Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Jethro Tull - This Was

Jethro Tull
This Was

Released 1968 on Island
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 11/08/2002ce

Because, people, this is a great debut album that fuses into a unique whole the diverse jazz, blues and pop influences of a pair of excessively talented young muses.

I could leave it at that and tell you to just go out and buy a copy. After all, 'This Was' has never been deleted since its release in 1968, and won't cost you any more than a tenner even now. It's a good enough record to convince the most casual buyer without any help from me. But what the hell - if you'll forgive my indulgence, I'll tell you why I love it anyway.

'This Was' is not the greatest album Jethro Tull ever made. That honour belongs to their third album, 'Benefit', an emotional megatrip with the most effective non-production an album ever received (check out the review of said album on this very site for further illumination). 'Benefit' is an almost perfect album. 'Stand Up' and 'Aqualung', which respectively preceded and followed it, are almost as good. So why single out 'This Was' for scrutiny?

Simple really. For a debut album, 'This Was' exudes an almost obscene level of confidence, wit and sheer musical gumption. Only one traditional blues standard makes the grade, and that is twisted and turned into the lead guitarist's own psyche anyway. An obscure Roland Kirk track, again modelled into something uniquely Tull, is the only other non-original here. Otherwise, 'This Was' consists of purely self-composed songs by Ian Anderson, Mick Abrahams or the two combined. Self compositions are, of course, one thing. Compositions that tell, on every level, and at this early stage, are another.

Imagine you are an impressionable eighteen year old in the fall of 1968, casually listening to a rock pirate station. 'My Sunday Feeling' bursts onto the airwaves straight after a twee advert for Flash bathroom cleaner. What do you make of it? First off, there's a hellish unusual instrumental combination to deal with. Two descending notes of jazzy, under-amplified guitar, countered by two ascending notes from an overblown flute (a WHAT?) form the panic-ridden riff that opens the song, which develops a basic blues sequence into a land beyond. Abrahams' chordal work aludes more to Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell than any more modern antecedents, although his excellent solo is pure progressive rock. Anderson's vocal sounds claustrophobic and disturbed, delivered (like much of the album) in an affected but addictive blues drawl that he'd never repeat on subsequent albums. His flute fills echo the edgy energy all around. The coda, following a superb striding bass line from Glenn Cornick, features that patent 'grunt and blow' Anderson trait that will thrill or irritate the hell out of you depending on your persuasion. A terrific musical evocation of the morning after the night before, and a blistering opener to the album. It sounds great even now: what a blast it must have been back in '68.

'Some Day The Sun Won't Shine For You' is a slow and miserable blues in the form of a drumless duet between Abrahams and Anderson, featuring barber shop vocal harmonies and virtuoso harmonica playing. It's closely related to 'It's Breaking Me Up', which is a full band blues workout in unusual 6/8 time. Good though these tracks are, they're overshadowed by the songs on the album that go beyond the basic blues structure. 'Beggar's Farm' is such a song. It's a stone classic Tull number with an eerie chromatic guitar riff that moves the disaffected atmosphere set by the opening song into a much more malevolent place. This time the dubbed flute accompaniment is delivered softly, until the awesome closing sequence where the rising sense of tension (over weird chords veering miles away from the song's tonal root) becomes painfully palpable. One of those immense rock creations that leave you flushed and heart pounding, and all delivered in a shade over four minutes.

'Dharma For One' and 'Cat's Squirrel' are respective showcases for Clive Bunker and Mick Abrahams. 'Dharma' would later be developed into a measured-paced epic with lyrics (see the cracking live version on 'Living In The Past' for evidence) but here is a relentlessly energetic instrumental of real power. Anderson's flute-based melody is a real grower, with monster-sized gaps allowing Bunker to "have a bit of a bash" (as the quaint sleeve notes put it). That rare thing, a genuinely thrilling drum solo, is followed by another ace Cornick lead-in and a short, thematically unrelated and echo-drenched guitar passage from Abrahams before the big finish. 'Cat's Squirrel' was also covered by contemporaries Cream, but on his version Abrahams embarrasses Clapton to such a degree that you wonder why he never achieved megastardom rather than his self described status as "Tull's Pete Best". I remember this pinning me to the wall when I first heard it and it still does now. A heavy, heavy sounding opening precedes Luton's finest giving his fretboard some serious welly while Cornick and Bunker deliver their magisterial best behind him. Check out Bunker's dynamic tom tom rolls that accompany Abrahams' opening solo for over two minutes, rising and falling in volume to match the guitarist's phrasing. Then try vainfully to avoid banging your head in submission to the return of the opening riff, giving way to an even finer solo that reaches boiling point four and a half minutes into the track. The intensity then subsides, but only briefly, until that heavy riff comes back louder than ever to herald the track's close. Even today the centrepiece of Abrahams' live set, 'Cat's Squirrel' is an incredible slice of high force blues rock that still takes no prisoners thirty-odd years after it was laid down.

Anderson's own chance to shine comes on the aforesaid Roland Kirk number, 'Serenade To A Cuckoo'. The album's most overtly jazz-sounding piece showcases the leader's natural affinity with the flute (which, incredibly, he'd only learned to play a couple of years before) as well as giving Abrahams a chance to demonstrate that he can play jazz as masterfully as he can the blues. Cornick and Bunker again provide sterling back up throughout; the former in particularly hot form with some strident bass work. Which (the brief closing 'Round' notwithstanding) leaves 'Move On Alone' and 'A Song For Jeffrey'. 'Move On Alone' is a little gem of a song. This Abrahams-penned paean of lost love is built around an irresistably simple rising/falling motif with a deliciously subtle brass accompaniment and a delightfully jaunty coda. As for 'A Song For Jeffrey', well this one pretty much defies categorisation. A sarcastic flute and bass introduction, soon accompanied by open tuned guitar, leads into a driving verse featuring Bunker's on-beat drumming and a mixed down vocal from Anderson that predicts Dylan's 'Nashville Skyline' nasal sound. The quiet "ceased to see where I'm going to" sequence at the end of each verse gives the powerful harmonica-based riff that infuses the song added impact. Unlike any other song in the Tull catalogue, and not in any sense commercial, 'A Song For Jeffrey' is one of the great lost 45's of the late sixties and deserves to be heard.

The line up that made 'This Was' didn't last long, hence the album's past tense title. Anderson and Abrahams were both too big on ego and talent to continue in the same band, and something had to give. The guitarist would go on to form and front the excellent Blodwyn Pig and Mick Abrahams Band, but never achieve the commercial recognition of the band led by his fish-farming partner. A great shame, because Mick Abrahams was (and still is) a guitarist and songwriter of unfettered power, musicality and distinction: see him play live in a pub near you. In any case, do try to give 'This Was' a listen. As I said at the start, it's a great, great debut album. It documents the fascinatingly eclectic blues-based Tull for posterity and sounds as fresh as a daisy in its new CD remastering.

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