Codpiece Revisited :: Jethro Tull

From the very start there was something a little haphazard about Tull. In their initial incarnation they were a British Blues band who happened to be named after an 18th century agriculturalist (although this didn’t stop their first single from being misattributed to somebody named ‘Jethro Toe.’) Frontman Ian Anderson would show up at gigs–bird’s nest hair, dirty beard, dirtier coat–looking like a leftover Fagin from the previous night’s performance of Oliver!. It was a gimmick they kept up for years; where most bands would appear on stage like the rockstars they were, Tull would just stand around, doing not much of anything, before walloping everyone with a bombast worthy of Blue Cheer or Soft Machine. Anderson would stamp his foot and growl–a-one-to-three-two-two-three, the actual time signature didn’t matter–and in those seconds he would go from misbegotten tramp (chomping on a cigarette, mumbling to himself) to feral madman.   And if the shock of it hadn’t quite carried to the back row, you had that silvery phallic symbol that was his flute: spluttering and snarling and occasionally beautiful.

It was all so incongruous. Their first album This Was weirdly presented them in the past tense, with the band members dressed as old men on the cover, posed in front of fake woodland backdrop and surrounded by dogs. Listening to the album now, you hear the British Blues rubric being accosted. There’s such a punky, anti-purist disorderliness to the attack. In other words, This Was…not John Mayall. This wasn’t Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. This was not even Led Zeppelin. It was far too ramshackle, far too impish, far too everything-and-the-kitchen-sink. Take ‘Beggar’s Farm’–built around a demonic little riff, it gradually whips its languorous jazz-blues into a nightmarish gypsy stew. Three minutes into the song, the wheels come loose and we enter a zone halfway between Ornette Coleman and Freakbeat. Another great example is the first Tull single proper: ‘A Song For Jeffery.’ The song opens like a cocktail jazz band consisting entirely of angry drunks: an owl screech of flute, an a-rhythmic throb of electric bass. Intro complete, Clive Bunker’s drums begin to crash and thump in a way that isn’t so much rock and roll as Salvation Army band. If the harmonica and slide guitar do give the impression of anxious Anglo-Blues, then Anderson’s singing wants to push things even farther back, into the murk of Depression-era hotel room recordings, gin, and faulty microphones.

Jethro Tull :: Song For Jeffrey

The regretful image of Jethro Tull that persists to this day is one of prog-rock excess, of album-length song cycles, FM hard rock staples, of beards, of a crazy-eyed front man who wore a cod-piece and played flute one leg. Not even cool enough to make the Dazed and Confused soundtrack, the band is easy to dismiss as a joke, much as onetime fan Lester Bangs did when he caught them touring an album of continuous music with cerebral lyrics reputedly written by an 8-year-old-boy.

However, early Tull is something else entirely.

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