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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.

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

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.

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