Mail a complaint Michael Burton’s Pathetic Jethro Tull Page

You’re never too old to rock’n’roll if you're too young to die. —Jethro Tull, Too Old to Rock’n’Roll, Too Young to Die

At first, the whole seed drill thing seemed like such a good idea. But after he invented it in 1701, Jethro Tull was marked for life. No one was interested in his hopes and dreams, his joys and sorrows. His life, his loves, all forgotten—he was reduced to a stereotype: “Jethro Tull, inventor of the seed drill.” History doesn’t record it, but I can imagine a peevish outburst: “Ye gads, but I am sick unto death of this accursed seed drill! By Heaven, I am a man! Does no one wish to hear me sing?”

I have found no historical record of the musical gifts, if any, of the inventor of the seed drill. Fortunately, the musical record is more complete regarding his namesake, a band comprising Ian Anderson and an ever-changing cast of friends.

Jethro Tull may be the ultimate fusion band: starting with a sort of smoky blues-jazz music, they have mixed in medieval lute music, bagpipes, synthesizers, and good ol’ rock’n’roll. One early hit borrowed a melody from Bach. Some of their lyrics seem to pose little puzzles, with echoes of Milton, Shakespeare, and other “gentlemen in leather bound.” In 1989, to the dismay of Metallica fans everywhere, Tull won a Grammy award for Heavy Metal music. I think it may be best to say simply that they play Jethro Tull music. And they play it very well.

More than thirty years on, Jethro Tull still plays to sellout crowds around the world. To me, it seems obvious that this is due to word of mouth about the 1970 Aqualung concert at Columbus, Ohio—the greatest concert I’ve ever seen.

I was a small-town boy new to the Big City. I had just started school at the Ohio State University (OSU), and when I heard that an internationally famous band would be performing within easy walking distance of my dorm room, I was interested. I knew virtually nothing about Jethro Tull. Some radio stations played music from the Aqualung album, but it hadn’t made a strong impression on me.

The Experience of Benefit

A high school friend, who had seen Tull during the Benefit tour the year before, urged me to attend the Aqualung concert. Ian Anderson, he told me, was the greatest one-legged flautist in the Western world. That sounded impressive, though I didn’t understand it. He said that the band tested each individual floorboard on the stage before every concert to assure the appropriate tone and timbre for all the onstage leaping about. He insisted that if I were to miss my chance to see Tull in concert, I would regret it unto the End of Days.

A college dorm-mate had also seen the Benefit concert, and as he struggled to find superlatives adequate to describe the experience, I concluded that the Aqualung concert might be something worth seeing.

Until this time, I had never seen a performer with a national recording contract. Every concert I had seen had been held in a school auditorium or gymnasium. This would be different. This was The Big Time—St. John Arena, where Ohio State’s basketball team played. Yes, it was still a gymnasium, but it was a really big gymnasium, seating about 14,000. I paid my hard-earned $3.50 for the best seat still available—high up in the top deck, just a couple rows beneath the rafters.

The basketball hoops had been cranked up out of harm’s way. There were several large and potent-looking speakers suspended from the ceiling. While the road crew were setting things up on stage, I noticed that the face of the bass drum was black. The word “Tull” was spelled out on the drum in what appeared to be white electrician’s tape.

There was a grand piano on the stage. When we heard it, amplified, on the loudspeaker system, it sounded like a grand piano, not like a tinny honky-tonk upright. It seemed to me that this was altogether fitting and proper. Remember, please, that this all took place before inflatable pigs and laser beams had become an indispensable part of every rock concert. In those benighted times, a musician was compelled to lean rather heavily upon the performance and the music.

The crowd was a mixed lot. Some were seasoned Tull veterans; a few might have been old drinking buddies of the lads in the band. Others were small-town kids as innocent as myself about the Big Time concert scene, and as ignorant as myself about Jethro Tull.

This Must Be Jethro

The house lights dimmed. A spotlight illuminated a man in a long orange coat, who walked onstage with a flute in one hand and an acoustic guitar in the other. The crowd roared. “Aha,” thought I, “this must be Jethro.”

He sat down on a stool at the center of the stage and started chatting with the audience. All around me, people were shouting “My God! My God!” I thought, “Come on, he’s not all that great!”

(I suppose I should mention here that “My God” is the title of a particularly flashy song from the Aqualung album. If you’re not familiar with it, perhaps you should take a moment now to go get yourself a copy of Aqualung, and familiarize yourself with “My God.”)

While the crowd whooped and whistled and shouted “My God!”, Ian Anderson continued to talk in a calm, low murmur. He wished someone a happy birthday, and a chorus of squeals erupted from a small area about halfway back in the auditorium.

Finally, Anderson picked up his acoustic guitar and said, “I’d like to begin with a song for the Man Up There.” Part of the audience understood, and roared their approval. He waited for the cheers to subside, then added, “It’s called ‘My God.’” The crowd roared again, a little louder than before.

When he played the first two notes, everyone who had the album roared. There was a steady din of excited anticipation while he played the song’s subdued intro. When he played the song’s eight-note instrumental leitmotiv, everyone who had heard the song on top-40 radio roared their recognition. When John Evan, who had come onstage unseen, joined in at the grand piano, the crowd roared. When Anderson started to sing, the crowd roared. When the rest of the band were dimly seen walking onto the darkened stage, the crowd roared. When the drums and electric guitars joined the party at the line “don’t call on him to save,” I think the arena roof rose off the rafters about six inches, wobbled a bit, and settled back onto the top of the building.

Anderson picked up his flute with a great flourish, and the crowd roared. They roared when he started to play it. The flute solo in the middle of the song turned into a long jam, with extended snippets of a medley of other songs, including “Bourée” and “God Rest Ye Merrie Gentlemen.”

Comedian George Burns wrote that he kept about twenty minutes of his best material as “insurance.” He would never use it on radio or television—it was reserved for his live act. Jethro Tull seemed to adhere to the same policy. The live show was filled with a host of extraordinary musical stunts that I had never heard on any album or broadcast. The music carried the audience so far afield that we were surprised when Anderson’s extended flute solo returned, after about fifteen minutes, to “My God.” Surprised, and delighted—the crowd roared.

My God. The audience was wrung out already, and it was only the first number in what turned out to be a long and satisfying set. By the end of the evening, several thousand people must have had blisters on their vocal cords. Usually, my tolerance for screaming crowds is pretty low, but this night I understood. When I left my first Jethro Tull concert, I was grinning from ear to ear and thinking: “That was the best time I have ever had in my entire life!”

One more memory from the Tull concert lore of my youth, then I’ll shut up: on the Thick as a Brick tour, Ian Anderson began by telling the audience, “We’d like to begin with a rather long song…” The band did an extended version of Thick as a Brick, which included all the material from the album, plus a considerable helping of additional material (including a very strange interlude in which a giant rabbit read the evening news). When they finished, after about an hour, the audience leapt to their feet. Hundreds of people flicked their lighters to call for an encore. Anderson waited at the microphone until the cheering and applause had died down enough for him to make himself heard. Then he said: “For our second number…”

Good show. Always a good show.

Links

I took some photos at a Tull concert many years later.

I mentioned that some of Tull’s lyrics are puzzling. That means we need a website with annotations and commentaries. Something like Cup of Wonder, I think.

The Paradise Steakhouse is a fan site with a lot of things to explore.

Collecting Jethro Tull brings together a lot of information, including lyrics and discographies.

Then, of course, there is the official Jethro Tull home page.