AN APPRECIATION OF JETHRO TULL
By Raymond Benson
It boggles my mind that Jethro Tull has not been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. It seems that the museum’s board of directors has deemed acts of the “progressive rock” persuasion not suitable for inclusion. Pink Floyd is the only prog-rock band in the Hall of Fame (most likely because of the Floyd’s huge commercial success). Genesis is in there, but I suspect it’s more due to the successful Phil Collins pop years than for the early and challenging Peter Gabriel era. Frank Zappa was inducted, and I suppose one can make the argument that he was a progressive rock act. But what about Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, The Moody Blues, Soft Machine, Rush… and the band that’s endured the longest without a hiatus—Jethro Tull—a musical entity that still sells out theater-sized concerts every year, a group whose music continues to be played on classic rock radio stations, and an outfit with dozens of releases, many of which went gold and platinum?
It makes no sense.
I first heard Jethro Tull when I was in high school, way back in 1970. The album was Benefit, their third. I loved the fact that there was a flute front and center, battling it out with a raunchy electric guitar for dominance. The sound was different, unusual, and captivating. A friend of mine had their first two records, This Was (1968) and Stand Up (1969), so I borrowed them, loved them, and bought copies of my own. And then Aqualung came out in 1971, and I was hooked for life. That album was a mainstay on my turntable, so much so that I wore out the first copy and had to buy another. By then, the band’s masterpiece, Thick as a Brick (1972), was released. Today in 2011, this remains one of my two or three favorite albums of all time. Between then and now, I’ve never missed a Tull release and I like them all. Certainly some are better than others, but in my humble opinion, Jethro Tull has never made a bad record.
The band is the brainchild and artistic outlet for Ian Anderson. It’s Anderson’s compositions, lyrics, and personality that drives Jethro Tull. Many people still believe the front man who sings, strums the acoustic guitar, and plays the flute is named Jethro Tull!
Actually, these days Jethro Tull exists only when Ian Anderson plays with a band that includes electric guitarist Martin Barre, no matter who is on drums, bass, or keyboards. Otherwise, the band is Ian Anderson (Anderson has recorded and released several solo albums and toured under his own name in recent years).
Tull’s peak decade, of course, was the 1970s. They achieved supergroup status between 1972 and 1979, playing stadium-sized arenas and sending records to the top of the charts. After the advent of punk and new wave, Jethro Tull, along with a multitude of other classic 70s bands, lost the super status but remained a stalwart, reliable warhorse that continued to record, tour, and please a legion of loyal, enthusiastic fans for three more decades.
I had the good fortune of meeting Ian Anderson and the Tull lineup of the late 1990s when I was working as the official author of James Bond novels. Anderson, I learned, was a Bond fan himself. One of his early bands was called The Blades, named after the London gambling club frequented by 007 in Ian Fleming’s novels. I sent Anderson a couple of my books and he reciprocated with a signed CD and an invitation to visit Tull backstage during the band’s next trip to Chicago. Since then, I’ve enjoyed this privilege numerous times. I have found Anderson to be a true Scottish gentleman, a brainy and articulate spokesman, and an extremely generous fellow. I’ve also come to know Martin Barre—a gentle, sweet man—and longtime drummer Doane Perry—perhaps my closest friend in the group. Former bass player and keyboard player, Jonathan Noyce and Andy Giddings, respectively, were swell chaps, too; I’m sure the new guys David Goodier and John O’Hara are good people as well, but I’ve met them only a couple of times.
Another connection I have with the band is that in 2002 I wrote and published a small biography, Jethro Tull—Pocket Essential, that is still in print and serves as a handy guide for Tull newbies and longtime aficionados alike. As I did in the book, I herewith give you a quick rundown of the Tull catalog, not including stand-alone “greatest hits” packages that don’t also include something exclusive.
So wake up Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame! You’re looking quite foolish by not recognizing this amazing, enduring, and legendary band.
