Monday, 21 December 2009

JETHRO TULL: Stand Up


(#69: 9 August 1969, 3 weeks; 6 September 1969, 2 weeks)

Track listing: A New Day Yesterday/Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square/Bourée/Back To The Family/Look Into The Sun/Nothing Is Easy/Fat Man/We Used To Know/Reasons For Waiting/For A Thousand Mothers

A slice of typical 1969 blues-rock lumbers into view; apparently weighed down by its own history, it stumbles over itself like a worried spider, scuttled in a Soho cellar. It owes something to Cream and the singer’s voice is not unlike that of Jack Bruce’s but there is a deeper, perhaps harsher, possibly more cunning tone to his timbre. He is singing a song of abject dejection; he found someone, or something (“Spent a long time looking for a game to play”) yesterday, but only got the chance to kiss her once, and now he has to be somewhere, or something, else (“My luck should be so bad now to turn out this way”). “It was a new day yesterday,” he ruefully observes, “but it’s an old day now.” Cue a flute, an instrument not generally seen in blues-rock; moaning about its player’s rotten luck, a tone and attack which were always much closer to Harold McNair than to Roland Kirk.

This moment – and a useful counteract, two generations ahead, to Elbow’s equally stumbling but far less surefooted “One Day Like This” – may mark the opening parry of the second wave of the British invasion in this tale, Cream having provided the bridge back to the first influx. But the song also indicates a farewell to what Jethro Tull had hitherto been; its leader wished to express the blues in somewhat different forms, and its original guitarist, wishing to stay firmly within the blues as he knew them, had decamped to form Blodwyn Pig.

Hence “A New Day Yesterday” is a markedly pronounced goodbye to Tull’s recent past, and with the second track on their second album the lightness of being makes itself visible, at least musically; the mood is now delicate, acoustic (with some Leslie cabinet-filtered electric lead guitar comments), waltzy. New guitarist Martin Lancelot Barre handles flute duties on “Jeffrey” although Ian Anderson’s lyric and growl (“Bright city woman…/Gonna get a piece of my mind,” the rhetorical quatrain of “me”s on “you don’t fool me”) still seem blues-derived. He views the urban wannabe with some distaste, but his is a radically different viewpoint from the Woodstock August 1969 that the States knew; the wan flute, Clive Bunker’s brushes, place the record firmly in a slightly gloomy end-of-the-trip 1969 Britain; downbeat, introspective, looking for a quieter way out. Tull’s rurality– and let us not forget that they were named after the eighteenth-century pioneer of modern British agriculture – did not really resemble the loping wagons of Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country.”

“Bourée,” an instrumental adaptation of the fifth movement of Bach’s Bourrée in E Minor, is perhaps the record’s most telling articulation of this mood. Moving steadily through jazz, folk and light blues styles, there is a loneness to Anderson’s flute – and again one thinks of McNair’s work with Donovan, for instance on “Sunny Goodge Street” – which almost defies rescue. I think of those ruminative Nick Drake instrumentals – since this was also, had he only known it, Drake’s time – and in particular the heartbreaking “Sunday” with its already doomed rolling hills of strings.

Glen Cornick’s bass solo on “Bourée” also reminds us that Stand Up might be the first number one album to derive purely from the hippy era; after all, its original, woodcut-based gatefold sleeve opened up like a children’s book to reveal pop-up figures of the quartet, defying us to imagine what they are thinking, coupled with the deliberately charming credits (“Some songs for you,” “and…er, well yes! It really has turned out nicely”). If the Moody Blues represented the mainstream of progressive British rock, then Tull are a very different prospect; in place of the Moodies’ intricately and immaculately arranged setpieces, Tull provide an intuitive degree of interaction and spontaneity more in keeping with the prime folk and jazz movers of the period (see Pentangle’s contemporaneous Basket Of Light for confirmation). There were of course the shaggily dogged stories and cautiously euphoric discontinuities of the Incredible String Band, but of course there was also Traffic – and we’ll be getting back to the latter very soon, albeit at one remove – and the general air of getting collective heads together in the electricity-free country cottage. And inevitably there was Led Zeppelin, to whom Anderson dedicated the 2001 CD remaster of Stand Up; they invited Tull to support them on their 1969-70 arena tour of the States and it was there that the group learned about large-scale dynamics and also worked up the stage act for which the likes of Lester Bangs, not knowing much about British art or music hall traditions, would gloomily berate them – but theirs is a story which will have to wait a few more entries before taking up.

