Jethro Tull was a intriguing lawyer and agriculturist whose life straddled the turn of the 18th century. Tull passed the bar in 1693 but soon developed some lung problems that prompted him to travel through Europe looking for a cure. He spent a great deal of time studying the differences between agricultural techniques in France, Italy and his home in England. Yes, Jethro must have been quite the charming traveling companion.
I’ve just been prompted that some of you may have expected an article about Jethro Tull the band. My apologies. But bear with me and I’ll suck you in, to use an agricultural term.
Anyhow, when Tull returned to England he had some brainstorms about using mechanical devices to aid farming. He developed a hoe that could be pulled by a horse. He revolutionized hoeing culture by convincing neighboring farmers that well hoed soil not only kept back the weeds, but provided a safe environment for seeds to grow without being drowned by rains, but still kept moist by the daily morning dew.
His innovations were credited with being important to the British Agricultural Revolution, an event we all remember. He was helped by wacky guys like Steven Switzer who engaged Tull and his believers in lively debates about proper hoeing, fallows vs. row seeding, and the proper use of manure. Here is one of Tull’s innovations, the seed drill:
Seed drills had been in existence in many forms but this was the first of such a mechanical design for three rows at a time and multiple seedings. I particularly like the drawing of a wrench. Leave it to a farmer to invent a machine and immediately invent a tool for when it breaks. Much like Isaac Newton conceiving of his ideas for the universe such as gravity, then inventing the math to prove his theories. I know, I know you can’t compare that to a seed drill certainly.
Eventually though, everyone reaches a point in Life where arguing about hoes and manure loses its um, glory. Jethro Tull reached that point late in Life. He learned to play the flute and started a rock and roll band.
Truthfully, and I know fringe fans who only know the song Aqualung from FM classic schlock radio will be shocked, there was never a person in Jethro Tull named Jethro Tull. In 1967 (AGAIN with the 1967) a couple of school boys in Flemanshpurkinshire England started a blues band. They weren’t very good, and had to changes their name frequently so they could get rehired at clubs. I was in one of those bands once. Eventually they improved their chops and got a management agency. The management staff was in charge of the name changes, and there were times the band would show up for the gig and would know the name that was theirs because it was the only one they didn’t recognize. Eventually a staff member, being a history buff, remembered that wacky Jethro Tull guy. The name stuck.
So Ian Anderson, who started on guitar and eventually took up the flute, and John Evans, who started on piano but switched to drums because Ring Starr was so bloody amazing, then changed his name to John Evan because he thought it was cooler, had a band. A bit fickle was John. They recruited a school boy chum Jeffrey Hammond on bass, (replaced by Glenn Cornick) and added Mick Abrahams on guitar before recording and releasing their first album This Was. In the beginning there were problems with the name, and a bootleg was actually credited to Jethro Toe. Alas. Not everyone knew their agricultural history.
This Was had distinct and even straight ahead blues cuts on it, but songs like Beggar’s Farm (above) and My Sunday Feeling showed a direction and foreshadowed how the band would eventually sound. Mick Abrahams left to pursue straight ahead blues, starting a band called Blodwyn Pig. I actually remember that band. But also frustrating Abrahams was Anderson’s emergence as the leader, with Anderson wanting move into more challenging ground and taking over writing. Just listen to the cuts, even the blues cuts, that feature Anderson’s flute playing, his breathy presentations, and his ability make this distinctly non-rock instrument into an iconic rock sound, and remember he’d been playing flute for about a year.
Tull had to find a replacement for Abrahams.
Now here is the specter of 1967 again. JT had released one album which had reached number 10, but they were hardly a powerhouse and had not yet really defined their sound. But they still managed to work with Mick Taylor who was in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and he decided to stick with Mayall. Then went on to the Rolling Stones and the Jack Bruce Band. JT put an ad in the paper and tried out Tommy Iommi (sound of metal fans sucking in their breath) who decided starting Black Sabbath would be a better idea. The amount of talent that was around at that time is staggering.
After a few misfires they settled on a new guy, Martin Barre. Last I looked and JT was still touring, Barre was still in the band, his years in JT only surpassed by Ian Anderson himself. The story goes that Anderson was impressed with Barre’s technique, but Anderson himself in an interview once said what he was drawn to was Barre’s real lack of technique or expertise. Anderson claims to have spent many hours before Stand Up getting Barre into the sound that was becoming Jethro Tull.
Stand Up was recorded in the summer of ’68 and released in September. It went to #1 on the UK charts, and at the same a non-album single Living in the Past went to #3. The band went on their first headlining tour of the United States including the Newport Jazz Festival. The album is a delight and includes a rendition of Bach’s Bouree in E Minor that gave wings to a rumor that Anderson was classically trained. Not true, but certainly a testament to the bands willingness to try any direction.