"THIS WAS" (1968) ***
Jethro Tull's debut consists mostly of blues-oriented songs—it sounds unlike any other Tull album that has come since. The album established Tull in the U.K. as a "British blues" band, and a good one at that. It spawned one single, "A Song for Jeffrey," but the highlights of the album are "Beggar's Farm," "Serenade to a Cuckoo" (a Roland Kirk cover), and the opener, "My Sunday Feeling." Ian Anderson, of course, is the leader on vocals and flute, with Glenn Cornick on bass and Clive Bunker on drums. This is the only album featuring Mick Abrahams on guitar. Recently re-issued in a “special edition” format with extra tracks and other goodies.
"STAND UP" (1969) *****
Tull's second album is its only U.K. #1 album and the one that made the band's reputation in England. Mick Abrahams is gone, replaced by long-standing member Martin Barre on guitar. The songs are more rock-oriented, with personal, witty lyrics, a step toward developing the Jethro Tull sound we all know. An outstanding work, one of the band’s best. Highlights include "A New Day Yesterday," "Bouree," "Back to the Family," "Nothing is Easy," "Fat Man," "We Used to Know," and "Reasons for Waiting." Recently re-issued in a “special edition” format with extra tracks and the complete Carnegie Hall concert from 1970, both on CD and audio DVD.
"BENEFIT" (1970) ****
The follow-up to "Stand Up" leans a little more toward hard rock and is darker in tone than the previous record, but it's still a fabulous album. John Evan is added to the band to augment on keyboards. Highlights include "With You There to Help Me," "Inside," "Son," "To Cry You a Song?," and especially "Teacher." It was during the tour to support this album when Tull's legendary Carnegie Hall concert was recorded in 1970.
"AQUALUNG" (1971) *****
Tull's most popular and arguably quintessential album contains several classics. It was one of the first "concept" albums (although Ian Anderson denies it was conceived as such)—side one is a suite of songs entitled "Aqualung" (about a homeless person who lusts after young girls), and the second side is a suite of songs concerning Anderson's views toward organized religion (called "My God"). The album still gets FM airplay, and it's probably the album for which Tull will be remembered. Highlights include "Aqualung," "Cross-Eyed Mary," "Mother Goose," "Wonderin' Aloud," "My God," and "Locomotive Breath." Glenn Cornick departs from the band, replaced by Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond on bass.
"THICK AS A BRICK" (1972) *****
For me, this is Tull's most accomplished album and personal favorite. A true concept album, "Thick as a Brick" is one continuous "song," spanning two sides of a record. It is complex, challenging, humorous, and inventive. The lyrics, supposedly written by a young lad named Gerald Bostock (really Anderson), concern the meaning of life and the various stages of B.S. one must wade through. The album cover was also innovative—a complete parody of a small town English newspaper. It was the band's first U.S. #1 LP, the record that catapulted Tull into superstar status. Personnel—Clive Bunker departs, replaced by Barriemore Barlow on drums.
"LIVING IN THE PAST" (1972) ****1/2
Capitalizing on Tull's newfound superstar status, this double-LP compilation was issued, containing singles, B-sides, unreleased material, and a side of live material recorded at the 1970 Carnegie Hall concert. It's a fabulous collection of older material not immediately available, especially to U.S. fans. Highlights include "A Christmas Song," "Living in the Past," "Sweet Dream," "Witch's Promise," "Alive and Well and Living In," "Life is a Long Song," "Up the Pool," and many more. The album packaging was unique—much like a large photo album with plenty of great color photos of the band, past and present.
"A PASSION PLAY" (1973) ****
Tull's most controversial and ambitious album. Originally conceived as a more serious follow-up to "Thick as a Brick," the band recorded a complete LP in France that Ian Anderson ultimately scrapped (these sessions became known as "the Chateau D'Isaster Tapes," and were subsequently released twenty years later!). Tull then went back into the studio and reworked some of the themes and eventually completed "A Passion Play," another sprawling "song" covering two sides of an LP. Not as humorous and playful as "Brick," it unfortunately alienated critics and many of Tull's own fans. However, "Passion Play" is a remarkable piece of work requiring repeated listenings—it is extremely complex with challenging musical motifs and lyrics. Anderson's compositional ability has never been so intense.
