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Jethro Tull

Formed in Luton, Bedfordshire late in 1967, giants of bluesy, hard-edged prog-folk JETHRO TULL have been stalwarts and complex chameleons in an ever-shifting rock industry. Fronted by the enigmatic showman Ian Anderson (also a flautist extraordinaire), JETHRO TULL took their multi-faceted rock style to new boundaries and experimented on numerous occasions along their long paths to glory. For many years and for the uninitiated, the band were mistakenly labelled as a solo act under T (as many timid pop reference books would testify), much due to the egotistical aura that was their sprawling Scots-born singer Anderson, or indeed their progenitor moniker derived from an English 18th century agriculturist/inventor.
Out of the ashes of Blackpool-based mid-60s outfit the John Evan Smash (featuring drummer John Evans, bassist Glenn Cornick; who’d superseded future JT affiliate Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond), Anderson and Co teamed up with McGregor’s Engine stokers Mick Abrahams (on guitar) and Evans’ replacement, Clive Bunker. Early in 1968, through agents Terry Ellis and Chris Wright, M.G.M. Records issued their debut single `Sunshine Day’, mistakenly credited as Jethro Toe at the pressing plant; copies have since changed hands for over £100 at the odd record fair. On the 29th of June that year, after a residency at the Marquee Club, they supported PINK FLOYD at a free rock concert in Hyde Park, London. Following another enthusiastically received concert at Sunbury’s Jazz & Blues Festival that August, the quartet signed to Island Records.
By the end of the year, their debut album THIS WAS (1968) {*6} had cracked the UK Top 10, even managing to break into the American Top 75. Much indebted to the likes of jazz-infused Brit-blues boom embraced by the likes of the GRAHAM BOND ORGANISATION, the organic set contrasted between the jazzy Roland Kirk-scribed instrumental `Serenade To A Cuckoo’ and trad cue `Cat’s Squirrel’ (a recent CREAM procurement) to the instantly recognisable dirge of `A Song For Jeffrey’ (one-that-got-away) and `Dharma For One’. Marking the festive period, the double-header of `Love Story’ and `Christmas Song’ gave the band their first Top 30 hit, but it also marked the departure of dissatisfied MICK ABRAHAMS who formed the blues revival outfit BLODWYN PIG. Early in ‘69, the remaining members hired Tony Iommi (future BLACK SABBATH) and David O’List (of The NICE) to fill in on a few gigs following the guitarists departure.
In May ‘69, with the addition of Martin Barre, JETHRO TULL returned to secure a Top 3 placing with the classic `Living In The Past’ single. This was quickly pursued by the chart-topping album STAND UP (1969) {*7} (their first for Island offshoot Chrysalis), which also made the Top 20 in the States; one could also check out the pop-up sleeve on the original album. Wholly penned by Anderson (bar one classical/Bach excursion `Bouree’), the group moved into an eclectic, electric-folk-blues tempo, served up on classy complex cuts such as `Fat Man’, `Nothing Is Easy’ and the soft-pastel of `Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square’ – the exclusion of the aforementioned `Living In The Past’, or indeed subsequent Top 10 hits `Sweet Dream’ and `The Witch’s Promise’.
Stretching out the folk-rock elements on another Anderson opus, Top 3 set BENEFIT (1970) {*6} was boosted by UK hit single `Teacher’ on the Stateside version (flipped in the UK as a double-A with `The Witch’s Promise’). Sardonic and densely gloomy, lead guitarist Barre was in his element on the chunky `Son’, while Anderson was immense and fulfilling on the classy `Inside’. But overall, it failed to live up to the promise of their first two albums. By this juncture, the band were moving away from their early blues-orientated sound into the murky waters of progressive rock, Anderson’s songwriting voice becoming more vocal with each successive release. With his fevered, one-legged flute playing and laughably outlandish vagrant garb, Anderson gave the group its visual trademark, for many people he was JETHRO TULL.
After a series of line-up changes (Cornick had made way for old muckers Evans and Hammond-Hammond), the expanded JT outfit released the much-improved AQUALUNG (1971) {*9}, a million-selling concept album through which mainmain Ian expressed his contempt for organised religion. Riff-heavy and a ready-made nugget of classic rock, the title track and its church-baiting rivals `My God’, `Hymn 43’ and err… `Locomotive Breath’ found a niche in the FM-friendly market emerging in the States; for folk lovers `Wond’ring Aloud’, `Mother Goose’ and even `Cross-Eyed Mary’ showed them as versatile as ever.
