Rock Island went Gold in the UK, with good sales also in Germany, were peak the Nº 5. Good sales also for the "Kissing Willie" single, that reach the Nº 6.
The staging on the 1989 tour supporting Rock Island featured projected silhouettes of lithe dancers during the song "Kissing Willie", ending with an image that bordered on pornographic. The song "Big Riff and Mando" reflects life on the road for the relentlessly touring musicians, giving a wry account of the theft of Barre's prized mandolin by a stage-struck fan.
In 2006, for the remastered CD, Anderson wrote an introduction to each song of the original album:
"Kissing Willie" is a not-too-subtle approach to love and life behind grey factory walls. Actually bassist Dave Pegg inspired this one with a tale, imagined or real, who knows, of an awkward teenage mutual fumble behind the gasworks somewhere on the fringes of his home town of Birmingham in the Midlands of the UK. A rather over-the-top video went with this one and is not one of my proudest moments. Director Storm Thorgerson wanted a Benny Hill kind of thing and so I Bennied, dutifully. Regretfully.
"The Rattlesnake Trail" is a medium tempo rocker of the ZZ Top persuasion. Guitar-based and never performed on stage. Just an excuse for a funky rocking good time.
"Ears of Tin" plays on the social disintegration of the West Highlands of Scotland. The move to the big city. The regrets. The longing.
"Undressed to Kill" is a strip club through-the-keyhole, life of a working girl song. A certain sadness and grim determination lurks in the young female personality behind the lap-dance frivolity of the setting.
"Rock Island" is a rather good song, I think. Loneliness and detachment. Fear of the far-off unknown. The rock island as metaphor for the isolated but familiar bubble into which we all sometimes retreat. The blue baby blanket security. Back to the womb. For beer, curry and a game of skittles.
"Heavy Water" reflects on the environmental damage from Chernobyl but was inspired also by the horrors of the acid rain reality of 20th century industrial pollution. Memories of a hot and sticky New York City summer in the early seventies when the rainspots on my sleeve were an ominous black.
"Another Christmas Song" is probably my favourite piece from the album, being generally uplifting in this sea of misery! It was actually written as a sequel to the original "Christmas Song", B-side on an early Tull single in 1968. It was also re-recorded for the Jethro Tull Christmas Album in 2003. A song of family togetherness, nostalgia and benevolence. The antithesis of the original, in some ways.
"The Whaler's Dues" tackles the difficult subject of the moral question of whale-hunting, seen from the perspective of a seaman on board on a whaling ship. Set in the contemporary world, it in no way tries to condone or excuse the on-going practice but puts our hero (or villain) up in the dock for sentence and martyrdom. For all my Japanese and Icelandic friends to ponder on...
"Big Riff and Mando" is based on the true event of the theft of Martin Barre's mandolin from backstage after a show somewhere in the USA a few months before. Martin was understandably distraught and I made plea via a helpful local Classic Rock radio station to the perpetrator. To our amazement, the mandoline was returned undamaged and lived to fight another day. Why did the thief take it? To brag out? To have as a souvenir? Or to keep for a few years until e-Bay was invented? Marty is Martin, obviously. Big Riff is the imagined thief and a little story is invented here to portray the character and his motives.
"Strange Avenues" is a little sequel to the Aqualung setting of 1971. Sometimes it is so nice to revisit an earlier song and re-create, for a moment, the subject in another piece of invaded personal space. Nice musical arrangement and dramatic stuff. Must play it live again some day.