Jethro Tull are a Progressive Rock band that formed in Blackpool, Lancashire, England in 1967. Their music is marked by the initially soulful and bluesy, and later expressively idiosyncratic, vocal style and unique lead flute work of frontman Ian Anderson, and their notable guitarist Martin Barre. Their songs feature unusual and often complex construction, incorporating elements of classical and celtic folk music, as well as art rock and alternative rock. Anderson has attributed the marked difference between their music and the music of their contemporaries to the group’s avoidance of narcotics. While other music groups did influence them in their early years, they quickly developed a unique, instantly recognizable sound.
Ian Anderson’s first band, started in 1963 in Blackpool, was known as The Blade. It had developed by 1966 into a seven-piece white soul band called the John Evans Band named for pianist/drummer John Evans, who dropped the final “s” from his name to make it sound less ordinary. At this point, Barrymore Barlow was the band’s drummer, as he would later be for Tull itself beginning in early 1971. However, after moving to London, most of the band quit, leaving Anderson and bassist Glenn Cornick to join forces with blues guitarist Mick Abrahams and his friend, drummer Clive Bunker, both from the band McGregor’s Engine. At first, they had trouble getting repeat bookings and took to changing their name frequently to continue playing the London club circuit. Band names were often supplied by the staff of their booking agents, one of whom, a history buff, eventually christened them Jethro Tull after the 18th century agriculturist who invented the seed drill. This name stuck simply by virtue of the fact that they were using it the first time a club manager liked their show enough to invite them to return.
After an unsuccessful single (an Abrahams-penned pop tune called “Sunshine Day” on which the band’s name was misspelled “Jethro Toe”, making it a collector’s item), they released the bluesy album This Was in 1968. Accompanying music written by Anderson and Abrahams was the traditional arrangement “Cat’s Squirrel”, which highlighted Abraham’s blues-rock style. The Rahsaan Roland Kirk-penned jazz piece “Serenade to a Cuckoo” gave Anderson a showcase for his growing skills as a flute player.
Following this album, Abrahams left (forming his own band, Bloodwin Pig). There were a number of reasons for his departure: he was a blues purist, while Anderson wanted to branch out into other forms of music; Abrahams and Cornick did not get along; and Abrahams was unwilling to travel internationally or play more than three nights a week, while the others wanted to be successful by playing as often as possible and building an international fan base. Anderson instead chose Toni Iommi (later of Black Sabbath) to replace Abrahams. Iommi, however, felt uncomfortable and decided to leave after only a few weeks, though he agreed to stay on through Tull’s appearance on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. (On the program, where the band played “A Song for Jeffrey”, only Ian’s vocals and flute were live; everything else was played from a backing tape.) Iommi was replaced by former Motovation, member Martin Barre, who impressed Anderson with his persistence more than anything else: he was so nervous at his first audition that he could hardly play at all, and then showed up for a second audition without a cord to connect his guitar to an amplifier. Despite this, Barre would become the second longest-standing member of the band after Anderson; he is still with the band as of 2010.
This new line-up released Stand Up in 1969, the band’s only UK number 1 album. Written entirely by Anderson—with the exception of the jazzy rearrangement of J. S. Bach’s “Bourrée” — it branched out further from the blues though not yet approaching the up-and-coming style of progressive rock being developed at the time by groups such as King Krimsi , The Nice and Yes. Stand Up feels, instrumentally, not entirely unlike a jazz-tinged early Led Zeppelin album, with a heavy and slightly dark sound. The “Living in the Past” single of the same year reached No. 3 in the UK chart, and though most other progressive groups actively resisted issuing singles at the time, they had further success with other singles, “Sweet Dream” (1969), “The Witches’ Promise” (1970), and a 5-track EP “Life Is a Long Song” (1971), all of which made the Top 20. Although inspired by jazz musician Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” “Living” is much closer to the American rock and roll artists than to jazz – a trend which has continued throughout the history of Jethro Tull to the present day. In 1970, they added keyboardist John Evan (although technically he was only a guest musician at this stage) and released the album Benefit which has a continuity owing as much to studio technique as to compositional skill.
