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NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS
22 September 1973
JETHRO TULL: THE HOUSE THAT JETHRO BUILT
It now seems rather incongruous to think back on Jethro Tull as veterans of the Great 1968 Blues Boom, right out of the same scene as the Fleetwood Macs and Chicken Shacks of yore.
When the world first became aware of Jethro, they were a prime bunch of English eccentrics, teen bohemians of the first water. There was a lead singer called Ian Anderson. His stage behaviour had a faint but disturbing resemblance to that of an enraged stork; he glowered through his hair and beard while jabbering away on flute or mouth harp. Everybody got confused and thought that Anderson himself was Jethro Tull. The audiences of the time loved him, magnificent English eccentric that he was. All those "other" blues bands looked so serious.
Jethro Tull's recording debut was a single on MGM that, for some reason, was credited to Jethro Toe. It sold not at all — so little damage was done to future reputations. They eventually emerged on Island in 1968 with an album entitled This Was. In those far-off days, Anderson shared the command of the group with guitarist Mick Abrahams, and it was Abrahams who was the band's real blues freak. The two of them, alongside bassist Glenn Cornick and drummer Clive Bunker, played a few bluesy things, a few jazzy things, some hard rock plus various other goodies.
There was the number with the Obligatory Drum Solo ('Dharma For One'), the Big Blues Jam ('Catsquirrel'), the Heavy Number ('A Song For Jeffrey') and The Slow Blues ('Some Day The Sun Won't Shine For You'). Apart from the rather amateurish production, it was an okay album.
It was Interesting. It was A Promising Debut. People even went so far as to say that it Boded Well For The Future. It was a more than respectable first album and, though I never saw Jethro at this period in their career, it probably reflected their then stage act fairly accurately. By the time of the second album Stand Up (Island), things had really started to happen. By this time, it was 1969 and Mick Abrahams had left Jethro to pursue his own particular vision. He was replaced by Tony Iommi, now with Black Sabbath. Iommi lasted a matter of days before being replaced in turn by Martin Lancelot Barre, who is still part of the organisation today.
Syand Up is considered by many to be the best thing that Jethro Tull ever did, and it has considerable credentials for this title. For a start, it's jampacked with truly excellent songs, and Anderson plus manager Terry Ellis had absorbed an awful lot of production knowhow since This Was. Barre was altogether a better player than Abrahams, and he had no leadership ambitions to speak of. He was content to let Anderson be Captain Jethro and take for himself the role of first lieutenant. Thus we were able to get a full-strength shot of Ian Anderson.
Goddam, the guy was good. He really was. He had a wry, bitter voice, unsuited to the full-throated bellow of the white blues singer, but ideal for the sardonic, dry, tricky songs that speedily became Jethro's forte. The band were playing heavy metal stuff, sure, but Anderson's chord sequences were far more inventive than most, and his limited but occasionally-inspired flute-playing added an exotic leavening to the band's heavy gruel. Whether he was being deadpan-whimsical with mandolins (as on 'Far Man'), unabashedly sentimental with strings (on 'Reasons For Waiting'), brutally accurate (as on 'Back To The Family'), or reflective (as on 'Look Into The Sun'), he scored every time. Stand Up was an irresistible album. It put all Anderson's high cards on the table at one throw and whatever he may regard as his own magnum opus, Stand Up stands up as the most consistently excellent album Anderson ever produced.
So we now have a highly respected second division band Poised For The Big Time. Anderson's stage persona was an unnerving cross between the amiably-bucolic and the malevolently-decayed. What was needed to propel this bizarre bunch of hayseeds into the upper echelons? Right first time, buster — a Hit Single. Or, to be more accurate, several hit singles.
The first of these was entitled 'Living In The Past', and it may well be the finest individual Jethro Tull record of all. It had a lovely melody, a catchy little flute lick and a nifty set of lyrics. It was also in 5/4 time, and that was Highly Respectable.
They followed it up with 'Sweet Dream', their first on the Chrysalis label. Chrysalis was their management/production company, and the story was something about Island refusing to release 'Sweet Dream' because it wasn't commercial enough. So, it was claimed, the Chrysalis label was formed to put it out, Island continued to distribute Chrysalis and 'Sweet Dream' was a Hit Single and all was cool.
