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Aqualung by Jethro Tull

Album: AqualungReleased: 1971
  • This song deals with our reaction to the homeless population. Jethro Tull vocalist and flute player Ian Anderson wrote the song and called it "a guilt-ridden song of confusion about how you deal with beggars, the homeless." Elaborating in the 40th anniversary reissue of the album, he said, "It's about our reaction, of guilt, distaste, awkwardness and confusion, all these things that we feel when we're confronted with the reality of the homeless. You see someone who's clearly in desperate need of some help, whether it's a few coins or the contents of your wallet, and you blank them out. The more you live in that business-driven, commercially-driven lifestyle, you can just cease to see them.
  • In this song, Aqualung is a homeless man with poor hygiene. Ian Anderson wrote it about a character he made up based on actual photographs of transient men. Ian's wife at the time, Jennie, was an amateur photographer and had brought the pictures for Ian to look at. Many of the lyrics are Ian describing the men in the pictures.

    Jennie also wrote a few lyrics to go with the pictures, which earned her a songwriting credit, so she receives half the royalties from the song. She and Anderson divorced in 1974.
  • This is Jethro Tull's most famous song, but it was not released as a single. Ian Anderson told us why: "Because it was too long, it was too episodic, it starts off with a loud guitar riff and then goes into rather more laid back acoustic stuff. Led Zeppelin at the time, you know, they didn't release any singles. It was album tracks. And radio sharply divided between AM radio, which played the 3-minute pop hits, and FM radio where they played what they called deep cuts. You would go into a album and play the obscure, the longer, the more convoluted songs in that period of more developmental rock music. But that day is not really with us anymore, whether it be classic rock stations that do play some of that music, but they are thin on the ground, and they too know that they've got to keep it short and sharp and cheerful, and provide the blue blanket of familiar sounding music and get onto the next set of commercial breaks, because that's what pays the radio station costs of being on the air. So pragmatic rules apply."
  • An "Aqualung" is a portable breathing apparatus for divers. Anderson envisioned the homeless man getting that nickname because of breathing problems. He got the idea from watching a TV show called Sea Hunt, where there was a lot of heavy underwater breathing, and where the main character wore an Aqualung. What Anderson didn't know is that Aqualung was a brand name, and the Aqualung Corporation of North America took legal action after the album came out. The case was eventually dropped, but the threat of a lawsuit was troubling to Anderson. For more about the Aqualung and how it relates to diving, check it out in Song Images.
  • The album cover was a watercolor painting of the character Aqualung created by the artist Burton Silverman. Jethro Tull's manager Terry Ellis commissioned him after seeing his work in Time magazine. Burton took some photos of Ian Anderson wearing his old overcoat before he painted the cover, and the resulting work looked a lot like a haggard version of Ian, who was not pleased with the painting. Despite Anderson's objections, the cover became an iconic image in rock, but it also resulted in another lawsuit over where the image could be used - Burton felt the band didn't have the rights to use it on T-shirts and other promotional materials.
  • The unusual audio effect you hear in this song is called "telephone burbles" where you remove all frequencies except for a narrow band around the 1,000 hertz mark. This is to reproduce the sound of a telephone. As Ian Anderson told us: "It's also like when you're addressing a crowd through a megaphone. Or even perhaps the tinny sound of a voice trumpet, which is a non-active megaphone. It's a form of address. It's the sound that woke up young pilots in 1941 and sent them into the skies to battle the Hun. This is the sound of the Tannoy, the calling to arms of young men going up in their Hurricanes and Spitfires. It's something that's very much part of the blood of an Englishman."
  • Like most songs on the album, this one has a cold ending. That's because Anderson knew he would have to perform these songs on stage, where he liked to have a definitive ending to a song rather than a fade out.
  • The character Aqualung is mentioned in another song on the album, "Cross-Eyed Mary," which is also a character Anderson created.
  • Martin Barre's solo in this song was rated #25 in Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos reader's poll. (thanks, Mark - Madison, WI)
  • This song is mentioned in the movie Anchorman after Will Ferrell plays a riff from it on his Jazz flute and says, "Hey, Aqualung." (thanks, Brad Nash - Rochester Hills, MI)
  • English singer-songwriter Matthew Hales performs under the name Aqualung after this song. Hales had a #7 hit in the UK in 2002 with "Strange and Beautiful (I'll Put a Spell on You)."
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Comments: 69

