Jethro Tull at 50

There seem to be a lot of 50-year anniversaries, rockers are senior citizens now. Even many of their fans are long in the tooth but still sweet in the ear.

Jethro-Tull

Jethro Tull is not a “he” as many have assumed, although in reality, Jethro Tull is a he, Ian Anderson. In 50 years, Jethro Tull the rock band has had a lot of members, but the one constant and ownership of the name and recordings is Anderson.

The music of Jethro Tull dabbles in many genres starting in blues and jazz, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning. The core members of the band attended school together in Blackpool, England. The first recording came in 1968, This Was, with a definitive heavy blues sound. The band would undergo many lineup changes starting after the debut album, the original guitarist left to be replaced by Martin Barre, who would stay with the band until Tull essentially became Ian Anderson and a backup band in 2011.

Ian Anderson … much to teach Tony Blair?
Ian Anderson

The second album, Stand Up, shifted away from blues towards a harder rock sound, and then embracing a folk/rock period during the latter part of the 1970s. Tull has been a band that no matter the current sound of the band, is quick to downshift into a blues based sound, or a folk-minstrel influence with Anderson’s flute, an electronic veneer, or back toward a harder rocking sound. The group’s songs could clock in at a swift two minutes plus, or take up the entire side of vinyl. With Jethro Tull, every album has been a surprise.

Although very much an album-oriented band, Tull landed many songs on the charts during the 70s: “Sweet Dream”, “Teacher”, “Aqualung”, “Locomotive Breath”, “Hymn 43”, “A Passion Play”, “Bungle in the Jungle”, “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day”, “Minstrel in the Gallery”, “Too Old to Rock and Roll”, “Cross-Eyed Mary”, “North Sea Oil”.

The decade would be a productive one as Tull produced 10 studio albums, a live album and several compilation albums, and toured the world many times over.

In the 1980s, the band’s lineup and sound would undergo many changes. By 1981, only Anderson and Barre remained from the prior decade. The 1980s infused more synthesizer into the sound, along with violin and a more electronic sound in keeping with the direction of popular music at the time. A, the first album of the new decade was conceived as an Ian Anderson solo album but was reported to have been released by the label under the group’s name instead.

The next two Jethro Tull albums are predominately synthesizer based with electronic percussion. Several years later, the band returned with Crest of a Knave, which would be their most successful album of the decade, with a shift toward a more integrated electric/acoustic sound but still the synth sound of the 80s.  The final studio album of the decade, Rock Island,  embraces a leaner, harder sound as the group was continuing to feature hard rock, but keeping a bit of trendy electronic sounds, with an occasional return to an infusion of a folk influence. Tull is quite a musical stew.

Changing gears again, in the 1990s, Catfish Rising, mostly abandoned the sound of the earlier decade with a surprising return to the early 1970s rock sound.  As a Tull fan, can you keep up with the constant variation in their sound?

Among the numerous live albums appearing every few years, 1992’s A Little Light Music, a mostly acoustic live recording. Of their live albums, this one is a good introduction of the band’s best material over the past two decades, possessing a very listener-friendly sound.

In 1995, came Roots to Branches, which continues the tour through the blues, folk and rock sound of the early years of the band. Ian Anderson is never content to feature a sound or lineup for more than an album or two before overhauling both.  The decade closes with 1999’s J-Tull Dot Com. which continues with the sound of the previous album along with an interesting Eastern thread, a bit of world music.

After a series of live and greatest hits albums came The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, a mixture of new, old and traditional songs of the season. Aside from Ian Anderson solo releases, this is the last studio release under the Tull name.

jethrotull2017

In 2018, Jethro Tull is touring under the 50 year banner. Anderson promises a few former members will show up along the way, although it is unlikely that Martin Barre will be there. The 2011 parting is significant, as Barre was the longest Tull member not named Anderson. Barre has been touring and releasing albums, and features Jethro Tull songs in his live set. Barre was the guitar sound of the group from 1969-2011. His licks gave the band its classic sound of the 1970s and although he didn’t write much, his guitar arrangement is central to the band’s sound.

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If you saw Jethro Tull on tour in the 1970s you saw the best version of the band, although you also witnessed a wild theatrical act, with sometimes long, self indulgent musical interludes (it was the 70s), but you saw a band that was deep in creating a legacy of original material that would help define the era. In later years, the version of the band you saw produced credible versions and variations of their earlier, classic works.

The first time I heard Jethro Tull I remember hearing a very unique sound. It was bluesy but had a hard rock attitude, then it could turn on a dime and you heard acoustic guitar and a little flute.  Who were these guys?  The album that sold me was Benefit, a collection of songs that hooked me from the opening drop of the needle to the second side fade-out.  Each album challenged me as a listener, sometimes I got it, sometimes it took awhile.  From “Bouree”, the flute laced instrumental (based on Bach’s Bourree in E minor) to the biting guitar riff of “Locomotive Breath”, Jethro Tull gave you fresh sounds.  In the latter 70s, I found their music a bit out of step with the times, then in the early 80s they seemed to lock-step with the times with electronic influences.  Anderson would weave in and out of current trends before returning the group to the early 70s sound, as he decommissioned the band and then reformed it without longtime partner Martin Barre.

Touring versions of bands from the 1960s and 1970s often have few original members or musicians who created the original versions of the material you are hearing. Forty and fifty years after the fact is a long time, band members quit, they die, or are unable to tour. As fans, we accept that, although what we get are close to tribute bands. Later this spring, a 50 track compilation will be released to celebrate Tull’s anniversary and tour and there is rumor of a new album to be released next year.

Long live Jethro Tull, or Ian Anderson’s latest reincarnation of the band.  Thanks to recording technology, the early music is being remastered and augmented with alternate tracks and live selections. For those of us who feasted on music of the 1970s, Jethro Tull is required listening.  Instead of an 8-track, insert a CD and take a long drive, your ears will love it.


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