The underlying premise behind this Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series is that the answer to the Favorite Band Question has evolved throughout my life, with different artists holding the title at different times. But if really, truly pressed to name a single band as my favorite artist throughout A Lifetime of Listening, I would pick Jethro Tull. And I wouldn’t really have to think very hard before making that decision.
The group first moved onto my most-regular spins roster in the mid-1970s and have never, ever left it. I’ve seen them (or front-man Ian Anderson solo) in each of five decades, from the ’70s through the ’10s, and would eagerly add a sixth decade to that list if Anderson is able to tour again. (He recently disclosed that he is suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and it would seem that might be a show-stopper for a singer and flute player). The amount of physical pleasure, intellectual stimulation, and emotional joy that they’ve given me over the years is unmatched by any other artist in my collection. On top of that, I’d be lying if I denied tailoring my own lyric writing and singing (back when I did such things) on Ian Anderson’s approaches to the same. While I have been more obsessed in the moment with other acts at various times in my life, Jethro Tull are a constant: always here, always playing, always pleasing. Game, set, match.
Interestingly enough, and in contrast to the artists featured in each of the prior articles in this series, I cannot recall a specific origin or first encounter story that led to the blossoming of my Tull fandom. I’m also not even exactly sure which of their albums I first purchased or owned, though I would guess it was probably the 1976 compilation M.U. — The Best of Jethro Tull. I’m sure I would have heard their American AM radio hits (“Living the Past” and “Bungle in the Jungle”) and free-form FM station favorites (“Aqualung,” “Locomotive Breath,” “Teacher,” etc.) well before then. I’m also pretty sure that I would have read about them back in those glorious pre-Internet days when I used to discover new artists of interest by sitting in libraries and bookstores and devouring Rolling Stone magazine and seminal music nerd books like the earliest compilations of Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees. (I do know for a fact that it was a Pete Frame family tree that first introduced me to Hawkwind, but I’ll discuss that in a later installment of this series). It seems that Tull were just sort of always on my radar screen, and that I grew into being a super-fan more organically and amorphously with them than I did with the other 11 acts on my life-time favorites roster, where typically a single album, song or incident would have triggered a particularly strong response. I guess it was just meant to be. Or I guess it just was.
In parsing and dating my evolving list of favorite bands, I cited Steely Dan as owning the title from 1976 to 1978, and Tull from 1978 to 1982. But probably more accurately, they were essentially co-champions for that entire period, perhaps just with a little more emphasis on the Dan in the early years, and a little bit more on Tull in the latter. As noted in yesterday’s Steely Dan report, that period of time was when I found my first real music nerd running partner (Jim Pitt), and as was the case with the Dan, I think the two of us being obsessed with Tull in those years was well-rewarded, as the era included some of their very best work, most notably Songs from the Wood (1977) and Heavy Horses (1978). I wasn’t much of a live albums guy then (nor now), but Tull’s Live: Bursting Out (also 1978) was nevertheless also a stereo favorite.
My Steely Dan and Jethro Tull era also found me with my first paying job beyond the obligatory newspaper delivery boy phase: I was hired to be the teen editor for Mitchel News, the military base’s little local rag. There I am in action in the photo at left, sweaty after basketball practice. I was supposed to be something of a beat reporter, doing interviews with new kids on base and documenting the things in which the local young people were presumed to be interested. But after a column or three like that, I got bored, and I started doing band career retrospectives instead (Tull and the Dan both received that treatment), or making sports predictions, or writing creepy poetry about some of the weird old buildings and spaces on the base. I also gave the way-popular movie Grease a thumbs-down, one-star, bomb review, eliciting howls of rage from most every girl I knew on base, and the guys who wanted to impress them. That might have been the bridge too far. I was let go from the job after about a year. Not a surprise, then or now. Music criticism was certainly more of a passion for me than popular puff pieces were. Also then and now.
