Jethro Tull is a progressive rock band that was formed in Blackpool, England in the 1960s. Their music is marked by the quirky vocal style and unique lead flute work of frontman Ian Anderson, and by unusual and often complex song construction. Their music has incorporated elements of classical and celtic folk music, as well as the art rock and alternative rock phases of rock music. Despite this, it is difficult to point to specific artists who have directly influenced or been influenced by Jethro Tull. More than most other rock bands, their music stands apart from the rest of rock music. In interviews, Ian Anderson has attributed this "differentness" to the fact that Tull never used drugs. In addition, while other music groups did influence them, they stuck with their own style of progressive rock tinged with classic forms of music.
The early days
Ian Anderson's first band, started in 1963 in Blackpool, was known as The Blades. It developed by 1966 into a seven-piece white soul band called the John Evan Band (later the John Evan Smash), named for pianist/drummer John Evans, who dropped the final "s" from his name to make it sound less ordinary. After moving to London, most of the band quit, leaving Anderson and bassist Glenn Cornick to join forces with blues guitarist Mick Abrahams and his friend, drummer Clive Bunker. At first, they had trouble getting repeat bookings, and took to changing their name frequently to continue playing the London club circuit. Band names were often supplied by the staff of their booking agents, one of whom, a history buff, eventually christened them Jethro Tull after the 18th century agriculturist who invented the seed drill. This name stuck simply by virtue of the fact that they were using it the first time a club manager liked their show enough to invite them to return.
After an unsuccessful single (an Abrahams-penned pop tune called "Sunshine Day" on which the band's name was misspelled "Jethro Toe", making it a collector's item), they released the bluesy album This Was in 1968. Accompanying music written by Anderson and Abrahams was the traditional arrangement "Cat's Squirrel", which high-lighted Abraham's blues-rock style. The Rahsaan Roland Kirk-penned jazz piece "Serenade to a Cuckoo" gave Anderson a showcase for his growing talents as a flute player.
Following this album, Abrahams left (forming his own band, Blodwyn Pig). There were a number of reasons for his departure; he was a blues purist, while Anderson wanted to branch out into other forms of music; Abrahams and Cornick did not get along; and Abrahams was unwilling to travel internationally or play more than three nights a week, while the others wanted to be successful by playing as often as possible and building an international fan base. The English music press reported that Abrahams' replacement would be guitarist David O'List of The Nice, but Anderson instead chose Tony Iommi (later of Black Sabbath). Iommi, however, felt uncomfortable in the band and decided to leave after only a few weeks, though he agreed to stay on through Tull's scheduled appearance on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. He was replaced by former Motivation, Penny Peeps and Gethsemane member Martin Barre, who impressed Anderson with his persistence more than anything else: he was so nervous at his first audition that he could hardly play at all, and then showed up for a second audition without a cord to connect his guitar to an amplifier. Despite this, Barre would become the second longest-standing member of the band after Anderson; he is still with the band as of 2005, and Anderson has been quoted as saying that Jethro Tull could not exist without him.
This new line-up released Stand Up in 1969. Written entirely by Anderson—with the exception of the jazzy rearrangement of J. S. Bach's Bourrée—it largely abandoned the blues in favour of the up-and-coming style of progressive rock being developed at the time by groups such as King Crimson, The Nice and Yes. Stand Up feels not entirely unlike a jazz-tinged early Led Zeppelin album, with a heavy and slightly dark sound. In 1970 they added keyboardist John Evan (although technically he was only a guest musician at this stage) and released the album Benefit.
Bassist Cornick left following Benefit, replaced by Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, who was a childhood friend of Ian, and whose name appeared in the songs "A Song for Jeffrey," "Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square," and "For Michael Collins, Jeffrey, and Me."
This line-up released Tull's best-known work, Aqualung in 1971. The album is a combination of heavy rock music focusing on themes such as social outcasts and organized religion, and some lighter acoustic fare about the mundanity of everyday life. Aqualung is adored and reviled in equal amounts, although the title track and "Locomotive Breath" feature on most classic rock stations.
Anderson's writing voiced strong opinions about religion and society. The title character of "Aqualung" is a homeless alcoholic pedophile, and the focus of the song "Cross-eyed Mary" is an underage prostitute. "My God" is a full-frontal assault on ecclesiastic excesses: People what have you done / locked Him in His golden cage. / Made Him bend to your religion / Him resurrected from the grave. / He is the god of nothing / if that's all that you can see. In contrast the gentle acoustic Wond'ring Aloud is a love song.
