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30 August 1980
NEW JETHRO TULL IN THE A-STREAM
Jethro Tull: 'A'
(Chrysalis CDL 1301)
Twelve years on the road with a sound that has not radically changed was a long time for Ian Anderson, so when it was announced a few weeks ago that Jethro Tull was to be reborn, with interesting new musicians added while some old faithfuls would leave, the prospect was good.
This, then, is the new Jethro Tull, with keyboardists John Evan and David Palmer gone, along with drummer Barriemore Barlow. The new men are Mark Craney (drums) and "special guest" Eddie Jobson at the keyboards and on electric violin. It's good to see Martin Barre, the outstanding guitarist, remains, as does the fine bassist Dave Pegg.
The transformation is remarkable. Whether the infusion of new talent alone has motivated Anderson to write more potently and sing with greater conviction, or whether a mere fresh touch by different players has worked on his psyche for the better, is difficult to perceive. Whatever, the result is an album that continues Anderson's preoccupation with environmental excesses (after the last LP, Stormwatch, and its focus on North Sea oil), but in an altogether more lyrical and communicative style. The old band, on reflection, seems heavy-handed if able; the new line-up, particularly through the virtuosity of Eddie Jobson, has a deftness, a lightness of touch, that has been missing for years.
All the songs are by Anderson, with "additional musical material" by Jobson; and the arrangements are credited to the whole band. The urgency and extra touches may have been co-operative, but there's little doubt that Anderson's is the dominant theme. The sleeve picture depicts the band in the control tower, presumably as a commentary on the song 'Fylingdale Flyer', a wry tilt at the danger in our midst with these lyrics:
They checked the systems through and they read A-OK;
Some tiny fuse has probably blown.
Sit back, relax, and it will soon go away.
Keep your hands off that red telephone.
This, however, seems a pretty lightweight song to carry the title of the record. Better songs by far are 'Working John, Working Joe', in which Anderson is at his observant best touching on the role of the businessman who "commutes 80 miles a day / up at seven to make it pay / I direct ten limited companies / with seeming consummate expertise / two ulcers and a heart disease / a trembling feeling in both knees."
And 'Uniform' is one of his finest, most incisive lyrics, pointing out the obvious -- that everyone from traffic wardens to city workers to Muslims in "white bed sheets" is in a uniform of some kind. The violin work of Jobson here is at its peak, lending a great urgency to a song which, like all the best, is very simple.
'And Further On', which ends with the question: will we still be here further on? and 'Protect And Survive', are in the same vein of questioning progress, while 'Batteries Not Included' is a masterly stab at the unimportance of Japanese toys, with this lunging finale: "Mummy, Daddy, can't hear you / batteries not included in this little boy."
What makes Anderson and Jethro Tull difficult for some to comprehend is that he's working well outside the accepted macho rock formula yet within a rock music framework: the concept of this album, following Heavy Horses and Songs From The Wood, confirm an allegiance to folk music as much as to rock; it's good to hear a composer writing something serious, as opposed to I Love My Baby. And he leaves a lot to be read between the lines by the listener, making the discovery on repeated playing more rewarding.
The precision in songwriting and the diligence of this record, marking a newly injected burst of energy in one of Britain's best bands, make it convincing and refreshing.
Thanks to Bruce Carribine for this article