Album Review: Jethro Tull – 50 for 50

50 for 50 is the new 3CD career-spanning collection released to celebrate 50 years of Jethro Tull, and I just so happen to be a big Jethro Tull fan. But I just don’t ‘get’ it.

Tull’s 20th anniversary in 1988 was marked by a tour, a TV documentary, and a lavishly packaged 3CD box set of fan favourites, alternative takes, radio sessions, rarities and stuff that had generally just fallen through the cracks. It was generally well received at the time and hailed by reviewers as the box set that all others should be measured against, and even today, it still feels significant as one of the premium box sets of an era, released at a time when only the highest echelon of rock acts were considered worthy to have such sets released.

1993 saw Tull’s 25th anniversary marked by a further documentary, another box set, this time boasting previously unheard live recordings and re-recordings of older material, as well as a 2CD chronological compilation and another @CD set of outtakes, including a disc dedicated to the semi-legendary Chateau D’Isaster tapes.

Then things went quite for a while on the anniversary celebration front. Jethro Tull, as ever under the leadership of frontman Ian Anderson, backed up ably by his trusted long time lieutenant and guitar wrangler Martin Barre, released two more studio albums in the 90s, albeit of rapidly declining quality, continuing to tour, and suffering the ignomy of being ditched by the record label that was specifically set up to release Jethro Tull albums in favour of, of all talent-vacuums, Robbie Williams. Oh, and they somehow managed to let someone talk them into recording The Jethro Tull Christmas Album.

With the 30th anniversary been and gone, Anderson concentrating on a solo career, and the 40th anniversary passing without much in the way of recognition, it was perhaps no surprise when in 2014, Anderson confirmed that Jethro Tull had pretty much split back in 2011, and he was now concentrating on releasing music under his own name, after tiring of people assuming he was Jethro Tull. Thus at a loose end Martin Barre formed a group with former Tull members and toured playing the band’s back catalogue, leaving Anderson to enjoy his solo career.

Then, at some point in 2017, Jethro Tull announced they would be undergoing a 50th anniversary tour. Or at least Ian Anderson announced it. Closer inspection would reveal that aside Anderson himself, none of the band touring under the Tull name had ever recorded anything on any of their studio albums. Still, at least we’d probably get a nice celebratory box set for the faithful, eh?

Thing is, it’s not entirely clear who 50 for 50 is aimed at. As the name suggests, it is 50 songs across the three CDs However, despite the fact that the songs were apparently chosen by Anderson himself, they are seemingly sequences in almost random order, with the majority of their less-popular post-70s material shoe-horned onto the 3rd CD, so you only have to endure their lesser work if you feel you have a strong enough constitution on that day. The thing is, if you’re a dyed in the wool Jethro Tull fan, chances are, you’ve got pretty much everything here already, and you’d only be buying 50 for 50 for the sake of being a completist.

Okay, so maybe it isn’t aimed at the long-term fan, and 50 for 50 is intended to be a comprehensive introduction to Jethro Tull. So why not just stick all the songs in chronological order? Few acts have gone through such an evolution in sound as Tull, and the best way to get an impression of this, outside of buying and absorbing each of their albums in release order, is to have a multi-disc compilation sequenced in chronological order. Which 50 for 50 isn’t.

So why does 50 for 50 exist if it will just leave newcomers disorientated and established fans duplicating songs that they probably already own several times over? Surely it can’t just be so a few more people will hear the Steven Wilson remix of the not particularly obscure anymore “Critique Oblique”? Is it simply to empty the pockets of those Tull fans who simply have to own a copy of everything they’ve ever released, or is it simply a cheap way of getting a 50th anniversary collection on the shelves for the minimum amount of effort and outlay?

As a Jethro Tull fan of 25 years standing (and eventually sitting down as my legs get a bit tired these days), I have to say my criticism of 50 for 50 is not about the music within the compilation. Jethro Tull went through a ridiculously creative and productive streak from 1968 to 1979, and despite them being probably the most esoteric of the big rock acts of the 70s, much of the material from this era retains a unique charm, though outside of Iron Maiden, Nick Cave, The Decemberists and Midlake, few acts are brave enough to admit to Tull being an influence on their own music. There’s even some of Tull’s 1980s output which is worth revisiting, even the synth-experiment too far that was 1984’s Under Wraps, though quite why anyone thought that anyone would ever want to hear 1989’s unrepresentative and utterly tasteless “Kissing Willie” is anyone’s guess.

The heartbreaking thing is, with a touch more thought, care and attention, there could have been a genuinely great Jethro Tull Box set pulled together for the faithful, and a carefully chosen, chronological compilation for the curious newcomer. As the plethora of super-deluxe box sets have proved over the last few years, there is a healthy amount of archive live recordings that have been spruced up in recent years. Things is, not all fans can afford to spring for a new boxed set of an album they probably already own multiple times over, regardless of the bonus outtakes that they may only listen to once out of curiosity, or the archive live recording. So why not re-release the archive live recordings together in a box set collection at the same price as one of the super-deluxe albums? This would please those fans who can’t justify spending another £30 – £50 every year, but still want to get their hands on those live recordings in a legitimate manner, while the completists can rest safe in the knowledge that they’re not missing out on anything they don’t already own (though doubtless, they’ll still want to pick up the box set anyway, just so it can remain sealed on their shelves, etc…

A collection of archive live recordings from down the decades would be a great way of saluting one of the finest live rock acts of the classic rock era, particularly as Tull have been curiously ill served by standalone live albums down the years (outside of 1978’s Live: Bursting Out, precious few of their standalone live albums are vital listening experiences), and given that so many are already part of already released box sets, then it wouldn’t take much to compile them in one definitive live collection and market it as the live collection that Tull fans have been waiting for.

But no, instead we have 50 for 50, a cheaply packaged compilation of great music that will disorientate the newcomer and remain sealed on the shelves of the faithful.

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