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Jethro Tull Buyers Guide

Developing their sound around blues, folk and prog rock to offer up classic albums such as Thick As A Brick and Aqualung, Jethro Tull's unique style has remained an inspiration since their debut This Was in 1968.

The following list attempts to guide you through the significant Jethro Tull releases, compiled and written by rock journo Hugh Fielder.

Essential Albums

Aqualung (1971)

The pivotal album in Jethro Tull’s career, Aqualung took them beyond the blues-based following they had built up into the burgeoning rock mainstream. It never got to Number One, unlike previous albums in Britain and subsequent albums in America but Aqualung is the band’s biggest selling album, having sold consistently better over the years. More significantly, it’s the album (that for most people) best defines the eccentric charms of Jethro Tull, from the opening heavy metal riff of the title track to the final reflective notes of ‘Wind-Up’. Anderson has always denied that Aqualung is a concept album. Nonetheless there are three or four songs – ‘My God’, ‘Hymn 43’, ‘Wind Up’ - that are linked thematically, making a potent attack on organised religion and the hypocritical manipulation of those who believe in God. With Tommy establishing The Who as superstars in America at the time, critics were quick to play up the concept angle but Anderson is right; the other tracks are markedly different. ‘Mother Goose’ is concerned with people and landscapes. ‘Cheap Day Return’ and ‘Wond'ring Aloud’ are rare examples of Anderson getting personal and the classic rock anthem, ‘Locomotive Breath’, has been a mainstay of Tull’s live set ever since.

TRACKLIST:
Aqualung / Cross-Eyed Mary / Cheap Day Return / Mother Goose / Wond'ring Aloud / Up to Me / My God / Hymn 43 / Slipstream / Locomotive Breath / Wind Up 

Stand Up (1969)

Considered by many to be the first "real” Tull album, Stand Up branches out from the blues roots of their This Was debut and is an exhibition of Ian Anderson’s unabashed confidence - both as a songwriter and a flautist. Having said that, the opening ‘A New Day Yesterday’ is strongly blues influenced but the combined flute/guitar riff, along with the rolling drum pattern, turns it into something more dynamic. Yet after that Anderson pitches nine varied songs, alternately acoustic and electric, ranging from the wistful ‘Reason For Waiting’ and ‘Look Into The Sun’ via the quirky, Indian flavoured ‘Fat Man’ to the aggressive ‘For A Thousand Mothers’. Each one is carefully arranged to bring out the band’s varied credentials. The most arresting track is a jazzy, syncopated arrangement of J S Bach’s ‘Bouree’, a stunning piece of classical rock fusion with a distinctive walking bass line, that’s lifted straight from the original. It’s all the more effective for being understated apart from a couple of irresistible flute flourishes. The other outstanding track is the sprightly, jazz-infected ‘Nothing Is Easy’ with flute and guitar dancing around each other and a wild, accelerating drum pattern at the end. Stand Up was and is the basis of Jethro Tull’s essential style.

TRACKLIST:
A New Day Yesterday / Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square / Bourée / Back to the Family / Look Into the Sun / Nothing Is Easy / Fat Man / We Used to Know / Reasons for Waiting / For a Thousand Mothers

Songs From The Wood (1977)

Songs From The Wood signaled Jethro Tull’s switch from prog rock to folk rock – a deeply unfashionable move in 1977. However its real strength lies in the way that Anderson and Tull approached folk without preconceptions. The result is an album that takes the strengths of folk-rock, with the intricacies of prog-rock and adds a dollop of renaissance-rock. Whatever you want to call it stylistically, it’s still unequivocally a Jethro Tull album – a genuine expression of their spirit. Anderson’s delicious multi-tracked acapella harmonies at the beginning of the title track set the tone: light, vivacious and cleverly textured. The emphasis is on the songs with the arrangements tightly focused to that end. Guitarist Martin Barre is relatively restrained apart from one trademark heavy riff on ‘Hunting Girl’, and despite the presence of two keyboard players their contributions are subtle and unobtrusive. Anderson even takes on the traditional folk role of narrator on ‘Jack-In-The-Green’ (and plays all the instruments) and ‘The Whistler’ which is not surprisingly laden with flutes. The whiff of folk also brings out Anderson’s libido, along with a batch of double entendres on ‘Velvet Green’. Even the yuletide flow of ‘Ring Out Solstice Bells’ fits easily onto the album..