"WARCHILD" (1974) ***1/2
Tull re-emerged late in 1974 with a more conventional album, the first new collection of shorter songs since "Aqualung." It didn't hurt that the band had a top ten single hit with "Bungle in the Jungle," and the album shot into the U.S. top ten as well. Other highlights include "Ladies," "Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day," and "Only Solitaire." The album was originally conceived as a soundtrack to a Jethro Tull film, but the movie never got made.
"MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY" (1975) ****
An excellent album, albeit more introspective and personal with regard to Anderson’s songwriting. Apart from the heavy title rocker, the album relies more on Anderson's acoustic guitar and sage-like voice than any of its predecessors. Side two consists mostly of a long suite called "Baker Street Muse," and it ranks as one of Tull's greatest compositions.
"TOO OLD TO ROCK 'N' ROLL—TOO YOUNG TO DIE" (1976) ***1/2
Another concept album, this time conceived to be a stage musical about a rocker who goes out of favor, is injured in a traffic accident, then makes a remarkable comeback. The songs are catchy and witty, but mostly fluff. A good middle-of-the-road LP for Tull. Personnel—John Glascock replaces Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond on bass. Highlights—"Quizz Kid," "Crazed Institution," "From a Dead Beat to an Old Greazer," and the title song.
"SONGS FROM THE WOOD" (1977) *****
A superb album, one that launched a newer sound for the band and a period of more folk-oriented English rock. Thematically it's very rustic, with songs dealing with the country (probably as a result of Anderson buying up a salmon farm). It's one of the five best Tull albums. The title song itself is one of the band's more brilliant moments. Other highlights—"Jack in the Green," "Hunting Girl," "Velvet Green," and a U.K. single, "The Whistler." David Palmer is added to the band on synthesizers and keyboards.
"HEAVY HORSES" (1978) ****1/2
The follow-up to "Songs from the Wood" is almost as good. Continuing in the rustic, more folk-oriented vein of its predecessor, the album is a fond favorite among many Tull fans. Highlights include "Acres Wild," "Moths," "Rover," "One Brown Mouse," and the title song. The tour for this album included a live televised satellite concert from Madison Square Garden, recently released on DVD.
"BURSTING OUT—JETHRO TULL LIVE" (1978) ***1/2
To celebrate Tull's 10-year anniversary, the band finally put out a double-disk live album, recorded during the "Heavy Horses" tour. It's a fine collection, but I simply prefer the studio versions. Still, it gives one a good idea of what Tull was like in concert during those days.
"STORMWATCH" (1979) *1/2
This album is probably Tull's weakest, and it is no wonder—the band was going through a lot of flux. First, bassist John Glascock died of a heart attack during sessions. Anderson took over bass for a while, and was replaced permanently by Dave Pegg for the subsequent tour. The rest of the band was not getting along either, and after the tour, Anderson dismissed them all except for Martin Barre. The album itself is the third in the series of the rustic folky albums, but it is not at all as successful as the first two. The few highlights include "North Sea Oil," "Warm Sporran," "Dun Ringill," and David Palmer's tune, "Elegy."
"A" (1980) **
Ian Anderson intended to record a solo album, utilizing Tull guitarist Martin Barre—but eventually Dave Pegg was pulled in, along with respected progressive keyboard player and electric violinist Eddie Jobson and his drummer pal Mark Craney. After the recording was done, Anderson credited the album to "Jethro Tull"—but aurally it was a very different Tull than before. Jobson's violin and keyboards added a new electronic dimension to the band's sound, and if it weren't for Anderson's distinct vocals and flute playing, one might never know it was Tull. In my opinion, one of the weaker ones. Highlights include: "Black Sunday," "Protect and Survive," and "4 W.D. (Low Ratio)."
