Classic Music Review: A Passion Play by Jethro Tull

A victim of scathing reviews by stupid people. Click to buy.

A victim of scathing reviews by stupid people.

The critics of the time fucking skewered A Passion Play—and Ian Anderson was the object of most of those cruel thrusts. All found the story unintelligible; some criticized Ian for minimizing the flute in favor the soprano saxophone; others attacked what they perceived to be self-indulgent pretentiousness. Robert Hilburn of the L. A. Times found it “agonizingly tiresome” and full of “instrumental repetitiousness.” The most brutal barbecue was served by Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone (of course), who revealed his blood lust in the very first sentence: “A Passion Play is the artsiest artifact yet to issue from the maddeningly eccentric mind of Ian Anderson.”

Translation: “I’m a moron and my brain hurts when musicians do things I don’t understand.”

Mr. Holden continued to spew venom throughout the review:

A Passion Play strangles under the tonnage of its pretensions — a jumble of anarchic, childishly precocious gestures that are intellectually and emotionally faithless to any idea other than their own esoteric non-logic . . . Like Thick As a Brick, the aesthetic of A Passion Play is desperate zaniness, but here it is carried to even further extremes . . . As a whole, the score is far less substantial than Thick As a Brick, itself a suffocatingly fey concoction. Finally, one leaves A Passion Play with the feeling of having been subjected to 45 minutes of vapid twittering and futzing about, all play and no passion—expensive, tedious nonsense.

What really pisses me off here is Mr. Holden’s self-puffery and fundamental dishonesty when he references “the score.” I seriously doubt that there could have been a full score available for A Passion Play so soon after its release, yet he uses that word to imply that he is in possession of superior musical knowledge that the rest of us could not possibly grasp with the tiny peas we have for brains.

The savage beating Ian Anderson endured for A Passion Play became his own trip to Golgotha, but unlike the original victim, he simply couldn’t turn the other cheek. He got quite snarky about the experience in the song “Only Solitaire” on the follow-up album, War Child. He still sounded a bit wounded (but more honest and vulnerable) on parts of Minstrel in the Gallery, and I don’t think he totally regained his moxie and focus until Songs from the WoodIn later years, he would refer to A Passion Play as “a bit one-dimensional . . . It’s certainly not one of my favorites . . .”

Well, I’m not going to trust the opinions of a group of lazy, self-important music critics or those emanating from the wounded ego of the artist. Martin Barre was much closer to the truth when he said on The 25th Anniversary Review, “I think that, out of all the records that we have made, more people talk about Passion Play than a lot of albums. It’s a memorable album. I think it’s an important album . . .”

No shit, dude! While it has its flaws, A Passion Play is a work of musical genius that deserves a more prominent place in modern music history. I would have to say that if I could take only one Tull album with me into the afterlife, it would be A Passion Play—not necessarily because it’s my favorite (that’s a mood-based decision)—but because its musical richness and diversity create a dynamic where the listener always discovers something new each time through.

I put off reviewing A Passion Play because I knew that to consider it properly I would need the score that Mr. Holden implied he had studied. Given the difficulty I had locating a score in our advanced googlicized universe, I can officially call bullshit on Mr. Holden. I finally had to settle for a hybrid: a midi file that I could view in Logic Pro and a decent version of the written score on the NWC Scriptorium. Neither are perfect, but good enough to see the patterns and the thinking that dominated Ian Anderson’s “maddeningly eccentric” mind at the time. There is no way you can look at the score and conclude that it is “instrumentally repetitious” as Mr. Hilburn claimed. The score is far more substantial than Thick as a Brick, something even a dipshit like Mr. Holden would have figured out had he actually read the damn thing.

Wow! I’ve out-snarked Ian Anderson! Let’s move on.

