September 21, 2020

Why Jethro Tull Belongs in the Rock Hall

On Hall Watchers' Episode 46, released September 21, Eric made a case for Jethro Tull's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He received a key assist from his friend Steve, a deeply knowledgeable Tull superfan who sent in a wildly persuasive argument of his own.

What follows is a transcript of Eric and Steve's arguments; let's call it "Two for Tull." It seems these mystical purveyors of flute and guitar-driven prog rock need an inductee plaque on Level Three of The Rock Hall museum... in other words, these minstrels deserve a place in the gallery.


Jethro Tull has been eligible for the Rock Hall since 1993.

Why this band from the seaside resort town Blackpool, England? First of all, they feel like a major omission from the Hall; whenever you tell someone Jethro Tull is not in the Hall, they are shocked. Being eligible for 27 years and not getting in will have that effect. They’ve waited so long, founding bassist Glenn Cornick passed away in 2014, as is often the case with delayed Rock Hall recognition.

Jethro Tull, led by mesmerizing singer and flute maestro Ian Anderson, is a one-of-a-kind band – and precisely the sort of distinctive act that the Rock Hall should ideally value and want to honor.  Many "classic rock" acts have been granted entry into the hall in recent years, but I’d argue few of them are quite as unique as Jethro Tull. There’s ambition, experimentation, mysticism and, courtesy of guitarist Martin Barre, some serious hard rock thunder here. 

This band essentially exists in their own universe, a universe where the flute and the guitar are equally important. Sometimes they transport the listener to the middle of a mystical forest where elves run free, and sometimes they put the listener on a runaway train. And sure, Fairport Convention and the band Traffic had flute playing in their music, but I’d argue no one rocked the flute harder and with more impact than Jethro Tull. It’s a central feature of their music 
– one of those special qualities that should be figured in when a band’s Rock Hall qualifications are being considered.

It’s no secret that Jethro Tull were never critical favorites or really deemed “cool.” In fact, the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs hated Tull, but he still had to give them “some” credit after seeing them live, going on to admit how hard they worked in his 1973 write-up for Creem magazine:

“Make no mistake: in terms of sheer professionalism, Jethro Tull are without peer. They stand out by never failing to deliver a fullscale show, complete with everything they know any kid would gladly pay his money to see: music, volume, costumes, theatrics, flashy solos, long sets, two encores. Jethro Tull are slick and disciplined; they work hard and they deliver.”

Bangs also had this other fantastic quote about them: 

“Jethro Tull are so far off the wall they ain't even in the room.”

Rock critic jeers aside, Jethro Tull is globally popular, and is one of those rock acts that is pretty much a household name. Of course, everyone knows “Aqualung” – even Ron Burgundy in the movie “Anchorman” quoted it. Having said that, I’m going to put the name recognition, however important, on the back burner, and talk about Jethro Tull’s musical excellence.

If you survey their ambitious and expansive body of work, it’s full of towering achievements – rock, folk, blues and prog all breathe freely under the Jethro Tull umbrella. They can summon both thunder and calm in equal measure. There are major landmark albums like Aqualung, Thick as a Brick and Songs from the Wood, but with Tull, it behooves the listener to dig deeper; lesser celebrated efforts like Stand Up and Minstrel in the Gallery are just excellent. 

Of course, we have to talk, too, about Crest of a Knave, the 1987 release that, hilariously, stole a Hard Rock/Metal Performance Grammy out from under Metallica, who was nominated in the same category for their Album ...And Justice for All. (Some extra trivia - Jane’s Addiction’s landmark album Nothing’s Shocking was also up for the award in this category). Jethro Tull didn’t even attend the Grammys, as they were sure they would lose! But...they won. And it bears noting that this controversy of Jethro Tull winning over Metallica in 1989 led to the Grammys creating separate Hard Rock and Heavy Metal categories going forward. 

It’s easy to take Jethro Tull for granted. Heavy rotation on rock radio airwaves has had the unfortunate effect of sometimes reducing their impact. In fact, I flipped on the radio recently, and heard one of their songs, and instead of being like, “oh, god, Jethro Tull again,” I was just freshly knocked back yet again by the still-amazing “Locomotive Breath.” This music has not gone away, and in my eyes, the gigantic songbook of Jethro Tull is not the least bit diminished for having been played a lot. 

