Sunday, November 30, 2008

Jethro Tull Mk. 1.5 / Mk. 2

So Mick Abrahams departed after the first album was recorded, and Jethro Tull Mk. 1 was no more. Jethro Tull Mk. 2 would happen when they found a long-term replacement, but in the meantime, as, let's call it Jethro Tull Mk. 1.5, they did two things.

They recorded one song without a lead guitarist: "A Christmas Song," released as the b-side of the Abrahams-led "Love Story." (See our comments on this song in our discussion of Jethro Tull Mk. 1, here.) "A Christmas Song" in fact doesn't seem to include any Tulls but Ian Anderson: the flute in the fade-in (carolers wandering up to the door, so to speak) must be him, and he's probably playing the stringed instrument (mandolin?) that backs up his vocal throughout the song. The other instrumentation is orchestral, no doubt courtesy of David Palmer, whose work with the band had begun with the horns on "Move On Alone" and would continue for many years thereafter. The drums may be Clive Bunker, but they don't sound like him. The song is a pithy, moralistic take on Christmas revelry, beginning with an ironic quote of the first verse of the carol "Once In Royal David's City" and proceeding to rake merrymakers over the coals. A Christmas classic, and a long way from the blueswailing - well, blueswhimpering - of the first album.

The second thing Tull one-and-a-half did was to experiment, for about five minutes, with adding guitarist Tony Iommi. Yes, mister Black Sabbath his own abaddonic self. They never recorded together, but Iommi did appear with Tull in the tapings for the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus. They're only miming to the studio version, unfortunately, but the video's worth watching anyway, to get a sense of how weird, yet cool, Tull were at this point. Later they'd be weird and geeky.

Abrahams's real replacement would be Martin Barre, who plays with Tull to this day. As a guitarist I've never been able to quite put my finger on him. He's played some really deathless rock leads over the course of his career, some solos that can stand up to any amount of air guitar, and yet I've never felt compelled to rank him among the Great Guitarists. Maybe I underrate him out of a sense that he was only playing what Ian told him to. Maybe it's just his Friar Tuck Goes to the Riviera look. Anyway, that underratability in 1969, with Tull Mk. 2.

They made their bow with a non-album single: "Living In The Past" backed by "Driving Song." "Driving" is forgettable, but "Living In The Past" was a real achievement. A catchy groove that just happened to be in five, probably in homage to Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." Cool jazzy flute, and Barre on effective rhythm guitar. The whole thing is quite understated, and incredibly listenable. The lyrics aren't quite a statement of purpose, but may have been a reiteration of the aesthetic behind the cover of the first album: they were never quite a retro band, but neither were they ever really fashionable. Aware of the past, or rather determined not to be dictated to by the present.

Tull Mk. 2, then, was Ian Anderson on flute, acoustic guitar and such, and vocals; Martin Barre on guitar (and occasional flute, at first); Glenn Cornick on bass; and Clive Bunker on drums. They made one album together, and manage to avoid the sophomore slump by dint of the fact that this was in more ways than one a different band than had been heard before. Not only did they have a new guitarist: Anderson was now running the show. He'd stolen the handle, and the train wouldn't slow down.

Stand Up sounds like Ian Anderson's own personal version of the White Album. That is, if you hear the White Album as each Beatle staking a claim to his own style, or styles, his own metier; Stand Up is Ian doing that for himself. And, like the White Album, it sounds less like an album than a collection of songs in widely disparate styles. Look, ma, no rules.

It seems to have two of everything. You've got two electric bluesy things, featuring Barre's take on the blooz. They're not up to the mark of the blues things on the first album; they sound very British, very much like a second rate Cream. Still, they're catchy tunes, well performed, and they tend to show up on Tull compilations. "A New Day Yesterday" is the slow one; "Nothing Is Easy" is the fast one.

You've got two dreamy acoustic ballads, "Reasons For Waiting" and "Look Into The Sun." They're pretty interchangeable; "Look" has some tasteful electric guitar accents, while "Reasons" has a nice Hammond organ part and strings. If you dig Anderson's acoustic side (and I do), these are about as perfect a pair of specimens as you could ask for.

You've got two turbocharged fusiony rockers. "For A Thousand Mothers" never did all that much for me, but "Back To The Family" does; it introduces the light/heavy alternation that Anerson would exploit so effectively in the future. Here it trades between a gentle, seductive mid-tempo groove and a frenetic up-tempo passage; they're meant to illustrate the singer's successive frustration with living alone and living with his family. He gets stressed out either way, but hey, we can always jam... This is Barre's finest moment on the record. He gets a real nice sound in both the quiet and the loud sections, and the fact that he lacks Mick's blues credibility serves him well here, leading him into something a little more original. Straight rock, a hardness that would come, in time, to cast him as Anderson's main foil.

Other songs of note. Jeffrey makes a reappearance in "Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square," a
skipping little number that does indeed sound like "A Song For Jeffrey" revisited. It's arranged, rather than played, though, with very carefully chosen percussion notes and guitar lines. One imagines it would have been hard to pull off onstage. Its spiritual twin is "Fat Man," another acoustic number, but this one very fast. When I was younger and thinner I thought it a rather cruel lyric, and imagined Anderson was using obesity as a metaphor for wealth and property (the rich man and the eye of the needle, and all that); now I'm inclined to think fat represents fat.

What's left? Ah, yes, "Bourée." Jethro Tull does Bach. Here's an account of what a bourée is and where in Bach's ouevre this one can be found. Tull's take starts out fairly straight, then jazzes it up, with a superb Anderson solo followed by a great Cornick solo. As an idea (classical meets jazz), Bill Evans and others got there first, but not necessarily better.

This was probably the first indication that Tull's road would lead them to be classified as prog. But we must remember that there really wasn't any such thing in 1969. The idea was there: combine the freedom and new possibilities of rock with art musics such as classical or jazz as a way of furthering one's aesthetic horizons. Experiment, and see where it takes you. And really, how can you argue with that? Later there would be excess, and more significantly there would be ossification into a genre, with all the predictability that implies. But that hadn't happened yet in 1969. Instead, you had all sorts of groups, on both sides of the Atlantic, reacting to each other and, of course, to the ever-expanding Beatles, by trying new things. That's all Tull was doing.

So what else did Tull Mk. 2 do? One live track has been released, the Sonny Terry/Brownie McGhee "To Be Sad Is A Mad Way To Be." It appeared in 1993 on the 25th Anniversary Collection box, but it's nothing to really write home about.

They also left one more non-album single: "Sweet Dream" backed by "17." "Sweet Dream" is Tull with horns (back to the John Evans Band idea?). A bombastic rocker, and I mean that as a compliment. But the b-side is, I believe, Tull 2's finest moment. A fairly simple melody, a mid-tempo groove, but played as loudly and raucously as Tull ever managed to be. The first and only time you could really imagine them as a party band. Cornick and Bunker pull this Stax-ish groove seemingly out of nowhere, Barre matches them with some Steve Cropper unleashed licks, and even Ian manages to sound soulful. Fantastic. You'd hardly guess it was Jethro Tull.

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