R.I.P. Glenn C. (Remembering Glenn Cornick and Jethro Tull’s ‘Stand Up’)

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Glenn Cornick was, of course, Jethro Tull’s first bassist.

He and Ian did not get along (something that can be said for most of the other 10,000 ex-Tull musicians) so he hit the road after the third album, Benefit.

Nice piece on him, HERE.

I give him some love in the extensive appraisal of Stand Up, below.

Let it suffice to say, his presence on those first three albums is palpable, important and enduring.

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The first bit of good news regarding this “collector’s edition” of Stand Up is that you don’t need it. The second bit of good news is that for the most part it already exists, albeit scattered throughout a handful of previously released material. If you already own all of those sets, chances are you are a serious Jethro Tull fan, in which case you’ve probably already acquired this latest installment. To cut through the haze, anyone who has been meaning to pick up this excellent album should know it was remastered earlier this decade (and includes the obligatory bonus tracks), so you can pick that baby up for about a third the cost.

Now to be fair, there is a lot of good “extra” material included in this edition, and only hardcore Tull fans will have all of it in their collections. Various box sets and compilations have featured these BBC sessions as well as the Carnegie Hall concert from 1970. If you already own Stand Up and are interested in hearing some vintage Tull from that era, as well as an extended interview with Ian Anderson, you could do worse. That interview, conducted earlier this year, is the real draw here for fans that already have everything.

All that being said, a question those unfamiliar or unimpressed with Jethro Tull might ask is: what does it matter? It matters because, all other considerations aside (deluxe packaging with original pop-up inside cover, liner notes from Ian Anderson, the first full and unedited version of “With You There To Help Me/By Kind Permission Of” from the Carnegie Hall show (wherein new pianist John Evan does his best Ludwig Van), 5.1 surround sound—but no footage—of the concert), Stand Up is a crucial album in many regards. In addition to serving as the first testament of the band Tull became, and would become, it endures as a meaningful document from what turned out to be a very transitional moment in rock history.So, if this somewhat superfluous new release affords the opportunity for a sustained reappraisal, all the better.

Stand Up may be Jethro Tull’s second album, but it is more like a first than a follow-up, in almost every way. This Was, their proper debut, illustrated the direction which that band might have gone in (keywords: that band). Mick Abrahams, original lead guitarist and co-leader, was no slouch and to his credit knew exactly where he wanted to go. A dedicated acolyte of the blues, Abrahams was all about the old school and dirt-under-the-nails authenticity. His approach is mostly successful on This Was, with songs such as “Move On Alone”, “It’s Breaking Me Up” and the garage rock aggression of “Beggar’s Farm”. On other songs the sound is overly derivative and while never boring, the results are not exactly memorable, unless the design was to sound like third-rate Cream (it was a dubious decision to include “Cat’s Squirrel”, a song featured on Cream’s debut, which suffers by comparison and betrays an opportunism that would have been more honest—and less misguided—if they’d called it “Copycat’s Squirrel”).

In any event, by 1968 that formula (British bands earnestly mimicking American blues legends) was pretty well played out, no matter how convincingly rendered. Even Cream’s debut sounds dated, particularly in comparison with their stunning follow-up Disraeli Gears. In other words, Abrahams had hitched his axe to a locomotive that was going backwards (where he contentedly rode it into semi-obscurity with Bloodwyn Pig), and it is understandable that Ian Anderson envisioned bigger and better—or at least more original—fields for Tull to plow.

Enter Martin Barre, a young but game guitarist whose primary credentials were his lack of experience, which ensured Anderson would never again compete with anyone for control of the band. It is, then, to Anderson’s considerable credit that the resulting album—recorded less than one year later—represents a development that was, and remains, staggering. The dividends Barre delivers are immediate, and well-represented throughout the recording. While one can detect the flute-driven energy of “Beggar’s Farm” in “Back To The Family”, the latter is less a jam and more a proper “song”. Interestingly, both Abrahams and Barre, like every other guitarist in the mid-to-late ‘60s, were listening to a lot of Clapton, and the first two Tull albums are tributes of a sort to the first two Cream albums. To be certain, Barre is less interested in aping Clapton’s riffs and although the blistering outro on “Back To The Family” is a bit of a nod to “God”, it possesses its own unrefined power. While Barre’s playing is not as technically proficient, it’s debatable whether even Clapton can match the emotional heft uncorked on “We Used To Know”, which is cold-finger, raw hangnail material.

