Few albums in the Jethro Tull catalogue are as controversial as 1980’s A, with its slicker sound, infamous personnel shift and subsequent disgruntled alumni. Further erosion of public opinion came with the news that the intended solo album was in fact grudgingly presented as a band project following record company pressure. Even the artwork had mutated from the familiar rustic and storybook covers of the past to an eerie alienlike glow, the band members bathed in garish hues of pink and fuchsia. Not to mention the baffling attempt to reinvent their image by donning those ghastly jumpsuits and leaping onto the stage like they’d come straight from parachuting school (a bit of foresight may have revealed the risk of combining sweaty performance and thin white material… particularly with the famous codpiece long since consigned to the prop bin). But for all the strangeness that surrounds the period, A is nonetheless a solid and convincing Tull effort, with far more musical substance than its reputation might have you believe.
The dawn of a new decade found Ian Anderson and Martin Barre energized. The keyboard and violin abilities of ace newcomer Eddie Jobson added new colours to Tull’s palette, and the breathing space of a revamped lineup was welcome following the stale, sunless atmosphere of the Stormwatch era. Anderson’s creative songwriting remained prolific (this was the thirteenth new album in as many years), and his already strong voice had grown steadily more potent. While the music may glance in the direction of albums like Walk Into Light and Under Wraps a few years later, it’s still got one foot firmly on classic Tull ground; more a hybrid of styles than residing squarely inside any of them.
The six-disc [A] A La Mode is the latest treasure trove in Parlophone’s deluxe bells-and-whistles reissue series. It’s no wonder these titles immediately balloon in value upon going out of print. Long dormant artifacts unknown to even the most ardent fans are unearthed with every volume, gems so plentiful that one can scarcely believe they continue to be mined with such consistency. Live concerts of the era are dusted off and presented in full. Crystal clear stereo and surround mixes are made from the original multi-tracks. And the accompanying books are so loaded with goodies, they are worth the price of the sets alone – seriously. This latest is an exhaustive 104 pages of history, essays, interviews, photos, and the kitchen sink. If there’s anything left to learn about the album upon finishing this mighty tome, I don’t know what it could possibly be.
If A has one universally agreed-upon flaw, it’s the muffled and claustrophobic original mix. Up to the task is the now veteran Steven Wilson, who seems to garner more acclaim behind the Tull desk than with any of his other remix projects. As with 1971’s Aqualung – another muddy sonic affair – he has his work cut out for him here, and he succeeds admirably in clearing the fog and allowing the songs to breathe as they should. ‘I really enjoyed working on the record’, Wilson states. ‘I think it’s a great entry in the Jethro Tull catalogue… certain albums will resonate more with the fans, but each one earns its place… A absolutely does.’
I must agree, and now more so than ever. The album’s fevered centrepiece Black Sunday – prime Tull in all its energetic eccentricity – roars forth from the speakers with renewed vigour, as does the sprightly instrumental The Pine Marten’s Jig (certainly this record’s most obvious throwback to the folky mid-70s Tull sound) and the clever, upbeat Protect And Survive. And while new little sounds and nuances are detected in all three pieces, Wilson doesn’t go off the charts, keeping his focus on sonic enhancement while retaining the spirit of the original recordings. Other engineers could learn from such discipline… personally, I’m not interested in my old favourites being wildly altered – I simply want to hear the song I know and love, sounding as good as it can.
Fylingdale Flyer (a candidate for the most misspelled song title in Tull history) sounds particularly lush and vibrant with its rich harmony vocals filling the room. Quirkier tracks are also major improvements, like Batteries Not Included with its jagged rhythms and 4 W.D. (Low Ratio)’s funky groove (which, we learn, was originally attempted just after Heavy Horses but shelved until it found a suitable home here). The mystical closing track And Further On showcases the depth of Wilson’s mix, with Jobson’s moody grand piano flourishes darting around Anderson’s earnest vocal, and Barre’s soaring, melodic solo. Jobson comments: ‘(That’s) my favourite track on the album; I love that deep historic melancholy that Ian is so good at capturing, along with the ever-present flavours of English and Scottish folklore. I find it a wonderfully soulful track.’
