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No. 63, August 1976
THE GOODOLE DAYS OF JETHRO TULL
In early 1968, as a trepid novice reporter, I visited the offices of Chrysalis Management & Agency, to get some background guff on Ten Years After (ostensibly because the editor of the Dutch 'Rock a Roller', for whom I wrote, suffered from the extravagant delusion that Alvin Lee was 'the Robin Hood of Rock 'n' Roll') ... and I was impressed.
Even in those days, when Chrysalis was only just starting up and money must have been pretty thin, they gave the impression not only of wealth but of overwhelming faith in their acts. They had offices in Oxford Street (which they shared with Island Records), and their very own press officer ... the redoubtable Bill Harry. I almost collapsed in awe when I found out who was according me such individual attention; Bill Harry, as editor of Merseybeat, journalist of esteem, and witness to the whole Liverpool explosion, was like a god to me ... and yet here he was, enthusiastically typing me out a brief history of the company even as I sat watching him!
"Chrysalis, headed by two university graduates, Terry Ellis and Chris Wright, is a fairly new organisation which has rapidly become the most respected catalyst for blues and underground groups in Britain."
He was right; they had Savoy Brown, Ten Years After, Chicken Shack and the still largely unknown Jethro Tull — who, Bill Harry predicted, would become bigger than all of them in double quick time. Needless to say, I assumed he was bullshitting ... until I went to see them in May 1968, at the Nags Head, that unprepossessing promoters' graveyard in High Wycombe.
These four exceedingly scruffy blokes humped their own gear up that nasty vomit-imbued staircase, set up, and played 2 of the most spectacular sets I'd ever seen. Then they dismantled their equipment, carted it back down to their van, and drove off into the night ... thirty three quid the richer.
That jovial promoter-cum-vocalist, Ron Watts, who by some simple twist of fate now shares the same local pub as Ian Anderson, told me about that when I chanced to bump into him in Wardour Street recently. "I'd booked them for thirty quid, against 60% of the door," he said, "... and they broke the percentage."
As you may have gathered, they had no roadies at this point — though John Blackburn, who had been 'unpaid roadies' with McGregors Engine, helped them when he could. (He later joined them full time, and now works with Jack the Lad).
"By the spring of 1968," he told me, "they were beginning to get their name around and were gigging several times a week, but I had a regular job and they couldn't afford to pay a roadie ... so I just gave them a hand at weekends. As soon as the gigs justified it, they hired a van on a weekly basis — paying 15 quid a week, I think, and they had to do all the humping and driving themselves — which must have been a real drag, even though by today's standards they didn't have a lot of equipment to lug about."
In fact, Mick Abrahams had a Gibson SG, which he played through a Fender Massman top and a Marshall 8x10 cabinet; Glenn Cornick had a Gibson bass and a really old Sound City amp and cabinet; Clive Bunker had a black and white chequered Pearl kit, which he replaced with a mixture of Ajax and Ludwig, as and when he could afford it; and Ian Anderson had his flute. The p.a. comprised 2 Vox 30 cabinets with a Marshall 50 to drive it and a couple of Sure microphones. It could all be slung into a Dormobile with room to spare.
Anderson, who had never been away from home before, and felt "like a yokel hitting the city with all his belongings in a knotted hankie at the end of a stick" [quoted from Disc & Music Echo, 9 Nov 1968], was now on wages from Chrysalis, and had been able to quit his day job — and when he wasn't gigging he spent most of his waking hours standing one-legged in his room in Studley Road, brushing up his flute technique. It drove the other residents bananas ... including a local painter and good friend of mine called Mick Robson, who had the room above:
"It seemed like the only time he ever took that bloody flute away from his mouth was when he had to walk down the hall for a piss. I suppose he took breaks for meals, but all I can say is he must've been a fast eater. I remember one day it got on my nerves so much that I went and banged on his door, asked to see his flute and advised him to file don the fingering mechanism. 'What's the idea of that,' he asked, '... faster action?' 'No,' I told him, '...it won't be quite as painful when I shove it up your arse.'"