There is also ample evidence of the first-rate lyricist Anderson would quickly become. There have not been many 22-year-olds in rock music history who could half-convincingly write songs like “Look Into The Sun”, “We Used To Know” and especially “Reasons For Waiting” (the best song you’ve never heard). These songs are a universe apart from anything on This Was and provide early evidence of the incredibly warm and full sound Anderson gets from his acoustic guitar.

Then there are the familiar songs, some of which continue to get airplay on classic rock radio: “Bouree”, the jazz-rock riff on Bach; “Nothing Is Easy”, the flute-cake manifesto; and the band’s first huge hit, “Living In The Past” (not released on the original album, but included as a bonus track). “A New Day Yesterday” is an ideal opening statement, teasing with nods to the black-and-blues soundscape from ’68, then exploding into Technicolor as Barre’s guitar solo bleeds into Anderson’s frenetic and reverb-laden flute breakdown. Finally, the jocular “Fat Man”, featuring both mandolin and balalaika, a first signal of the folk and eastern influences that would permeate the band’s mature work. There is still a blues sensibility driving most of this material, but Anderson—who clearly had ability and creativity to burn—is already showing signs of developing the multi-faceted approach he would bring to each successive effort.

A few words must be said about Clive Bunker and Glenn Cornick, the drummer and bassist who would not be long for this band (Cornick lasted one more album; Bunker two). While it’s hard to quibble with Bunker’s excellent replacement, Barrie Barlow, Bunker was the perfect drummer for Jethro Tull’s early work. He does restrained as well as explosive, but his accompaniment is always ideal for whatever a particular song calls for. Songs like “Back to the Family” and “For a Thousand Mothers” would be unthinkable without his contributions. Cornick was a top-notch bass player and each new remaster reinforces how busy and brilliant he was in the pocket. He gets room to shine on “Bouree” and “Nothing Is Easy”, but as is often the case with the best bassists, you almost don’t realize he’s there until you stop and consider what a particular song would sound like without him. The charisma and stage antics of Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond became indispensable components of Tull’s charm and overall history, but the loss of Cornick (see: artistic differences, rock music’s version of the pink slip) affected the later music more than Anderson might ever care to admit.

1969 was not merely the conclusion of a decade, it was the end of a succession of eras. These include the British Invasion and the aforementioned blues-by-numbers of those bands (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Cream, even early Led Zeppelin), psychedelia, art-rock and the eventual, inevitable marriage of precision and pretension that brought us the dreaded “concept album”. By 1970 many of the bands that would become most closely associated with progressive rock (or Prog with a capital P), like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and ELP, were already off the proverbial reservation, crafting side-long suites and noodling away in the manner that captivated listeners and confounded critics.

Stand Up, then, remains rather unique. It is a document created in a rapidly closing artistic window, pre-prog but post-British blues and psychedelic rock. Within two years Jethro Tull would unleash Aqualung and fully, if warily, enter the prog-rock arena (literally and figuratively). Their second album continues to age quite nicely as a hybrid of many sounds, and a reflection of Ian Anderson’s restless vision. Stand Up boasts an ambition and vitality we usually associate with most successful debut albums, but the band is more seasoned and confident, with accordingly impressive results. It still manages to sound unspoiled, an ideal balance of daring and the deliberate.

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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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Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo (Revisited)

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Let us give thanks for the guitar solo.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

Wherever necessary I have plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.) And bonus love, HERE.

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.) And a lot more on Jethro Tull, HERE.

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. A lot more on King Crimson, HERE. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence)

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from I Against I)

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a million mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be)—why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded thisaccomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too, irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul. A lot more on Yes, HERE.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, HERE)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull (Revisited)

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I, like too many prog-rock fanatics to count, was delighted when Rush received their overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I still hold out hope that Yes will join them, along with some other eminently worthy compatriots, like King Crimson.