Once again, a handful of associated recordings are sprinkled into the set. A live take of Working John, Working Joe with no overdubs makes for a fun change, with Anderson’s solo vocal a fine example of the powerful pipes he had in those days. I’ve long maintained that Working John is one of Tull’s most underrated tracks; the lyrics are brilliant and it’s musically satisfying too. Curiously, this re-worked track, originally written during the sessions for Songs From The Wood, is a further reminder that a lot of the music on A wasn’t as removed from the past as people might think.
The ‘extended’ version of album opener Crossfire restores a slow, bluesy intro that had been chopped at the last minute. It turns out this was the right decision, as the bit feels tacked-on and out of place, and would have started the album on rather a sluggish note. The originally longer ending was also inessential. Anderson is foggy on the details: ‘I can’t recall why we cut the outro to make the song some half a minute shorter. It may just have been an editing decision, or it may have been because of the realities of fitting things onto vinyl albums.’ … Either way, this is unlikely to end up as my preferred version of the song, however Wilson’s touchups make the original album track a definite highlight.
As is now to be expected by spoiled Tull-heads, there is another Where-has-this-piece-been-hiding track, and it comes in the form of a complex instrumental titled Coruisk. Melancholy flute and piano slowly build and eventually morph into a spirited number with the full band locking in and delivering some blistering playing (particularly drummer Mark Craney, who delights in this opportunity to spend some time in show-off mode). It’s an unusual arrangement with varied styles and no instantly memorable melodies, so one can see why it might not have made the cut in commercial-conscious 1980. But fast-forwarding to 2021, this is a worthy addition, and like many of these resurrected tracks, it’s hard to believe that it sat idle for over forty years… astonishing, really.
A show from the tour’s stop in Los Angeles is presented in full, mixed by Wilson in both stereo and surround sound, and is truly spectacular. These were the days of promoting a new album by playing the majority of it (rather than the token couple of ‘bathroom break’ newbies of later legacy tours). The new material was often the highlight back then, and the A songs are no different, played with fiery urgency and a palpable on-stage chemistry. Plenty of solo spots and a smattering of choices from throughout the catalogue round out the set. Hunting Girl and Heavy Horses in particular sound terrific, and one does wonder how things might have played out had this impressive lineup stuck together longer. ‘It was a great tour’, offers Dave Pegg, ‘…and we did great business everywhere. And it was a happy band, there were no bad moments at all. Everybody got on really well.’
The home video film Slipstream (previously issued with the 2004 A remaster) is newly mixed in surround, and a flat transfer of the original LP master is yet another bonus – though I can’t imagine why anyone would need it in this case. Either way, you can feel safe in selling off your old copy, because A La Mode makes previous releases entirely redundant. (Author’s note: I will still be hanging on to mine, as Anderson signed it for me on a chilly Toronto street many moons ago. When I told him that people rarely talk about this album, his reply came with a wry grin: ‘Oh don’t they?’)
For longtime A lovers, fence sitters, or newcomers, A La Mode is a no-brainer. The value-packed set is the perfect opportunity to discover, reacquaint, or reassess this batch of Tull magic with its glossy new sheen. And for those of us who have always been in its corner, it feels like our little-album-that-could is finally getting the attention it deserves among the heavyweights of the towering Tull oeuvre. Martin Barre sums up his feelings: ‘I’d rate it pretty highly. I would say the top third, although I wouldn’t put a number on it… I like the music, I like the playing, I like the people on it, I like that era, it was a very positive and good time to be a musician.’
Jethro Tull A (A La Mode) [The 40th Anniversary Edition] (3CD/3DVD) is released on 16th April.
A album: Crossfire · Fylingdale Flyer · Working John, Working Joe · Black Sunday · Protect And Survive · Batteries Not Included · Uniform · 4 W.D. (Low Ratio) · The Pine Marten’s Jig · And Further On
Associated Tracks: Crossfire (Extended Version) · Working John, Working Joe (Take 4) · Cheerio (Early Version) · Coruisk · Slipstream Intro
Live In L.A. November 1980: Slipstream Intro · Black Sunday · Crossfire · Songs From The Wood · Hunting Girl · The Pine Marten’s Jig · Working John, Working Joe · Heavy Horses · Band Instrumental Intro · Skating Away · Instrumental (incl. flute solo) · Trio Instrumental · Keyboard Solo · Batteries Not Included · Uniform/Drum solo · Protect And Survive/Violin solo · Bungle In The Jungle · Guitar solo/bass solo · Aqualung · Locomotive Breath/Instrumental/Black Sunday (reprise)