The Apparent Story and the Real Theme

Our tale allegedly begins with the funeral of a young man named Ronnie Pilgrim, who witnesses the formalities in spiritual form. An angel appears, validating his continuing existence. A group of gentlemen arrive to guide him across the icy wastes to the first stop in the afterlife: The Memory Bank. Taking liberties with the common mythology that life passes before our eyes prior to death, Ian Anderson makes Ronnie’s first post-death experience a critical review of his mortal existence. The screen reveals a life of petty concerns and frivolous activity that seemed vitally important at the time, of choices largely based on the constant need to be someone in the eyes of others. After an intermission, Ronnie finds himself in the “business office of G. Oddie and Son,” a sort of purgatory where free will can be exercised. Humiliated by the experience of the Memory Bank and questioning the assumption that one must lead a perfect life to get into heaven (“mine is the right to be wrong”), Ronnie opts for hell. Finding Satan to be a bitter, power-hungry drag, he heads for heaven and finds that place to be a yawner as well. Yearning for life’s simple pleasures (afternoon tea, old shoes, an old hat), he catches the first train back to Paddington. Looking back on his experience, Ronnie challenges the tyranny of the wise man (much as Ian had already done in Thick as a Brick), telling the archetypal character Magus Perdé (perder = to lose; translation = lost, confused wise man) to “take the hand from off the chain,” move beyond the tired dichotomy of good and evil and allow human beings the freedom to reach their full potential.

Since we know that Ian Anderson was not thick enough to believe in physical resurrection, A Passion Play must be interpreted as an allegory. We have all hit spots in our lives where we have “died” in a spiritual, emotional or intellectual sense; the “mid-life crisis” is the most well-known phase, but the truth is people face several such crises throughout their lives, from forging an identity once we are free of the parental nest to feeling that we spent our time on all the wrong things as we enter the golden years. At those points, we tend to isolate ourselves from our friends and lose touch with our true selves. Our first tendency when facing a soul-level crisis is to beat ourselves up for all the mistakes we’ve made (hence The Memory Bank), then tell ourselves how absolutely and uniquely awful we really are, reinforcing our essential loneliness (note the repetition of “alone” in The Memory Bank segment). We then go through a period where instead of accepting responsibility for our lives, we blame the accepted wisdom we chose to follow for leading us to this miserable state of affairs. During that phase of denial, people often experience wild swings in personality,  going from one extreme to another (from hell to heaven, for example). If we’re lucky, we will have an awakening, an experience that might be triggered by a shock, a memory, or a simple, comforting sensual perception (like warm bread with afternoon tea) that will eventually lead us to the realization that life is worth living and we pull ourselves out of the icy gloom.

A Passion Play is the endlessly rich story of the journey through life, of the social and mental challenges involved in reaching one’s potential and of discovering one’s unique path through the obstacles of conventional wisdom and oppressive conformity. As Jung pointed out, all growth (what he called “individuation”) begins with a symbolic death. The person you were must die for you to find the person you must become. That is what A Passion Play is all about.

Act I: Ronnie Pilgrim’s funeral – a winter’s morning in the cemetery

I/II. Lifebeats/Prelude
III. The Silver Cord
IV. Re-Assuring Tune

Heartbeats opened the two progressive rock masterpieces of 1973: The Dark Side of the Moon and A Passion Play. This one beats at a normal rate but increases in pitch over sounds of city noise—traffic and siren-like patterns indicating alarm; a rush along the Fulham Road. Through the beat and the noise comes John Evan playing a whirling pattern on the organ, expressing intense anxiety or hysteria—something’s wrong, someone’s being rushed to the hospital, something ominous is at hand. Two all-in chords bring us to the prelude. Largely in 9/8 time with occasional shifts to 12/8 and 6/8, the band handles the non-standard time signatures and the key-stretching melody with ease and grace. Barriemore Barlow begins to lay his claim as one of the greatest drummers of all time right here, and will provide us with further evidence as the work progresses. Readers of my Tull reviews know I have never expressed a whiff of satisfaction with Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond as a bass player, but in A Passion Play, even Jeffrey holds up pretty well. Tull fans of the time may have felt some sense of alarm when hearing soprano sax on the opening measures, but the flute appears in the second go-round, reassuring all that yes, this is indeed Jethro Tull. The prelude ends with whistling (passing the time on the death watch?), the heartbeat slows to nothingness, the lid slams on the casket. All growth begins with a symbolic death.