One band should have been enshrined years ago, and it is with regret and resignation that I hold no expectation that they will ever have the opportunity. The band: Jethro Tull. The reason: it’s not because they’re not good enough, but because they are too good. (And if you think I’m joking, then I’m just a one-line joker in a public bar.)

Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.

It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.

With bands like Yes, who still have a chance, the “serious” people can wink and nod and point to the excesses of prog-rock as a quaint or cute stylistic quirk; an awkward rite of passage rock music went through before it emerged, leaner and meaner (and much improved) after punk rock set things straight. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a tad too indulgent, or took themselves too seriously, and bands like Jethro Tull, who neither courted nor seemed to care about what anyone said, are still ripe targets for facile disdain.

So should we shed tears for a group that has moved more than 60 million units, played to packed (if steadily smaller) audiences for almost five decades, still receives substantial radio play and is generally recognized for making at least two seminal albums in rock history? Not necessarily. Let it simply be stated, without equivocation, that Ian Anderson is one of the more intelligent, capable and, for a run as long as any other icon, consistent frontman in music.

Like Duke Ellington, or at least David St. Hubbins, Anderson has led a band with an ever-rotating cast of characters (loyal guitarist Martin Barre his Billy Strayhorn), all employed in the service of realizing his singular and disparate musical vision. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album every single year, and none of them are less than very good. A handful of them are great. And three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band’s hall of fame coronation.

Interestingly, Jethro Tull’s holy trinity was recorded the same years as Yes’s (and the same years as Genesis’s, of whom we’ll discuss in the next column). This is less a coincidence than a commentary on how fertile the early ‘70s were, particularly amongst the practitioners of prog-rock. Considering the previously discussed Yes (The Holy Trinity: Yes) and King Crimson, ( King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study) along with Jethro Tull (just to pick a few) it’s difficult to find more different sounds and styles, yet such staggering creativity and execution.

This, again, is what makes progressive rock at once easy and impossible to describe. We know it when we hear it, and there’s general consensus regarding who did it best, and when. But it’s the variety and all-encompassing aesthetic that defines the genre: great proficiency sprinkled with pomposity and a genuine aspiration to be unique, substantive, and meaningful. None of these albums, by just about any of these bands, sound anything alike, yet they are all instantly recognizable as progressive rock.

Two years ago I wrote at length about Aqualung (Jethro Tull: Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition), wherein I attempted to put it, and Anderson, in perspective:

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough albums to be considered a significant act in their own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a rare entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

Aqualung necessarily takes its place alongside The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures as career-defining work by a band making albums that sound utterly unique and epitomize the band that made them. What’s fascinating and special about Tull’s tri-fecta is that it came fairly early in the band’s discography. That Anderson masterminded three albums this impressive, and indelible, in his early to-mid-20s is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle—meshing Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords—that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today.

Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2013), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson, like Townshend on Quadrophenia, spares no one, least of all himself, and since the primary targets—organized religion and social Darwinism—are so large and worthy of scorn, the barbs still sting, and resonate.

If The Dark Side of the Moon is, among other things, a treatise on the issues and concerns that can and do drive people over the edge, Aqualung got there first. Having the ability, not to mention the audacity, to get both priests and politicians in his sights, Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music (Barre and drummer Clive Bunker are at their devastating best throughout the proceedings), drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.

Anderson is prescient, depicting the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails, “no way to slow down” (“Locomotive Breath”); he sounds downright prophetic depicting the “products of wealth” pushing us into the abyss (“Slipstream”), and he sounds like an antidote for any ideology preempting God to justify violence or intolerance: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” (“Wind Up”). Aqualung is correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, but it’s more than that. It’s a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull and the progressive era.

Jethro Tull was on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick as a Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early to-mid-‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick as a Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog-rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, outdone in terms of scope and ambition only by its follow-up.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listens, less rewarding, A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

“I have no time for Time magazine, or Rolling Stone”, Anderson sang in 1975. Even then he seemed to understand, and accept, that it simply wasn’t in the cards for him to be taken as seriously as he should have been. That there have been few multi-instrumentalist bandleaders capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. That no one would ever rate his lyrical chops alongside justly venerated wordsmiths like Lennon, Dylan and Davies, even though on a purely poetic basis his ability arguably surpasses them all. That a world ceaselessly embracing one derivative, evanescent act after another hadn’t enough room for an old rocker who wore his hair too long, his trouser cuffs too tight and pulled one over on all of them, remaining too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young die.

