Jethro Tull are a band who are special to me. They’re the first band I saw live, the first band that I felt a genuine connection to, the first band where my adolescent mind went ‘Yep, this is for me’. Given that my peers at the time were obsessing over Nirvana or the contemporary hiphop of the early 90s, being a fan of a bunch of hairy 70s rockers didn’t do much to improve my street credibility. Twenty years later, I’m still quietly proud of that fact.
Unlike so many bands of their generation Jethro Tull have never enjoyed the same nostalgic career reassessment that breathed life back into so many 70s rock bands back in the mid to late 90s and even now, there’s very few acts outside of Iron Maiden, Midlake and Nick Cave who are prepared to sing the praises of Ian Anderson and his bandmates. Despite this current indifference towards Jethro Tull, during the early to mid 70s, there weren’t many acts who were bigger than Tull, whose fans filled the biggest stadiums in America and played to packed-houses across Europe. For many years Jethro Tull’s reputation as a live act far outstripped the reputation of their studio albums.
Their music morphed with the band over the years and shifted from blues-rock to hard-rock to prog-rock to pop-rock to folk-rock and that was just in their first ten years. When the 70s ended, Jethro Tull continued in the face of an unsupportive press and released a string of varied albums through the last thirty three years that have found them dabble with technology, return to their rocking roots, grab a grammy and even immerse themselves with world music. Central to all this has been band leader / frontman Ian Anderson and, since Tull’s second album, his trusty lieutenant and unlikely guitar-hero Martin Barre. The rest of the band’s line-up has been one of the most fluid and diverse in the history of rock music, thus spreading their family tree to acts as diverse as Rainbow, Fairport Convention, Annie Lennox and Take That.
Given the sheer length of their career, there has inevitably been the odd dud album and some questionable career decisions. Despite this, Jethro Tull are one of the most startlingly inventive rock bands of the 70s, minimising, if not fully avoiding, the pitfalls that befell so many of their contemporaries and carving themselves a unique position in the history of UK rock.
Given the sheer scale of Jethro Tull’s career and their output, I’ve taken the liberty of breaking this buyers guide into distinct sections, as opposed to my usual approach of a rambling essay detailing each of their albums individually.
Tull released two albums at the end of the decade. Their debut album, This Was, is an interesting proposition as it is one of the few albums where Anderson shares writing duties, in this case with then co-band leader Mick Abrahams. Abraham’s influence over the album ensured that it was the most bluesy Jethro Tull album, with a distinctly Cream-flavoured sound. Very few of their subsequent albums harked back to the sound of This Was and Abrahams’ left due to ‘musical differences’ shortly after its release.
Their sophomore release, Stand Up, was the album on which Jethro Tull became recognisably the band that would go on to conquer America. Their only album to top the charts in the UK, it’s a refreshing blend of rock, blues and folk. The band’s secret weapon was new guitar player Martin Lancelot Barre, a hairy rock gnome that could play in any style that the band needed him to, with such flexibility giving the band the ideal opportunity to expand their musical ambitions. Boasting Tull standards such as “Bouree”, “Nothing is Easy” and “Fat Man”, Stand Up is one of Tull’s strongest albums and one of the best albums of the late 60s.
Tull entered the 70s as one of the most critically lauded bands of the new decade and were poised to conquer the USA. Their first steps towards this was Benefit, a dark and sweaty album heavy on riffs and light on airiness. Benefit is an oddly claustrophobic listen, yet I’m of the opinion that it is in many ways their ‘coolest’ album in that it has vast potential for rediscovery and rehabilitation by future generations. The key to how Jethro Tull are perceived in the future may very well hang around Benefit.
Aqualung is Jethro Tull’s best known album by some distance and easily their best seller. A straight ahead rock album with acoustic flourishes, it contains two of their most talismanic tracks in “Locomotive Breath” and the title track and remains the album that appeals most to fans of classic rock. Care should be taken though, as over the years CD versions of Aqualung have sounded less than stellar, however the most recent 40th Anniversary version has remedied this by way of remixes, which may not appeal to the traditionalists among us.
In recent years Thick as a Brick has competed with Aqualung as Tull’s best loved album. A full-blown prog-rock epic only split into two halves due to the necessity of having to turn the original vinyl over, Thick as a Brick is effectively one long continuous album-length track (individual tracks were for wusses like Yes). Having been lumped in with the Progressive rock movement, Tull decided to lampoon the genre’s po-faced seriousness, hence Thick as a Brick being one of the first parody concept albums. Thick as a Brick has since taken its rightful place as one of the key progressive rock albums and remains one of the best albums of the 1970s.
