Monday, November 4, 2013

Jethro Tull 1: This Was

Say the name Jethro Tull to the average person, and there’s a good chance his or her mental image will immediately depict a wild-eyed, frizzy-haired guy wearing a codpiece and wielding a flute. But they were more than that, as we’ve come to find. (For one, that guy with the codpiece isn’t named Jethro. Chances are you knew that if you’d read this far, but then again, maybe not.)
They began as many British bands in the late ‘60s did—as a blues band. Tull’s difference was not so much in the power category, but in the jazz influences, most obvious in Ian Anderson’s placement of the flute as the center solo instrument, over the guitar or harmonica. If you’re not a particular fan of the flute, as we haven’t been, that can be enough of a deterrent from going any further with them.
Which would be a shame, because their debut, This Was has a lot to recommend. “My Sunday Feeling” offers up a little Cream volume, and then they take it way down for “Some Day The Sun Won’t Shine For You”, which is basically “Key To The Highway” with new lyrics. A snaky riff underpins “Beggar’s Farm”, and Ian steps aside to let guitarist Mick Abrahams sing on “Move On Alone” (foreshadowing alert!) complete with a sympathetic horn arrangement. Side one ends with “Serenade To A Cuckoo”, a Roland Kirk instrumental that the liner notes helpfully inform us was the first thing Ian learned on his flute. (Well, not that helpfully, printed as they are in neon green text on a bright orange background.)
“Dharma For One” is another jazzy instrumental, although one they wrote themselves. As drum solos go, Clive Bunker is no Ginger Baker, but the guitar has a cool tone. They take a trip to more typical blues with “It’s Breaking Me Up” (complete with harmonica) and yet another version of “Cat’s Squirrel”. “A Song For Jeffrey” is a striking departure from the program, combining blues and skiffle into the sound that would soon become all theirs. With its open ending, the minute or so of “Round” serves as something of a coda.
The title is equally open-ended, one reading being “This Was what we sounded like then, and we’ve moved on”. If that’s the case, so be it; we didn’t expect to enjoy at as much as we did on first listen, and maybe other newbies will have the same experience. Fans knew all along, and they, like the band itself, were on to something. (The Tull catalog has undergone a handful of sonic re-evaluations in the digital era; the initial expanded This Was added three contemporary tracks from singles, while the eventual “40th Anniversary” edition included mono and stereo mixes, a pile of BBC performances, and further singles.)

Jethro Tull This Was (1968)—
2001 remastered CD: same as 1968, plus 3 extra tracks
2008 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: same as 2001, plus 22 extra tracks

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