The Meaning of “Aqualung” by Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” is a member of a fairly small group of songs that achieved immense popularity despite lasting well over five minutes. Maybe it’s guitarist Martin Barre’s hard-edged opening riff that hooks listeners in. It could be Ian Anderson’s opening line, “Sitting on a park bench,” that grabs our attention, wondering what comes next.

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However “Aqualung” manages to keep us from changing the dial or clicking “play” on another song throughout its duration, it gives us an intriguing story to follow over its six-and-a-half minutes. The details are often unpleasant, but the lyrics penned by Anderson and his then-wife Jennie Franks keep us enthralled.

While the Aqualung album, released in 1971, doesn’t have a cohesive central theme (though many have assumed it does), the title track does. Let’s dig in and learn more about the meaning behind this classic of progressive rock.

Compassion and Fear About the Homeless

In listening to “Aqualung,” you’ve likely sensed that Anderson has a variety of emotional responses to the song’s character. That’s because “Aqualung”’s story is a reflection of Anderson’s response to a photo of a homeless man taken by Franks. He told Guitar World in a 1999 interview that he “had feelings of guilt about the homeless, as well as fear and insecurity with people like that who seem a little scary.” This combination of emotions informed Anderson’s perspective as the narrator of his story of Aqualung, a character based on the man in Franks’ photo.

In the first section of “Aqualung,” Anderson and Franks begin to sketch the character, initially leaning on Anderson’s more fearful feelings.

Sitting on a park bench
Eyeing little girls with bad intent
Snot is running down his nose
Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes
Hey, Aqualung
Drying in the cold sun
Watching as the frilly panties run
Hey, Aqualung

Then we see the compassionate side of Anderson’s reaction in the remainder of this section.

Feeling like a dead duck
Spitting out pieces of his broken luck
Whoa, Aqualung

As Anderson and Franks move into the song’s quieter, slower second section, they maintain their focus on Aqualung’s poor condition. They also bring attention to the small ways Aqualung shows resilience.

Sun streaking cold, an old man wandering lonely
Taking time the only way he knows
Leg hurting bad as he bends to pick a dog-end
He goes down to the bog and warms his feet

Making Friends with Aqualung

Towards the end of this section, Anderson and Franks go a step beyond recognizing Aqualung’s humanity from a distance. Anderson breaks from his role as narrator, approaching Aqualung and letting him know he is a friend.

Aqualung my friend, don’t you start away uneasy
You poor old sot, you see, it’s only me

As the tempo picks up for the third section, Anderson progresses towards an increased familiarity with Aqualung. He reminisces with him about a difficult winter.

Do you still remember December’s foggy freeze
When the ice that clings on to your beard
Was screaming agony?

Anderson and Franks do a wonderful job of fleshing out the range of emotional responses we can have when encountering someone who is homeless. In transitioning gradually from a more distant appraisal of Aqualung to a familiar and friendly one makes it easy for us to follow their story.

Why Anderson Named His Character “Aqualung”

According to the website Songfacts, Anderson chose to name the song’s character Aqualung, because he decided that he had breathing difficulties. Anderson imagined it was a nickname that others could have given him. The name came to Anderson from watching a TV program called Sea Hunt, in which a diver wore a device called an “Aqualung.” 

About Jennie Franks

Franks wrote roughly half of the lyrics for “Aqualung”’s first two verses, according to Anderson. She is a Colorado-based actor, director, screenwriter, and playwright. Franks wrote and starred in her one-woman off-Broadway show Stuck. She is also the founder of SPARKy Productions, through which she has written, produced, and directed several documentaries. Franks is the artistic director of the Telluride Playwrights Festival.

The Impact of “Aqualung”

Because of its length, Jethro Tull did not release “Aqualung” as a single. Nonetheless, it is the band’s most popular song on Spotify with more than 99 million streams. Aqualung was Jethro Tull’s first Top 10 album, peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard 200. It was also the band’s first Platinum album. It was certified Triple Platinum in November 1989. Rolling Stone ranked Aqualung 337th on their 2012 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The album was also included in the 2005 book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

There are plenty of other signs of “Aqualung” still being relevant decades after its initial release. In Anchorman, Ron Burgundy plays a lengthy flute solo that includes the hook from “Aqualung.” In a scene from the “Live Free or Die” episode from season 6 of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano walks into the kitchen singing “Aqualung”’s opening line, “Sitting on a park bench.” The song has also been featured in the TV series 30 Rock, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Freaks and Geeks, and in the films Moonlight Mile and Fahrenheit 9/11.

Jethro Tull will never be confused with a singles band. They have released 23 studio albums across six different decades, but only twice (with “Living in the Past” and “Bungle in the Jungle”) have they cracked the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. Sometimes, though, it’s not the hits from the singles charts that have the biggest impact on future generations. Quality songwriting and great musicianship can get noticed, and “Aqualung” is brimming with both.


