With death, dissolution and the ’80s looming, they dug deep for one last blast
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat about Jethro Tull’s 1979 album, Stormwatch.
The party line on this record, recently and lovingly expanded into a plush box set, is that it was the last in what people allergic to original thought like to call the band’s “folk-rock trilogy” including 1977’s Songs from the Wood and 1978’s Heavy Horses. This is patently absurd for a number of reasons.
For one thing, Tull had been flirting with folk-rock elements as early as their 1968 debut album, and those qualities were upgraded from “flirt” to “overt” at plenty of points long before this alleged trilogy is said to have begun. Secondly, compared to the two albums that preceded it, Stormwatch might as well be a Metallica record. Not that this justifies Tull’s notorious victory over Metallica for the 1989 Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Grammy award, mind you, but in the main, there was a harder edge to the tunes on Stormwatch than anything Tull had done since Aqualung.
VIDEO: How Jethro Tull Upset Metallica at The Grammys
What Stormwatch marked most significantly in the history of the band was a definitive point of closure. This was made manifest in the most dramatic sense by the fact that the band’s hard-living bassist John Glascock was in such bad shape he could only contribute to a couple of tracks; Ian Anderson ended up playing most of the bass parts himself. Glascock died shortly after the album’s release, and was replaced by Dave Pegg of Fairport Convention fame.
But Glascock wasn’t the only one whose last blast with Tull would wind up being Stormwatch. Drummer Barriemore Barlow and keyboardists John Evan and David (later Dee) Palmer subsequently quit the band. So not only did the album find Tull bidding goodbye to the ’70s with the album, it was also the last we’d ever hear from the classic lineup. Naturally the band’s sound would soon begin to evolve further away from the mix of prog and folk that had become Tull’s signature. Only Anderson and guitarist Martin Barre would continue to be a part of the band after Stormwatch.
By the time Tull made Stormwatch, Anderson had begun diversifying, starting both a salmon hatchery and a livestock farm in Scotland. With the frontman rejiggering the old tropes to lead a life of salmon, sheep, and rock ‘n’ roll, it was inevitable that his other areas of interest would work their way into the music. And some of the songs on Stormwatch duly reflect a greater concern with humanity’s interaction with the natural world, like “North Sea Oil,” “Something’s on the Move,” and “Flying Dutchman.”
VIDEO: Jethro Tull “North Sea Oil” (Rockpop 1/3/80)
And while there’s nothing on the album that parallels the epic scale or baroque complexity of early-’70s achievements like Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, it was still more musically ambitious than anything that would follow. That’s not to suggest that 1980’s A was without its proggy moments, but the stately beauty of the instrumental “Elegy,” which closed the original Stormwatch, the intensity of the nine-minute “Dark Ages,” and the Celtic fusion of the instrumental “Warm Sporran” all represented the kind of thing prog lovers could really sink their teeth into. And with the imminent arrival of the ’80s, moments like that would soon be thin on the ground in general.
Rhino Records’ revivification of Stormwatch would be laudable even if the original album were all that the project encompassed. But the reissue series that has included all the Tull albums previous to this one continues to be one of the most lovingly detailed, expertly assembled of its kind. The expanded four-CD/two-DVD boxed version contains not only a remix of the 1979 release done by the estimable Steven Wilson, but a revelatory batch of outtakes, a full concert from 1980 featuring the Stormwatch material alongside earlier classics, and a pair of DVDs featuring 5.1 mixes of the whole megillah.
That’s not even mentioning the lengthy, hardcover book featuring a copious amount of photos plus essays including the remembrances of Anderson himself. All told, for Tull fans that never availed themselves of the classic lineup’s last stand, this is an excellent opportunity to catch up. And for Stormwatch lovers, leaving it aside wouldn’t even seem to be an option.