Jethro Tull: Back to Basics (Sort Of)

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Jethro Tull, again?

It’s Steven Wilson’s fault.

Actually, it’s Jethro Tull’s fault. That is, the fact that we have yet another deluxe reissue of another Jethro Tull album has everything to do with the fact that this was one of most productive and consistently excellent bands, progressive or otherwise, all through the ‘70s. So in this regard, it’s not Jethro Tull’s fault that we’re getting a new reissue each year because, back in the day, they were knocking off classic albums every year.

Still giddy with all the goodies on offer from the recent reissues of Aqualung, Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, we now get the next album in the Tull canon, 1974’s WarChild. First, the easy part: this is yet another embarrassment of riches. The original album itself is generally rated an upper-tier Tull recording; this generous box set package, replete with bonus tracks, previously unreleased songs and an 80 page booklet (!) makes it (yet another) imperative purchase for Jethro Tull enthusiasts.

Jethro Tull’s output can be broken into a series of trios, with their first three being transitional affairs while the band honed their approach and purpose. The next three, their Holy Trinity, remain an undisputed high water mark not only of Jethro Tull’s history, but must rank among the upper echelon of prog era masterpieces. Their next three, commencing with WarChild and including the misunderstood, maligned or wrongly unheralded Minstrel in the Gallery and Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! are most ripe for reassessment. (The next three, the “pastoral trilogy” are considered a return to form, and then there’s the series of snyth-laden efforts, and after that everyone pretty much wrote the band off, even though they ended up winning the controversial Grammy for 1987’s Crest of a Knave. More on all this, someday soon.)

After the back-to-back-to-back brilliance of the Holy Trinity, a letdown seemed inevitable, due either to creative or physical exhaustion. Impressively, even amazingly, Ian Anderson & Co. not only kept pace but, in some regards, raised the bar a bit. It is to Jethro Tull’s considerable credit that they returned to a more succinct, song-based structure. While both “one-song” album epics were successful, critically and artistically (and financially), it is likely because—and not in spite—of their effective execution that Anderson decided, correctly, that he had done all he could do, at least without resorting to repetition or self-parody. This, of course, is something fellow prog acts, particularly Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, failed to embrace or accept, to their ultimate chagrin.

What the ten tracks from the original album indicate, beyond question, is that Ian Anderson continued to grow as both tunesmith and lyricist. If some of the material does not hold up quite as well, there are a few songs that can be considered alongside the best work he ever did. To start with the most confounding of the bunch, “Bungle in the Jungle”. Still remarkably—and annoyingly—radio friendly, this was one of the band’s rare hits, and it’s unfortunate it remains amongst the handful of tunes non-fans associate with Jethro Tull. Lyrically, an obvious antecedent to Peter Gabriel’s superior “Games Without Frontiers”, with jungle shenanigans sending up our human foibles, the sing-along quality of “Bungle” makes it innocuous and more than a little cloying. Not prog enough, perhaps?

There is the matter of leftover material from the aborted A Passion Play sessions (more about those in this article, “Ripe with Rich Attainments”). Both “Only Solitaire” and “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day” were left on the cutting room floor once A Passion Play took shape, and while they were not appropriate for that opus, they function wonderfully as standalone songs. Indeed, Anderson’s concerns with the environment and snarky critics seem admirably prescient in our climate-change denying, Internet chat-room present-day. And for anyone looking for a definitive take on eschewing the spurious, superficial spoils of super-stardom, “Only Solitaire” continues what Anderson started with “Nothing to Say” (from Benefit) and “Cheap Day Return” (from Aqualung). Anderson kept it real, then, and his refusal to acquiesce to convention remains refreshing, today.

“Two Fingers”, which closes the album, is a reworked and overly polished version of “Lick Your Fingers Clean”, which never made the final cut for inclusion on Aqualung. “The Third Hoorah” and “Queen and Country”, complete with accordion and bagpipe embellishments, satisfy prog’s more-is-more penchant for exploration and discovery, circa ’74. Speaking of exploration and discovery, Anderson expanded his already-impressive instrumental repertoire to include saxophone (featured extensively on A Passion Play). While he generally disparages his efforts in the liner notes, he’s being, at best, too self-critical by half.

In fact, the sax, particularly on the title track, makes the music more adventurous and less predictable, imbuing a certain elegance when augmented by the swelling strings: there is real craftsmanship at work that skirts pretentiousness and manages to elevate a song that would otherwise be merely ambitious and intelligent. The judicious employment of sax and carnivalesque accordion throughout lend the proceedings a mingled vibe of high and lowbrow: collectively the songs alternate in pace, topic and intensity, but the whole is convincingly unified, even tasteful in a way Jethro Tull never was, or necessarily wanted to be, before.

