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Established in late 1967, and named after the inventor of the seed drill, the group is still going over forty years later under the leadership of vocalist, flautist, harmonica player and occasional acoustic guitarist Ian Anderson, who has described their music at various times as 'progressive blues with a bit of jazz', and 'heavy metal with mandolins'. He bought and learned the flute because he despaired of being able to play guitar as well as Eric Clapton. With elements of prog, pop-rock, blues, hard rock, jazz, folk and classics, Tull are difficult to categorise. And as for Anderson, who in his younger days used to leap around the stage, playing flute while standing on one leg, a wild-eyed tramp-like figure in tatty tweed jacket or overcoat and riding trousers with codpiece, long hair, bushy beard and a wide-eyed goblin stare, looking like a cross between Robin Cook MP and Marty Feldman on helium - he was in a class of his own. He is also no mean songwriter, as well as an articulate and generally witty interviewee.
THE VERY BEST OF JETHRO TULL
Of the many compilations available, this 20-track set, including all their four Top 20 entries, has to be one of the best. It was compiled by Anderson himself, who writes in the booklet notes that while it does not necessarily include all his all-time personal favourites, in it - 'we have got as close as possible to a broad representation of the big picture'. They are deliberately not presented in chronological order, as he says 'sequencing in a looser and more musical fashion felt much better.'
In order to keep this review to reasonable length, I'll focus on what I think are the best songs.
Not surprisingly, the song for which they are best remembered starts off the collection. 'Living In The Past' (No. 3, 1969), with its unobtrusive bass intro joined by flute played to a shuffling jazz rhythm on the drums, later with a crescendo of strings, has that canny knack of sounding totally unlike a pop record yet still with that infectious quality that makes it a delight to hear on the radio. It was the first of three songs here which demonstrated that prog-rock groups could still make great, and successful, hit singles.
'Aqualung', at 6½ minutes the longest song here, is built largely around a menacingly heavy Led Zeppelinish guitar riff, which then yields pride of place to a more mellow passage with acoustic guitar, and the vocals sung down what sounds like a telephone line (doubtless on purpose), before reverting to the rock riff. The lyrics on this one have been the subject of much debate, but the consensus is that they relate to a dying down-and-out, snatching his 'last rattling breaths with deep sea driver sounds.' This was the title track from what was regarded, rather against the group's wishes, as a concept album exploring the distinction between God and organised religion.
'Sweet Dream' (No. 7, 1969) is another joy of a prog-rock hit. Mostly guitar-based, with a lovely solo midway through, flute and strings used sparingly near the end, it's another of those clever songs with a strong hook which yet manages to avoid sounding like a pop single.
'The Whistler' is from their late 1970s folksy phase. Try and imagine Steeleye Span with Anderson singing instead of Maddy Prior, and flute instead of fiddle, and you get a glorious song and instrumental jig with different time signatures on a number which really ought to have been a hit.
'Bungle In The Jungle' is quite amusing for the tiger noises at the beginning, although the rest doesn't quite hang together for me. It makes all the right flute, guitar and drum sounds, but perhaps just lacks that magic spark which enlivened so many of their better moments.
'Witches' Promise' (No. 4, 1970), their last Top 10 hit, is an epic which tells of 'being kissed by a witch one night in the wood'. There's something rather 16th century about its general use of acoustic guitar, sounding almost like a lute, as a backdrop for Anderson's vocal and flute, as if it should have been the theme music for an Elizabethan costume drama.
'Locomotive Breath' opens with a bluesy piano intro, then lead guitar and a stomping rocker after a minute or so. The flute doesn't come in until much later, after we've had the lyrics with their imagery of an impending death on a train, and the portrayal of a man's life falling apart - 'He picks up Gideon's bible - open at page one - God stole the handle and the train won't stop going.'
'Steel Monkey', an unsuccessful single in 1987 when they were hardly bothering with singles, is almost machine-driven rock-meets-funk, and a drum machine which delivers a beat with synthesisers and rhythm guitar reminiscent of ZZ Top's 'Legs', until Anderson's vocal comes in. (They were temporarily without a drummer at the time). ZZ Tull, anyone?
From the 1972 concept album 'Thick As A Brick' comes a three-minute edit with mainly acoustic guitar, playful flute and a tinkling piano. I've never heard the full work, but this short excerpt is for me one of the weaker tracks here.
'Bouree', credited jointly to Bach and Anderson, is an instrumental from the second album, with flute solos, bass solo, and jazz overtones mingling with the classical feel.
'Life Is A Long Song' (No. 11, 1971) was the main track on a five-track EP, and for me has always been one of their best songs. I love the building from just a solitary acoustic guitar behind the first verse, then the addition of piano, then strings and drums and even - I think - a harpsichord, while Anderson sings about the pressures of everyday life - 'As the Baker Street train spills your pain all over your new dress, and the symphony sounds underground puts you under duress.' Significantly, this was to date their last Top 20 hit.
'Songs From The Wood', from the same album which spawned 'The Whistler' above, is another folksy song, partly acappella, with bombastic strings as well as flute and guitar.
Just to prove they weren't totally devoid of modern influences, 'Broadsword', from their 1982 album, is a moody piece with brooding synth and guitar, very early 1980s. It's also one of the few tracks here on which the flute is nowhere to be heard. Of more recent vintage still is 'Roots To Branches', a 1995 track with jazz, Arabic and Eastern influences.
Just a quick round-up of the rest. There's also 'Song For Jeffery', an early flute-driven number from 1968; 'A New Day Yesterday' from the following year, more blues-based with its guitar and harmonica riff; an edit (just under four minutes long) of the title track of the 1975 album 'Minstrel In The Gallery', which returns them to heavier rock territory with its Led Zeppelin-like guitar riff; from the 1976 album the title track of 'Too Old To Rock'n'Roll, Too Young To Die', interesting with its slow and fast passage, and heavy strings later on; and another folksy number from 1978, 'Heavy Horses' with its homely violin and piano, plus one or two brief rocky bursts.
One omission prevents this collection from completely living up to its title. No 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells', that wonderful title track from the 1976 Christmas EP, is to date their last Top 30 UK hit, and has since become a regular staple of the annual BBC 'Top of the Pops 2' festive edition. As this CD contains a generous 78 minutes playing time, I'd have happily traded in one of the lesser-known tracks for this.
The front of the 8-page booklet shows the group's logo - a collage in the shape of Anderson in typical one-legged flautist mode, comprising details from album sleeves. Inside is a note from the man himself about the track selection as referred to above, a centre spread showing thumbnails of the album sleeves plus the year, and on the back, thumbnails of group members past and present. Significantly, bearing in mind the folk tag, four of these have also been members of folk-rock veterans of Fairport Convention at various times. The large pic in the centre shows the 50-something Anderson, minus that wild and free hair, looking even more like Robin Cook. One more small criticism - the track listing omits the year first released, or any mention of the parent album. Still, if you're reading this, an article on Wikipedia will give you the answers at once.
At around £4 it's almost a gift. While I'm not quite Tull fan enough to give space at home to individual albums, I'd suggest that no comprehensive collection is complete without a 'Very Best Of' from them. Despite the minor quibbles mentioned above, this does the job well enough. Five stars - just.
[This is a revised version of the review I originally posted on ciao]