In Ten Tracks: Jethro Tull

In Ten Tracks is a selection of tracks that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.

Teacher  Not a mysterious song, but one that is simply about a guru who misleads his student, living off him like a parasite, yet cleverly written to invite more elaborate interpretation. “The nest is for nothing/when the bird has flown” seems a reference to the Beatles song ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, and Anderson has referenced the group’s spiritual fling with the Maharishi as one source of the songs’ inspiration. Jethro Tull recorded two versions- a radio-friendly single version with piano added for U.S. release and this UK version which features a more guitar-heavy arrangement with no flute. It was added to the U.S. version of the Benefit album, while in the UK it was the B-side of another non-album song, “Witches Promise.”

Witches Promise Speak of the devil… this is a pretty legit English folk riff except that it is one of very few Jethro Tull tracks to use a Mellotron, an early sampler favored by prog acts like Genesis and King Crimson. It manages to sound very folky with swirls of psychedelia courtesy of a Moody Blues-inspired string section. The lyrics to the song are fairly murky, but they involve a witch, a love affair or infatuation possibly caused by a spell. And it seems as though the genders of the witch and narrator are open to interpretation depending on what assumptions you make: since Ian Anderson is the narrator, does it follow that the narrator is male? But it all works if you let go and flow with the dream in the witch house…maybe the witch’s promise is that of satisfaction–sexual, narcotic, spiritual–that is promised and then withdrawn. It’s just a good song and it was the first to feature keyboard player Jon Evan, who would join the band a year later and become an integral part of Tull’s sound until 1980. 

Cross-Eyed Mary  I’m aware that most of these songs are not any kind of left field, obscure or forgotten track but there are some songs that just occupy a perfect space, and this is one of them. Aqualung was an amazing advance for Tull, where they melded so many of the elements they had previously attempted to juggle with more limited success–British folk, guitar riff-driven rock, social commentary, a smattering of jazz. The title track and “Locomotive Breath” feature instantly recognizable guitar riffs and band grooves, but for ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’ Anderson came up with a jazzy little flute and string interlude that could have been part of any number of fusion records at the time. This pleasant interlude descends slowly but surely into the same chugging slog, though at a much slower pace, as “Locomotive Breath” until the rock groove is established. Anderson is at his best lyrically, painting a picture of a playground prostitute and petty criminal who prefers to sell herself to older gentlemen than boys her own age. Jethro Tull is pegged as a kind of pastoral British folky band and they do mine a number of the tropes of the genre, but on Aqualung, in particular, the mood is much more Dickens than Renaissance fair.

Life Is a Long Song In 1971 Tull recorded this lovely song and included it on an EP along with “Up the Pool,” “Dr. Bogenbroom,” “From Later,” and “Nursie.” All of these represent a move away from the blues-based rock the group had played on their first album. The songs here have a folksier feel with the additional energy of  jazz/prog instrumental “From Here.” “Life is a Long Song” is a thoughtful lyric, well-honed melody and some exceptionally beautiful acoustic guitar work from Anderson. In 3:18 it goes from a solo acoustic guitar and voice to a drum-driven rock track with swirling, spinning strings that help carry the listener from one verse to another, comforted by the thought that “Life’s a long song” until it all ends with the realization that “The tune ends too soon for us all.”  

War Child Because it dealt with the theme of Ian Anderson’s attitudes towards organized religion and because of its use of recurring themes and characters Aqualung came to be seen as something of a concept album, which Anderson has always denied. He spent the next two Jethro Tull albums giving the critics and fans two actual concept albums, one ironic parody (Thick as a Brick), the other dead serious (A Passion Play). Neither was well received by the press though the band was playing big stadium shows with professional sets, lighting, dancers, etc. War Child was meant to be a double LP and the soundtrack to a feature film of the same title. First, no backer could be found for the film so it was abandoned. Then, in the wake of fierce criticism of A Passion Play, War Child was cut to a single standalone album. It also came in for some harsh reviews but it yielded live staples such as “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day” and “Bungle in the Jungle.” The title track is a weird transitional Tull song, with an apocalyptic documentary intro and a strangely atonal chorus as well as angular sax work by Anderson. It’s somewhere between their prog-concept recent past and the more rock-oriented sounds they were on their way towards pursuing. And it’s somehow damn catchy.

