Jethro Tull, 50 Years On. Should We Care?

The Voice never much liked Ian Anderson and crew. Is it time to give the old sod on the park bench a break?


It all started when I was thirteen years old. I got a job washing dishes at a restaurant in a bedraggled suburb just west of Baltimore. It was the sort of benighted Seventies joint where an uprooted pot plant was once stashed in the dishwasher in a paranoid panic that narcs were going to raid the kitchen. Clueless teetotaler, I turned the machine on to better hide the evidence. I spent four hours after closing time with my stoner best friend rinsing the limp mess in a huge colander and then drying out what was salvageable in the pizza oven.

Despite that fiasco, it was a great job for a kid who loved music. I was a late-night dial-turner, discovering the Stones through a radio show determined to expose the roots of rock by playing 78s of such blues legends as Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Bessie Smith. One particular midnight I was thunderstruck by the already broken-up Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat,” courtesy of the same college station’s wide-ranging programming. Problem was, though the Baltimore–D.C. area had a hopping concert scene, I wasn’t old enough to drive. This is where my job provided a huge benefit: The older cooks and waitresses took a shine to me, and whisked me along to all manner of rock concerts like I was some sort of team mascot. How lucky was I to see David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” tour? And to witness a maniacal Elton John hurling his piano bench around the stage? Not quite as mind-blowing as clips I’d seen of the dearly departed Jimi torching his axe, but heady stuff for a kid in junior high.

One cook at the restaurant was heavily into an FM station that served up a steady diet of prog rock. Plowing through the bins at the local Korvettes department store, I discovered I liked the genre’s album covers — Roger Dean’s trippy landscapes for Yes, H.R. Giger’s biomechanical temptress on the cover of Brain Salad Surgery — more than the music. Still, there was one supposedly prog (and undoubtedly oddball) outfit that blindsided me with rollicking licks and esoteric sonics: Jethro Tull. (The group is named after the eighteenth-century English agriculturalist who invented the seed drill, among other accomplishments.)

I first saw Tull, fronted by multi-instrumentalist — most notably, the flute — and vocalist Ian Anderson, in 1975. I would see them many more times, because they seemed to swing through the area at least once a year during my teens. By then I’d earned enough money washing dishes to score a used 35mm Pentax, and so I became the gang’s documentarian. We could never afford the best seats, so my initial forays into concert photography came through a borrowed telephoto lens.

I have pictures of a zebra onstage with Tull (or, more accurately, someone in a zebra suit), and I’m pretty sure I remember some bouncy dung balls as well. The band’s costumes might be categorized as baroque psychedelic. At one concert, Anderson (born 1947) sported ribbed shoulder pads and a codpiece, like an athlete who’d forgotten to put on the final layer of his uniform. Which was fitting, because the lead singer–flutist-harmonicist practically never stopped gyrating — leaping, hopping, and strutting throughout the shows, using his flute alternately as baton and phallus when he wasn’t actually blowing into it.

By this time Tull had already done the album that would assure them a niche in rock’s pantheon, 1971’s Aqualung. But tracks from that monster seller, including the title song and “Locomotive Breath,” were setlist mainstays in every show I saw. Art school and other pursuits put paid to my arena-rock days, but over the decades I have still turned to Tull when riff-riddled energy was required. Just a few years ago I had to rip out a ceiling to make room for recessed lighting in a basement art studio; Aqualung figured heavily in my playlist. The album’s bring-down lyrics about humanity’s sorry destiny as filthy vagabonds wandering the park benches of creation are strikingly countered by roller-coaster guitar breaks, exuberant flute passages, and all manner of melodic ascension. Oh — and Anderson has noted in interviews that the six-note earthquake that opens the title track owes a debt to Beethoven’s Fifth.

Still, I was thoroughly surprised when a high school friend I hadn’t seen in decades Facebooked me about a spare ticket to see the Philadelphia stop of Jethro Tull’s golden anniversary tour. (Ken and I had been on the same baseball team that lost a close Maryland state playoff game to then-pitcher Cal Ripken Jr.) “Hell yeah,” I thought, “why not?” But first I wanted to look in the Voice’s archives. Any band that’s been in existence for half a century and sold tens of millions of albums — and hadn’t it won a Grammy at some point long after I stopped paying attention…? — must have gotten a lot of ink in a paper renowned for its rock ’n’ roll erudition.