If Thick as a Brick was the jokey parody of concept albums, A Passion Play was Jethro Tull seeing if they could reach the same heights by doing the same thing seriously. It was an album which saw the critics at the time turn on them (they would never fully regain their support), however, like Thick as a Brick before it, it hit the top of the American album charts. Nowhere near as fun as Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play was a brave attempt by the band to go a darker place musically, but its reputation as Tull’s ‘difficult’ album from their heyday remains in place.
After the mixed response to A Passion Play, Tull reverted to a more song-based approach with Warchild. A frequently overlooked album, Warchild is musically similar to its predecessor, however elements of lightness do return and the album is made up of individual songs, rather than one long continuous piece of music. It‘s a relatively diverse album, with more in the way of a commercial approach as American hit “Bungle in the Jungle” ably demonstrated.
The Minstrel in the Gallery is an album of contrasts, with a generous amount of acoustic material sharing run time with longer progressive pieces and in the title track, one of Jethro Tull’s finest hard rock tunes. Again, it’s something of a fan favourite due to the fact that it’s relatively diverse and the band were playing to their strengths.
By 1976 there was a genuine shift in the musical firmament, and though they’ve rarely been credited for it, Tull were one of the few established rock bands to acknowledge this. Too Old to Rock’n’Roll; Too Young to Die! was an album that was built around the theme of changing musical fashions and how older acts inevitably fall out of favour. Regardless of this theme, it was also one of Tull’s less complicated albums musically, being close to pop-rock in places. It was an album that divided fans at the time, partly due to the change in the band’s sound and material and partly due to the fact that it was a relatively muddy sounding album. Recent CD releases have cleaned up the mastering and Too Old to Rock’n’Roll; Too Young to Die! has been revealed to be another overlooked gem in Tull’s back catalogue.
1977 found Punk in full flow and the single most influential musical movement of the decade. Having been forward thinking enough to acknowledge their own obsolescence on their previous album, Tull decided to react to the full blown Punk explosion by going Morris dancing. Songs from the Wood found Jethro Tull recording a whole album of folk-rock. Although well received by their fans and gaining a new audience due to their revised sound, it’s perhaps a little twee to my ears. If you’re a fan of folk-rock though it’s a solid album and the start of an interesting trilogy.
Where Songs from the Wood was twee and obsessed with sprites, nymphs and other fantastical creatures, follow up Heavy Horses was much more grounded in the reality of life in rural regions. Considerably more aggressive and hard-rocking than its predecessor, Heavy Horses is perhaps the most accomplished and enduring of all of Tull’s late 70s studio output.
Tull ended the decade with Stormwatch, an album which closed their folk-rock trilogy as well as Tull’s most creatively fertile period. A far darker beast than their previous two albums, it’s strongly themed on how modern life and industry were effecting the countryside. It also signified the end of an era for the band, with the sad passing of bass player John Glascock and the knock-on effect that his departure would have on the rest of the band.
With the start of the new decade Ian Anderson decided to launch a solo career with Martin Barre, his long-time lieutenant in Jethro Tull. What happened next is a subject for debate, but it seems that their record label encouraged Anderson to release his mooted solo album, A, as a Jethro Tull album. The line up change as a result of this was seen as drastic by many of their fans and it arguably changed the band dynamic permanently. Although Anderson had always been the band leader, Jethro Tull had very much been a group effort, however with the dawn of the 80s and the diverted attempt at a solo career, the band was now unarguably Ian Anderson and a frequently changing supporting cast that hinged on Martin Barre and new bass player, Fairport Convention legend, Dave Pegg.
The 1980s was a period of massive change for Jethro Tull and the wider music industry. Many acts of Tull’s vintage struggled to assimilate new recording and production techniques into their sound and Tull was not alone in dabbling with synthesisers. On an album like Broadsword and the Beast, it complimented their established style, though too much reliance on them on albums such as A and Under Wraps was a controversial move that confused many fans. The fact that Under Wraps relied on a drum machine instead of a human sticksman did it no favours in the fan’s eyes either, despite it being a personal favourite of several of the band members.
Tull’s most famous album of the 80s is Crest of a Knave, though this is mainly down to the brouhaha over it winning the first heavy metal / hard rock Grammy over favourites Metallica. The public outcry from the press, Metallica and their fans somewhat overshadows the album, which saw Tull once again push Martin Barre’s guitar to the fore and scale back the reliance on the synths and drum machines, though both are uitilised here and there throughout the album. Notoriety aside, it’s a fair to middling Jethro Tull album, though it was clear that Ian Anderson lacked his previous vocal range after suffering throat problems.