And who on earth but Ian Anderson could pivot from interrogations of geopolitics and war to a couple of ironic, almost touching odes to women-for-hire? “Ladies” and “Back Door Angels”, if not the most complex topics (lyrically or conceptually), are given, respectively, a gorgeous acoustic backdrop and raucous counterpoint between Anderson’s flute and Martin Barre’s electric guitar. Taken together, they offer further evidence that Anderson’s conceptual and intellectual acumen was a notch, or more, above most of his contemporaries.

Special recognition is warranted for “SeaLion”, which represents the whole as well as any other selection, and also offers (yet another) yardstick to determine whether or not one is really a Tull fan, or if one gets prog rock, and particularly if one understands—and appreciates—that it wasn’t all twenty minute marathons of instrumental overload. Sending up society and/or show business, distilling the animal-kingdom-as-metaphor-for-the-human-race formula that dominated the “Château d’Isaster” sessions, and penning some of his sharpest lyrics for what some may consider a throwaway tune, all in under four minutes? That’s just how Ian Anderson rolled.

And, once again, it warrants repeating that Anderson is, without question, the preeminent lyricist of this era (more on that in this article, “Jethro Tull: Aqualung (40th Anniversary Special Edition)”). If, for instance John Lennon or, better yet, David Bowie ever had written the lines “The ice cream castles are refrigerated/The super-marketeers are on parade/There’s a golden handshake hanging round your neck/As you light your cigarette on the burning deck”, audiences and, importantly, critics would wet themselves, and rightly so. And, let it be stated (once again), that while Martin Barre is amongst the most inventive and underappreciated musicians of the decade, Barriemore Barlow, mixing propulsive beats and sick syncopation, is the best drummer not enough people know.

As the numerous bonus tracks make abundantly clear, Ian Anderson was insanely productive, even by his standards, throughout 1974. At this point, Jethro Tull was averaging one album per year, and this pace would continue through 1980. More, Anderson toyed seriously with the idea of writing a screenplay with the aim of making WarChild a motion picture. Wiser, or less pretentious heads prevailed, and those extravagant plans were scrapped, which Anderson wryly recalls, with typically self-deprecating fashion in the liner notes. Speaking of the liner notes, this deluxe edition, as mentioned, features an 80 page booklet, replete with lyrics, interviews and a track-by-track analysis by Anderson himself. Even fanatical completists are likely to be satisfied, possibly sated, by this generous packaging.

The bonus tracks will, naturally, elicit different reactions from different people. There is a great deal of material that was understandably left off official albums, including a handful that have remained in the vault until now. As curiosities or, again, fodder for incurable completists, they are now available (and remastered, to boot!). Some, like “March, The Mad Scientist”, “Rainbow Blues”, “Quartet” and “SeaLion II”, have appeared on various collections and are welcome inclusions to this set. Others, like the extensive classical renditions of WarChild songs/themes, range from mostly pleasant to unoffensive, and occasionally hint at something like grace (“Pan Dance”, “The Beach”, “Waltz of the Angels”).

As always, the liberties Steven Wilson takes with the remixes will enlighten, thrill or offend, all depending on how infatuated or open-minded the individual. As usual, Wilson’s obsessions with voice and drum sounds move these elements to the forefront; as expected, the listener can discern certain vocals or effects scarcely noticeable in previous editions, and we ultimately get a fresh presentation that does not stray unnecessarily far from the original. Whether we want, or need, the 5.1 surround (in 96/24 LPCM and AC3 Dolby Digital for those keeping score at home) is entirely up to how discerning one’s ears happen to be. If at times the clarity is (typically) astonishing, occasionally we are too aware of a fidelity-obsessed fetishist who wants to show the world what they should have been hearing all along. A little tinkering goes a long way, and, fortunately, Wilson’s handiwork is never excessive to the point of distraction. By this point we know Wilson’s heart is in the right place and, after all, he has Anderson’s full blessing.

This set is not essential for the casual fan; interesting for the open-minded, and probably a requirement for the faithful. Bottom line: this ongoing series of remixes brings welcome focus on albums that are indispensable cogs in the Big Prog Machine and, as significant, works that merit reappraisal from critics and, best case, new discovery by the uninitiated.

Originally published at PopMatters on 3/20/2015.

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Like The Dude, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson Abides

Few Jethro Tull fans could resist the prospect of a new DVD with more than six hours of live footage. It’s debatable how many fans would be overjoyed to learn that over half of this footage is taken from performances filmed after 1990.

Here’s the thing: Jethro Tull, led all along by front man and flautist Ian Anderson, has never stopped touring. In an era when many super groups from the good old days reunite every so often for the let’s come out of retirement to make a few million bucks boondoggles, Tull has quietly persevered. That Anderson has the wherewithal, not to mention the interest, to continue playing the same songs year after year, is a testament to his commitment. That fans continue to come out and see him is sufficient testament of his staying power. Anderson, like The Dude, abides.

Here’s the other thing: Jethro Tull has put out very little music in the last two decades, so their tours are very much musical revues of the glory years. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the main thing that cannot be ignored is that Anderson’s singing voice is gone with the wind—and has been for some time.

