Wednesday
Jun162004

« Jethro Tull »

It has been a little over 15 years since I first heard Jethro Tull when I was 15. It was that year of 1989 when I got into them, first on the strength of just a few songs from very distinctly different eras, then eventually plowing in head first and spending the next year buying nearly all their albums. My introduction to the band's name was on the day after they won the so-called "heavy metal" grammy, and the radio morrning show people were joking around about the irony of Tull winning such an award. At the time, I wasn't aware of the irony, not having heard Tull or any heavy metal to speak of. But not long afterward, I heard this curious little orchestral tune called Bungle In The Jungle, and then the joke hit me. "This is metal???" The spring and summer months were spent listening to about four songs from Tull on this ratty cassette of stuff I nabbed off the radio. I remember talking to people who couldn't care, sharing my new found enthusiam for Tull like I was an evangelistic Bible thumper. Well. Anyhow, in the late summer, someone gave me a very poor taped copy of the then-new 20 year set of outtakes and live stuff, rare things, etc. I read the booklet for a while to get cozy with the folklore about the band. Then, within a week or so, I finally started collecting. By that time, I had already been driven to start my relationship up with the drums after over 4 years of not playing. So, my will to play music is very much tied to Tull.

In 11th grade, no one liked me talking about Tull. No, my school chums were into GnR, MC Hammer, Depeche Mode, and whatever the usual pop pabulum was at the time. So, by listening to such "outdated" music, I set myself apart from the pack. I knew Tull's music was different, unique, and even though I really didn't understand it at much more depth than "I like this, I don't like this," I somehow allowed myself to spend all my allowance money on their (gasp!) tapes, and within a few months, CDs. I really didn't "get" a lot of Tull to start with, but what I did get had a massive impact on me, and of course paved the way for liking them even more later on. I mostly started with the new stuff, and that is the stuff that people regarded as washed up and of no consequence. In general, I worked my way backards, but there was no particular order. Most of my collection was based on the liner notes to the 20 year set, and its long history of the band, charting its ups and downs. I was particularly taken by the stories surrounding the A and Under Wraps albums. It's easy to like the hits from most any band, but harder to like the cast off stuff if you are brainwashed. Well, I only had two people who sort of held my hand in the Tull world, and it may have been years before I met another Tull fan. With no internet or fanzine (both of which really came in handy when I got them), I was left to discover what I liked. It took a long time before I listened to Aqualung or Thick as a Brick. In fact, I listen to A and Under Wraps, far more than any of the classic radio stuff, but then I listen to the other Tull classic stuff like Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses. Really my favorite era in Tull's history is from '77-'87, all inclusive, even the outtakes and live fragments.

Some people regard Tull as some aging washed up band, and I can see the point. I happen to think that applies more to ELP or some other bands of their ilk who got too bloated and full of themselves around 1980, when it seemed most prog and rock was dead (The Who, Zep, ELP, Pink Floyd, Yes, and even Tull lost members or threw in the towel at least for a while around that year, but Tull never went away, despite a radical lineup change, that for me, was what gave them the push into a new era that maybe everyone hated, but to me reflects on their growth more than their death). Tull's late 70s tunes didn't have the rawness of the Stand Up-TAAB era stuff, but did it need to? The orchestration even within the late 70s six-piece band was just amazing. They had really evolved as a six member orchestra by that point, and the lyrics were still thought provoking and rewarding to anyone who bothered to understand. Then, when A came out, even though the old Tull with the folky classical sort of vibe had been sent packing, even A had a clear folk influence in a few places, a good deal of rock in others, some wicked cool playing you sort of expect from stuff like UK and other bands that are in the "prog-fusion" sort of vein. AND, even though the analog synth of Eddie Jobson was sort of weak sounding in some places as an emulation of strings, his violin put some of that back. And more than ever, the songwriting was still Ian Anderson's.

One of the things that lets me distinguish Tull as different than some other bands that have some musical balls and compositional chops is that Tull are really a band that is song driven. The songs, with lyrics and a line of verbal thought, are the glue that holds it together. I like the music, but there are more than enough bands or projects that have musically stunning shit happening, but really leave me cold because it all seems wankery to me, to show off. Tull are a band that writes songs, and the music is subservient to the song. The lyrics are still cohesive, and the music that backs it is not there just to look pretty, but rather is what it takes to articulate the song. I mean, I have had Songs From the Wood for nearly 15 years now, and I just discovered that the tune Ring Out Solstice Bells has its musical coda in 7/8. I really had never noticed it before. I still can't figure out the title track's meters, but I am not too worried. What I hear is a charming vocal that is sung in a meter that clearly places the words and their delivery first, with the music supporting that. Living In The Past is in 5/4, and while you can hear it has a funny rhythm, you don't count the rhythm first, you listen to the words. I tried listening to Dream Theater for a summer, and from that, I deduce this. DT just seemed to be playing to impress musicians. Tull's song Heavy Horses has some juicy musical parts with changing meters and stuff, but what it is is a really advanced song. Listening to it critically, there are all sorts of little things popping in and out of the arrangement, like a small orchestra, meter changes, dynamics, good form that has many mood shifts (folk rock band, to the acapella and piano breaks, to an anthemic middle section, the acoustic guitar verses, etc.), lyrics that are timely even in 2004 (what will we do when the oil barrels run dry?), and more. I hear a really tremendously well crafted song, and yes, it clocks in at nearly nine minutes—nine minutes that are super rewarding listening. There is some real depth to this on a lot of levels, and more and more, I hear it in all of Tull's music.

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