Tull’s final album of the decade was Rock Island, an attempt by the band to emulate the sound and success of Crest of a Knave. It has its moments, but there’s not many Tull fans that would point to it as one of their favourites.
Tull’s output in the 90s was as much of a mixed bag as their 80s albums. Catfish Rising found them simplifying their sound a little and rocking out to surprisingly good effect, while Roots to Branches found them dabbling with world music. They closed the millennium with J-Tull.Com, an album as clumsy as its title.
For a band with such a heavy-weight reputation as a live act, Jethro Tull have not always been particularly well served with live albums. Live: Bursting Out finds them at the height of their powers as a live act in the late 70s and is by far and away the best live album they’ve released, if you only investigate one Jethro Tull live album, then it should be this one. Infact, if you only investigate one Jethro Tull album, then this contains just about every reason their fans love them.
Beyond Bursting Out there has been the attempt at a semi-acoustic live compilation in A Little Light Music, which is a fun diversion, but nothing life-changing. There have been a couple of BBC concerts made available, but both have been out of print for some time. The live version of Aqualung recorded in the last decade can also be found with some searching. In recent years there has been a concerted effort to dig through the archives for vintage Tull performances, Live at the Isle of Wight accompanies the part live / part documentary DVD of the same name and is the far superior disc of the two, the same goes for Live at Maddison Square Garden, a show recorded as a live satellite simulcast where liberties had to be taken with the setlist for TV. Both of these are compelling documents of the band live on stage, but neither are a match for the mighty Bursting Out.
There have inevitably been repeated attempts to compile and condense Tull’s output to a few dozen tracks, but not all have been successful. Most interesting is Living in the Past, a compilation of stand alone singles, b-sides, offcuts and two elongated live instrumental cuts. One of the first compilations of its kind, it neatly fills the holes in the Tull completist’s collection, though it has to be said that the majority of the songs have now been released as bonus tracks on reissues of their albums. The 20th Anniversary box set, set the bar for premium compilations at the time of its release, though again, much of the studio material from this compilation has since been added to the reissues of studio albums as bonus tracks, thus rendering it obsolete to anyone but the Tull completist. Other than that, The Anniversary Collection is a by the book double CD which covers the band’s first quarter of a century, but liberties are taken with some tracks in the form of clumsy edits. This lack of care is nothing when compared to the edits made on the single disc Best of Jethro Tull, which is best avoided by anyone except those that want the most basic primer for the band. The Best of Acoustic Jethro Tull does exactly what it says it will do, but only gives you half of their story. Mid 70s compilation MU is an enjoyable and economical collection, and has been reissued and repackaged multiple times since then, but is a personal favourite of mine as it was the first album that opened my mind as to how mind-shatteringly amazing music could be.
Odds and Sods
Nightcap is an interesting proposition, in that the first disc is the remnants of an album they tried to write and record between Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play since dubbed The Chateau D’Isaster Sessions. As many of the vocals tracks were incomplete, there are longer instrumental passages than you would expect on a Jethro Tull album, but even taking this into consideration, it’s one of the bands most dynamic and hardest rocking albums. One can only speculate the impact that this album would have made had it been completed and released at the time, but on the evidence here, it would have been among Jethro Tull’s very best work. The second disc is effectively Living in the Past part two, being made up of previously unavailable offcuts and B-sides, the best of which are now included as bonus tracks on their studio albums. Nightcap is therefore a contrast of a killer first disc and a filler second disc.
Perhaps even odder is The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, an album I cannot criticise or sing the praises of, for no better reason than the fact I’ve never had the stomach to listen to it. It may be good, it may be bloody awful, but as a long-time Jethro Tull fan, it’s a release I have never been able to get over my misgivings about.
Jethro Tull were one of the key rock acts of late 60s and 70s. They played their unique brand of rock music to packed houses across the globe, rarely relied on cliché’d themes for their lyrical content and boasted one of the most eye-catching and distinct frontmen in the business. While their name may never be uttered in the same reverential tones as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, they made music on their own terms and were not afraid to adjust their formula as they evolved. At times this spirit of experimentation led them up a creative cul-de-sac, but despite this, they continue to be a going concern today, still fronted by Ian Anderson, albeit without Martin Barre at his side, and despite the fact there hasn’t been a new album of original material for the best part of fifteen years. The vast majority of their albums have been remastered over the past fifteen years (the exception being much-loved compilation, Living in the Past). Quite when Anderson will finally retire is something only he knows, but Tull still draw a crowd wherever they go and who would have thought that after 45 years together they would have still been capable of that?
Then again, who would have thought that anyone could have written a career retrospective on Jethro Tull without mentioning the flute or balancing on one leg!