Benefit, Jethro Tull, 1970, Chrysalis
With You There to Help Me
Nothing to Say
Alive and Well and Living In
For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me
To Cry You a Song
A Time for Everything
Play in Time
Sossity; You’re a Woman
Well, I’ve reached the 1970s so it must be time for some prog-rock. Benefit was the third album released by Jethro Tull and as their second album Stand Up was their only UK number 1 album and their fourth album Aqualung is considered their best work, the one in between has often been overlooked.
Formed in the seaside town of Blackpool in the north west of England in 1967, the band’s line-up was ever changing. In 1970, they were: Ian Anderson on vocals, guitar and flute, Martin Barre on guitar, Glenn Cornick on bass and Clive Bunker on drums. John Evan played keyboards on Benefit although he was not yet officially a member of the band. Named after, of all things, an eighteenth century agriculturist on whose farming methods modern agriculture is based, they also consistently changed their name at the start of their career. They were only called Jethro Tull because it happened to be the name they had the first time they were offered a second show at the same club.
Starting out successfully as a folk and blues band, Benefit, which was recorded at Morgan Studios in London was a transitional album. It can be seen as a sort of halfway house between their first two albums This Was and Stand Up which were blues albums and their fourth album Aqualung which was much more folk influenced prog-rock. Having declined to play at Woodstock because they did not want to be seen as hippies, they played what was their largest gig up to that time at the Isle of Wight festival when touring to promote this album. This shows that, despite being a band in transition, they were definitely relevant to the UK rock scene of the early 1970s.
So, what about the music? “With You There to Help Me” suggests that this is going to be a coherent and solid album with its delicate flute alternating with blistering guitars. “Nothing to Say” is good in a sort of morose, Morrissey kind of way and the hard guitars continue. Unfortunately the album doesn’t retain this coherence and becomes more of a mish-mash from here on in. “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me” is a great acoustic folk track though which somehow seems to perfectly capture what the man left behind in the capsule while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon might have felt like. This, along with “To Cry You a Song” which has brilliant guitars and strong drums is the signpost for what Jethro Tull would deliver on their next album. “A Time for Everything” seems like the entire album in microcosm, a mix of folk and rock (although it’s also a little bit jazzy) which has great moments but doesn’t quite come together completely. Lyrically, it’s quite a serious album, there are no lighthearted or funny songs here, but it’s also inconsistent, there is no sense really that this is a coherent whole. The importance of this album is probably that it seems to have been a learning process. If they hadn’t tried out different sounds with varying degrees of success on this album, they would not have had the clear vision that enabled them to create Aqualung. We all need to be able to grow and evolve and in our age of heavily produced music, it’s interesting to listen to a band doing just that. I can’t say that I thought it was a great album, but having also listened to Aqualung I can see that the creation of Benefit had value as part of the band’s journey.
Rolling Stone magazine would say I am being over generous as they were quite unimpressed with Benefit; but it honestly isn’t a bad album, it just isn’t Aqualung.
Jethro Tull’s influence on music has mostly been in the area of heavy metal but it has certainly been international, Iron Maiden, German band Blind Guardian, Canadian Blood Ceremony and a number of Finnish metal bands were influenced by them, as well as Nick Cave. Listening to such a folky album and then seeing the kind of bands who count themselves as Jethro Tull fans shows that this band still had quite a long journey to go on in a career that would see further significant musical transitions. That this album was reasonably successful (It reached number 3 in the UK chart) would have given the band the confidence to continue to adapt their music and experiment with new styles. Some of the most enduring musical artists share these chameleon like qualities and championing reinvention and innovation is an important legacy of the band.