Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull circa 1969: left to right Martin Barre, Ian Anderson, Glenn Cornick (top), Clive Bunker (bottom)

For this entry in my series of band profiles (i.e. bands that I'm a huge fan of), here's one who was huge during their late 1960s and 1970s heyday but who aren't as well known in 2019 as other titans of their era. As you've no doubt gleaned from the title of this post, I'm speaking of course about Jethro Tull. Formed in Blackpool in 1967, they first emerged onto the London rock and roll scene in 1968 with their unique and high energy live concerts, their appearance in the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus Film, and their debut album This Was. Fronted by charismatic singer/songwriter/flautist Ian Anderson, Tull were unlike anyone else on the scene at the time. Their sound was originally a marriage of blues, jazz, and heavy rock, but with the departure of founding guitarist Mick Abrahams and the addition of longtime guitarist Martin Barre, the band's sound shifted to become more progressive. They incorporated elements of British folk music with their increasingly complex approach to create a wholly unique sound. From their second album, 1969's Stand Up through their creative high points of 1971's Aqualung and 1972's Thick as a Brick, the band enjoyed one of those runs of success that all great bands seem to have where they can do no wrong. Even when losing their original bass player Glenn Cornick after 1970's Benefit and original drummer Clive Bunker after Aqualung, they released an album every year of the 1970s and became one of the biggest bands in the world. It all blew apart in 1980 with what has been termed "the big split" and since then, they've continued to release albums with Ian Anderson as the only constant member. For the purposes of this post I am going to limit my examination of the band to their output up to and including 1979's Stormwatch as that was their final album before the big split and the last one I listen to.

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Tull's striking logo showing Anderson in silhouette in his classic flute-playing stance

The genesis of Jethro Tull can be traced back to Blackpool, England and a group formed by grammar school friends Anderson, John Evans, Jeffrey Hammond, and Barrie Barlow. After playing together for several years and going through some lineup changes, they split with Anderson retaining bass player Glenn Cornick and guitarist Mick Abrahams. They added a friend of Abrahams on drums named Clive Bunker and the original lineup of Jethro Tull was born in December 1967. However, they weren't yet called that; after gigging around London and changing their name on a regular basis, they settled on their unusual moniker when a promoter who happened to be a history buff named them after the namesake 18th century agriculturalist and liked their show enough to re-book them. In addition to their relentless gigging, two other seemingly mundane occurrences during this formative time would have a big impact on the band's sound and presentation. The first was Ian Anderson regularly wearing a long overcoat in order to stave off the cold in the freezing bedsit he lived in at the would become a regular part of his stage attire in the band's early years. The other event would have a more profound effect: realizing his limitations on electric guitar, Anderson bought himself a flute, taught himself to play, and became the second lead instrument in the band next to Abraham's guitar. This gave them a sound and visual appeal during Anderson's solos that set them apart from their peers. Signing with Chrysalis Records, they released their debut album This Was in 1968. It was a solid collection of blues and R&B drenched heavy rock; however, two songs (coincidentally the two best on the album) hinted at the future of the band: the slide guitar and flute driven "A Song for Jeffrey" and the jazzy "My Sunday Feeling." At this time, Anderson and Abrahams differed over the creative direction of the band. Abrahams left to start his own band, the blues-based Bloodwyn pig, while Anderson set about recruiting a new guitarist. Apart from a brief stint with Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi that only lasted a few weeks (which included Tull's appearance in the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus), the band would welcome the guitarist who would, along with Anderson, define the sound of the band for the next forty-five years. Martin Barre joined in December 1968 and the band would embark upon creating their greatest work.

