Partly autobiography, partly armchair musicology—first published on another, now-defunct blog, The Baker Street Underground, on 10th Sept. 2009, but now transplanted here.
I first heard the music – or first heard it consciously, which is to say that I first listened – in the summer of 1980. I was fifteen, freshly sprung from my ninth-grade year and not yet ready for my tenth. My brother Scott had just graduated and was bound for university. During that pre-college summer, Scott’s friend and soon-to-be roommate J— stowed some of his belongings, mostly books and LPs as I recall, at our place. At that time, J was a sky-gazing, sandal-wearing evangelical with Godspell hair and a penchant for long, roving walks, the very type of the nondenominational Jesus freak. He was older than Scott, and he’d been out of high school for a bit, but he continued to live with his family nearby – until that summer, when his family moved out from under him, maybe as far as out of state. I don’t remember, or didn’t know, the details. Anyway, J needed somewhere to stash his stuff. That was how our garage came to house milk crates and paper sacks full of books (some by Vonnegut, I remember) and how my brother’s closet became the resting place for a crate or two of LPs. These crates held J’s freewheeling, frankly aimless collection of rock and pop, a grab-bag of stuff including, let’s see if I can remember, Sparks, the Motels, Leon Redbone, Trickster, early Electric Light Orchestra (a bunch of those), even Steeleye Span. Lots of others, too, that I can’t remember. Genre-wise, what all those LPs had in common was being slightly left-of-center and not being what we then called “hard rock.” Also in that crate, or crates, were several albums by a band with the improbable – and, as I would later learn, borrowed – name of Jethro Tull.
Packaging must have had something to do with the allure of those Tull albums. This Was, I think, was one of them, probably the least alluring of the bunch, what with its cover photo of shaggy old men and hound dogs:
Then there was Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die, with its comic-strip gatefold, and certainly Heavy Horses and Thick as a Brick. Of course Thick as a Brick had for its cover that famous mock-newspaper, the St. Cleve Chronicle: a complete paper it seemed, and an endlessly diverting schoolboy lark, full as it was with tongue-thrusting satire and wiseacre in-jokes. That probably gave it the visual edge, among all the LPs in J’s collection.
I can’t remember whether it was my best friend Steve or I who first suggested that we listen to Brick, but Steve and I were a two-man thinktank anyway, happily joined in a brotherhood of bookishness, fantasy, and growing alienation and misanthropy, albeit of a quiet, unthreatening kind. We cued each other constantly, and shared ideas. Tull was our mutual discovery. “Our” music – a smattering of orchestral music, particularly nineteenth-century Romanticism, followed later by pop and rock with a touch of same – had already been stubbornly different from other teens’, as was our nascent worldview, a nerdy fusion of fantasy, SF, peripatetic day-hiking, and awestruck, look-to-the-skies metaphysical pondering: Romantic revivalism (though we didn’t know it) meets scientific wonkery. I had had a thing for Top 40 pop, which I tuned in via a bedside clock radio and which had me tracing the chart fortunes of certain records, but that moment was short-lived, a mere blip; the tastes Steve and I shared were to last a lot longer. I suppose that’s the period when my imagination began to turn darker, toward an apocalyptic sense of the world’s fragileness and a desire, just maybe, to see it all swept away in a SF-movie scenario (After the Floods was the name of one of our imaginary film projects). As I’ve said, I was fifteen.
I was diverging just then from the shared stories – spy thrillers, superhero tales, SF – that my brother Scott had, in essence, scripted for the two of us to act out in pre-secondary school days. Scott had always been the lodestar to my imagination, but by then we were growing up, and at different rates. I was at last going my own way, or at least a different way. Scott was, after all, crucially older than me: not by so very much, really, but a critical three school years ahead, three all-important years in the social clocking of adolescence. He was thus in a different social world. Once in high school, I didn’t have Scott’s stories to stoke mine. Still, I continued to thrill to a good story, as did Steve. Together we made up a bunch of stories, usually in person rather than in writing, and we had schemes: we would escape the orbit of Earth, and all its problems, in the spacecraft Celebnar (named for Tolkien), which would gradually inch up towards light speed thanks to a revolutionary ion drive; we would make movies, and tell stories, and literally map out new worlds, as in the high-fantasy maps and role-playing dungeon grids we would design together. In short, we were an unselfconscious two-person geekdom. Jethro Tull turned out to be a big rock thrown into our small pond.
