Jethro Tull Primer

Note: Launch this Spotify play list, to hear the songs as they are discussed. Spotify link



Purists believe the initial album is best, “This Was,” the one before Mick Abrahams left. If nothing came after, Tull would be seen as English blues progenitors, but a hit changes all perceptions. There were no hits on “This Was,” but I’d start here, with the signature flute intro and then the instant groove. “A Song For Jeffrey,” all of “This Was,” is Jethro Tull for people who think they hate Jethro Tull.


The opening cut on “This Was,” and probably the most famous. Most jam bands can’t hold a candle to this.


The instantly accessible rearrangement of Bach’s composition is the signature track on Tull’s second album, “Stand Up,” which did, i.e. when you opened the gatefold cover, the band popped up inside.


Intense, it had a quiet acoustic feel long before Mumford & Sons, and required only one listen to get. It sounded like a group of like-minded fellows playing in the park, not for the adulation, but for the fun of it. Oh, not fun, this music is not tossed off and irrelevant, it’s life itself. It’s stuff like this that made you want to buy the album, what was buried inside was better than the hit, not that there was a hit on “Stand Up.”


Sounds like it could fit on “This Was,” except it was faster, a bit more polished and more intense. If you don’t nod your head to this, you haven’t got one.


You learned about geography via records. And the English ones were especially exotic.


When it slows down in the middle and changes…risk was paramount way back when. Formula was abhorred. Ian Anderson is singing about the flaws of trying to make it, and thinking about going back to the family…don’t we all.


My favorite cut on “Stand Up.”

Once upon a time we didn’t want to rush to the club or the tent to gyrate with the minions, we just wanted to shut the bedroom door, turn out the lights and listen…to this music we believed was made just for us.

This is so wistful and so right.


The closing cut on “Stand Up,” it’s intense and frazzled and it leaves you so shook up you can do nothing but flip over the cassette and play the whole album from the top.

There’s not a bum cut on “Stand Up.” It still sounds fresh today, maybe because there was nothing else like it.


Riff rock. From the Stones to the Troggs to Deep Purple, and in between, yes, Jethro Tull.

“Benefit” was the album that turned off the purists, but it was the one that clued me in, maybe because of the wild ride in John Morosani’s Trans Am without seat belts at 110 MPH on Route 125 the opening weekend of college. The soundtrack makes an indelible impact.

That’s how it used to be, before everybody had all the music. We learned about stuff from the radio, from friends, and then we had to buy it ourselves. I had to own “Benefit” myself. I read the mediocre reviews, but I loved it!


Kind of like how “Have A Drink On Me” follows up “You Shook Me All Night Long” on “Back In Black,” “To Cry You A Song” segues into “A Time For Everything” which drives even faster and closes us too. Today we expect to be let down, Tull were showing us they still had something left in the tank.


Actually, it was three tracks in a row on the second side. “Inside” wasn’t quite as good as what came before, but was infectious nonetheless.


The kind of track the naysayers hate but the fans love, “Sossity” closes the record on a reflective note. This was an age when most of us were just growing up, when boys were becoming men and girls becoming women. Responsibilities were changing, and our music was guiding the way.


Sounds similar to Simon & Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” and you’ll be missing out if you never hear this.


Probably the second most played cut on “Benefit” after “To Cry You A Song.” Typical of the canon, but still good.


Funny how at this late date this is the most memorable and most played cut off “Aqualung,” which turned Jethro Tull into superstars. It was the accumulated quantity of quality music and the riveting live performances, with Ian Anderson playing flute on one leg, that caused the fans to fill arenas. And yes, radio airplay…”Aqualung” and “My God” were all over the radio.


Another riff, but with a story to match, “Aqualung” was an epic that dominated the airwaves to the point that many people never need to hear it again. It was “Hotel California” before that cut was. But what puts the cut over the top is when it slows down and becomes reflective in the middle, a la classical music, there were multiple movements, little did we know what was coming down the pike.


The other epic, not played as much as “Aqualung,” but still in regular rotation. And “Aqualung” was 6:37 and “My God” 7:13.


“Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.”

But few did.

Here’s where rock goes classical, where one song with multiple movements fills both sides of an album, “Tubular Bells” came after.

There’s not a baby boomer alive who does not know the riff and the opening lyrics.

You’d think no one would be interested in an album like this. But an edit was all over the airwaves, the newspaper-like cover was enrapturing and only hipsters were too cool to love it.

You’d think it would get old.

But it didn’t. We played “Thick As A Brick” over and over again.

“And the love that I feel is so far away”

Ain’t that the truth. We knew about love and sex from music, so many fans had never experienced it.

“Spin me back down the years and the days of my youth”

When music drove the culture and changed the world. When English musicians built upon the delta blues to create something new and different and the baby boomers followed them to a new way of thinking.


And finally, Jethro Tull has a huge AM radio track, over Christmas no less, when playlists are frozen for weeks and everybody’s home, driving around in their parents’ cars trying to escape.

It was a double album of what came before, but somehow mainstream radio was finally ready and suddenly the whole of America was hip to Jethro Tull.


And from there it went downhill. “A Passion Play” was a failed attempt to follow up “Thick As A Brick.”

“War Child” had the execrable “Bungle In The Jungle,” which was second-rate Tull, made for those with mush for brains. But the band was on an endless victory lap, all its previous work was paying dividends, live business was bigger than ever.

“Minstrel In The Gallery.” A good title track, that’s all you need to know.

“Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young To Die.” Ditto.

“Songs From The Wood.” That’s three in a row with a good title track and not much more.

Then people stopped paying attention. There were endless albums and you needed none of them. “Songs From The Wood” was followed by “Heavy Horses,” “Stormwatch,” “A,” “The Broadsword and the Beast” and “Under Wraps.” To say they were for fans only would be charitable, Tull had lost most of its fans.

And then came “Crest Of A Knave.” In 1987. Almost a decade and a half after the band’s heyday. And it was GOOD!

Too good, by a band with a known name, the album beat out Metallica’s for the metal Grammy and Jethro Tull became a joke, a whipping boy, emblematic of all that came before and should rightfully be forgotten.

But the people loved this record, whose tracks were decided upon by focus group, and the biggest and best was…”Farm On The Freeway.”

A companion piece to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” by this time the boomers had lost the war, they’d followed Reagan into the land of greed and AOR radio had become so corporate it had been eviscerated by new wave, pop and MTV. But “Farm On The Freeway” was so good, it climbed out of the ghetto into national consciousness.

We all lament what we’ve lost in the transition, from addiction to the radio to MTV to music made by people with little skill, and, ironically, this song is all about that.


And that’s all you need to know.

Unless you’ve been hooked by the above.

If so, you’ll find a wealth of material to explore and devour.

Starting with the BBC tapes from the band’s initial incarnation. This was not a studio outfit, they could most definitely do it live. And, as the years have passed, more and more live material has been released.

My favorite place to start is the 1988 3 CD set, “20 Years Of Jethro Tull,” which is no longer available, however elements have been distributed here and there on rereleases of previous albums. Wanna be a true archivist, live the way we used to, search this out.

But before you do…

Listen to the following BBC material, which I’ve included here:

“Serenade To A Cuckoo”
“Cat’s Squirrel”
“A Song For Jeffrey”
“My Sunday Feeling”
“Fat Man”
“Nothing Is Easy”
“A New Day Yesterday”

Happy hunting!

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