There are gateway albums, records that lead to others, elaborations that must be followed until time or economics interrupts. I could name dozens of them that functioned like this for me over the years. Aided and abetted in the Web-less years by the Rolling Stone Record Guides (mainstream rock/punk/singer-songwriter), the Trouser Press Record Guides (alternative and indie), and Pete Frame’s monumental Rock Family Trees,
I would often spare no effort in tracking down an LP or CD I was interested in, IF the gateway record that connected me to it spoke to me in tongues, the way such records should. So Syd Barrett’s Madcap Laughs would eventually lead me to the Television Personalities’ Chocolat Art and the Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight, Julian Cope’s Peggy Suicide and his contribution to a Roky Erickson tribute would lead me to the Thirteen Floor Elevators and on to Thin White Rope, and Rainbow led me back to Deep Purple and forward to Dio. If I were to name one album, though, that really blew the doors off, it would be a greatest hits compilation, and not a great one at that: M.U., The Best of Jethro Tull. While Jethro Tull is often lauded for its prog side, which is substantial, M.U.was my introduction to Tull’s sympathy for folk music, opening for me the British folk revival by making me care to know about the use of traditional folk song forms in modern music. By leading me to Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, with whom Tull had some connection, particularly later in the 1970s, Jethro Tull created trails for me to follow that are seemingly endless and that I’m still following thirty years later. That’s not the end of it. Jethro Tull also took me on the short, worthwhile journey to Blodwyn Pig.
But first there was “Aqualung.”
Two significant things happened to me in 1982. My family moved back to Texas, after a 10-year absence. I was 15 and completely lost, having spent the decade and my impressionable childhood growing increasingly fond of my Rocky Mountain home of Salt Lake City. As important, I also discovered Jethro Tull, via the now (less so then) classic rock perennial “Aqualung.” To my young ears it sounded like nothing else on the radio — it still doesn’t, come to think of it — and I spent probably a couple of months trying to figure out who the band was that could conjure such riffs, dynamics, and lyrical weirdness. At that time the song was a little over a decade old, which is not much more than one rock generation (consider that we’re over two decades removed from Nirvana’s Nevermind, and that lends some perspective). And it was well-known enough, of course, that FM djs didn’t feel compelled to announce it. So who was this band, and how could I find out? Pre-internet this was a challenge, you know? Particularly in a new town, with no friends, no car, and a sister whose idea of rock was the Flying Lizards’ remake of “Money.” I may have finally resorted to going into one of Ft. Worth’s vast record stores — Peaches or Sound Warehouse — and singing the first line to one of the clerks. I can’t remember how, but I got ahold of M.U. The Best of Jethro Tull, and spun it endlessly (although it still sits on my record shelf and is quite playable — viva La Vinyl!). In fairly short order I bought Tull’s first four LPs, and to this day I think them the single strongest, consistently interesting run of albums produced by any of the “classic rock” bands (I’m arguing this in my head — maybe Zeppelin matched it — also, while I like their fifth album, Thick as a Brick, it saw Tull make a major departure into its second phase). The fourth record, Aqualung, is the capstone of the band’s first phase, an unintentional concept album that hangs together because of the wholeness of its sound and approach. For my taste, this is the perfectly produced rock record, big but not slick. Its feel is its concept, there is a rustic electricity to it, a Hendrixian Elizabethanism, with the down-and-out character of Aqualung rattling his last locomotive breath.
The same could be said, to a lesser degree, of each of the previous three albums, which were bluesier, jazzier, and indebted as much to the initial influence of guitarist and singer Mick Abrahams as to flautist/guitarist and singer Ian Anderson. While Anderson became Tull’s guiding spirit and remains so to this day, Abrahams only hung around for This Was, an engagingly odd, loose take on the British blues boom defined in large part by Abrahams’ “Move on Alone” and his take on “Cat’s Squirrel.” That his replacement, the wonderful Martin Barre, took the next two records to shrug off Abrahams’ influence on the band and find his sound, while still producing great music, is a testament to both Abrahams and the strength of Tull as a band during its 1968-1971 period.
