For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Us: Jethro Tull’s ‘Benefit’ at 50

Fifty years later, Benefit remains one of Jethro Tull’s most ageless, individualized and tight records

Jethro Tull 1970

As I wrote in my first book, On Track . . . Jethro Tull: Every Album, Every Song, the band’s sophomore effort, 1969’s Stand Up, was a major success that saw them upholding the blues rock core of its precursor, This Was, while also showing considerable evolution.

It was also the first Jethro Tull album with iconic guitarist Martin Barre (who replaced Mick Abrahams), which meant that he recorded it with a fair amount of nervousness and self-criticism. For the most part, that went away by the time Benefit rolled around, as the entire band felt far more self-assured. That confidence proved quite appropriate, of course, as Benefit is a much better album in every way (which isn’t a knock against Stand Up, mind you). It still housed some blues rock traits, but it was their first work that truly represented the hard/folk rock vibe they’d become known for. Furthermore, the songwriting and instrumentation was wide-ranging, striving, and unified, with mastermind Ian Anderson mostly abandoning his earlier bellows in favor of a more authentic, palpable, and representative singing style. Fifty years later, Benefit remains one of Jethro Tull’s most ageless, individualized, and tight records. In fact, it’s damn near perfect.

Like its predecessor, this LP is also significant for its line-up, as it’s Jethro Tull’s first with pianist John Evan (who played with Anderson before Jethro Tull started, and who became an official member with follow-up Aqualung). He and Anderson were neighbors at the time, and they started collaborating again after Evan heard “Living in the Past’ on the radio and agreed to some studio sessions. He even left college to pursue Jethro Tull full-time! In contrast, Benefit is their last collection with Glenn Cornick (bass/Hammond organ), who was asked to leave because his rowdy party lifestyle conflicted with the mild-mannered personas of his bandmates. Reportedly, Anderson asked producer Terry Ellis to give Cornick the bad news, leading to the addition of Jeffrey Hammond for their fourth outing. On the bright side, though, Cornick started his own band, Wild Turkey, which was a short-lived but respectably heterogenous pop/rock ensemble. Beyond that, the rest of the Stand Up players—percussionist Clive Bunker and orchestral arranger Dee Palmer—carry over here.

By and large, Benefit is considered gloomier than either of its forebears—although Aqualung would certainly best it in that area—both because of Barre’s heightened emphasis on heavy guitar riffs (a la peers like Cream, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin) and because of Anderson’s gripes with prolonged touring in America and the music business in general. Interestingly, Cornick has stipulated—and Anderson has subsequently denied—that the sequence was inspired by Anderson’s affections for his first wife, Jennie Franks. (It’s also said to deal with his troubled relationship with his parents.) In any case, he felt disconnected from and dissatisfied with it for many years, if not still, which is kind of ironic considering how much Cornick and Barre have expressed affection for it since it released.

Jethro Tull Benefit, Chrysalis 1970

Obviously, it’s beloved by most fans, too, including modern prog rock royalty like Rikard Sjöblom (ex-Beardfish, Big Big Train) and Phideaux Xavier. Specifically, Sjöblom says that the LP was pretty much the only thing he listened to until 1977’s Heavy Horses, adding, “Benefit was almost a soundtrack to the book Clan of the Cave Bear for me . . . [it] makes me think of that period in my life and also my grandmother’s sofa, on which I read the book with my headphones on, listening to [it].” Likewise, Xavier reveals that while he loved the whole thing, it was the fifth track, “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” that grabbed him most due to its “sad and wistful” nature. Beyond that, its subject matter (“going to the moon and having to be the designated driver to stay in the capsule,” as he puts it) really played into his childhood dreams of space exploration. It’s no wonder why so much of his music conjures Jethro Tull and deals with celestial themes.

Oddly enough, though, it wasn’t initially loved by a lot of critics, primarily because they felt that it wasn’t as much of a progression from Stand Up as that was from This Was. Thankfully, it sold well in the UK and US, and most critics and historians now view it not only as the superlative sequence from the Cornick era, but also as a one-of-a-kind entry in the band’s catalog that overtly paved the way for the more complex and socially conscious Aqualung.

As stated early, Benefit remains a virtually faultless collection; in a way, it’s one of those rare albums in which every song is a classic worthy of radio airplay and revere, further establishing Anderson as perhaps the greatest songwriter in 1970s progressive rock (although they wouldn’t properly enter that subgenre until Aqualung, if not Thick as a Brick). Take opener “With You There to Help Me” for instance: written about Anderson’s desire for Franks—as well as a break from touring—its ethereal collage of piano, flutes, acoustic guitar, and warmly sung requests makes it quite endearing and advanced. From there, “Nothing to Say” delivers an antagonistic yet tender ballad full of moving arpeggios and admonishments (“Every morning / Pressure forming / All around my eyes / Ceilings crash, the walls collapse / Broken by the lies / That your misfortune brought upon us and I won’t disguise them”). It demonstrates a lot of lyrical and melodic growth for Anderson, and it was also the first time he and Barre shared guitar responsibilities.

