Tag Archives: Ian Anderson

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 – The Broadsword and the Beast – Classic Music Review

114768115Let’s place The Broadsword and the Beast in the proper context.

After the mid-period masterpiece Songs from the Wood, Tull released three so-so studio albums: Heavy Horses, Stormwatch and A. Stormwatch has some very strong pieces like “Flying Dutchman” and “Dun Ringill” and some very weak pieces like “North Sea Oil.” Heavy Horses was pretty weak, though the live version of “No Lullaby” on Bursting Out is pretty solid. A was supposed to be an Ian Anderson solo effort but was Tull-i-cized by Chrysalis. It features a heavy emphasis on synthesized sound and I really only like one song: “Fylingdale Flyer.”

After The Broadsword and the Beast came the curious Under Wraps, driven by Ian Anderson’s affection for spy novels. The record has been universally and justifiably condemned as Tull’s weakest album. Following that disaster, Tull went on a three-year hiatus due largely to Ian Anderson’s throat problems, and re-emerged in superb form with Crest of a Knave.

I would describe the period between Songs from the Wood and Crest of a Knave as a period dictated by Ian Anderson’s changing circumstances and ever-fluctuating interests. Ian buys a farm, we get Heavy Horses and Stormwatch. Ian falls in love with espionage tales and we get Under Wraps. This is also the period where we get Andersonian commentary on current events, most of which show how dated and upper-class he had become, especially in comparison to the contemporary working-class rage of The Sex Pistols and The Clash.

The Broadsword and the Beast has many features that clearly identify it as part of this meandering period in Tull history, especially the greater reliance on the synthesizer and the concern with socio-political trends. Where it differs is in the quality of the songs and the quality of the production. The Broadsword and the Beast is easily the strongest album of this period, especially from a musical perspective. There are a couple of spots where Ian Anderson’s lyrics set my teeth on edge, but generally these lyrics rank as some of his best. The album sounds better than its immediate predecessors, an improvement in recording quality directly attributable to the choice to have Paul Samwell-Smith produce the album, a choice that also provided the band with a detached perspective on the quality of the music. The Broadsword and the Beast has a satisfying, holistic feel, a record that successfully links the medieval with the modern from both a musical and thematic perspective.

Like Aqualung, The Broadsword and the Beast is divided into two roughly thematic sides: “Beastie” and “Broadsword.” That organization is driven more by the lead songs than the actual content, but the “Beastie” side deals more with the darker aspects of human nature. The “Broadsword” side is more diverse, less connected and a touch less satisfying. Overall, the theme coalesces around a central point: we may dis our medieval ancestors and their primitive ways, but while we may have better appliances and means of transport, we’re far short of claiming evolutionary superiority. The fears and instincts that drove our ancestors still live within us today.

“Beastie” deals with the fundamental fears that form the primary obstacle to our development as human beings. Once during a summer hiatus from college, my mother hooked me up with a New Age psychic who gave me a “reading” of my eternal soul that proved to be surprisingly accurate about my deepest fears (though I still think it was more of a lucky shot than astral wisdom). According to the psychic, and repeatedly reinforced by life experience, my two greatest fears are vulnerability and inadequacy. The beasts that come out when I’m immersed in those fears are arrogance (I can be a real castrating bitch) and self-deprecation (believe it or not, dominant little me can get seriously down on herself at times). I relate to “Beastie” in part because I have experienced my own beasts, and in part because Ian Anderson is 100% correct when he tells you what to do and what not to do when dealing with those nasty little suckers:

If you wear a warmer sporran, you can keep the foe at bay.
You can pop those pills and visit some psychiatrist who’ll say
There’s nothing I can do for you, everywhere’s a danger zone.
I’d love to help get rid of it, but I’ve got one of my own . . .

He’s the lonely fear of dying, and for some, of living too.
He’s your private nightmare pricking; he’d just love to turn the screw.
So stand as one defiant, yes, and let your voices swell:
Stare that beastie in the face and really give him hell.

