A Hellish Chorus: Social Criticism in Thick as a Brick

December 8th, 2008

At first exposure, Jethro Tull’s 44-minute song Thick as a Brick may seem to be filled with nothing more than a bizarre and incomprehensible string of lyrics. Ian Anderson called it a “spoof” of other concept albums, and the album insert is a mock newspaper whose articles make ridiculous, seemingly accidental references to the song. The fictional back-story of the lyrics—that they were written for a contest by an eight-year-old boy named Gerald Bostock—further downplay their significance. According to the newspaper insert, Bostock’s poem actually won the contest at first, before a “hastily reconvened panel of Judges accepted the decision by four leading child psychiatrists that the boy’s mind was seriously unbalanced and that his work was a product of an ‘extremely unwholesome attitude towards life, his God and Country’” (1).[*] The comically severe traditionalism of their assessment highlights the poem’s atmosphere of satire and self-ridicule. The same article indicates that some who were exposed to Bostock’s work “felt that it was not one poem but a series of separate poems put together merely to appear impressive” (1). Their complaint feels superficial, as does most of the article, because disjointedness is precisely the point. Thick as a Brick expresses generalized social alienation: the semblance of a unified narrative is elusive because Bostock’s disaffection has no monolithic source.

The first two segments of the poem introduce the theme of broad social criticism whose motive is hard to pinpoint. Here, the theme takes on a persona, an undefined “you,” who seems to be under fire from another conflicting persona, the speaker “I.” This voice accuses “you” of being figuratively deaf, inattentive, and unthinking. The “you” entity is also tired and isolated from the “wise men,” intelligentsia and elites, who “don’t know how it feels to be thick as a brick”—to be perceived as stupid and therefore alien (2).[†] “You” are thus in a position to feel disillusioned with the system, yet “you” lack the awareness to understand exactly why. Old, fragile, “sand-castle virtues” are inevitably “swept away” to make space for new ones, but “your” hope and idealism surrounding this process are illusions: “you” believe you have “new shoes,” but they are actually “worn at the heels”; “you” believe you have a “suntan,” but it’s actually a burn. Beginning the poem with such an accusatory, critical representation of the social critic shows that the “writer” means to include himself (social critic in another form) in his broad assault on modern culture.

The next stanza introduces yet another undefined speaker who attributes little hope to the rebellion of stanza 2. This speaker says, “the love that I feel is so far away: I’m a bad dream that I just had today,” evoking a distant romanticism which is unattainable because of the speaker’s own willful ignorance and traditionalism, suggested by the compulsion to look backward to “the days of my youth” and to “shut out the whole truth” (3, 4). Because the speaker is so closed-minded, “you” are unsympathetic, saying only “it’s a shame” (3). At this point, it doesn’t matter who “you” and “I” are—somebody clings to a memory for comfort and somebody else denies that comfort. This emotional exchange resonates both with the conservative who is sad to see the old ways dying off and with the powerless idealist who is misunderstood by the system. As the poem progresses, the roles of “you” and “I” will return periodically in even more indeterminate forms, integrating listener, author, and characters in a network of language.

The “ages” themselves, in the form of endless historical examples, seem to be “sing[ing]” as the song moves on to describe how children are pigeonholed into a contradictory and limiting social order from the start (4). This narrative may be the traditionalist reminiscence of the speaker from stanza 4, but the present tense might also indicate an entirely new scene. The disjoint between these possibilities leaves the reader with a sense of not knowing where the story comes from, which couples with the use of the plural pronoun “we” to emphasize the universality of society’s imposition of itself onto its children. In this case, before the child is mature (he still “pees himself in the night”), he is incorporated into the ubiquitous value systems of war (“we pronounce him fit to fight”), patriarchy (“make a man of him”), and capitalism (“put him to a trade/teach him/to play Monopoly”; 5). Pop culture, in the form of the twenties song “Singin’ in the Rain,” butts into the poem as a bastion of the system, ironically encouraging the child to make the most of his lot and enjoy his oppressed status. And, at the same time, Thick as a Brick ridicules itself and its medium through comparison to the silly old tune, reminding us to question even the judgments of the poem itself.