Developing my Top Ten Favorite Songs list for Jethro Tull was super hard. Their catalog is the largest I’ve had to consider thus far in this series, though there are some even huger ones ahead of me, by an order of magnitude in a couple of cases. I consider Tull’s last truly great album to be 1982’s The Broadsword and the Beast, though I suspect many fans would consider that their glory days ended after Stormwatch (1979). That’s when the “classic era” group fell apart following the death of bassist John Glascock, and a record label decision to issue what Anderson had intended to be his first solo album under the Jethro Tull banner instead, with long-time and much-beloved members John Evan, Dee (then David) Palmer and Barriemore Barlow left on the sidelines, for good. There are some fine songs on various albums after Broadsword (Ian Anderson’s solo album Homo Erraticus  in particular rises to classic era standards, with the same band line-up that also carried the Tull banner at the time), but I didn’t see anything in there that would make a Top Ten against the earlier works.
There’s also a complicating factor with Thick As A Brick (1972, and my very favorite Tull album) and A Passion Play (1973) originally each being released as single ~45 minute long songs split over two sides of a vinyl platter. While subsequent compilations and reissues have broken those big song cycles down into smaller bits, the chunking and labeling has been inconsistent over the years, so it’s hard to meaningfully cull cuts from those two great discs, and I have chosen not to do so in creating my Top Ten. I’m left with a wee bit of sadness from that decision as I am not then able to include arguably the most divisive moment in the entire Jethro Tull catalog: “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” from A Passion Play. Needless to say, I adore that little bit of atypical whimsy. When Tull originally toured A Passion Play, they created a short intermission film of “The Hare” segment, and it’s a weird gem featuring bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond in fine narrative form. Watch it here. Seriously. Do.
As I culled my initial list down to just ten cuts, I found myself keeping very few of the known hits and/or concert staples (no “Aqualung” or “Locomotive Breath,” for heretical starters), while also preserving several borderline obscurities that some better-than-casual Tull fans may have never heard, nor even heard of. So my list didn’t end up being a typical or perhaps even good introduction to the group and its catalog, as perhaps best evidenced by comparing it to the most recent compilation album released by the group: 2018’s 50th Anniversary Collection. That record featured 15 career-spanning songs curated by Ian Anderson himself, ostensibly an authority of some note on the subject matter at hand. His list of 15 and my list of 10, posted below, contain but one overlap: 1971’s “Life Is a Long Song.” Oh well. It’s not the first time in my musical listening career that I’ve most liked the things that few others do. My list sits just right and sweet and good for me.
#10. “Glory Row,” from Repeat – The Best of Jethro Tull – Vol. 2 (1977) (Note: Later available as a bonus track on most reissues of 1974’s War Child).
#9. “Mother Goose,” from Aqualung (1971)
#8. “Life Is a Long Song,” from “Life Is a Long Song” EP (1971) (Note: Later available on the first Tull compilation album, 1972’s Living in the Past).
#7. “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” from Benefit (1970)
#6. “Summerday Sands,” from 20 Years of Jethro Tull (1988) (Note: Later available as a bonus track on most reissues of 1975’s Minstrel in the Gallery).
#5. “One Brown Mouse,” from Heavy Horses (1978)
#4. “Velvet Green,” from Songs from the Wood (1977)
#3. “No Lullaby,” from Heavy Horses (1978)
#2. “Songs from the Wood,” from Songs from the Wood (1977)
#1. “Minstrel in the Gallery,” from Minstrel in the Gallery (1975)
Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.
Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.
7 thoughts on “Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #6: Jethro Tull”
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I think a real contrarian list would zero in on the post 1970s stuff. I would be tempted to include Thick as a Brick and Passion Play in their entireties.
I was sort of considering having #1 and #2 be “TAAB” and “APP” in their entirety, but figured nobody would ever listen to them if I did, so opted to treat them as unbreakable wholes, and not as songs, per se. If I was including Ian’s solo albums, I’d drop in at least one from “Homo Erraticus,” and a few cuts from “A” (Working John, Working Joe,” “Protect and Survive,” “And Further On”) and “Broadsword” (“Clasp,” “Flying Colors,” “Fallen On Hard Times”) were on my finalist list . . . but I couldn’t move any of them above anything I kept. I think the best of the later records is “Catfish Rising.” The three before it would be least favorite in the entire catalog.
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I don’t know anything past Heavy Horses, and I’m probably happy to stay like that. I like them, but don’t feel the need to hear their whole discography.
You’ve got the best stuff by ending at that point!
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I generally think most artists have a ten year window where they release most of their best stuff. Paul Simon is one exception though.