Drummer Bunker was replaced by Barriemore Barlow in early 1971; he first recorded with the band for the EP "Life Is a Long Song", and made his first appearance on a Jethro Tull album with 1972's Thick as a Brick. This was a concept album consisting of a single very long track split over the two sides of the LP, with a number of movements melded together and some repeating themes. The first movement with its distinctive acoustic guitar riff got some airplay on rock stations at the time, and occasionally turns up in modern classic-rock programming as a "deep" or "rare" cut. Thick as a Brick was the first Jethro Tull album to reach #1 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart (the following year's A Passion Play being the only other). This album's quintet—Anderson, Barre, Evan, Hammond-Hammond and Barlow—was one of Tull's longest-standing line-ups, enduring until 1975.
1972 also saw the release of Living in the Past, a double-album compilation of singles, B-sides and outtakes (including the entirety of the "Life Is a Long Song" EP, which closes the album), with a single side recorded live in 1970 at New York's Carnegie Hall. The live tracks excepted, it is regarded by many Tull fans as their best overall release. The title track (in 5/4 time) is one of their more enduring singles, though reportedly Anderson wrote it with the specific intent of preventing its ascent to the pop charts.
In 1973, the band attempted to record a double album in tax exile at Chateau d'Herouville (something The Rolling Stones and Elton John among others were doing at the time), but supposedly they were unhappy with the quality of the recording studio and abandoned the effort, subsequently mocking the studio as the "Chateau d'Isaster" (these tracks were later released on the 1993 compilation Nightcap). Instead they quickly recorded and released A Passion Play, another single-track concept album with very allegorical lyrics. After several years of increasing popularity, A Passion Play sold relatively well but received generally poor reviews. Up until this point, Ian Anderson had a friendly relationship with the rock press, but this album marked a turning point for the band. They had passed the peak of their popularity with the critics, and a decline in popularity with the public followed. However, 1974's War Child, an album originally intended to be a companion piece for a film, received some critical acclaim, and produced the radio mainstay "Bungle in the Jungle". It also included a song, "Only Solitaire", allegedly aimed at L.A. Times rock music critic Robert Hilburn, who was one of Anderson's harsher critics.
In 1975 the band released Minstrel in the Gallery, an album which resembled Aqualung in that it contrasted softer, acoustic guitar-based pieces with lengthier, more bombastic works headlined by Barre's electric guitar. Critics gave it mixed reviews, but the album ultimately came to be acknowledged as one of the band's most-beloved albums by longtime Tull fans, even as it generally fell under the radar to listeners familiar only with Aqualung. Following this album, bassist Hammond-Hammond left the band, replaced by John Glascock.
1976's Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die! was another concept album, this time about the life of an aging rocker. Anderson, stung by critical reviews (particularly of A Passion Play), responded with more sharply-barbed lyrics. The press seemed oblivious to the ploy, and instead asked if the title track was autobiographical—a charge Anderson hotly denied.
The band closed the decade with a trio of folk rock albums, Songs from the Wood, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch. Songs from the Wood was the first Tull album to receive unambiguously positive reviews since the time of Benefit and Living in the Past.
The band had long had ties to the folk-rockers Steeleye Span. Although not formally considered a part of the folk-rock movement (which had actually begun nearly a decade earlier with the advent of Fairport Convention), there was clearly a lot of exchanging of musical ideas between Tull and the folk-rockers. Also, at this time Anderson had moved to a farm in the countryside, and his new bucolic lifestyle is clearly reflected in these albums. In particular, the title track of Heavy Horses is a pean to the great draft horses of the Shire, Percheron, and Clydesdale breeds.
The band continued to tour, and released a live double album in 1978. Entitled Bursting Out it featured dynamic live performances of the lineup that many Tull fans consider the golden era of the band. It also features Anderson's often-ribald stage banter with the audience and band members. ("David's gone for a pee. Ah, he's back. Did you give it a good shake?") The vinyl LP contains three tracks not found on initial CD editions, Martin Barre's guitar solo tracks "Quatrain" and "Conundrum" and a version of the 1969 UK single hit, "Sweet Dream." These tracks were restored in a re-mastered double-CD edition released in 2004.