“Do you still see me even here/The silver cord lies on the ground,” sings Ian Anderson, a capella, followed by three abrupt chords, indicating finality. The silver cord is the life thread connecting the astral self to the physical self, a phenomenon reported by several people in near-death experiences. The scene is a bitter one: Ronnie’s friends barely managed to fit his funeral into their busy schedules and he knows the eulogy is the typical inflated bullshit that accompanies most deaths (“ripe with rich attainments—all imagined”). The music that used to give comfort is now dissonant; the experience of separation is one of distortion and disconnection. Even before he experiences the full-on assault of The Memory Bank, Ronny Pilgrim has the sense that life was a missed opportunity. Musically, the main melody is simply lovely, and kudos must be given to John Evan on piano and Martin Barre on counterpoint guitar for providing such gentle and sensitive support. The mourning music is suddenly and unexpectedly supplanted by a burst of mad intensity where Ian Anderson shows remarkable dexterity on the soprano saxophone. It feels like a wave of denial-based emotion—the detachment that had marked Ronnie Pilgrim’s voice in the verses is blasted away with the horror of realization: “Oh my fucking God! I’m dead! No!” This is one of the passages cited to support the argument that A Passion Play is “cobbled together” from scraps; I would argue that the music is emotional-intuitive and follows the uneven progress of the psyche as it tries to deal with incomprehensible experience.

Fortunately an angel appears to lay “her head upon my disbelief,” and to assure Ronnie that the soul is indeed eternal. Suddenly a band of gentlemen “in leather bound” whisk him away across the icy wastes to the necessary ritual of The Memory Bank. At this point, he is no one . . . but someone to be found. The journey of rediscovery has begun. 

Act 2: The Memory Bank – a small but comfortable theatre with a cinema-screen (the next morning

V. Memory Bank
VI. Best Friends
VII. Critique Oblique
VIII. Forest Dance #1

The acoustic guitar shifts to a strum in a quicker tempo, ending on a note of dissonance. The full band powers up as Ronnie is welcomed to The Memory Bank, where he learns that the “faces smiling in the gloom” are bureaucratic ghouls who hand him an I. D. and inform him in a tone of rude delight that his entire life has been captured on film. The intent here is not one of thoughtful reflection, but brutal humiliation, and the music reflects that with its relentless intensity. The long instrumental passage featuring one of Ian’s most intense flute solos (multi-tracked and multi-layered) expresses both the mad intensity of Ronnie’s hosts and, just as likely, feelings of unimaginable anxiety in the eternal soul of Ronnie Pilgrim. Barely able to contain their glee at the arrival of another innocent victim, they take great pleasure in providing him with previews of his miserable, superficial, hypocritical existence:

Take the prize for instant pleasure, captain of the cricket team
Public speaking in all weathers,  a knighthood from a queen.

The passage glides with a nifty little shift to the “Best Friends” passage and its R&B style rock ‘n’ roll. Ian belts out the lines in the mocking tone of Ronnie’s accusers, ending the sadistic orgy by repeating the words “you alone” over and over and over again. This is not the feeling of sadness that Jackson Browne expressed when he wrote “in the end there is one dance you’ll do alone,” but the sickening coldness of harsh, unforgiving judgment—the forgiving Christ is nowhere to be found. Ian Anderson’s take on judgment day is hardly a spiritual experience, but a macabre horror film about one of our deepest fears: the fear of being judged, exposed, found out—a fear that generates the massive amount of secrecy and pretense around which we construct the public personality. The two passages “Memory Bank” and “Best Friends” are a whirl of shifting rhythms and syncopation and once again I have to applaud Barriemore Barlow for being the Super Glue that holds it all together.

