MATT KELLY finds it necessary and the right thing to do to dump on not one, but TWO albums by classic rockers Jethro Tull.
1001 Albums You Must Die Before You Hear
#31: Jethro Tull – A (1980)
In almost a parody of the “classic rock band vs the ’80s” trope, which is shaping up to be a significant sub-category of this project, Jethro Tull produces a decent-or-better album every single year of the ’70s and explodes immediately as the new decade begins.
There’s a lot of context as to why this album is what it is. At the end of ‘79, bassist John Glasscock died at just 28 which sent shockwaves through the band. Three other members – drummer Barriemore Barlow, keyboardist John Evans and orchestrator Dee Palmer – also departed, with a lot of rumbling about how Ian was being a dick at this time in history.
Anderson decided that with the band not terribly existent at the moment, the time was right to retire the name and record a solo album, hence “A” for Anderson. He teamed up with Roxy Music/Zappa keyboardist Eddie Jobson and developed a bold vision for the project: it would not be folk-rock, but a contemporary effort with synth-pop elements and lyrics about modern life.
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Which all sounds well and good until you’re actually living through the DREADFUL ‘Batteries Not Included’, a nightmare of shitty-sounding keyboards, an aggressively unlikeable verse melody (if that even is a melody) and blush-inducing robotic vocals. To top it all off it’s about a small boy being murdered by his new Japanese robot toy. Yes really. It’s all so embarrassingly, self-consciously futuristic, an ageing artist trying too hard.
And these elements get EVEN WORSE on ‘4WD’ with its aggressively lame lyrics about well, four-wheel drives, and more sad robotic voices. The bulk of the album is an awkward, weird listen from the Eastern influences and clunky, off-putting chorus of ‘Uniform’ to the interminable miserable plod of ‘Working John Working Joe’, to the annoying whine of ‘Protect And Survive’ which gives us our first glimpse of Ian’s incoming vocal difficulties.
But wait – if it’s an Ian Anderson solo album, why does it say Jethro Tull on the cover? Simple- Chrysalis just thought it would sell more that way and pressured Anderson to use the name. At least on the traditional instrumental ‘The Pine Marten’s Jig’ it actually sounds like Tull, with live drums and flute in attendance.
It’s important to note that there are two great songs here which deserve rescuing. ‘Flyingdale Flyer’ is one of the best pop songs Tull ever made, catchy and cool, delivering on the promise of what A was supposed to be by merging Tull’s flute-rock sound with modern production. The real star though is ‘Black Sunday’ – not just good, it’s one of the best songs Tull ever made. Yes really. It’s fucking amazing, a proggy six-minute smash-up of ambient electronic and hard rock with tremendously exciting synths and guitars and a compelling runaway verse that is also the chorus.
Sadly though, the rest of A is only likely to be enjoyable as a source of amusement. An alarming record that served as a jumping-off point for a lot of the fanbase, A was the start of a seriously up and down decade for a band that had previously been a reliable pair of steady hands.
Under Wraps is bold, daring and different. A conscious attempt by a legacy rock act to get out of their comfort zone and push into the future with a sound that leaves everything about them behind, Under Wraps is undeniably brave and confrontational.
It’s also terrible.
Unaffectionately known as “Underpants” to the Tull fan community (though I prefer “Utter Crap”), Under Wraps is notorious. It may not be quite on the level of punchlines such as Love Beach and The Astonishing, but mention it to any prog diehard and you’re likely to see eyes roll and heads go into hands.
But is it actually that bad? There’s a more complicated answer but the short one is “yes”. The album sounds *awful*. Just listen to the clunky ‘Automotive Engineering’ and despair at the overdone synths, annoying percussive rhythm and awkward lyrics about “Science the complete appliance.” And be aware that this goes on for 58 minutes and 15 tracks. The title track is jaw-dropping in its failure to be “down with the kids”, stuffed with dated nods to contemporary cool and thin, tinny production that will drag the entire record down.
What happened? People say “Tull went synth-pop” which is true, but Anderson went synth-pop on prior solo release Walk Into Light and that was fine. It’s inexplicable that the follow-up would be so much worse, particularly when the electro elements were overseen by the same person, keyboardist Peter Vettese.
A lot of people also point to the fact that it was recorded without a drummer, all beats done by Anderson on a programmer. This is certainly part of the problem – the drum sound is ghastly throughout. The biggest issue is Vettese however; whatever the cause, despite sounding fine on The Broadsword And The Beast and Walk Into Light, here Vettese works with a garish, aggressive palette of sounds and self-consciously modern FX that get in the way of the song-writing and piss the listener off.
Also, Anderson had apparently just got a Fairlight Series II which he was very excited about but didn’t know what the fuck he was doing with it.
There are actually some good songs here – in fact there’s a three-track run of ‘European Legacy’, ‘Later That Same Evening’ and ‘Saboteur’ that I almost enjoy. All three feature catchy hooks, the first two tense and haunting, while ‘Saboteur’ is more rocking and powerful. But all three are also brought down by unwanted flourishes such as the completely out-of-place double kick that starts up halfway through ‘Saboteur’, or the stupid vocal effects on ‘Later That Same Evening’.
The flickers of good composition are drowned out by moments like the embarra-sad flatulent synths of ‘Nobody’s Car’, or the strained, irritating ‘Lap Of Luxury’. If you can get through the latter track without screaming something about THAT FUCKING DRUM SOUND you’re a stronger person than me.
It’s true that the acoustic reprise of the title track is very nice, but is it worth enduring fourteen other songs that are the equivalent of your dad getting up to rap ‘Lose Yourself’ at a wedding reception despite not knowing any of the words? No. No, it is not.
“Keep it quiet, volume low
Or better yet, just say no
Stamp the disc, beneath your boot
This brings Tull, in disrepute
Crap in its dated sound
Pure crap in its style
Pure crap beyond, all comprehension
Utter crap, whoa
This album’s utter crap,