TRACKLIST:
Songs From the Wood / Jack-in-the-Green / Cup of Wonder / Hunting Girl / Ring Out, Solstice Bells / Velvet Green / The Whistler / Pibroch (Cap in Hand) / Fire at Midnight

Minstrel In The Gallery (1975)

After the conceptual complexities of Thick As A Brick, A Passion Play and War Child, Tull get back to basics. Minstrel In The Gallery is predominantly acoustic although the contrasting hard rock outbursts are as tough as they come. While the concepts may have gone, the themes remain. ‘Baker Street Muse’ is a 17-minute collage of songs, while the title track is a drawn-out discourse on Anderson’s life as a wondering minstrel looking down from the stage at the audience who are looking up. Without the labyrinthine lyrics to contend with both pieces remain engrossing, driven along by restless tempo shifts, folky melodies and renaissance riffs. Anderson is also leaning more on melodies than riffs, particularly on the evocative ‘Cold Wind To Valhalla’ with its eloquent string arrangements, slide guitar and tabla rhythms and the sweet ‘Requiem’, which consists of just his voice and acoustic guitar. Lyrically it’s saved from being pretentious by Anderson’s ability to see his own absurdities and smile at them. Musically it benefits from having a stable line-up that is at ease with all the different shapes Anderson can throw at them. Minstrel In The Gallery may be Tull’s ninth album but it’s as good a place to start as any.

TRACKLIST:
Minstrel in the Gallery / Cold Wind to Valhalla / Black Satin Dancer / Requiem / One White Duck/0=Nothing at All / Baker St. Muse / Grace

Expand Your Collection

 

Thick As A Brick (1972)

Piqued by the critics who (wrongly) branded Aqualung a concept album, Anderson decided to give them what they wanted. Thick As A Brick is a full-on concept album: a one-track 43-minute opus based around a rambling poem by a precocious (and fortunately imaginary) 8-year-old boy. The original album even came wrapped in a 14-page newspaper complete with a (favourable) review of the album. Maybe Anderson intended it as a spoof but the execution of the album is too clever and original to be that easily dismissed. The lyrical twists and turns are echoed in a series of linked musical movements, with repeated and developing motifs, giving the album a symphonic character. But while the music is relatively straightforward, the attention to detail on the arrangements and tempos creates a fascinating aural tapestry. It certainly enlivens the serious tone of the poem that rails against the establishment’s suffocating impact on idealism and creativity.

TRACKLISTING:
Thick As A Brick

Heavy Horses (1978)

Heavy Horses - the follow-up to Songs From The Wood - delves further into the forest where there’s less light, more shade and the occasional smell of decay on the ground. There’s also a resilience to the album with its underlying theme of weathering changes. Anderson’s acoustic guitar and mandolin are a common thread throughout, notably on the exquisitely layered ‘Acres Wild’, a simple ballad that dovetails his mandolin with guest fiddle player Darryl Way, the gorgeous bittersweet ‘Moths’ and the warm ‘One Brown Mouse’. The songs are concise, with only a couple stretching over the five-minute mark but the intricate, detailed playing, spreading outwards from the rhythm section, means that there’s never a dull moment. The title track, which unusually for a Tull album comes towards the end, is a poetic ode to the sturdy horses that powered traditional British farming, even as the machinery that will replace them appears on the horizon.

TRACKLIST:
And the Mouse Police Never Sleeps / Acres Wild / No Lullaby / Moths / Journeyman / Rover / One Brown Mouse / Heavy Horses / Weathercock 

Benefit (1970)

Setting aside the last remnants of the blues that had sustained Jethro Tull through their first two albums, Benefit heralds the stylistic change towards the blend of electric rock, acoustic folk and medieval music that would become their trademark. It’s most evident on ‘To Cry You A Song’ and ‘Inside’, where the band explore the expanded territory they’ve opened up – purposeful guitar riffs and solos on the former, jaunty rhythms and melodic flute on the latter. Both of them benefit from Anderson’s growing lyrical cynicism. The opening ‘With You There To Help Me’ puts the flute through its paces – and though an Echoplex among other devices but it’s the flute-less ‘Nothing To Say’ which develops the style that would characterise their next album, Aqualung. ‘Teacher’ and ‘The Witch’s Promise’, two vibrant hit singles that were left off the UK tracklisting but were included on the US version, have now been added to the remastered album.

TRACKLIST:
With You There to Help Me / Nothing to Say / Inside / Son / For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me / To Cry You a Song / A Time for Everything? / Teacher / Play in Time / Sossity; You're a Woman 

For The Die Hard Fan

A Passion Play (1973)

Pieced together from various abortive sessions, Passion Play was not intended to be a concept album but events conspired to turn it into a 45-minute diatribe on heaven, hell and purgatory, interrupted only by the implausible, Monty Python-esque tale of ‘The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles’. One of the densest Jethro Tull albums, A Passion Play revels in the components that make up the band’s style – the different tempos and complex arrangements – which are largely unobstructed by melodies or instrumental solos. Avid fans will delight in hearing the band’s inner musical machinations but casual listeners might find the sophisticated musical landscape rather arid. The serious and open-ended subject matter doesn’t help either as there’s little room for levity or humour – apart from the aforementioned hare. A Passion Play was a huge commercial success – thanks largely to its predecessor, Thick As A Brick – but it alienated the critics and is not for the faint hearted.

TRACKLIST:

Life Beats / Prelude / The Silver Cord / Re-Assuring Tune / Memory Bank / Best Friends / Critique Oblique / Forest Dance, No. 1 / The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles / Forest Dance, No. 2 / The Foot of Our Stairs / Overseer Overture / Flight from Lucifer / 10.08 to Paddington / Magus Perdé / Epilogue 

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