Jethro Tull is, to some extent, the Rodney Dangerfield of classic rock. They never seem to get any respect. Basically, it’s all been downhill since they won the Grammy in 1988 for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance with Crest of a Knave, beating out Metallica’s “One”. It wasn’t their fault the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences was full of a bunch of yokels who didn’t know heavy metal from either their ass ora hole in the ground.
There was a time, however, when they were not only absolutely friggin’ huge but also critically acclaimed as well.
No less an authority than Lester Bangs himself once said of the group, “Make no mistake: in terms of sheer professionalism, Jethro Tull are without peer. They stand out by never failing to deliver a fullscale show, complete with everything they know any kid would gladly pay his money to see: music, volume, costumes, theatrics, flashy solos, long sets, two encores. Jethro Tull are slick and disciplined; they work hard and they deliver.”
Now, I’m not saying that you have to believe me...but, c’mon, Lester Bangs? You know you can trust the opinion of the man who wrote the immortal article, “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung”.
So when Tull released their first live album, Bursting Out, in 1978, it’s easy to imagine that expectations were running high. Would the band be able to capture the Jethro Tull live experience within the grooves of a 2-record set?
Musically, the album is certainly a success. The track listing is mildly heavy on the band’s two most recent albums at that time (Heavy Horses and Songs from the Wood), but, otherwise, Ian Anderson and company knew how to play to their strengths, alternating between greatest hits and album tracks, keeping the hardcore fans ecstatic without losing those who only knew the songs being played on the radio. Unfortunately, the Tull live experience involves watching Anderson perched and playing his flute, seeing the aforementioned costumes and theatrics, and basking in the enthusiasm of the musicians. The sound quality is fine, and the performance is strong, but, sadly, Bursting Out is never going to convince the uninitiated that Jethro Tull were a force to be reckoned with on the concert circuit in the ‘70s.
Tull returned the following year with their next studio album, Stormwatch, a record which splits a lot of the group’s fans squarely down the middle. Is it the last of the so-called “classic” Tull albums? (It’s the last album to feature bassist John Glasscock, who died not long after its release, organist/pianists John Evan and David Palmer, and drummer Barrie Barlow.) Some say the wheat ended with Heavy Horses and the chaff kicked in with Stormwatch, but perhaps it’s merely the fact that the two albums are so stylistically dissimilar. Taken by itself, Stormwatch seems to have aged quite well. Opener “North Sea Oil” is classic Tull from the get-go, the two instrumentals, “Warm Sporran” and closer “Elegy,” are wonderful, and “Home” is a regal, romantic ballad (“And though I’ve been away / Left you alone this way / Why don’t you come awake / And let your first smile take me home”). The four bonus tracks added to this reissue are all consistently enjoyable as well, particularly the jaunty “Kelpie” and “A Stitch in Time”.
If fans found the dissimilarity between Heavy Horses and Stormwatch jarring, however, then, when A came out the following year, it’s a wonder they didn’t rise up en masse, find where Ian Anderson lived, and go punch him right in the kisser.
It’s to be expected that, with such a dramatic change in personnel (i.e., almost a completely new band), Jethro Tull wasn’t going to put out an album that sounded quite the same as its last. A, however, managed to alienate longtime fans even as it failed to particularly bring in any new ones. (Nice one.) Originally slated to be an Ian Anderson solo album (the “A” is for Anderson), Chrysalis reported liked it so much that they pleaded with him to go ahead and let them release it under the Tull name. Given that there wasn’t much left of Tull but a skeleton following the mass exodus of the rest of the band following the recording of Stormwatch, anyway, Anderson agreed.
It stands to reason that flute remains prominent on this album, but synthesizers and electric violin enter the picture as primary instruments, with acoustic guitar nowhere to be heard. Not your father’s Jethro Tull, in other words. Listening to it with the benefit of hindsight, however, A sounds almost like a template for Crest of a Knave; the two albums sound very similar, aside from the slightly dated early ‘80s production at times on the former. (The keyboards on “Black Sunday” sound like they might’ve inspired Europe to write “The Final Countdown”.) Fans who came to know and love songs like “Farm on the Freeway” and “Steel Monkey” would do well to reinvestigate A with an open ear; they might be pleasantly surprised at what they find.