There's a scene in Vinyl, the short-lived HBO series, that shows a band of prog-rocking Renaissance fair rejects frolicking on a New York stage. The group is called Wizard Fist and features an Ian Anderson lookalike playing a flute. The obvious reference is to Jethro Tull, the British combo that seemed to cycle through more 1970s pop-music fads than Spinal Tap. The implicit message: Jethro Tull represented everything wrong with rock 'n roll in the decadent years before punk's cleansing wave.
(In another Vinyl scene, as if to drive the point home, coke-addled record mogul Richie Finestra rips an actual Jethro Tull record off a turntable and cracks it over his knee.)
Jethro Tull, a blues-rock band from Blackpool in Northern England, joined Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues in a sloppy second British Invasion at the close of the 1960s. Nominally an ensemble, Tull had but one core member, Ian Anderson. Ian wrote the songs, and he pursued a meandering musical vision, changing styles -- sometimes radically, sometimes within a single album -- to suit his restless muse and to slake the changing tastes of a fickle public.
By their second album, Stand Up, Tull had strayed from their blues-jazz roots into hard rock, folk rock and every other rock hyphenate in the pop pantheon of 1969. By the fourth Tull album, Aqualung, Ian sounded torn between playing solo guitar in a coffeehouse and fronting a heavy metal band. Album five, Thick as a Brick, dove headfirst into prog. After a pair of album-long suites, Tull segued into a spirited, up-tempo brand of Ren-fest rock that Rolling Stone termed "Elizabethan boogie." But whereas folk-rock purists such as Fairport Convention revived ancient English balladry, Ian Anderson wrote his own material and kept one foot firmly planted in the prog universe, experimenting with classical themes, grad-school chord progressions and sword-and-sorcery motifs. Jethro Tull albums of that era made ideal soundtracks to Dungeons & Dragons sessions.
Over the years, Jethro Tull lost the support of the rock-music press even as it gained a vast and loyal fanbase, a passel of mostly male patrons who stuck with the band through many stylistic shifts.
Classic-rock radio long provided a home for such lovely Tull chestnuts as "Teacher" and "Living in the Past." But those songs are now half a century old, artifacts of a fading '70s soundtrack from artists lacking Zeppelin-sized legacies. Many contemporary music fans know Jethro Tull only as the band that robbed Metallica of a 1989 Grammy award – in heavy metal, of all disciplines.
The Jethro Tull catalog cries out for reappraisal. At the turn of the 1970s, the band spun off a remarkable series of eclectic albums, a run capped by the superb 1972 collection Living in the Past. Subsequent releases haven't aged so well, but Ian Anderson remained a tremendous songwriter, blessed with a remarkable sense of melody, counterpoint and song structure. Much of Tull's later output buried those gifts beneath layers of teeth-rattling guitar or concealed them within earnest prog symphonies. When the band shut up and let Ian strum his acoustic, his songcraft resurfaced for a few precious minutes.
Here, then, is an album-by-album overview of Ian Anderson's greatest songs. We'll stop in the mid-1980s, when Tull settled into a folk-rock maturity, producing fewer stylistic troughs but also fewer compositional peaks.
Side One of This Was, 1968.
Jethro Tull's debut holds up better than most long-players from blues-obsessed Britain in the late '60s. The record pairs Ian Anderson with his only real collaborator of that era, Mick Abrahams, a great blues-rock guitarist who would depart after one album to form Blodwyn Pig. Abrahams apparently cowrote "Beggar's Farm," perhaps the finest song on the disc. The Ian Anderson original "My Sunday Feeling" and the spirited duet "Some Day the Sun Won't Shine for You" rock hard and bluesy. "Serenade to a Cuckoo," covering jazzman Roland Kirk, exploits Ian's novel talent on the flute. Side two is mostly filler, but "A Song for Jeffrey" is a swamp-boogie classic.
All of Stand Up, 1969.
I think Stand Up is Jethro Tull's best album by a wide margin. Three tracks, "Bourée," "Nothing Is Easy" and "Fat Man," rank as deathless Tull classics. "A New Day Yesterday" and "Back to the Family" are melodic hard-rock gems, while "Look into the Sun" and "Reasons for Waiting" offer lovely acoustic meditations. The Eagles pilfered the chords from "We Used to Know" and retooled them as "Hotel California." The only downside is the loss of Abrahams.
All of Benefit, 1970.
While not as compositionally strong as Stand Up, Tull's third album features a brace of typically melodic hard rock songs. "With You There to Help Me," the opener, offers lovely harmonies over a busy chord progression. "Nothing to Say" and "To Cry You a Song" are riff-driven epics, marred only by a creeping heavy-handedness on the guitars. "Inside" and "Teacher" are joyous romps.
