Few bands in rock history have experienced the full polarity of love and hate quite like England’s Jethro Tull.
For over 40 years, the group has been celebrated for its uncannily unique fusion of medieval theatrics, British folk and American jazz and blues on such landmark works as 1969’s Stand Up and 1971’s definitive Aqualung. They’ve been reviled for it all the same, especially in 1989 when their 1987 comeback album, Crest of a Knave, beat out Metallica’s masterpiece …And Justice For All for the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Grammy to the befuddlement of critics and fans alike.
However, regardless of your view of Tull, few can question their impact on the classic and progressive rock idioms over the course of their tenure as a band. And while the group did seem to drown itself in its own Renaissance fair pomposity on the majority of their post-Aqualung releases (see 1973’s A Passion Play and 1975’s Minstrel in the Gallery), their 1968 debut, This Was, provides a sonic palate that almost any fan of rock, blues, jazz and prog can equally appreciate without prejudice.
Forming in late 1967 after former North London club musicians Ian Anderson, Glenn Cornick, Mick Abrahams and Clive Bunker joined forces and christened themselves after the name of an 18th century inventor who revolutionized farming with his maverick seed drill, Jethro Tull quickly earned their place amongst the English rock elite. They opened for Pink Floyd at the first known free rock festival in London’s Hyde Park and scored a coveted gig as one of the acts featured in the Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘N Roll Circus, which went down shortly after original guitarist Abrahams left the group and was briefly replaced by future Black Sabbath axe god Tony Iommi (for a week). Abrahams’ departure from the group was the first of many line-up changes Tull would experience in its 40 years together, but luckily the immense talents of the original quartet was well-documented on the band’s debut, This Was.
Abrahams was a hardcore bluesman, massively influenced by British blues legend Alexis Korner, which, in turn, reflected heavily on the music of Tull’s first album. Unlike later albums like Thick as a Brick and War Child, which were almost entirely masterminded by Anderson, who by now was the primary figure of the group due to his stage antics and flute playing, This Was proved to be more of a cohesive collaboration between its chief members. The album strikes a wonderful, strong balance between post-Invasion English blues championed by Abrahams and the exploration of American avant-jazz and British folk by Anderson.
You wanted to know where Anderson’s obsession with the flute derives from, look no further than This Was, where he wears the influence of his jazz hero, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, on his sleeve with a lively cover of his indelible composition “Serenade to a Cuckoo”. You want to hear the genesis of the hard rock edge that propelled such AOR anthems as “Cross Eyed Mary” and “Locomotive Breath”, check out the ominous “Beggar’s Farm”, the outstanding death jazz of “Dharma for One”, complete with a massive drum solo from Bunker or the heavy psychedelia of “Cat’s Squirrel”. Meanwhile, Abrahams’ presence is felt the strongest on “Some Day the Sun Won’t Shine” and “It’s Breaking Me Up”, two of the bluesiest tracks in the Jethro canon.
While most will cite Stand Up or Aqualung as the quintessential Tull album, This Was should arguably come in at a close third, as this massive two-disc deluxe edition justly signifies. Here, for the first time on compact disc, is the original mono mix of the album in addition to a newly-remastered stereo version. Audiophiles will no doubt agree that the mono version of This Was is far superior, truly bringing the full propulsion of the album to life as it was originally intended to be listened to. Additionally, this set also contains stellar BBC sessions from 1968 recorded for the late John Peel’s “Top Gear” program, including phenomenal rip through “Stormy Monday” as well as four super rare UK mono singles, including the impossible-to-find “Love Story”/”Christmas Song” 7-inch recorded for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.
This outstanding reissue will hopefully not only be scooped up rather swiftly by the aging hipsters and vinyl junkies keeping the diminishing circuit of dusty old record shops alive, but their children and grandchildren turned on to the Tull thanks to Ron Burgundy’s infamous shout-out in Anchorman.
// Notes from the Road
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