Jethro Tull (I): the 60s

Written on the 6th of March 2014

I did my best. Really. I tried to write about other bands, to avoid this moment, because I knew I’d get overintense. But I can’t postpone it anymore. It’s time to start talking about Jethro Tull, which has been my favourite band for around ten years. There’s a lot to say, because they have about two dozen albums and because I’ll probably write lots of little anecdotes I’ve read over the years, so I guess I’ll need a bunch of posts. By the way, I was actually going to write about the recently deceased Paco de Lucía, but if I write something about him, I want to write a good post, and not something I spend half an hour on, and well I’m a bit busy lately.

Many people make a very big mistake when they talk about Jethro Tull, saying it’s a “rock” band, or a “progressive rock” band. No mister, no miss, not at all, Mr Anderson and the boys are not so simple as to play prog rock for over forty years, no disrespect to prog rock bands. Tull actually started as a blues/jazz band (kind of), only to change and change and keep changing and evolving. Many influences can be heard… classical music, folk, hard rock, electronic-ish (ok, those were dark times for the band), blues and jazz as I just said… but most times their sound is just unique, timeless… screw the current trends and let’s do what we want, I guess they (or he- Ian Anderson) usually thought. I could give you the links of fifteen Tull songs and, for those who don’t know the band, you’d probably think it’s a different band for each song.

Some Tull members had already played together in some bands in the early-middle sixties… The John Evan Smash had, amongst other members, Ian Anderson, John Evan and Jeffrey Hammond and Barriemore Barlow. Jethro Tull, however, wasn’t really formed until 1967, with Anderson, Glenn Cornick (who had replaced Hammond), blues guitarist Mick Abrahams and drummer Clive Bunker. They actually kept changing the band’s name until, after choosing “Jethro Tull” as their name (after the 18th century agriculturist), a club manager liked them enough to tell them to come play again. Still, their “official” name in their first single is “Jethro Toe”. A collectors item for some!

It was around that time when something much more important than it could seem in the first place happened. Ian Anderson, flautist, singer, guitarist, showman of Jethro Tull, gave up the guitar and took up the flute. The reason? He thought he’d never be as good as Eric Clapton. In a 2002 interview, Anderson stated the following: “I didn’t want to be just another third-rate guitar player who sounded like a bunch of other third-rate guitar players. I wanted to do something that was a bit more idiosyncratic, hence the switch to another instrument. When Jethro Tull began, I think I’d been playing the flute for about two weeks. It was a quick learning curve…literally every night I walked onstage was a flute lesson.” Anderson became a superb flute player, but more than once he’s also proved he’s a fantastic acoustic guitar player.

Ok, I could keep writing and writing for quite a while, but I guess it’s time to start with their first album, isn’t it? This Was had a budget of 1200 pounds and came out in 1968 and… well, it’s not really Jethro Tull, rather Jethro Tull Blues Band. There is one big reason for this: Mick Abrahams. Or Martin Barre not being there, whatever you want to call it. While Barre was Tull guitarist since the second album, Stand Up, the bluesy Abrahams was an important part of Jethro Tull in 1968.

The thing is that, as I said, Abrahams was a blues enthusiast, and he wrote, co-wrote or arranged (oh, and sang in) several of the songs in the album. Anderson, on the other hand, wanted to expand the band’s horizons, and, as a result, Abrahams left the band. He’s a pretty good guitarist, but Martin Barre’s great, so I don’t really regret what happened. Concerning the album, it’s not amongst my favourites, although it does have some good songs. Tull did their own version of Roland Kirk’s Serenade to a Cuckoo, in which Anderson shows us some of his first steps with the flute. Actually this is the first song he learned to play with the flute!

Also, in this CD we can find one of the three songs written for Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, who would later be Tull’s bass player for a while, A Song for Jeffrey. Someday the Sun Won’t Shine for You is a nice bluesy song, although I prefer the cover from the live album A Little Light Music (now you know where this blog’s name comes from!). In Beggar’s Farm, we hear one of Ian’s flute games. He looked like a madman back then, with his beard, long hair and ragged coat, standing one-legged while playing his flute in that very characteristic way that has made him so famous.

Lots of harmonica, flute and a very bluesy guitar… all in all, it’s not a bad start, but it’s a great thing the band didn’t get stuck there. Abrahams, who, as I said, left the band, formed Blodwyn Pig afterwards.

Time to move on, a new era was dawning! For about a week, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi would be Abraham’s replacement on guitar. But finally it was Martin Barre who joined the band after their first album. He has played (or rather played, as he has apparently left) in every Tull album ever since (well, not on Thick as a Brick 2, which is officially a Ian Anderson solo effort but is more of a Tull CD for me). Barre is an extremely underrated guitarist, one of those guys who proves that you don’t have to be extra fast to be a guitar genius. Oh, and he’s occasionally played the flute with Tull (and in his solo albums) too. You can see in interviews that he’s a rather shy guy. In fact, he was so nervous in his first audition that he could hardly play at all, and then showed up for a second audition without an amplifier or a cord to connect his guitar to another amp.