Why Abrahams left has always been chalked up to a disagreement with Anderson over the direction of the band, but this direction didn’t change significantly on Tull’s Stand Up or Benefit, at least to my ears (as others point out, folk themes and progressive structures were increasingly adopted, but slowly). Abrahams, I think, saw his chance to be sole band leader following the success of This Was, and took it. He formed Blodwyn Pig, and produced 1969’s Ahead Rings Out and 1970’s Getting To This, both minor classics that are the equal of Tull’s first two albums. In the catalog of sadly overlooked records, they are also prime examples of what happens to albums by musicians who leave their hugely successful bands after one record, thinking they were the prime movers. Whatever was in Ian Anderson’s tea, he gave Tull the hits that eluded a solo Abrahams, despite Blodwyn Pig’s moderate success in England and America. But Blodwyn Pig and Abrahams cannot be denied what they achieved apart from Tull.
Ahead Rings Out begins with the jump’n’jive of “It’s Only Love,” a horn-inflected piece of dance blues straight out of B.B. King. Right away it is apparent that, while he stamped Jethro Tull’s first record with his playing and singing, in Blodwyn Pig Abrahams is going for a fuller sound, and up against the other comparable British blues rock guitarists/vocalists/bandleaders of the period — Eric Clapton, Peter Green, et al. — Abrahams holds his own. Reed man Jack Lancaster, meanwhile, creates his own horn section (he’s pictured on the inside cover playing soprano and tenor simultaneously), which he elaborates on more elegantly in the slow blues “Dear Jill,” again featuring thoughtful, tasteful soloing by Abrahams and a heavy bottom from bassist Andy Pyle. “Walk on the Water” could be off of Tull’s Stand Up, and continues the rock and brass. Jack Lancaster’s work gives Ahead Rings Out its signature, and to my ears creates, in some fashion, the template for Gong’s admirable Radio Gnome trilogy, minus the ambient stoner bits (“What’s left after the ambient stoner bits?” you could justifiably ask). That Abrahams could create Blodwyn Pig and open up space for Lancaster, where Ian Anderson’s flute would have played this role in Tull, is a testament to Abrahams’ care for the sanctity of the song — whatever ego drove him from Tull is not driving this record. It isn’t just the Mick Abrahams’ show.
“See My Way” is the album’s center, its Bolero break a nod to other blues rock albums of the period, for what self-respecting band didn’t riff on that chestnut at the time? The balance of the record is a sampler of British country blues and jazz of the period, strongly reminiscent of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, with pastoral acoustic slide pieces like “Change Song” paired with riff rockers like “Summer Day.” Again, though, Lancaster’s layered sax work sets the album apart, driving, charging, soloing. It’s a voice that was often lost in rock bands evolving out of the British jazz/blues scene, and it’s agile use here is in welcome contrast to strictly guitar-centric albums of the period.
It becomes clear on Getting to This, which is a respectable second effort, that while the sound has gotten heavier, Abrahams has perhaps run out of ideas. The album opens strong, with “Drive Me,” and throughout offers the same guitar-and-horn driven rock that made Ahead Rings Out so satisfying. But…the soaring, Tull-ish “Variations on Nainos” is spoiled in its final moments by a joke-ishly gargled vocal — I appreciate a sense of humor, but why bring it to such a gem of a song — “See My Way” is inexplicably included again, and Abrahams revisits his signature take on “Cat’s Squirrel” with “The Squirreling Must Go On,” which is expertly wrought and totally unnecessary. Nonetheless, I think Getting to This can be considered of a piece with Ahead Rings Out, and even if Abrahams betrays an over-fondness for the template he hammered out with Tull on This Was, there is no denying the strength of the blueprint.
Abrahams has soldiered on through the years, recording off and on, reviving Blodwyn Pig here and there, and even re-recording the entirety of Tull’s This Was. Living in the Past indeed. Yet it’s hard to argue with such spirit, and, having the opportunity to see Abrahams play in a London pub in 1991, I can say that it appeared the man was having a good time. He also enjoys what seems to be an amiable relationship with his old bandmates in Jethro Tull, a group he defined before moving on alone.
On the band’s website, he is profiled with a warm, respectful humor: “Mick was born in Luton, England, on the 7th April, 1943, which was a very long time ago. There was a war still going on at the time, which may explain why Mick can be a cantankerous old git and a right, proper and loyal gent at one and the same time…. Mick is now very, very old — even older than Martin Barre — and likely to out-live all of them.”