No matter: in the court of public opinion the works persevere and will be alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners as long as discs still spin. In the end Tull’s not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/176304-the-holy-trinity-part-two-jethro-tull//

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R.I.P. Glenn C. (Remembering Glenn Cornick and Jethro Tull’s ‘Stand Up’)

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Glenn Cornick was, of course, Jethro Tull’s first bassist.

He and Ian did not get along (something that can be said for most of the other 10,000 ex-Tull musicians) so he hit the road after the third album, Benefit.

Nice piece on him, HERE.

I give him some love in the extensive appraisal of Stand Up, below.

Let it suffice to say, his presence on those first three albums is palpable, important and enduring.

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The first bit of good news regarding this “collector’s edition” of Stand Up is that you don’t need it. The second bit of good news is that for the most part it already exists, albeit scattered throughout a handful of previously released material. If you already own all of those sets, chances are you are a serious Jethro Tull fan, in which case you’ve probably already acquired this latest installment. To cut through the haze, anyone who has been meaning to pick up this excellent album should know it was remastered earlier this decade (and includes the obligatory bonus tracks), so you can pick that baby up for about a third the cost.

Now to be fair, there is a lot of good “extra” material included in this edition, and only hardcore Tull fans will have all of it in their collections. Various box sets and compilations have featured these BBC sessions as well as the Carnegie Hall concert from 1970. If you already own Stand Up and are interested in hearing some vintage Tull from that era, as well as an extended interview with Ian Anderson, you could do worse. That interview, conducted earlier this year, is the real draw here for fans that already have everything.

All that being said, a question those unfamiliar or unimpressed with Jethro Tull might ask is: what does it matter? It matters because, all other considerations aside (deluxe packaging with original pop-up inside cover, liner notes from Ian Anderson, the first full and unedited version of “With You There To Help Me/By Kind Permission Of” from the Carnegie Hall show (wherein new pianist John Evan does his best Ludwig Van), 5.1 surround sound—but no footage—of the concert), Stand Up is a crucial album in many regards. In addition to serving as the first testament of the band Tull became, and would become, it endures as a meaningful document from what turned out to be a very transitional moment in rock history.So, if this somewhat superfluous new release affords the opportunity for a sustained reappraisal, all the better.

Stand Up may be Jethro Tull’s second album, but it is more like a first than a follow-up, in almost every way. This Was, their proper debut, illustrated the direction which that band might have gone in (keywords: that band). Mick Abrahams, original lead guitarist and co-leader, was no slouch and to his credit knew exactly where he wanted to go. A dedicated acolyte of the blues, Abrahams was all about the old school and dirt-under-the-nails authenticity. His approach is mostly successful on This Was, with songs such as “Move On Alone”, “It’s Breaking Me Up” and the garage rock aggression of “Beggar’s Farm”. On other songs the sound is overly derivative and while never boring, the results are not exactly memorable, unless the design was to sound like third-rate Cream (it was a dubious decision to include “Cat’s Squirrel”, a song featured on Cream’s debut, which suffers by comparison and betrays an opportunism that would have been more honest—and less misguided—if they’d called it “Copycat’s Squirrel”).

In any event, by 1968 that formula (British bands earnestly mimicking American blues legends) was pretty well played out, no matter how convincingly rendered. Even Cream’s debut sounds dated, particularly in comparison with their stunning follow-up Disraeli Gears. In other words, Abrahams had hitched his axe to a locomotive that was going backwards (where he contentedly rode it into semi-obscurity with Bloodwyn Pig), and it is understandable that Ian Anderson envisioned bigger and better—or at least more original—fields for Tull to plow.