(Historical interjection: Robson was the sole survivor of a whole bunch of CND/beatnik/artist types who lived in Studley Road. They included Cal Grey and John Reason — songwriters for Bryan & the Brunelles, the only mid-Sixties Luton group to get a record deal (one single) — and an art teacher called Pete somebody, who painted a beautifully bleak Lowry-style view from the back window of his room. It hung on Robson's wall for years ... he ought to flog it to Anderson as a memento of his days in Luton).
In those booming days, before they threw in their lot with Island Records, Chrysalis made independent deals where they could — and Jethro's first (fortunately fairly abortive) attempt to record was with producer Derek Lawrence (of whom I know nothing other than that he subsequently produced Wishbone Ash). Lost for many years, the two tracks they cut have recently reappeared on a Polydor album called 'Rare Tracks' — and sleeve perusers will note that they are credited to Jethro Toe. As it is common knowledge that the group took their name after the celebrated 18th century inventor of the seed drill, this corruption seems particularly witless ... and the group members deny any complicity:
"Somebody from the agency thought of the name in the studio," says Glenn Cornick, "but Derek Lawrence thought Jethro Toe sounded better, and the single (on MGM) came out with that name. Fortunately, it died an instant death. He was into silly names — he wanted to call us Candy Coloured Rain at one time — and he thought we should base our style on Steve Howe's group, Tomorrow."
John Evan's Smash, with Anderson and Cornick, had been in and out of the studio with Lawrence for about a year, but the single represents the last vestiges of their relationship. The B-side 'Aeroplane' was (according to Glenn) actually an old track cut by the John Evan band:
"He merely mixed out the saxes and shoved it on the B-side — even though it had only the flimsiest connection with Jethro Tull — and we ended up sounding like the Monkees on the 'commercial' A-side, which was a Mick Abrahams song called 'Sunshine Day'."
Mick Abrahams: "Basically, I thought it was a reasonable song at the time, but when I heard the mix, I thought it was blinkin' awful. Lawrence was more interested in me than Ian ... he was into more of a guitar thing, but it didn't come out sounding anything like we'd envisaged."
Nevertheless, the song made Abrahams a wealthy man; he copped £18 in writer's royalties!
Now Chris Wright, who'd originally signed the band to Chrysalis, realised that the 'guitar man' image was the happening thing in the clubs, and probably rolled Abrahams into the band because he saw them progressing along the lines of Alvin Lee and Ten Years After (who were going out for over fifty quid a night, several times a week ... pretty good for a club/college band in early 1968) but, as Mick says, "Ian obviously had other ideas."
As the band began to gather momentum, Anderson immediately became the focal point ... to the press and to the audiences. To the vast majority, Jethro Tull was the name of the bloke with the old coat, tatty hair and flute ... and the other three were just his backing band. And, as the weeks unfurled, it became apparent that Anderson's performances were a brilliant combination of low farce and serious strategy; here was no boring dimwit aspirant pop star, but a layered person whose full fascination would only reveal itself over the years to come.
With Wright's hands overladen with the burgeoning Ten Years After, his sidekick Terry Ellis (who also managed the unspectacular Clouds) took full managerial control of Jethro, borrowing enough money to be able to record the band independently.
Ellis secured them a Marquee residency, which was the first real pebble in the pond, with the ripples spreading swiftly through journalist and word of mouth, but it was the 1968 Annual Jazz and Blues Festival, held in Sunbury that year, which broke them as stars. They towered over their contemporaries like an aardvark in an ant colony ... and when their first album 'This Was' was released a few weeks later, it naturally skimmed into the top ten on a wave of uncompromising press raves — like this one from no less an organ than the Lowestoft Chronicle: "It is undoubtedly one of the best things I have heard for years," and this from the renowned Corby Leader: "It seems one of those albums that no respectable progressive pop collection should be without." Their name was even linked with royalty: "It would do the Queen untold good to see Jethro Tull instead of the predictable hoggery she's going to see on the Royal Variety Show," hooted John Peel from the pages of Disc.
And so it went on. That first album was, and still is, very good, but for me, Jethro Tull's most fascinating recorded works are the singles (available today on the 'Living In The Past' album) which preceded and followed the album: 'Song For Jeffrey', released in August 1968, and the magnificent 'Love Story', released on November 29th 1968 ... the day before Mick Abrahams was due to get the bullet.
