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Jethro Tull: The Flute Is A Heavy Instrument



"Some people remember us for being a progressive rock band,” says Ian Anderson. "Other people remember us for being a hard rock band, and others for being a folk rock band. Some people remember us for flirtations with classical music. There’s even some people who remember us being a little old blues band at the Marquee Club.”During their 40-year career Jethro Tull have been known for all these things and more. 

In 1989 they won the first Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, beating hot favourites Metallica. They didn’t even show up at the ceremony because they’d been told they had no chance of winning. Afterwards their record company took out a full-page advertisement in a British music magazine – a picture of a flute lying amid a pile of iron bars with a headline that said, "The flute is a heavy metal instrument”.

The iconic image of Jethro Tull has always been a wild-eyed, wild-haired gentleman standing elegantly on one leg playing the flute. It’s an incongruous image in terms of heavy metal. Tull can rock hard but they are unlikely to top the bill at the Headbangers’ Ball. Commercially however, Jethro Tull’s reputation rests on a trio of albums released between 1972 and 1974 during their progressive phase. Thick As A Brick and A Passion Play both topped the American charts while War Child hovered at Number 2 for three weeks. But for Ian Anderson – these days no longer wild-eyed or wild-haired but still pretty lithe when it comes to playing the flute – that was just a transitory stage in the band’s history. "Everyone has their own take on Jethro Tull according to which element in the catalogue they particularly enjoy.” "Consequently when we play a concert there’s never that feeling of 100% satisfaction in the audience. People will go away saying, "Well, I quite enjoyed it. I liked this and I liked that but I didn’t like it when they did that’. And somebody else will go, ‘But that’s the bit I really liked the most’.”

Anderson is exaggerating somewhat. Jethro Tull’s cult following, who ensure that the band remain a major live attraction, rarely leave a show disappointed. The band’s music may have many different influences coming to the fore at various times but there is a core Tull style that runs through it all: the songs of Ian Anderson and the playing of the flute-led rock band. It is no exaggeration to say that Ian Anderson is Jethro Tull. He has run the band from almost the beginning, directing the numerous twists and turns they have taken musically. He has the reputation of being a strong disciplinarian and there have been more than two dozen members of Jethro Tull over the years. But he is also an astute business man, not just in the fickle world of music, where he has successfully maintained the Jethro Tull brand across four decades but in other ventures such as his salmon farm in Scotland. Yet it would be an exaggeration to say that Jethro Tull are a one-man band. It’s hard to over-estimate the importance of guitarist Martin Barre, who has been on every Jethro Tull album apart from their first. Asked if there could be a Jethro Tull without Barre, Anderson replies, "I’ve always said that, no, there couldn’t. It would be like Robert Plant going out with a band that didn’t include Jimmy Page and calling it Led Zeppelin,” high praise indeed for someone who has never received a songwriting credit on a Jethro Tull album. But Barre’s guitar playing has been a crucial part of Tull’s sound, no matter what stylistic phase they happen to be going through at the time. Some of his riffs – like the six notes that kick-start ‘Aqualung’ – have become classics of guitar rock. 

Anderson himself identifies three main phases in Jethro Tull’s long career: "There’s a short-lived, incandescent club version of Jethro Tull. Then there’s the progressive and somewhat overblown (but at its best quite fun) Jethro Tull. Then there’s the latter day band that has this strange duty of somehow trying to acknowledge all the other line-ups, musical arrangements and styles that have been part of Jethro Tull.” 