In “Critique Oblique,” Ronnie is now firmly ensconced in the viewing room. This a scene that always calls up imagery of a terrified Malcolm McDowell with his eyes forced open to film therapy in A Clockwork Orange. Musically and lyrically, this is easily one of the most powerful and compelling passages of music Tull ever produced. The opening build picks up in tempo while changing time signatures in nearly every measure until settling into a driving 4/4 with hot kicks to separate the melodic lines. The instrumentation is heavy and powerful, with a touch of organ from John Evan that adds to the rising tension until it too settles around Evan’s pounding piano and Barriemore Barlow’s toms. Ian’s vocal in the role of inquisitor is forceful and suitably unsympathetic to the victim as he peppers Ronnie Pilgrim with insults and a series of seemingly unanswerable questions:

Tell me: how the baby’s made
How the lady’s laid
Why the old dog howls in sadness . . .
Tell me: how the baby’s graded
How the lady’s faded
Why the old dogs howl with madness . . .

We now see that Ronnie is playing the role of Everyman and must be held accountable for the crimes of humanity. By extension, this is a powerful indictment of the human race and our inability to accept any responsibility for the suffering and degradation of others, from the child forced into the straitjacket of a dull education to the psychological abuse of women, who only have value as long as they have the looks. In this sense, the argument for the sadistic approach has some validity, for it is true that human beings rarely change for the hell of it—we only change when pain forces us to change. The semi-whispered line, “All of this and some of that’s the only way to skin the cat” prescribes rough therapy, but perhaps shock treatment is the only way to restore humanity to the human. I hope that’s not the case, and apparently, Ronnie’s torturers share the same hope:

Man of passion rise again, we won’t cross you out:
For we do love you like a son, of that there’s no doubt.
Tell us: is it you who are here for our good cheer?
Or are we here for the glory, for the story, for the gory satisfaction
Of telling you how absolutely awful you really are?

At this point, Ronnie has been stripped of all pretense, all superficial forms of personal identity. The person you were must die for you to find the person you must become. As most of us know, personal growth is rarely a walk in the park: it’s a painful experience that involves letting go of many things we held dear but in truth were actually holding us back.

Act 2 fades into “The Forest Dance,” a pleasant piece of music and a necessary bridge during the era of the two-sided LP. We are then treated to an intermission.

IX. Interlude – The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles

With due credit to Small Faces, who first introduced fairy tales to rock music in “Happiness Stan” on Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond’s talking animal tale is well-told and supported with exceptionally well-arranged background music. The lesson of the story is simple but effective: listening to others tell you how blind you are is a waste of time and energy. What makes the story more poignant is that The Hare at first buys into the bullshit the rest of the menagerie is laying out, illustrating the fundamental weakness of human beings in our other-directed modern society: we live for others (parents, bosses, friends, co-workers) and allow their expectations and judgments to define us. This also happens to be part of the lesson that Ronnie Pilgrim is well on his way to learning, as demonstrated by the exposure of the dominant force that drove his less-than-stellar earthly existence: the drive to live up to the common expectations of society.

Act 3: The Business Office of G. Oddie and Sons (two days later)

X. Forest Dance #2
XI. The Foot of Our Stairs
XII. Overseer Overture

Recovering from the trauma of The Memory Bank, Ronnie Pilgrim finds himself in a sort of purgatory (not in heaven, as the Wikipedia article claims—there are no spiders in heaven!). While others reminisce, Ronnie considers his two choices: heaven or hell. Outraged by his perception that his “guides” (or captors) seem to be demanding perfection from his all-too human self (“mine is the right to be wrong”), he muses bitterly over the hypocrisy and utter ineffectiveness of religious dogma (“Show me a good man and I’ll show you the door/The last hymn is sung and The Devil cries, ‘More!'”). The music in this section alternates between 6/8 and 9/8, beginning with the spare sound of an acoustic guitar before introducing exclamation points from the band to mirror Ronnie’s flashes of insight and anger. When Ronnie’s musings finally begin crystallize into clarity, the acoustic strum takes over on the “Jackrabbit Mister” line, and on “More!” the full band comes in for a jazzy passage featuring the soprano saxophone and the endlessly satisfying sounds of Martin Barre crunching it out and driving the rhythm with sharply cut power chords. The passage ends with a ponderous church organ, a perfectly ironic introduction to Ronnie’s choice: “that forsaken paradise that calls itself hell.”