Enter Martin Barre, a young but game guitarist whose primary credentials were his lack of experience, which ensured Anderson would never again compete with anyone for control of the band. It is, then, to Anderson’s considerable credit that the resulting album—recorded less than one year later—represents a development that was, and remains, staggering. The dividends Barre delivers are immediate, and well-represented throughout the recording. While one can detect the flute-driven energy of “Beggar’s Farm” in “Back To The Family”, the latter is less a jam and more a proper “song”. Interestingly, both Abrahams and Barre, like every other guitarist in the mid-to-late ‘60s, were listening to a lot of Clapton, and the first two Tull albums are tributes of a sort to the first two Cream albums. To be certain, Barre is less interested in aping Clapton’s riffs and although the blistering outro on “Back To The Family” is a bit of a nod to “God”, it possesses its own unrefined power. While Barre’s playing is not as technically proficient, it’s debatable whether even Clapton can match the emotional heft uncorked on “We Used To Know”, which is cold-finger, raw hangnail material.

There is also ample evidence of the first-rate lyricist Anderson would quickly become. There have not been many 22-year-olds in rock music history who could half-convincingly write songs like “Look Into The Sun”, “We Used To Know” and especially “Reasons For Waiting” (the best song you’ve never heard). These songs are a universe apart from anything on This Was and provide early evidence of the incredibly warm and full sound Anderson gets from his acoustic guitar.

Then there are the familiar songs, some of which continue to get airplay on classic rock radio: “Bouree”, the jazz-rock riff on Bach; “Nothing Is Easy”, the flute-cake manifesto; and the band’s first huge hit, “Living In The Past” (not released on the original album, but included as a bonus track). “A New Day Yesterday” is an ideal opening statement, teasing with nods to the black-and-blues soundscape from ’68, then exploding into Technicolor as Barre’s guitar solo bleeds into Anderson’s frenetic and reverb-laden flute breakdown. Finally, the jocular “Fat Man”, featuring both mandolin and balalaika, a first signal of the folk and eastern influences that would permeate the band’s mature work. There is still a blues sensibility driving most of this material, but Anderson—who clearly had ability and creativity to burn—is already showing signs of developing the multi-faceted approach he would bring to each successive effort.

A few words must be said about Clive Bunker and Glenn Cornick, the drummer and bassist who would not be long for this band (Cornick lasted one more album; Bunker two). While it’s hard to quibble with Bunker’s excellent replacement, Barrie Barlow, Bunker was the perfect drummer for Jethro Tull’s early work. He does restrained as well as explosive, but his accompaniment is always ideal for whatever a particular song calls for. Songs like “Back to the Family” and “For a Thousand Mothers” would be unthinkable without his contributions. Cornick was a top-notch bass player and each new remaster reinforces how busy and brilliant he was in the pocket. He gets room to shine on “Bouree” and “Nothing Is Easy”, but as is often the case with the best bassists, you almost don’t realize he’s there until you stop and consider what a particular song would sound like without him. The charisma and stage antics of Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond became indispensable components of Tull’s charm and overall history, but the loss of Cornick (see: artistic differences, rock music’s version of the pink slip) affected the later music more than Anderson might ever care to admit.

1969 was not merely the conclusion of a decade, it was the end of a succession of eras. These include the British Invasion and the aforementioned blues-by-numbers of those bands (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Cream, even early Led Zeppelin), psychedelia, art-rock and the eventual, inevitable marriage of precision and pretension that brought us the dreaded “concept album”. By 1970 many of the bands that would become most closely associated with progressive rock (or Prog with a capital P), like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and ELP, were already off the proverbial reservation, crafting side-long suites and noodling away in the manner that captivated listeners and confounded critics.

Stand Up, then, remains rather unique. It is a document created in a rapidly closing artistic window, pre-prog but post-British blues and psychedelic rock. Within two years Jethro Tull would unleash Aqualung and fully, if warily, enter the prog-rock arena (literally and figuratively). Their second album continues to age quite nicely as a hybrid of many sounds, and a reflection of Ian Anderson’s restless vision. Stand Up boasts an ambition and vitality we usually associate with most successful debut albums, but the band is more seasoned and confident, with accordingly impressive results. It still manages to sound unspoiled, an ideal balance of daring and the deliberate.

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Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo (Revisited)

Let us give thanks for the guitar solo.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

Wherever necessary I have plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.) And bonus love, HERE.

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.) And a lot more on Jethro Tull, HERE.