The first version of Tull emerged out of the John Evan Smash, the band that Anderson came down to London with from Blackpool in 1967. Anderson had been born in Dunfirmeline, Scotland in 1947 but his parents had moved south to Blackpool in 1959. That meant he was nearer to the Merseybeat boom that ignited the British pop explosion in 1963. He joined the John Evan Band in 1966 as a singer and rhythm guitarist. Over the next year or so the band members included pianist John Evans, bassists Jeffrey Hammond and Glen Cornick and drummer Barrie Barlow. All of them would subsequently become members of Jethro Tull, although only Cornick would be in the first line-up. Their brand of American blues and R&B brought them enough gigs to turn full-time but the move to London in November 1967 left them gigless, starving and freezing. The rest of the band gradually retreated back to Blackpool but Anderson and Cornick were more determined and their ambitious manager/booking agents Chris Wright and Terry Ellis, who would soon form Chrysalis Records, hooked them up with hot-shot guitarist Mick Abrahams and drummer Clive Bunker from Luton band McGregor’s Engine. 

It was at this point that Anderson traded in his guitar for a flute. He claims he was inspired by Eric Clapton – really. "I remember listening to the Bluesbreakers album, trying to get the record player to go at half speed just so I could work out what Clapton was playing. That put me off playing the guitar. I’d reached a dead-end in terms of improvisation and sound. The only obvious alternative, the saxophone, didn’t really appeal to me either. So I bought a flute. But I couldn’t get a note out of it. It was a real embarrassment. I put it away and got a penny whistle and played around with that. I was making funny vocalising noises and when I went back to the flute I used the same technique.” That technique is one of the distinguishing features of the first Jethro Tull album, This Was, recorded by the "incandescent club version” of the band. They were playing a jazzier kind of R&B and had picked up a weekly spot at London’s Marquee Club, although no-one noticed because they played under a different name every week until someone at their agency gave them the name Jethro Tull. Anderson says he was not aware of the 18th Century inventor of the seed drill that played a significant part in the British agricultural revolution. Neither it seems was the producer of their first single in 1967, released by MGM under the name Jethro Toe. ‘Sunshine Day’ sank without trace but Messrs Wright and Ellis kept faith with the band and after rave reviews for their performance at the Sunbury Jazz & Blues Festival in the summer of 1968, they got a deal with Island Records who released This Was in October.

The album briefly grazed the Top Ten but as it did the first phase of Jethro Tull ended abruptly. Abrahams decided the music was too jazzy for his taste and left to form Blodwyn Pig. His replacement was the shy and introverted Martin Barre, but not before a certain Tony Iommi had joined the band for one show – a spot on the legendary Rolling Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus movie in December 1968 (that would have been a great promotional opportunity if the film hadn’t gathered dust in the vaults for the next 25 years) but Tull were not yet ready to embrace heavy metal. "Tony came down to the studio and played with us but it was obvious that his expertise lay in a different direction to the new batch of songs we were working on,” recalls Anderson. While band members had co-written several songs on the first album, from now on Anderson would compose the songs. Anderson freely admits that set him apart from the rest of the band. "I think if you’re a songwriter it’s difficult to collaborate with other people. You need a bit of segregation to be able to work that spell. I’ve always been a loner in the sense of making music privately and then having the big job of trying to make that work with your fellow musicians, as part of a team.”

Barre knew immediately how to make Anderson’s songs work and the band’s second album, Stand Up, was a triumph, topping the British charts and containing many of the elements that have remained at the core of Jethro Tull’s music ever since. But even before Stand Up came out in September 1969, the band had toured America twice, supporting Led Zeppelin (a steep learning curve according to Anderson) and playing several of the huge summer festivals that year (though not Woodstock which they perhaps unwisely passed on). The groundwork was being laid for their success although the band line-up had several more changes to go. Pianist John Evans (Anderson’s old Blackpool band leader) was recruited for the Benefit album in 1970. Glen Cornick, the most enthusiastic rock and roll lifestyle convert in the band, found himself edged out and replaced by the other Blackpool bassist Jeffrey Hammond and when Clive Bunker quit after recording Aqualung in 1971, it was perhaps inevitable that the new drummer should be Barrie (rechristened Barriemore by Anderson) Barlow. This meant that all the original members apart from Anderson had gone and apart from Barre all the newcomers were his former Blackpool bandmates. All of them were fully aware that they had joined Anderson’s band that was now on the verge of major success. "I think we all knew instinctively that Aqualung was going to be an important album,” Anderson remembers. "It would either be the next step up or it would be the beginning of a decline. I was sure that things were not just going to stay the same.”

