Jethro Tull Was a Great Band Before Aqualung
The cover of Jethro Tull's 1969 album Stand Up
The classic-rock world lost another of its members last month with the passing of Jethro Tull's original bass player, Glen Cornick. They, alongside Deep Purple and Judas Priest, are one of what I consider the last three bands unjustly omitted from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
For those familiar with early Tull images, Cornick was the animated member. He could be found on album covers and press photos with his glasses, long black hair and usually sporting a headband or a stylish derby. Known as a partier, he was asked to leave shortly before the recording of 1971's Aqualung album -- not necessarily as a result of his behavior, but because those ways didn't fit the with the other members' more subdued personalities.
While the band achieved success in their homeland during the early years, Tull's early days seem to have been lost to American audiences save "Living in the Past" and "Teacher." Up until the release of Aqualung, they were seen by the press as a blues-based rock band similar to Led Zeppelin. [Tull's longtime front man, Ian Anderson, plays "The Best of Jethro Tull" at Stafford Centre Sunday night with his eponymous band...so figure that one out -- ed.]
Their identity evolved into a progressive rock band after the release of their next two albums, Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, which both topped the Billboard album charts. Most of the Jethro Tull you hear on today's classic-rock playlists are from this era and forward.
It took Cornick's passing for me to realize that I can't recall any great bass-driven songs or bass parts in Tull's catalogue that weren't performed by him. This is not because of the lack of talent from the bassists who succeeded him, but because of the band's change in direction after his departure.
You can't be a great blues-rock band without a qualified bassist to drive it along. The highly energized Cornick performed on par with his contemporaries -- Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, Cream's Jack Bruce and the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Noel Redding -- while getting none of the accolades that seemed reserved for them.
I took Cornick's death as an opportunity to revisit his time in Jethro Tull, which consists of their first three albums: This Was (1968), Stand Up (1969) and Benefit (1970). Material from this period was also released on 1972's Living in the Past, a compilation of singles, B-sides, concert performances and outtakes from the band.
These albums may be unfamiliar to most on this side of the Atlantic, but some of Tull's best songs come from this period. In honor of Cornick, I'd like to highlight ten tracks from these albums to shine some light on material that gets overshadowed by the band's '70s staples.
Story continues on the next page.
"A Song for Jeffrey" (This Was) This song starts with a bass and flute riff and eventually turns into a blues shuffle featuring fantastic harmonica and vocals by Ian Anderson. He sings in a style reminiscent of the blues sound that influenced much of the UK bands that emerged in the '60s.
"My Sunday Feeling" (This Was) If you were to merge blues, rock and jazz, you would pretty much wind up with this opening number from the debut album. Underrated drummer Clive Bunker does a bang-up job interchanging between the various styles in the song.
"New Day Yesterday" (Stand Up) Often performed live, this lengthy heavy-blues track could be mistaken for something from Zeppelin's debut up until the flute gives it away. This heavy style is one of many different guitar sounds newly joined guitarist Martin Barre, who replaced original guitarist Mick Abrams, would bring to Tull for many years.
"Bouree" (Stand Up) This unusual cover (J.S. Bach!) is definitely Cornick's finest moment in the band, and could be Anderson's finest flute performance as well. The entire band is on the money in jazzing up this instrumental, thrilling many Tull fans when performed live.
"Nothing Is Easy" (Stand Up) It's difficult to put "Nothing Is Easy" into words. It has elements of jazz, rock, swing and shuffles along with a heavy riff and great drumming. If you like "New Day Yesterday", you should also like "Nothing Is Easy."
"To Cry You a Song" (Benefit) A lengthy rocker that shows the band developing a progressive slant to the material. You can find elements of things to come on Aqualung on this track.
"Teacher" (Benefit) One of the early Tull classics. While many different versions of the song were released, the one on the U.S. version of Benefit album (the track was not omitted on the UK pressings) is the best of the group.
"Witch's Promise" (Living In the Past) This 1970 single was not released in the U.S. but would have made a perfect match for AM radio; it charted at No. 4 in the UK). For those that think Jethro Tull is "Renaissance Fair" music, this song would be the first to lay claim to that style. Its lush orchestration can't be found on a Tull track up to this point, and I find this one of the band's most beautiful songs.
"Living in the Past" (Living in the Past) Even though it was released as a single in 1968, it didn't become popular in the States until its release on this compilation. Another upbeat light number, this one proved worthy of AM airplay as it resulted in Tull's highest-charting single stateside (No. 11).
"Sweet Dream" (Living in the Past) This 1968 single is one of the most unique Jethro Tull songs. A rocker showcasing electric guitar, it also features the best use of a horn section in a rock song since the Doors' "Touch Me." There is also orchestration to compliment the horns in the ending fadeout. This track proved successful, reaching No. 7 on the UK singles charts.
Jethro Tull would go on to produce albums in many different styles throughout their career (including a Christmas album in 2003!) as a result of their longevity and a rotating lineup of musicians always anchored by Anderson and Barre.
Believe me, there is nothing wrong with loving Aqualung (it's one of my favorites), but if you would like to delve deeper into the catalog, I would recommend "Stand Up" from the previously discussed Cornick era, "Heavy Horses" from their late-'70s nature-rock era and of course, 1987's "heavy metal" Grammy-winning Crest of a Knave.
I'll concur that album shouldn't have won over Metallica's ...And Justice For All but at least the ever-safe Grammy committee finally acknowledged one of classic rock's most worthwhile acts with an award. Would it be too much to ask for another ever-safe committee to do the same?
Ian Anderson performs "The Best of Jethro Tull" Sunday night at Stafford Centre, 10505 Cash Rd., Stafford.
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.