'Songs For Jeffrey' was for Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. He was the original bass player in the John Evan band, and was replaced, after a short-lived intermediary, by Glenn Cornick ... only to return to Anderson's side in Tull after Cornick's sudden departure some years later.
This, especially after the weediness of the MGM single, was an amazing Beefheartian humpy-donky roller, capped off with the most extraordinary vocal sound — an effect achieved, according to Abrahams, by putting the vocal through an AC 30, which stood in front of a mike, rather than by direct injection into the console, as is the normal procedure. Terry Ellis, credited as producer, was certainly a novice in the studio — as indeed they all were — but if 'Song For Jeffrey' was good, the next one was fabulous!
Anderson, though based in blues, was writing songs which bent into jazz and all kinds of other areas, and by now he'd not only become the group's spokesman/undisputed leader, but also one of the most charismatic figures in popular music. I mean — were there any other blues bands whose singer played a flute? And if so, how many of them stood on one leg in a long ragged coat? And how many blues bands could come up with a single as unique and unpredictable as 'Love Story'? I couldn't believe the power of that thing when I first heard it ... a great churning, hypnotic riffer, interrupted by mandolin interludes and a most unusual solo. in short it was outrageously adventurous for a single — especially at such a crucial time in their crossover-to-bigtime effort — and displayed an apparent disregard for any chartbusting ingredients ... which is why it didn't get in the charts, I guess. (Their first hit single didn't come until 'Living In The Past' got into the top three the following June).
In the middle of November, with the first album at number 10 on the national chart and number 5 in the Luton chart, Mick Abrahams got a rather strange telephone call ... "Hey mate — can you give me some more details about this lead guitarist gig that's coming up in your group?"
Unfortunately, there was no film crew present to catch the changes in Mick's expression as the nature of the situation dawned on him ... he was out!
Little Micky had been a naughty boy and he was out ... which is why the MM news page subsequently printed the following vague rubric: "Mick Abrahams has left Jethro Tull. A replacement is being sought."
Abrahams: "I called Ian a few names about the underhand way they got me out, but I think he was just too scared to tell me outright. In fact, I was getting pretty sick of the way things were developing — like the B-side of 'Love Story' had been cut without me even knowing it — and I had almost reached the point of quitting ... but Ian and Terry had decided to get rid of me at the end of November — only I found out about it through that phone call. The whole episode was a bit uncool, but it would have been childish and very unprofessional of me to complain in public ... so I kept my mouth shut and formed Blodwyn Pig."
I could probably find less than a handful of people to agree with me, but I thought 1968 was Jethro Tull's best year. After that they became more proficient musically, and far more popular, but far less vital. The whole thing became almost contrived ... the one leg bit, the predictable interviews ... and my interest in them, which had been red-hot, waned to passing-pink. But like I say — that's purely personal bias, and I'm sure my Luton roots have a lot to do with it; with Abrahams out, I didn't feel so much local pride surging in my bosom — apart from which I preferred Mick's rougher, gutsier style to Martin Barre's crisp, clean lines.
So at this point in time — November 30th 1968, I'm closing the casebook ... except to tie up a few loose ends.
Now I've always thought of Jethro Tull as a car; Ian Anderson's the driver, and he just changes the tyres when the tread wears thin or (as in the case of Glenn Cornick for example) they burst. The car's getting on a bit now — it's almost nine years old — but as long as the driver retains his faculties it'll purr along without any trouble for a few years yet — there'll always be a plentiful supply of tyres. Like he recently switched the rear off-side tyre; replaced the Hammond G80 with a Glascock Gripper XL.
The only perplexing factor is that the tyres could be just anybody. They are totally replaceable ... only the driver is indispensable.
The only way you can run a band democratically is if all the members a) think along the same lines, or b) are selfless enough to give and take and share, or c) are prepared to follow the direction of the most creative element ... and, human nature being what it is, such situations are rarely sustained. The roads of rock are littered with wrecked bands who split for 'internal reasons' and 'diverging direction' — usually precipitated by squabbles about money, relative importance within the group, musical direction and so on.