Afterward, there’s a slight international inconsistency, as UK listeners heard “Alive and Well and Living In” while US listeners heard “Inside.” The former selection is a quirky romp that rests on Evan’s gracefully enigmatic groundwork and Anderson ardent learned remarks about untethered women. The use of woodwinds and dual solos (between Evan and Barre) are essential elements, too. As for the latter track, it’s delightfully peculiar and triumphant, with Tull’s rhythm section offering especially worthwhile contributions as declarations about the simply joys of life (coffee, romance, walking, etc.) fill the air. While “Inside” appears on both versions of the album (just in different spots), “Alive and Well and Living In” isn’t on the American release at all. Instead, there’s “Teacher,” a hip and buoyant number that effectively contrasts the surrounding solemnness with lines like “Jump up, look around / Find yourself some fun / No sense in sitting there hating everyone.” Penned as a way to get Jethro Tull on the radio, it’s a deceptively weighty composition, too, since it’s truly meant as a criticism of “those creepy guru figures that would mislead innocent young minds” (as Anderson divulges).

 

VIDEO: Jethro Tull Tanglewood 1970

Other highlights include “Son,” an ingeniously multipart dialogue between the conflicting ideals of a father and his boy. Barre’s guitarwork is consistently imposing as Anderson (singing as the father) reprimands his child for being so impolite and ungrateful. That POV bookends the track, whereas the middle section becomes fanciful and light to allow Anderson (as the son) a few moments of airy philosophical pondering about agency and growing up. Here, the surrounding arrangement is more classical and stilted, mirroring the vocal phrasing. Although Anderson’s ability to write all of the songs when he was only twenty-two is commendable, this one is a particular standout in the respect.

Obviously, the same can be said for the next tune, “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” a sensitive reflection on how astronaut Michael Collins had to remain inside the Command Module Columbia while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong got to walk on the moon and get much of the ensuing limelight. It’s a mournful and impressionistic tale whose dynamic shifts (between faint verses and full-bodied choruses) are thrilling and touching in equal measure. It also marks the end of side one, leaving the combative and catchy “To Cry You a Song” (which is based on Anderson’s frustrations with flying and airport inconveniences) to open side two. The band’s unity is especially transparent here, as the two pairs (Anderson/Barre and Bunker/Cornick) clearly work with a shared mind while also complementing what the other duo is doing. 

 

VIDEO: Jethro Tull performs “Nothing Is Easy” at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival

There’s an irresistible balance of fervor and delicateness to “A Time for Everything?” as its somewhat blues rock nature also packs plenty of folky longing. Its flute and electric guitar counterpoints are novel, and it’s interesting to hear Anderson contemplate how his life is changing at such a young age. It’s like he’s nostalgic for the youth that he’s just beginning. As for the final two pieces—“Play in Time” and “Sossity; You’re a Woman”—they certainly work as strong conclusions. The first is markedly regressive, harkening back to the style of This Was and Stand Up both musically and vocally, but its vivacious psychedelic bizarreness makes it a treat; conversely, the last track is like a funeral requiem, with a mesmerizing blend of downtrodden singing, cautionary organ wails, and forlorn acoustic guitar strums helping bring its criticism of unjust elitism in society. It definitely stays with you long after it’s done.

Jethro Tull undoubtedly has one of the most enduring and eclectic discographies in rock music, including introductory emulations of American blues and folk, absolutely brilliant treks into progressive rock satire and spirituality, and even a fair amount of synth and hard rock proclivities. No matter which period of the band is your favorite—I have the wildly unpopular view that 1973’s A Passion Play is not only their masterpiece, but perhaps the greatest composition in modern popular music—Benefit’s place as a ceaselessly compelling anomaly can’t be denied. Sandwiched between two distinct eras in the band’s history, it’s got a feel and purpose all its own, and in terms of reliably top-notch songwriting, it may be their superlative effort.

Jethro Tull and popular music writ large may’ve changed a lot since it debuted, but Benefit remains as rewarding as ever.

 

AUDIO: Jethro Tull Benefit (full album)

Jordan Blum

Jordan Blum is an Associate Editor at PopMatters, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the founder/Editor-in-Chief of The Bookends Review, an independent creative arts journal. He focuses mostly on progressive rock/metal and currently writes for—or has written for—many other publications, including Sonic Perspectives, Paste, Progression, Metal Injection, Rebel Noise, PROG, Sea of Tranquility, and Rock Society. Finally, he records his own crazy ideas under the pseudonym Neglected Spoon. When he's not focused on any of that, he teaches English courses at various colleges and spends too much time lamenting what Genesis became in the 1980s. Reach Jordan @JordanBlum87.

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