Anderson, however, would be subjected to a volatile music press whose patience was wearing thin. If the ambitious THICK AS A BRICK (1972) {*8} received a less than enthusiastic response from the press, then the whimsical self-indulgence of A PASSION PLAY (1973) {*7} was met with a critical mauling. Each split into two conceptual sides/parts of prog-meets-electric-folk and hard-edged symphonic-styled rock, both took American buyers by storm who drove them to the top of the charts. At a time when prog-sters YES, GENESIS and ELP were competing for world domination, JETHRO TULL had shown them a new route to the top, mixing elements of keyboard-driven hard-folk, theatrical and quirky dirges; one blinding operatic excerpt from the latter set was the T.S. Eliot-centric, `The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles’. Squeezed somewhere in between these two eccentric diversions was a hardy double (concert & compilation) set LIVING IN THE PAST (1972) {*8} – just what the doctor ordered if the band’s playful antics were not one’s cup of refined English tea. It featured all of their non-LP hits including the quintessential and poignant gem `Life’s A Long Song’ from ’71.
1974’s WAR CHILD {*6} heralded a return to more contemporary song structure, the focus of their airs and graces firing out on `Queen And Country’, the folky `Ladies’, `Skating Away (On The Thin Ice Of The New Day)’ and US Top 20 smash `Bungle In The Jungle’; that same year, Ian produced STEELEYE SPAN’s folk-rock classic `Now We Are Six’ set. Follow-up MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY (1975) {*7} was JETHRO TULL-by numbers, made up as it was by an 8-minute furious folk/hard-rock title-track opener (one for the Radio One DJ Alan Freeman connoisseurs of Sat morns), the strum-friendly `Cold Wind To Valhalla’, the melancholic `Requiem’, topped off by the 16-minute medley `Baker St Muse’.
Anderson and Co did little to improve the situation by releasing the execrable TOO OLD TO ROCK’N’ROLL: TOO YOUNG TO DIE! (1976) {*4}, a record (like many other fading prog-star sets) pandering to nostalgia and the ever-evolving and fickle world of popular music. Based upon a shelved stage musical about a 50s-styled biker/glam-rocker, it hit a low point both critically and commercially, with only brief sojourns into the Top 30’s on both sides of the Atlantic.
Subsequently cast into the ghetto pit of eternal un-hipster-ness with the onslaught of punk, JETHRO TULL carried on unhindered, their live shows attracting hordes of die-hard fans; the festive-fuelled `Ring Out, Solstice Bells’ (a UK Top 30 entry), was a benchmark for two full-blown folk-rock sets, SONGS FROM THE WOOD (1977) {*7} and HEAVY HORSES (1978) {*7}. The first of these with a line-up of Anderson (of course), guitarist Martin Barre, drummer Barriemore Barlow, bassist John Glascock (a recent acquisition from 1976) and long-time arranger/orchestrator/keyboard player David Palmer, SONGS… was their nicest effort since ’72, a record of acoustic/electric folk-like dirges such as `Jack-in-the-Green’, `The Whistler’, the 8-minute `Pibroch (Cap In Hand)’, the title track and the aforementioned Christmas ditty. Equally light and pretty but celebrating the English shires (well, at least their equine beasts), the thematic HEAVY… gave JETHRO TULL another folk-rock-meets-prog beaut. From the opening `And The Mouse Police Never Sleeps’, to the MIKE OLDFIELD-esque `Acres Wild’, to period-piece `Moths’, the record, like its predecessor had an inner beauty beneath all JT’s hard-rock outer skin. Displaying a concert in Europe, double-set BURSTING OUT – JETHRO TULL LIVE (1978) {*6} saw rock’s “Minstrel In The Gallery”-Anderson and Co capture a widely enthusiastic audience.
Sadly, 1979’s STORMWATCH {*4} set put a stop to everything that was inspiring about Anderson and his merry men (well, for a while); it also marked the swansong for many of their newest and stalwart contingent. Anderson began working on a solo album in 1980 with ex-members of ROXY MUSIC and FAIRPORT CONVENTION, the finished article, “A” (1980) {*5} eventually being released as an official JETHRO TULL album.