Bassist Cornick left following Benefit, replaced by Jeffrey Hammond, a childhood friend of Anderson whose name appeared in the songs “A Song for Jeffrey,” “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square,” and “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey, and Me.” Jeffrey was often credited on Tull albums as ‘Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond’, but the extra ‘Hammond’ was phony.
This line-up released Tull’s best-known work, Aqualung in 1971. The album is a combination of heavy rock music focusing on themes such as social outcasts and organized religion, and some lighter acoustic fare about the mundanity of everyday life. Aqualung is adored and reviled in equal amounts, although the title track and “Locomotive Breath” feature on most classic rock stations.
Anderson’s writing voiced strong opinions about religion and society. The title character of “Aqualung” is a homeless alcoholic pedophile and the focus of the song “Cross-eyed Mary” is an underage prostitute. “My God” is a full-frontal assault on ecclesiastic excesses: “People what have you done / locked Him in His golden cage. / Made Him bend to your religion / Him resurrected from the grave. / He is the god of nothing / if that’s all that you can see.” In contrast the gentle acoustic “Wond’ring Aloud” is a love song.
Drummer Bunker was replaced by Barriemore Barlow in early 1971; he first recorded with the band for the EP “Life Is a Long Song” and made his first appearance on a Jethro Tull album with 1972’s Thick as a Brick. This was a concept album consisting of a single very long track split over the two sides of the LP, with a number of movements melded together and some repeating themes. The first movement with its distinctive acoustic guitar riff got some airplay on rock stations at the time and occasionally turns up in modern classic-rock programming as a “deep” or “rare” cut. The lyrical content was jokingly accredited on the album cover, as having been written in an Essay by a young, fictitious boy named Gerald Bostock. Thick as a Brick was the first Jethro Tull album to reach #1 on the (US) Billboard Pop Albums chart (the following year’s A Passion Play being the only other; the featured songs on either album were over 40 minutes long). This album’s quintet—Anderson, Barre, Evan, Hammond and Barlow—was one of Tull’s longest-standing line-ups, enduring until 1975.
1972 also saw the release of Living in the Past, a double-album compilation of singles, B-sides and outtakes (including the entirety of the “Life Is a Long Song” EP, which closes the album), with a single side recorded live in 1970 at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The live tracks excepted, it is regarded by many Tull fans as their best overall release. The title track (in 5/4 time) is one of their more enduring singles, though reportedly Anderson wrote it with the specific intent of preventing its ascent to the pop charts.
In 1973, the band attempted to record a double album in tax exile at Chateau d’Herouville (something the Rolling Stones and Elton John among others were doing at the time), but supposedly they were unhappy with the quality of the recording studio and abandoned the effort, subsequently mocking the studio as the “Chateau d’Isaster.” (An excerpt from these recordings was released on the 1988 20 Years of Jethro Tull boxed set. The complete set was later released on the 1993 compilation Nightcap). Instead they quickly recorded and released A Passion Play, another single-track concept album with very allegorical lyrics. After several years of increasing popularity, A Passion Play sold well but received generally poor reviews. Up until this point, Ian Anderson had a friendly relationship with the rock press, but this album marked a turning point for the band. They had passed the peak of their popularity with the critics, even though their popularity with the public continued. However, 1974’s War Child, an album originally intended to be a companion piece for a film, reached number 2 on the Billboard charts and received some critical acclaim, and produced the radio mainstay “Bungle in the Jungle”. It also included a song, “Only Solitaire”, allegedly aimed at L.A. Times rock music critic Robert Hilburn, who was one of Anderson’s harsher critics. In 1975 the band released Minstrel in the Gallery, an album which resembled Aqualung in that it contrasted softer, acoustic guitar-based pieces with lengthier, more bombastic works headlined by Barre’s electric guitar. Critics gave it mixed reviews, but the album ultimately came to be acknowledged as one of the band’s most-beloved albums by longtime Tull fans, even as it generally fell under the radar to listeners familiar only with Aqualung. Following this album, bassist Hammond left the band, replaced by John Glascock.
1976’s Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! was another concept album, this time about the life of an aging rocker. Anderson, stung by critical reviews (particularly of A Passion Play), responded with more sharply-barbed lyrics. The press seemed oblivious to the ploy, and instead asked if the title track was autobiographical — a charge Anderson hotly denied.
