Thursday, January 3, 2008

Jethro Tull: An Appreciation

Recently, I have, for no apparent reason, been listening to a lot of the early recordings of Jethro Tull. I know that I'm Mr. Garagepunk, Mr. Florida Rocks Again!, but I admit to a fondness for the prog-rock monolith that is Tull.

I listened to them a lot when I was in ninth and tenth grade ('75-'77). I had 8-track tapes of Too Old to Rock 'n Roll, Too Young to Die and their greatest hits set M.U.

The 8-track cartridges were lime green, as I recall.

When I was getting into punk and garage stuff in the mid- to late-'70s, I scorned the work of bands like Jethro Tull for being bloated, overpaid, and out of touch with my teenage angst. Never Mind the Dinosaurs, Here's the Sex Pistols!

When I jettisoned my Jethro Tull albums in favor of punk rock, it was easy, as they were on 8-track, anyway (and I'd just installed a new cassette player in my '74 Pontiac Ventura). It wasn't until almost 20 years later that I rediscovered the Tull. I was working at Dynamite Records in Northampton, and going through a period of listening to a lot of early '70s heavy rock, including some stuff by Tull's touring partners of the era, Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad, and the MC5. At the time, there were two different Jethro Tull boxed sets in circulation, commemorating their 20th and 25th anniversaries (this year is their 40th and counting). After listening to these sets, I delved into the band's classic early period of 1968 through 1972, and immersed myself in their unique sound.

THIS WAS (1968)
The bluesy incarnation of the group with Ian Anderson on flute, Mick Abrahams on guitar, Glenn Cornick n bass and Clive Bunker on drums. Recorded on the cheap, the brief but intense debut features "A Song for Jeffrey," "My Sunday Feeling," and "Dharma for One." Abrahams split to form Blodwyn Pig, as Anderson took the band to new heights.

STAND UP (1969)
Kicking off with the foreboding fuzztone of new guitarist Martin Barre on "A New Day Yesterday," Stand Up delivered on the promise of a new Jethro Tull. Fans of the blues-oriented line-up defected, but millions would take their place as the band toured relentlessly and shifted a lot of units for Reprise in the States. Includes the Tull standards "Nothing is Easy," "Fat Man" (allegedly dedicated to Mick Abrahams) and "We Used to Know." One of the band's finest efforts, if not their best. Probably my favorite.

BENEFIT (1970)
Beloved by potheads, the heaviest of all Tull albums features such mind-blowing fare as "To Cry You a Song," "With You There to Help Me," "Son," and "Teacher." Although his songs provided the soundtrack to countless bong hits, Ian Anderson had nothing but contempt for the drug culture, and made no secret of it.

Tull's biggest-selling album, Aqualung was misconstrued as a concept album by the critics. Sure, there are common themes among the songs, including portraits of the downtrodden (the title track, "Cross-Eyed Mary") and critiques of organized religion ("My God" and most of side two), but Anderson maintains the album is "just a collection of tunes."

My first exposure to the Jethro Tull phenomenon was in 1972 at my friend Tom Perdue's house. His brother Rob had a copy of the Thick as a Brick LP, with its package design that featured a 12-page parody newspaper, "The St. Cleve Chronicle" (which apparently took longer to produce than the music on the record). I didn't get a lot of the lyrics, but the graphics blew my mind. Like A Passion Play, the lesser album that would follow in 1973, "Thick as a Brick" is one song spread over two sides of an LP. Although it doesn't all work, it's an audacious piece. Allegedly influenced by Monty Python, Thick as a Brick is full of puns, in-jokes, and references to farting and masturbation.

Honorable mention for LIVING IN THE PAST (1972), a collection of singles, live cuts, and rarities. Originally released as a double album, be sure to avoid the single-disc CD reissue, as it's missing two cuts ("Teacher" and "Bouree"). Highlights include the 1970 UK chart hit "Witches Promise."

These records are the cream of the Tull crop, although there are gems amongst their later albums (a friend of mine swears by Heavy Horses). I'm sure that I will burn out on listening them in another week or so, but for now, they are taking my mind places it hasn't been since the '70s.


Frank said...

This is fairly weird, Mal, since I've never admitted to you that Tull was always my favorite band, a true guilty pleasure. I got backstage passes through work to see them last month and had my picture snapped with Ian Anderson, who now sings like a cross between current John Sebastian and Jack Klugman.

JM Dobies said...

I was listening to, I believe it was "Play in Time" off of BENEFIT, and my wife approached me with a quizzical expression on her face. "What's with all the gay flute music?" she asked.

Now, coming from someone who listens to HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, that's like the proverbial pot calling the kettle black, but Tull gets slagged off by a lot of people. Lester Bangs hated 'em, for instance, and John Peel disowned them when they abandoned the blues.

I only wish I could have seen them live back in the mid-'70s, but if they come to Austin on their 40th Anniversary Tour, I'm there, Jack Klugman vocals notwithstanding.

Frank said...

There is some great old Tull footage on youtube. I know it is silly to say, because you've linked several, but I just can't believe how much stuff is up. Outsiders, Creation. I just hooked my laptop up to the HDTV, so I spend more time looking at You Tube on the tv than I do looking at actual programming.