During this time, David Palmer, who had orchestrated some strings for earlier Tull albums, formally joined the band, mainly on keyboards. Bassist Glascock died in 1979 following heart surgery, and Stormwatch was completed without him (Anderson contributed bass on a few tracks). Anderson decided to record his first solo album.
Due to pressure from Chrysalis Records, Anderson released his solo album as a Jethro Tull album in 1980. Entitled A, it featured Barre on electric guitar, Dave Pegg of Fairport Convention on bass, and Mark Craney on drums. But the album had a heavy electronic feel, contributed by guest keyboardist Eddie Jobson. It had a sound and feel completely unlike anything Tull had exhibited before.
Jobson and Craney departed following the A tour and Tull entered a period of revolving drummers (primarily Gerry Conway and Doane Perry). Peter-John Vettese replaced Jobson on keyboards, and the band returned to a folkier sound—albeit with synthesizers—for 1982's The Broadsword and the Beast. 1981 marked the first year in their album career that the band did not release an album.
In 1984 Tull released Under Wraps, a heavily electronic album. Although the band was reportedly proud of the sound the album was not well-received, particularly in North America, and as a result of the throat problems Anderson developed singing the demanding Under Wraps material on tour, Tull went on a three-year hiatus during which Anderson began a highly successful salmon-farming business.
Tull returned stronger than anyone might have expected with 1987's Crest of a Knave. Vettese absent (Anderson contributed the synth programming) and relying more heavily on Barre's electric guitar than the band had since the early 1970s, the album was a critical and commercial success. They went on to win a 1989 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, beating odds-on favorites Metallica. The award was particularly controversial as many did not consider Jethro Tull hard rock, much less heavy metal. The fact that it was the first time a Grammy geared towards metal was presented it was seen as a particularly hard blow and insult for heavy metal fans (after this, and perhaps because of this, separate Grammys were awarded for hard rock and heavy metal in the following years). In response to the criticism they received over the award, the band then reportedly took out an advert in a British music periodical with the line, "The flute is a heavy metal instrument!".
The style of Crest has been compared to that of Dire Straits, in part because Anderson seemed to no longer have the vocal range he once possessed. Tull's frank treatment of sexuality was unabated, however. The album contains the popular live song "Budapest", which depicts a backstage scene with a shy local female stagehand. The staging on the 1989 tour (supporting Rock Island) featured projected silhouettes of lithe dancers during the song "Kissing Willie", ending with an image that bordered on pornographic. Another song from Rock Island called "Big Riff and Mando" reflects life on the road for the relentlessly touring musicians, giving a wry account of the theft of Barre's prized mandolin by a stage-struck fan.
1988 was notable for the release of 20 Years of Jethro Tull, a 5-LP themed set (also released as an unthemed 3-CD set and as a truncated single CD version) consisting largely of outtakes from throughout the band's history as well as a variety of live and digitally remastered tracks. It also included a booklet outlining the band's history in detail.
After Rock Island, the band released Catfish Rising, Roots to Branches and J-Tull Dot Com that are less heavy-rock-based than Crest of a Knave was. These albums incorporate more folk and world-music influences, reflecting the musical influences of decades of performing all around the globe. In songs such as "Out of the Noise" and "Hot Mango Flush", Anderson paints vivid pictures of 3rd-world street scenes. These albums have reflected Anderson's coming to grips with being an old rocker, with songs such as the pensive "Another Harry's Bar", "Wicked Windows" (a meditation on reading glasses) and the gruff "Wounded, Old, and Treacherous".
1992's A Little Light Music was a mostly-acoustic live album which was well received by fans due to its different takes on many past compositions.
Jethro Tull's 4th decade
The band has endured into the 21st century and has continued to release new albums on a semi-regular basis into the early 2000s. Recently, Anderson's voice seems to have regained some of its previous range. 2003 saw the release of The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, which showcases the excellent musical abilities of all the band members with a collection of traditional Christmas songs together with old and new Christmas songs written by Jethro Tull.
As of April 2005, according to the official Tull website, Anderson says the band has no plans to record any new studio albums in the near future and that he would prefer to dedicate his time to touring with both Tull and his solo band. He would also like to make more guest appearances with other musicians, live and in the studio. There is planned to be a live orchestral album to be released in 2005. This is supposed to be followed by a tour of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.