During the early 1970’s Tull went from a progressive blues band to one of the largest concert draws in the world. In concert, the band was known for theatricality and long medleys with brief instrumental interludes. While early Tull show featured a manic Anderson with bushy hair and beard dressed in tattered overcoats and ragged clothes, as the band became bigger he moved towards varied costumes. This culminated with the War Child tour’s oversized codpiece and colorful costume. Other band-members joined in the dress-up, with Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond dressed in a black and white diagonally striped outfit, John Evans dressed in a white suit, etc. Live shows featured interactive interludes including on-stage phone calls, brief films, and performance art such as costume play “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles”.
As the band moved to a more settled style in the late 1970s, so too did Ian and the crew move towards more serene outfits and stage antics. Anderson often dressed as a country squire on tours in the late 1970s. However, the climactic conclusion of shows still included bombastic instrumentals and the famous giant balloons which Anderson would carry aloft over his head and toss into the crowd.
The band closed the decade with a trio of folk rock albums, Songs from the Wood, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch. Songs from the Wood was the first Tull album to receive unambiguously positive reviews since the time of Benefit and Living in the Past.
The band had long had ties to the folk-rockers Steely Span. Although not formally considered a part of the folk-rock movement (which had actually begun nearly a decade earlier with the advent of Fairpor5t convention), there was clearly a lot of exchanging of musical ideas between Tull and the folk-rockers. Also, at this time Anderson had moved to a farm in the countryside, and his new bucolic lifestyle is clearly reflected in these albums. In particular, the title track of Heavy Horses is a paean to draft horses.
The band continued to tour, and released a live double album in 1978. Entitled Bursting Out it featured dynamic live performances of the lineup that many Tull fans consider the golden era of the band. It also features Anderson’s often-ribald stage banter with the audience and band members. (“David’s gone for a pee. Ah, he’s back. Did you give it a good shake?”) The vinyl LP contains three tracks not found on initial CD editions, Martin Barre’s guitar solo tracks “Quatrain” and “Conundrum” and a version of the 1969 UK single hit, “Sweet Dream.” These tracks were restored in a re-mastered double-CD edition released in 2004.
During this time, David Palmer who had orchestrated some strings for earlier Tull albums, formally joined the band, mainly on keyboards. Bassist Glascock died in 1979 following heart surgery and Stormwatch was completed without him (Anderson contributed bass on a few tracks). Anderson decided to record his first solo album.
Due to pressure from Chrysalis Records, Anderson released his solo album as a Jethro Tull album in 1980. Entitled A (taken from the labels on the master tapes for his scrapped solo album which had been marked simply A for Anderson), it featured Barre on electric guitar, Dave Pegg (Fairport Convention) on bass, and Mark Craney on drums. The album had a heavy electronic feel. It had a sound and feel completely unlike anything Tull had exhibited before, highlighted by prominent use of synthesizers.
In keeping with the mood of innovation surrounding the album, Tull made an early foray into the emerging genre of music video with Slipstream, a movie of their concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in September, 1980 featuring the A lineup. The electronic style of the album was even more pronounced in these live performances and was used to striking effect on some of the older songs, including “Locomotive Breath”. The more familiar Tull sound was brought to the fore in an all acoustic version of “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day” featuring Pegg on mandolin. Slipstream, long a rarity on VHS, was in 2004 included as a bonus DVD with the digitally-remastered edition of the A album.
Jobson and Craney departed following the A tour and Tull entered a period of revolving drummers Peter John Vettese replaced Jobson on keyboards, and the band returned to a folkier sound — albeit with synthesizers — for 1982’s Broadsword and the Beast. 1981 marked the first year in their album career that the band did not release an album.
An Anderson solo album finally saw the light of day in 1983, in the form of the heavily electronic Walk into Light. As with later solo efforts by Anderson and Barre, some of these songs later made their way into Tull live sets.
In 1984 Tull released Under Wraps, a heavily electronic album. Although the band was reportedly proud of the sound, the album was not well-received, particularly in North America, and as a result of the throat problems Anderson developed singing the demanding Under Wraps material on tour, Tull went on a three-year hiatus during which Anderson began a highly successful salmon-farming business.