How much easier and sensible it is to run the group along fascist lines — where one guy takes the financial burden on his shoulders and takes any profits which accrue, and pays his backing band a weekly salary — as in the case of Silverhead or Cockney Rebel, for instance.
I have absolutely no idea of the financial structure of Jethro Tull, but I'd be fascinated to see how they've cut the bread over the years ... and I don't mean that in a snidey or disrespectful way. I'm just interested. And I'm also interested in the way Terry Ellis and Ian Anderson appear to exclude the others from any creative role ... does Martin Barre never write any songs, for instance? Are they all content to take the money and say nothing? What would I do in similar circumstances? And what about this for a telling quote from Glenn Cornick: Question: Did you have any influence over the way Jethro Tull developed? Answer: I had influence on the bass playing.
Mick Abrahams: "Jethro was run on very strict lines — which was what caused the initial dissention, I think. It was good fun and very free until we started to get somewhere, and then the discipline really tightened up ... unnecessarily, I thought, because much as we pissed about off stage, we were totally professional on stage ... no mucking about — just as professional a performance as we could give. Then it became apparent that Ian was going to write all the material without any of us getting a look in ... my song ideas weren't even considered. So when I heard that I'd got the boot, I wasn't really surprised, because I'd made it obvious that I wasn't prepared to be superfluous; to be part of a band which didn't really appreciate my contribution ... I'm not the sort of bloke who can accept that situation — just playing along behind a front man, being tossed a bone every now and then by being allowed a solo here and there ... certainly not for fifteen quid a week, which is what we were getting at the time I was fired."
Actually, the search for a replacement for Abrahams is quite an interesting story, as Glenn Cornick relates:
"Davy O'List, who had been with the Nice, was going to join, and we started rehearsing with him as soon as Mick left. initially it worked out well, looked very promising, and we thought it was going to be fine ... but then we realised it wasn't going to work at all, and we had to go through the MM small ad trip, which was a real pain. Out of 80 auditioners, only two could even play! One of them, Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath (nee Earth) was our first choice, but it was soon obvious that it wasn't going to be a suitable combination really, and we gave the other guy, Martin Barre, a second chance ... he'd fluffed the first because he was so nervous, but in the end he turned out to be most suitable for our purpose.
"I remember that Jimmy McCullough turned up, looking about ten, and did about 5 minutes of Clapton impersonations, which were pretty good for his age, but not quite up to Wings standard. His first words were 'Oh shit ... I thought it was going to be John Mayall!', because we'd put 'Top Blues Band' in the advert!"
(In fact, John Mayall had asked Mick Abrahams to join his group a few weeks earlier, but Abrahams had turned him down because he believed in Jethro).
Cornick himself left Jethro some time later — after prolonged antagonism over the 'no drugs, no women, no alcohol' rule.
"I didn't do any drugs of any sort, and nor did any of the others — but whereas they didn't make a habit of getting drunk or pulling women, I did ... and it was a bit stifling to be the only guy in the band doing it. It didn't affect my work on stage or my attitude towards the music, but it divided the group ... we never seemed to have any unity or community spirit ... and after big discussions, we agreed that because there was so little communication, I'd be better off to leave — which I did."
Drummer Clive Bunker left a few months later, leaving Anderson the sole survivor of that original great band — that raw, vital, honest band whose heart and soul pumped and burned with spirit. They were great!
* * *
And where are they now? Well, Glenn Cornick, after a long and relatively unsuccessful attempt to get his Wild Turkey flying, is now in a group called Paris, whose debut album just came out.
Mick Abrahams formed Blodwyn Pig and enjoyed considerable success fronting this and various other bands. He now holds down a lucrative position at a sports centre on the outskirts of Luton, and does the odd gig with his latest band. Say 'hello' if you go and see them ... he's a really nice geezer.
Clive Bunker seems to have his scene well together; one of the few quiet rock stars to make an elegant transition back to the human race. He has financial fingers in numerous prospering pies, including a big engineering factory, a coach hire firm, a boarding kennels, and a landscape gardening operation ... and he still finds time to play in a little local band — just to keep his drums rust and dust free.
And Ian Anderson? He's a world famous superstar, wealthy enough and fond enough of England not to be a tax exile ... a little under nine years since he came down to Luton with his world in a knotted hankie.