In 1970 Tull recorded and released Benefit. This group was added to by drums by Clive Bunker and the return of John Evan, now on keys. The album received tepid reviews, most by reviewers who love you yesterday and crap on you tomorrow. The complaints revolved around this being not as large a change as between This Was and Stand Up. Anderson himself described the album as a ‘guitar riff’ album, which was the path to glory in 1970. But with new innovations of recording techniques, the additions of Bunker and Evan, and the maturation of Barre’s guitar playing created for me a distinct work with some of my all-time favorite Tull songs. Like this one.
For the fans out there you can hear the beginnings of Barre-type licks that would define the next album.
In 1971 I was a truck driver for one of those companies that put meals on airplanes. I had become a truck driver because I no longer wanted to be a dishwasher. Working in the dish room one Sunday the manager ran in and asked if anyone knew how to drive a truck; there was a last minute emergency run to the tarmac . I immediately raised my hand. My dish room buddy Jim, who had gotten me that job, looked at me wide-eyed. He sputtered some irrelevant nonsense about my not having a driver’s license, never having driven a manual transmission, and in fact had never behind the wheel of a car, let alone a truck with 10 gears, blah, blah, blah. Undaunted I ran to my destiny.
I had SEEN my father drive a manual transmission, so of course I was eminently qualified, as long as they gave me a minute to figure out that stick thingy with the weird switch on the top. Also, there appeared to be an extra pedal on the floor. The boys loaded up the truck with racks of food (on wheels) with Jim standing on the dock, wiping his hands on an apron, with a ‘this I gotta see’ look. I found out which was the clutch when I made the rook mistake of starting the truck in gear. The truck lurched forward accompanied by the sound of crashing racks in the back, and I set off on my new career afraid to get out of first gear once I got the hang of it. The truck and I careened out of the lot with the manager in my rear mirror looking as though he’d just found cat poop in his oatmeal.
But I digress. A fellow truck driver took me under his wing and taught me the ropes. In talking about music I said I had a new 8 track by the Who Live at Leeds, Neil asked to trade for an 8 track he had by a band I was unfamiliar with. I didn’t want to part with the Who live album which was quite spectacular, but Neil had really saved my ass on several occasions, so I relented. Thus, my introduction to Jethro Tull’s Aqualung. Boy I was grabbed by the demon and he never let go.
Released in early 1971 this put Tull resolutely in the arms of a huge public, becoming one of the iconic bands of that era easily mentioned in the same breath with Led Zeppelin, the Who, and Hendrix. Featuring the title track now hackneyed by radio play, it’s still a grabbing, ripping ride. But more than that, the songs presented were an astounding mix of rock and folk, each standing on its own, fundamentally thought provoking with a serious kick in the ass at every turn.
Religious themes such as on My God were explored in songs and certainly captured this Catholic boy’s 16 year old imagination.
Anderson became increasingly annoyed with the description by critics that Aqualung was a concept album. Concept albums were growing in popularity and use since Sgt. Pepper and became kind of a refuge for critics who couldn’t figure out what you were doing. Anderson became tired of fighting that battle, and decided to create the mother of all concept albums.
Anderson used the influence of Monty Python and some complex musical themes about the status of the band and its relationship with fans and critics, to create a 43 minute opus about a fictional schoolboy named Gerald Bostock. Featuring an album cover designed to look like a newspaper with bits of the story, Thick as a Brick became the first Tull #1 in America. The next album, also a concept album, also went to #1. These two works became the only JT albums to do so.
A large number of Brick fans have never given Passion Play a chance or a listen. Certainly following TAAB was an impossible task. But I bought Passion when it first came out and even though there are musical themes reminiscent of Thick I love Passion Play on its own. I saw that tour as well which featured a full presentation of Passion, a half rendition of Brick, and various songs from Aqualung and others.
Can’t talk about that show without mentioning the real draw of Jethro Tull. They were an amazing, fantastical, epic stage show. Anderson’s antics are mimicked by the music, or the other way around, I could never tell, and I have stories about things I saw at these shows, that were orchestrated to do these complex works created strictly in the studio by superb stage mechanics and out right visual tricks. You couldn’t take your eyes off them.
These are the first six albums by Jethro Tull, and I believe their absolute best. I lost interest immediately with War Child which really smacked of commercialism, and really never went back. Oh, I’d stick my toe in the water now and then but never got that chill these works had.
If you are enough of a fan that you stuck with us through this article, you know Thick As A Brick by heart and love your fourth copy as much as the first. So without further ado, a Passion Play. Enjoy my dear friends.