Jethro's final album for Island had been Benefit in mid-1970. There's not too much to say about it except that it refined and furthered the Stand Up style and approach, and contained some truly fine material, particularly on the second side. For Benefit, the basic four-piece Jethro (Anderson, Barre, Cornick and Bunker) was augmented by one John Evan, who played keyboards. Anderson himself had played the keyboard parts on Stand Up and since he was also manipulating flute, acoustic guitar and the occasional mandolin, it was understandably that he'd welcome a lightening of this excessive load. Shortly afterwards, Evan joined the band on a full-time basis, making a five-piece Tull.
The band were also building up a considerable American reputation. The freaks dug them because they were (a) extremely entertaining and (b) Very English, a good combination at the time. Also, magazines like Downbeat were paying them some attention — mainly because Anderson played the flute in a vaguely Roland Kirk-ish style. Even though ol' Rahsaan Roland is a virtuoso and Anderson used to claim that he could only play in four keys, they still got their share of Serious Approbation. Thus the Great American Smash was inevitable.
It came with Jethro's first Chrysalis album Aqualung. At this point in the proceedings, Glenn Cornick has left the fold to form Wild Turkey, and had been replaced on the bass by Anderson's old buddy Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, the subject of Anderson's 'Jeffrey' songs on the first three albums. Aqualung was Jethro's first concept album; it contained two suites, one on each side. Side One featured 'Aqualung', a song about a tubercular old tramp who is pictured "sitting on a park bench/eyeing up little girls with bad intent." The other songs on the first side looked at various low-life matters — songs about Wimpy Bars and foreign students. Despite the crushing effectiveness of the title track, Aqualung's piece de resistance was a short example of Anderson's brand of cynical whimsy entitled 'Mother Goose', set to a traditional melody and toytown flutes but containing some of his sharpest lines.
At this point in Jethro's history, Anderson had become fond of posturing with a small guitar, singing acoustic songs to counterpoint the carefully organised violence of the rest of the set. The trouble with Anderson's acoustic work was that most of it was fifth-rate Roy Harper, and it was almost painful to see him proudly trotting out the same folk-club guitar licks that every competent but undistinguished club guitarist still uses to bore the ass off audiences. Aqualung was no let down, but its second side. 'My God', carried the seeds of Jethro's destruction. It was a long, didactic analysis of Anderson's views on religion, and was apparently intended as a display of intellectual muscle. It may have impressed the downer freaks at the Filleramore East, but it really didn't make it on a wider scale.
It was after the massive success of Aqualung that Chrysalis put out Living In The Past, possibly the most opulently-packaged Greatest Hits album of all time. It was a truly excellent summing up of what Jethro had produced until that point including, as it did, selected album tracks, released performances from different Jethro stages, a large helping of singles which had never before been on albums, and two long live tracks. All between hard covers with innumerable colour photo pages, full information on each tune and some nice layout work. For the casual Jethro freak, who'd vaguely liked them but never quite got around to actually buying any of their records, it was all that could possibly be wanted. It has no small claim to being the best "Best Of" album ever issued.
But time was nigh for the Cataclysm. This was entitled Thick As A Brick and Chrysalis unveiled it in the spring of 1972. As a Jethro fan of some standing, I was thoroughly disappointed. Ian Anderson had long before proved his real skill at writing short, compact, witty, pointed songs — so what in the name of Yuggoth was he doing presenting a forty-minute epic poem with musical interludes? God knows. Various points in Thick As A Brick contained flashes of the Jethro of yore, and there were some inspired instrumental passages, but even the immaculate production couldn't save the hideous thing from collapsing under its own excess of weight.
What was even more horrific was that Anderson's formerly precise and exquisitely controlled use of language was fast leaving him; so most of the lyrics on Thick As A Brick emerged as embarrassingly half-baked posturing.
And so unto Passion Play which is the same again, only worse.
The problem which is currently shackling Ian Anderson is not lack of talent — no way — but his increasing inability to comprehend the nature and extent of said talent. He has great skill in certain directions: directions which for him have led nowhere. The House That Jethro Built, a giant ornate edifice with impressive curlicues and wonderful objects in great profusion, is tottering. The architect has miscalculated and the structure is unsound.
And now Ian Anderson has withdrawn Jethro from the public arena in an unprecedented fit of pettiness and paranoia. Given the evidence of their last two albums, I'm not exactly heartbroken to see them go. But they've had a long and fascinating journey and they've stopped off at some remarkable side streets along the way. All part of the splendid pageant of rock history. Let's hope that Jethro will be remembered for their good points rather than their bad, for Stand Up rather than Thick As A Brick or Passion Play.
Maybe 'Living In The Past' was a truly prophetic title after all. Good song it was, too.
CHARLES SHAAR MURRAY