So the lyric is "eyeing little girls with bad intent." For the longest time I thought it was "eyeing little girls with padded tits"!Peter - Davenport, Fl
Appreciate all the comments, but I think you all have to agree the guitar solo is one of the best ever!Mike - Carrollton, Tx
Drowning in our own sorrow but listen it is about our beliefs of Jesus. Would we know him if he asked for a dime? Crossed eyed Mary is the mother. It is a social commentary about humanity and our beliefs.L - Calgary, Ab
aqualung to me, has always been a concept album about the fall of god...who aqualung represents, an old unwanted man, dieing alone abandoned and the world he finds himself in.
each song a different snapshot of this basic concept, of how we live in a throw-away world, abandoning those things we don't have time for or interest in.
picture the one in this song in this light, and it changes the feel of the album IMHO.
Jimi - Manchester, Ct
"Feeling alone, the Army's up the road, salvation a la mode and a cup of tea." Could these lyrics mean that the homeless pedophile is heading to the Salvation Army to warm up and get a cup of tea in the December's foggy freeze, since he has nowhere else to go?Gregory - Brooklyn, Ny
Taken from Original Rolling Stone Review By Ben Gerson [July 22, 1971]: "Aqualung is the album's lead character, and is so named for his rheumy cough. Side one consists of a series of seedy vignettes drawn from modern secular English life, while the printed lyrics are cast in Gothic lettering to emphasize the album's liturgical basis. The title song depicts the beggar in all his shabbiness and lechery. "Aqualung" is actually three songs; as the different moods of the narrator unfold, the music changes accordingly. The initial melodic statement sung in a harsh, surly voice is ugly and plodding; it then shades into something milder and more sympathetic, then into something which rocks a little more."Deethewriter - Saint Petersburg, Russia Federation
I find it odd that Ian Anderson being know for his extensive use of the flute in rock music. Something he has done very well for these many years. Yet the original arrangement of Aqualung (Tull's must famous song) has no flute part in it. Later arrangements do as can be see in footage from the 2007 tour. But any way you look at it Tull is the best band that ever was, is or will be. But this of course is just my humble opinion.Jim - Maumelle, Ar
Dear dear Mike, Franklin, Oman, I just love it that we still have these little secrets. You still don't know what bollocks are or why we snigger when you talk about fannies do you?

I have enjoyed reading all these comments. It is a great song, but has probably become a millstone around the necks of the band who have had to perform it at every gig for 40 years now.

Ian Anderson has also had to deny it was a concept album for 40 years, claiming it was just a bunch of songs, some of which were about god, but this did lead to them producing the mother of all concept albums, Thick as a Brick, and a year later A Passion Play, which to me are still their greatest work.

I was interested to catch up with what Jenny Franks is doing now, the revelation that she appeared in the tv comedy Sorry has completely fazed me.

Life's a Long Song etc...

