Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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Jethro Tull

Reviewed on this page:
This Was - Benefit - Aqualung - Thick As A Brick - WarChild - Minstrel In The Gallery

More than a decade ago I hitched a ride with a Tull fanatic who insisted that if I was so crazy about all those other 60s rock bands, I couldn't go wrong with the Jethroes. He had a point. At their best, these guys sound a heck of a lot like several other British groups from the folk-jazz wing of the prog rock movement - especially Traffic. But they do have an Achilles' heel, namely, singer/songwriter/producer/flautist Ian Anderson. With famously theatrical stage antics, energetic flute parts, and colorful, slightly threatening lyrics, he surely embodies everything that makes the group stand out. But he's also egotistical, arcane, and stylistically narrow, and by the early 70s he'd wandered off into an artistic fantasy land that only a diehard could appreciate.

Tull got its start at the height of the late 60s British blues movement, but quickly moved in a more commercial, Beatles-influenced direction. After some early lineup changes, guitarist Martin Barre became Tull's only other mainstay. He's good, and a lot of their best tunes from their late 60s/70s peak feature him prominently. Once Anderson got wrapped up in concept albums the group ceased to generate singles hits - 1974's gimmicky "Bungle In The Jungle" was an exception - but their albums sold very strongly until the end of the decade. After falling into obscurity in the 80s, Anderson has revived the band and scored moderate critical and commercial successes during the current decade.

The semi-official Tull web site looks pretty good.

Thanks to Sami Merila for help with the discography. (JA)


Ian Anderson (vocals, flute, some keyboards, guitar, harmonica), Mick Abrahams (guitar), Clive Bunker (drums), Glenn Cornick (bass). Abrahams replaced by Martin Barre, 1969. Assorted lineup changes left Anderson and Barre the only constants by the mid-70s.

This Was (1968)
Want to know why Tull took a while to reach a mass audience? Just spin this disc. It's not at all bad - actually, it's enjoyable. But it's so utterly derivative that it doesn't stand out; they're riding the 1968 British blues boom for all it's worth, adding nothing more than some arty prog-rock trimmings a la Traffic, Procol Harum, or Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. Abrahams does try hard to make it work. He not only displays the expected mastery of Clapton-like Chicago blues ("It's Breaking Me Up") and Delta blues ("Some Day The Sun Won't Shine For You"; yeah, they do "Cat's Squirrel"), but also shows off his solid training in contemporary jazz guitar - you won't hear Mason, Trower or Green trying anything like that. They even cover Roland Kirk ("Serenade To A Cuckoo") and deliver an instrumental with an Elvin Jones-inspired drum solo ("Dharma For One"). But Anderson, already the bandleader and only serious songwriter, is short on ideas; the best songs do foreshadow their later hits, but they form a minority ("My Sunday Feeling," another blues; the shuffling "A Song For Jeffrey," with a great slide guitar part; "Beggar's Farm," with some pretty arpeggiation). Ironically, the most interesting tune is Abrahams' brief, 3/4-time "Move On Alone," with a clever horn arrangement. There's nothing substantial going on here, but at least it's a nice period piece. Co-produced by Terry Ellis. (JA)

Stand Up (1969)
Barre's first appearance with the band. Contrary to rumor, well-known jazz musician Rashaan Roland Kirk does not appear anywhere on the record, regardless of Anderson's Kirk influences. I've been told the record is quite good. The track listing does not include their British hit singles from this period, which resurfaced on Living In The Past: "Love Story," "Living In The Past," and "Sweet Dream." (JA)

Benefit (1970)
Tull's third record immediately preceded their long string of Top 10 albums. Despite ditching their purist jazz and blues influences, they hadn't gotten into their concept album/medieval mumbo-jumbo trip quite yet. So here they sound a heck of a lot like a wordy, professionalized version of the early-period Traffic, as on the psychedelic rocker "Play In Time," or the Barleycorn-like "Sossity"; even Anderson's singing style seems to owe a lot to Steve Winwood. Still, the solid, but modest rhythm section and Barre's well-practiced riffing edge the band towards the Beatles' crafted, commercial brand of acid rock. If you can cope with Anderson's nasal baritone and echoey flute playing, you'll probably enjoy every song. Anderson wrote the entire record. The tuneful "Inside" was the only A-side, but "Teacher," the B-side of a non-album track that was put on to the American version of the album, is unquestionably the biggest number - its driving beat, screeching guitar riff, and skating rink organ are oddly reminiscent of Steppenwolf. (JA)