Hell is introduced with one of the most exciting passages in A Passion Play, the “Overseer Overture.” Dissonant sounds, grunts and groans dominate the soundscape of hell, but when Satan makes his appearance, the rhythmic pattern becomes insistent and terribly exciting, an excitement created in part by adding and subtracting extra beats to the measures (4/4, 5/4, 6/4, 4/4). The melodic theme here is also one of the strongest on the record, definitely worth repeating in the instrumental coda that ends the passage. In some ways, Satan isn’t what Ronnie was expecting: his touch is freezing (love the way they vocalize the shivers on that word) and his persona rather peevish and indifferent to it all. Satan affirms the lessons Ronnie divined in The Memory Bank—that much of the evil in the world has to do with keeping up appearances and trying to hide our flaws and crimes; Satan’s main business activity is “offering services for the saving of face.” Ian Anderson chooses to access Miltonian syntax on occasion here (“occasional corn from my oversight grew”), which some might argue is a nod to Paradise Lost while others might view it with the same disdain T. S. Eliot heaped on those who dared distort the English language. To my ears it does sound a bit pompous, but the music is so strong and devilishly playful here that I can forgive Ian his poetic sins as well as his painful puns (“primitive rite (wrongly)”). More important from a thematic standpoint, Satan is associated with the natural world—the world we experience in the passing of the seasons (hence the reference to the maypole, a pagan rite merged into Christianity). The natural world is a sensual place, and religion tends to demonize the sensual . . . a truism that will have a powerful reverse impact on Ronnie Pilgrim’s process of becoming, as played out in the final act.

Act 4 – Magus Perde’s drawing-room at midnight

XIII. Flight from Lucifer
XIV. 10:08 to Paddington
XV. Magus Perdé
XVI. Epilogue

One of the understandable errors that interpreters of A Passion Play consistently make is believing that a scene begins or takes place entirely in the place named in the description of the act. It is more accurate to say that the act descriptions sometimes tell us where the acts begin and sometimes refer to the scene where the most important action occurs, which may or may not be the first scene. In Act 3, for example, the action begins in The Business Office of G. Oddie and Sons, but moves to hell. In Act 4, the play does not resume in Magus Perdé’s drawing-room (the place mentioned in the act’s description), but in heaven, where Ronnie Pilgrim has found refuge from Lucifer’s icy clutches.

The rhythm here is similar to the rhythm used in the hell passage, subtracting beats but differentiating the pattern with a 5/8 kick towards the close of the melodic line. Ronnie finds that heaven has little to offer but to serve as the other pole of the dichotomy of good and evil, which leads him to his epiphany that both extremes are to be avoided because they are philosophically abstract dead ends, cut off from life itself . . . a life full of simple, sensual pleasures that he misses terribly:

Here’s the everlasting rub: neither am I good or bad.
I’d give up my halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once had . . .
I would gladly be a dog barking up the wrong tree.
Everyone’s saved, we’re in the grave:
See you there for afternoon tea.
Time for awaking the tea lady’s making
A brew-up and baking new bread.

After all, “a little of what you fancy does you good—or so it should.”

His “awaking” is the realization that to grow, thrive and enjoy the experience of human existence, he must return to the passion play, end his journey of self-absorbed reflection and rejoin the human community. Dropping his wings and practically leaping into his old shoes lying there on the platform, he catches the 10:08 to Paddington to resume his part in the play. A sequence of dreamy, gentle music accompanies him on his journey, as if Ronnie Pilgrim is both reflecting on his strange experience and feeling snuggly and warm in his old, flawed but utterly human self.