When we first put on Thick as a Brick, we were unsure if not skeptical. At the least, we were uncertain about how to declare our enthusiasm for this new music. After all, we didn’t “rock,” at least not uninhibitedly, and some of the lyrics – hell, from the first verse on – posed the threat and the thrill of the illicit, the profane and nasty. At least that’s how it felt to me. This was, for the both of us, an experiment. Its effects on me would prove to be deep and lasting.
That summer, even that very week when we first began listening to Tull, Steve and I were making a tape – an audio letter and mix tape of sorts – for our mutual friend Andy, who was away for the summer. Using the TEAC cassette deck that my father had bought years before, which had sliders and bouncing needles and toggle switches aplenty, we recorded ourselves conversing (the audio letter part) along with some purely musical interludes. I remember that we began by putting Thick as a Brick on in the background and then talking over it for several minutes. We had listened to the album perhaps once or twice by then, or maybe we hadn’t even listened to it all the way through. It was a brand-new find. One of us said, on microphone, over the sound of Tull jamming, that Thick as a Brick “wasn’t the best” but it was interesting. It didn’t take long for Steve and I to decide that Tull was the best.
Of course we couldn’t admit, right away, that we were wholly beguiled by the sound and the attitude of this “rock” band. But we were. Over the next four to five years, Tull would become the index of my adolescence: my favorite band, a source of unending interest and sheer contrarian pride shared with Steve, a major part of the soundtrack of my high school and college days, and my entryway into a lot of other musics, from progressive rock to folk-rock to electrified and eventually more traditional acoustic folk. The irony is that we caught on to Tull just as they were in decline, and, commercially speaking, sputtering. That made no difference to me. Between late 1980, around the time of Tull’s A album, and 1984, the time of their commercially disastrous Under Wraps, I absorbed very nearly all of the Tull canon, despite not being able to afford to buy albums as often as I would have liked and not being able to see the band live. By 1981 I could be counted on to sing by heart, or to fill notebook pages with, Tull lyrics: from Heavy Horses, from War Child, even from the one very popular Tull album that I did not own my own copy of, Aqualung. (I hardly needed a copy of Aqualung, the sounds of which were inescapable back then.) By 1982 I thought of albums like Songs from the Wood as classics, and I waited with frothing eagerness on the new Tull album, The Broadsword and the Beast. By 1983 I had heard most of the Tull albums and knew many of them as well as I knew anything. When I went to college at UC Santa Barbara in late 1983, Steve went too, in fact he was my roommate, and whatever Tull albums I didn’t have he was likely to have, so together we had a fair collection. By then Tull had become an enveloping part of my life. I was a fan.
Some of the friends I’ve made in the second half of my life are flummoxed by this fact. I’m sometimes mystified by it myself. Over the years, though, I’ve had time to puzzle out what it was about this music and the persona of this band that drew me in. A big part of the draw, I know, was simply that Tull was something I shared: the fact that Steve and I were both Tullites strengthened our friendship, which had already been cemented by shared likes and dislikes and by Steve’s smarts, which I admired, and his appetite for books, which I envied. Tull was the kind of music you could believe was made solely for you, alone, but that you wanted to share with some other like-minded misfit. It was perfect for the kind of contrarian stance-taking that Steve and I had been rehearsing (though we wouldn’t have put it that way) as we teetered on the cusp of high school. Tull was about the souring of a certain kind of childhood, but in a most beguiling way.
