If I was to ask what group had nine albums certified gold, and one certified triple-platinum, between 1969 and 1979, how many people would say Jethro Tull? That’s because most people forget how successful Jethro Tull were. They were one of the most successful, groundbreaking and innovative of the prog rock bands in musical history. Several times, Jethro Tull reinvented themselves musically. Jethro Tull weren’t content to stand still. Far from it. In their early years, Jethro Tull were experimenting musically, so they could come up with their trademark sound and style. This saw Jethro Tull become one the most groundbreaking and inventive bands of the prog rock era. Despite having sold over sixty-million albums, Jethro Tull never receive the credit they deserve. Mind you, none of the prog rock bands did.
Nowadays, prog rock has almost been airbrushed from musical history. When it’s mentioned, it’s always a sideways snipe from Napoleonic critics. That means the careers of some of the most talented, innovative and creative musicians are overlooked. Instead, overrated and overhyped musical genres are given undue prominence. These musical genres are seen as more significant and culturally important than prog rock. That’s despite it being some of the most successful and complex released in the last fifty years.
A fusion of art rock, avant-garde, baroque, classical, folk, free jazz, jazz, pop and psychedelia, prog rock is a melting pot of musical influences and genres. Innovative and groundbreaking, it was a move away from the throwaway pop songs that had dominated music until then. Prog rock was cerebral, intelligent music. Sadly, for many years, prog rock has fallen out of favor. Now, thankfully, the tide is turning, and gradually, prog rock is receiving the credit it deserves. This includes a rerelease of Jethro Tull’s 1970 album Benefit by WEA Japan on 4th February 2014. Before I tell you about the music on Benefit, I’ll tell you about Jethro Tull’s musical career up until then.
The origins of Jethro Tull can be traced to Blackpool, in 1962, That’s when Ian Anderson formed his first group The Blades. Originally a four piece, featuring Ian Anderson on vocals and harmonica, they became a quintet in 1963 and septet in 1964. By that time, they were a blue eyed soul band. After three years, the band decided to head to London.
Having moved to London, the band split-up within a short time. Just Ian Anderson and bassist Glen McCornick were left. This proved a blessing in disguise. They were soon joined by blues guitarist Mick Abrahams and drummer Clive Bunker. This was the lineup that featured on their debut album This Was. That was still to come.
Before that, the band had to settle on a name. Various names were tried. Then someone at a booking agent christened them Jethro Tull, after the eighteenth century agriculturalist. Not long after that, Ian Anderson acquired his first flute.
Up until then, Ian Anderson played just harmonica and was trying to learn to play the guitar. He realized wasn’t a great guitarist though. So, decided the world had enough mediocre guitarists, decided to expand his musical horizons. So he bought his flute. Little did he realize this would be one of Jethro Tull’s trademarks. After a couple of weeks, Ian had picked up the basics of the flute. He was learning as he played. Not long after this, Jethro Tull released their debut single.
Sunshine Day was penned by Mick Abrahams, with Derek Lawrence producing the single. On its release, the single was credited to Jethro Toe. It seemed thing weren’t going right for Jethro Tull. The single wasn’t a commercial success and failed to chart. Despite this disappointment, thing got better when they released their debut album This Was.
Having released their debut album This Was in October 1968, it reached number ten in the UK. Then when This was released in the US in February 1969, it reached just number sixty-two in the US Billboard. Critics praised This Was, which cost just £1,200 to record. Featuring mostly original material, which was penned by members of Jethro Tull, This Was a fusion of blues rock, folk, jazz and prog rock. This Was was a successful start to Jethro Tull’s career, which was about to enter a period where critical acclaim and commercial success were almost ever-present.
Prior to the recording of Stand Up, Jethro Tull’s sophomore album, Mick Abrahams left the band. Mick and Ian Anderson disagreed over the future direction of Jethro Tull. The problem was, Mick wanted Jethro Tull to stick with blues rock. Ian Anderson realised there was no real future in blues rock. He wanted to take Jethro Tull in different directions, exploring a variety of musical genres. So Mick left Jethro Tull and was replaced by Michael Barre. Little did either Mick nor Michael realise that Stand Up marked the start of a period where Jethro Tull sold over sixty-million albums.
