Jethro Tull – 50 For 50 – 3 Discs of the Best (review)

Jethro Tull – 50 For 50 (Parlophone/Chrysalis) 

The finest collection of the band’s music ever assembled

Jethro Tull’s music has been compiled many times, but 50 For 50 is the most complete overview of their entire career ever put together.  Previous collections, like 20 Years of Tull and the 25th Anniversary box set have added unreleased tracks, live cuts and alternate mixes, along with their common material.  50 For 50’s one goal is to bring together the best of Jethro Tull over its 5-decade career, and it succeeds very well.  

Things begin with the blues-driven “Nothing is Easy” (the song’s final minute is worth playing again and again for its insanity).   “Love Story,” featuring mandolin, flute and electric guitar, signaled that Jethro Tull were not your typical progressive rock band.  “Living in the Past” was an early high point, and its lyrical content is certainly ironic all these years later.  Yet, the thing is, the track still jumps out of the speakers.

“A Song For Jeffrey” is the closest Tull would get to their blues roots, with Anderson imitating an old Delta shaman in his vocals and harmonica.  “A New Day Yesterday” is blistering hard rock, in a way, predicting their Grammy Award 20 years later. “Mother Goose” began Tull’s more reserved phase.  Other highlights of disc one include the ominous “With You There to Help,” Anderson’s infatuation with the educational system with “Teacher,” and the propulsive, horn-infused rocker, “Sweet Dream.”

Of course, things changed drastically with Tull’s magnum opus, Aqualung.  The title song still packs a whollop, with its legendary, Martin Barre guitar riff.  What makes 50 For 50 really great is its clever sequencing. By spreading out the Aqualung material, it really sheds light on some lesser-known material, like the fierce “Minstrel in the Gallery.”

Disc two sees the band embracing many different styles, kicking off with the classically-inspired instrumental “Bourée,” which is still in Tull’s setlist to this day.  There’s the jazzy “Heavy Horses,” the stop/start of “Hunting Girl,” and the Latin, acoustic feel of “Salamander.”  Then there’s the  all-too prophetic “Too Old To Rock n’ Roll, Too Young to Die,” the harmony vocal and the oddly funky aspect of “Songs From the Wood,” and the Celtic inspired “The Whistler.”

There have been many edits of “Thick as a Brick,” but “Really Don’t Mind / See There a Son is Born” is the most concise.  The disc ends off with a pair of holiday tunes, “Ring Out Solstice Bells” and “A Christmas Song,” both from 2003.

Disc three has the most interesting tracks.  Of note is the Middle Eastern feel of “Rare and Precious Chain” from 1995, and the tongue in cheek “Kissing Willie” from 1989.  The very-MTV influenced pop of “Paparazzi,” from 1984, shows the band stretching out, furthering that on the electronic pulse of “Steel Monkey” from 1987.  There’s dated keyboards on “Black Sunday” from 1980, but the song eventually settles in to a very Tull feel.

The excellent, understated “Budapest” was one highlight off Crest of a Knave from 1987.  The newest, non-holiday song, Dot Com,” is surprisingly poppy and restrained from 1999, while the grandiose “Farm on the Freeway” garnered a decent amount of rock radio play in the late Eighties.  In case you were wondering how Jethro Tull grabbed a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Album, listen to “This is Not Love” from Catfish Rising.  The entire set ends off with Aqualung’s “Locomotive Breath,” (fittingly, since it’s the song that ends their current live shows).

For those wanting a blow by blow of every lineup change the band has been though (and there has been plenty!), the accompanying booklet is helpful, but not essential.

No bonus material, just a great overview of the band’s long career.  50 For 50 is the Jethro Tull collection to own.  —Tony Peters