Okay, okay, let me just say this up-front: I used to really like Jethro Tull. We all were, kinda, in our little junior high circle, until we discovered punk and new wave and funk and stuff. We thought they were original, with their mix of metal and folk and jazz; we thought Ian Anderson was smart, with his lyrics slamming organized religion and technological advances. We thought that it was cool to like a group that wasn’t all that well-loved in late ‘70s America. I have maintained for years that their live album, Bursting Out, is a really great double-live album (we’ll see about that, it’s about to be re-released on CD).
So when I got this DVD I was all like “dude, I’m all over this, it’s gonna bring me back, it’s gonna justify all my youthful JT love.” (Honestly, that’s what I said. No, I can’t prove it.) But then I watched it, and now I’m not so sure.
If you are a Jethro Tull fan, you need this; it’s an hour-long documentary about their 1994 reunion tour interspersed with clips of “classic” Tull from back in the days. (Why is this just out on DVD now, ten years later? I have no answers, because I don’t really care.) Anderson still seems pretty smart and is in better shape than a lot of people his age [insert joke about “Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die” here blah blah blah], and it’s kinda cool to see all these guys who haven’t been in the band for 15 years get together and reminisce about old times and practice their old songs.
But it’s not that cool, if you’re not a fan. In fact, I can see you being bored out of your tree. None of them are saying anything arresting or hugely insightful, and nothing is a revelation. If you don’t really geek out at the idea of John Evan(s) discussing his time with the band—a hell of a guitar player by the way, I don’t care what anyone says, he ruled when he was allowed to—then you’re not going to change your mind when you hear the actual thing.
But it’s the clips that really got to me, here. We get Tull in 1970 doing “Nothing Is Easy”, and it’s not all that riveting; we get them doing “Aqualung” on BBC Sight and Sound from 1977 and Anderson’s prancing and mugging doesn’t add to the experience; we get the video from “Kissing Willie” from 1989 and it’s not only about 17 years out of date but the song sucks too. It’s enough to make me reconsider my allegiance to this band.
What the hell was I thinking?
It’s obviously overblown hippie twaddle with juvenile let’s-piss-on-the-establishment politics. Anderson’s good flute skills and not-bad voice are put through the wringer of his inflated self-regard and come out wasted and hateful. The band is serviceable and “talented” in that ‘70s way that made everyone hate that music for so long afterwards. The posturing is gross (flute as guitar, flute as penis, ew) and Anderson’s facial expressions are just vomit-inducing. Sure, I’m seeing it through a modern lens, but that’s the only lens I have anymore, and I don’t really know why anyone would want to watch this.
Of course, I still kind of like it, especially when I go into “bonus” mode and just watch the old clips instead of the documentary that incorporates them. The completely freakin’ surreal clip of “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” (split into two parts on 1973’s A Passion Play) is worth watching a few times, if you don’t mind losing your mind; while bass player John Hammond-Hammond narrates the story in a bizarre suit and devil horns, ballet dancers and people in animal costumes dance about and are threatened by the evil men who are filming the video oh my god it’s so meta WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE and it’s really kinda groundbreaking in its own difficult-to-watch way. Maybe it’s better if you’re on acid, or maybe I’m already on acid and the thing’s actually just a straight performance clip. Not sure.
Oh, another highlight: watching them do “The Witch’s Promise” on “Top of the Pops” from 1970. Hoo boy is this a hoot. Watching them do their folk/metal dealie, while hippie British teens do hippie dancing in the background, is dangerous to your health because you might bust a gut laughing. Always fun to laugh at hippies and their music! But charming and adorable in that weird way.
And, ultimately, I still like this stuff, despite my sore misgivings, albeit not as much as I used to. “Thick As a Brick” is a good song. “Songs from the Wood” is a good song. “Aqualung” is not really a song, more of a conceptual suite about a homeless guy that doesn’t hang together, but has some great riffs. Their whole agrarian/pastoral thing, combined with their big fat rawkmonster thing, is still somehow very powerful for me, a Luddite critique combined with an embrace of the fascist power of rock. I don’t expect you to like it, though, and I’m not sure how I will feel about it myself in a few days. But for right now it rocks, and for right now that’s good enough.