The mid 80s were a fascinating and fractious time for what would become known as classic rock. The two giant super bands of the 70s were no longer with us, with Pink Floyd having imploded in acrimony around Roger Waters’ ever more despotic tendencies, and Led Zeppelin coming to an end following the sad death of John Bonham. While popular opinion has it that punk had scorched the lumbering old rockers to the ground, in truth it was the old guard crumbling under their own weight which had brought their demise. There were survivors though. Genesis had evolved into a slick pop-rock trio, Yes had undergone a series of disorientating line up changes and somehow morphed into a band capable of hit singles, while The Rolling Stones had begun to make the nostalgia heavy hits tour a viable career choice, regardless of the quality of the album that the tour was there to promote, or how much Jagger and Richards were bickering that year.
As a way of pushing back against their in-built obsolescence, many of rock’s old-guard attempted to assimilate contemporary recording techniques in an attempt to sound more in step with current trends. This was done with various degrees of success. Yes enjoyed the biggest singles of their career by adopting a more synthpop sound, while Queen, although exploring a disco-rock cul-de-sac on their career nadir Hot Space, roared back to near-relevance with The Works, and a series of singles which re-established them as pop-rock hitmakers. These success stories were in the minority though, and the vast majority of rock’s old guard that attempted to assimilate the synth sounds of the era into their music ended up as the musical equivalent of the recently divorced uncle at a family wedding trying to dance with bridesmaids half his age.
Even when compared to their contemporaries, Jethro Tull had been out of step with some time. Quietly anti-drugs at a time when such things were considered to be a vital part of the creative process, their sound had evolved throughout the 70s, and when their survival instincts kicked in as Punk rose to prominence led them to release a trio of folk rock albums which were as opposed to the current flow of musical trends as it was possible for a rock band to be. The dawn of the 80s saw a huge shift in band line up, and a slightly clumsy attempt to include more synthesisers in their music, before course-correcting with 1982’s The Broadsword and the Beast, a surprisingly effective fusion of the classic 70s Tull sound with 80s synthesisers which met with commercial indifference everywhere accept Germany.
All things considered, Tull’s 1984 album, Under Wraps, was an insanely brave move, as it saw band creative coordinator Ian Anderson form a close musical working relationship with keyboard player Peter-John Vettese and lead the rest of the band (at the time long time guitar player Martin Barre, and folk rock bass player Dave Pegg) in a full-blooded synth-rock direction. This was no well established sound with a few synthesiser sounds sprinkled over the top in a futile attempt to sound fashionable. No, Under Wraps was a full on embracing of a radical new direction for the band. This was daring! This was exciting!
This was not what fans wanted.
To his credit, Anderson had even adjusted his writing style to better match Tull’s new musical direction, with lyrics of icy detachment, tales of cold war espionage, and the whole of Under Wraps having a sort of oddly doom-laden quality about it. The feeling of detachment was only emphasised by the use of drum machines throughout.
Listening to Under Wraps 35 years after its release, you can still hear the huge amount of effort that went into it, as Anderson and the majority of the rest of the band throw their full weight behind this new direction. It appears that only Pegg was less than enthused at the new direction, which given that he had spent the majority of his musical career in folk rockers Fairport Convention, and his rhythmic partner now consisted of Anderson struggling to punch the code into the still emerging technology, his lack of enthusiasm was perhaps understandable.
For Anderson, Barre and Vettesse, Under Wraps was evidently a labour of love, with Anderson doing his best to take his vocals to a new level, Barre embracing the new direction despite the reduced focus on his guitar work and Vettesse coming to the musical foreground.
For all its problematic reputation among Jethro Tull fans, Under Wraps does have its highlights. Album opener “Lap of Luxury” saw them in the singles charts for the first time in years, albeit its lower reaches, while “Under Wraps #1” is the album’s best realised vision of their new musical direction, and “Under Wraps #2” gives a hint of what the album might have sounded like if Anderson and co had decided to stay the course with their traditional blend of electric and acoustic guitars. “Under Wraps #2” is key to realising that, if Under Wraps had been a release by a relatively new act, then chances are that it would have been embraced by the tastemakers at the time and hailed as one of the key albums of the era. The trouble was, for fans and music journos alike, the Jethro Tull name came with a lot of baggage as it equated to a certain musical style and approach, and Under Wraps was such a radical departure to what had gone before that the main reaction to it was bafflement.
The subsequent tour to promote Under Wraps was apparently brilliant, with the material from the album taken to the next level on stage, although Anderson’s drive to up his vocal performances led to severe problems that would take the band off the road and out of the studio for the next few years, and continues to blight his voice to this day. When Jethro Tull did return a few years later they would be sans-Peter-John Vettesse, with new album Crest of a Knave largely abandoning the synth-rock approach in favour of emulating the likes of 80s stadium rock big hitters like Dire Straits and ZZ Top.
Under Wraps has long been the Jethro Tull album with the least love lavished upon it, simply because it was the one on which the band sounded least like themselves. Is Under Wraps a good Jethro Tull album? On reflection, no it isn’t. Instead it is the bravest album that any band of their vintage released in the 1980s, and a leap of faith that failed because it was a combination of both too ambitious and not what the band’s fan base expected, rather than any lack of creativity or effort on the part of the band.