So yes, Jethro Tull is a bit overplayed on FM radio, but another way of looking at it is, their music is just permanently etched on the walls of rock history — songs like "Bungle in the Jungle", "Living in the Past," “Teacher,” “Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of a New Day)," and of course “Locomotive Breath” and “Aqualung” have truly endured.  And they’ve fared well commercially, too, as they have 5 platinum albums and 11 gold albums.
So that covers "Musical Excellence," now it's time to talk about "Influence." As one of the giants of prog rock, Jethro Tull has influenced artists across the spectrum, and some acts that have taken cues from Tull’s fantastical ambitions and complex music include Marillion, Iron Maiden, Dio, Kansas, Porcupine Tree, and even the Swedish prog metal band Opeth.

Past critical snobbery and the absence of a champion in the NomCom room might explain Jethro Tull’s omssion from the Hall, but this band’s unorthodox yet outstanding body of work is a wildly convincing case for induction. They have absolutely cemented their place in the pantheon of popular music. 

Jethro Tull belongs in the Rock Hall. 


A kid from Memphis discovered that by stealing liberally from gospel churches and old blues men, he could convey to the largest number of girls possible just how horny he was. Surely it came as a surprise to subsequent rock and rollers when they realized the medium's versatility. A guy from Hibbing infused it with profundity; some dudes from Hawthorne soaked it in sunshine; longhaired Londoners drove it with the top down, leering at ladies on streetcorners, while four wiseacres from Liverpool, after learning about drugs from the profundity guy, got under the hood and souped up its engine with psychedelia.
Jethro Tull, meanwhile, once did a tour where the entire stage was a pirate ship. It bankrupted them. That alone is so quintessentially rock and roll, it should earn them a place of honor in the Hall.
These guys from Blackpool did everything those other guys did, and if they didn't do it better  and no, they didn't do it better  still they did it all, and they did it determinedly, and extremely well, and without ever losing their sense of humor about the whole thing. They started out as a pretty impressive blues band, the oddball instrumentation notwithstanding – check out "Nothing Is Easy" or "Someday The Sun Won't Shine For You"  and then, too smart for their own good, they went gleefully leapfrogging over records about their flautist frontman's harrowing schooldays, "Wind-Up" and "My God" the examples par excellence. Not to worry — there was plenty of Elvis-worthy horniness in there too: "Cross-Eyed Mary" has to be the catchiest song imaginable about a homeless man ogling schoolgirls in a public park. 

"They were hilarious, but they were not kidding around; they never took it seriously even as they were deadly serious."

Over time they morphed into something like prog, producing what is surely the only forty-three-minute-and-forty-six second song to both mention sperm prominently in its lyric and also become a classic-rock radio staple. "Thick As A Brick" opened new doors: Jethro Tull stumbled, concept album by concept album, into music that couldn't be more British: at its best it sounded like Monty Python playing proto-heavy metal. At its worst it was caterwauling and dreary, but who among their peers never produced a dreary, midperiod LP? It's almost de rigeur, for Hall inductees especially. 

Jethro Tull's frontman Ian Anderson may have had a penchant for codpieces, but he also wrote one of the greatest songs of all time  and no, I don't mean "Aqualung"; I mean "Skating Away On the Thin Ice of a New Day," a song so good John Lennon himself might have written it if he'd ever thought to. Their guitarist, Martin Barre, has the panache of Jimmy Page and the chops of John Mayall check out "Minstrel In The Gallery," and tell me he's not up there with the best. They wrote pastorals; they wrote songs about agriculture; they did their Viking album long after it was fashionable; they won a Grammy for best hard rock/metal album for maybe their least metallic record ever, beating Nothing's Shocking and ...And Justice For All  another Spinal Tappy bit of rock and roll nonsense, by the way, that should earn them a fast track to a Hall nomination. 

Uncomfortably far into middle age they recorded songs unashamedly comparing the playing of a flute to fellatio, and they had an album called J-Tull Dot Com embarrassingly early in the Internet era. They were hilarious, but they were not kidding around; they never took it seriously even as they were deadly serious. To a kid learning about this music by piling up vinyl at a used record store in suburban Philadelphia in the late eighties, Jethro Tull was the happiest discovery of his life. They were the best band he'd ever heard  at least until he came across Talking Heads.
What is the Rock Hall if not a celebration of the many different things you can do with rock and roll? Who else did, with rock and roll, what Jethro Tull did? How utterly mind-blowing are future generations, exploring rock and roll, going to find records like Stand Up and War Child and Broadsword and the Beast? It's long past time we recognized these guys for their titanic achievements, and give our blessing to Jethro Tull's undeniable place in the canon of great rock and roll.

A very special thanks to Steve Hanna (Twitter: @ecsongbysong) for his contributions.