"THE BROADSWORD AND THE BEAST" (1982) ***1/2
During 1981, Ian Anderson revamped the band (again), keeping Martin Barre and Dave Pegg, and adding keyboardist Peter Vettesse and drummer Gerry Conway. This lineup made enough recordings to fill three albums, but only one was released in early 1982, and it's a good one. Fans heralded it as a return to the Tull they knew and loved. There are some great tunes here—"The Clasp," "Fallen on Hard Times," "Flying Colours," "Slow Marching Band," "Pussy Willow," and "Watching You Watching Me." Certainly Tull's best work since "Heavy Horses."
"WALK INTO LIGHT" (Ian Anderson solo) (1983) ***1/2
A true Ian Anderson solo album, the LP consists of Anderson and keyboardist Peter Vettesse as the only musicians. It's an excellent album, with great songs—but it might as well have been credited to Jethro Tull, because, face it, it sounds like Jethro Tull. Highlights include "Fly By Night," "Made in England," "Walk Into Light," "Looking for Eden," and "Different Germany." Good stuff.
"UNDER WRAPS" (1984) ***1/2
Another Tull album which experimented with its overall sound—this time adding synthesizers and "technology" to the hilt. Relying on Peter Vettesse's electronic keyboard expertise, Tull released a record that sharply divided fans. In retrospect, it's as good as "Broadsword," and maybe better. It was during this period in which Ian Anderson began having vocal problems, and he decided to take a long hiatus from recording and touring. Unfortunately, Anderson's voice has never sounded the same. Highlights on this album—"Lap of Luxury," "Under Wraps 1," "European Legacy," "Later, That Same Evening," "Radio Free Moscow," and "Under Wraps 2."
"CREST OF A KNAVE" (1987) ***1/2
Tull's big comeback album, three years after its last studio LP, re-established the band as a "fashionable" one to like. The album got the most FM airplay since "Aqualung." It is more of a hard-rock album than the band had done in over a decade, and perhaps that was the key to its success. It even won a Grammy Award in the newly established "Hard Rock/Heavy Metal" category, which proved to be a very controversial win. Nevertheless, it's a good record, with highlights including "Steel Monkey," "Farm on the Freeway," "Jump Start," and "Budapest."
"20 YEARS OF JETHRO TULL" (1988) *****
This lavish 3-CD (5 vinyl LPs, or 3 cassettes) box set celebrated 20 years of Tull, and it was assembled and packaged with the fans in mind. At least 60% of it is unreleased or extremely rare material, and it's all great. The box is in five parts—"The Radio Archives," consisting of BBC live radio performances; "The Rare Tracks," consisting of rare singles and B-sides which are unavailable anywhere else (including Tull's very first rare single, "Aeroplane,"); "Flawed Gems," consisting of unreleased tracks from various stages of Tull's career, including a portion of 1972's "Chateau D'Isaster Tapes"; "The Other Sides of Tull," consisting of half-unreleased and half-previously released (but remastered) tracks highlighting the acoustic side of Tull and a few of Ian's personal favorites; and "Essential Tull," a collection of "classics," some performed live and some simply remastered from the original tapes. Highlights include: "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow," "Coronach," "Jack-A-Lynn," "Beltane," and many others. All in all, it's one of the best box-set compilations ever—if you're a Tull fan. An abridged "highlights" version of the box set was also released on one CD.
"ROCK ISLAND" (1989) **1/2
Tull's follow-up to the Grammy winning "Crest of a Knave," is something of a misfire—they tend to emphasize the hard rock more on this album than any other, probably to justify winning the Grammy. It's an okay album, but it's not as strong as its predecessor. Highlights include "Kissing Willie," "Ears of Tin," and "Another Christmas Song." Martin Allcock was added on keyboards for this album only, and Doane Perry was permanently employed as drummer.
"CATFISH RISING" (1991) ****
Tull's best album since "Heavy Horses"! It's got everything—hard rock, folk-oriented stuff, bluesy stuff (a shout back to the "This Was" material!), and other gems. The songwriting is superb and the lyrics are great. Highlights include: "Roll Yer Own," "Rocks on the Road," "Little Sparrow on the Schoolyard Wall," "Thinking Round Corners," "Still Loving You Tonight," "Tall Thin Girl," and more.
