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.