It is a three-act, musical history of Britain featuring songs about a nomadic Neolithic settler, Christian monks and an Iron Age blacksmith - the “concept album” is making a comeback with the surprise chart success of the latest release from Ian Anderson, the frontman of Jethro Tull.
A “prog rock” pioneer, the 66 year-old Anderson is set to enjoy his biggest UK hit for more than 40 years with Homo Erraticus, an unashamed concept album, which examines “key events from throughout British history” and offers “a number of prophecies for the future”.
The album has shot into the top ten at number 6, according to the Official Charts Company midweek update. It is some achievement for a musical suite, divided into three sections, “Chronicles”, “Prophecies” and “Revelations”, which one review called “as close to 1970s progressive rock as is possible in 2014.”
Opening with Doggerland, a tribute to the area of the southern North Sea that used to be dry land connecting the British Isles with the rest of Europe, the meta-fictional narrative of Homo Erraticus revives characters from Thick As A Brick, Tull’s 1972 concept album which topped the US charts.
Anderson, rock’s most famous flautist, said the concept album, out of favour in an era where music fans build digital playlists from context-free single tracks, is on the way back.
“If you want to cram 8,400 years of history into 50 minutes of music only the progressive rock album can do that,” Anderson told The Independent. “No-one had written a song about Dogger. So I fleshed out bullet-points of song scenarios into the archetypal, OTT concept of a prog rock album.”
The record’s success revives memories of an era when students pored over gatefold-sleeved albums housing cod-classical rock marred by Tolkien-light lyrics.
He said: “Concept albums went out of fashion in the mid-70s but progressive music is gathering a lot of strength again. Prog’s bombastic, self-indulgent musical noodlings got a lot of people annoyed. It took punk to wash the system clean and make a fresh start.”
“The concept for this album is migration. All of us are from somewhere else. But it’s not a stern lecture. The music has to work on a foot-tapping level. For people who want to peel back the layers of the onion they can find other elements.”
The Scottish-born musician, who used to own a £10 million fish processing business on his Isle of Skye estate and enjoys an estimated wealth of £35 million, is surprised by his return to the upper echelon of the charts. “If it’s number 6 today, it will be 36 next week, then 1,006. But it’s nice to be recognised in any context.”
However, Anderson, elevated to Prog God Award by Prog Magazine last year, has retired the Jethro Tull name. The 18th-century British agronomist who invented the machine drill for sowing seed for commercial gain deserved better, the musician believes. “We didn’t know our booking agent named us after a dead guy. I didn’t do Jethro Tull in O-level history. We couldn’t change the name after we started having some success.”
He admits: “I’ve always felt a bit of embarrassment about the name and now it’s time to take a step back. When I tour this album I don’t want 20 drunk yobbos jeering because we’re not just doing their 20 favourite Tull songs: ‘Stay at home, watch the baseball game but this time don’t go to the concert.’”
Although the classic spoof movie This Is Spinal Tap mocked the absurdities of the prog rock concept album, Anderson praises the film for “helping keep alive the movement”.
The singer believes that Spinal Tap’s fictional bassist Derek Smalls was inspired by Derek Small, a character who appeared on Tull’s Thick As A Brick. Anderson said: “I once challenged Harry Shearer (who played Smalls) and asked him if he owned a copy of our album. Harry eventually said he did but he never played it. I had him, it was a Bill Clinton ‘I didn’t inhale’ moment.”