"A LITTLE LIGHT MUSIC" (1992) ***1/2
A semi-"unplugged" live album, this one was recorded during the 1992 "light and dark" tour, which emphasized the acoustical side of Tull (with an occasional foray into electrics and drum-bashing). It's a good live album, and the song-selection is not a predictable one, with Anderson pulling out gems from the Tull catalog that they hadn't performed since their first appearances. Folk-veteran Dave Mattacks sat in for Doane Perry on drums for this tour.
"25th ANNIVERSARY BOX SET" (1993) ***1/2
Another lavish box set compilation, this time with four CDs. It's great for Tull fans, but it probably wouldn't be for non-fans, as it doesn't really serve as a greatest hits package (and a good thing, too!). It's certainly not as superb as the "20th anniversary" box set. Disk One consists of remixed classic Tull songs from 1968 to 1982. The remixes are very interesting and in some cases create a brand new song. Disk Two is worth the price of the box—it's the near-complete 1970 Carnegie Hall concert, minus the material that appeared on the "Living in the Past" album. It captures a young Jethro Tull at its most vibrant. Disk Three is interesting and is a mixed bag—the current Tull band (now including keyboardist Andy Giddings) went into the studio and reworked and re-recorded classic Tull songs from 1968 to the present. Some are very successful, and some are not so successful. Disk Four is a collection of live material from 1969 to the present, with more emphasis on recent years. It's very good. The packaging is classy—a cigar box format—and the presentation is first class.
"NIGHTCAP" (1993) ****
This follow-up "for fans only" to the 25th anniversary box set is a 2-CD set of mostly unreleased material from 1972 to the present. One disk is the complete "Chateau D'Isaster Tapes," and it's very good—especially after hearing how some of its bits eventually came to be portions of "A Passion Play." The second disk consists of seventeen songs spanning twenty years, and most of them are all very good—only six of them appearing before on the "Living in the Past" EP released in 1993. A fan's delight.
"DIVINITIES: TWELVE DANCES WITH GOD" (Ian Anderson solo) (1995) *****
An unusual but certainly an "it's about time!" project for Ian Anderson: an album of music for flute and orchestra in a classical vein. Completely instrumental and about as far away from Jethro Tull as one can get, Anderson delivers twelve original, inventive pieces drawing on various international and cultural influences—all featuring his outstanding flutist abilities. Current Tull keyboardist Andy Giddings contributed a great deal to the material. Even though there is some humor in the music, it is quite definitely a serious work—it was distributed by EMI's classical division!
"ROOTS TO BRANCHES" (1995) *****
An excellent album, Tull's first studio recording of new material since "Catfish Rising" and arguably their best since the seventies. The songs are introspective, somewhat dark and deep, but the music is accessible and imaginatively orchestrated. Much of the "Divinities" sound creeps into this work (a lot of bamboo flutes and strings), making the album more woodwind-dominated than usual. There are some rockers, but mostly the album is very wistful and melancholy. Highlights include "Rare and Precious Chain," "Valley," "Beside Myself," "Wounded, Old and Treacherous," "At Last, Forever," and "Stuck in the August Rain." Dave Pegg only plays on three tracks, having left the band midstream, and is replaced by Steve Bailey, and then by Jonathan Noyce for the subsequent tour.
"J-TULL DOT COM" (1999) ***1/2
A pleasant-enough album, more in the vein of "Catfish Rising" than "Roots to Branches," with several catchy ditties. Surprisingly, there are several love songs on the album, perhaps an indication of the now over-50 Ian Anderson's more reflective view of life. Jonathan Noyce became the permanent bass player since 1995. Highlights include "Dot Com," "Hunt by Numbers," "Hot Mango Flush," "El Nino," "Black Mamba," "Bends Like a Willow," "Far Alaska," "The Dog Ear Years," and "A Gift of Roses."
"THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF BIRDS" (2000) (Ian Anderson solo) ****
Exactly what you'd come to expect to be an Ian Anderson solo album—songs on acoustic guitar with flutes and vocals. The full Tull band shows up on a couple of instrumental numbers, but mostly this is Anderson and keyboard player Andy Giddings showcasing a number of intelligent, catchy songs. Highlights include: "The Secret Language of Birds," "The Water Carrier," "The Habanero Reel," "The Secret Language of Birds Part 2," "Boris Dancing," "Circular Breathing," and "The Stormfront Shuffle."
“LIVING WITH THE PAST” (2002) ***
Another live album, mostly recorded during the 2001 tour, but also featuring odds and ends from other settings. A couple of acoustic numbers with a string quartet, recorded by Anderson and Giddings alone at a “stately home” in England, are outstanding (“Life is a Long Song,” “Wond’ring Aloud”). The rest of the album is good enough. The album is also available on DVD with the corresponding visuals!
“RUPI’S DANCE” (2003) (Ian Anderson solo) ****
If you liked “The Secret Language of Birds,” then you’ll like “Rupi’s Dance.” More of the same from Anderson, with wonderful gems of songs with heavy Eastern influence. Highlights include “Calliandra Shade (The Cappuccino Song),” “Rupi’s Dance,” “Eurology,” “Griminelli’s Lament,” and “Old Black Cat.”
“THE JETHRO TULL CHRISTMAS ALBUM” (2003) ****
At first this seems like an odd choice for a thematic album, but if one looks back at the entire Tull catalog, there are a lot of Christmas tunes! This album features the band back in the studio to re-record songs such as “A Christmas Song,” “Another Christmas Song,” “Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow,” “Ring Out, Solstice Bells,” and such, but also presenting new, wonderful instrumental recordings of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Greensleeved,” and “Holly Herald.” Very cool.
“NOTHING IS EASY—LIVE AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT, 1970” (2004) ***
A terrific time capsule of the “Benefit”-era band. The recording quality is better than you’d expect but the set is sadly too short. Still, the young Tull’s energy and enthusiasm clearly shines through and makes this is a worthy addition to the catalog. The concert is also available on DVD.
“IAN ANDERSON PLAYS THE ORCHESTRAL JETHRO TULL” (2005) (Ian Anderson solo) ****1/2
A live concert recording featuring Anderson with the Frankfurt Neue Philharmonic Orchestra, this is a surprisingly good album of re-arranged Tull and Ian Anderson solo classics. One will barely recognize the orchestral “Aqualung,” but it’s fantastic. Other gems like “Bouree” and “My God” are simply brilliant. The concert is also available on DVD.
“AQUALUNG LIVE” (2005) ***
This is a special collectors’ edition released for charity purposes—it was recorded live in the XM Radio studio; thus there is no audience. The current band will never sound like the 1971 lineup, and Anderson’s voice will never be what it was then—however, it’s always nice to hear a classic.
“LIVE AT MONTREUX 2003” (2007) ****1/2
This could very well be the best live album Jethro Tull ever recorded. The sound quality is exceptional, the track listing is dynamite, and the 2003 lineup never sounded better. A 2-CD set, also available as a concert DVD, it confirms that Jethro Tull is just as vibrant and powerful today as they were in the 70s. Sure, they’re older (and wiser), but the talent and brilliance is still there.
Today Ian Anderson continues to tour regularly with Jethro Tull and as Ian Anderson. Try to catch them when they’re in a town near you and see why the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is missing the boat.
Life is a long song, indeed!
Raymond Benson is the author of 24 published books, including several James Bond continuation novels, two New York Times best-selling tie-ins for Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (as “David Michaels”), two Metal Gear Solid novelizations, Homefront: the Voice of Freedom (co-written with John Milius), two “rock ‘n’ roll thrillers”—A Hard Day’s Death and Dark Side of the Morgue, and the upcoming The Black Stiletto (www.theblackstiletto.net). Visit Raymond at www.raymondbenson.com.