The music helped. Genre-wise, Tull was/is a difficult act to pigeonhole, but its prog-rock dynamism and swerving changes in style and mood were right up my street. It was tricky music that rewarded the patience and flattered the intelligence of fans, but it never failed to deliver a wicked visceral jolt by way of surprising lunges and reversals. Spinning, shifting, swooping, with a drastic, freewheeling eclecticism – that was Tull, a stitchwork of acoustic delicacy and sudden, pouncing electric mayhem, a mix, sometimes subtle, sometimes cheerfully vulgar, of “rock” and “folk” and “jazz” and “classical” elements.
Over the years I would learn about the history of the band and its stylistic wanderings, and about the irony of discovering Tull when I did, at the moment when their arena-frontrunner status was petering out. I was a latecomer, after all. At the outset, circa 1968, Tull had been basically a jazz-inflected electric blues band, on the heels of Clapton and Cream: a relative latecomer in that British blues subculture that had blossomed into unexpected mainstream popularity in the latter sixties. They came a few steps behind the Rolling Stones, whose smart, slashing rock ’n’ roll and R&B set the standard, and hard on the heels of Cream and of course the Jimi Hendrix Experience, psychedelic-era bands that favored stretched-out, indulgent live soloing and a big, muscular, concert hall-filling sound. Cream was, for Tull, the obvious reference point; Tull’s first album, This Was, even included a loud Claptonesque cover of “Cat’s Squirrel,” a traditional blues instrumental worked up by Cream for their first album. What set Tull apart was their eccentric, shambling manner: not only a yen for country blues to leaven the hard-rocking, Chicago-inspired electric stuff (after all, the Stones had done this too), but also a winking humor and a taste for odd musical flourishes, abetted by original guitarist Mick Abraham’s easy-going, ambling character and a loping, loose-limbed, jazz-loving rhythm section – a brilliant rhythm section, I should say, consisting of Glenn Cornick’s sauntering bass and Clive Bunker’s spry, drolly inventive drumming. Though Tull were a blues band, they seemed game to try anything, and determined to have fun while doing it, the fun of British blues having not yet been entirely replaced by the lowering menace of hard rock (a road that Tull would eventually go down, throttle wide open).
What most set Jethro Tull apart, though – besides their absurd name, nicked from an eighteenth-century agriculturalist and inventor – was their attention-getting front man, lead singer and songwriter, and de facto spokesman, the capering, posturing, eye-rolling, coattail-trailing, gloriously unkempt Scotsman Ian Anderson, whose vocals were ragged, nasal, and sometimes difficult to make out, and who, improbably, played the flute more often than he played anything else.
In 1968, from a strict business point of view, Anderson the flautist must have seemed the one dispensable member of the band, but, despite his lack of musical virtuosity and polish, he dominated Tull by virtue of his sheer will and his writing. His flute-playing style, rough, growling, and spluttery – at times he seemed to talk or bark or mew into the instrument – was learned quickly, by dint of desperation and with the influence of American jazzman Roland Kirk (later Rahsaan Roland Kirk), whose “Serenade to a Cuckoo” was reportedly the first full piece Anderson learned to play. (It shows up on This Was.) The wild-eyed, somewhat seedy-looking Anderson, fronting a noisy electric blues band and competing for attention, ran with Kirk’s technique, exaggerating it with mad onstage antics: diddling the flute like a make-believe phallus, hopping around, standing on one leg while playing – source of the iconic Tull logo used in later years – and even strumming the damn flute like a mock guitar while the real guitarists took solos. He gave Tull not only a unique “sound” but an endearingly weird onstage persona. He also made it impossible for others in the band to grab the spotlight for too long. Abrahams, his only rival for band leadership, got the sack in short order, and right away Anderson, perhaps embarrassed by his mimicry of black American blues singers and certainly eager to do something more decidedly “British,” began to nudge Tull away from the orbit of pure blues. He also began trying to bootstrap himself up to a better standard of playing.