Ta ta for now...
Andy - London, United Kingdom
So many great comments here. One of my alltime favs, a great spinning song as you can do so much with it. Saw him do this in concert back in 95, and it was still excellent. Great memories of this from high school. I learned a lot from many of your notes, thanks for sharing.Chuck - South Deerfield, Ma, Ma
Just a thought, and if you see my comments on "You know how bad girls get" fromt The Police's "Don't Stand So Close To Me", I also see an ambiguity in the line from Aqualung that goes "eyeing little girls with bad intent". Does Aqualung have bad intent as he watches little girls? Or does he watch girls who have bad intent, like cross-eyed Mary? Just wondering.Rocco - New York City, Ny
sadly so sadly my dad thought this was a song about a bong. THIS SONG WAS FROM HIS GENERATION!!!!!!!!!!!!! i'm 17 and i didn't believe it. i had to check here.Scott - Russell, Ny
This song was on an episode of King of the Hill.Ryan - Anahola, Hi
I understand that "bog" is British slang for "toilet", but one other interpretation of the lyric that flashed through my mind is that I believe that peat bogs generate heat through decomposition, much like compost piles or dumpsters do, and therefore if there is an actual bog around, a bum might literally go there to warm his feet.Phred - Northern California, Ca
Hey there Ed from Canton. If you never found out, a "dog end" is British slang for a cigarette butt. A good friend of mine is from the UK and when I asked him this same question, he looked at me like I was crazy for not knowing what it was. Brits.. And they wonder why we revolted!Mike - Franklin, Oman
let us view life as a stage... and we are but the actors... each with his bit...
the great unwashed as witnessed by the elite.
not only do they suffer physically degradation, but are perceived by all to be immoral also.

he experiences life internally like the rest of us in Plato's Cave
the regrets of old age and the persistent dog of loneliness; exposed to the elements, weathered, unclean and physically wrecked; claiming our refuse as his treasures and using our toilets for his meagre comfort.

the Sally Ann is his only life's anchor
yet he cannot avoid his social condition even there

suddenly, another appears who accepts him without repulsion and seems to know him well
he reassures him. who could this be? who is your only friend when you depart to where no friends can go?
this winter was harsh and it took him down; he is dying...
it is December - the Christmas Tide... see the irony of life
in a hospital room - the pumping apparatus by the bed is the only sound
- pumping air into his broken lungs

as for the rest of us - the passing parade; spring returns...
and life goes on as it always will
and no matter our present condition, we will go as he did - and take nothing with us but our experience.

if i died tonight, what would i think of my life in the morning?
how did i play my part? did i do my bit?
Crackerjacklee - Toronto, On
idiotsQuinn - Smallsville, Vt
the line " goes down to the bog to warm his feet"
when the homeless in england's feet would freeze they would urinate on the to keep them warm, thats what that line means
Mike - Punta Gorda , Fl
It is strange for me to read all of this messages. The missus of Ian and the maybe meanings of this song. As a bloody german
I have no clue. But can it be, that this is
a piece of art and that we all have our own
connections and feelings about it. Whatever
you say friends, for me it is something which
followed me my entire life. As a young boy I was
rocking and dancing to it. Now, no spliff or alc
is needed and I still love it. You English have
Wilde, Byron, Shakespeare, and so many more.
Jethro Tull is just another piece of your beautiful culture.
berniwenig@yahoo.de
Roppichan - Duisburg, Germany
Aqualung my friend
don't start away uneasy
you poor old sod, you see, it's only me.

I believe this is Death talking to the wanderer. He is his friend and guide for the sick old man who is feeling sick and alone here at the time of his death, the Reaper figure easing his way to the Other Side. No more agonizing Decembers and bitter winters to endure. A few last rattling breaths and it's over.
Peter - Omaha, Ne
Jenny Anderson wrote all the lyrics to this song. That is why she still gets royalties to this song. Incidentally, she remarried and is living in the US.Steve Turner - St Louis, Mo
Jethro Tull never really got the critical acclaim they really deserved. True, they weren't exactly singing to the mainstream, but still, a lot of their songs were honest observations about life that anyone could listen to and enjoy without having to overanalyze it (eh Jena?). I have always enjoyed this song, though I was probably 12 before I could understand what the lyrics actually were. Good music is good music, whether you can understand the words or not.Jas - Clifton, Tx
Hey, Ed in Canton, OH. I remember reading in a GUITARWORLD magazine tablature of the AQUALUNG that a "dog end" is British slang for a discarded cigarette butt.Barry - Greenville, Nc
what? no comments about picking a dog-end? I hope this is a metaphor for something else and not literal. anyone from the isles care to enlighten me?Ed - Canton, Oh
A song about a guy who's already dead:

"Do you still remember
December's foggy freeze [The frost that kills him]
when the ice that
clings on to your beard was
screaming agony. [frostbite]
And you snatch your rattling last breaths
with deep-sea-diver sounds, [he's dying]
and the flowers bloom like
madness in the spring" [buried in the ground that "pushes up daisies" the next season; also an analogy of life & the fact that even after death, new life continues to flourish]

Another thought: "you poor old sod, you see it's onl me" -- could mean the singer speaking to the "poor old sod" (either "Aqualung" or "the listener" as a third party w/ some connection to Aqualung), OR, to himself (You poor old sod [As in, his own dead self] OR [the listener], you see it's [the character in the song/Aqualung is] only me.
Jena - Leavenworth, Ks
For the record, I agree with Tim that the point of the song is to see how society views a poor soul like this. We should all take a walk in Aqualung's shoes for a day.Jack - Co9hasset, Ma
I am a 4decade fan of Tull. saw them recently at Jones Beach, and was dissapointed. Ian just hit the High/Lows of there music anymore.
May be time to retire and count fish.
Sorry
Andy from Rockaway.
Andy - Rockaway , Ny
I don't think he's blind. He's just afraid of people.Heather - Los Angeles, Ca
I agree that the fast part is from the point of view of the type of person who hates homeless because he assumes they are all pedophiles and they bring down property values. All he has to do is glance at some little girls playing and it becomes "eyeing little girls with bad intent." Then the slow part is a friend or someone who is charitable toward Aqualung. Also, do you think Aqualung may be blind or have very poor eyesight? i think the line "don't you start away uneasy ... it's only me" suggests that he hears someone coming and shuffles away, and needs to be reasurred that it is someone friendly.Tim - Davis, Ca
Keep up the good work.AsI love you.John - This City, Australia
Their music is great, but regarding Ian Anderson, I came across this on Metal Sludge: "I've interviewed him twice and he is a total ***hole. He thinks he's so much better than everyone else back in the day. I'll give credit where its due talentwise but as a human being this guy is a complete total creep."Chattypancake - Saigon, Other
That's a very interesting comment from Jeff in Quincy. I had always wondered about the harder part and the softer part of the song and what it meant. That seems to make sense that the harder part is society talking and the softer is Aqualung himself. Actually, I think the softer part is a guy who gives Aqualung money (or helps him out in some way from time to time). I get that from the verse, "you poor old sod you see it's only me." It sounds like one person trying to soothe another. Also the comment about what a "bog" means (slang for bathroom)is interesting. I'd always thought it literally meant he went down to a bog (like a swamp) and stuck his feet in.Heather - Los Angeles, Ca
My friend and I spoke about it-the meaning, I mean. We believe that Aqualung could also refer to him having pneumonia. That is interesting what one poster said about "going to the bog to warm his feet," and I would have to agree that is probably what the band meant for that. Cheers, mates and chums!Stephen - Erie, Pa
The best Jethro Tull songRicardo - Mexico City, Mexico
A very weird sounding song. It's one of those songs you listen to over and over because it's very weird sounding. I actually don't know how to describe this song. All that I know is that this song and "Locomotive Breath" are my favorite Tull songs. I think the lyrics are very well done and seem very disturbing. Not dark but disturbing.Spog Zallagi - Blue Hill, Me
Nathan, what are you smoking.Paul - Muskegon, Mi
Random Useless Fact: The Aqualung was invented by Jacques Cousteu.Chris - Meridian, Id
It's strange that Jethro Tull is not that famous as Led Zeppelin.I think Tull is even better.Nathan - Bruges, Belgium
I love this song, but it sounds eerily like the description of a child molestor...."eyeing little girls with bad intent"..."watching as the frilly panties run". Creepy!!Jena - Bonner Springs, Ks
About going to the bog and warming his feet...it is a common practice for homeless people in the dead of winter to go to a public toilet (bog) and urinate on their feet to keep from getting frostbite on their toes..."he goes down to the bog and warms his feet." Jethro Tull also got in (minor) trouble for using the word Aqualung (especially likening it to "deep sea diver sounds"), which is a copywrited name.Brandon - Peoria, Il
And you snatch your rattling last breaths.

rattling last breath has long been associated with the sound your throat makes before dying.
It is a sound of a rattle. I heard this rattle with my father, and my grandmother.