Aqualung (1971)
Although two of their later LP's topped the charts and this one didn't, Aqualung is unquestionably the locus of the band's legend. Their first really coherent concept album, it's got plenty of AOR standards that combine heavy rock, driven by Barre's rhythm guitar, with breezy, lyrically arcane folk elements - "Cross-Eyed Mary," "Locomotive Breath," and the title track still get airplay a quarter century on. But outside of those crafted vehicles, the band gets mired down time and time again with light, monotonous folk-pop ballads, centering on Anderson's moaning, increasingly grating vocals and near-classical acoustic guitar playing; he again wrote all the tunes, despite crediting the title track to his wife. With the other band members laying off most of the time, adding a keyboard player and replacing the bassist doesn't seem to have helped much. So despite the hits and Anderson's endless supply of melodic riffs, the full album isn't really any better than its predecessor. The British hit single "Life Is A Long Song," backed with "Up The Pool," came out this year but isn't on the album. (JA)

Thick As A Brick (1972)
Anderson took a gamble here and won, propelling an album with two tracks (Side 1 and Side 2) and one song title (well, "Thick As A Brick") to the top of the American album charts. His cheekiness is amazing: the album cover is a faux newspaper with a string of self-referential Monty Python-like gags, and although the "movements" of this rock opera are clearly just a bunch of rock songs, they don't get separate titles. Worse, his lyrics have plunged off the deep end, ridden with clumsy sexual and scatalogical crudity; vague medieval references; arbitrary and anonymous character assassination; and meaningless, high-sounding exhortations. It's meant to shock and intrigue, but instead it's just a big obnoxious put-on. And the music? More of the same, although the band is much louder here, playing loads of grating, guitar-driven instrumentals, and overusing dynamics except on the radio-friendly lead-in segment, where the sturm und drang approach comes off brilliantly. Unfortunately, by the third time the tune comes around you'll be thinking the album could have been titled Variations On The Theme Of... The obvious musical and lyrical inspiration here is Side 2 of Abbey Road, and although the effort is admirable, you'd do better with the original. I won't rate the record because I refuse to subject myself to it the requisite three times. (JA)

Living In The Past (1972)
We don't review greatest hits records, but this isn't really one; instead, it's a compilation of the band's numerous hard-to-get early single sides - just a few songs like "Song For Jeffrey" also appeared on LPs. And indeed, it was a hot-selling gold album, with the revived title track becoming a huge Top 40 hit in the US. I have this and I think it's solidly entertaining, despite the recycling and some superfluous arcana like a couple of live instrumentals. (JA)

Passion Play (1973)
After the success of Brick, Anderson cranked out another concept album. And the two of them were the only Tull LP's to ever top the Billboard charts. (JA)

WarChild (1974)
By now Anderson was pushing a formula of radio-friendly rock that, oddly enough, showed a strong glam rock influence even at a time when glam was quickly fading. So most of the elaborately produced tunes here balance Barre's blustery rhythm guitar and the thumping rhythm section with saxophone, piano, accordion, strings, Anderson's flute, sound effects, and oddball instruments chosen for camp value. As with the best glam, the dynamics are exciting, the arrangements are tight, and the self-aware theatrical element makes up for the utter absence of emotional honesty (title track, reprised on "The Third Hoorah"). Even Anderson's usual mediaeval music obsession ("Ladies") and aimless folk stylings ("Only Solitaire") are kind of fun. All of this comes to a head with the two major radio favorites. The plodding-but-catchy, Wings-esque "Bungle In The Jungle" was a #2 hit in the US, their second and last Top 40 appearance despite its distracting string arrangement. "Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of The New Day" makes a joke of Tull's acoustic guitar-driven folk formula by adding vibes and gratuitous Indian instruments, but it's fun anyway. The rest is more of the same, always methodically crafted and never self-indulgent ("Queen And Country"; "Sealion") - although some of the usual patented Tull rock songs just don't fly ("Back-Door Angels"; "Two Fingers," with a snappy glam sax riff). The record doesn't mean a damn thing, but by the end Anderson might convince you that rock isn't supposed to. Terry Ellis gets an exec producer credit. (JA)