Stand Up is probably not amongst my top 3 Jethro Tull albums. Maybe (not sure) not even amongst my top 5. And yet it is an outstanding album. These guys are just too good! This album alone has more variety when it comes to musical styles than many bands in their whole career. There are still blues elements, mainly in the opener, A New Day Yesterday, a good example of the lustiness of Ian Anderson in the early years of Jethro Tull. Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square, the second “Jeffrey song”, has elements of English folk. Bourée, one of the band’s most famous songs, is a jazzy adaptation of Bach’s Bourrée in E Minor. It includes a good bass solo by Glenn Cornick and a wonderful display of Anderson’s ability with the flute (which would still get much better). The band has made a few versions of this song, mixing it with other Bach songs.

The great thing about this album is that every song is different from the others. Back to the Family has a mindblowing final minute and a half or so, great flute and guitar solos. We Used to Know is… hmmmm… I guess everybody here knows Hotel California, right? Well, this Tull song was made seven years earlier. I’m not saying it’s a total rip-off, but for me it was the first time two songs were “too similar”. I knew HC first, and when I listened to Stand Up the first time, I was like, “holy cow this sounds exactly like Hotel California!”. Tull’s song is not as catchy, but I prefer Ian Anderson’s voice and Martin Barre’s guitar. Also, I couldn’t help losing a little bit of respect for Hotel California when I saw the similarities between the two songs (I still like it a lot though).

Reasons for Waiting is a really sweet song in which we can hear orchestral arrangements by David Palmer (who would later –after leaving the band- become Dee Palmer). Ian Anderson songwriting skills are heavily underrated. The guy’s a poet. Plus, he could talk about anything in his songs. Love songs (not many), songs about religion, politics, folk stories, anything.

What a sight for my eyes to see you in sleep.
Could’ve startled the sunrise hearing you weep.
You’re not seen, you’re not heard
but I stand by my word.
Came a thousand miles
just to catch you while you’re smiling.

What a day for laughter and walking at night.
Me following after, your hand holding tight.
And the memory stays clear with the song that you hear.
If I can but make the words awake the feeling.

What a reason for waiting and dreaming of dreams.
So here’s hoping you’ve faith in impossible schemes,
that are born in the sigh of the wind blowing by
while the dimming light brings the end to a night of loving.

Finally, Fat Man has an African-ish touch which heavily contrasts with the rest of the album. Well, most songs here do that. Contrast, I mean. The lyrics are so funny and yet sometimes so true!

Don’t want to be a fat man,
People would think that I was
Just good fun.
Would rather be a thin man,
I am so glad to go on being one.
Too much to carry around with you,
No chance of finding a woman who
Will love you in the morning and all the night time too.

Don’t want to be a fat man,
Have not the patience to ignore all that.
Hate to admit to myself half of my problems
Came from being fat.
Won’t waste my time feeling sorry for him,
I seen the other side to being thin.
Roll us both down a mountain
And I’m sure the fat man would win.

Even the bonus tracks are good! Listen to this one, 17:

Stand Up is, for many people, the best Jethro Tull album, and one of Ian Anderson’s Tull favourites. It was certainly one of their highest selling ones (and it got to number 1 in the UK charts), and even if there are a few I like more, it amazes me how, after just one year of playing together, they (well, basically Ian) could put together such a diverse bunch of songs in such a skilled way. Great bass, great guitar, great flute, great drums… there was still no pianist in the band (John Evan would join shortly after), so Ian Anderon himself played the piano the few times the music required it.

There are so many things I want to say about this band, and well my writing is not up to my thoughts! I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m forgetting a few interesting stories from these early years, but I think this’ll have to do. Next Tull post (which won’t necessary be the next blog post) will be about Benefit and Aqualung.

Bonus track: this song is not in any Tull CD (unless it’s in some kind of compilation). I think it’s from the Abrahams era. And the title is just so right!

Another bonus track: Bach’s Bourree! If it’s Bach, it’s good.

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8 thoughts on “Jethro Tull (I): the 60s

  1. Pingback: Alan Stivell (I): early years of the celtic harp genius | A Little Light Blogging

  2. Pingback: Jethro Tull (II): the 70s bring a pianist | A Little Light Blogging

  3. Pingback: Jethro Tull (III): Good Heavens, now Ian Anderson wants us to think! | A Little Light Blogging

  4. Pingback: Glenn Cornick: not too old to rock ‘n’ roll and certainly too young to die | A Little Light Blogging

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