Mike, Calif.
Mike - Salinas, Ca
I don't think that Aqualung's a paedophile; in "Cross-Eyed Mary" and "Aqualung", Aqualung seems to be looking at what he's missed with contempt for the system that let him slip through the 'safety net1 of life. Over-analysis, I know...James - Edinburgh, Scotland
you can realize hes a pedophile when it says "eyeing little girls with bad intent"Tyler - Niagara Falls, Ny
this song is actully about a bum who is also a petifile if you listen to the line "watching the frilly panties run" youll relize thatEdward - Durham,nc, Nc
This song is so good! Poor Aqualung -__-Phil - Niagara Falls, Canada
Aqualung is one of the most beautifully sad songs I have ever heard. The song reminds me of a displaced war veteran who has a bad attitude toward society as implied by the tone in the first stanza. The second stanza informs the listener of the terrible condition the man is in. The third stanza shows the horror of the man's past haunting his present state and god or his former self assuring him and making him aware of why he is as he is because of where he has been, at war. The listener can then understand where his miserable state comes from and the system that placed him there.
Anonymous
C.C.,TX
Anonymous - Corpus Christi, Tx
Actually, Jimmy Page was trying to crack up guitarist Martin Barre while he was recording the solo for Aqualung; he was pounding on the recording booth window, making faces and jumping up and down. Barre forged ahead and completed his work without letting Page distract him.Jared - Rochester, Ny
Of interesting note-
When the Aqualung album was first released, the song name as printed was:
Aqualung (Jennie Anderson)
Indicating sole authorship
Then when it was released on the Greatest Hits it was listed thusly:
Aqualung (Anderson/Anderson)
Now we see them sharing authorship. Perhaps things are not going well in the Anderson home?

And finally when release on DVD:
Aqualung (Ian Anderson)
Post divorce. I suppose he got it in the settlement.
IMHO-
A Seminal Rock album. Incredible imaginative unique songwriting and superb musicianship. As close to a romanticized middle ages rock as you'll find.
A TRUE orgininal!
Charles - Bronxville, Ny
This song is reputed to have been the all-time favourite of the late Owen Hart (the WWF wrestler). This is a terrific song, but 1969's "Living In The Past" was Tull's finest momentDave - Cardiff, Wales
With regard to the first comment from Barry of New York, that incident occured during the recording of Minstrel in the Gallery not Aqualung.Tom - The Far Corners Of The Globe
According to Martin Barre, while he was recording his guitar solo, Jimmy Page waved to him. Either Martin could wave back or smile. "I just smiled at him" he recalled.
This took place in December 1970 when Led Zeppelin was recording their masterpiece "Stairway To Heaven."
Barry - New York, Nc
The song is about how society views the homeless. If one listens to the "harder" parts that is society speaking, the "slower" parts is the homeless man himself. The term "aqualung" refers to TB from which this manis dying from.Jeff - Quincy, Ca
Here are the true facts about the origin and meaning of the song as quoted by Ian.

"'Aqualung': It's about a rather pathetic character, someone socially degraded. There's something marvellous about that situation. I would like to see the concept of God put into that situation."
* Ian Anderson in Disc and Music Echo, 20th March 1971.