Minstrel In The Gallery (1975)
Another carefully produced AOR effort, once again benefitting from flashy dynamics, mordant humor, and unusual song structure and instrumentation, and this time featuring medieval concept album trimmings and a lot of string quartet parts that don't make much of a difference. Unfortunately, the tunes simply aren't memorable. Falling prey to his habit of pasting together poorly integrated musical snippets, Anderson stretches out the record beyond reasonable limits: only three tunes get standard running times ("Cold Wind To Valhalla," with slide guitar, tabla, and more strings; the quasi-classical acoustic ballads "Requiem" and "One White Duck/0^10 = Nothing At All"). The Yes-like, English folk-meets-hard rock title track is the closest thing to A-side material, but its funky, hard-hitting vocal section doesn't even begin until half-way through the eight-minute track. And rather disastrously, side 2 is entirely gobbled up by a dreary, extraordinarily elaborate multi-part suite ("Baker St. Muse"). The longwindedness is fine, I suppose, if you really dig solos - mostly Anderson on flute and Barre on guitar, and both of them do try hard ("Black Satin Dancer") - or just enjoy Anderson's pleasant acoustic guitar picking, which gets lots of air time. But the record basically misses the mark, despite being pretty and more tasteful than their last one. Produced by Anderson. (JA)

Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll, Too Young To Die (1976)
The same year Tull placed a Christmas EP called "Ring Out The Solstice Bells" in the British charts. (JA)

Songs From The Wood (1977)

Heavy Horses (1978)
Their last studio album to zoom up the charts, but it stalled at #19. (JA)

Bursting Out/Jethro Tull Live (1978)

Storm Watch (1979)
By now Tull was no longer a guaranteed commercial proposition. This was their last gold album for almost a decade, and it took longer to reach that mark than their previous efforts. (JA)

A (1980)
Bassist Dave Pegg (ex-Fairport Convention) joined the band at this point. I've read that Tull's early 80s albums tried to update the band's sound with electronic gimmickry. (JA)

Broadsword And The Beast (1982)

Walk Into Light (Anderson: 1983)
I have been told that Anderson's first solo album puts an emphasis on synth and drum machines. (JA)

Under Wraps (1984)
The lead-off track here, "Lap Of Luxury," was the single. (JA)

Crest Of A Knave (1987)
After years of diminished popularity, Tull struck back here with a gold album and a moderate chart hit. The mellow, Dire Straits-like Cold War bar pickup song "Said She Was A Dancer" was the single (it's not nearly as unusual as that may sound). Anderson seems to have put a lot of effort into it, playing not just flute and guitar but, on several numbers, keyboards and electronic drums. The rhythm section is Fairport Convention bassist Dave Pegg and either Anderson, Gerry Conway or Doane Perry on drums; the only other player is Fairport fiddler Ric Sanders, who guests on "Budapest." (JA)

20 Years Of Jethro Tull (1988)
We don't usually discuss box sets, but this three-CD collection includes a very large amount of previously unreleased material, so it might be worth my trouble to track it down. (JA)

Rock Island (1989)

Live At The Hammersmith '84 (1990)

Catfish Rising (1991)

A Little Light Music (1992)
This is a live album, complete with predictable hits like "Locomotive Breath" and obscurities like "Christmas Song" and even "John Barleycorn Must Die." There were two moderately successful singles: "Rocks On The Roads" and "Living In The (Slightly More Recent) Past" (just a new version of the original 1969 song). (JA)

Nightcap (1993)
This is a double record made up of unreleased material, the first part being mostly from an unreleased 1972 album, and the second spanning the mid-70s, 80s, and 90s. (JA)

Divinities (Anderson: 1995)
The difference between a Tull album and an Ian Anderson solo album is apparently more than the presence or absence of Martin Barre; this time around Anderson goes with mostly orchestrated arrangements. (JA)

Roots To Branches (1995)

J-Tull Dot Com (1999)
What a pathetic attempt to sound up-to-date. This time the band includes Andrew Giddings (keyboards), Jonathan Noyce (bass), and Doane Perry (drums). (JA)

The Secret Language Of Birds (Anderson: 2000)

This was.

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