Back in the city, Bunker’s tick tock drums rudely awaken Anderson, who provides a frustrated yawn of a vocal. “So I think I’ll go back to the family,” he muses, “where no one can ring me at all.” Here is a reluctant urbanite who really has had enough; indeed he sings “I’ve had about all I can take” before the group pauses and effects a heavier re-entry into the song. His flute sounds positively exasperated but the overall mood, as well as the smiling bookend guitar arpeggios, put me in mind of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake a year later; the craving for space and air now becoming a desperate gasp for oxygen. The song speeds up and Barre’s extremely 1969 lead guitar sweeps in for a modestly extended jam (since this is also the age of stretching out your songs, much as the arriviste would stretch out their weary legs atop a hopefully green pasture). But Anderson keeps changing his mind: “Doing nothing is bothering me/I’ll get a train back to the city/That soft life is getting me down,” he now declares, only for the weary urbanite to return almost immediately: “Every day has the same old way of giving me too much to do.” The crisis of 1969’s young Britain; can’t do with it, won’t do without it.

Side one ends with “Look Into The Sun” – does that imprecation sound familiar? – and we are back in mournful acousticland, a more formalised ISB template into which Barre’s wah-wah pedal eventually wanders. Anderson very effectively contrasts the notion of “sad songs” with the word “glad”; again he is pining for the mythical girl he once knew and now has lost, and although he sounds as though he is advising, “To walk is better than to run,” he ceaselessly questions his own decisional path (“Or was it better then to run?”). He ends the song, chilled out but hopeful. It would seem that everyone in 1969 Britain felt the need to slow down, or maybe stop altogether.

“Nothing Is Easy” fades in with a brisk, back-to-work gallop, and Anderson roars beautifully about “one white duck on your wall” before taking the song’s basic life on the road/in a group model and developing it into a frighteningly convincing declaration of principles: “Isn’t it just too damn real?” he hisses at one point. “Fly away…from the fingertip ledge of contentment,” he warns at another point. “My zero to your power of ten equals nothing at all,” he confesses at yet another stage. But he goes on to compare himself to a “Black Ace dog handler,” a “waiter on skates,” and the lurid allegories of the song’s concluding laps – “Love’s four-letter word is no compensation,” “foreskin conclusion,” “cold breakfast trays” – give a terrifying sense of conviction, especially as a mask for total uncertainty. Meanwhile the song itself makes, via Bunker’s drum solo, with the Mingus accelerando (see Black Saint And The Sinner Lady) towards a free-form pile-up.

With “Fat Man” Anderson retreats a little in volume, if not in confidence; rather than anything resembling a rock band, the song is driven by auxiliary percussion (slightly reminiscent of Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma) and Anderson’s balalaika (when he’s not singing or blowing his flute, he lends himself to all sorts of stringed and keyboard instruments throughout the record). Both are possibly speeded up, and over this unlikely bed Anderson rants about his happiness in being a thin man again; observe his orgiastic “Too-hoo-WHOO!” at the end of the phrase “and all the night time too.” There is more than a hint of Zeppelin’s subsequent adventures into acoustic, folky franticity.