The title song portrays an old and homeless, asthmatic man, who wanders the streets in a big city. Ian drew his inspiration from a project his first wife Jennie was working on. See: http://www.cupofwonder.com/aqua4.html ).
She had been photographing homeless people, living their harsh lives in the streets of London near Thames river. From an interview with Ian in 'Guitar World' magazine, November 1996:
Dan - Atlanta, Ga
Aqualung was also a "perv"
- "sitting on a park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent..."
Dave - Marieta, Ga
As a hard core Tull fan i wonder if some of the people who post comments listen to the words of a song or just hear what they want to.(that goes for a lot of songs on this sight)
Ian Anderson's likeness appears on alot of their albums covers, songs from the wood, heavy horses, broadsword & the beast, stand up. To Josef your right they should never have got the award for best metal album, they should have got it for being the greatest and nicest people in music. It was an honor to meet and share the stage with them.
Michael - Brisbane (seoul), Korea - South
I never gave the lyrics that much thought being a guitarist. Martin Barre's solo in this song got my attention.Bob - Cincinnati, Oh
The aqualung theme of the song refers to the sounds made by scuba divers' breathing units (aqualungs) when they're diving ("deep sea diver sounds"). Among other characteristics, the mythical homeless man of this song has some form of consumption, and chokes on his own breath because of all the gunk in his lungs.Nickc - Ft. Wayne, In
i always thought the name aqualung sort of refered to anderson's amazing lung capacity, i dunno if any of you have ever tried to play the flute, but it requires obscene amounts of air because a very small portion of the air you exhale actually enters the instrument and makes the sound. not that ian's mere ability to play demonstrates lung capacity, but if you notice he takes breaths very infrequently.Dave - Baltimore, Ma
how dare you make fun of Ian anderson josef.Charlie - Thomaston, Ct
Oh, wait they don't, I thought you said toilet. No, we call a toilet a bog, never heard anyone call a pub a bog before.James - Bransgore, England
To Kent, yeah I know, I never really thought of that though. Silly me!James - Bransgore, England
I always laughed at this song because it was so despicably sad, and way out of this world. I even used to mock Ian Anderson as he used to sing it live. Aaaaa KwWAAAA lung Myy yy yyy Freei eneed...
He sounded and looked like alot of the transients I see on the streets each day...I can't believe they beat Metallica out on the best metal record that one year. Ian Anderson is now making more money as a Salmon Farmer... Thank goodness.
Josef - Corpus Christi, Tx
Aqualung is the reflection of a tramp as he looks through his life when he's taking his "rattling last breath" He see's the soup kitchen, foraging for cigarettes and the freezing cold he's had to endure. Just a thought!Rachel - Castleford, England
the bog is a toilet, public toilet in this caseJohn - Durham, England
Dear James, Many Brits refer to a bar as "the bog."Kent - Boise, Id
Cool song...Ali - Syracuse , Ny
I think maybe that line "And you snatch your rattling last breaths" is the guy drowning. It says he goes down to the bog, which is a watery swamp, and I reckon he falls in and drowns. That's what I gathered anyway.James - Bransgore, United States
i don't think the lines December's foggy freeze when the ice that clings on to your beard is screaming agony. And you snatch your rattling last breaths" is about asthma, my theory is that aqualung was involved in a science experiment gone awry in which they tried to make a man breath underwater and when they failed they abondend and forgot about him and so he became a begger, who forgot his past life. notice the line you forget to talk about(stef) "last breaths WITH DEEP SEE DIVER SOUNDS" thus i think that he was involved in a long lost forgotten experiment. i posted this as a song fact which i doubt will ever be posted.Charlie - Thomaston, Dc
The song Aqualung was written by Ian Anderson's wife, Jennie.

The line
"the army's up the rode
salvation à la mode and
a cup of tea."

Refers to the Salvation Army, who used to give beggars and bums tea and coffee in the winter to warm up.

The line
"December's foggy freeze
when the ice that
clings on to your beard is
screaming agony.
And you snatch your rattling last breaths"

Refers to the beggars asthma, due to the foggy freeze of December.
Stef - Oshawa , Canada
I don't actually think Ian was upset over the likeness of Aqualung. I have always heard that he felt the was so much of him in the songs, that it would be only logical that the character would resemble him. Other examples of this can be found on the cover of Broadsword and the Beatie and the comic on the inside of Too Old To Rock N Roll jacket.
Also, contrary to common misconception, Ian has always claimed that Aqualung was not a concept album, rather just "a collection of songs."
Ken - Hartland, Mi