December 10, 2021

The relentless roars of a demanding fan base can’t be ignored forever…

Well, it finally happened. Much chatter and argy-bargy has transpired over the last several years regarding the likelihood of Jethro Tull’s third album Benefit being reissued in Parlophone’s deluxe ‘digibook’ series of Steven Wilson remixes. It made sense, some reckoned, since it was the lone title sorely absent from the volumes currently stretching from the 1968 debut album This Was to the 1980 watershed album A. Except that it wasn’t really absent. It was out there, available to buy on store shelves and seen in people’s collections, it was just a little… vertically challenged, I think is the politically correct terminology.

Confused? Here’s a timeline of events to shed some light: In 2011, Wilson was on board to remix the famously muddy-sounding Aqualung album for its fortieth anniversary, creating fresh new stereo and surround mixes of the album and its many associated tracks. The whole shebang was released as the Aqualung 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition, a large and somewhat pricey boxed set that included CDs, DVD, blu-ray and vinyl LP, as well as a beautiful hardbound book. 2012 saw Wilson tackling the legendary concept album Thick As A Brick, but this time released in a tall digibook format that housed the two discs and the 100+ page companion book. As the series was still in the ‘Anything goes’ stages at this point, the next to receive the deluxe treatment (that’s right, Benefit) was released in 2013 as a simple and conventional 3-disc digipack. So far, so good.

In the meantime, the Brick set had proved immensely popular, selling out quickly and approaching ‘grail’ status among collectors (who continue to shell out hundreds for it). And when the time came for Wilson to twist Ian Anderson’s arm to allow him to remix A Passion Play (Anderson initially wanting to leapfrog over that title), it had been decided by the powers that be that henceforth these would be released in the same digibook format as Brick had been. As the now uniform series grew in scope and its popularity and value soared, cries of ‘But what about Benefit?’ amplified. Photos of prized collections appeared online, often with the digipack version of Benefit looking paltry sandwiched between its bigger brothers.

By 2016, Aqualung had been converted to fit the ongoing series, emboldening hope that a revitalised Benefit could finally be on the horizon. But uncertainty still dwelled; after all, as the biggest seller in the catalogue, Aqualung was hardly a risk to reissue in this new format, particularly since the only way of getting the surround mixes hitherto was to buy the mega-box which not everyone wanted to do. In short, Aqualung made perfect sense. But the Benefit remixes had been inexpensive and easy to come by. How many people who already forked over their cash for that 2013 edition would open their wallets again simply to have a physically taller version of it?

The relentless roars of a demanding fan base couldn’t be ignored forever, though. Benefit is a curious album in the Tull canon; dark, heavily electric, occasionally psychedelic, and boasting little in the way of ‘hits’ or even Anderson’s little folk ditties that began dotting most of the albums that soon followed. It’s not as well-known as the titles on either side of it, but if you ask around, you’ll find a large contingent of staunch supporters who claim it as their favourite by a wide margin. In some ways, it might be their ‘cult’ album. Either way, the new 4CD/2DVD Benefit: The 50th Anniversary Enhanced Edition has rectified this anomaly in the digibook series. Wilson’s 2013 mixes are superb and needed no further tweaking, as anyone who has them already can attest. From the moment those chirping flutes emerge from the speakers in album opener With You There To Help Me, it’s clear that he has worked his usual magic with these old recordings, and songs like To Cry You A Song and A Time For Everything greatly… well, benefit from the sonic polishing. And of course, the wealth of extra material from these sessions also sparkles with newfound lustre courtesy of Wilson’s keen ear and respect for the engineering style of the day. None of this vintage Tull music sounds artificially modern or enhanced.

Flurries of notes spew from the flute Anderson clutches and twirls with confident swagger…

Truth be told, I don’t know how often CD #2 in this set is going to be taken out and played as a whole; it seems more likely to be used for cherry-picking favourite cuts. The song Teacher appears in five different forms for example, between the UK and US versions and the various mono and stereo mixes – and that’s after Wilson’s own remixes of both versions on CD #1. So let it not be said that this set – like the others in the series – is anything but comprehensive and complete. With seven variations to choose from, there’s no excuse not to have a favourite Teacher.

Without further ado, the big draw here is the inclusion of two live shows from Tull’s first major headlining tour of North America. Comprising the fourth CD, Live In Chicago 1970 is an energetic gig finally given an official release. The boys coast through a set packed with early favourites, and the disc proves a terrific snapshot of a magical (and too short-lived) chapter in their history. Despite the dazzling professionalism that came with later lineups and tours, the young and hungry Tull of 1970 buzzed on stage with a fiery edge that became smoothed somewhat with their subsequent refinement and popularity. Most notable about the 1970 shows is that the tremendous My God is showcased in its still embryonic form, and is a longer, heavier, and more uncompromising piece than the studio version that was to appear on Aqualung a year later.

Surely the grandest of these new highlights is Live At Tanglewood 1970, a video DVD of a complete gig, warts and all (a companion CD is also included). It’s hard not to be captivated by this footage of the young band on this small Massachusetts stage, giving 110% of themselves and earning their applause by performance rather than by reputation. Clive Bunker bashes away on his kit with power and abandon, Glenn Cornick anchors the songs with natural groove and rock star prowess (he always was the most underappreciated member in my view, and this show perfectly illustrates what he brought to the table), Martin Barre fuels each piece by deftly bouncing between ballsy riffs and squealing solos, and John Evan artfully colours the music with his classical influence and uniquely tasteful additions. And through it all is animated front man Anderson, clad in long overcoat, wild eyes emerging from beneath a mass of hair while flurries of notes spew from the flute he clutches and twirls with confident swagger. These were the days of heavy-hitting concert staples like Dharma For One, of lengthy solos, daring improvisation, and raw, vigorous rock and roll. Tull never sounded quite like this again, and to have this legendary gem released officially is a blessing for fanatics and casual listeners alike.

As always, be warned: this set will sell out. Tarry too long and you’ll be sorry, as you’ll either have to go without or fork over considerably more than the retail price. As it stands thus far, precisely none of these thirteen book sets have ever been reissued. With six discs brimming with Tull goodies and yet another lavish 100-page book detailing everything you could possibly want or need to know about this album, there’s no question Benefit deluxe v.2.0 is indeed a worthy – nay, essential – addition to this exquisite series. What had begun as 40th anniversary nods has now stretched to 50th anniversary badges applied to some of these albums. Without wanting to be a downer, it’s sobering to think of how many Tull members and fans alike may no longer be around when the 60th anniversaries are reached. With that in mind, I suggest grabbing this Benefit book, hoisting a beverage or three, and immersing ourselves in the comfort this rich music brings. See you all in 2022 for Broadsword And The Beast!

All photos by Herb Greene