Jethro Tull – This Was – Classic Music Review

The opening line of my review of Stand Up! (published March 5, 2013) exposes me as hypocrite who failed to follow her own rules: “It’s almost impossible to believe that Jethro Tull started out as an R&B-Blues band.”

The truth is that my engagement with This Was had been of a cursory nature, and I never listened to it the requisite three times through. I formed an initial impression, stuck to it like a slug on a wall and arrived at a conclusion that would never hold up in court. I was guilty of the corollary to the Cartesian proposition: Je ne pensais pas donc je suis un idiot.

I’m going to leave that opening line as is, if only to remind me of my sluggish, slimy sloppiness. However, for the purposes of reviewing Tull’s first album, I issue the following correction:

Jethro Tull began life as a highly eclectic band, creating a sound that drew from and integrated a variety of musical influences, including jazz, blues, R&B, rock and the peripatetic wanderings of Ian Anderson’s brain.

My reassessment of This Was came about because I got a dog.

I’d always wanted a dog, but never had the right combination of living circumstances to practice responsible dog ownership. My place in Seattle didn’t have a yard, and though Paris is very dog-friendly, I knew I was only there on a temporary basis. When we moved to Nice, my partner and I abandoned our day jobs for a consulting practice and wound up spending a lot of time on the road together (and yes, we did mix business with pleasure in the privacy of our hotel rooms—a very popular employee benefit!). Most of our gigs were shared gigs where I did the strategic stuff and Alicia did the financial stuff, but over the past year, we’ve had more split assignments. Both of us thought it would be nice to have access to the unconditional love of a dog while the other was traveling, because vibrators only fill part of the gap and anyway, self-stimulation often makes you miss your squeeze all the more.

Still, there are times when both of us are gone, and we needed to nail down doggy care before securing a pooch. My parents were obvious choices, but I knew they would ask for favors in return, usually in the form of music reviews. I’d done more than enough favors for my dad lately, so I thought I’d approach my dear mother first.

I was not surprised by her demand that I complete my exploration of Jethro Tull. She is a passionate admirer of Ian Anderson because his self-taught approach to the flute liberated her from the heavy chains of the classical paradigm, a set of methodologies and techniques she had mastered over a dozen years of daily practice and hours of lessons under the sadistic instruction of a flute fascist. After Tull came out she cast the classical scores aside and went free-form, improvising flute parts to recorded material and jamming with local musicians.

“I can do that. The hole is mid-period, so we’re talking Heavy Horses, Stormwatch, Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll . . . ”

“Stop. You have forgotten the most important one.”

My blonde brain couldn’t figure what album she thought was the missing piece to the jigsaw puzzle. It couldn’t be Under Wraps or Roots to Branches. “Living in the Past?” “Non.” Ah! She’d seen Tull several times, though, so I offered up Bursting Out. “Non.” 

“I give up.”

Maman stood up, pulled This Was from the stacks and put it on the turntable. “Ecoute-le. Il ne sait pas la bonne façon, la manière conforme. Il apprend par la performance.

“Yes, I know all that, but this really isn’t Tull, is it? I mean, there’s no Martin . . .”

“You cannot understand Jethro Tull without understanding This Was. It wasn’t the flute or the blues influence that made them who they were. Those were important, but the vital truth is that they began with the ethic of ‘anything is possible,’ and the belief that if you have never done a thing before, you can learn. It was that ethic that made their sound unique and allowed Ian Anderson to take their music to unexpected places.”

I could see her point. While This Was isn’t one of Tull’s greatest works, it is the place where their one-of-a-kind sound was born. In the end, maman got at least four Tull reviews and I have a cuddly little friend who has already been fully trained not to scratch on the bedroom door when her mommies are making funny noises inside.

*****

When it comes to the three basic building blocks of most popular music, I’ve always considered Tull more grounded in rhythm than melody or lyrics. While their rhythms would diversify and intensify over the years, the dominant feature of Tull rhythms is syncopation, those delightful interruptions of the predicted flow that ramp up excitement and listener interest. “My Sunday Feeling,” Tull’s grand opening number,  features a syncopated pattern on the main riff, serving the dual role of thematic glue and break-in-the-action. On the verses, the straight 4/4 time gives Ian Anderson a solid foundation for his vocal and the syncopated response to each line forestalls boredom.

