The enduring appeal of Jethro Tull
Five decades, 30-plus band members and more than 20 albums – in light of their 50th anniversary, Prog meets Ian Anderson to look back over how Jethro Tull changed progressive rock forever
Night Of The Living Dead, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Once Upon A Time In The West, bean bag chairs, ziplock bags, Will Smith, Hugh Jackman and Gillian Anderson. On reflection, 1968 was a pretty good year.
Intelligent, thought-provoking cinema, the birth of three (very different) era-defining actors and the creation of something to keep your sandwich in as you flopped down onto the latest in soft furnishings – all while listening to This Was, the debut album from a bluesy rock (if not for long) band called Jethro Tull.
It’s debatable how Smith, Jackman and Anderson will be celebrating their respective 50th birthdays, but suffice to say there’ll be enough candles to constitute a pyre. For Ian Anderson and his band, though, it’s about moving forever forward, but with one eye on the past – and a very specific part of the past at that.
“When you think there were 36 members of the band over the years outside of me, it’s a lot of people…”
Ian Anderson looks up from his coffee and makes some mental calculations, tapping out a rhythm on the table between us with his forefinger as the numbers add up.
“All of the different line-ups and sub-line-ups, there are 10 or 11 meaningful line-ups, in my mind. I think that’s what I’m doing with this anniversary tour – thinking about the first 10 or so years and the Jethro Tull bands that were responsible for that period of music.”
And what a remarkable decade that was. It saw a musical evolution that carried them from their bluesy debut through to the breakout Stand Up, the conceptual landmark piece Thick As A Brick, and took in two-thirds of their folk rock trilogy, Songs From The Wood and the inestimable Heavy Horses.
Along the way, they reinvented prog rock, introduced folk rock to a truly international audience and kept in step with the times, all while fine-tuning the way they kept moving as a band. What a first 10 years.
“I think that period is when most people would have come to Jethro Tull,” says Anderson, “Maybe it was ’69, maybe it was ’78 for some people, but it was in that era when they got to know about us. Even for much younger fans today, they will almost certainly gravitate to that era of music to check out what was happening when Tull was relatively shiny and new, even though we were in a period when we’d evolved so much, when prog rock was in its original incarnation when it was successful. You must remember, it was only four or five years before it became ridiculed.