Jethro Tull’s bluesy beginnings boxed
A touch over a half a century ago, Jethro Tull released a debut album that bore scant resemblance to the band’s later output but introduced them as a rising force in British rock.
When singer/flautist Ian Anderson, guitarist Mick Abrahams, bassist Glenn Cornick, and drummer Clive Bunker cut This Was, prog was pretty much non-existent, outside of precocious anomalies like The Nice. And the complex blend of folk, classical, rock and jazz influences that would make Jethro Tull art-rock heroes of the ‘70s was worlds away from the British blues scene that gave them birth and bore a strong imprint on their first album. The lavish box set commemorating the 50th anniversary of that record’s release provides a wealth of context for both the way Tull’s early sound developed and where it led.
With an exhaustive history chronicled in a book of nearly 100 pages, three CDs, and a DVD, the 50th anniversary edition of This Was offers contemporaneous non-LP singles, live BBC sessions, alternate mixes and even radio commercials to fill out the story of Jethro Tull’s first steps.
Tull came together out of two bands — Anderson and Cornick were in R&B group The John Evan Band, while Abrahams and Bunker came from blues band McGregor’s Engine. They joined forces in 1967, initially still operating as The John Evan Band (named for a keyboardist whose name was actually Evans and wasn’t even in the band anymore by that time), slogging it out on the club circuit and enduring abject poverty until they secured a record deal with Island, by then having renamed themselves Jethro Tull.
The rocking blues Abrahams favored and the jazzier R&B of The John Evan Band both found their way into Jethro Tull, with the advent of Anderson’s flute playing being almost an afterthought at first to give him something else to do in the band. It was the era of The Yardbirds, Cream, John Mayall, and Peter Green’s Fleetwood mac, when the intersection of blues and rock was a dominant force in England, and This Was reflected that phenomenon.
“It’s Breaking Me Up” and “Some Day the Sun Won’t Shine For You” were the most straightforward of the lot, full-on blues tunes, complete with Anderson blowing harmonica. “Move on Along” presented a more uptown blend of blues and R&B, with an uncredited brass section arranged by the band’s future keyboardist David Palmer.
“A Song For Jeffrey,” “Beggar’s Farm” “My Sunday Feeling” and the instrumental “Cat’s Squirrel”–a traditional tune previously released by Cream–all fall more into the blues-rock camp, with the latter two venturing closer to Cream territory via Mick Abraham’s heavy riffs. Jethro Tull’s jazzier side came to the fore on the Roland Kirk cover “Serenade to a Cuckoo,” where Anderson’s overblowing flute technique’s debt to Kirk comes full circle, and “Dharma For One,” a flute-led jazz-rock instrumental featuring a drum solo from Bunker.
By the time Tull released their next album, Stand Up, less than a year later, things had changed drastically. Martin Barre had replaced Abrahams and the latter’s blues leanings were almost entirely eschewed for folk flavoring and proto prog. But with this edition’s elaborate package, it’s possible to fill in the blanks between the two and trace the evolutionary path that led from one to the other.
The 1968 non-LP single “Love Story” b/w “A Christmas Song,” recorded shortly after This Was with the same lineup, finds the band already taking a step away from the blues, making a significant progression towards their subsequent folk-rock sound. The album outtake “Ultimate Confusion” is a chaotically tongue-in-cheek freeform jam that underlines the band’s sense of humor and willingness to push the envelope.
Even the pre-This Was tracks included here reveal seeds of what Tull was to become. The John Evan era tunes “Sunshine Day” and “Aeroplane” were recorded in ’67 and released in early ’68 as the first single under the Jethro Tull moniker. Technically, they were actually released as Jethro Toe due to an embarrassing error, but they bore a sound not far from the psychedelic side of Cream, and in hindsight were actually closer to Stand Up than most of This Was.
Of course, the tunes from the album are heard here in multiple versions, too. There are live BBC sessions and alternate studio versions, as well as the original 1968 mixes in both mono and stereo, plus the new Steven Wilson remixes. And for the real audiophiles out there, the DVD offers the tracks in surround sound.
But just as impressive and informative as the music that illuminates Tull’s earliest chapter is the heroically elaborate book that accompanies it. In addition to copious photos from every phase of the band’s early days there’s a tremendously detailed account of that same era, including fabulously informative essays and lots of revealing commentary from Anderson himself.
Most of Tull’s ‘60s and ‘70s albums have already been given a similar anniversary box set treatment, making for one of the best rock reissue series ever mounted. But the 50th anniversary edition of This Was brings something special to the table. By delivering a more comprehensive document of Jethro Tull’s beginnings than anyone has ever seen, this set itself takes its place as an important piece of the band’s legacy.