Graded on a Curve: Jethro Tull,
Stand Up

Celebrating Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre on his 74th birthday.

Sometimes you amaze yourself. Or perhaps I should say stupefy, dumbfound, perplex, befuddle, mystify, outrage, and downright disgust yourself. Such was the case when I recently ran over a “little person” in an abortive attempt to pass the D.C. driver’s test. I never saw him; in my defense, he was a very little little person. More like a half-little person. And such was also the case when I decided to review Jethro Tull’s Stand Up, solely as a joke and a chance to pan defenseless Englishman Ian Anderson, who for some inexplicable reason stands poised on one leg while playing the flute, like a hippie flamingo.

Only to discover, horror of horrors, I actually like the damn thing. Who was it that said, “He came to mock but remained to pray”? Because I’ve always considered Jethro Tull, despite a handful of songs I truly like, ridiculous, due largely to Anderson’s flute, an instrument (in my humble opinion) suitable only for tossing out the window. What’s more, Jethtro Tull always struck me as fairly dim. I clearly remember thinking, when they put out 1972’s Thick as a Brick, that it wasn’t the brightest move, touting one’s low IQ on one’s own album cover.

I picked 1969’s Stand Up for the historically important reason that it has a song called “Fat Man” on it. A Facebook friend gave me the idea, and I fully intend to unfriend her. A short history: Jethro Tull (they filched their name from a pioneer of the English Agricultural Revolution) was formed in 1967 as a blues-rock outfit in Luton, Bedfordshire, a town once famed for hat-making. The concrete hat was invented there, and the resulting epidemic of neck injuries very quickly put an end to hat-making in Luton.

Tull’s debut This Was—which includes jazz flute horror “Serenade to a Cuckoo”—came out in 1968, at which point original guitarist Mick Abrahams split to form Blodwyn Pig, balking at Anderson’s decision to expand the band’s sound to incorporate Celtic, folk, and classical influences. (Fun fact: Black Sabb’s Tommy Iommi briefly replaced Abrahams, until Anderson settled on the courtly Martin Lancelot Barre. Fun fact #2: Yes’ Steve Howe flunked the audition!)

The band that recorded sophomore effort Stand Up included Anderson on vocals, flute, harmonica, acoustic guitar, mouth organ, Hammond organ, mandolin, and balalaika (a kind of Greek dessert); Barre on electric guitar and flute; Glenn Cornick on bass; and Clive Bunker on drums and percussion. Anderson wrote the songs as well as the adaptation of J.S. Bach’s Bourrée in E minor, the inclusion of which makes Abrahams’ desertion more understandable. When J.S. Bach takes over the ship, your wisest move is jump overboard, even if it means winding up on the H.M.S. Blodwyn Pig.

We’re already talking about it, so let’s start our discussion of Stand Up with “Bourree,” a “classical gas” (by which I mean foul-smelling) of the sort that has given progressive rock a bad name. “Bourree” opens like a meeting between Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and a Renaissance Faire, and it goes downhill from there. High-falutin’ prog-knockers (who find “mere” rock contemptibly simple) have been trying to introduce classical to rock for decades, and the meeting is invariably as successful as the one between Titanic and Iceberg. Meanwhile “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square” is a pleasant enough little ditty, what with its cool congas, nice guitar, and the snazzy little instrumental interlude that ends the song. Anderson plays some understated flute, and tells a woman, “You listen to the news, man, on TV/You may fool yourself/But you don’t fool me.” If you want to be with Ian Anderson, baby, you’re going to have to do better than watch Fox News. You’re going to have to love long flute solos.

“A New Day Yesterday” is a midtempo, hard blues of the sort Abrahams preferred, and features some mean-ass riffs by Barre and flash drumming by Bunker. Really, this tune rocks, right down to Anderson’s turn on the “mouth organ.” And when Anderson picks up the flute I have a revelation, and I can only wonder why I never had it before—the flamingo plays the thing like a rock instrument! I didn’t think it was possible, but he actually makes the flute skronk! Plus I love his voice, which fits the music like a glove, as I do the frenetic guitar solo by Barre around the 2-minute mark. These are freak blues, of the sort produced by hippies, and them’s some blues I actually like. “Back to the Family” is a bouncy tempo-jumper of a tune, with metronomic drum work (and loads of cymbals) at the beginning and Anderson singing about how he’s going back to the family because he’s had about all he can take. Then Bunker goes wild and Barre throws out great power chords on the first speedy go-round, while Anderson goes into a far-freaking-out flute solo and Barre plays a truly brilliant solo on the second.

“Look Into the Sun” is a pretty ballad, opening with acoustic guitars and an electric guitar that soars above it all. As for the chorus it’s truly beautiful, especially on the last go-round when Anderson’s voice grows louder and Barre lays down some truly delectable guitar lines. “Nothing Is Easy” is bluesier, and opens with a flute solo, then Bunker’s drums kick in and Anderson sings for a while. This is followed by a prolonged instrumental featuring Anderson’s flute, shards of electric riffs, an acoustic guitar, and Bunker—a fantastic drummer—playing a repetitive tattoo. Then Anderson sings some more before the instruments come back for round two, with the bass intermittently jumping out and Barre playing K2-sized riffs before the song ends in one of those fancy stop-start-stop ad infinitum concert moves that I so loath.

“Fat Man” is a fast and fun ditty featuring oodles of fantastic percussion, one frantic mandolin, and Anderson singing in a sly voice, “Don’t want to be a fat ma-ha-ha-han/People would think I’m just good fun” and “Too much to carry around with you/No chance of finding a woman who/Will love you in the morning/And all the night time too, hoo!” This song is as funky as shit, percolating along with that mandolin, some flute, and that great percussion, while Anderson does a little scat singing and a brief conga solo is followed by that mandolin and Anderson finally finds the upside of corpulence: “Roll us both down a mountain/And I’m sure the fat man would win.” Take heart, fat man, take heart.

“We Used to Know” is a beautiful tune, progressing in a stately manner to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars and Anderson’s singing, with some electric licks thrown in. Then the drums come in and I’ll be damned if Anderson isn’t right when he claims The Eagles’ “Hotel California” is one giant rip-off of this tune, right down to Barre’s two brilliant wah-wah guitar solos, which go on and on and warm the cockles of my heart. My favorite song on the album, this one—even better than “Fat Man!” “Reason for Waiting” is a midtempo number with luvverly vocals by Anderson, a nicely strummed acoustic guitar, and an organ that rides atop everything. Anderson plays the flute, then some strings come in, and the whole effect is very pretty, especially at the end when strings and flute usher the song out on a classy (not classical) note.

“For a Thousand Mothers” is a quick-moving rocker with lots of drum crash and flute and a droning guitar riff that goes on and on, Barre and Anderson and Bunker occasionally emerging from the mix to do their respective things. It’s a wild tune, and shuts down at 3:18 mark, only to recommence on an even more frantic note, and everybody races along to the end. It’s one most excellent conclusion to one very good, hell, almost great album.

I can still hardly believe it. Your whole life you let your opinion of a band be colored by the fact that the frontman stands on one leg while playing the flute like an idiot, then you actually listen to the damn band and wham!—you realize that all along YOU’VE been the idiot. You’re the one who’s thick as a brick. You’re the bungle in the jungle, the giggling moron at the beginning of Aqualung’s “Up to Me,” the guy sitting on a park bench, snot running down his nose, spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Oh, well. At least I’m not eying little girls with bad intent. On second thought, define “little.”


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