Named for no apparent reason after an 18th-century British agronomist who invented the machine drill for sowing seed, Jethro Tull has been one of the most commercially successful and eccentric progressive-rock bands. In 1987, two decades after its founding, the band won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, Vocal or Instrumental, for Crest of a Knave.
Jethro Tull began as a blues-based band with some jazz and classical influences, and was initially proclaimed by the British press in 1968 as "the new Cream." By the early 1970s, it had expanded into a full-blown classical-jazz-rock-progressive band and in the late 1970s turned toward folkish, mostly acoustic rock, all the while selling millions of albums and selling out worldwide tours. Jethro Tull's driving force is Ian Anderson. With his shaggy mane, full beard, and penchant for traditional tartan-plaid attire, Anderson acquired a reputation as a mad Faginesque character with his Olde English imagery and stage antics like playing the flute or harmonica while hopping up and down on one leg. (He confessed to ROLLING STONE in 1993 that he had only recently learned the correct fingerings.)
Anderson moved to Blackpool as a child and met the future members of Jethro Tull in school. He and members of both early and later Jethro Tull lineups formed the John Evan Band in the mid-'60s, which played in northern England with middling success. In late 1967 the band regrouped as Jethro Tull, adding guitarist Mick Abrahams and drummer Clive Bunker, and Anderson taught himself the flute.
The band had its first big success at the 1968 Sunbury Jazz and Blues Festival in England. Tull recorded its debut, This Was, that summer, and by autumn it was high on the LP chart in England. The album was released in the U.S. in 1969, and though it sold only moderately, critics hailed the band. That year the British music weekly Melody Maker made Jethro Tull its #2 Band of the Year, after the Beatles (the Rolling Stones were third). Abrahams left after the first LP (Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi briefly replaced him) to form Blodwyn Pig [see entry] and later the Mick Abrahams Band.
Jethro Tull's first U.S. tour in 1969 paved the way for the chart success of Stand Up (#20), on which Martin Barre replaced Abrahams. One of the more popular numbers on that album was an Anderson flute instrumental based on a Bach "Bouree." (This Was had featured Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Serenade to a Cuckoo"; Anderson had acquired his trademark flute effects —singing through the flute and flutter-tonguing —from Kirk.) Tull's next LP, Benefit (#11, 1970), went gold in the U.S., and the group began selling out 20,000-seat arenas. Cornick left to form Wild Turkey and was replaced by Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, a childhood buddy of Anderson's who'd been mentioned in several Tull tunes ("A Song for Jeffrey," "Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square," "For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me").
By far the band's most successful record in the United States, Aqualung (#7, 1971) was an antichurch/pro-God concept album, which eventually sold over 5 million copies worldwide, yielding FM standards like "Cross-Eyed Mary," "Hymn 43," and "Locomotive Breath." Then Bunker left to form the abortive Jude with ex–Procol Harum Robin Trower, ex–Stone the Crows Jim Dewar, and Frankie Miller. His replacement was Barriemore Barlow, whose superlative technique was put to good use on Thick as a Brick, another concept album in which one song stretched over two sides in a themes-and-variations suite, a vague protest against Life Itself. The album reached #1 in the U.S. and went gold. A Passion Play (#1, 1973) followed the same format but was even more elaborate; critics soundly thrashed Anderson for his indulgence, resulting in his permanent mistrust of the music press and a two-year touring layoff.
However, the heavily orchestrated War Child (#2, 1974) became Tull's next gold LP (the Living in the Past compilation, with a hit in its title tune, had also gone gold) and yielded a #12 hit single in "Bungle in the Jungle."
Minstrel in the Gallery (#7, 1975), Tull's first extended flirtation with Elizabethan folk ideas, went gold, and M.U. —The Best of Jethro Tull (#13, 1976) went platinum. Hammond-Hammond then left, replaced by John Glascock. In the title cut of Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll (#14, 1976), Anderson turned ironic self-deprecation into self-glorification. Songs From the Wood (#8, 1977), with its minor hit single "The Whistler," was Tull's deepest exploration into acoustic folk (Anderson had just produced an LP for Steeleye Span). The band's next two albums continued to merge the rustic with Anderson's tortuously intricate classical/jazz/rock thematics.
During 1978 Glascock's health deteriorated, and he was replaced by Tony Williams. Glascock died in 1979 after undergoing heart surgery, and his replacement was former Fairport Convention member Dave Pegg. Before "A" (#30, 1980), Anderson revamped the band to include ex–Roxy Music Eddie Jobson and Mark Craney. The tour supporting "A" was documented and incorporated into the long-form video Slipstream. Beginning with The Broadsword and the Beast (#19, 1982), Anderson cowrote material with Peter Vettese, who had also worked with him on his solo album, Walk Into Light. The following year's Under Wraps continued to evince the group's new keyboard-dominated sound and, by Tull standards, was a flop, topping at #76.
In 1984 a throat problem forced Anderson to forgo singing for the next three years. By then he had established a profitable business raising salmon in Scotland. The first album he recorded after that involuntary hiatus was Crest of a Knave (#32, 1987), the group's first gold album since Stormwatch and the recipient of the first-ever Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Grammy. Many observers felt that given the competition (which included Metallica and AC/DC) and the ill-fitting category, this was one of the more ridiculous awards in Grammy history. Jethro Tull hit the road, but Rock Island stalled at #56, and even a return to a more blues-influenced sound could not pull Catfish Rising past #88. Interestingly, in the U.K. that album debuted at #1 on both the heavy-metal and folk/roots charts. A Little Light Music, a live recording of a stripped-down Tull consisting of only Anderson, Barre, Dave Pegg, with Dave Mattacks on drums, went only to #150.
A silver-anniversary world tour ran from early 1993 to mid-1994. Once it ended, Anderson began work on an album for EMI's classical division, and Martin Barre released his first solo album. Although Jethro Tull is not the commercial force it once was (1999's studio offering, J-Tull Dot Com, peaked at only #161), its catalogue still sells phenomenally well, and its best-known songs are staples of AOR and classic-rock radio.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).