What happened was, I glanced at my browser and saw a random turn of phrase, The freedom to be who you want to be…, and thought “That reminds me of something”. It turns out that it reminds me of With You There To Help Me, a lovely song on the album Benefit, a 1970 offering by Jethro Tull. So I pulled out the vinyl and have listened to it three times in the last two weeks; it’s really just unreasonably good. (“5★♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)

Benefit by Jethro Tull

The Context · Although Jethro Tull remains a living and actively performing ensemble, they haven’t had a hit in some decades now and thus quite a few readers here may never have stumbled across them; so here are the bullet points.

  • The band membership has shifted over the years but they are best considered as a platform for Ian Anderson, who provides vocals, flute, songs, occasional guitar, erudition, and charisma, backed by Martin Barre on intense but tasteful electric guitar.

  • The songs are never without some acoustic sounds, but are sufficiently electric to have once taken a heavy-metal award away from Metallica, to which Ian Anderson responded by saying “Sometimes we play our mandolins extremely loud”.

  • If you want to get a feeling for it, you might want to check out this 1978 performance of part of a piece called Thick as a Brick.

  • And once you’ve strayed into YouTube, if you’re specifically interested in Tull or generally interested in really intelligent musical commentary, with some surprising remarks on the limitations of genres, you might want to take in this series of eleven short interviews with Ian Anderson, recorded in 2007.

The Music · Any discussion of Jethro Tull has to touch on Anderson’s unusual vocal register, the mixture of acoustic and electric, the essential Sixties-ness of it all, and include the phrase “Art Rock”.

Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

Which is to miss the point. The point is that these are some seriously excellent songs, with (this being Rock after all) damn fine riffs, which also have lyrics that you might want to listen to. In 1970 it meant something to sing “Can you cook? Can you sew?/Well, I don’t want to know/That is not what you need on the inside.” Maybe it still does. And little drops of gold like “Thought I saw angels/but I could have been wrong” keep jumping out at you.

I could go through and talk up the individual songs, but that’s not how I think about it; I’ve never done anything but put the LP on and listen to all of both sides. They share a sound and feeling and I’m pretty sure that’s the right way to do it.

I’m not even sure this is the one Jethro Tull record you really want to have; I’ve heard passionate arguments that Thick as a Brick or Aqualung are definitive. And I’m personally really fond of the somewhat later Too Old to Rock & Roll, Too Young to Die. Whatever; Benefit is a really outstandingly fine collection of songs.

Sampling It · If I keep on doing five-★♫ pieces, maybe I should drop this section. What matters to me is increasingly vintage vinyl, Internet radio, and intelligent rock in my car; my home-town has two stations offering that. Maybe I’ll start listening to my digital music again when I find a replacement for iTunes.

All I can tell you, first-hand, is that I have a LP of Benefit which as I write is thirty or more years old and sounds beyond excellent given a very few easy-to-ignore clicks and pops. How you get it is your business, but since Mr. Anderson and his posse are still alive, you ought to find a way to pay. I think you’ll probably enjoy the music.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Ric (Mar 21 2011, at 05:14)

My blog address may give it away, but I'm a bit of a Tull fan … the lyric fragment that still gets me is "with their jockstraps pinching, they slouch to attention while queueing for sarnies at the office canteen" from Thick as a Brick- what a great depiction of a futile cubicle life!

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From: Riccardo Mori (Mar 21 2011, at 05:36)

As an old-time Jethro Tull fan, I can tell you you've gained so many points with this mini-review. In the long and great Tull discography, I think "Benefit" remains a hidden gem in the long shadow of other albums like "Aqualung" and "Thick As A Brick".

When I played with my cousin's band, we often had Jethro Tull's songs in our repertoire, and we pushed a lot of songs from "Benefit" because we felt people didn't know them quite well. Usually the two acoustic ballads "For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me" and "Sossity; You're a Woman" were live successes. I think they're among Tull's best ballads.

Cheers!