First I did an online search for “Jethro Tull, 1968,” the year their inaugural album, This Was, was released. This led me to January ’69, when Tull, already popular in England, were embarking on a U.S. tour. I was impressed to discover that the band’s first American appearance had been at the Fillmore East, on Second Avenue. Sure enough, I found them in the Voice’s January 23rd issue, listed in one of the Fillmore’s distinctively bordered ads, billed below Blood, Sweat & Tears but above the Savoy Brown Blues Band.

Sharing a gig with Savoy Brown wasn’t surprising, because This Was has a heavy blues edge, inspired in part by the band’s original guitarist and sometime vocalist Mick Abrahams. The tunes had a rumbling vibrancy allied with some cocky lyrics, such as these lines from “My Sunday Feeling”: “Won’t somebody tell me where I laid my head last night?/I really don’t remember/But with one more cigarette I think I might.”

But Anderson and Abrahams were having “creative differences,” and this would be the first and last Tull album on which anyone other than Anderson would sing lead or write any of the songs. In fact, the liner notes for the album state, “This was how we were playing then — but things change — don’t they?” And indeed, when Tull played their first stateside gig, they had a new guitarist, Martin Barre. They also garnered what might be their first U.S. review, which appeared in the Voice’s Riffs section. Written by Jennifer Gale, it follows a paragraph about headliner Blood, Sweat & Tears, and reads in full:

JETHRO TULL, also at the Fillmore, does nice things for your head. I found myself sitting crosslegged in a dark little corner, really digging them — but I was told that you had to watch them, which I couldn’t because they did some very weird things on stage. Ian Anderson does that flute thing beautifully (also vocals), and drummer Clive Bunker is dynamite. When an audience listens to a drum solo for more than 3½ minutes and applauds wildly when it’s over, you know it’s got to be something else.

Did the band see this review? Hopefully, because after this lonely paragraph it was pretty rough sledding for them in the pages of the Voice. It’s worth noting that Gale singled out “some very weird things on stage.” I only wish she had elaborated, as anyone who’s seen Tull will remember how those elaborate costumes and vaudeville-level stage antics add compelling (and often funny) visual layers to their eclectic tunes.

I also checked to see if the record company was doing its job. Sure enough, I found an ad running a month later, to coincide with the U.S. release of This Was, filled with fulsome — if purposefully ironic — praise.

Voice music editor Robert Christgau was having none of it, though. In one of his always sublimely terse Consumer Guide columns, he summed up Tull’s first effort: “Ringleader Ian Anderson has come up with a unique concept that combines the worst of Roland Kirk, Arthur Brown, and your nearest G.O. blues band. I find his success very depressing. C-”

The next two albums, Stand Up and Benefit, both garner grudging B-minuses.

Next I turned to the April 22, 1971, issue, and Tull are on tour again, this time to promote Aqualung, their musings on Man’s creation of God selling well enough to hit No. 7 on the Billboard charts. As is obvious from the sold out banner, the lads from Blackpool were beginning to conquer America.

And Aqualung was a hit with the voters (if not the editor) of the first Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. Competition was tough — the Who, the Stones, Van Morrison, John Lennon, Sly and the Family Stone, Joplin, Bowie — but the bizarre longhairs with a lead flutist landed in the No. 22 spot, ahead of Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin.

Christgau may not agree, but that other Goliath of rock criticism, the Rolling Stone hive mind, eventually placed Aqualung at No. 337 on its list of the 500 best rock albums.

Early on during this spiral down the memory hole, I checked the Voice’s old-school, in-house card catalog, which, though spotty, was most thoroughly maintained from the late 1960s through the early ’90s. Hmmm…absolutely nothing for “Jethro Tull”? Really?

And no way it’d be under “Tull, Jethro,” right?

Well, I didn’t exactly hit pay dirt, but there was a single entry.

In the October 6, 1987, issue, critic Peter Watrous used Tull as an example of corporate rock at its most smarmy, in contrast to the stripped-down garage rockers Pussy Galore. He quotes a press release: “Chrysalis Records is pleased to be releasing on September 16th the new album from Jethro Tull, Crest of a Knave.” After Watrous rails against such outrages as “the Marshall Crenshaw/Wynton Marsalis axis of mood thieves,” he continues with the Tull promo copy: “Earlier this year, Chrysalis Records and Ian Anderson worked on a number of listening sessions to help determine what it is the Tull fan wants and expects in a Jethro Tull album.”