He is shaken from this pleasant but dormant state by a clarion call to action. The music that opens the scene of his return is raucous and joyous, with Martin hard-picking a crunch-toned riff over a shaking, shimmering, slamming tambourine. The celebratory mood then shifts by turns from insistent to what is best described as “brimming with impatience to get on with life” as the tempo accelerates. The lyrics here are highly symbolic, metaphoric and classically poetic, a combination that can indeed be confusing and off-putting. What Ian Anderson is trying to express is the unlimited power of human potential, so his language does tend to the extreme (“Bring the gods, the gods’ own fire/In the conflict revel” and “the flame of ever-life”). While I would have preferred more concrete, earthy imagery, I find the intense passion driving those words suitable compensation, for the tone is of a man who believes deeply in human potential and in breaking Magus Perdé’s chains of authoritative wisdom. The music shakes with a sense of discovery; Ronnie Pilgrim’s realization that life is better on the “knife-edge” between good and evil has opened his eyes to a possibility of a third way—the human way, one that accepts our faults and vices but recognizes our ability to grow and change for the better. The frenetic build-up to the final quatrain clears the air, and the ending of this sequence gives me the chills every time I hear it:

Man, son of man—buy the flame of ever-life
(Yours to breathe and breath the pain of living): living BE!
Here am I! Roll the stone away
From the dark into ever-day.

The meaning of this passage is that true enlightenment has to do with escaping both conventional wisdom and the belief that the gods are behind it all (hence “son of man”) and come to the realization that we alone are responsible for our lives. We cannot survive or thrive by delegating responsibility for existence to the abstract entities we refer to as gods, or summarize life’s lessons in the simplistic context of good versus evil. “Here am I” is not an expression of egoism but Ronnie Pilgrim’s triumphant realization that his life has both meaning and value. He has experienced a symbolic death, touched bottom and is eager to resume the passion play.

A Passion Play ends with a variation on the primary refrain: “There was a rush along the Fulham Road, into the Ever-passion play.” Ian Anderson used Fulham Road as the symbol of life’s progress and passages (there are three hospitals on Fulham Road, providing plenty of opportunities for both the first and final passages). We will all ride that road, experience the flow and play the play as long as we inhabit this “miserable sphere.” Each of us, possessed with infinite possibilities, will have a different tale to tell in the end. A Passion Play, therefore, is the story of human life and of the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth.


As I said at the beginning, I believe A Passion Play is a musical masterpiece. The richness of the melodies, the excitement of the ever-changing rhythms that mirror both story and the emotional subtext, and the exceptional quality of musicianship that every band member brought to the studio all combine to make A Passion Play a musical tour-de-force. Lyrically, it has its weaknesses, but those weaknesses are not due to a lack of intelligibility. Anyone who has taken a freshman poetry course or two (one that includes a bit of Milton), and paired that with mild exposure to Jungian Psychology (Man and His Symbols will do) can grasp where Ian Anderson is taking us. Only in the final act do some of the lyrics disappoint, and while that means that “Wind Up” remains Tull’s best-ever album-ending track, the ending still represents a satisfying finish to a remarkable piece of work.

I love listening to A Passion Play. I find the experience absorbing, uplifting and intensely engaging. Those are, of course, my opinions and my feelings, and I realize that music touches us all in different ways. Still, I wish the critics of the time had made a serious attempt to reflect on the value of A Passion Play rather than dismissing it as a defective product that somehow escaped the inspectors on the music industry assembly line. While I realize that reviewers then and now have their deadlines and need to keep that assembly line moving, music is more than just another consumable good, and the craftspeople who create that music do not spend the entire day screwing the same bolt into the same hole. Ian Anderson has always been an explorer, a “voyager into life,” and while sometimes his journeys may go off-course—as they do with all artists—he is always worth the time, the consideration and the respect. What he created in A Passion Play was unique, original and daring—and very much worthy of deep respect and admiration.


For a line-by-line interpretation, visit this page on A Cup of Wonder.

A Passion Play, full version:

YouTube player

p. .s. The new release with the 5.1 mix is worth every euro, dollar, yen or whatever you’ve got.

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Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I absolutely, 100% agree with your assessment of this magnificent piece of work! I saw the original performance in concert when Jethro Tull toured this piece. I was as blown away then and continue to be blown away by the brilliance of this piece! It is in my top 10 albums of ALL time. Something of this brilliance is not so easily accessible to the masses but as time goes on perhaps people will catch up in their understanding and rediscover this masterpiece.

    • Thank you! We were having a discussion in the family about the 25 albums we would take if we were sentenced to exile on a desert island, and both my mother and I picked A Passion Play in the first five choices. It really is an endlessly fascinating composition.

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