NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS
30 June 1973
JETHRO TULL: WHERE'S THE PASSION NOW?
If, five years ago, someone had suggested Jethro Tull would evolve into a band that experimented with mixed media, I would have thought that person crazy. After all, in those days weren't Tull strictly an underground band, playing blues with slight leanings towards jazz?
Watching the band in '68 for the very first time — it must have cost all of two bob to get in — I just couldn't believe it.
There were these four guys who looked as if they had been tipped off the nearest dust-cart. At later concerts, Ian Anderson would joke about spiders falling from his hair. On this occasion it would have been no joke.
But you had to own up ... these scruffians had something. Anderson, wrapped up in a huge greatcoat which would have walked away given the chance, could have been the flasher who terrorised the young ladies of the neighbourhood. When Mick Abrahams did his 'Cat's Squirrel' tour-de-force, Anderson would hang wild-eyed from the speaker-cabinets or join the Go-Go dancers in their gilded cage. And he also played this strange silver instruments never before seen in the hands of an out 'n' out rock 'n' roller. But then, they were an underground band — weren't they?
There was this one thing they did which got inside your brain and stayed there. When every other band were imitating Cream, this strange band, named after the fella who invented a farming implement, were playing a melodic piece which wouldn't have been that out of place at Ronnie's. And on that strange silvery instrument too.
The release of their first album This Was explained all. The piece was 'Serenade To A Cuckoo' and the instrument was a flute.
But time marched on and Tull got big 'n' famous. Abrahams quit, just missing fame, and was replaced by Martin Barre. Anderson developed a nice line in standing on one leg, which he practised on Top Of The Pops when 'Living In The Past' became a hit. There were the usual cries of "selling out" but the Tull men were still producing excellent music.
Their second album 'Stand Up' was released — and it still stands as one of the best rock albums of the late sixties. Even though it was a change in style it proved Ian Anderson as a writer and singer of the highest quality. Remember 'Nothing Is Easy', the instrumental 'Bouree' and 'A New Day Yesterday'? Anderson was undoubtedly the front man but it was also fun to watch bassist Glenn Cornick's stage antics as he lurched back and forth with the rhythm.
Benefit came next, and again Anderson's talents as a songwriter couldn't be questioned. The band had added a keyboard player going by the name of John Evan. By the time Aqualung had been released Cornick had left, to be replaced by the man we'd heard so much about in Anderson's songs: Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. Apart from Anderson, only Clive Bunker remained from the original Tull. One last single was released, 'Life Is A Long Song', which proved what everyone had always suspected ... Ian Anderson was Jethro Tull.
Further proof came when Bunker left and was replaced by Barriemore Barlow for the Thick As A Brick album — which was one extended piece dealing with the life and times of Gerald Bostock, as Anderson put it when the new Tull work, Passion Play, was given its London premiere at Wembley's Empire Pool at the weekend ...
God, they've changed a helluva lot, I thought, sitting in the Wembley Stadium. But Ian Anderson was never content to stand still. Whatever comes out of his bag tonight there'd be no denying Tull's importance to rock music.
They were the first underground outfit to make it, also playing an important part in building an image for Island Records. Right down to the final detail of their album sleeves Tull had been innovators.
Passion Play started with a circle of white light projected onto a screen suspended behind the stage. As the circle grew larger, so did the volume of heart-beat which preceded the light.
Strange eerie noises came out of the speakers, including what sounded like an Italian opera singer taking his morning gargle, and the circle finally enveloped the screen — at which point a lifeless ballerina appeared in its place. After a few minutes the ballerina was given motion and did a little dance before disappearing through a mirror.
Enter one Jethro Tull amid smoke bombs and flashing lights. Anderson followed brandishing flute and the show had begun.
What followed is difficult to describe because it's difficult to remember. Not one piece of music from Passion Play stayed in my head longer than a second after it was played. And this is the real criticism. It was just too much to take in one hearing, especially when one's concentration on the music was interrupted by another film sequence.
This time there were two ballerinas and a whole lot of Alice In Wonderland animals. The story, I think, had something vaguely to do with the hare losing his spectacles.
During the piece Anderson played flute, soprano sax, a sopranino and an acoustic guitar. He also whistled and sang. Much as I admire Tull for not repeating old material — and as much as I can marvel at the band's professionalism in delivering Passion Play — it didn't make much sense on one hearing.
However, the audience, apart from one young man in front of me, who described the piece as "rubbish" received Passion Play warmly.
'Thick As A Brick' — the middle bit starting with the organ riff — made much more sense and showed Tull can reproduce their live sound on stage with no trouble. Yes, this was the madcap Anderson, dressed in tartan frock coat and knee-high boots. OK — so his flute technique wouldn't stand up alongside Roland Kirk or Herbie Mann, but Anderson is communicating to a lot of people. He talks and barks like a dog into the flute.
There's a hint of Bach and just a slice of 'Bouree'. Hammond-Hammond attempted that fabulous flowing bass line which Glenn Cornick played on the original but it didn't quite come off. Anderson cavorted like a demented leper, conducting the band with his foot, as 'Thick As a Brick' came to its conclusion the audience sang along with him.
The next song which began with a brief acoustic passage before developing into some real thunder and lightning, was presumably a new number not included on Passion Play. Martin Barre, who had previously hung back in the shadows of his speaker cabinets, started to move. He jumped around as if trying to deaden a fire.
Barlow is left on stage for a drum solo. It was okay but, like the smoke bombs that followed, unnecessary. Jethro Tull don't need to resort to such cliches of modern-day rock.
No introduction is needed as the band break loose into 'Aqualung'. All of a sudden — what timing — the band stopped playing and crept over to a white telephone which has sat on stage all night. They cringed away from it and continue 'Aqualung'. But haven't we seen this before, Ian?
The encore of 'Wind Up / Locomotive Breath' is the best piece of the night. Evan started to loon, almost a parody of Anderson himself, and only just short of him in the eccentricity stakes. Anderson's voice is crystal-clear and his spitting onto the stage when he comes to the line about school-teachers grooming him for success conveys the bitterness which is such an essential part of his writing. Evan played beautiful piano and is clearly Tull's finest musician. Barre's solo was distorted and self-indulgent.
Tufl left the stage and the telephone started ringing again. Anderson returned to answer it and, after a few seconds' conversation, told the audience the call was for them. Truly a Tullian touch.
So this was Tull's first British gig in over a year. For me, Passion Play failed musically and visually. What was that film about — other than just a surreal trick of its maker? Maybe the film and music will make more sense with the album's release. It would be nice to see Anderson writing an album of songs, rather than of extended pieces — in rock they rarely work.
The stage patter was there but didn't seen so funny as it was a couple of years ago and Anderson's movements were a mite contrived. But it was good to see these five eccentrics back on home territory — personally though, I can't help but long for the days when Anderson flirted with Go-Go dancers and the thought of Jethro Tull getting into mixed media seemed laughable. Still, Ian Anderson couldn't really stand still.
Thanks to Mike Wain for this article.