The next few stanzas introduce a cycle of images pertaining to family, nature, and war. The army seems to come and go rapidly as wars keep repeating themselves, and phrases like “the mercenary’s creed” maintain a dark tone even as soldiers are supposedly “returning from the sea” (6). This ominous cycle is the context for a generational conflict: the army drags fathers away, creating a familial rift which never heals, and even when the men return, they “challenge” their children (9). But the young are not wholly innocent: they work hard to build new ideas (“castles”) in the face of inertial social systems (“the sea”), but they also fall into “age-old” scripts for human interaction, such as seeking sex from “the milking girl” through class-based power dynamics (7; 8). The overly serious phrasing of “the builder of the castles renews the age-old purpose” mocks the younger generation and its distractions, emphasizing that nobody really holds any obvious keys to meaningful progress (8).

The image of “cattle quietly grazing at the grass down by the river” indicates that the poem is still operating in the past—in a pre-industrial time, “down the long ages” (8, 4). Nature imagery is thus used as a marker of reminiscence and traditional values. The conflict-based value system of the military cycle has already been established as frightening, and the “oldest of the family” is embedded in this system since he “challenges” his own son (9). Even the young have been indoctrinated into the old norms, so that when those norms do eventually begin to disintegrate—when “the old man’s gone”—the remaining people are disoriented (10). In this stanza, the speaker begins again to taunt “you,” implying that “you” cannot handle a world without the old value system. It is possible that the speaker is talking to the “you” from stanza 2, suggesting that trying to rebel is fruitless because we depend on tradition for security, but the speaker is also talking to itself, lamenting the confusion of inevitable social transition. This lament, coming immediately after the stanza which places the “old man” in a dominant position, seems to be a challenge to the idea that all assertions of power are bad—adding more incongruity and indeterminacy to the poem. These sentences blur the distinction between “you” and “I,” using both to represent anybody and everybody, in a state of role confusion appropriate for a poem about social rebellion.

“LATER” is a marker implying a new scene, and perhaps new characters. Sure enough, the voice in stanza 11 is less complex than the earlier speakers. Superficial, cruel, and explicitly elite, it appeals to patrilineage and classism to justify imposing its conception of right and wrong onto others with less power: “I’ve come down from the upper class to mend your rotten ways. My father was a man-of-power whom everyone obeyed. So come on all you criminals! I’ve got to put you straight…” (11). This voice is an exaggeration of the implicit judgments levied against the “you” in stanzas 1 and 2 for being “deaf” and “thick as a brick,” against the “I” in stanzas 3 and 4 for being blindly nostalgic, against the “do-er and the thinker” who cannot reconcile their differences in stanza 6, and in every other judgmental relationship described in the poem. Also, this voice is an exaggeration of the artist’s own role, attacking certain people and norms from “his” ivory tower where he can “make damn sure that no-one judges me” (11). The forces of tradition and rebellion both try to dictate norms onto the rest of society, so although this stanza is a satirical representation of traditional elites, it is also an acknowledgement that the text itself is guilty of some of the same offenses.

The next section switches from criticizing “me” to criticizing “you,” but the nature of the criticism remains similar. From the vantage point of wealth, “with/your rings upon your fingers/your downy little sidies and/your silver-buckle shoes,” “you” try to dictate others’ behavior (12). This “you” parallels the elitist “I” from stanza 11, further illustrating that the poem’s oscillation between pronouns serves to spread criticism to all parties. The central irony of the poem is that criticizing those who judge others is itself an act of judgment. This irony becomes more poignant in stanza 12 when the “you” entity negates behavior without providing an alternative, just as the narrator does: “you tell us what not to be. But how are we supposed to see where we should run?” Self-reference makes the poem more powerful, because the reader can witness the paradoxes of identity that emerge from pure criticism.

The next few stanzas continue the narrative of “you” begun in stanza 12. “Your” “comic-paper” value system, which served as the “example” for such smug criticism in the “courtroom,” inevitably fails to sustain your behavior, because it has no way to transform ideas into reality (12). It is laughably ridiculous that “childhood heroes” would ever escape from their fantasy worlds and join real institutions like “local government” (13). Stanza 13 is full of sarcasm, yet there is desire mixed in with the ridicule: the speaker knows that it can provide no alternative social order to replace the one it criticizes, so it dreams of a shortcut to progress in which a set of fictional leaders “show us all the way” (13). Jokes like “let Robin save the day” simply re-emphasize the comic futility of the dream.