Drawing inspiration from everything from blues rock, Celtic, classical, folk and rock work began on Stand Up. With Mick Abraham having left Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson was the primary songwriter. He penned nine of the ten tracks. They became Stand Up, which was released in August 1969 in the UK, where in reached number one. A month later, in September 1969, Stand Up reached number twenty in the US Billboard 200 Charts. This resulted not just in the start of Jethro Tull’s first gold disc, but the beginning of a golden period in their career. The next album in this golden period was Benefit.
For what became Benefit, Ian Anderson had written ten tracks. These ten tracks were recorded at Morgan Studios, London, during December and January 1970. Ian played flute, keyboards, guitar and sang lead vocals. The rest of Jethro Tull included Clive Bunker, who played drums, guitarist Martin Barre and bassist Glen Cornick who also played Hammond organ. John Evan, who’d later become a member of Jethro Tull, played piano and organ. David Palmer took charge of the orchestral arrangements, while Ian Anderson produced Benefit. It was released in April 1970.
Unlike Jethro Tull’s two previous albums, Benefit was released simultaneously in the US and UK and was well received by critics. Upon its release in April 1970, Benefit reached number three in the UK and number eleven in the US Billboard 200 Charts. This meant another gold disc for Jethro Tull. Not only were they were on a roll, but as Benefit shows, continually reinventing their music.
Opening Benefit is With You There to Help Me. Straight away, there’s some studio trickery at work, with a flute played backwards. Then, Jethro Tull remind me somewhat of The Moody Blues. Ian’s earnest, heartfelt vocal is enveloped by harmonies, while searing, scorching guitars answer his call. Soon, we hear a different side to Jethro Tull. They’re rocking, and rocking hard. Driven along by the rhythm section and bursts of scorching, sizzling guitars, while flourishes of flute cascade above the arrangement. They prove a foil for the vocal and guitar, on a track where folk, blues, jazz and rock intertwine seamlessly and mesmerically.
Despite being recorded in 1970, Nothing To Say sounds way ahead of its time. It sounds more like a track recorded around 1973 or 1974. Again musical genres are fused. Rock becomes prog rock and then thanks to Ian’s wistful vocal and the languid arrangement, almost pastoral and then rocky. Then thanks to echo and filters, a lysergic, psychedelic sound can be heard. With Jethro Tull’s rhythm section joining forces with fiery guitars and piano, they provide a fitting backdrop for Ian’s dramatic, hurt-filed and defiant vocal. Shrouded in echo, it takes on an almost mysterious sound. From there, harmonies combine with the band as a timeless track unfolds where Jethro Tull, musical visionaries, showcase their inconsiderable skills.
A piano sets the scene for Ian’s vocal on Alive And Well And Living In. Stabs of piano are matched by the bass before Ian’s vocal enters. It’s deliberate and definite. He seems to be taking care as he articulates the lyrics. Meanwhile flourishes of flute and bursts of guitar are fired off. By now we’re hearing a harder rocking side of Jethro Tull. Then the arrangement is stripped back to the piano and bursts of flute which accompany Ian’s dramatic, powerful vocal. A fusion of blues, orchestral, classical, prog rock and rock it’s a continuation of Jethro Tull’s reinvention.
Son is a stomping, hard rocking number. Here, Ian Anderson reminds me of Alex Harvey, of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. His vocal is almost a theatrical sneer. Strutting his way through the track, machine gun guitars accompany him, while the rhythm section provide the heartbeat. Midway through the track, it’s all change. The tempo drops and Ian’s vocal becomes pensive, probing and questioning. Then the drama returns as the track heads to its glorious hard rocking crescendo.
Crystalline, chiming guitars join Ian’s tender vocal on For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me. The meandering guitars and vocal are a potent partnership. You’re drawn to them. Soon, you’re enchanted. Then with a burst of guitar the tempo picks up and Jethro Tull combine folk, blues, rock, classical and Celtic music. Just like what’s gone before, what follows is enthralling, beguiling and enchanting. It also shows another side to Jethro Tull.
