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ProgBlog and the C18 agriculturalist

For someone who was into progressive rock in 1972, my appreciation of the music of Jethro Tull, indisputably one of the genre’s ‘big names’, came fairly late, even though my father used to whistle Living in the Past, which had been covered in 1971 by Canadian trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. From someone who would not infrequently refer to prog as ‘racket’, this was something of a revelation, despite my recollection of him also whistling along to The Doors’ Light My Fire after José Feliciano's cover version won a Grammy in 1969.

Tull were originally a blues band but the proto-prog of Stand Up hinted at the direction they were about to embark upon. I think that Stand Up, more than any other album from the Tull canon, was responsible for influencing Italian prog bands such as Alusa Fallax, Biglietto per l’Inferno, Capitolo 6 or Quella Vecchia Locanda where the flute has a pronounced attack. Overblowing, growling and humming counter-melodies were techniques Anderson picked up from Roland Kirk but the fledgling Italian bands also added guitar-bass-drums in the style of Jethro Tull. Though Stand Up represents the first of their albums that I like, the period between 1969 and 1982 is littered with hits and misses. My friend Bill was the first of my circle to buy any Tull albums and he bought into them in a fairly big way. I liked the more lofty concepts, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise, especially Thick as a Brick and Minstrel in the Gallery which evolved into an appreciation of the so-called prog-folk trio of albums beginning with Songs from the Wood.

Jethro Tull's pop-up Stand Up cover, re-created for CD

The first Tull album I actually bought was Heavy Horses, shortly after it came out in 1978, though it wasn’t my first choice when I entered the record store that day. I went into the shop and bought a copy of King Crimson’s Earthbound but finding the raw and bluesy 1972 live version of Crimson just a little too raw and bluesy, I took it back a little later and swapped it for the Tull with its mixture of rocking (the title track and No Lullaby) and more maudlin material; I was a mooching teenager who wrote naff poetry and I kind of liked the sentiment of Rover. Thick as a Brick followed in my first year at university, with its fold-out St Cleve Chronicle & Linwell Advertiser sleeve, Songs from the Wood came next followed by Aqualung the following academic year. Thick as a Brick and Aqualung were from a regular Wednesday haunt, the Lewisham branch of Our Price Records, as no lectures, tutorials or practicals were ever scheduled on Wednesday afternoons when the time was given over to inter-collegiate sports. Songs from the Wood was a summer 1979 acquisition and the prog-folk trilogy was completed when I bought Stormwatch for the princely price of 99p from a shop in Tooting during the Easter 1981 break when I stayed in London to revise for my finals.

The folk-laden sounds of Songs from the Wood, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch include a more divergent keyboard set-up following David (now Dee) Palmer’s promotion from string arrangements to being given a full role in the band as a second keyboard player but the bouncy, up-front bass lines of John Glascock, much more prominent than on the very uneven Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! which marked his debut, has an equally important role in the creation of a sonically distinct palette, bolstered by folklore-themed writing and album artwork. The pre-Christian references and ecological concerns of Songs from the Wood morphed into something approaching nostalgia for more simple times on the thematic menagerie of Heavy Horses and then gave way to political matters on Stormwatch (North Sea Oil, Dark Ages). Live - Bursting Out, recorded at the pinnacle of Tull’s presence on the live music circuit, came out five months after Heavy Horses.

Glascock was taken ill with a heart condition after the completion of the European tour used for the Bursting Out recordings and wasn’t well enough to play on all of Stormwatch, where most of the bass parts, sounding very much like Glascock, were provided by Anderson. Glascock died on 17th November 1979 of an illness related to a congenital heart disorder, the day Jethro Tull were performing the penultimate gig of a North American tour where Dave Pegg had been recruited to take on bass duties.

Having played 66 dates between October to November 1979 (in the USA) and March to April 1980 on the European leg of the Stormwatch tour the band had been due a long break so it came as something of an unpleasant surprise for Barrie Barlow, John Evan (both of whom were at school with Anderson) and Palmer to get a carbon-copy typed letter from Anderson on 4th July 1980 warning them that the story of the band’s break-up was going to be published in Melody Maker the next day. Anderson claimed that the story originated from Chrysalis Records boss Terry Ellis and that he was unable to prevent its publication, explaining that he was going to produce some music with some other musicians and that he didn’t know whether or not it was going to be put out under the Jethro Tull name.