With Barre in tow, the band set out to produce their absolute best work over the ensuing decade. It began with 1969's Stand Up. It was the first great Tull album and contained standout tracks like "Nothing is Easy," "Bouree," "Fat Man," as well as the non-album single "Living in the Past." It was followed by the equally strong Benefit in 1970 which had the hit single "Teacher" as well as classic deep cuts like "With You There to Help Me" and "To Cry You a Song". The album marked a more mature and experimental Tull both musically and production-wise as well as the beginning of Evans' tenure in the band (initially as a session player before becoming a full member in 1971) and the end of Cornick's tenure. Anderson was famous as a strict bandleader who didn't tolerate much in the way of drug use and carousing, two things of which Cornick was fond of. He was replaced by Hammond for the epic Aqualung album in 1971; that record stands as Tull's finest achievement and the album for which they're most famous. Containing classic cuts like the title track, "Cross Eyed Mary," "Locomotive Breath," and "My God," the album has been a staple of rock radio since its release. Critics and fans considered it a concept album about religion (and many still do) despite the protestations of Anderson. Frustrated, he decided to give everyone what they wanted by making the band's follow-up album a blatant concept album. First, though, was the matter of another change to the band's lineup. Drummer Clive Bunker had always told Anderson that as soon as he "found the right lady, he'd be gone." Upon getting married at the conclusion of the Aqualung tour, Bunker left the band at the end of 1971. Another of Anderson's former Blackpool bandmates, the newly christened Barriemore Barlow, stepped in to fill the drum spot and at this point Jethro Tull was the original pre-Tull Blackpool group plus Martin Barre. This lineup would more or less finish the decade and produce the remainder of the band's best music. The first album they created was the previously mentioned concept album, 1972's Thick as a Brick. The record was comprised of one 45-minute long song that had several distinct movements and was spread across both sides of vinyl. The breathtaking music was accompanied by surreal, humorous, and bizarre lyrics inspired by numerous influences including Monty Python. It's my personal favorite Tull album and one that I never get tired of listening to. From there, the band got further into concept albums with their next release. The first was 1973's A Passion Play which tells the story of a man's journey in the spiritual afterlife. It's very good but not a personal favorite of mine. The making of the album was fraught with difficulty; the original sessions and tracks were scrapped partway through. Listening to those unreleased tracks (which were released years later as the Chateau D'Isaster Tapes), I actually like them a better than the final album. They followed this up with two more streamlined albums that used some of the leftover tracks from the abandoned sessions, still incorporating progressive elements but rocking harder in 1974's Warchild and 1975's Minstrel in the Gallery. These two excellent albums from Tull's 1970s run were followed by their final true concept album of the decade, 1976's Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die! (the exclamation is in the title). It was a solid album with some great songs on it, but the story wasn't clear and thankfully this was as far as Tull went with concept albums. They finished out the decade with three of their strongest albums which also coincidentally were a trilogy of albums that fit together as a series. Incorporating more English folk music influences into their brand of rock music, these three albums (1977's Songs From the Wood, 1978's Heavy Horses, and 1979's Stormwatch) found Ian Anderson focusing on more topical concerns in his lyrics. Songs From the Wood focused on personal relationships while Heavy Horses on English traditions and wildlife, and Stormwatch on environmental concerns. Accompanying all of these albums in the 1970s were grueling tours around the world which saw the band's popularity greatly increase while taking its toll on them. Jeffrey Hammond left in 1976 after Minstrel in the Gallery and was replaced by John Glascock who finished out the decade on bass before dying at 28 from a heart defect in 1979. That was a crushing blow to the band which, along with their exhaustion, led to the "big split" in 1980. Only Anderson and Barre remained and here's where I leave off with the band. I can't comment on their music from the 1980s to the present although I do know they made some ill-advised forays into electronic rock before getting back to basics at the end of the 80s. Barre left the band in the early 2010s and now Anderson is the only remaining member touring with a revamped version of the band.

Where to start with why I and countless others love Jethro Tull's music? First and foremost, they have great songs. When you're discussing Tull, it starts and ends with Ian Anderson seeing as though he not only is the voice of the band but writes all of their songs. Like all great songwriters of his generation, his vision drove the band and his amalgamation of rock, blues, jazz, classical, and folk musics was unique among his peers. In addition to his distinctive voice and excellent acoustic guitar playing, his flute playing gave the band a completely unique sound unlike any other band. How many rock bands before or since had a lead flute playing solos along with lead guitar? Of course like any great songwriter, his songs were only as good as the musicians performing them and again, Tull was blessed here. Anderson's constant musical partner for decades was Martin Barre, one of the greatest and most underrated rock guitarists of the 1960s and 70s. Every bit as versatile and talented as, say, Jimmy Page, Barre had a sound and approach unlike anyone else during that era. The band was blessed with two fantastic drummers in Clive Bunker and Barriemore Barlow; Bunker had a heavier, more rock feel akin to Keith Moon or Ginger Baker, while Barlow was a tighter and more precise drummer. Ditto the bass guitar department, where Glenn Cornick was more of a free-wheeling melodic bass player while Jeffrey Hammond played more in the pocket (but was no less melodic). Add in the superb piano and organ playing of John Evans and it created one of the most interesting, exciting, and enduring sounds of the late 1960s and 1970s in rock music.

I first became aware of Tull when I was a kid in the 1980s. My parents had Benefit, Aqualung, and Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die! on vinyl. Those first two albums in particular, as well as their greatest hits album on cassette and other songs I heard on the radio grabbed me instantly. The fact that it was this hard rock music that had guitar AND flute solos really intrigued me. As I got older and dug deeper, I explored more of their albums and was struck by the scope of their music as well as the different sounds and concepts they covered. I grew to also appreciate the humor in a lot of the band's music, especially Anderson's lyrics. As anyone who knows me can tell you, I'm a lifelong Anglophile and I've always loved the British style of humor so Tull's wit amused me as much as their fantastic music. As the years have gone on their standing in the pantheon of great bands from that era remains strong with older fans but perhaps not so much with younger ones. That's a shame as not only is the music still great, but they've influenced a lot of modern bands over the last 25-30 years. My favorite albums are Stand Up, Benefit, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick (my favorite of theirs), and Minstrel in the Gallery, but if you haven't listened to Tull before, I'd recommend going through their entire discography from This Was through Stormwatch. Not only will you enjoy the great music they made, but you'll marvel at their growth with each album. Even after listening to them constantly for the last thirty years, I still do.