“We Used To Know” in contrast is a patiently measured ballad in which Anderson returns to what I perceive to be the album’s – and possibly 1969 British rock’s – central theme. “Nights of winter turn me cold,” he sings. “Fears of dying, getting old” – and yet Anderson was only twenty-two. Nonetheless, he sings from the observed perspective of a character who feels that things are perhaps already doomed, peering remorselessly into the chasms of modern “living” before coming to the conclusion that “The race was won by running slowly,” with the strong suggestion that it still could be. He departs mournfully with the warning “But for your own sake – remember times we used to know” before Barre’s guitar weeps slightly less gently than before.

“Reasons For Waiting” is, however, the record’s big balladic setpiece, Once again there is an acoustic beginning before the music picks up, though not to an overbearing degree. Anderson is standing or sitting up, watching his (once?) lover sleeping, wondering again about that day which he so venerates, the day when everything and everyone simply seemed to click, be in tune, in tandem with each other’s needs. Like Gabriel at the climax of Joyce’s The Dead, he observes in the dreading knowledge that he can no longer – or could ever – touch the sleeping woman, and so his mind wanders to the skies, his wishes, which he already knows are foredoomed, fall upon her sleeping, once-weeping face like petals rescued from the newly-laid moon. David Palmer’s strings – a light far from damning – make their discreet entrance, and somehow I think ahead towards Seal, and Anne Dudley, and Trevor Horn, and have to pinch myself to remind myself that we are still in the sixties, albeit almost at their end.

Then, for the finale, Anderson reverts to one of the oldest tales in the rock ‘n’ roll book; “For A Thousand Mothers” is a cackling song of imperious revenge on the parents who just didn’t understand. Bunker’s 6/8 drums are harsh, martial, with multiple cymbal crashes. The melodic procedural is medieval but the tambourine which makes itself apparent in the final verse hisses like a snake, and Anderson seizes his opportunity, his moment, to damn and decry they who would have fucked him up. Words like “Did it surprise you to be picked up at eight in a limousine?” could in a different time have come from Eminem. His is a terrible rage, and the machine of the music carries his still-smouldering anger to its justified destination.

Anderson would come back to this issue at least once more, with the late 1969 stand-alone single “Sweet Dream,” still one of the most extraordinary top ten hits of any age, standing as it does somewhere between Ravel’s Bolero and Love’s Forever Changes as Anderson prepares to elope, to escape her parents, to get away from the past and embrace the future – in stark and deliberate contrast to the deliberate and oft-missed irony of “Living In The Past.” Coming after Ray Conniff and Jim Reeves, Stand Up returns to draw a line under the generation gap - it is worth noting that the young Nick Cave was a major fan of Tull and in particular this album – but its message is a familiar one, albeit more savagely delivered; we’ve got to get out of this place.

(Author’s Note: And, for that matter, I’m getting out of this place for the next couple of weeks; this is the last TPL post before I take a long-delayed and much-deserved break for the holidays. Thanks to everyone who’s come here, found the blog, read it and/or commented on it, either here or elsewhere. Entry #70 – where a recent past comes back to haunt us – will appear early in the New Year. All good wishes for 2010 and see you all again soon – M.C.)

3 comments:

lonepilgrimuk said...

Thanks for this Marcello and your consistently perceptive and passionate responses to these albums. It's a measure of your work that I feel compelled to listen to pretty much everything you've commented on - perhaps excepting the Minstrel material.
I'd like to check out some Jethro Tull stuff and this might be as good a place as any to start.
Interesting to read that they toured the US with LZ and drew on music hall for their stage act - I believe that Roxy Music supported JT on what was RMs first US tour and that theatrical tradition makes an interestin link between two bands whose music I couldn't quite connect

George L said...

My dear sir -- Have you heard the whole "Hotel California" by the Eagles is a ripoff of "We Used to Know" controversy? There are similarities in the chord structures. Thought it was kind of amusing. My brother used to have this album & played it a lot. Love the whole pop up photo thing. Good day to you. Sorry to comment on such an old post but couldn't help myself.

Marcello Carlin said...

I have, and I'm making absolutely no comment on that! I wish there were more comments on "old" posts, though; it keeps the interest going, or revives it.