Melody Maker, 5th July 1980

Originally intended as an Ian Anderson solo album, hence the title, A moved the music further away from prog, aligning with prevailing tastes and even venturing into pop territory. The subject matter covered more mundane matters (4WD) but also reflected on Cold War paranoia (the songs Fylingdale Flyer and Protect and Survive, reflected in the album artwork) and with hindsight it shouldn’t have been released as a Tull album. Even the recruitment of Eddie Jobson, who had been supporting Tull on tour as part of UK, failed to deliver anything like the music which made up the back catalogue. Needless to say, I bought the album shortly after its release in August 1980. 1982’s Broadsword and the Beast was the product of another line-up change, resulting in a planned stylistic move back towards the late 70s prog-folk, ‘a much more deliberate attempt to make an album that sounded like a Jethro Tull album’, according to Anderson and another record I’d buy at the time of its release. It didn’t take me long to decipher the runes on the sleeve and when the album’s 40th anniversary was covered in Prog magazine, it didn’t take long for me to translate the runes on the magazine cover which simply announced "WELCOME TO THE LATEST ISSUE OF PROG MAGAZINE


Translation of the runes on The Broadsword and the Beast

Anderson’s 1983 solo album Walk into Light and the following album Under Wraps put out under the Jethro Tull name in 1984 reversed the good work done with Broadsword by embracing a much more contemporary pop sound. Peter Vettese, the keyboard player on Broadsword was a substantial collaborator on both Walk into Light and Under Wraps, where a Vettese writing credit is absent on only four of the original vinyl’s eleven tracks. The songs are short and the electronic sound, with programmed drums, has been described as cold and soulless.

I’ve never owned any Jethro Tull album released after Under Wraps but I began filling the crucial gaps commencing in the CD age – Stand Up, A Passion Play, Minstrel in the Gallery and Bursting Out, later supplementing my Songs from the Wood LP with a CD and upgrading the Minstrel CD with a copy of the 40th Anniversary: La Grande Edition, then adding second-hand vinyl copies of A Passion Play, Minstrel in the Gallery and Bursting Out, which means the last Jethro Tull album in my collection is Broadsword, having given away my copy of Under Wraps.

ProgBlog's Jethro Tull on vinyl

While I neglected all new Jethro Tull releases for many years I continue to play the records in my collection. My interest in Thick as a Brick 2 (TAAB2), released as an Anderson solo album forty years after Thick as a Brick, kindled by articles in Prog magazine, was realised in 2014 when I bought a second-hand deluxe edition CD which I’ve only ever played a couple of times in the 10 years I’ve owned it. I’ll admit that the music is good and the concept of ‘whatever happened to Gerald Bostock?’ is quite entertaining but I’m not a great fan of the lyrics. On the other hand, I’m enough of a fan of Thick as a Brick to have invested in a copy of the 40th anniversary CD/DVD with its ‘colour supplement’, some 60 pages of previously unseen photos and text added to the cod-newspaper articles, bought at the same time as Thick as a Brick 2 from (the now closed down) Si’s Sounds in Lewes, though perhaps unusually for someone who likes Jethro Tull, I’m not particularly a fan of Aqualung. 

Jethro Tull special editions

Aqualung may have been the first of their canon I heard, played at Bill’s house where we could also listen to the compilation Living in the Past and Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young To Die! I find most of the music uninspiring and I wasn’t the only one of my coterie to lack an appreciation of the full Tull catalogue. According to the music industry, I was party to the murder of music because I recorded tapes for my brother to listen to as he didn’t have a record deck while he was away at university (the argument would have held more weight if artists hadn’t been ripped-off by a number of different actors within the music business). My LP was bought in the spring or summer of 1979 and transferred to tape over the summer holidays when I was back home in Barrow. The following is an extract from a letter written by my brother in September 1979:

There now follows a critique of “Thick as a Brick” which is based on numerous listenings and the rigid thought process of a closed mind. Show it to Bill as well. I don’t expect either of you to agree, as will become obvious!

In my opinion Tull have not progressed very far beyond this album with their later works (“Vocal recitals from the lignified angiosperm” and “Equine mammals of large mass” being the ones I have heard.) However, I shall not pursue that argument here, but may be induced to do so at a later date.

The vocals are a very important feature of this album and I suspect that they are present on about half the playing time. Unfortunately, I find them rather irritating. “Feeheeheeheeheeheeheels” or a similar variant ending many of the lines is not very imaginative and indeed becomes tedious quite rapidly. Mr Anderson’s aquistic [sic] guitar is undeniably jinky-jink, although his lack of inspiration here is redeemed to a certain extent by some excellent flute. The other musicians in the band are not really given many opportunities to demonstrate great virtuosity, because it is not that sort of an album. They are obviously competent, however. The drummer does get a solo – but then I’m not very enthusiastic about drum solos and anyway Bill would deny me the right to comment on his technique.

I feel that the strength of the composition throughout the album can be questioned. Much of the album consists of a few basic melodies, which are developed to a limited extent but not enough to maintain my interest. Other passages rely on rhythmic, almost mono-aural / monotonous (one sound!) thumps.

Both sides are a little disjointed, the second side possibly more than the first e.g. the progression on the second side through free-form jazziness, a quasi-choral passage, and classical guitar, direction eventually being established with a repetitive guitar riff and organ and vocal accompaniment. This leads on to the best part of the album – undiluted technorock, including a few unexpected bars of orchestral style – and played on strings – just before the end.

