actual Jethro Tull concert next year, but the orchestra/Ian Anderson show was very impressive.

  2. Palmer says:

    I wish I could have been there. I didn’t go mainly due to financial issues.

    Did I ever get you a copy of the Tull show from here in Madison in 2004?

  3. Eric Lipton says:

    Some good points, but there’s no anti-Anderson conspiracy. I just felt like writing some Elizabethan insults, like “Pox-ridden hedge-born doxie” and the like.

    Just kidding. But I thought it would brighten up a write-up for Tull, which being an 80-year-old band, has kind of been written-up to death.

    And yes, while much of Tull isn’t “fairie-like” in individual chunklets, as a whole the albums, even the later ones like “Too old for rock and roll, too young to die” still have that flavor. (The accent, the scales, the jaunty flute… Come on…)

    And of course I wouldn’t write in a Mississippean dialect without decent cause. There’s a history of racists and bigots using the dialect to demean southern blacks in this nation, and it would only be stoked if a white guy used that dialect solely for a joke. There may be humourous ways to do so without coming across as a prick, but it’s ridiculous to compare that with talking in faux-Elizabethen-speak.

    That, of course, only stokes our nation’s history of bigotry against Ren Faire attendees, which is pretty much OK.

  4. Palmer says:

    Hi Eric,
    You just give me so much to bitch & complain about. ;)
    I don’t feel that you’re a part of an anti-Anderson conspiracy. But please name any other act that you’ve done a write-up for which you did in anything other than standard 20th/21st century English. Heck, maybe you’ve done it before – I don’t honestly know. I didn’t attend the show, but looking at the tour setlists, every one mentions that IA was accompanied by one Ann Marie Calhoun, a bluegrass fiddler. Surely this is worthy of inclusion in a write-up of the show as is the fact that they would be playing some of her songs in addition to Tull tunes. Was the Mississippi dialect vs. faux Elizabethan analogy 100% accurate? Perhaps not. But it seems like you spent more time trying to be clever than actually attempting to give folks an idea of what would be happening that night.
    I’d argue that the vast majority of Tull’s output isn’t “fairie-like”. And TOTRnR is a later one? 12 albums and 30 years ago?

  5. eric lipton says:

    Okay. Ahem.

    I will admit to you, your readers and all the world that yes, I was just trying something different, something clever and frankly, wound up being too clever by half.

    There is little question that I could have gone into much more detail about the show or, I don’t know, music but noooo, I had to go try and liven the thing up with a list of elizabethan insults I found on the web. When I fail, I like to fail all muskets blazing.

    Since my column tends to be focused more on the, let’s say, less fanatic or less frequest goers-to-concerts in the Madison community, I find I need to walk a tightrope of being interesting or funny and still informing and blah blah blah blah blah.

    Okay! It was a bad column! A mangy dog of a column. You can’t win them all…

    And I was looking over my clips and it does seem i get a little harsh on prog rock, but its out of love for the genre. Really. I can hum all of Atom Heart Mother — not just the suite, but through the whole album. Even that throwaway breakfast song.

    And you’re right about 2old2rockNroll2young2die being more aged than I thought. I placed it early 80s for some reason, post-Beast. Unfortunately looking that up reminded me of 1999 “J-TullDotCom” album and now I hate them again.

  6. Palmer says:

    If I may quote Rick from The Young Ones: Clever-trousers!

    Record yourself humming “If” and I’ll post it here.

    I wouldn’t have minded the Elizabethan thing if you’d included something like, “Anderson will be accompanyed by AMC, a bluegrass fiddler of som renowne.” So please do continue to mix things up but, if there’s no substance, expect another reprimand. ;)

    Part of my post was a reaction to years of Isthmus (mostly Laskin, I suspect) ignoring or bashing prog. To be sure, certain artists get a pass such as King Crimson and the solo offshoots of various members. Mostly, though Isthmus ignores or just makes fun of it. Someone in town is trying to organize a small prog festival here in Madison (in addition to one in Milwaukee) next year to benefit charity and I can just see how Isthmus will portray it now – a bunch of wankers onstage playing cold, heartless music in odd time signatures to a bunch of fat, white, and male Dungeon & Dragons players in the audience.

    I was disappointed but not surprised that Isthmus completely avoided anything about Porcupine Tree last year. Granted, they did not come to Madison, but did make 2 stops in Milwaukee. I thought an article about a prog band being signed to a major label (and even lasting more than 1 album) would have made some good fodder for folks who use “alternative” as every other word. They worked their way up by recording, touring, and lots of word of mouth instead of music videos and Top 40 radio stations. PT have caused quite a stir amongst prog fans. Truth be known, there are lots of new prog bands (not all good, I grant you), prog festivals around the world, indie labels that specialize in the genre, etc. Fans of Marillion created a tour fund in 1997 via the web to get the band over here in the States which it wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. And the band used the Net to completely change their business model. (See http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep03/articles/marillion.htm) Prog is doing pretty well and has mostly been a DIY thing for the past 10+ years.

    By all this long-windedness, I mean to say that, when I read an article on prog that seems to just say the SOS about the genre (that it can’t be taken seriously, it purveyed by dinosaurs, etc) I saw your piece that way and got defensive. So nothing personal. I look forward to reading your article on clogging. ;)

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