In stanza 14, the “you” entity, now a rebellious youth, gets cocky and finds itself alone. This image of rashness leading to ruin implicitly acknowledges that the poem’s own tendency to criticize is similarly presumptuous. The tentative state of self-questioning, of wondering “who to call on,” is interrupted by the iconoclastic narrative voice asking “Where the hell was Biggles,” breaking down the comforting archetypical heroes that “you” implicitly rely on to justify “your” value system (14). They have abandoned “your” idealized social project to self-congratulate within the system, retiring to write “their memoirs for a paper-back edition of the Boy Scout Manual” (15). The idea that “Biggles,” a clichéd war hero from children’s books of the 1930s-1960s, would write memoirs for the Boy Scout Manual is an accurate if chilling description of the patriarchal and militaristic assumption that war is automatically relevant to the lives of young boys.

As before, after the speaker taunts “you” with rhetorical questions leaving no answers, there is a narrative break marked by “LATER.” The subsequent section returns to the structure and theme of stanza 5, describing how children are forced into social roles. Even in “peace,” elite children are expected to become the “wise men” we met earlier, trained to “fool the rest” and assert power without needing justification or credibility (16). The idea of training children for “success” is tied to the “Boy Scout Manual” of the previous section, but otherwise the transition seems abrupt. This disjoint underscores the stream-of-consciousness style, which becomes even more apparent in the next section.

Stanza 17, labeled “QUOTE,” consists of a string of seemingly unrelated quotations from the fake newspaper. All provide social commentary, but each is more strange and elliptical than its predecessor. These quotes are the culminating moment of disjointedness in the poem, emphasizing the illogic of social organization and power in the modern culture, of which the paper itself is a parodic representation.

The first quote, “We will be geared toward the average rather than the exceptional,” (17) comes from an article about a “new Educational system,” designed to provide “a sense of academic equality and a group identity which would relieve the crushing burden of individual aspiration” (insert, 8). Such a school would stifle anybody, but it would be particularly limiting for a supposed prodigy like Bostock, especially because it would “try to discourage its pupils from any involvement with ‘sidetracking pursuits of ego’ such as painting, music and drama.” The inclusion of the quote serves to satirize existing school systems, but it is also yet another self-criticism. The egalitarian philosophy implied by the poem’s assault on elitism and power, taken to the extreme, might justify such an absurd educational system. The apparent position of the text or its writer is becoming more nuanced: pure egalitarianism is not enough.

The next quote, “God is an overwhelming responsibility,” represents religion as a social system rather than a philosophy (poem text, 17). When people are obligated to maintain religious practices, those practices become burdensome and meaningless. The next context-free statement, a vaguely obscene comment about “218 babies wearing nylons” isn’t actually a quote from the newspaper, although it sounds like a headline. These infants represent all of the children referenced in the poem—arbitrarily forced to assume adult roles long before they are ready. The final quote, which asserts that “cats are on the upgrade,” is wholly meaningless, like the culture it comes from. It is a linguistic artifact from an article about pet popularity: thence we draw our words and our thoughts.

After the quotes, the poem shifts back to nature imagery. The image of a “lord of the hills” amongst “clear white circles of morning wonder” evokes an emotional state—deference to a romanticized agent of authority (18). This power relationship seems serene and peaceful until we encounter the awkward, slouching, gambling soldiers: the contrast most directly suggests that modern systems (like militaries) disrupt the natural order, if there is such a thing. Of course, idealizing the “lord of the hills” is satirical—the same system which romanticizes nature using images of human power also creates war. This nature scene resonates with the earlier “cattle quietly grazing,” which were also juxtaposed with military images, and which also tied nature to the nostalgic past (8).

Indeed, the speaker’s entire social system is founded on archaic “legends” from an “ancient tribal hymn” (19). They may have once held “promises,” but war (“the sadist’s fall”) has disproved the efficacy of the old system. Yet its leaders remain: cultural elites, including “The poet” himself who exercises power through language, overstep their boundaries and try to control nature itself, commanding, “Light the sun” (19). They also command people to “believe in” a new social order, a new “day,” complete with “kings” who assert control of the masses (20). It is in this literary landscape, in which poets assist in a hegemonic project, that “wise men” can “endorse the poet’s sight” (21). Ironically, the “wise men” judging the poetry contest already endorsed Bostock himself—temporarily—but the alliance did not last long.