The difference can be felt immediately on the band’s second album, Stand Up (which, back in 1980, I was not to hear for several years). That marvelous album, as good as any by Tull, pushes the once-bluesy band in two directions. On the one hand, the blues get amped up and driven into starker hard rock territory, without the easy lilt of the first record but with a sharper attack. If Tull’s blues had already been a bit fractured – take for example “Beggar’s Farm,” a song from This Was, with its patchwork structure and tempo shifts – Stand Up leans hard away from the traditional. Its opening cut, “A New Day Yesterday,” a mournful blues, has a stuttering riff that climbs, then falls, then shoots upward again. The song marks one of the few times after 1968 that Anderson would play harmonica on record; in later years, sans harmonica, it would become a Tull concert staple and an excuse for lengthy flute-soloing. The closing track, the angry “For a Thousand Mothers,” again takes a snarling blues-based riff in a tricky direction, rising up one-two-three, then descending in a mad flurry of notes. Decorated with skirling flute, the song has an abrupt, hiccoughing quality, trumping “Beggar’s Farm”: it stops and starts again in what would become a Tull trademark. “For a Thousand Mothers” doesn’t swing – a common complaint about Tull – but it does rock, hard enough.
On the other hand, Stand Up explores other genres and sounds, firing off in several directions at once. “Bourée,” a syncopated take on Bach, nods to the band’s jazz influences, propelled as much by Glenn Cornick’s nimble walking bass as by Anderson’s flute (this too became a concert staple). Several songs sidle in the direction of folk, not only the droll “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square” and “Fat Man,” both with drummer Clive Bunker on hand drums, but also two ballads, “Look Into the Sun” and “Reasons for Waiting.” The latter is a very tender song, underscored by an almost-churchly organ and graced with ravishing strings courtesy of orchestral arranger David Palmer, which nonetheless speeds up and slows down in right Tullish fashion, with sudden frantic passages of flute. The whole album, then, has a willfully eclectic, sample-case quality, the more so because Anderson tries his hand at other instruments including not only acoustic guitar (this would become his other signature instrument) and organ but also piano and, in “Fat Man,” balalaika. New lead guitarist Martin Barre, forever after Anderson’s right-hand man, also doubles on flute somewhere. In short, Stand Up has about it an air of inspiring fooling around.
What happened to Tull after Stand Up was that the schizoid split between driving rock and gentle “folk” became more obvious, with the rock growing harder and less light-footed and the folk stuff growing edgier and gloomier, showing more plainly the influence of radical singer-songwriter and flatpicker Roy Harper, an idol of Anderson’s. That’s my take on Benefit, Tull’s third album – the last with Cornick – by which point Tull were in step with harbingers of hard rock and heavy metal like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Mountain, Free, etc. Then, one step further along, the rock and folk would be reconciled, or decisively jammed together anyway, in songs of jigsaw puzzle-like complexity: that’s the stuff of Aqualung, Tull’s fourth and most famous LP. Aqualung’s notorious title track has by my count seven discrete sections, with dynamic shifts so exaggerated that after the transitions my ears, still ringing from the heavy stuff, can barely make out the quieter acoustic passages. This is true of every anthemic staple on Aqualung, including “Locomotive Breath,” with its coy piano prelude, courtesy of new keyboardist John Evan; “Cross-Eyed Mary,” with its eerie, flute-driven buildup to the riff-driven main event; “My God,” with its vague, tempo-less flatpicking acoustic intro and mock-choral middle (a duet for flute and Mellotron, of all things); and “Wind Up,” with, again, plaintive piano, and, like “Aqualung,” a stuttering, multisectional structure, with lots of stopping, starting, and shifting. Between these jigsawing anthems are brief, Harper-influenced acoustic solo or near-solo numbers such as “Cheap Day Return,” which are more pensive or regretful than whimsical, as well as at least one song that defies easy categorization, “Mother Goose,” which, bedecked with schoolboyish recorder parts and echoing old nursery rhymes, somehow manages to be whimsical and ominous at the same time. But it’s the grand-standing, convulsive, electro-acoustic anthems that lord it over the rest. Underneath all this stuff, the old, hand-me-down blues can just barely be heard, like a memory, the bluesy guitar licks now tricked out as nervy, baroque riffs. In short, as of Aqualung, the Tull sound had become so restless, exaggeration-prone, and magniloquent as to qualify as prog rock.
