Jethro Tull - Biography

By J Poet


Jethro Tull is not the pseudonym of bandleader/songwriter and flute player Ian Anderson, but it’s his face that most people think of then they hear his band’s name. An anomaly in the world of rock, Tull plays their own skewed blend of metal, British folk and folk/rock, jazzy improvisation, and blues, using both electric and acoustic instruments and marked by Anderson’s bizarre, lyrical spew and maniac vocals. The band’s made 11 gold and five platinum albums, won a hard rock Grammy and sold over 60 million albums. While they passed their commercial peak in the late 70s, they continue to tour to enthusiastic crowds and still log more and 100 gigs a year with core members Ian Anderson and Martin Barre holding down the fort.


Anderson was born in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, but the family moved to Blackpool, England in 1959. Anderson went to college to study fine art before deciding to become a rock singer. He picked up harmonica and flute so he’d have something to contribute when the blues bands he was working with went off on an extended jam. He started making a name for himself with his eccentric stage moves: playing the flute on one leg, leaping about like a court jester and growing an unruly beard and a lion’s mane of hair.


Anderson had played in the John Evan Band with Mick Abrahams, Glenn Cornick, and Clive Bunker and when Evan left, the remaining four kept on and looked for a unique name before settling on Jethro Tull, an 18th-century English inventor, agronomist, musician, and author. The real Tull was often viewed as an oddball, which gave the band, and Anderson in particular, the license to do whatever they wished on stage. In February of 1968 they played a residency at the Marquee Club in London; honed their act and landed a record deal.


This Was (1968 Chrysalis UK, 1969 Reprise US, 1990 Chrysalis) impressed people with its mix of blues, folk and jazz, with Anderson’s work on Roland Kirk’s “Serenade to a Cuckoo” particularly impressive; the album hit #5 on the British charts within two weeks. Abrahams left to start Blodwyn Pig and Martin Barre moved to lead guitar for Stand Up (1969 Reprise, 1990 Chrysalis). The blend of hard blues and a jazzy take on Bach's “Bouree”, proved the band was ready to go its own unique way.


Anderson’s stage antics became legendary; looking like a homeless clown off his meds, he roamed the stage with unbridled energy and to many fans he became Jethro Tull, the madman. Benefit (1970 Chrysalis UK, 1990 Chrysalis) was the band’s first folk/rock masterpiece; the single “Teacher” was hard rock folk with a killer flute/guitar hook. Aqualung (1971 Reprise, 1996 Chrysalis) a sour meditation on church and religion sent Tull to the top of the charts in both the US and UK. “Aqualung”, the song has one of the band’s most memorable guitar hooks, "Locomotive Breath", "Cross-Eyed Mary," and "Mother Goose" became FM staples in the US.


Tull was now a supergroup and they confounded expectations again with Thick as a Brick (1972 Reprise, 1997 Chrysalis) a prog rock suite that blended classical, folk, rock, and blues. On LP the song took up both sides of the record, and it topped the charts despite the problems it posed for radio programmers. Their stage show got even more elaborate with multiple costume changes and long sets that let the band stretch out. A Passion Play (1973 Reprise, 1990 Chrysalis) was another 45 minute long suite, the tale of a man reviewing his life while standing at the gates of heaven. The folk and classical influences in the music were more evident, and Anderson’s dense lyrics struggled with issues of mortality and the meaning of life.


War Child (1974 Reprise, 1990 Chrysalis) included the hit "Bungle in the Jungle” and went to #2 on the US charts, The Minstrel in the Gallery (1975 Reprise, 1990 Chrysalis) could be called the first heavy metal folk album, while Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll, Too Young to Die! (1976 Reprise, 1990 Chrysalis) was their most commercial sounding album ever. Still, it was the first LP to not earn a gold record in the US, although the title track was a big hit.


The band went back to its folky metal sound on Songs From the Wood (1977 Reprise, 1990 Chrysalis), Heavy Horses (1978 Reprise, 1991 Chrysalis) and Stormwatch (1979 Reprise, 1990 Chrysalis) perhaps the first ecological protest record in rock.


In 1980 Anderson started work on a solo effort with keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson from Roxy Music, but it went so well it became the Tull album, A (1980 Chrysalis, 2002 Chrysalis) with Jobson’s synthesizers giving the band a touch of new wave cred without smothering the folk/rock elements. The Broadsword and the Beast (1982 Chrysalis, 2005 EMI) was a smooth folk rock outing, and was followed by an electronically flavored Anderson solo album Walk Into Light (1983 Chrysalis, 1990 Chrysalis) and Under Wraps (1984 Chrysalis, 1990 Chrysalis) allegedly a Tull record, although all the parts were played by Anderson and Peter-John Vettese using synthesizers and drum machines.


After a break to regain sanity after years of touring the band went back to its blues metal roots on The Crest of a Knave (1987 Chrysalis, 1990 Chrysalis) one of the loudest albums they ever made. It took home a Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Album Grammy. The album went gold and returned the band to the charts. 20 Years of Jethro Tull (1988 Chrysalis) collected hits and outtakes on five LPs or three CDs, Rock Island (1989 Chrysalis) got poor reviews, but Catfish Rising (1991 Chrysalis) returned to a heavier folk metal sound and found favor with fans and critics.


Anderson stared delving into world music in the 90s and Roots to Branches (1995 Chrysalis) and his solo album Divinities (1995 EMI Classical) added Indian classical music and Arab sonorities to their folky blend; Divinities hit #1 on the British Classical charts. J-Tull Dot Com (1999 Varese) saw them dropping the world music for their more familiar sound. The band’s last studio album, so far, is The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (2003 Fuel 2000) a minor masterpiece that harks back to their classic early 70s sound, a folk, jazz, pop, rock, metal extravaganza that limns both the bright and dark side of the holidays. Anderson also released three more solo projects in the new millennium: The Secret Language of Birds (2000 Fuel 2000) featured his mellow folky side and featured more of his guitar, bouzouki and mandolin playing than his flute, Rupi’s Dance (2003 Fuel 2000) which blended all of Anderson’s interests from blues to world music, and Ian Anderson Plays the Orchestral Jethro Tull (225 ZYX) a double CD/DVD set of Anderson and hi flute playing the band’s hits with the Neue Philharmonie Frankfurt orchestra for some groovy crossover action. In 2012 Ian Anderson presented to the world a sequel to Thick As A Brick, titled Thick As A Brick 2: Whatever Happened To Gerald Bostock?

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