Friday, November 14, 2008

Jethro Tull Mk. 0 / Mk. 1

The Tanuki was a prog-rock nerd in high school. He's not proud; he's not ashamed. He just is.

Every once in a while he gets in a prog-rock mood again, and tonight it was Jethro Tull.

The thing to understand about Jethro Tull is that they weren't a band. This is true of a lot of the prog acts, but in the case of Tull, it's doubly true. In one sense they were always Ian Anderson's solo project, augmented by the musicians he employed to carry out his vision. In another sense, you could argue that those musicians were at least as important to the end product as Ian was, in which case we realize that Jethro Tull was not a band, but several in succession, all bearing the same name.

Jethro Tull Mark Zero consisted of Ian Anderson on vocals, John Evans on keyboards, Glenn Cornick on bass, Barriemore Barlow on drums, and Neil Smith (Chick Murray) on guitar. They weren't actually called Jethro Tull, but the John Evan Band (or the John Evan Smash). They were a Blackpool-based soul band, with horns. The only thing that's ever been released by this lineup is a song called "Aeroplane," which showed up on the b-side of the first Jethro Tull Mk. 1 single, and was subsequently released on CD on the 1988 box set 20 Years Of Jethro Tull (now out of print, but well worth hunting down).

"Aeroplane" was originally recorded with horns; they were mixed out for the release, since the band the song was credited to did not have horns, but if you listen close you can still hear them in the background. It's a groovy little record: very 1967, with its spacey, post-Sgt. Pepper feel and its harpsichord break. But it's also surprisingly - well, soulful, with a funky piano-based setting for a nice graceful melody. An essential track by this lineup - of course, it's the only track by this lineup.

Jethro Tull Mk. 1 consisted of Anderson, Cornick, Mick Abrahams on guitar, and Clive Bunker on drums. They recorded the a-side of the "Aeroplane" single, "Sunshine Day" (this single was mistakenly credited to Jethro "Toe"); a b-side called "One For John Gee;" another non-album a-side called "Love Story;" and an album, This Was, all in 1968.

At this stage Tull was not prog. There really wasn't any such thing as prog yet. What Tull were was a British r&b/blues band, in the same tradition as John Mayall, Cream, the Stones, and hordes of others. Tull were latecomers to the British blues scene; rather more country-blues oriented, with a healthy admixture of jazz, and a distinctly underground sensibility (dig the old-man cosplay on the cover of This Was: they were almost as much rebels against their generation as were The Band).

There's enough here to start to consider them as a band.

Ian Anderson wasn't yet the be-all and end-all: this really was a band. He was the lead singer, of course, but occasionally his vocals are doubled (probably by Mick Abrahams, although the tone of the second voice is so close to Ian's that it's possible Ian's doubling his own vocals); he also played flute and harmonica. But Mick Abrahams' agile guitar work is at least as much the focus here, and the Cornick/Bunker engine more than holds its own place in the spotlight.

Cornick here is a serviceable bassist; behind songs he holds down the chords adequately, only really shining when he gets a rare solo spot, or when he breaks into the walking figure he likes so much. Bunker's a bit of a basher, untidy in a way that lends the whole proceedings a refreshing looseness. Together, however, they can swing a little more authentically than I've heard any British band of the era pull off. The jazzy aspect of Tull Mk. 1 is showcased on the album in their cover of Roland Kirk's "Serenade To A Cuckoo," but I think is best heard in the b-side "One For John Gee." This concise instrumental really cooks: moves right along through a pleasant Wes Montgomery-ish theme, through solo spots for all, and back into the theme, just like a real jazz group. They're not quite that, but they're close.

The album tracks focus more on the blues aspect, although the best of their blues may be the non-album "Sunshine Day." Entirely fluteless (not a rare thing for Tull in '68), it speeds along at a breakneck pace, with a show-stopping guitar breakdown in the middle.

The whole album's good, but I rate the essential tracks to be: "My Sunday Feeling," more groovy jazz-blues, although with a slightly distracting mix, with Ian's vocals way over in the left channel, with far more echo than the rest of the instruments - you can really hear the room. "Someday The Sun Won't Shine For You," just a double-tracked vocal, a solo fingerpicked electric guitar, and a nifty harmonica part; very effective country blues. "Beggar's Farm," a tightly composed song based on a droning bass / guitar arrangement; this is the Mk. 1 song that sounds most like glory-years Tull. "Move On Alone" is a short soul number with Mick on vocals and somewhat hotel-lounge-sounding horns; it works. "Cat's Squirrel" is essentially Jethro Tull as power trio, taking on Cream and beating them (well, at least their arrangement of this tune is better than Cream's). "Round" is just that, a jazzy melody played as a round for less than a minute, but it's fun.

The non-album a-side, "Love Story," came out after the album, and shows the band moving toward the sound they'd arrive at on their next album - you can hear it in the folk-rock guitar and conga mix of the main hook. Overall, better production values, much less of an improvisational feel, much less blues focus. It's very nice, though, with good spring-loaded guitar sounds; whatever tensions caused Mick to depart before they could record a b-side aren't really apparent in the recording.

I haven't yet mentioned my favorite track from Tull Mk. 1, which is "A Song For Jeffrey." This was the first non-toe single, and it also featured on the album, but the definitive version was recorded for the BBC and released on 20 Years (it's currently available on the remastered version of Aqualung, of all places), complete with plummy BBC announcer voiceover. The sound on this recording is fantastic, much fuller than anything they got in the studio in this period, and the song has a lot more energy than the studio version. The bass here is impossibly fat in its duet sections with the flute, and then when the main groove kicks in, it has so much kick that it always makes me want to get up and pogo around the room (don't imagine that). It's a weird groove, behind a weird, old-before-his-time Anderson vocal. Weirder than I think the band realized at the time; later, they'd self-consciously strive for weird, but it wouldn't be half as truly crazy as this.

Jethro Tull Mk. 1 may well have been the best edition of the band. At the very least, it's the least nerdy. The version I can enjoy even when I'm not in high-school-nostalgic, prog-rock-geek mode.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastically interesting and well thought out review - Thanks very much for sharing it.