When I was going through a particularly challenging time with my beasties, I did go see a shrink. She was as useless as tits on a hog. She tried to sell me on drugs harder than any street pusher, and her “counseling” consisted of staring at me for fifty minutes while I jabbered away. No, what really works is what Miles Davis did when he finally kicked the heroin habit: lock yourself away and face those fears head on.

Musically, Tull is on top of their game here. The synthesizer sets a suitably ominous mood at the beginning, but as the song takes shape, the orchestral flavor of the synthesizer and the hard edge of Martin Barre’s always superb lead guitar are perfectly balanced. Ian Anderson’s vocal is confident, expressive and not at all preachy (as some reviewers have unfairly complained). “Beastie” is a fabulous, tone-setting opener of power and nuance.

According to the annotations on the Cup of Wonder site, Ian Anderson had this to say about “The Clasp”:

Ironically the handshake, when it is offered, is very often a forced gesture, far removed from its origin which was a way of demonstrating that you had no weapon in your hand and that you were offering your open hand to someone in peace.

I do shake hands quite a bit as part of my work, and I have to say I find the ritual awkward, annoying and superfluous, but business transactions have little to do with real human motivations and needs. My day is filled with “synthetic chiefs with frozen smiles holding unsteady courses.” “The Clasp” also deals with our isolation in the human community, how we pass thousands of people every day in the big city and ignore all those strangers instead of taking a risk now and then to break cultural barriers and discover new friends. Ian’s flute is the dominant feature here, giving “The Clasp” a pleasant sense of the familiar. The different filters applied to his voice oscillate between a sense of closeness and a feeling of distance, and are very effective in reinforcing the theme of essential human loneliness.

“Fallen on Hard Times” is Ian Anderson’s attempt to weigh in on the general mess in the U. K. that began in the 70’s and led to the ascension of the Iron Lady in a fearful overreaction by the voting public, similar to what brought Ronald Reagan to power in the USA. Compared to the scathing social criticism from the punk scene at the time, this is pretty milquetoast stuff that accepts the system as-is rather than what the punks did—identify the system as the fucking problem:

Oh, dear Prime Minister, it’s all such a mess.
Go right ahead and pull the rotten tooth.
Oh, Mr. President you’ve been put to the test.
Come clean, for once, and hit us with the truth

Pulling that rotten tooth à la Thatcher led to a great deal of suffering in the laboring classes while reducing taxes for wealthy landowners like Ian Anderson. Really, Ian should have kept his nose to the musical grindstone and let the politicians ruin themselves.

Ian does much, much better with poisonous personal relationships, as demonstrated by the outstanding piece, “Flying Colours.” By becoming a rock star, he had raised his status in society to the point where he was invited to various posh soireés. There he saw wealthy couples airing out their dirty laundry in public, oblivious to polite convention but very attentive to the need to establish evidence for the inevitable divorce proceedings. Sung in the first-person by the male half of the toxic relationship, the arrangement of mutual convenience and exploitation is exposed as the pathetic and primitive relationship it is:

Shout but you see it still won’t do.
With my colours on I can be just as bad as you.
Have I had a glass too much? Did I give a smile too few?
Did our friends all catch the needle match, did we want them to?
We act our parts so well, like we wrote the play.
All so predictable and we know it.
We’ll settle old scores now, and settle the hard way.
You may not even live to outgrow it.

Display of battle flags aside, “Flying Colours” is a musical delight. Opening over a background featuring the refreshing sound of a real piano played by Peter Vetesse, the song explodes into a Jethro Tull driver, full of those wonderful syncopations and bursts of Martin that knock you on your ass. Dave Pegg’s bass part is a work of art in itself, a combination of melodic counterpoint, bluesy moans and relentless drive at all the right moments. Ian plays his character with sensitivity to text and subtext, making this one of his best theatrical performances.