Subsequent folk members included ex-FAIRPORT CONVENTION associates Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Gerry Conway, while Celtic-folk was incorporated on the group’s dismal 1982 set, THE BROADSWORD AND THE BEAST {*3}. While these records were greeted with enthusiasm from fans, follow-up IAN ANDERSON solo LP proper, Walk Into Light (1983) and subsequent group project UNDER WRAPS (1984) {*3} tested even the most ardent `Tull devotees with their cod-electronica.
After a few years in the rock wilderness, JT released CREST OF A KNAVE (1987) {*6}, a harder rocking/techno-AOR affair and a return to form of sorts; possible comparisons drew a line through THIN LIZZY and DIRE STRAITS. It astonishingly won them a Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance, much to the disdain of the American audience who’d heard little or nothing of them since their 70s halcyon days; relative newbies to the fore (some hailing from FAIRPORT CONVENTION) were hardly blood ’n’ guts metallers, although recent acquisition Don Airey served him time in RAINBOW, et al. With the exception of `Steel Monkey’ and `Raising Steam’, the set veered towards folk-rock or arena-rock rather than anything thrash-y of hard.
Subsequent albums ROCK ISLAND (1989) {*5} and CATFISH RISING (1991) {*6} were equal to the group’s newfound lead-metal, their barrage of ZZ TOP-riffed dirges coming no better than respective openers `Kissing Willie’ and `This Is Not Love’. The obligatory live album A LITTLE LIGHT MUSIC (1992 {*4} saw the band in refreshing semi-acoustic mode; high spots were Anderson and Barre subsiding for the likes of Dave Pegg and temp member Dave Mattacks; Martin Allcock had departed after “Catfish”.
1995 marked a fair solo effort by IAN ANDERSON (Divinities: Twelve Dances With God) and a well received if unmemorable `Tull album, ROOTS TO BRANCHES {*5}. Check out the latter for `Rare And Precious Chain’ and `Dangerous Veils’; resident drummer since the mid-80s, Doane Perry, was joined on rhythm by bassist Steve Bailey.
While the band’s studio output continued to be inconsistent at best, the prospect of a JETHRO TULL live show still had old prog die-hards parting with their hard-earned cash. J-TULL COM (1999) {*4} found the band dragging themselves kicking and screaming into the internet era, in theory if not in actual musical practice. While song titles like `Hot Mango Flush’ and `Black Mamba’ might’ve suggested a deepening of the world music ties which characterised this album’s predecessor, it was a remarkably pedestrian effort from Anderson and Co. Even the entirely predictable and highly polished live splurge, LIVING WITH THE PAST (2002) {*5}, was more engrossing, as it achieved a reunion of-sorts reuniting “Jethro” with MICK ABRAHAMS, Clive Bunker, Glenn Cornick and of course, Dave Pegg.
Drawing yet more mileage out of the back catalogue, JETHRO TULL revisited the classic AQUALUNG LIVE {*6} album in full, in concert, recorded as part of XM Radio’s “Then Again” series and released in 2005.
With IAN ANDERSON still at the helm of his trout-farming business in Northern Scotland (one thinks!), his solo work has included third and fourth sets The Secret Language Of Birds’ (2000) – a delightful ethnic/world-music fusion recording – and `Rupi’s Dance’ (2003). His post-JT excursions have been anything but, two examples stemming from 2005’s `Plays The Orchestral Jethro Tull’ and the collaborative prog-rock retrogressive TAAB2 – aka `Thick As A Brick 2′ (2012) and `Homo Erraticus’ (2014).
For 2017’s THE STRING QUARTETS {*5}, the resurrection of JETHRO TULL was now down to Ian Anderson; with John O’Hara (keyboards, accordion, vocals), Florian Opahle (guitars), David Goodier (bass) and Scott Hammond (drums); and if one could the once-revered “classic rock” band over the The Carducci String Quartet, one’d be very lucky. Crossover classical rock in chamber pop/pot motif, the “best of…” song titles were even subjected to a slight re-arrangement; `Locomotive Breath’ morphed into `Loco’ – enough said!
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GRD-GFD // rev-up MCS 2012-Sep2018

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