Steve and I liked prog rock, as it turned out.
If Aqualung represents the culmination and end of something, it also was the launchpoint of something else. The most popular Tull record, it is also the last one – and, besides Benefit, the only one – that belongs so thoroughly to the hard rock genre and the so-called album-oriented rock (AOR) radio format that coiled around said genre during the early seventies, the progenitor of what later came to be called (my, aren’t we old) “classic rock.” In hindsight, it seems obvious that working strictly within that genre was not something Anderson and Co., or at least Anderson, wanted to keep on doing; in fact by 1971 Tull were doing all they could to push, or exhaust, the hard rock formula. The long, heavy numbers on Benefit and especially Aqualung show Anderson trying to treat rock as a compositional art, as something that could be sustained over longer and longer forms. In short, after 1970 Tull was absolutely an “album” as opposed to a singles band, working toward tighter, more thematically unified LPs. If this sounds overweening, it was.
In hindsight, it’s clear that Tull were simply following, albeit in grand form, a trend that rock in general followed after the mid-sixties: away from occasional music toward music that demanded its own occasions, from the social drives of dance music to a different imperative, that of vaulting ambition and would-be autonomy from everything but the worship of “rock” as an ideal. As rock became, more and more, music of the outsized gesture and punishingly loud volume, Tull was there, riding and helping spur that trend. To say that this was no longer dance music would be crushingly obvious. Certainly Tull’s music demanded attention on other terms; the aim was to overawe the audience with loudness and force, while giving license to Anderson’s melodic gifts. As critics sometime observed, you could often hum Tull but not dance to it. The band became album-oriented despite the fact that some of its best early records were concise and economical singles: “Life’s a Long Song,” “Sweet Dream,” and “Witch’s Promise” (all collected on Living in the Past, a lavish compilation released shortly after Aqualung as if to document and lay to rest the band’s first four years). Tull chafed even at the success of Aqualung, as if they found the album-oriented hard rock label too straitjacketing. Remarkably, the band’s popularity in America peaked with the follow-up to Aqualung – that is, Thick as a Brick, the first of their undisputed prog-rock albums, which became a Billboard number-one album in the U.S. in June 1972.
Of course I didn’t know any of this when Brick introduced me to Tull some eight years later, in the summer of ’80. What I did know was that the music was outrageous and startling, from the sudden instrumental jab at the word shout, to the way (new) drummer Barrie Barlow’s rapid-fire fills doubled the stammering, fourteen-note riff during the first full-blown electric section, to the repeated recapping of the piece’s opening acoustic guitar figure, to the odd segues between sections – those transitions, some smooth, some jagged, that stitched together the whole crazy thing. I couldn’t have described the music clearly at the time (even now it’s difficult, since I am not a musicologist) but it was exciting on a gut level, and even then I knew that it was brainy. I also knew that Tull had attitude, as evinced by the effrontery of the opening lines, Really don’t mind if you sit this one out…, and the outrage, sarcasm, and occasional hermetic inscrutability that followed. And then, of course, there was the album cover, that great satirical folly, in tune with but also leavening, even mocking, the spirit of the music. That cover was a great timewaster, with its absurd news copy, mock ads and features, repeated nonsense phrases, and, up front, the story and likeness of the fictive Gerald Bostock, a.k.a. “Little Milton,” the schoolboy pedant, said to be the author of “Thick as a Brick,” an “epic poem” censored for its untoward snottiness and unwholesome contempt for God and country. We just ate this stuff up, Steve and I. What a hoot! Though at first I was, as I’ve said, careful to keep my distance from this dangerous stuff, it didn’t take long for Thick as a Brick to become a talisman to me – some eight years after it had hit the top of the charts.