Hunting Girl  Jethro Tull floundered a bit after War Child. They returned to their earlier formula for the satisfying but unsuccessful album Minstrel in the Gallery and confused everyone with Too Old to Rock & Roll, Too Young to Die. By 1977 the band had begun to look pretty irrelevant, especially with the advent of punk and other more energetic forms of rock (which Too Old to Rock & Roll was partially a reaction to). Imagine the surprise when they unleashed the album Songs From the Wood, which married their folk leanings with some solid rock and roll underpinnings. “Hunting Girl” is a song of Spinal Tap epic-osity complete with some medieval hard rock guitar and organ riffs and a tale about a high born devotee of Artemis who accosts a peasant man hunting in the woods with her demand for sexual pleasure. Not only was Songs From the Wood a solid reboot for Jethro Tull, but “Hunting Girl” became a staple of their live show.  It didn’t make them relevant to punks, but it did give their career a shot in the arm with their fan base.

Fire at Midnight  There’s not a single song I don’t like on Songs from the Wood, but this weary paean to the night and to that time each day, however brief, when we all throw off the responsibilities of our careers, families, and other aspects of life to briefly acknowledge the passing of another day with a period of rest is a humble prayer and unusual for Tull. There are also some nice overdubbed vocal harmonies, and this is another area where I don’t think that Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson receive their due. While fans go gaga over the vocal overdubs of singers like Freddie Mercury and Enya, the work that Anderson has done with intricate vocal overdubs frequently goes unmentioned. 

Dun Ringill  The group continued to feast at the pastoral British table it had set on Songs From the Wood, but they didn’t merely retread. Heavy Horses moved on from the folklore to create a more modern picture of British country life, and Stormwatch continued to expand by taking into account environmental issues, certainly a matter of concern for the British Isles. Ian Anderson wrote this song about the Iron Age hill fort site in Skye, Scotland. Dun Ringill was a short distance from Kilmarie House where Anderson was living at the time, and his lyrics call for a late-night meeting to watch the dancing of the ‘old gods.’ Stormwatch was Jethro Tull’s final album of the 1970s which would always remain their period of greatest success. Bassist John Glasscock was ill and only plays on three tracks on the album; he passed away shortly afterward. Following the group’s tour in support of Stormwatch, Barriemore Barlow, John Evan, and Dee Palmer all quit, leaving Anderson and Martin Barre to carry on.

Flyingdale Flyer  The album A was meant to be an Ian Anderson solo project and as such there was little concern about filling in band members. Anderson: “It was as simple as A for Anderson because it was supposed to be a solo album. I wanted to take some time out and I asked Eddie Jobson to be involved, so we started in the studio. I heard this guitar line in this bit I’d written and I called Martin Barre and he ended up staying. Then the record company said, ‘It sounds like a new Tull album,’ and I regret giving in to that. It sits there on the edge of our repertoire.” The songs are Tull songs except they are set in a modern action movie scenario and there are more synths. But at the time Jethro Tull fans were so united in their hatred of the record’s sound and the disintegration of the classic Tull lineup that they couldn’t hear just how much a song like “Flyingdale Flyer” was a total Tull song–and a revitalized one at that.

Under Wraps #2  After retreating somewhat on Broadsword and the Beast, Anderson moved again into the realm of electronic 80s music with this album based on ideas from espionage fiction. The sound of the record is more electro-pop without the prog-y instrumental breaks that were still evident on A. Worse still, Anderson worked without a drummer, relying on drum programming for the entire album. Fans hated it, and Anderson regrets the decision to use a drum machine to this day. It’s unfortunate because there are good songs here, and this alternate, acoustic performance of the title track is a welcome return to the sound of old Tull. Anderson damaged his voice on tour for Under Wraps and had surgery afterward, resulting in a changed vocal range going forward. And while the band continued to record in a harder rocking style and even won a Grammy, there’s little doubt that the old flash of Jethro Tull was largely gone by the end of the 1980s. 

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