The steady foundation of the verse lines is essential, as Ian finds himself in the shaky role of man recovering from an all-night bender and needs a rail to hold onto as he tries to navigate through the fog that fills his brain. His natural conversational phrasing creates a vivid picture of a guy who had a few too many on a Saturday night, almost trembling on the lines “I really don’t remember/But with one more cigarette I think I might” and sounding just about ready to upchuck in the last verse (“Oh I don’t feel so good/Need someone to hel-el-elp me to my bed.”) In between vocals, Ian serves primarily as a foil to Mick Abraham’s more substantial guitar contributions, limiting his role to fills and the glorious ending flurry. Having only picked up the flute a couple of months before the recording, he doesn’t overplay his part, keeping things simple and tasty. Clive Bunker really breaks a sweat on this piece, with cascades of tom rolls relieved occasionally when he shifts to high-hat-only for the closing line on each verse. Glenn Cornick does a fine job tightening the rhythm while sometimes allowing himself the luxury of moving off the root note for a supportive run. Tull may just be getting started, but here they strike a rare balance of loose feel and tight playing that can elude even the most experienced band.

One of the quirkier aspects of This Was is the mix of stereo and mono recordings, with the difference made even more noticeable by the “creative panning” practices of the mid-to-late 60’s. On “My Sunday Feeling,” the song opens with Mick’s guitar on one channel and Ian’s flute across the way on the opposite channel, in a call-and response pattern. When the vocals begin, we have Ian’s voice on one side, his flute on the other and Mick shoved into the background with the rest of the boys. It’s a move that clearly cries out: WARNING: YOU ARE LISTENING TO A RECORDED FACSIMILE. THIS IS NOT A LIVE PERFORMANCE. On the next track, “Some Day the Sun Won’t Shine For You,” Ian harmonizes with himself on opposite channels with no intention whatsoever of coming close to matching the melody note-for note. This is a good thing, because it’s a song with a front-porch blues feel and precision would have only spoiled it. I should note that the song bears more than a passing similarity to Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway.” Broonzy’s original features a slightly faster tempo, but all the essentials are there to call this a DNA match with 99% confidence: chord pattern, harmonica, Delta guitar style, the works. Plagiarism aside, this is a good I’m-gonna-leave-my-baby song to sing along to when you’re drunk enough to feel the first-world pain but not drunk enough to forget to have the last word in the pointless argument. Ian’s harmonica work is straight, simple blues, and he sounds a tad more comfortable and confident with the harp than he did with the flute on “My Sunday Feeling.”

Next up is our first mono recording and our first and only Abrahams-Anderson songwriting collaboration, the more Tull-like “Beggar’s Farm.” I say it’s Tull-like because of the use of the flattened fifth on the main Gm riff, a dissonant choice found in many Tull songs, most notably on the iconic guitar riff on “Aqualung.” The song itself is a pretty standard minor blues piece with an awkwardly executed rhythmic shift to an instrumental passage, but is noted as the first recorded evidence that Ian Anderson can go positively manic on the flute, integrating vocalizations while attacking the flute with gusto.

In contrast to Ian’s memorable wrap-up to “Beggar’s Farm,” Mick Abraham’s “Move on Alone” is a mellower, more straightforward experience backed by horns arranged by soon-to-be longtime collaborator David Palmer. It’s a nice piece; Abrahams is a pedestrian put passable vocalist and his guitar work is spot on. What the song demonstrates more than anything else is that Mick Abrahams doesn’t belong here; the song doesn’t fit with the other material on the album and the band itself doesn’t have much to do—Palmer’s horns are the focus. Mick realized things weren’t going to work pretty quickly and moved on to Bloodwyn Pig, producing a damn solid album in Ahead Rings Out with the classic number “Dear Jill”—an album that competed fairly well with Stand Up! in the U. K. charts (despite the horrid cover).

“Serenade to a Cuckoo” is a slower, late-night version of the Roland Kirk original. Ian’s version deeply offended Robert Christgau, who devoted two whole sentences to This Was in his “consumer review” for The Village Voice: “Ringleader Ian Anderson has come up with a unique concept that combines the worst of Roland Kirk, Arthur Brown, and your nearest G.O. blues band. I find his success very depressing.” More important than the track (which is really a very simple piece that any rookie flutist can master) is the first indication of irrational hostility on the part of a stable of music critics who could never get their heads around Tull—a hostility that would play an important role in Tull history.