To this day I continue to wonder, why Tull? Why did it turn out to be Tull, exactly, and not some other act, that swept me headlong into hard rock and prog rock and all the rest? Apart from the sheer bracing lunatic force of the music, where was the appeal? This is a question I’ll approach in my next installment, partly for its autobiographical value and partly because I believe it has implications for the understanding of prog rock in general.
To be continued…
…for bringing to life for me so many performers and bands I would otherwise not be able to visualize.
I have a talent for unhipness. I seem to alight on performers and bands who are either woefully inaccessible from where I’m living or, to put it plainly, defunct, or past their reputed glory days (or rock star days, if they ever had them). Many of my favorite rock performers, for example, are strictly phonograph records to me. In some cases I can more readily conjure album artwork (have you read the wonderful For the Love of Vinyl, the Hipgnosis story?) than I can the faces or personae of singers and band members.
After many years’ hiatus, it’s odd to be able to put names and faces together in a way that I never could during my undergrad years, when I was steeped in art rock and other forms of musical esoterica. The source of this pleasant oddness is YouTube and other online video-sharing sources (but YouTube mainly). Here are some examples of what I mean:
Of uncertain provenance and uneven technical quality, and in many cases perhaps uploaded in violation of copyright, these are still gems to me. Welcome home, you total strangers.
For the fun of it, and for the sake of kick-starting this blog back to life…
Pending: an analysis-cum-memoir about Jethro Tull…
But for their excellence, Gentle Giant could be the quintessential prog band. They were British, of course, and absolutely of the 1970s. They were just successful enough commercially to eke out a decade-long career, while never successful enough to do more than bounce briefly (once, in the mid-seventies) off the windscreen of the Top 40. Their following, though ardent, never mushroomed into the arena-sized audiences enjoyed by standard-bearers like Jethro Tull, Yes, Pink Floyd, or Genesis. In all this they were probably typical, if we grant that genres are defined not by their reigning examples but by the aspirations of their more poignantly obscure practitioners. What the Giant had was devoted geek-fans, insiders, especially in Europe (Italy and Germany in particular). Today the situation isn’t so very different; though remembered avidly by a certain fandom, the band remains comparatively obscure…
… and yet, surprisingly, not so obscure, for a group that, after all, hasn’t performed for well more than a quarter of a century. Compared to other second-tier prog acts of the seventies, the Giant has proved to be a lasting draw. Continue reading
An odd album review to start with, perhaps, but this should show my aesthetic biases clearly enough:
Already more than fifteen years old – man, time does march, eh? – Jethro Tull’s Nightcap was one of several “25th Anniversary” Tull packages released in 1993. A curious anniversary gift, it serves as efficient and dispiriting confirmation, if such were needed, of the protracted wilting of a once-lively band.
A compilation of (mostly) previously unreleased tracks fitfully spanning the years 1973 to 1991, Nightcap, while throwing a sop to completists, inadvertently does the work of contrasting early mid-seventies Tull with the band’s later, eighties-into-nineties incarnations. To say that this contrast is unflattering would be a knockout punch of an understatement. Ditto the observation that Nightcap is far from cohesive: if not for the anchoring presence of Ian Anderson’s singing (and even that comes in drastically different styles and timbres here), Nightcap would sound like the work of at least two, maybe three or four, different bands. Continue reading
Spin me down the long ages / let them sing the song…
For some time I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about art rock, a genre that I’ve got a love-hate relationship with. Jethro Tull was/is the pivotal art rock band of my adolescent (15 to 20) years, and being a Tullite was once one of the ways I identified myself. I learned much by listening intently to and hunting after all things Jethro Tull for a few years. That band meant a lot to me, and I suppose still does. With that in mind, I here begin an occasional blog about music in general and Tull in particular (with a tip of the hat to college chums and good friends Steve and Dio).
I first saw Scott Allen Nollen’s book Jethro Tull: A History of the Band, 1968-2001 in the book dealer’s room at an academic conference. I later got hold of it at my local branch of the Los Angeles County Public Library, and dug in. Here are my thoughts on this, one of several extant books about Tull: