Where to begin? The beginning I guess.
My beginning. Or at least as far back as I can remember.
You might be surprised to find out that I didn’t get into music until my early teens. Throughout my childhood, my parents, particularly my dad, were always playing albums, but none of them permeated into my little noggin, Sure I liked the odd Queen song when I heard them on the radio, but other than knowing the names of the acts my parents listened to, nothing really stuck with me, and I certainly couldn’t name the individual songs.
One of my earliest memories though is not so much of a piece of music on one of my parents albums, but a noise. It was this weird layered chanting that seemed to go on forever, that as a toddler I found unsettling, but not actually upsetting.
Wind forward a dozen years or so, and I am exploring the delights of my parents 1970s heavy vinyl collection. My dad had recently taken me to my first concert, though quite why he chose the twenty fifth anniversary tour of Jethro Tull was anyone’s guess, as I certainly hadn’t displayed a tremendous interest in the work of those unsung heroes of prog rock at this point in my musical exploration, or even prog rock itself.
A couple of weeks after witnessing Ian Anderson, Martin Barre and the rest of the band tearing up the stage of Sheffield City Hall, I was exploring my dad’s Tull albums. The compilation MU had proved to be a big favourite of mine straight away, and I listened to nothing else for a week, just so I could absorb it before exploring any further. The next Tull album I would explore was Heavy Horses, and at the end of the first track I discovered that chanting sound again for the first time in over a decade. Something triggered in my brain, and it dawned on me that this music had waited my whole life up to that point for me to discover it, and that Jethro Tull would be the key act in the development of my music taste.
Okay, so where does Heavy Horses sit within the Tull back catalogue? It was originally released fourteen months after Songs From the Wood, an album on which Anderson led the band into a significantly more folky sound, cunningly timed to pull them in the opposite direction of the very urban and aggressive sounds of the prevailing youthful rock movement, punk. These deeper exploration of folk themes also handily dealt with the general feeling that the majority of prog and hard rock acts had budged barely an inch in terms of musical development over the years. Here were Jethro Tull, the old rock dinosaurs, changing their sound and influences, and heading in a new direction, while maintaining their integrity. You didn’t get that from ELP!
Where Songs From the Wood had perhaps been a little too whimsical for its own good, Heavy Horses was a quite different beast. Yes, it’s still has the folk themes, but this time it has to take equal billing with the kind of brawny hard rock that Tull largely misplaced on Songs From The Wood. This is not an album of elfin creatures, harvest festivals and morris dancing, this is an album that deals with the dark and dangerous side of nature. The English countryside can be an unforgiving place. It’s highlands are not as lofty and majestic as those on the continent, or even those in Wales or Scotland, but they can still be harsh, dangerous and deadly if you do not treat the land and mother nature with the appropriate respect. It is not always the green and pleasant land so often described by our literary giants, it can be dark, threatening and unforgiving. It is these aspects of the countryside that Heavy Horses deals with, the kind of thing that keeps those without an affinity to the land wary of the countryside.
Things start off on the right foot with “…And the Mouse Police Never Sleeps”, a song that celebrates the cold blooded killer that often sleeps at the foot of our beds. It closes with the sinister overlapped chant at the end of the song that had had such an impact on my infant self, before ending abruptly with a chesty cough. “Rover” rocks along nicely, but it’s the two extended epics that show Tull’s strength as a heavyweight rock band. “No Lullaby” is a splendid celebration of the imagined things that go bump in the night, and the title track pays homage to the horses that worked the land until they were replaced by far less graceful machinery. On both songs, guitar player Martin Barre is let off the leash, and effortlessly demonstrates that folk songs can have bloody great big electric guitar riffs too. In contrast to the heavy rocking numbers, songs like “Moths” (inspired by a John le’Carre novel), and closer “Weathercock” confirms that folk music can be given a bit of muscle even without dragging the big guitar noises to the fore. Of the nine tracks on Heavy Horses, only “Journeyman” is anything less than brilliant, and even that is a solid number.
As the second album of Jethro Tull’s rightly celebrated ‘folk trio’, Heavy Horses has always seemed to lag behind Songs From the Wood in regards to the amount of love it receives from critics and fans alike, but I feel much of that is solely down to the fact that Songs From the Wood caught the attention because it was such a daring change of direction for the band, at a time when going down that route seemed foolhardy in the face of prevailing music fashions. I mean, who else could pull of folk-rock at the height of punk? What is often not taken into consideration is that after years of regular line up changes, by the time of Heavy Horses, Tull had stabilised into its most virtuosic line up. While Anderson had redefined what it was to be a rock and roll frontman, the rest of the line up had gradually solidified over the previous decade, with Barre establishing himself as Anderson’s six string lieutenant, and in doing so had quietly become many a guitar player’s favourite guitar player and both piano player John Evans and drummer Barriemore Barlow having been old bandmates of Anderson, and had joined the band at the commercial height of their career. It was the newest recruits to Tull who were the secret weapons of this era of Jethro Tull, and did so much to enhance their already not inconsiderable live reputation. David (now Dee) Palmer had collaborated with the band on orchestral arrangements since their debut album a decade previously, but had only become a full time member of the band with the release of Songs From the Wood, where she would add greater depth to the band’s sound with her pipe organ, resulting in a unique double keyboard sound alongside Evans. The other recent recruit had been bass player John Glascock, whose fluid playing had taken the band to the next level performance wise over their last two studio albums, meshing with the superlative drumming of Barlow to become the best rhythm section in the band’s long career, and whose backing vocals blended seamlessly with Anderson’s to give the albums he appeared on an even richer sound.
While generally considered to be folk-rock, that seems too lightweight a term to use when referring to Heavy Horses. A more accurate description would probably be rural rock. The narrative of its lyrics are based in the countryside, but it never falls on the wrong side of twee. The countryside can be brutal, windswept and hirsute, and Heavy Horses manages the unique trick of being rock music with mud on its boots, and I hope any children that me and my partner have in the future discover it for themselves one day.