Ian Anderson wrote this song. “Aqualung” by Jethro Tull is a story of homelessness and how society deals with it. Ian’s wife, Jennie took photos of the homeless and showed them to Ian. Many of the lyrics describe actual homeless men. Jennie also wrote some lyrics from the photos, giving her songwriting credit and half the royalties from the song. (They divorced in 1974)
Ian Anderson said of the song, “a guilt-ridden song of confusion about how you deal with beggars, the homeless… 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.”
“Aqualung” By Jethro Tull Was Never Released as a Single
In an interview with Songfacts, Ian explains why “Aqualung was never a single. “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, didn’t release any singles. It was album tracks. And radio was 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 an album and play the obscure, the longer, the more convoluted songs in that period of more developmental rock music.”
What is an “Aqualung?”
An “Aqualung” is a portable breathing setup for divers (think scuba gear). Ian’s picture of the homeless man had breathing problems, thus the nickname “Aqualung.” Anderson said the idea came from the TV show, Sea Hunt, (the main character wore an Aqualung). It turned out that Aqualung was a brand name for the breathing system. In a 2019 interview with Nights with Alice Cooper, Anderson said what happened next. “They tried to sue the hell out of us, the Aqualung Corporation of North America. We apologized profusely and said, ‘Sorry, we didn’t know. We thought ALL underwater breathing apparatus were called Aqualungs because it’s so famous the world over.’ It was an honest mistake. I think they were flattered by the fact that we were so, thought they were just the one and only kind of company doing that stuff. They decided not to sue us after all.”
The character, Aqualung, is mentioned in another song on the album, “Cross-Eyed Mary,” another character Anderson created.