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. A lot more on King Crimson, HERE. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence)

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from I Against I)

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a million mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be)—why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded thisaccomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too, irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul. A lot more on Yes, HERE.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, HERE)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull

I, like too many prog-rock fanatics to count, was delighted when Rush received their overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I still hold out hope that Yes will join them, along with some other eminently worthy compatriots, like King Crimson.

One band should have been enshrined years ago, and it is with regret and resignation that I hold no expectation that they will ever have the opportunity. The band: Jethro Tull. The reason: it’s not because they’re not good enough, but because they are too good. (And if you think I’m joking, then I’m just a one-line joker in a public bar.)

Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.

It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that  they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.

With bands like Yes, who still have a chance, the “serious” people can wink and nod and point to the excesses of prog-rock as a quaint or cute stylistic quirk; an awkward rite of passage rock music went through before it emerged, leaner and meaner (and much improved) after punk rock set things straight. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a tad too indulgent, or took themselves too seriously, and bands like Jethro Tull, who neither courted nor seemed to care about what anyone said, are still ripe targets for facile disdain.

So should we shed tears for a group that has moved more than 60 million units, played to packed (if steadily smaller) audiences for almost five decades, still receives substantial radio play and is generally recognized for making at least two seminal albums in rock history? Not necessarily. Let it simply be stated, without equivocation, that Ian Anderson is one of the more intelligent, capable and, for a run as long as any other icon, consistent frontman in music.

Like Duke Ellington, or at least David St. Hubbins, Anderson has led a band with an ever-rotating cast of characters (loyal guitarist Martin Barre his Billy Strayhorn), all employed in the service of realizing his singular and disparate musical vision. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album every single year, and none of them are less than very good. A handful of them are great. And three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band’s hall of fame coronation.

Interestingly, Jethro Tull’s holy trinity was recorded the same years as Yes’s (and the same years as Genesis’s, of whom we’ll discuss in the next column). This is less a coincidence than a commentary on how fertile the early ‘70s were, particularly amongst the practitioners of prog-rock. Considering the previously discussed Yes (The Holy Trinity: Yes) and King Crimson, ( King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study) along with Jethro Tull (just to pick a few) it’s difficult to find more different sounds and styles, yet such staggering creativity and execution.

This, again, is what makes progressive rock at once easy and impossible to describe. We know it when we hear it, and there’s general consensus regarding who did it best, and when. But it’s the variety and all-encompassing aesthetic that defines the genre: great proficiency sprinkled with pomposity and a genuine aspiration to be unique, substantive, and meaningful. None of these albums, by just about any of these bands, sound anything alike, yet they are all instantly recognizable as progressive rock.

Two years ago I wrote at length about Aqualung (Jethro Tull: Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition), wherein I attempted to put it, and Anderson, in perspective:

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough albums to be considered a significant act in their own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a rare entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

Aqualung necessarily takes its place alongside The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures as career-defining work by a band making albums that sound utterly unique and epitomize the band that made them. What’s fascinating and special about Tull’s tri-fecta is that it came fairly early in the band’s discography. That Anderson masterminded three albums this impressive, and indelible, in his early to-mid-20s is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle—meshing Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords—that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today.

Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2013), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson, like Townshend on Quadrophenia, spares no one, least of all himself, and since the primary targets—organized religion and social Darwinism—are so large and worthy of scorn, the barbs still sting, and resonate.

If The Dark Side of the Moon is, among other things, a treatise on the issues and concerns that can and do drive people over the edge, Aqualung got there first. Having the ability, not to mention the audacity, to get both priests and politicians in his sights, Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music (Barre and drummer Clive Bunker are at their devastating best throughout the proceedings), drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.

Anderson is prescient, depicting the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails, “no way to slow down” (“Locomotive Breath”); he sounds downright prophetic depicting the “products of wealth” pushing us into the abyss (“Slipstream”), and he sounds like an antidote for any ideology preempting God to justify violence or intolerance: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” (“Wind Up”). Aqualung is correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, but it’s more than that. It’s a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull  and the progressive era.

