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NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS
8 July 1972
A TULL STORY
As a music producing unit, Jethro Tull have always been one of the most misunderstood and under-rated of bands — although their credentials as a dynamic stage act have rarely been called into question.
That very charismatic quality on stage is, in fact, the crux of the dilemma; the reason why, as far back as 1969, Jethro were recognising the difficulty of persuading critics and public not to regard them dismissively as — to quote Martin Barre — "a joke band".
This kind of attitude tends to run thus: a band turns in a good, entertaining show, then from this particular process of thought it follows that the show must be an act. An act needs rehearsing. If it's rehearsed then it's mechanical. And if the show is mechanical, then the music must be too — to follow things to their (ill)logical conclusion.
While Ian Anderson's stage theatricals are in one respect Jethro's greatest asset, in a musical context they could also be said to be the band's greatest liability.
All that to one side, truth is that Jethro Tull have always been a conscientious and dedicated band in the studio. They started with little enough knowledge of recording techniques, or of music too for that matter, relatively speaking, but set about mastering the arts of both aspects with a relentlessly inquisitive zeal summed up in Ian Anderson's statement of his personal ambitions in 1969:
"My aim is to be conversant in all the techniques involved in writing, arranging, producing, playing ... in fact, the whole process."
Anderson meant what he said. Dabbling ambitiously on the production side with the first album, This Was, five LPs later finds the Jethro leader in total command. The meticulous attention to detail on Thick As A Brick, for example, is evidence of that.
On the musical side, Anderson displayed the same zeal. When he first arrived in London from Blackpool his playing ability stopped short at intuitive harmonica and limited forays on guitar.
First off, he taught himself flute, albeit borrowing a lot from Roland Kirk — Kirk's 'Serenade To A Cuckoo' is on the This Was LP and was the first flute piece Anderson picked up — but, since then, Ian's own feel and inventiveness have made him a power on the instrument in his own right.
Each successive album has seen Anderson adding new instruments to his playing credits. Up to date, his abilities now stretch to flute, acoustic/electric guitar, organ, harmonica, mandolin, balalaika, violin, sax and trumpet.
As a writer, Anderson has always sailed his own course, unaffected by the trends and tastes of his contemporaries — he rarely listens to other bands either live or on record.
This refreshing originality was the key stroke of This Was, on which the uneasy alliance of Anderson and Mick Abrahams concocted a beautifully loose mixture of jazz and blues. A lack of frills and a naivete of approach were the album's strongest factors. Numbers like 'My Sunday Feeling', 'A Song for Jeffrey' were startlingly out of the main-stream of popular music at the time, and have lost very little over the years.
By Stand Up — the second album and a No.1 seller — Abrahams has vacated the stage solely to Ian Anderson, who wrote whenever his flights of fancy took him. That was the point where outside influences were rejected in favour of unfettered self-expression.
Stand Up introduced a more riffy Jethro, with guitar (Martin Barre) solos crisp and compact. Typical numbers were 'New Day Yesterday' and 'Nothing is Easy' ... punchy, concise, little miniatures, reaching very tight peaks of dynamics. Anderson was then only dabbling in tonal colouring.
Beside the riffy stuff, Stand Up also allowed plenty of space for the more sensitive side of Anderson's composing ability. 'Fat Man' remains a gas, humourously sad; 'Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square' has a madrigal quality, and 'We Use To Know' and 'Reasons For Waiting' are flowing, lyrical compositions.
At this stage, the most noticeable facet of Anderson's writing was his lack of pretension. Lyrics dealt with simple personal statements and reminiscences. There was none of "the social message" that was to blight many of Jethro's contemporaries.
Anderson restricted his lyrics to songs about him, Jenny his wife, and his experiences, because that was the area he knew. He felt then he lacked the qualifications to broaden his horizons any further than his immediate basic surroundings.
Benefit, the third album, is a personal favourite of mine, and one that received least attention of any Jethro set. Musically it was mellower than Stand Up, although Anderson's ability to pull quirky riffs out of thin air, and coax equally quirky chord changes of Martin Barre, remained intact.
'Nothing To Say' and 'Play In Time', both lyrically alluding to group life-style, represented the riff side, but overall the album reflected a delicate feel.
