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.
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.
Mark - Madison, WI
In the 2004 film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell plays a riff from this song on his jazz flute and says, "Hey, Aqualung." The song also gets a mention in the 2019 "A Shenckman Equivocates" episode of the Netflix series The Kominsky Method when Michael Douglas tells Paul Reiser it's a "stupid f--king song." Later, it comes on the radio when Douglas is going to a doctor's appointment where he learns he has lung cancer. "Aqualung, of course," he says when he gets the diagnosis.
The song has also been used in these TV shows:
30 Rock ("College" - 2010)
The Simpsons ("Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming" - 1995)
The Sopranos ("Live Free or Die" - 2006)
King of the Hill ("The Incredible Hank" - 2003)
Freaks and Geeks ("Chokin' and Tokin'" - 2000)
And in these movies:
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Moonlight Mile (2002)
Ian Anderson recorded a new version of this song, called "Aquafugue," with the Carducci Quartet for the 2017 album Jethro Tull: The String Quartets
. In a 2017 interview with Anderson
, he said: "There was never any flute on the original 'Aqualung' recording so this was written as a fugue, which means it doesn't repeat with the normal numbers of bars in it that you would find in the original recording. The idea of having the string quartet play it as a fugue to introduce it and then to kind of get into the obvious payoff rendition that the fans would recognize was a little bit of arts meets crafts. You know, the more creative approach to doing the fugue arrangement and then delivering the more artisan approach to the familiar elements that people know, including a bit of vocal just to sell it, I suppose.
But, you know, some of the songs are done in a more esoteric way. I think you've got to try and balance it up so that it's not all too clever. You've got to mix it up a little bit."