Jethro Tull was on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick as a Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early to-mid-‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick as a Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog-rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, outdone in terms of scope and ambition only by its follow-up.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listens, less rewarding, A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

“I have no time for Time magazine, or Rolling Stone”, Anderson sang in 1975. Even then he seemed to understand, and accept, that it simply wasn’t in the cards for him to be taken as seriously as he should have been. That there have been few multi-instrumentalist bandleaders capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. That no one would ever rate his lyrical chops alongside justly venerated wordsmiths like Lennon, Dylan and Davies, even though on a purely poetic basis his ability arguably surpasses them all. That a world ceaselessly embracing one derivative, evanescent act after another hadn’t enough room for an old rocker who wore his hair too long, his trouser cuffs too tight and pulled one over on all of them, remaining too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young die.

No matter: in the court of public opinion the works persevere and will be alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners as long as discs still spin. In the end Tull’s not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/176304-the-holy-trinity-part-two-jethro-tull//

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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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Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo

Over at Esquire the always reliable Charlie Pierce (some previous blog love for him HERE) opened up a discussion on the best guitar solos.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

I jumped into the fray, genuinely dashing ten suggestions of the top of me head. Wherever necessary I plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.)

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.)

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence)

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from I Against I)

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a million mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be)—why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded thisaccomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too,  irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero.  His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, coming soon…)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Jethro Tull: Stand Up (Expanded Collector’s Edition)

The first bit of good news regarding this “collector’s edition” of Stand Up is that you don’t need it. The second bit of good news is that for the most part it already exists, albeit scattered throughout a handful of previously released material. If you already own all of those sets, chances are you are a serious Jethro Tull fan, in which case you’ve probably already acquired this latest installment. To cut through the haze, anyone who has been meaning to pick up this excellent album should know it was remastered earlier this decade (and includes the obligatory bonus tracks), so you can pick that baby up for about a third the cost.

Now to be fair, there is a lot of good “extra” material included in this edition, and only hardcore Tull fans will have all of it in their collections. Various box sets and compilations have featured these BBC sessions as well as the Carnegie Hall concert from 1970. If you already own Stand Up and are interested in hearing some vintage Tull from that era, as well as an extended interview with Ian Anderson, you could do worse. That interview, conducted earlier this year, is the real draw here for fans that already have everything.

All that being said, a question those unfamiliar or unimpressed with Jethro Tull might ask is: what does it matter? It matters because, all other considerations aside (deluxe packaging with original pop-up inside cover, liner notes from Ian Anderson, the first full and unedited version of “With You There To Help Me/By Kind Permission Of” from the Carnegie Hall show (wherein new pianist John Evan does his best Ludwig Van), 5.1 surround sound—but no footage—of the concert), Stand Up is a crucial album in many regards. In addition to serving as the first testament of the band Tull became, and would become, it endures as a meaningful document from what turned out to be a very transitional moment in rock history.So, if this somewhat superfluous new release affords the opportunity for a sustained reappraisal, all the better.

Stand Up may be Jethro Tull’s second album, but it is more like a first than a follow-up, in almost every way. This Was, their proper debut, illustrated the direction which that band might have gone in (keywords: that band). Mick Abrahams, original lead guitarist and co-leader, was no slouch and to his credit knew exactly where he wanted to go. A dedicated acolyte of the blues, Abrahams was all about the old school and dirt-under-the-nails authenticity. His approach is mostly successful on This Was, with songs such as “Move On Alone”, “It’s Breaking Me Up” and the garage rock aggression of “Beggar’s Farm”. On other songs the sound is overly derivative and while never boring, the results are not exactly memorable, unless the design was to sound like third-rate Cream (it was a dubious decision to include “Cat’s Squirrel”, a song featured on Cream’s debut, which suffers by comparison and betrays an opportunism that would have been more honest—and less misguided—if they’d called it “Copycat’s Squirrel”).

In any event, by 1968 that formula (British bands earnestly mimicking American blues legends) was pretty well played out, no matter how convincingly rendered. Even Cream’s debut sounds dated, particularly in comparison with their stunning follow-up Disraeli Gears. In other words, Abrahams had hitched his axe to a locomotive that was going backwards (where he contentedly rode it into semi-obscurity with Bloodwyn Pig), and it is understandable that Ian Anderson envisioned bigger and better—or at least more original—fields for Tull to plow.

