Classic Music Review: Benefit by Jethro Tull (U. S. Version)

MUDD1917

Tull play hit and miss as they expand possibilities. Click to investigate.

Oops! I forgot Benefit!

Okay, I didn’t forget. It’s just that, well, it’s such a strange album that I don’t quite know what to make of it. There are parts I love, parts I loathe and parts that . . . I just don’t know.

At least the proceedings begin with a song I love, the backward-flute-enhanced “With You There to Help Me.” A perfectly mad little number with strong drama and nearly constant underlying tension, it takes advantage of the door opened by “For a Thousand Mothers” on Stand Up to establish Jethro Tull as a band who can rip it with the best of them. The gentle, quiet opening of flute, piano and acoustic guitar deepens with the appearance of Glenn Cornick’s smooth bass, leading the listener to believe that Benefit is going to open with a slow, moody number, an assumption supported by Ian’s soft and sensuously-harmonized vocal. That myth is dispelled five lines into the song with an unexpected but glorious attack from Martin Barre, who was obviously standing in the wings, loaded for bear. Martin then drives the bridge between verse and chorus, and though the song returns to the gentler sound of the opening verse, now you begin to anticipate a crescendo. After oscillating between soft and hard, teasing us with a tempo shift (where Clive Bunker absolutely shines), and ending the lyrical structure with a brief stop-time delivery of the final line, the dénouement finally arrives like a fucking freight train at 150 miles an hour. That final instrumental passage where Ian’s flute takes the build and Martin answers with pyrotechnics is joyful madness, a madness accentuated by the echoing laughter. “With You There to Help Me” is one of the most unusual songs to ever begin an album, but damn, it works.

The curious nature of Benefit is exemplified by the follow-up number, “Nothing to Say.” I love the arrangement, especially the integration of bass, drums, acoustic guitar and subdued electric guitar; I find the background music endlessly fascinating and could listen to Glenn Cornick’s melodic and nimble bass part all day long. As for the lyrics and the melody . . . nope. It’s a “fuck you” song without having established the reason for the “fuck you,” and I’ve always thought that generational angst (best exploited by Nirvana) is a dull topic. If there were an instrumental-only version of “Nothing to Say,” I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

No such surgery is required for “Inside,” another number where Cornick and Bunker create magical rhythms on and off the beat, but are supported in their efforts by a stronger melody, better lyrics and a sweet flute part by the guy standing on one leg. The movement of this song is simply marvelous, especially when they change rhythm for the bridge, which also happens to contain my favorite lyrical passage on the entire album, highlighted by the unexpected appearance of harmony:

I’m sitting in the corner feeling glad,

Got no money coming in but I can’t be sad,

That was the best cup of coffee I ever had.

And I won’t worry about a thing because we’ve got it made—

Here on the inside, outside’s so far away.

Just when I think everything’s going to be okay now, they give me a song like “Son.” Another generational battle hymn with an odd combination of clichés and disconnected inner dialogue, not even Martin’s bluesy counterpoint can save this turkey. Ian’s vocal is sneering and annoying, and the last line, “And when you grow up, if you’re good we will buy you a bike” is embarrassingly awful.

Now that I think Ian Anderson has totally lost it, he comes up with the gem “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me.” The poetry here covers two themes: the uneven pace of human evolution and the sad position of “odd man out” or “third wheel.” Michael Collins, stuck up in the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin took a stroll on the lunar surface, symbolizes both the loneliness and the base envy of the human species. The ironic twist is that the millions of “limp-faced hungry viewers” have more in common with the mission’s forgotten man than they do with the conquering heroes; the spectator is always the third wheel and experiences the same loneliness, envy and hope that Ian Anderson imagines Michael Collins experienced:

I’m with you L.E.M.

Though it’s a shame that it had to be you

The mother ship is just a blip

From our trip made for two

I’m with you boys

So please employ just a little extra care

It’s on my mind

I’m left behind when I should have been there

Walking with you.