Demonstrating their tremendous musical versatility, Tull turns down the heat for one of their most beautiful songs, “Slow Marching Band.” Some fans have attempted to interpret this song as an apology for the departure of long-time members Barriemore Barlow, John Evan and David Palmer, but I think that’s a case of identifying too much with one’s heroes. This is clearly a song about the sadness experienced at the end of a relationship, when you know it’s time to separate despite the still-simmering remnants of feeling for the other person. Ian Anderson uses funereal imagery to mark the symbolic death of self-and-other; the experience is one of mourning for the relationship and for the now-separated individuals:

Dream of me as the nights draw cold
Still marking time through winter.
You paid the piper and called the tune
And you marched the band away.

Take a hand and take a bow.
You played for me; that’s all for now,
Oh, and never mind the words:
Just hum along and keep on going.

Walk on slowly don’t look behind you.
Don’t say goodbye, love. I won’t remind you.

Peter Vetesse’s piano is remarkably sensitive, tender in the reflective passages, imbued with finality in the passages of resolution. Gerry Conway’s contributions on drums are also worthy of mention, as he introduces splashes of syncopation and hints of funereal drum rolls while avoiding the impulse to take things too far and turn the song into a tedious military procession.

“Broadsword” opens side two, a historical piece where you imagine primitive Britons in animal skins watching with a combination of fear and determination as the Vikings, the Danes or the Normans show up in the green and pleasant land to rob and pillage. The human instinct to protect the family is prominent here, as is the human tendency to call on supernatural forces to pull our asses out of the fire (“Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.”) The rhythm reflects the drums of primitives, and the overall production is supportive of the story line. The song fails to grab me, probably because I find stories of battle tedious, but if you’re into that kind of thing, you will find that “Broadsword” is very well arranged and executed.

“Pussy Willow” is essentially a more detailed character description of the office worker described in Paul McCartney’s “Another Day.” This girl Friday has fantasies of being rescued from her humdrum existence by a medieval prince, who will shuffle her off to the mystical east. Sadly, she has to go to work to receive the inevitable cold splash of reality (“Runs from the train, hears her typewriter humming, cutting dreams down to size again.”) Musically divided into slower tempo sections for her fantasies and accelerated tempos for the morning commute, “Pussy Willow” is a fascinating composition. My only complaint has to do with the phrasing. While the pussy willow is a useful metaphor to contrast the lower middle class girl’s existence with those who live on the “fur-lined avenues” she passes on her way to work, it irritates the shit out of me that Ian Anderson had to manipulate the natural syllablization of the word “willow” to make it fit: pussy wilLOW. He could have avoided it by delaying the first syllable and turning the melody into a diminuendo.

I am so anal at times.

“Watching Me Watching You” feels like it belonged on A, not here. It’s too electronic and jerky and doesn’t fit the feel of the rest of the album. Ian Anderson said it was about “the dilemma of people in the public eye.” Yawn. If Ian Anderson didn’t want public attention, he could have pulled a Salinger and disappeared from view. As for “Seal Driver,” Ian claimed it was “deliberately ambiguous,” a clear attempt to hide the fact that the words are unintelligible and he didn’t have a clear grasp of his metaphors. Oddly enough, despite the meandering lyrics, this is one of the most memorable pieces on the album. The melody is lovely and the variations in rhythm are absolutely compelling. The Broadsword and the Beast comes to a fitting conclusion with the sentimental pub song, “Cheerio.” My only regret is that it doesn’t have more verses, because I think it would make a great replacement for the always tiresome “Auld Lang Syne” with the added bonus of not having to remember what the Scots title means when you’re three sheets to the wind.

As you can tell, I have a definite preference for the “Beastie” side of the coin, but I still think that The Broadsword and The Beast is one of Tull’s better efforts. I would have preferred to hear more Martin Barre on this and on all the albums of the synth-heavy period, but I always take comfort knowing that Crest of a Knave is just a couple of stops ahead and Martin will get another chance to let it rip.

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