Commentary

The inimitable Jethro Tull

I have one favorite story to tell about my inherent weirdness as a child. When I was in the fifth grade, I bought a CD with my own money for the first time. That CD was a remastered version of Thick as a Brick, by Jethro Tull. As far as ways to determine a ten-year old is not quite normal, that should be high on the list.

I often have an inward self-satisfied smirk when hearing any discussion about the first albums my friends bought, if only because without fail none of them purchased any music they still listen to. I, now 19 years after that faithful purchase, still listen to Jethro Tull frequently, even including Thick as a Brick, though the format of having the entire album be one long song is somewhat restrictive insofar as casual listening goes. Still, they remain probably my favorite band from the 1970s, and possibly my favorite classic rock band, period.

Jethro Tull was active as a band, realistically, from 1968 until 1981. On the earlier end, the lineup didn’t really coalesce until guitarist Martin Barre joined, which excludes their first full-length album, This WasThis Was is a fine album, but other than recognizing Ian Anderson’s voice, it doesn’t sound like Jethro Tull. On the later end, 1981 saw the release of the album A. A was supposed to be an Ian Anderson solo album, but the record company in their infinite wisdom decided to market it as a Jethro Tull album, and consequently fired all the original band members except for Ian Anderson and Martin Barre, who was providing guitar backup on this theoretical solo album. That ended the band, realistically. There were a couple solid albums released under the name Jethro Tull after that, notably Crest of a Knave (famous for winning the Best Heavy Metal Album Grammy instead of Metallica), but the sonic and musical consistency with the original band is gone. So it goes.

What always stuck out about Jethro Tull in my mind was a shocking level of originality, to the point where they were considered truly weird by a good chunk of the music press of the day. Nonetheless, they occupied a space between derivative Led Zeppelin and utterly bombast King Crimson and made it work. It was kind of clear they weren’t going to become archetypal rock stars; after being in the band for ten years (and after his previous band being named after himself), keyboardist John Evan went on to run a construction company. And Ian Anderson at some point took what was almost certainly musician earnings (he started Tull at 21 and was in a pub band The Blades prior) and purchased a salmon farm. Because diversifying your investments is definitely rock star behavior.

This originality didn’t necessarily earn them press accolades, in fact having a somewhat defiant relationship with critics ran throughout the band’s existence. The song “Solitaire” off of Warchild was purportedly directed at a specific critic who had savaged the band in British press. And the genesis of the album Thick as a Brick is, at least according to the interview packaged in the album’s remaster, also a response to critics. Aqualung, arguably the band’s breakout album, was called a “concept album” in the press, and in that way connected to some of the prog acts of the time. Ian Anderson, who wrote the songs, didn’t see it that way, and had a reaction that could be summed up as “you want a concept album? I’ll give you a damn concept album! The whole album is one song! Oh, and by the way, it’s actually an epic poem written by a ten year old!” And this backlash to being compared to prog rock artists gave us one of the best prog rock albums of all time. Irony is beautiful.

I’m no longer as devoted to the band as I was when I was 10. After Thick as a Brick, I bought many more Tull albums, including some which are not all that good. Still, I didn’t know of any other bands that were like Jethro Tull, and to a degree I still don’t. But while the band no longer has the laser-thin obsession from me that only a ten-year old can truly give, I still appreciate them both as one of the best introductions to rock music I could have asked for, as well as one of the most unique bands I still listen to.

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