A generous new box set chronicles the Jethro Tull classic that set the stage for Aqualung
Before Jethro Tull attained immortality and entered the classic rock canon with 1971’s Aqualung, they unsheathed an album just as arresting but entirely different: Benefit.
That chronically underappreciated 1970 record has recently been given the full-on box-set treatment. This epically expanded version offers not only the opportunity to reconsider Benefit’s virtues but a whole slew of bonus material that illuminates things in a new way.
Sure, there was a deluxe Benefit reissue that arrived back in 2013, but as fine as that was, it can’t help but be overshadowed by the big kahuna. Over the last several years, the box-set series of Tull reissues has set the standard for the way this sort of thing should be done, with copious amounts of live and studio bonus tracks, video content, and not just booklets but full-length books overflowing with revealing interviews, vivid photos, and keen insights.
For some time, Benefit was the odd album out, the only classic-era Tull release not to receive the big box treatment. But that’s been handily remedied with the 50th anniversary edition (arriving a little late, but let’s not quibble over calendar dates, especially with the pandemic throwing a monkey wrench into music-industry mechanisms).
After the comparatively conventional blues rock of Tull’s 1968 debut, This Was, the band upped the ante in a major way with Stand Up, letting the jazz, folk, and classical influences fly and giving the world its first taste of what we know as the Tull sound today. That huge leap makes This Was beloved both to fans and the band, while fourth album Aqualung contributed more staples to rock radio than any other Tull record, insuring its legacy forevermore. But Benefit tends to be the album that gets unjustly lost in between those two milestones.
Even Tull’s head honcho, Ian Anderson, in the notes for this set, is shockingly dismissive of Benefit, though it was the band’s highest-charting album in the U.S. up to that point. The record’s lone single, “Inside,” made zero impact on either side of Atlantic, but Benefit is the sound of a band fully becoming themselves, using the tools they forged on Stand Up to sculpt songs that stood taller than any they’d built before.
AUDIO: Jethro Tull “Inside”
A key element was the arrival of keyboardist John Evan. Anderson and Tull bassist Glen Cornick had played with him in the John Evan Blues Band years earlier, and his piano and organ brought a whole new flavor to Tull’s cookbook. His jazzy chording on “Alive and Well and Living In,” his elegant lines on the bridge of “Son,” his ecclesiastical tones on the intro to “Sossity You’re a Woman” — they all help Tull travel to places that would previously have been impossible. Evan doesn’t appear on the cover because he was still officially a guest player, but that would quickly change.
The fluidity of Anderson’s compositional chops had expanded too. It’s apparent in the way “With You There to Help Me” shifts seamlessly from a madrigal vibe to blasting rock riffs, in the mating of reflective, folky verses and anthemic choruses on “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” and in the knotty melodic structures of “Sossity You’re a Woman,” to name only a few examples.
There’s a greater emotional depth to the tunes too. For all its hippie naivete, the tumbling, jazzy “Inside” is warmer than anything on the preceding albums, as is “With You There to Help Me.” And even when Anderson is sounding pissed-off, as on “Son,” he bites deeper than before, foreshadowing the vitriol he’d soon sling on Aqualung.
Of course, on this set, the original album is only part of the story. And for most stateside listeners, a revelation arrives straight out of the gate with the aforementioned “Alive and Well and Living In,” which was replaced with “Teacher” on Benefit’s American pressing.
Then there’s the meat of the bonus material, including non-LP singles and b-sides, alternate mixes, demos, live recordings, and more. “Sweet Dream” was a contemporaneous single not included on the album, and its majestic orchestral arrangements show a band firmly on its path to prog glory. That single’s b-side, “17,” is a glowering tune with an earth-moving riff that helps explain Eddie Vedder’s long-cited obsession with early Tull.
AUDIO: Jethro Tull “Teacher” (UK Stereo Mix)
“Teacher” was never a single, and wasn’t even on the UK album, but its potential for American radio appeal was eventually fulfilled (it remains a US classic-rock staple today), and it’s fascinating to hear the well-known version alongside an earlier, drastically different arrangement of the tune. There’s even an early stab at the iconoclastic “My God,” Anderson’s ominous Aqualung attack on religious hypocrisy.
The two discs of contemporaneous concert recordings — one from Tanglewood and one from Chicago — show Tull’s fire-starting capabilities as a live act and would have been a draw all by themselves. Throwing in the video for the Tanglewood show almost makes for an embarrassment of riches. And in keeping with the standard set by the other volumes in the series, the 100-page book tells you everything you’d ever want to know about this crucial chapter of the band’s history, with plenty of eye-popping photos to boot.
Whether you’re a longtime lover of Benefit in its original form, a casual Tull fan looking to dip a toe into deeper waters, or just an admirer of an era when rock was beginning to stretch its wings further than ever, the Benefit box will scratch your itch. Snap it up quickly, before it becomes a collectors’ item like some of the series’ previous installments.