Most of Aqualung, 1971.
You either love "Aqualung," or you hate it. Perhaps the ascent of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath inspired Ian to open his fourth album with a pair of metal epics, "Aqualung" and "Cross-Eyed Mary." They're fun songs: "Aqualung," for better or worse, became Tull's "Free Bird." But for my ears, the real treasures lie farther down the track list, when the band steps back and Ian straps on his acoustic for a series of magical acoustic ballads, starting with "Cheap Day Return" and ending with "Up to Me." Side two gets preachy (and noisy) with "My God," but "Hymn 43" and especially "Locomotive Breath" show the full band at its gut-busting best.
All but side three of Living in the Past, 1972.
This double album surely ranks among the finest compilations of '70s rock, pulling together a remarkable run of singles, album tracks and EP cuts that span the genres of blues rock ("A Song for Jeffrey"), hard rock (the exquisite "Love Story"), folk rock ("The Witch's Promise") and Ian's own brand of orchestral pop ("Life Is a Long Song"). Several of the best songs, including the infectious "Singing All Day" and the title track, had not seen release on any prior Tull LP, a testament to the strength of Ian's songcraft. I generally skip side three, a mostly instrumental workout recorded at Carnegie Hall.
"Skating Away" and "Only Solitaire" from War Child, 1974.
Tull bookended Living in the Past with pair of full-album suites, Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play. Many fans and some critics consider Brick a masterpiece. To paraphrase Chuck Berry, I think both recordings bog down in needlessly complex chord progressions and time signatures, ultimately losing the beauty of Ian's melodies. On War Child, the band retreated to proper – albeit uneven -- songs. "Skating Away" is the sparkling standout, a gorgeous acoustic song dressed up into a pop hit. "Only Solitaire" is another fascinating acoustic excursion, Sir Ian lashing out at the growing crowd of critics.
"One White Duck" from Minstrel in the Gallery, 1975.
This album signals Ian Anderson's embrace of the medieval bard, a persona he would inhabit into the next decade. Most of the songs start out as lovely acoustic ballads and then explode into folk-metal workouts. They aren't bad songs, but too often, Sir Ian's simple melodies disappear beneath the din. "One White Duck," the gentle acoustic suite that opens side two, is a forgotten gem.
"Salamander" from Too Old to Rock 'n Roll: Too Young to Die, 1976.
This rock 'n roll musical ranks among Tull's weaker albums. The title track is nice, but the album's best song is this subtle acoustic track. If Ian had operated like Robyn Hitchcock, perhaps he would have stockpiled these acoustic treasures for release on one great LP at the decade's end.
"The Whistler" and "Fires at Midnight" from Songs from the Wood, 1977.
Critics greeted this album as a rousing return to form. Compositionally, Songs from the Wood is probably Ian's strongest set since Living in the Past, although the late-'70s synth textures and folk-pop production sound dated today. Still, "The Whistler" is a breathless, beautiful song, and "Fires at Midnight" closes out the LP like a cup of steaming cocoa.
"And the Mouse Police Never Sleeps" from Heavy Horses, 1978.
The second album in Tull's Elizabethan cycle sounds closer to a true folk-rock album. The songs aren't necessarily stronger than those on Songs for the Wood, but Heavy Horses benefits from a simpler production. "Mouse Police" is a hypnotic gem of a song.
"Dun Ringill" from Stormwatch, 1979.
Unfairly maligned, Stormwatch is a fine album, moody and menacing like the North Sea, if a tad overproduced. The crown jewel of this collection is "Dun Ringill," a sort of Nordic fairy tale set to a beautiful melody and answered by a lovely contrapuntal figure on Ian's acoustic guitar. It's probably my favorite Ian Anderson song.
"Flyingdale Flyer" from A, 1980.
Lovely multi-part harmonies adorn this song, a standout from a weaker Tull outing.
"Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow" from Broadsword and the Beast, 1982.
Broadsword marked another modest comeback for Tull, five years after Songs from the Wood. Like that album, Broadsword sounds very much of its era. (Not many albums released in 1982, come to think of it, transcend the ghastly production techniques of the time.) "Jack Frost" was an outtake that popped up on a late-'80s Tull boxed set, and it's my favorite Broadsword song by far, jubilant, dynamic and devilishly catchy.
"Under Wraps #2" from Under Wraps, 1984.
A lovely, understated song from an album many Tull fans choose to forget.
Daniel de Visé is a frequent AllMusic contributor and author of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King.