Flipping over to side two, we find the rare Anderson-Bunker composition, “Dharma for One,” Tull’s contribution to the “gotta hear it live” fan-driven genre that emerged in the 1960’s. Clive gets half-credit for the drum solo that occupies about half of the recording time. I’ll go out on a limb here and say neither the all-instrumental version here nor the amped-up organ-enhanced live version with lyrics that appears on Living in the Past fulfill the song’s potential. The chord pattern is simple but varied enough to allow for some interesting variations, but I don’t find much of interest in either version except for Ian’s calming flute in the less-intense passages. Clive’s drum solo is just a wild bash, as opposed to the almost concerto-like structure of Ginger Baker’s live version of “Toad.”

We head back to traditional Chicago-style blues with “It’s Breaking Me Up,” a tightly-played number featuring Ian doing double-duty on the vocals and delivering a fairly strong harmonica performance complete with grunts, moans and other wordless expressions. Abrahams is really solid on this piece, with clever fills and an understated solo that fits the mood of the piece like a glove. It’s followed by “Cat’s Squirrel,” a staple of many a British band of the era, an all-out bash to get the crowd moving. Tull’s version flat-out rocks, bursting out from the start with nasty distortion, a blazing solo from Abrahams and a stop-time section with outstanding clarity and build, in large part due to Clive Bunker’s skills with touch and power. In contrast, Cream’s version seems rather perfunctory and wasn’t aided in the least by a pretty lousy recording.

The most unusual piece on This Was is the first of a trilogy of Jeffrey songs that appear on the first three albums. By all accounts, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond was a rather quirky fellow in his youth, a man with a distinctive view of life who provided Ian Anderson with companionship and peculiarities galore that Ian captured in song. “A Song for Jeffrey” mirrors Jeffrey’s quirkiness in both the music and the lyrics. The intro features a brief syncopated passage with Ian on flute, Glenn Cornick on bass and Abrahams on guitar in the key of D, a pattern that suddenly shifts to a bouncy forward rhythm in the key of G. Ian’s vocal is heavily filtered, and the resulting sound is that of a man pinching his nostrils closed with two fingers—and when he arrives at the chorus and the band takes it down a few notches, he begins to sound like a man who has lost his teeth as well. The result is a curiously charming grumpiness also reflected in lyrics that describe Jeffrey as one stubborn SOB when it comes to how he chooses to live his life:

Don’t see what I do not want to see
You don’t hear what I don’t say
Won’t be what I don’t want to be
I continue in my way

I’ve ceased to see where I’m goin’
Ceased to see where I’m goin’
I’ve ceased to see where I’m goin’
I don’t want to

I don’t know how else to explain why I like “A Song for Jeffrey” more than any other song on the album, but I’ll tell you this: when I listen to it, the picture of the old men on the cover pops into my mind.

This Was ends with a brief, loose fragment of a jam credited to the entire band and producer Terry Ellis, a piece called “Round,” which isn’t a round at all. I can’t explain why this works either, but it seems a perfect ending to an album filled with first-time experiments. While it lacks the richer diversity and depth of Stand Up! and bears only a microscopic resemblance to the band we hear on Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, the performances on This Was demonstrate the inclination to experiment with sound and the emphasis on rhythm as a means of carrying a message that would characterize the long and often unforeseen journey of Jethro Tull.

5 responses

  1. Interesting review (as always) As you have probably guessed, I’m not exactly a big Jethro Tull fan. My interest in them evaporates with Glenn Cornick’s dismissal so I only like the earliest albums, not forgetting the infamous “Jethro Toe” single.

    Not a lot I can say or add about this debut album other than I’ve always enjoyed it for what it is and my fave track is… “A Song For Jeffrey” – seems we’re both in the same boat with that one as I can’t quite put my finger on what it is I love about it but it’s a regular on my old mixtapes and digital playlists. Funniest thing is, the vocal processing annoys me… sounds like Ian is singing from inside a cupboard and I hoped when Steven Wilson remixed it that we’d get it sounding clearer, but… no! Just one of those odd indefinable songs I guess!

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    1. The greatest blunder of Ian Anderson’s career was replacement of Glenn Cornick with Jeffrey, who had no skills on the instrument and was not motivated to learn.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. With each passing year I am becoming more and more enamoured with Ian Anderson’s music from the late 1960s — early to mid 1970s. Naturally, I devoured your review of “This Was”. Good job, I think you nailed it.

    I am in full agreement with your infatuation with “Stand Up”, “Thick as a Brick” and “The Passion Play”. I am only in disagreement with you deriding Jeffrey’s bass contribution — sounds mighty fine to my ears.

    Just for the record, I am convinced that Ian Anderson is a musical genius!

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  3. Does Cornick make it onto Benefit or is that Hammond’s first record? Where do you stand on Benefit? I remember that one being my favorite back in the day.

    Like

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