Aqualung was Jethro Tull’s breakthrough album in America. Erroneously labelled a "concept” album – The Who’s Tommy had come out a couple of years earlier and concept albums were all the rage – there was nevertheless a thematic link between several of the songs, attacking organised religion. But more important, Aqualung caught the essence and range of Tull’s style better than any other album, from hard, biting rock to soft, reflective ballads. "It’s an album of interesting rock songs that are not like everybody else’s rock songs, a good balance of some slightly furrowed-brow, self-absorbed songs about big topics, combined with some more personalised and humorous surreal scenarios,” is how Anderson describes it. Most people assume the dishevelled figure in the cover painting is Anderson himself as the Aqualung character, something that still rankles with him. "I am not this character Aqualung and it was a dangerous way to go,” he says, adding that he was duped into it under the pressure of deadlines. The similarities were deliberate even though he deliberately told the painter and manager not to do it. Fortunately most people didn’t see the danger, they just saw an extension of Anderson’s manic stage persona.

1972’s Thick As A Brick was a full-blown concept album, Anderson’s riposte to the critics who had misread Aqualung. 1973’s A Passion Play was a dense album that was the essence of Tull without much melodic or instrumental flavouring. 1974’s War Child was a return to shorter songs but while the standard of playing continued to rise the standard of songs had reached a temporary hiatus. Each album was accompanied by lengthy arena tours of America, featuring a big production utilizing the latest technology. Tull’s music wasn’t easy pop music. There were no hit singles from the albums, although they got plenty of airplay on the rock radio stations but Anderson was acutely aware that presentation was crucial when it came to putting the music across. "We styled ourselves around the shows and the need not to look like everyone else. The rest of the band had some pretty oddball costumes and stage personae that suited the larger than life presentation. We’d discovered the joys of travelling with your own stage, sound and lights and a whole level of production that had never been exploited. The trouble was that the production started getting too showbizzy. By around 1974 I was starting to feel awkward about the show becoming too theatrical and too cumbersome. It was more like being in a West End show rather than a bunch of travelling musicians.”

Minstrel In The Gallery in 1975 reverted to Aqualung’s blend of hard rock and soft ballads and the title track packed both into the same song while adding an Elizabethan style into the mix. It was another great showcase number for the band and while the album was commercially less successful (peaking at Number 7 in America), its charms have endured longer than the three previous monster albums. In Britain the band had peaked in popularity with Thick As A Brick and as the band increasingly focussed their efforts on America, subsequent albums went Top Twenty rather than Top Ten. However, the sizeable following they built up in America and Europe during this period provided a core fan base that has sustained the band ever since, much like Yes and other progressive rock bands of the era. With punk lurking on the horizon, sneering at the bloated excesses of progressive rock, Anderson defiantly faced his future on the next Jethro Tull album, Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll, Too Young To Die, in 1976. The album was loosely themed around the trials and tribulations of an ageing rock star. With the fictional Ray Lomas looking uncannily like Anderson on the cover, it was again assumed that the album was autobiographical, although there was little sign that the music was becoming senile. Rather the opposite in fact but the band, which had been stable for the past five years, was starting to show signs of wear and tear. Jeffrey Hammond was first to bale out, replaced by John Glasock from London and Anderson also added David Palmer (a composer/arranger he’d worked with since Aqualung) as a second keyboard player. 

