Jethro Tull: From Roots to Branches
Originally published in Guitar Legends
Exploring Jethro Tull’s 40-year family tree of mystical rock greats with guitarists Ian Anderson and Martin Barre.
Jethro Tull’s ongoing standing as a vibrant and enduring live band is no doubt due to its remarkable ability to navigate complex song arrangements while maintaining a wildly paganistic, theatrical edge. How else to explain the fact that, after nearly three decades as one of rock’s most prolific outfits, Tull continues to play to houses packed with loyal legions of fans? The band’s basketful of classic rock hits recorded during its high-water mark in the Seventies certainly hasn’t hurt, either: songs like “Aqualung,” “Bungle in the Jungle” and “Thick as a Brick” are all staples of the live show. Indeed, Tull has taken great pains to only play songs that work well in a concert setting, as elfin frontman and troubadour non pareil Ian Anderson explains: “In most cases, my favorite Jethro Tull songs will be determined by how I feel about them as live performance songs, not by the recorded identity.”
While the band is more often recognized by Anderson’s signature flute-playing abilities and the aforementioned legendary tunes, an underappreciated facet of the Jethro Tull experience is the guitar finesse exhibited by founder Anderson and co-guitarist Martin Barre, the latter of whom has been with the band almost since the beginning—a remarkable feat considering that no fewer than 22 different players have come through Tull’s ranks. These two exceptional guitarists are unsung heroes of the instrument, song-stalwarts whose trademark is to leave flashy, self-indulgent guitar pyrotechnics out of their repertoire and stick to the composition at hand.
Guitar Legends recently caught up with Tull’s twin guitar pillars to discuss the intricacies behind their catalog of greats. As Anderson explains, his creative spark hasn’t waned over the years; in fact, rather than fall into stale songwriting patterns, he has never deviated from his own ruggedly individualistic path—and if that means the hit-song days are long gone, at least Jethro Tull has stayed true to its vision.
“Most people, from their second album on, find it much harder to be as spontaneously creative as they were with their first couple of records,” says Anderson, “and some people only have one thing that they do. Not to be mean about it, but some great rock and rollers, like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, are pretty one-dimensional.”
“We Used to Know” Stand Up (1969)
IAN ANDERSON We hadn’t played that song live since the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, but we’ve started playing it again recently. When we were in the studio recording it and I strummed up my acoustic guitar and Martin added his bit, it never occurred to me that what we were playing would eventually form the basis of [the Eagles’] “Hotel California.” The melody is not anything like “Hotel California,” of course, but when you actually get to the chord sequence, the way in which the thing harmonically progresses, it is actually the verse of “Hotel California.” The Eagles were opening up for Jethro Tull around that time. However, “Hotel California” is a very, very popular song and “We Used to Know” remains an obscure album track.
MARTIN BARRE We were going for something that we could use as a climax to the live show, an encore or the last number with a big solo. The guitar solo was all done in one take—I just went for broke. In those days I never really sat down and worked out the implications of chord changes. I just played by ear; sometimes I’d get lucky and hit a note that worked and on another take it might be a disaster. I suppose all that early emphasis on solos was a hangover from the jazz era where everybody had their solos. In some ways, it reflects on how boring the music was—but we got away with it.
ANDERSON I was fortunate enough to hear “Bouree” daily through the floor, because a music student was busy practicing on his classical guitar downstairs from me, so it was kind of stuck in my brain when I was looking for an instrumental piece to play in 1969. We had quite a lot of different arrangements of that piece, but I don’t necessarily remember exactly where it all fits in, especially since some of it is, shall we say, improvisation. I’m really not convinced about all that reading and writing stuff. I suspect that it’s the same with a lot of people who have a temperament better suited to just getting on with it and playing by ear and trial and error. Given the option, I think I would rather learn by ear than off the page.