Jethro Tull's Debut 'This Was' Turns 50: A Track-by-Track Retrospective

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Jethro Tull photographed circa 1970.

Jethro Tull are looking back at This Was. On Friday (Nov. 9), Ian Anderson’s long-running band released This Was: 50th Anniversary Edition, an expanded version of their debut album, which hit shelves Oct. 25, 1968.

The 3-CD/DVD set sheds new light on their earliest sound, which brought their flute-driven approach to British rock audiences for the first time on tunes like “My Sunday Feeling,” “A Song For Jeffrey” and “Dharma For One.”

Years before hit albums like 1971’s Aqualung, Jethro Tull was a blues band on the nightly grind, regularly adopting silly new names (including Ian Henderson’s Bag O’Nails) to maintain interest from promoters. 

But this familiar origin story had a few crucial wrinkles early on. In the age of string-popping heroes like Eric Clapton, Anderson observed that the market might have been saturated in respect to the electric guitar.

Instead, he picked up an uncommon rock instrument. With a flute in his hand rather than a Stratocaster or Les Paul, he immediately found Jethro Tull’s visual identity -- and could lead his hard-rocking combo with feather-light classical trills.

The flute aside, Anderson was disinterested in just rehashing what had been done by Cream or John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers; they were just as eager to tackle a jazz standard (“Cat’s Squirrel”) or conceive new instruments wholesale (“A Song For Jeffrey” features an invented “claghorn”) as grind out your usual 12-bar blues.

Despite these nods toward the future, Anderson thought This Was to be too conventional. By the end of the sessions, Tull’s first guitarist, Mick Abrahams, was out; he’d carry on with the blues in a band called Blodwyn Pig. 

Even the album title, This Was, was self-reflexive, as to say “out with the old, in with the new,” even right as the album hit shelves.

Over a five-decade career, Jethro Tull would leap further into the realms of classical, jazz and world music. But their 1968 debut still holds up as a rawer, more immediate version of their sound. If you prefer your progressive rock a la carte, This Was will do in a pinch.

In honor of This Was coming out 50 years ago today, here’s a track-by-track refresher course on the album.

“My Sunday Feeling”

The song that introduced Tull to the world is a rollin’-and-tumblin’ ode to the morning after. “Won’t somebody tell me where I laid my head last night? / I really don’t remember / But with one more cigarette, I think I might.” There’s a bluesman’s favorite subject if anyone’s heard it. But more importantly, it’s a first step toward an unheard flute-rock fusion; like harpist Dorothy Ashby cleverly plucking along with jazz on her 1958 album Hip Harp, who knew this ancient instrument could be set to a modern beat?

“Some Day the Sun Won’t Shine for You”

Bassist Glenn Cornick and drummer Clive Bunker take five while the other two dip into a traditional 12-bar sound. The flute’s left in the case, too; just Anderson wailing on harmonica and Abrahams chooglin’ away. In this packing-up blues, the band’s dry humor pokes through for the first time: “In the morning, I’ll be leaving / I’ll leave your mother, too.”

“Beggar’s Farm”

For a band that would go on to write quirky, multi-suite songs that seemed to be wound tight like a spring, This Was is an album full of improvisational interplay. “Beggar’s Farm,” a lover’s spat jam named after a metaphor for being left in the gutter, is a great example of Tull’s jazzier, looser sensibility during this time. Abrahams’ lead guitar break soars, and Anderson takes a passionate, overblown flute solo in the coda.

“Move On Alone”

Although Abrahams wasn’t long for the band, he still enjoys a unique distinction: the only member other than Anderson to write and sing lead on a Jethro Tull song. “Move On Alone” isn’t much, just a waltz-time rocker about lost love featuring Abraham’s sandy drawl. But it also marks the first appearance of crucial Tull keyboardist and arranger Dee Palmer; she shone up this minor track with strings and horns.

“Serenade to a Cuckoo”

“When Jethro Tull began, I think I'd been playing the flute for about two weeks,” revealed Anderson in a 2002 interview. “Literally, every night I walked onstage was a flute lesson.” Offstage, Anderson was receiving other signals. He was influenced by jazzman Roland Kirk’s 1964 album I Talk With The Spirits, which uniquely ditched the trumpet or sax for a variety of flutes. “Serenade to a Cuckoo,” a faithful cover of the Kirk standard, pays homage to Anderson’ flautist inspiration.

"Dharma for One”

This driving, Eastern-themed instrumental is mostly built around a madman drum solo by Bunker. On live renditions, Anderson added a set of lyrics, chanting them like a mantra: “Truth is like freedom, it doesn’t believe / Being true to yourself / Never think that you’re free.” “Dharma For One” is also notable for the debut of a bizarre homemade wind instrument dubbed the “claghorn,” which Anderson would only describe as the “reluctant bastard offspring” of a bamboo flute, the mouthpiece of a saxophone and the bell of a child’s trumpet.

“It’s Breaking Me Up”

No special deviations from the formula here: grizzled-bluesman Anderson going on about how his unfaithful woman has left him scattered like a broken vessel. “My tears have run dry and you wonder why,” he frets. “I've found a new woman who don't do the things you can.” The band follows along in 12-bar form, the electrified Chicago sound via British kids.

“Cat’s Squirrel”

This standard by the Mississippi bluesman Doctor Ross (or “Doctor Ross The Harmonica Boss”) mostly sticks to early Tull’s time and place. Back in the late ‘60s, “Cat’s Squirrel” was British blues’ bread and butter; Cream arranged their own version on 1966’s Fresh Cream. Anderson doesn’t audibly appear, suggesting an alternate universe in which Jethro Tull continued as Abrahams’ juke joint band forever.

“A Song for Jeffrey”

If any early Tull fan has wondered where all the references to “Jeffrey” come from, it’s the band’s future organist, Jeffrey Hammond. Prior to Tull’s breakout success, Anderson took the opportunity to work his friend and past schoolmate into song titles. On “A Song For Jeffrey,” Anderson paints Hammond as an aimless individual: “Gonna lose my way tomorrow / Gonna give away my car / Don’t see, see, see where I’m going.” Perhaps it’s less a tribute than a roast.

“Round”

From “Wind Up”’s excoriation of organized religion on Aqualung to the show-stopping end of 1972’s prog-rock suite Thick as a Brick, Anderson would go on to craft albums with momentous beginnings, middles and ends. Not so on Tull’s debut: “Round” is just a one-minute bit of tentative, shuffling jazz to end the program. It’s a slightly over-reverential move: one more nod to Roland Kirk, then a wrap.
 
Although this fitfully innovative band had no idea what was in store, This Was is a guide to how their shape-shifting sound took root. So much came from a little blues.