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Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” is a member of a fairly small group of songs that achieved immense popularity despite lasting well over five minutes. Maybe it’s guitarist Martin Barre’s hard-edged opening riff that hooks listeners in. It could be Ian Anderson’s opening line, “Sitting on a park bench,” that grabs our attention, wondering what comes next. However “Aqualung” manages to keep us from changing the dial or clicking “play” on another song throughout its duration, it gives us an intriguing story to follow over its six-and-a-half minutes. The details are often unpleasant, but the lyrics penned by Anderson and his then-wife Jennie Franks keep us enthralled. While the Aqualung album, released in 1971, doesn’t have a cohesive central theme (though many have assumed it does), the title track does. Let’s dig in and learn more about the meaning behind this classic of progressive rock. Compassion and Fear About the Homeless In listening to “Aqualung,” you’ve likely sensed that Anderson has a variety of emotional responses to the song’s character. That’s because “Aqualung”’s story is a reflection of Anderson’s response to a photo of a homeless man taken by Franks. He told Guitar World in a 1999 interview that he “had feelings of guilt about the homeless, as well as fear and insecurity with people like that who seem a little scary.” This combination of emotions informed Anderson’s perspective as the narrator of his story of Aqualung, a character based on the man in Franks’ photo. In the first section of “Aqualung,” Anderson and Franks begin to sketch the character, initially leaning on Anderson’s more fearful feelings. Sitting on a park bench Eyeing little girls with bad intent Snot is running down his nose Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes Hey, Aqualung Drying in the cold sun Watching as the frilly panties run Hey, Aqualung Then we see the compassionate side of Anderson’s reaction in the remainder of this section. Feeling like a dead duck Spitting out pieces of his broken luck Whoa, Aqualung As Anderson and Franks move into the song’s quieter, slower second section, they maintain their focus on Aqualung’s poor condition. They also bring attention to the small ways Aqualung shows resilience. Sun streaking cold, an old man wandering lonely Taking time the only way he knows Leg hurting bad as he bends to pick a dog-end He goes down to the bog and warms his feet Making Friends with Aqualung Towards the end of this section, Anderson and Franks go a step beyond recognizing Aqualung’s humanity from a distance. Anderson breaks from his role as narrator, approaching Aqualung and letting him know he is a friend. Aqualung my friend, don’t you start away uneasy You poor old sot, you see, it’s only me As the tempo picks up for the third section, Anderson progresses towards an increased familiarity with Aqualung. He reminisces with him about a difficult winter. Do you still remember December’s foggy freeze When the ice that clings on to your beard Was screaming agony? Anderson and Franks do a wonderful job of fleshing out the range of emotional responses we can have when encountering someone who is homeless. In transitioning gradually from a more distant appraisal of Aqualung to a familiar and friendly one makes it easy for us to follow their story. Why Anderson Named His Character "Aqualung" According to the website Songfacts, Anderson chose to name the song’s character Aqualung, because he decided that he had breathing difficulties. Anderson imagined it was a nickname that others could have given him. The name came to Anderson from watching a TV program called Sea Hunt, in which a diver wore a device called an “Aqualung.”  About Jennie Franks Franks wrote roughly half of the lyrics for “Aqualung”’s first two verses, according to Anderson. She is a Colorado-based actor, director, screenwriter, and playwright. Franks wrote and starred in her one-woman off-Broadway show Stuck. She is also the founder of SPARKy Productions, through which she has written, produced, and directed several documentaries. Franks is the artistic director of the Telluride Playwrights Festival. The Impact of “Aqualung” Because of its length, Jethro Tull did not release “Aqualung” as a single. Nonetheless, it is the band’s most popular song on Spotify with more than 99 million streams. Aqualung was Jethro Tull’s first Top 10 album, peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard 200. It was also the band’s first Platinum album. It was certified Triple Platinum in November 1989. Rolling Stone ranked Aqualung 337th on their 2012 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The album was also included in the 2005 book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. There are plenty of other signs of “Aqualung” still being relevant decades after its initial release. In Anchorman, Ron Burgundy plays a lengthy flute solo that includes the hook from “Aqualung.” In a scene from the “Live Free or Die” episode from season 6 of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano walks into the kitchen singing “Aqualung”’s opening line, “Sitting on a park bench.” The song has also been featured in the TV series 30 Rock, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Freaks and Geeks, and in the films Moonlight Mile and Fahrenheit 9/11. Jethro Tull will never be confused with a singles band. They have released 23 studio albums across six different decades, but only twice (with “Living in the Past” and “Bungle in the Jungle”) have they cracked the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. Sometimes, though, it’s not the hits from the singles charts that have the biggest impact on future generations. Quality songwriting and great musicianship can get noticed, and “Aqualung” is brimming with both.
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