Standout tracks 'To Cry You A Song', 'Son', 'For Michael Collins Jeffrey and Me' and 'Sossity' possessed several common characteristics pointing to Anderson's future development, including growing appreciation of light and shade in the music and a blossoming out lyrically onto wider subjects.
'Son', with a neat twist, explored a father-son relationship. 'Michaeal Collins' was a sympathetic lament for the astronaut left behind in the mother ship at the time of the first moon landing.
Benefit to my mind — because it contains some of Jethro's most melodically attractive songs — brings to issue the regrettable fact that Anderson is as widely ignored when contemporary songwriters come under discussion.
Had he chosen to sing in the fashionable manner of the acoustic guitar soloist, there is little doubt in my mind that he would be ranked among the most important in that field.
Benefit also introduced John Evan to Jethro, but it wasn't until the following Aqualung set that Evan got a real chance to spread out. Also new on Aqualung: Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond replacing Glenn Cornick on bass.
Perhaps the most significant points concerning Aqualung are (a) that it was released a whole year after Benefit and (b) that, by then, Jethro were well into the American scene, spending much of their time on tour there.
Both may explain why Aqualung is a good way removed from Benefit in overall feel, the former being much harder and more aggressively riffy — American audiences like their rock that way — than its predecessor.
Aqualung, in the main, represents Anderson fully in control of the tonal colouring he'd been aiming at since Stand Up. Heavy, rasping riffs that give way to delicate acoustic or flute work are typical characteristics, although to my mind the fine sensitive songs on this set tend to be lost against what I feel is a total impression of oppressiveness.
Both 'My God' and the title track are almost ugly in the that oppressiveness, taking away a great deal of the sentiment expressed in the first instance and the compassion one should feel in the second.
There's no denying, however, the meticulous ear for detail that Anderson brought to every facet of the Aqualung presentation, nor the fact that the lyrics represent and important new departure. For the first tine, significantly, Anderson allowed the words to be printed on the sleeve, and lyrically Aqualung is a powerful, heartfelt statement.
Yet although it was a new departure in that Anderson was no longer restricting his scope of writing, the lyrics remain highly personalised to the writer. Not just harking back to Sunday boredom in Blackpool or having to face the press in LA., though, but going further into Anderson's sincerely held belief that society abuses God by manipulating him as a figurehead, instead of as a concept of love.
Ian describes 'My God' as a blues for God, not a condemnation ...
"A lament for God being a social crutch for so many."
From a production angle, this was Anderson the professional in full control. And if one hankered nostalgically for the naivete of This Was, then there was compensation in the impressive maturity of Ian's composing ability.
Most recent Tull album — ignoring the retrospective Living In The Past — is Thick As A Brick, which Ian obviously regards as Jethro's most important set to date.
Musically and lyrically there is a definite lineage here with Aqualung — the points regarding America are again relevant. Yet whereas with Aqualung it was the lyrics that returned to a common idea, on 'Brick' both lyrics and music have a linking theme.
The degree of success varies enormously. In parts Anderson's lyrics can be eloquent and surreal, in others they border on the banal. In parts, musically, the use of light and shading is impressively effective, while elsewhere there's a total lack of subtlety, almost an overkill. Or worse, predictability.
Listening to the album again this week, I felt too that I noticed a certain glibness about the music which I'm sure was never in Ian's head when he composed the piece. Then again there are passages like the poet and painter episode that hit just the right note of purity and poetry.
It's on the lyrics, really, though, that 'Brick' should be judged. Here, they're not as personalised as on, say, 'Wind Up' from Aqualung, but at the same time they manage to encapsulate most of the feelings Anderson had been hinting at in earlier songs ... the way that the life of the common man, whoever he may be — the one "geared to the average rather than the exceptional" — is merely a tool in the hands of the same elitist group who, on the Aqualung set, elected God the figurehead. Also the same elitist anonymous figures who govern and predestine the life of the common man, and worse still dismiss him with contempt as "thick as a brick", thereby stripping him of feeling.
"So you ride yourselves over the fields and
You make all your animal deals and
Your wise men don't know how it feels
To be thick .......... as a brick."
Thanks to Mike Wain for this article.