While my research confirmed that Collins never voiced anything close to sour grapes in real life, it’s a convenient metaphor for the human condition in our time: we find ourselves more spectators than participants in the flow of human history. The role of spectator often brings out the worst in us (“Like the man hung from the trapeze whose fall will satisfy”), in stark contrast to the evolutionary advance symbolized by the moon landing. The music combines two disparate passages: a dreamy acoustic landscape for the verses building to the rhythmic jump that introduces the syncopated rock thrust of the choruses. This is one of Tull’s early period masterpieces that is often ignored.

Unfortunately, it probably created the guilt that led Ian Anderson to bring his left-out friend Jeffrey into the band for Aqualung. After listening to Benefit again, I so miss Glenn Cornick.

But back to our story. If the pattern continues, the next song should be a turkey, but “To Cry You a Song” is neither a disaster nor a high point. Again, the rhythmic support is exceptional. The lyrics are quite good in describing the joys of air travel, such as reaching for the bag and feeling absolutely trapped in a confined space without any ability to affect the speed of the airplane. The opening lines make me yearn for the good old days before the whiny moaners ruined it for all of us who could really use a smoke when bored or stressed (“Flying so high, trying to remember/How many cigarettes did I bring along?”) What doesn’t work is the overly clunky main guitar riff and the lack of smoothness in the execution of the tempo changes. The song has a feeling of awkwardness about it that relegates it to the lower half of the preference list. In a stunning turn of events, the next song, “A Time for Everything” breaks the on-off pattern by making it two clunkers in a row.

The album is saved by the arrival of “Teacher,” one of Tull’s best early period numbers despite the fact that the band didn’t care for it in the least, according to the discography on the Jethro Tull official website:

“Teacher” became a fan favorite in the U.S. though the band felt it was a throwaway song and Ian wrote it as a B-side. Ian, to date, professes distaste for this tune reflecting disillusionment with formal education, a theme arising in future songwriting as well. The U.K. version on the remastered copy is a very different arrangement with far less flute. The flute was added to the U.S. release as the record company felt Tull needed a pop single featuring the flute.

While it’s clearly the “poppiest” number on Benefit, it’s still a damned good song with great movement and catchy hooks. The video that follows shows a fluteless version, and it still rocks:

Postscript: I didn’t believe my father when he told me he saw Tull do “Teacher” on American Bandstand. I still have a hard time getting my head around it. Jethro Tull on American Bandstand? Ian Anderson with Dick Clark? Can you imagine an odder couple? Ian Anderson doing his thing in front of all those putty-faced, clean living teenagers carefully selected for the mainstream American audience? It took years for me to be convinced, but lo and behold, I found a video compilation of the performance on YouTube. Warning: It’s out of sync half the time (not Ian’s fault but the fault of the transcription process), but the evidence clearly reveals that this regrettable event did in fact occur. My God!

Also regrettable is the following song on Benefit, “Play in Time.” While it starts out with a promising feel, it gets too repetitive and irritating after a while and Ian seems to be over-singing to compensate for the shallowness of the lyrics. The album ends with “Sossity, You’re a Woman,” a song about which I have abrasively mixed feelings. I think the arrangement is superb, with the nice touches from John Evan’s organ and Ian’s flute breaking up the acoustic guitar pattern so that it remains fresh throughout. What I find offensive are the lyrics, which seem to be echoing the old theme more commonly associated with American writers like Twain and Hemingway that women are the civilizing, emasculating force that keep men from experiencing true freedom. It was a crock of shit then and it’s a crock of shit now. The metaphor of society as an aging woman is even more offensive, reminding us of the predominant myth that women are pretty much done once they hit middle age. And the feminists called Mick Jagger a sexist?

The original U. K. version replaced “Teacher” with “Alive and Well and Living In,” a very dull number that made it onto the U. S. version of that throwaway semi-compilation album, Living in the Past. I’m glad it didn’t appear on the stateside version, or I’d have to give Benefit a relatively low number of stars (if I gave out stars at all). As it is, I consider it a transition album, the close of the early period, and most of the lessons learned would be put to exceptionally good use in Aqualung.

2 responses

  1. Thanks for the compliment!

    Like

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