Along with the personnel changes came a musical switch towards folk rock with the Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses albums. The move provoked more derision from the now-rampant punk movement but nothing Tull could have done at this time could have been deemed fashionable. Not that Anderson was bothered. "We were thankfully no longer in that fashion moment. It was like being released from something that was really quite frightening – that point when you are attracting audiences just because of the buzz around you, which was nerve-wracking for a band like us.” In fact the stylistic change did not alter the essence of Jethro Tull. They still rocked hard, they still played with delicate precision. It was more a change of emphasis that allowed them to bring in more Elizabethan and Renaissance influences and added another dimension to Anderson’s songwriting. More significant were the changes after the Stormwatch album in 1979 when Anderson dispensed with the entire band apart from Barre. Ostensibly this was because he’d decided to record a solo album but in the event the record company persuaded him to make it a new Jethro Tull album. 

This was the beginning of the third phase of Jethro Tull which for the next two decades consisted of a core trio of Anderson, Barre and bass player Dave Pegg who arrived from folk-rock legends Fairport Convention (and claims that Tull "were a much better folk band than Fairport ever were”) plus a succession of keyboard players and drummers but it has changed the dynamic of the band. Ousted drummer Barrie Barlow explains: "Ian has to audition people now and there are certain criteria that they have to meet. But back then that never entered into it because we were friends. So the artistic side was more important, and sometimes it was a bit off the wall.” Anderson sees it a different way: "It’s just that Martin (Barre) and I happen to have outlived other people who went on to do different things. I have emerged as more of a central figure which is partly to do with the job that I do and the way that my personality has developed.” Since 1980 the reformatted structure of Jethro Tull has enabled the band to make numerous musical diversions, although Anderson’s songs and flute and Barre’s guitar have provided an indelible continuity. Anderson’s solo album that became a Jethro Tull album, A, was a lean, stripped down techno-tinged affair with none of the hard rock/soft rock contrasts, featuring former Roxy Music violinist and keyboard player Eddie Jobson. The Broadsword And The Beast (1982) was a smoother album that introduced Peter Vitesse on synthesisers. The trend towards technology was even more obvious on Under Wraps (1984) where drum machines were preferred to a drummer.

There was a temporary halt in the mid-80s when Anderson developed problems with his voice but Crest Of A Knave (1987) was a return to traditional Jethro Tull values and heavy enough to win them the aforementioned Grammy as well as restoring their chart credibility. Anderson was so excited that for Rock Island (1989) he wrote a song called ‘Kissing Willie’ that exploited the double entendre of the title to the hilt and put Tull back on the radio airwaves. Catfish Rising brought Tull into the 90s with gusto, playing with a determination and enthusiasm they hadn’t shown since the 70s. A Little Light Music (1992) was, as the title suggests, an Unplugged-style live album of old favourites recorded on tour in Europe. Then in 1993 they celebrated their 25th anniversary with a 4CD box set that featured remixed versions of their greatest hits, re-recordings of their greatest hits (titled The Beacon’s Bottom Tapes), a 1970 concert from New York’s Carnegie Hall and live material from across their career. Tull returned to making new albums in 1995 with Roots To Branches which showed some Indian influences following a tour there and lyrically returned to Anderson’s pet hate, organised religion. There was a residual Indian feel on some of J-Tull Dot Com (2000), where the title also served as an advertisement for the band’s website. Living With The Past (2002) was a live concert that featured guest appearances from original Tull members Mick Abrahams, Glen Cornick and Clive Bunker that delighted long-time fans of the group. Those fans also enjoyed The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (2003) that used the yuletide excuse to recapture the best of Tull’s style. And to complete the circle, in 2005 Jethro Tull released Aqualung Live, a concert performance of their best album.

If Anderson has to face the fact that most Jethro Tull fans prefer listening to their classic material rather than their latest material, he at least does so with equanimity. "It’s obvious to any band that’s been around for 10 years, let along 40, that it’s hard to get an audience to accept your new music, as the Rolling Stones have found out several times and never more so than recently. There’s a general apathy about new music from old bands. We do get the benefit of the doubt from our audience who expect something a bit different, so to be able to make an impact with a new piece is very pleasing for me, especially if it hasn’t been released on record yet. And it still happens I’m glad to say.”

Hugh Fielder
© 2007

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