A bit further on, Watrous claims, “Pussy Galore is rock without the romantic idea of emotions, and it uncovers how sentimentality manipulates, even with the best intentions: emote here, eat now, everything in orderly fashion, control.” He then continues hanging Tull upon their own promotional petard: “Targeting 12 markets around the country where Jethro Tull has been most popular throughout the years, we enlisted the help of the local AOR station to recruit 50 or so listeners in each city to participate in these sessions.” The Chrysalis flacks go on to tell us that people of various ages and professions rated the songs so as to “help in choosing what tracks would be included on the final version.… Crest of a Knave is the result of this very successful project.”

Watrous obviously didn’t like focus groups, which in this case were edging into crowdsourcing. But it’s really not surprising that Ian Anderson, a world-girdling crowd-pleaser, proved a presciently savvy networker back when the internet wasn’t much more than a fantasy in such sci-fi novels as Neuromancer.

But the saga of Crest of a Knave doesn’t stop there. A little more than a year after it was released, Tull’s audience-tested album unexpectedly won the inaugural Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental, from judges who were obviously grappling with the parameters of the expanding genre. Since other nominees included AC/DC, Jane’s Addiction, and the heavily favored Metallica, no member of Jethro Tull was on hand to accept the prize. Perhaps, for a band that has always displayed an almost Monty Python–ish level of absurdity in its members’ stage personas, this out-of-left-field award is appropriate for its one and only gilded gramophone.

So how do Jethro Tull come across in 2018?

Well, at the Mann Center in Philadelphia on Saturday night they cranked out a kicking version of the flute-fest “Bourée,” Anderson’s update of a Bach composition, which appeared on the second Tull album, Stand Up. The single song that made up 1972’s conceptual send-up Thick as a Brick was played somewhat in reverse, eschewing the acoustic buildup and going straight to the time-changing marching song that threads through the album. Brisk and bouncy (and shortened to maybe one-tenth of its original 43-minute-plus length), it ended with sweet guitar strumming, the crowd singing along with the closing lines.

At one point Anderson commiserated with the audience about drum solos that go on “for hours [pause] days [pause] weeks,” and then the band dove into “Dharma for One,” which was on the first album and was co-written by then-drummer Clive Bunker — and so of course always includes a showcase for the man with the sticks. Just like at the Fillmore in 1969, the crowd half a century on went wild.

“Farm on the Freeway,” from that groupthink claptrap collection (and Grammy winner) Crest of a Knave, was a revelation, sizzling with melodic reverb. Like all the songs played that night, it was accompanied by quick-cutting graphics on a large screen behind the band — in this case, of tractors and freeways. Certainly the graphics are illustrational, but they’ve also been edited to match the rhythmic steeplechases of the music. And the “Farm” lyrics — “What do I want with a million dollars and a pickup truck?/When I left my farm under the freeway” — proved surprisingly emotional.

Anderson has been gamely playing “Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll: Too Young to Die!” since 1976. In Philly, four decades on, balding and potbellied, he sang before his younger, swaggering self, Hollywood-size behind him. There are those who complain that rockers growing old and still playing is a bad thing. Perhaps they are some of the same people who said, “Never trust anyone over thirty,” before they passed thirty themselves. Rockers, like athletes, lose many of their skills before they give up the ghost. Still, anyone who’s been to an old-timers’ day for their favorite baseball team knows that those living, breathing bodies add immeasurably to the moment.

If the knucklebones of saints in a reliquary mean something to one kind of believer, does seeing these performing embodiments of one’s youth — and also of one’s (hopefully) ongoing ideals — offer similar solace before the inevitable?

During the show, various rock luminaries, enlarged on the screen, introduced songs from the Tull catalog. Toward the evening’s conclusion, Slash loomed up to describe “Aqualung” as “one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest songs.” Indeed, in concert it remains an indomitable force, working on the viscera as much as the ears.

Tull will be playing the Beacon tomorrow night. You’ve probably heard tell that, over the years, Ian Anderson has lost the robust range of his youthful singing voice. Maybe those cigarettes he was singing about all the way back on “My Sunday Feeling” took their toll. But if you ask me what I ultimately thought of his performance on Saturday night, wailing away on his flute and harmonica and croaking those familiar songs, I might have to quote Hunter Thompson. Writing about his bias in favor of George McGovern, who was running against Nixon in 1972, the same year Thick as a Brick was released, Thompson said, “So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine.” So, what can I say — it was a great show.


This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 10, 2019