All of which is to say, if you fancy almost four hours of similar set-lists performed by a band that is never less than competent, this set may appeal. Understand that it’s seldom pleasant and, in fact, often rather painful to see Anderson wheeze and strain singing songs he recorded four decades ago. It would not be unreasonable for hardcore fans to wonder how much material from the heyday resides in the vaults. If the answer is not much, then kudos to Anderson & Co. for making the most of the readily available, more recent footage.

The first of these four discs is the definite highlight, and not just from a nostalgic perspective. Kicking off the proceedings with a one-two punch (“My Sunday Feeling” and “My God”) from the 1970 Isle of Wight show (already available on the Nothing Is Easy: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 DVD, released in 2004), we see what a fetching spectacle Tull was back in the day. In full Mad Dog Fagin mode, Anderson looks less like a rock star and more like a homeless person having a seizure, leaping and whirling, waving his flute like a baton. It’s good stuff.

We flash forward to 1976 to a gig in Tampa, Florida, featuring what might have been the band’s most versatile, consistently impressive line-up (including mainstay and unsung hero Martin Barre on lead guitar, John Evan and John Glascock on keyboards and bass, and Barriemore Barlow, far and away the best drummer Anderson ever employed). Anderson’s obligatory flute solo (sounding much like the one captured for the subsequent Bursting Out live set from 1978) is a frenetic tour de force, and the spirited take on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony illuminates how ballsy, and brilliant, these musicians were. It’s also somewhat dispiriting to conjecture about how many fans in today’s crowd would recognize that bit of the old Ludwig Van.

From there it’s already 1980, and the gig from Germany represents a swan song. of sorts. To be fair, and accurate, Tull continued to make remarkable music throughout this decade, but it never got this good again. For hardcore fans, this may offer the best bits, with previously unavailable versions of deeper cuts like “Orion”, “Dark Ages” and “Aqualung”. Okay, just kidding about “Aqualung”, but be prepared to see and hear that song too many times to count.

Again, to be fair and accurate fans expect to hear “Aqualung” at every show and Anderson never disappoints. The songs are interspersed with segments from an interview, and it’s always refreshing to hear Anderson, ever articulate and sardonic, appraising his career thus far. It’s remarkable, too, that Anderson was already easing into his “old salmon farmer” phase, with pipe in hand and mandolin in lap; considering that compared to today, he was still a mere lad.

Curiously, if revealingly, disc 2 opens with selections from 1982 and 1986, but there are a total of three songs chosen. From there we get a full set from Chile, in 1996, and the cuts from Roots to Branches and the all-instrumental Divinities (both from 1995) are more suited to Anderson’s, and the band’s, strengths. It’s on the old favorites that the aforementioned pain sets in: by this point Anderson’s once-impeccable singing voice has deserted him. He strains at each line with a pinched-arse head bob that must be as difficult for him to perform as it is to behold. And the viewer can be forgiven for thinking: boy is this going to be a long haul; we have 2.5 DVDs and almost two decades to go.

Here’s yet another thing: Anderson’s acumen illustrates that he’s not living in the past. He keeps plugging away and forward momentum, by definition, if not default, is the opposite of retreat. Yet, the shows have become increasingly predictable to the point of being embarrassingly scripted. That, combined with the dearth of new material, results in several hours of a not-quite-good-enough thing.

Two respites from the monotony can be found: the 1999 Holland “unplugged” session, filmed in a studio setting, and another interview. The 1999 footage, informal and relaxed, is a significant improvement, in part because Anderson does not have to struggle nearly as much in a close, closed environment. The band is tight and quite comfortable with each other (this iteration, including Andy Giddings on keyboards, Jonathan Noyce on bass and Doane Perry on drums, represents the most stable line-up in the outfit’s history, sticking together for an entire decade); the chemistry and comradery does not feel forced and, on the old classic “Fat Man”, they truly appear to be having fun.

The final interview, also from 1999, is a treat for fans. As always, Anderson is self-effacing with a dry, disarming wit. There is no question he has long been one of the more intelligent figures in rock music, and his refusal to take the music, or himself, too seriously, remains commendable. Pressed to list some highlights from his career, he fondly recalls the band’s first big breakthrough at the 1968 Sunbury Jazz and Blues Festival. He also marvels that the band had the opportunity to open for Led Zeppelin in 1969, just as both bands were poised to conquer America.

What we get, with Jethro Tull Around the World Live, is visual and sonic documentation of a legend aging (mostly with grace) before our eyes. We see him go from lean and hirsute freak to balding, dignified gentleman. Whether or not Jethro Tull’s performances have become a prospect of diminishing returns in terms of new material and live repertoire is rather beside the point. People are still gleefully paying to see them perform and Ian Anderson has always made a point of giving the fans what they came for. “We keep playing music because we enjoy it,” he says in 1980. “It’s that simple.” Indeed, it is.

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