Jethro Tull’s second LP reached No. 1 in the United Kingdom
(No. 29 in a continuing series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
By Phill Marder
Their hit singles are almost non-existent. Yet most fans of popular music during the Rock era are familiar with many of their songs. In fact, many know many by heart.
In the 1970s, they were one of the most popular bands on the planet, selling out albums and concerts around the world. On the Billboard album charts, they rank 20th on the list of best sellers in the ’70s. Of the 19 artists above them, just Barbra Streisand, Chicago and John Denver have failed to gain entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In fact, of the 10 ranked below them, just one – Grand Funk Railroad – has yet to be inducted.
Like Grand Funk, Jethro Tull, our topic for this week, was/is immensely popular with the listening audience. But, not surprisingly, most critics had/have little good to say about Ian Anderson (lead vocals and flute) and Martin Barre (lead guitar) and their varying supporting cast, and, at present at least, this seems to weigh heavily on a band’s chances of entering the “hallowed” Hall.
Still, when a band puts up numbers the likes of Jethro Tull and does it for over 40 years, it’s time for Anderson, Barre and company (band members over the years number into the 20s), to receive their just due.
Tull first made its presence felt in United Kingdom concert appearances as the ’60s drew to a close. With the band playing what was then described as a mixture of blues and jazz behind the madman antics of their front man, British audiences responded by sending their initial LP, 1968’s “This Was,” into the top 10, while U.S. record buyers ran it to No. 62, a more than respectable showing for a new group without a hit.
The following year, Tull broke the British singles market with two top 10 hits, “Living In The Past” and “Sweet Dream,” and the “Stand Up” LP, though it didn’t include either hit, became the group’s only No. 1 long-player in the UK. It was far from their lone UK success, though. “Stand Up” also broke the band in Norway, starting a string of six straight Top 10 LPs there.
And while “This Was” had opened the American door for Tull, “Stand Up” pushed them right through, reaching No. 20. Album No. 3, “Benefit,” did even better in the States, just missing the top 10. It didn’t follow “Stand Up” to the top in the UK, but it didn’t miss by much, peaking at No. 3.
Remaining a favorite concert attraction and having established a constant presence on flourishing FM progressive rock radio, Tull had become one of the most popular bands in the world by the time they released their first true blockbuster – “Aqualung.” The title cut and “Locomotive Breath” became radio staples and the album became a classic, hitting the top 10 in the US and UK. Even Rolling Stone praised the album’s “fine musicianship” and considered it “serious and intelligent,” eventually ranking it No. 337 on its list of 500 all-time best albums. Guitarist magazine listed Barre’s guitar solo on the title track on their list of “20 greatest guitar solos of all time.”
How do they come up with these lists? Well, they get a group of “experts” to choose them, Rob Sheffield for one. Sheffield calls Charlie Watts the greatest drummer in rock & roll history, so perhaps these lists should be taken with a shaker of salt…assuming you haven’t lost it.
It was nice to see “Aqualung” fairly well received in the media, but Anderson was displeased the album had been pegged as a concept work. In response, he promised, “If the critics want a concept album we’ll give the mother of all concept albums and we’ll make it so bombastic and so over the top…” That they did, the entire album being one 45-minute song. Anderson later claimed the resulting “Thick As A Brick” was a spoof of progressive rock albums. Whatever it was, it worked, becoming Tull’s first No. 1 album stateside and reaching No. 5 in Britain. The sarcastic and humorous newspaper cover didn’t help endear Tull to its critics.
The next “new” release, “A Passion Play,” also hit the top of the United States chart and the next, “War Child,” just missed, stopping at No. 2.
But get this, the same two – Mark Coleman and Ernesto Lechner – that ripped Rush in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, wrote this in that same “esteemed” publication…“The immediate success of Aqualung spurred Anderson to indulge his artistic whims, resulting in two challenging, wildly experimental, and occasionally obtuse theatrical concept albums: Thick As A Brick and Passion Play. After that strategy backfired, Jethro Tull returned to traditional song structure on War Child and the acoustic-flavored Minstrel In The Gallery.”
Backfired? BACKFIRED? How does consecutive No. 1 albums qualify as strategy backfiring? Maybe Anderson intended to produce two duds? That’s like saying the Phillies acquired Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt and the moves backfired as they won the next two World Series. We all should have such career backfires.
Recovering from that “slump,” Tull continued to release best-selling works, four more LPs hitting the US top 20 before closing its most productive decade with “Stormwatch,” which peaked at No. 22. In the spirit of a true super group, Jethro Tull continued to release new material as the years passed, charting six US albums in the 1980s, four reaching the UK top 20, including “Tne Broadsword And The Beast,” which also climbed to No. 19 in the US, and four more best-sellers in the ‘90s.
In 1987, Tull, always hard to classify, found out just what category it fit when “Crest Of A Knave” won the Grammy for “best hard rock/metal performance vocal or instrumental” beating out Metallica and Jane’s Addiction in what Entertainment Weekly called one of the 10 biggest upsets in Grammy history. Hard rock? Heavy metal? Anderson, Barre and company didn’t even go to the award show figuring there was no way they would win. Later, their label, Chrysalis, took out an advertisement informing the public – tongue in cheek, of course – that “the flute is a heavy metal instrument.”
Anderson, Barre and cohorts still tour worldwide, live albums being the result the last few years. A live performance at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony would be most deserving.