Jethro Tull was formed in Luton, England, in 1967 when Ian Anderson (vocals, flute) and Glenn Cornick (bass) – members of a visiting Blackpool blues group, John Evan’s Smash – became acquainted with Mick Abrahams (guitar, vocals) and Clive Bunker (drums).
Abrahams’ colleague in local attraction McGregor’s Engine, completed the original line-up which named itself after an 18th-century agriculturalist and made its debut in March the following year with Sunshine Day. This commercially minded single, erroneously credited to Jethro Toe, merely hinted at developments about to unfold.
A residency at London’s famed Marquee club and a sensational appearance at that summer’s Sunbury Blues Festival confirmed a growing reputation, while A Song For Jeffrey, the quartet’s first release for Island Records, introduced a more representative sound.
Abrahams’ rolling blues licks and Anderson’s distinctive, stylised voice combined expertly on This Was (1968) – for many Tull’s finest collection.
Although the material itself was derivative, the group’s approach was highly exciting, with Anderson’s propulsive flute playing, modelled on jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk, particularly effective. The album reached the UK Top 10, largely on the strength of Tull’s live reputation in which the singer played an ever-increasing role.
With his assumed persona of part village idiot, part Pied Piper, Ian Anderson – a former cleaner at the ABC cinema in Luton – always led his band with a healthy dose of eccentricity.
His exaggerated gestures, long, wiry hair, ragged coat and distinctive, one-legged stance cultivated a compulsive stage personality to the extent that, for many spectators, Jethro Tull was the name of this extrovert frontman and the other musicians merely his underlings.
Mick Abrahams left in November 1968 and formed Blodwyn Pig. When future Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi proved incompatible, Martin Lancelot Barre joined Tull for Stand Up, their excellent chart-topping second album.
The group was then augmented by John Evan (keyboards), the first of Anderson’s Blackpool associates to be invited into the line-up.
Benefit, the last outwardly blues-based album, duly followed and this period was also marked by the group’s three UK Top 10 singles, Living In The Past, Sweet Dream (both 1969) and The Witch’s Promise (1970). Cornick then quit to form Wild Turkey and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond – already a legend in Tull’s lexicon through their debut single, Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square and For Michael Collins, Jeffrey And Me – was brought in for Aqualung (1971).
Possibly the group’s best-known work, this ambitious concept album featured Anderson’s musings on organised religion and contained several tracks that remained long-standing favourites, including My God and Locomotive Breath. It also contained songs about a desperate vagrant with child-molesting intent (Aqualung) and a schoolgirl prostitute (Cross-Eyed Mary).
Clive Bunker, the last original member, bar Anderson, left in May 1971. A further John Evan-era acolyte, Barriemore Barlow, replaced him as Jethro Tull entered its most controversial period. Despite, or perhaps even because of their fascination with English folklore and its attendant music, the group quickly became a surprise hit in the US, and by 1973 had scored two #1 albums there.
Originally claimed (fictitiously) to be based on a poem written by a precocious and disturbed 12-year-old boy called Gerald Bostock, Thick As A Brick topped the American charts on its original release in 1972, although today it carries its years badly.
A single 45-minute solid slab of music – interrupted only by the physical necessity of turning the record over – its scraps of tunes are linked by the interplay between parping keyboards, piping flute and deft drumming, interspersed with Ian Anderson’s distinctive singsong vocals. Sadly, its indigestible rambling nature, coupled with the most obscure lyrics, renders it almost unlistenable to contemporary ears (even after a flagon of Mead!).
Although Thick As A Brick topped the US chart and reached #5 in the UK, the press reviled A Passion Play, damning it as pretentious, impenetrable and the product of an egotist and his neophytes. Such rancour obviously hurt. Anderson responded by announcing an indefinite retirement but continued success in America, where the album became Tull’s second chart-topper, doubtless appeased his anger.
War Child, a US #2, failed to chart in the UK, although Minstrel In The Gallery proved more popular. Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll, Too Young To Die marked the departure of Hammond-Hammond in favour of John Glascock, formerly of The Gods, Toe Fat and Chicken Shack.
Subsequent releases, Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses (subject matter: shire horses, pet dogs, weathercocks, fornication out on the heather), reflected a more pastoral sound as Anderson abandoned the gauche approach marking many of their predecessors.
David Palmer, who orchestrated each Tull album bar their debut, was added as a second keyboards player as the group embarked on another highly successful phase, culminating in November 1978 when a concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden was simultaneously broadcast around the world by satellite.
Glascock’s premature death in 1979 during heart surgery ushered in a period of uncertainty, culminating in an internal realignment.
In 1980 Anderson began a projected solo album, retaining Barre and new bass player Dave Pegg (ex-Fairport Convention), but adding Eddie Jobson (ex-Curved Air and Roxy Music) on keyboards, and Marc Craney (drums).
Long-time cohorts Barlow, Evan and Palmer were left to pursue their individual paths.
The finished product, A, was ultimately issued under the Jethro Tull banner and introduced a productive period that saw two more group selections, plus Anderson’s solo effort, Walk Into Light, issued within a two-year period.
Since then Jethro Tull have continued to record and perform live, albeit on a lesser scale, using a nucleus of Anderson, Barre and Pegg. Catfish Rising in 1991, although a disappointing album, was a return to their blues roots. Roots To Branches and the terribly named J-Tull.Dot.Com peddled the standard Jethro Tull progressive rock, full of complicated time changes, and fiddly new age and Arabian intros and codas.
Squire Anderson has also become a renowned entrepreneur, owning tracts of land on the west coast of Scotland and the highly successful Strathaird Salmon processing plant, which employed 250 people at its peak and was valued at £10.7 million before he sold it.
Keyboardist David Palmer became Dee Palmer following a successful sex-change in 2004.
Martin Lancelot Barre
Peter John Vitesse