The next stanza is a long rant from a prophetic voice, both expressing the drama of social downfall and, as usual, satirizing itself. The segment begins presumptuously with “Let me tell you the tales of your life” (23). The absurdity of such an assertion of knowledge reminds the reader that for all the apparent validity of the poem’s criticisms, they cannot be universalized without imposing beliefs onto others. Many of the criticisms in this stanza reiterate earlier themes, painting a dark picture of humanity. For example, social training in competition (as described via images of competing family members in stanzas 5 through 10) transforms the animalian mentality of “kill or be killed” into a “desire” (23). And amidst suffering, “the fool toasts his god in the sky,” injecting one social institution, the church, into a broader scene of chaos resulting from conflicting efforts to assert power.

Then the prophetic voice begins to order people around, ironically adopting a persona embodying the force of social norms themselves. It says, “come all ye young men who are building castles! Kindly state the time of the year and join your voices in a hellish chorus. Mark the precise nature of your fear” (23). Mass cultures, and particularly institutions like the military, incorporate people into predictable, mechanical systems, targeting the very psychological insecurities young people are prone to while they are trying to forge unique identities. This is the thesis of the poem: Bostock and the various critical voices of the text are starting to realize that their society is chaotic and dangerous; they hate it, but they are driven to incorporate themselves into it, and they hate themselves for that drive. The paradoxes created by the poem’s repeated ridicule of the self and of others are encapsulated in this line.

All the poem’s war images, including the martial implications of the “hellish chorus,” come to a head as the prophet screams, “Let me help you to pick up your dead as the sins of the fathers are fed with/the blood of the fools and/the thoughts of the wise…” (23). Commoners and fools are sent to war, elites and “wise men” determine that the war will occur and rationalize it. This poignant assault on a pervasive injustice is cut short by another self-ridiculing joke, “…and from the pan under your bed.” After twenty-three stanzas of mocking those who take themselves too seriously, Bostock/Anderson cannot finish such a fierce sentence without reminding us that nothing—not even criticism—really makes sense. The stanza ends with a meta-textual moment: “the nursery rhyme winds along” (23). This clause is a wry reference to human affairs, which are childish and illogical, as well as a description of the poem itself, which is ostensibly written by a child.

The next stanza integrates three earlier themes: the “hellish chorus,” the failed “childhood heroes,” and the self-congratulation of Biggles and the “sportsmen” (23; 13; 15). It also adds a more explicit prophecy of doom: “The summer lightning casts its bolts upon you and the hour of judgment draweth near” (24). This judgment recalls the willingness of the speaker to judge “criminals” in stanza 11 and the courtroom elitist in stanza 12. It also carries an explicit but hyperbolic claim of punishment: deviating from the “chorus” warrants apocalyptic destruction. But, as before when “we” could not “see where we should run,” it is not clear which standards of conformity can possibly escape judgment (12). We need someone to “show us all the way,” but of course nobody can (24). The speaker once again ridicules all the saviors people look to for stability: childhood heroes are too absurd, traditionalists and “sportsmen” are too mired in their antiquated values.

There is nothing left, in the end, but to “ride…over the fields” (possibly abandoning the culture) and survive by whatever means necessary. The elites still ignore the people they label as “thick as a brick.” But silly little phrases like “animal deals” and the stereotypically angsty complaint of others not knowing “how it feels” maintain the poem’s aura of self-ridicule; it is only half serious, if seriousness is even possible at all.

Most of the criticism in Thick as a Brick is indirect. The writer filters ideas through various speakers, a mixture of ‘I’s and ‘you’s, in order to save the message from unsalvageable paradox. The poem doesn’t exactly say that imposing social standards onto others is wrong; it merely expresses a powerful alienation from such standards. Because one can’t reject norms without “tell[ing] us what not to be,” the poem is self-critical; and because norms themselves are chaotic and multifarious, the poem is vague and its parts disparate. The lyrics and musical style contribute to a sense of unified disjointedness, flitting from image to image, feeling to feeling, and sound to sound amidst the larger panoply of disaffection.


[*] Parenthetical citations from the newspaper/insert refer to page numbers.

 

[†] The newsprint-style text of the poem lacks clear line breaks. Some breaks are marked in the text using slashes, but there are long segments without such breaks. Instead of trying to arbitrarily label lines, I have numbered the segments or stanzas of the text in the image below. My in-text citations refer to these numbers.


Text from newspaper insert, numbers added:

 

 

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3 Responses to “A Hellish Chorus: Social Criticism in Thick as a Brick”

  1. Ben Says:

    Whew!

  2. simonwoodhonours Says:

    Reblogged this on simonwoodhonours and commented:
    Here is a nicely written essay that offers Burke’s interpetation of the social commentary dispersed throughout the lyrics and extra-music material of Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (1972).

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