To Cry You A Song sees a return to Jethro Tull’s blues rock sound. Driven along by a powerhouse of a rhythm section and dual guitars, it’s Jethro Tull at their best. Ian’s vocal is a mixture of power and emotion. When it drops out, Jethro Tull concentrate on mixing blues rock with prog rock. A captivating combination the music of the past, present and future collides head on. Later, Ian’s vocal is enveloped by harmonies and bursts of guitar, showcasing Jethro Tull at their hard rocking, bluesy best.
A Time For Everything bursts into life. It’s best described as a fusion of rock, Celtic and folk. Scorching guitars, boron, flute and acoustic guitar create a wall of dramatic, rocky music. As if inspired, Ian launches himself into the lyrics. He becomes a seer or philosopher, as he delivers the lyrics. A wash of feedback envelops a vocal that’s pensive, thoughtful and dramatic. Later, as the track heads towards a sudden and poignant ending Ian’s vocal is akin to an unanswered question. It’s as if he’s asking is there: “A Time For Everything?”
Inside is one of the highlights of Benefit. A rousing, anthemic combination of folk, rock and blues music. Meandering gently, there’s a slight Eastern influence. That’s maybe down to Ian’s flute. His vocal has a folk influence. Tender, veering between wistful and joyously, his vocal is crucial to the song’s success. Behind him, the rest of Jethro Tull combine musical genres on this breezy, joyous and irresistibly catchy track.
The rhythm section are at the heart of this hard rocking, bluesy Play In Time. Ian adds a grizzled vocal and plays the flute. Again, there’s some studio trickery, with the piano and guitars speeded up. This works, adding a psychedelic influence on this driving, dramatic and genre-melting track. Cascading flute, thunderous drums and wizened guitars provide the backdrop for what’s one of Ian’s best vocals. Strident and confident he struts his way through the track, as Jethro Tull kick loose. They’re a tight and talented unit who never miss a beat. As they jam, the earlier psychedelic influence adds the finishing touch.
Sossity You’re A Woman which closes Benefit, is very different from any of the other tracks. It’s like something from an other age. It’s as if Ian Anderson has been transported back in time as has been given the job of entertaining at a medieval feast. Just acoustic guitars accompany him, before later an organ adds an almost gothic sound. Later, the arrangement is a mass of acoustic guitars, tambourine, shakers and organ, before reaching its melancholy, thoughtful ending.
Benefit was just the second album in the most successful and productive period of Jethro Tull’s career. Between 1969 and 1979, nine of Jethro Tull’s albums were certified gold. Aqualung, Jethro Tull’s 1971 Magnus Opus was certified triple-platinum. It seemed Jethro Tull could do no wrong. That was the case. Sadly, Jethro Tull never received the recognition they deserved.
After the advent of punk, critics and music lovers shied away from prog rock. Confessing to liking prog rock wasn’t the done thing. No. It wasn’t fashionable. Critics who previously, had championed prog rock, referred to prog rock groups like Jethro Tull as dinosaurs. Despite that, Jethro Tull gold discs kept coming Jethro Tull’s way. Right through to 1979s Stormwatch, Jethro Tull were hugely successful. The reason for that was their music never stood still. It constantly evolved. Jethro Tull’s music was groundbreaking, genre-melting and innovative. That’s why Jethro Tull enjoyed so much critical acclaim and commercial success.
Having released their debut album This Was in 1968, Jethro Tull went on to release another twenty studio albums. Their final album was 2003s The Jethro Tull Christmas Card. Over five decades, where they released twenty-one albums, Jethro Tull were more successful in the US than the UK. Ten of their albums were certified gold and one triple-platinum. Over in the UK, five of Jethro Tull’s albums were certified silver. Worldwide, Jethro Tull sold over sixty-million albums, making them one of the most successful prog rock bands ever. Despite that, Jethro Tull haven’t received the critical acclaim and recognition their music deserves.
Hopefully, that’s starting to change, especially with the rerelease of Jethro Tull’s third album Benefit, which will be rereleased by WEA Japan on 4th February 2014. Benefit is the perfect introduction to Jethro Tull’s music. Along with Benefit, I’d recommend EMI’s 2011 rerelease of Aqualung. They’re the perfect starting point to Jethro Tull, one of the most innovative, groundbreaking, commercially successful and critically acclaimed prog rock bands of all time, whose music is truly timeless. Standout Tracks: With You There to Help Me, To Cry You A Song, A Time For Everything and Play In Time.