Enter Martin Barre, a young but game guitarist whose primary credentials were his lack of experience, which ensured Anderson would never again compete with anyone for control of the band. It is, then, to Anderson’s considerable credit that the resulting album—recorded less than one year later—represents a development that was, and remains, staggering. The dividends Barre delivers are immediate, and well-represented throughout the recording. While one can detect the flute-driven energy of “Beggar’s Farm” in “Back To The Family”, the latter is less a jam and more a proper “song”. Interestingly, both Abrahams and Barre, like every other guitarist in the mid-to-late ‘60s, were listening to a lot of Clapton, and the first two Tull albums are tributes of a sort to the first two Cream albums. To be certain, Barre is less interested in aping Clapton’s riffs and although the blistering outro on “Back To The Family” is a bit of a nod to “God”, it possesses its own unrefined power. While Barre’s playing is not as technically proficient, it’s debatable whether even Clapton can match the emotional heft uncorked on “We Used To Know”, which is cold-finger, raw hangnail material.

There is also ample evidence of the first-rate lyricist Anderson would quickly become. There have not been many 22-year-olds in rock music history who could half-convincingly write songs like “Look Into The Sun”, “We Used To Know” and especially “Reasons For Waiting” (the best song you’ve never heard). These songs are a universe apart from anything on This Was and provide early evidence of the incredibly warm and full sound Anderson gets from his acoustic guitar.

Then there are the familiar songs, some of which continue to get airplay on classic rock radio: “Bouree”, the jazz-rock riff on Bach; “Nothing Is Easy”, the flute-cake manifesto; and the band’s first huge hit, “Living In The Past” (not released on the original album, but included as a bonus track). “A New Day Yesterday” is an ideal opening statement, teasing with nods to the black-and-blues soundscape from ’68, then exploding into Technicolor as Barre’s guitar solo bleeds into Anderson’s frenetic and reverb-laden flute breakdown. Finally, the jocular “Fat Man”, featuring both mandolin and balalaika, a first signal of the folk and eastern influences that would permeate the band’s mature work. There is still a blues sensibility driving most of this material, but Anderson—who clearly had ability and creativity to burn—is already showing signs of developing the multi-faceted approach he would bring to each successive effort.

A few words must be said about Clive Bunker and Glenn Cornick, the drummer and bassist who would not be long for this band (Cornick lasted one more album; Bunker two). While it’s hard to quibble with Bunker’s excellent replacement, Barrie Barlow, Bunker was the perfect drummer for Jethro Tull’s early work. He does restrained as well as explosive, but his accompaniment is always ideal for whatever a particular song calls for. Songs like “Back to the Family” and “For a Thousand Mothers” would be unthinkable without his contributions. Cornick was a top-notch bass player and each new remaster reinforces how busy and brilliant he was in the pocket. He gets room to shine on “Bouree” and “Nothing Is Easy”, but as is often the case with the best bassists, you almost don’t realize he’s there until you stop and consider what a particular song would sound like without him. The charisma and stage antics of Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond became indispensable components of Tull’s charm and overall history, but the loss of Cornick (see: artistic differences, rock music’s version of the pink slip) affected the later music more than Anderson might ever care to admit.

1969 was not merely the conclusion of a decade, it was the end of a succession of eras. These include the British Invasion and the aforementioned blues-by-numbers of those bands (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Cream, even early Led Zeppelin), psychedelia, art-rock and the eventual, inevitable marriage of precision and pretension that brought us the dreaded “concept album”. By 1970 many of the bands that would become most closely associated with progressive rock (or Prog with a capital P), like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and ELP, were already off the proverbial reservation, crafting side-long suites and noodling away in the manner that captivated listeners and confounded critics.

Stand Up, then, remains rather unique. It is a document created in a rapidly closing artistic window, pre-prog but post-British blues and psychedelic rock. Within two years Jethro Tull would unleash Aqualung and fully, if warily, enter the prog-rock arena (literally and figuratively). Their second album continues to age quite nicely as a hybrid of many sounds, and a reflection of Ian Anderson’s restless vision. Stand Up boasts an ambition and vitality we usually associate with most successful debut albums, but the band is more seasoned and confident, with accordingly impressive results. It still manages to sound unspoiled, an ideal balance of daring and the deliberate.

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