Tull returned stronger than anyone might have expected with 1987’s Crest of a Knave. With Vettese absent (Anderson contributed the synth programming) and the band relying more heavily on Barre’s electric guitar than they had since the early 1970s, the album was a critical and commercial success. They went on to win a 1989 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, beating odds-on favorites Mettalica. The award was particularly controversial as many did not consider Jethro Tull hard rock, much less heavy metal. The fact that it was the first time a Grammy geared towards metal was presented it was seen as a particularly hard blow and insult for heavy metal fans (after this, and perhaps because of this, separate Grammys were awarded for hard rock and heavy metal in the following years). Under advisement from their manager, no one from the band turned up to the award ceremony. They were told that they had no chance of winning, lucky for them, as soon as they were announced the winners metal fans in the audience booed. In response to the criticism they received over the award, the band then took out an advert in a British music periodical with the line, “The flute is a heavy metal instrument!”.
The style of Crest has been compared to that of Dire Straits, in part because Anderson seemed to no longer have the vocal range he once possessed. Tull’s frank treatment of sexuality was unabated, however. The album contains the popular live song “Budapest”, which depicts a backstage scene with a shy local female stagehand. The staging on the 1989 tour (supporting Rock Island) featured projected silhouettes of lithe dancers during the song “Kissing Willie”, ending with an image that bordered on pornographic. Another song from Rock Island called “Big Riff and Mando” reflects life on the road for the relentlessly touring musicians, giving a wry account of the theft of Barre’s prized mandolin by a star-struck fan.
1988 was notable for the release of 20 Years of Jethro Tull, a 5-LP themed set (also released as an unthemed 3-CD set and as a truncated single CD version) consisting largely of outtakes from throughout the band’s history as well as a variety of live and digitally remastered tracks. It also included a booklet outlining the band’s history in detail.
After Rock Island, the band released Catfish Rising, Roots to Branches and J-Tull Dot Com that are less heavy-rock-based than Crest of a Knave was. While Catfish Rising has an overtly bluesy feel to it, the other two albums incorporate more folk and world-music influences, reflecting the musical influences of decades of performing all around the globe. In songs such as “Out of the Noise” and “Hot Mango Flush”, Anderson paints vivid pictures of 3rd-world street scenes. These albums have reflected Anderson’s coming to grips with being an old rocker, with songs such as the pensive “Another Harry’s Bar”, “Wicked Windows” (a meditation on reading glasses) and the gruff “Wounded, Old, and Treacherous”.
1992’s A Little Light Music was a mostly-acoustic live album which was well received by fans due to its different takes on many past compositions. This record also boasts of the arguably best vocal performance from Anderson in several years, as well as a rendition of the folk song “John Barleycorn.”
In 1995 Anderson released his second solo album, Divinities: Twelve Dances with God, an instrumental work comprising 12 flute-heavy pieces that pursue varied themes with an underlying motif.
The band has endured into the 21st century and has continued to release new albums on a semi-regular basis. Recently, Anderson’s voice seems to have regained some of its previous range. 2003 saw the release of The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, which showcases the excellent musical abilities of all the band members with a collection of traditional Christmas songs together with old and new Christmas songs written by Jethro Tull.
As of April 2005, according to the official Tull website, Anderson said the band has no plans to record any new studio albums in the near future and that he would prefer to dedicate his time to touring with both Tull and his solo Rubbing Elbows band. He would also like to make more guest appearances with other musicians, live and in the studio. There was an Ian Anderson live double album and DVD released in 2005 called Ian Anderson Plays the Orchestral Jethro Tull. In addition, a DVD entitled Nothing Is Easy: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 and a live album Aqualung Live (recorded in 2004) were released in 2005.
Ex-drummer Mark Craney, from the short-lived 1980-1981 line-up, died of diabetes and pneumonia on November 26th, 2005. He had suffered through a history of health problems including kidney ailments, paralysis and a heart condition; a number of Tull members (including Anderson) contributed to a recent charity album, Something with a Pulse, to help Craney pay medical bills and return to health.
The band has discussed the possibility of recording a new studio album by October 2006, which to date hasn’t materialized. The band has evolved into a “family” now working with a large group of different musicians on both sides of the ocean, playing alternately acoustic, orchestral and electric sets.