Following a particularly demanding day at work, I wandered into Sheffield branch of HMV on Tuesday. As I walked through the doors, my eyes inevitably flicked to my right and across to the new release display. Ninety percent of the time I don’t even recognise the name of at least half of the acts on the display. Seventy five percent of the time, the names I do recognise, I couldn’t give a damn about. On this particular Tuesday afternoon though, artwork from one of the new releases caught my eye, and upon closer inspection I was mildly delighted that, not only did I know the artist, but he was the frontman of one of my all time favourite acts, Jethro Tull. Showing uncharacteristic restraint, I resisted making the impulse purchase. After all, I had bought Ian Anderson solo albums previously and have absolutely failed to appreciate them on any level. On this occasion, I decided to try before I buy.
Upon googling the new material this morning, something caught my eye. Anderson had apparently formally announced that Tull were no more. On Tuesday.
It’s difficult to explain what the disillusion of Jethro Tull means to me. I wasn’t even alive for the first ten years of their career, but they were the first band I saw live back in 1993 (to which I owe a lifelong thanks to my Dad), the first band that I felt a genuine emotional bond to and they were the band that opened my mind to just how mind-bogglingly amazing popular song could be. I obsessively listened to their cheap and cheerful 70s era best of M.U. For months after I first saw them live and as a result that compilation became the solid foundation on which my subsequent obsession with music has been built upon.
While my school peers were obsessing over music by the likes of Nirvana, Take That and Naughty by Nature, I was obsessed by a hairy 70s rock act with a penchant for flute solos, folk music and parody concept albums. While I could never claim to be popular at school, the fact that my favourite band were an act that the parents of my classmates probably listened to, ensured that I was mercilessly bullied until the end of my GCSEs.
Over the following decade I obsessively acquired every Jethro Tull album released over their thirty five year career, even their not so great ones. And then did it all over again as they were remastered in the new millennium…
As I matured over the years I realised that not all their albums were classics, infact I came to the conclusion that their output after the close of the 70s was patchy at best. A little research confirmed that in 1980 Ian Anderson was in the process of recording his first solo album with the aid of his trusty guitar-slinging rock-gnome lieutenant Martin Lancelot Barre, newly recruited Tull bass player Dave Pegg, Eddie Jobson of Curved Air and Roxy Music fame and Eddie’s drumming mate Mark Craney. For reason’s never fully explained Anderson gave in to his record company’s demand that it should be released as a Jethro Tull album, thus resulting in half of Tull’s much loved late 70s line up being unceremoniously ditched in the name of progress. The resulting album A did little to enhance Tull’s reputation and it remains one of their most controversial releases.
In retrospect A was the ideal moment for Anderson to declare himself as a solo artist and retire the Jethro Tull name, something which may have convinced the retro-obsessed music press that their output was worth re-evaluating . As it was, while so many of their 70s peers were enjoying re-assessment during the 90s, Tull were unfairly ignored based on the assumption that they were nothing more than rock dinosaurs still staggering around the city halls and other mid-sized venues long after their contemporaries had called it a day, reformed and released the inevitably disappointing reunion album (and repeat the pattern as many times as necessary).
In truth, while not all of Tull’s 80s and 90s albums enhanced their legacy, they still managed to release a handful of great albums, bag a Grammy Award and continue to play to sold out venues. The turning point came in the late 90s, when they were dropped by Chrysalis, the internationally successful record label that had been built specifically around them.
Maybe the split from Chrysalis was a crucial blow. I found the subsequent album, the clumsily titled, J-Tull Dot Com, to be one of the most disappointing of their long career, to the point where I didn’t even bother to check out their even less tantilisingly named Jethro Tull Christmas Album. In the subsequent decade I turned down several chances to see them play live, as I felt they had become a pale shadow of their former greatness.
I feel that maybe the writing has been on the wall for Tull for some years now. Anderson’s vocals have inevitably declined over the last thirty years and although there was a stable band line up for a whole decade from the mid 90s onwards, since then their line up has massively fluctuated around the core due of Anderson and Martin Barre. The killer blow seems to have been the fracturing of that previously solid relationship. Over the last decade both Anderson and Barre have put out a series of variable solo albums, but alarm bells started to ring when it was announced in 2011 that Barre would not feature on the mooted Thick as a Brick 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock album, which was eventually released as an Anderson solo album, despite it being a delayed sequel to Jethro Tull’s masterpiece. Rumours inevitably circulated that Anderson and Barre were now estranged and the future of Jethro Tull was in jeopardy.
With all this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that it has taken Anderson until now to announce the retirement of the Jethro Tull name, as many would have expected him to have done it at least two years before now.
Barre seems to now be touring with a band largely consisted of former members of Jethro Tull and seems to be finally being granted the long overdue plaudits for his guitar playing throughout career. Anderson meanwhile seems to be sitting pretty for the first time in decades, as it seems the mid-week charts are indicating that his new solo album released this week, Homo Erraticus, has a very good chance of charting in the top ten, something no Jethro Tull album has done for the last forty years.
So it’s goodbye Jethro Tull. You were never destined to be as celebrated in recent decades as have been your contemporaries like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or even Queen, but to me, you were the single most important band in the development of my musical taste and as far as I’m concerned of the late 60s and 70s. You were my ultimate act of musical defiance against against my peers, and for that, I will always love Tull. So thank you for the memories and specifically thank you for blowing open the doors of my ongoing love of music. More specifically though I should thank my Dad for unexpectedly taking me to that 25th anniversary show at Sheffield City Hall which sparked my subsequent obsession with music, without which, my life would have been far less enjoyable over the last twenty years