Friday, June 1, 2018

Favorite Artists, Part 1: About Jethro Tull

This is Part 1 of my "Favorite Artists" series, a series where I write in-depth about my favorite bands and artists of all time.

Most times, if I'm asked to name my favorite bands, Jethro Tull is right up at the top of my list. That's because on most days, Jethro Tull is my single favorite band of all time. I won't claim they're objectively the greatest band of all time. That would probably be The Who, who I'll write about in a couple of weeks. But while my mood changes from day to day, so that some days, I might like The Who, or Pink Floyd, or Yes, or even The Good Rats best, on more days than not, my favorite band is Jethro Tull.

Like many people of my age, I first became aware of this band through the song "Aqualung". I would have been around fourteen at the time, and if you're a fourteen-year-old boy, what could possibly be better than a loud rock song that sings about, "Snot running down his nose!"?  Denise still remembers that her youngest brother went through a period where he blasted that song every single morning as soon as he woke up. How could he not? Love songs? Please! What could be better than a song about a dirty old man who lusted after young girls and had to walk in the bog just to keep his feet warm? It was love at first listen.

A year or so later, when Thick As A Brick came out, my tastes were a year more sophisticated, and I was completely ready for it. It was the ultimate progressive rock album, a single extended song that took up both sides of an album (remember, we were working with nothing but vinyl in those days). And it had a story behind it to boot: the tale of the young poet Gerard Bostock, who supposedly wrote the poem that constituted the lyrics of the album. Mind you, that bit at the end of Side 1/beginning of Side 2 kind of sucked (the part with the 218 babies wearing nylons), but the rest of it  was just brilliant.

This was a great period in this band's life, but the real strength of Tull is that there were so many other excellent periods. While their first album didn't (and still doesn't) do anything for me (too much basic blues), their second and third albums, Stand Up and Benefit, were wonderful. And while I found Passion Play to be a bit of a misfire (thanks to trying too hard to catch that Thick As A Brick lightning in a bottle again), I loved War Child (especially "Skating Away ..." and "The Third Hoorah"). And later, when they hit their rustic/Elizabethan period (with Songs From the Wood and Heavy Horses), I grew to love this stage of the band even more than the Aqualung/TAAB era. I even loved their synthesizer period in the '80s, although I'm know I'm quite in the minority on that one.

Tull is about as eccentric a band as you could ever find. (How many rock bands are built around a flute player?) There are certain things that were fairly consistent throughout their 50-year career -- they always featured some sort of mixture of rock, progressive rock, folk and rustic elements -- but they were also always changing. And Ian Anderson's solo discography (Anderson is the driving force behind Tull, for those who are totally unfamiliar) is varied and wonderful as well.

In fact, if you go down the checklist of things I like from my "Playin' Around With My Top 25" post last week, you'll find that many of the elements I like best are there. Acoustic guitars? Check. Keyboards? Check. (Well, most of the time, anyway.) Melodic songs with good hooks? Yep. Concept albums with themes beyond "I love you, you love me"? Double check. (Hell, this band devoted a 9-minute song to the obsolescence of the British plow horse, and the damned thing will bring a tear to your eye!).

I'm only just scratching the surface here, but hopefully you have some idea of what I mean.

These days, it looks like Jethro Tull is probably dead as an ongoing entity, and the world is a worse place for it. Anderson can still write -- his last two solo albums, Thick As A Brick 2 and Homo Erraticus were bleeping brilliant. But his voice has been shot for a long time now, and it's gotten so he can't even hide it on the recordings, let alone in his live shows. (Don't listen to the last album released under the Jethro Tull moniker, The String Quartets. It will break your heart.) And at age 70, who knows how much Ian has left in the tank?

But man, what a body of work he'll be leaving behind. I spent the first three months of this year reliving the pleasures of all of Tull's studio albums, and a decent amount of Tull concert footage and Anderson solo stuff as well. And it all still thrills me.

Television personality Anthony Bourdain makes fun of this band, and says he's mad that they ever existed. Well go eat another warthog anus, chef boy! They'll still be listening to this modern-day minstrel and his band long after you've fried your last schnitzel.

To quote Mr. Anderson himself, in his poignant armageddon song from the A album, "And with the last line almost drawn -- wish you goodbye till further on./Will you still be there further on?"