Rick

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From: John Cowan (Mar 21 2011, at 07:42)

Indexers put Jethro Tull the band under "J", but Jethro Tull the inventor under "T".

Poseur, n. Someone who refers to Ian as "Jethro".

(h/t Joseph Zitt, who really does go under "Z")

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From: Elia Freedman (Mar 21 2011, at 08:40)

I hope your readers would consider War Child on their Tull best albums to sample. While I love the shortened version of Thick as a Brick, Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day has always been my favorite and is on this album.

I admit that my connection to this album has strong youthful memories for me. My stepdad played this album, song and Bungle in the Jungle, constantly when I was little. The china tinkling at the beginning of the song War Child is an eclectic endeavor you'd never hear on an album today.

My stepdad passed away two years ago. Tull always makes me think of him.

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From: Conrad Halling (Mar 21 2011, at 17:38)

Thanks for the post about Jethro Tull. I have always felt that “Stand Up” and “Benefit” were Jethro Tull’s best albums. I didn’t like “Aqualung” and the later albums as much, although they were much more successful in terms of album sales.

It’s time for me to listen to these albums again. Thanks for the reminder.

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From: Bob Monsour (Mar 21 2011, at 17:52)

While I love Benefit, I'd have to say that Aqualung is Tull's Born to Run (for those of the Springsteen persuasion).

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From: Stephen McDonald (Mar 21 2011, at 19:58)

Benefit does have some great tracks but isn't even in my top five Tull albums.

Which says something about the consistent quality they produced in their pomp.

Right at the moment I'm enjoying Broadsword and the Beast which I hadn't listened to for years.

Stormwatch also great.

And Stand Up.

And TAAB.

etc

:-)

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From: Tim Converse (Mar 21 2011, at 20:04)

Ah, I couldn't agree more about Benefit as a hidden gem. Long long ago I was a Tull fan, and followed them through a couple decades of their career before I finally drifted off. One thing I like about them is that (aside from a window of a couple of years when they were a "hard-rock" band when that was hip, and stole awards from Metallica etc.), Tull has *always* been unfashionable. 20 years ago I would be mocked for liking them; now I would still be mocked if anyone recognized the name. Even Tony Bennett became neo-fashionable again at a certain point, but it's never happened to Tull. :)

But I want to plug one other hidden gem, which I came across years after I'd stopped listening to new Tull records. It's Anderson's solo record "The Secret Language of Birds" (2000). It's now for me his most indispensable disc - and yes, that's including all the Tull albums.

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From: Lee (Mar 21 2011, at 23:32)

Perhaps I'm a bit younger than you hard core fans, but I always considered "Songs from the Wood" to be the definitive Tull album.

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From: Rick Jelliffe (Mar 31 2011, at 07:13)

I liked War Child. (How on earth did Passion Play #8 get to #1 single in US? And what is Thick as a Brick without the full newspaper cover?)

Actually, I am seeing Tull play live next month. They are the youth band: the day after I've got Bob Dylan, the day before is Mavis Staples, Aaron Neville and the 5 Blind Boys of Alabama. And a few days before that is Leon Russell and Little Feat. Should be a fun week. Never trust anyone under 60?

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From: Sean Baker (Apr 05 2011, at 18:16)

Tim...a bit off the beaten track, but didn't we used to play softball at AUB in Beirut?

Sean

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From: Tim (Apr 05 2011, at 20:50)

Sean: Absolutely, I remember you well. I typed "Sean Baker" into Google but there are too many of you.

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From: sean baker (Apr 06 2011, at 12:18)

my email is with you...give me a note and I'd love to say hello.

Sean

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From: Sean Baker (Apr 08 2011, at 12:53)

My brother Marke and I were trying to remember the lifeguard's name (no-hitter). Deke??? We read your notes and have a vague recollection of the feat...Do you remember?

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From: Tim Bray (Apr 08 2011, at 16:23)

Yeah, Deek sounds right. Fast curve that broke up and in, right at your face. Didn't get an email, tbray at textuality dot com is what you want.

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