For Ian Anderson – prog rocker extraordinaire and the world’s best one-legged-stance flautist, bar none – a half-century career in music is no remarkable feat. “It’s not any particularly novel or unusual occurrence,” the Jethro Tull leader says nonchalantly through his dry British accent. “This year marks the anniversary of many other bands who did things around the same period of time. King Crimson started in 1968. So did Yes, Rush and Deep Purple. And of course it’s Led Zeppelin’s 50th anniversary too. So there we go.”
But what he fails to acknowledge is that none of those bands, no matter how out-there they got, were able to blend their hard-rock aspirations with the same levels of pomp, guile or unapologetic pretension as Jethro Tull. None scored FM-radio gold singing lyrics like “Lend me your ear while I call you a fool” (“The Witch’s Promise”) or by writing a 44-minute, tongue-in-cheek prog-rock song (“Thick as a Brick,” presented in two parts on the original LP and packaged in a fake newspaper) or by playing frilly flute solos over Renaissance-inspired folk-rock (“Songs From the Wood”).
In their 50 years, Jethro Tull have notched an astounding 15 gold or platinum albums in the U.S., as well as two Number One LPs. Their most famous song, “Aqualung,” has a guitar riff that’s as cutting and memorable as “Iron Man” and “Smoke on the Water,” and their music has influenced Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Porcupine Tree, Pearl Jam and Nick Cave, among others. Yet the band has not yet been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the only time it has won a Grammy was in the Hard Rock/Metal category – a concept that seemed so preposterous to Anderson that he didn’t bother to show up.
Now, despite the singer’s apparent disinterest in anniversaries, the group – which has cycled through dozens of members over the years – is celebrating its legacy with a 50th-anniversary tour and a new compilation album, 50 for 50. For the latter release, Anderson picked 50 songs from Tull’s 21 albums for a three-CD set.
To give the group its due, Rolling Stone spoke with Anderson about Jethro Tull’s history, and the singer put some of those songs in context. “I suppose in my late teens I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m ever gonna do justice to being a blues singer. It’d be farcical for me to pretend to be something that I’m not,'” he says. “So I started trying to play and begin to write songs that were a little more eclectic.” Here, he picks 10 songs that show how Jethro Tull progressed.