Revisiting Jethro Tull’s Stripped-Down ‘War Child’
Jethro Tull's seventh album, 1974's War Child, was born during a particularly awkward transitional period. The year before, frontman Ian Anderson and company released A Passion Play, a darkly ambitious prog-rock concept album focused on the afterlife, but despite the music's unbridled creativity, critics lambasted its punishing density and cluttered story. Hurt by the abusive reviews, the band went so far as to announce their "retirement," with Anderson focusing his energies on writing and directing a film project.
"The astoundingly negative criticism we received definitely affected us," Anderson told the Los Angeles Times in 1974. "I'd be less than human if my blood didn't boil when I read that some punk kid journalist — barely out of his nappies, no doubt — has written that our music is bad and unimaginative. That's terribly destructive criticism ... and certainly unjustified. It hurt all of us a great deal. The 'retirement', though, was really just a pause we wanted to take. In six years, we had made seven albums and toured America alone something like 19 times. We had to switch off the motor. But we knew that nobody — managers, agents and record company people — would take us seriously if we didn't put it in drastic terms."
The screenplay to the film Anderson was working on was loosely based on the Passion Play concept, focusing on the afterlife journey of a young girl who died during a car accident.
"At face value, the songs are whimsical, lighter in subject matter and, above all, short!" Anderson writes in the liner notes to the 2002 reissue of the War Child album, which collects 10 disparate songs intended to form the foundation of a traditional soundtrack. "Strange, then, that the two albums are strongly linked, in that the Passion Play subject was rewritten as a potential movie synopsis and I thought, 'Let's make the album first and the movie afterwards.'"
Anderson developed the production quite a bit, even recruiting 'Monty Python''s John Cleese to assist as a humor consultant – but the project fell through due to creative and logistic complications. "Hollywood production required American stars, total production control and a bankable director," he writes. "I required a quick think and an exit."
The seeds of the LP date back to Tull's aborted "Chateau D'Isaster" sessions from late 1972 and early 1973, during which time three tracks – the bouncy staple "Bungle in the Jungle," the acoustic gem "Only Solitaire" and the triumphant singalong "Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day" – were originally recorded and then shelved. Other tracks were composed by Anderson during the second half of the infamous Passion Play jaunt.
"We're all animals, competing, aggressive, out to win at the expense of others," Anderson told Circus magazine that year. "And we have our codes, our rules and laws that we've invented which are convenient within the context that we operate. At this point in history, the rules are one way. They change throughout the ages. But if aggression and competition is what everybody wants to do then I'll go along with it. The overall theme of 'War Child' is that all of us have a very aggressive instinct which is something we're occasionally able to use for the betterment of ourselves. At other times, aggression at its worst is used as a very destructive element. When it's not at its worst it remains merely comical. I don't think that aggression is such an evil thing."
Despite its heavy lyrical themes, War Child finds Anderson and his seasoned bandmates – drummer Barrie Barlow, guitarist Martin Barre, bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, keyboardist John Evan and orchestral arranger David Palmer – in an overall quirkier and lighter mood. Throughout, they ease off the musical gas pedal, offering fewer capital-R rock moments and adding stronger emphasis on pop song structures. Ironically, that stripped-back focus earned another round of hostile reviews – even from critics who whined about the excess of A Passion Play. But its accessibility paid off on the Billboard chart, with the album reaching No. 2.
One of the album's most radio-tailored tracks, "Bungle in the Jungle," was thought by fans to be a reference to the iconic "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight boxing bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. But Anderson set the record straight in a backward-glancing interview with SongFacts. "Since 'Bungle in the Jungle' had been released in the year 1974 on the War Child album, 'Rumble in the Jungle' may have been taken from that, because that took place on the 30th of October in 1974," he said. "Maybe they were alluding to what was a well played song, even on AM radio."
There's an appealing messiness to War Child – from the diversity of the instrumentation (loads of accordion and sax) to the sprawl of its lyrical content (the critic bitch-slap of "Only Solitaire"). But, perhaps as a result of that messiness, the album isn't as cohesive as its immediate predecessors or the following year's Minstrel in the Gallery. After their recent prog-rock explosions, Anderson had rewired the band's sound, downplaying instrumental virtuosity in favor of concise whimsicality. But the band sounds altogether bored at times, particularly during the sluggish opening one-two punch of the title track and "Queen and Country."
Still, War Child eventually warms up after that initial lull, spawning a handful of classic Tull tunes. "Ladies" is one of Anderson's most distinct acoustic moments, utilizing perky hand claps and Hammond's warm stand-up bass; "Back Door Angels" is the album's rock centerpiece, allowing Evan a much-needed showcase for his colorful organ and synth; and "Skating Away" ranks among the most essential Tull pieces, opening as a straightforward folk track before layering in an arsenal of instruments (electric guitar, bass, brushed drums, xylophone and accordion) into a headphone-spanning patchwork.
The 2002 reissue is the essential version, compiling five bonus rarities cut from the final track list – including the instrumental classical-jazz mind-melter "Quartet." Many of these leftovers feature lush string arrangements by soon-to-be-official band member Palmer, whose importance was acknowledged by Anderson in the liner notes: "I dedicate this remaster to David Palmer for the many years of orchestral arranging excellence which he brought to the band."
Overall, it's best to consider War Child in its historical context. After a grueling six years of constant envelope-pushing, Anderson and crew had rightfully earned the chance to refine and reign back. War Child isn't one of the great Jethro Tull works, but it's still an important step in their constant evolution, paving the way for 1975's Minstrel, an album that better balanced their technical dexterity and melodic focus.
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