** (2 stars) Mike the Mod, NME

Mike says he doesn’t know whether or not to recommend his readers to “No Pussyfooting” instead. After all, it is much cheaper

I have to admit that my brother had a valid point about the derisive ‘jinky–jink’ guitar and the “Feeheeheeheeheeheeheels” but noting his use of the term ‘technorock’, a word we used to describe keyboard-led music before we actually heard the term ‘prog’, I think the use of organ is one of the high points of the album. ‘Vocal recitals from the lignified angiosperm’ is Songs from the Wood and ‘Equine mammals of large mass’ is Heavy Horses; the word ‘aquistic’ was made up, a portmanteau of ‘Aqualung’ and ‘acoustic’ to describe Ian Anderson’s guitar style. He also didn’t have the advantage of sitting with the St Cleve Chronicle in front of him, something that makes the album a genuine immersive experience and finally, the comment about not being allowed to criticise on the drum solo – Bill played the drums.

Hold the front page: The St Cleve Chronicle & Linwell Advertiser

If the cod-concept of Thick as a Brick was difficult for critics to swallow, A Passion Play, which I’d originally heard it in the mid-late 70s, took even more of a mauling. It’s without question difficult going, but ultimately worth the effort; if I have one issue with it it’s the heavy use of saxophone. Perhaps my favourite Tull album is the relatively unsung Minstrel in the Gallery. The title track has all the hallmark qualities of a prog anthem and the Anderson-dominated acoustic tracks feel more mature than previous material, possibly because of its reflective nature; on a recent play of the album I was reminded of how good Palmer was at string arrangements. Baker Street Muse is an almost side-long epic with its four subsections, and harkens back to classic long-form on both Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play. Spoken sections at the beginning and end of the album show that the band has not lost its sense of humour, much like The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles on A Passion Play.

I missed Tull’s first London appearances following my arrival in the capital in October 1978 when they played five sold-out nights at the Hammersmith Odeon in April 1980 promoting Stormwatch, which I really should have attempted to see, but I did manage to get tickets for their next London appearance, five months later on the 21st November at the Royal Albert Hall during the A tour. Unfortunately, the tickets were for the gallery parade, ‘the gods’, standing in the uppermost tier of the hall where the sound was atrocious and the quality of the material recorded for A was substandard. I might have appreciated some of the older Tull songs more if the acoustics had been better but my first visit to the Royal Albert Hall was bitterly disappointing. The next time I went to see them play live was at the Hammersmith Odeon promoting Under Wraps but even though a drummer had been drafted in, much of the music was poor.

Disappointing gigs in 1980 and 1984

The appearance of Anderson, playing a ‘best of Jethro Tull’ set at HRH Prog 4 in 2016 was one of the main attractions of the event and fortunately didn’t disappoint. His vocals may not be as strong as they once were but his flute playing, the quality of the other musicians and the choice of songs making up the set were all excellent.

Ian Anderson plays HRH Prog 4, 19th March 2016

In early 2018 the Jethro Tull front man featured on BBC Four’s Hits, Hype & Hustle series of films, offering some insightful recollections on the music business and then appeared as a sofa-guest on a new, one-off live Old Grey Whistle Test which was otherwise unremarkable from a prog point of view. These appearances happened to coincide with Tull’s 50th anniversary which was celebrated with a tour. The official programme bears the band’s name though my ticket for the concert in Bologna, when the tour had crept into the following year, bills the event as ‘Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson – 50th Anniversary Tour’. Hosted in the modern, acoustically perfect Teatro Europauditorium, we were treated to a set ranging from the blues of This Was to prog-folk of Heavy Horses with the songs punctuated by short videos from past members and famous fans. Anderson’s voice had degenerated even further in the four years since I’d last seen him but his flute-playing and his band were first-class, putting on a punchy performance, well worth an Italian detour!

Souvenir from Bologna, 30th March 2019

Anderson and Jethro Tull are still active, having released RökFlöte in April 2023, so it’s not unreasonable for Prog magazine to continue to feature them but it seems to me that since his appearances on TV shows in 2018, Anderson had been conferred with the status of an authoritative voice or an elder statesman. During the band’s 50 years, Anderson has always had the ability to express everyday things in a poetic way, such as ‘battlefield allotments’ visible from carriage windows on many suburban railway routes – the railway is one of the themes that run through his work. Yet while I like his observational style of lyrics, I think there’s a more important mark he’s made on the genre; out of all the prog bands that use flute, The Moody Blues or early Crimson, Gabriel-era Genesis or Focus or Camel or Van der Graaf Generator, or countless Italian bands, the first group you associate with flute is Jethro Tull.



A basic version of this article was first published in June 2014 under the title ‘Prog and the 18th century Agriculturalist’ and an amended article was posted in February 2018 after Anderson’s TV appearances, edited to reflect the ProgBlog experience during the intervening four years. Those blogs are no longer available on the internet.

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