Prog and the 18th Century Agriculturalist (posted 29/6/14)
By ProgBlog, Jun 29 2014 06:18PM
For someone who was into prog in 1972, my appreciation of the music of Jethro Tull came fairly late, even though my father used to whistle Living in the Past, which had been covered in 1971 by Canadian trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. From someone who would not infrequently refer to prog as ‘racket’, this was something of a revelation. He’d also whistle Light My Fire after José Feliciano's cover version won a Grammy in 1969.
Tull were originally a blues band but the proto-prog of Stand Up hinted at the direction they were about to embark upon. I think that this album, more than any other of the Tull canon, was responsible for influencing Italian prog bands. Though it represents the first of their albums that I like, the period between 1969 and 1982 is littered with hits and misses. Bill Burford was the first of my friends to buy any Tull albums, and he bought into them in a fairly big way. I appreciated the more lofty concepts, Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play, Minstrel in the Gallery and from there got into the prog-folk trio of albums beginning with Songs from the Wood. I bought a copy of King Crimson’s Earthbound in 1978 but didn’t like it very much, took it back to Blackshaw’s and swapped it for Heavy Horses. As a mooching teenager I wrote naff poetry and, along with the more rocking title track and No Lullaby, I kind of liked the sentiment of Rover. I’m not particularly a fan of Aqualung which may have been Bill’s first foray into Jethro Tull. He also owned Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll but I found the music uninspiring. I wasn’t the only one of my coterie to lack an appreciation of the full Tull catalogue. According to the music industry, I was part responsible for killing music as I recorded some tapes for Tony to listen to while he was at Uni in Leeds. The following is an extract from a letter he wrote to me in September 1979:
There now follows a critique of “Thick as a Brick” which is based on numerous listenings and the rigid thought process of a closed mind. Show it to Bill as well. I don’t expect either of you to agree, as will become obvious!
In my opinion Tull have not progressed very far beyond this album with their later works (“Vocal recitals from the lignified angiosperm” and “Equine mammals of large mass” being the ones I have heard.) However, I shall not pursue that argument here, but may be induced to do so at a later date.
The vocals are a very important feature of this album and I suspect that they are present on about half the playing time. Unfortunately, I find them rather irritating. “Feeheeheeheeheeheeheels” or a similar variant ending many of the lines is not very imaginative and indeed becomes tedious quite rapidly. Mr Anderson’s aquistic [sic] guitar is undeniably jinky-jink, although his lack of inspiration here is redeemed to a certain extent by some excellent flute. The other musicians in the band are not really given many opportunities to demonstrate great virtuosity, because it is not that sort of an album. They are obviously competent, however. The drummer does get a solo – but then I’m not very enthusiastic about drum solos and anyway Bill would deny me the right to comment on his technique.
I feel that the strength of the composition throughout the album can be questioned. Much of the album consists of a few basic melodies, which are developed to a limited extent but not enough to maintain my interest. Other passages rely on rhythmic, almost mono-aural / monotonous (one sound!) thumps.
Both sides are a little disjointed, the second side possibly more than the first e.g. the progression on the second side through free-form jazziness, a quasi-choral passage, and classical guitar, direction eventually being established with a repetitive guitar riff and organ and vocal accompaniment. This leads on to the best part of the album – undiluted technorock, including a few unexpected bars of orchestral style – and played on strings – just before the end.
** (2 stars) Mike the Mod, NME
Mike says he doesn’t know whether or not to recommend his readers to “No Pussyfooting” instead. After all, it is much cheaper
I have to admit that Tony had a valid point about the ‘jinky–jink’ guitar, something we looked on with derision, and the "Feeheeheeheeheeheeheels” but, noting his use of the term ‘technorock’, a word we used to describe keyboard-led music before we actually heard the term ‘prog’, I think the use of organ makes the album. Tony also didn’t have the advantage of sitting with the St Cleve Chronicle in front of him, something that makes the album a genuine immersive experience. The subsequent A Passion Play was quite difficult going but worth the effort. Perhaps my favourite Tull album is the relatively unsung Minstrel in the Gallery. The title track has all the hallmark qualities of a prog anthem and the Ian Anderson-dominated acoustic tracks feel somewhat more mature than previous material, possibly because of its reflective nature; on a recent play of the album I was reminded of how good David Palmer was at string arrangements. Baker Street Muse is an almost side-long epic with its four subsections, and harkens back to Thick as a Brick and Passion Play territory. Spoken sections at the beginning and end of the album show that the band have not lost their sense of humour.
The folk-laden sounds of Songs from the Wood, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch include a more divergent keyboard set-up, as David Palmer joins the band as a second keyboard player but it’s the bouncy, up-front bass of John Glasscock that is most different from preceding Tull (he wasn’t really allowed to shine on Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll.) The pre-Christian references and ecological concerns of Songs from the Wood give way to political matters on Stormwatch (North Sea Oil, Dark Ages) and these in turn give way to more mundane matters such as 4WD on A as the band moved further away from prog with prevailing global tastes.
Anderson has always had the ability to express everyday things in a poetic way, whether it’s the ‘battlefield allotments’ next to railway lines or ‘newspaper warriors changing the names they advertise from the station stand’ and there are a number of themes that run throughout his work – he does seem to have a thing about trains. However, it’s not his lyrics that stand out. Perhaps out of all the prog bands that use flute, and there are a fair number from early Crimson to Gabriel-era Genesis to Focus to Camel to Van der Graaf Generator and so many Italian bands, the first group you think of is Jethro Tull.