What is it about Jethro Tull that I just don’t get? They’ve got folk and blues and Jazz influences, flute solos, intelligent lyrics, cod pieces, a sense of the absurd, tricky time signatures, theres a whole load of stuff to like. I’ve accommodated Gong or Gentle Giant both with the same unique sensibilities. Yet Tull leave me completely uninterested, not bad just..well, nothing really.
Ultimately, I think it just boils down to the fact that no one I knew listened to Tull at all, there were no records to borrow, no discussions to have, I wasn’t enough of a free thinker to go it alone, the music press didn’t really like the band, in the days when that was a prime factor, lets face it, I didn’t have any chance of hearing them unless I was will to spend at least £1.99 on an album.
And so I passed on the Jethro Tull experience
In 1977 however, when punk was supposed to have wiped out all traces of the old guard. Ian Anderson leader and surviving member decided to make a play for an actual hit record and ‘Ring Out Solstice Bells’ is the result of this. This was around the time of their album ‘Songs from the Wood’. I think I caught the title track on the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ which was still stuck in 1975 and I rather liked the folky stylings with all the band members dressed as squires or poachers. It was all quite English although the band had been doing mega tours of the states. God knows what they made of this sort of thing in the Midwest but its symptomatic of the quirkiness that should have made me love the band.
As might be deduced from the title ROSB is a pagan rather than a Christian or traditional family orientated song that crops up every Christmas. The solstice is around the 21st of December, the darkest part of winter but also a beginning of the journey towards spring.
As such there’s no Christian imagery but references to druids and non-romantic mentions of mistletoe, its hardly insightful but it makes a nice change from the snow falling/children singing cliches.
I haven’t worked out the time signature but its not in 4/4 most of the time. And yet its was still accessible enough to be ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton’s record of the week on Radio 1. Its impossible today to make a play for the charts with anything that plays fast and loose with time signatures. Pre drum machines it was a common policy to switch things around with time signatures- the Beatles did and we didn’t mind, you cant do that anymore, people’s heads would explode.
The record company wanted to make a big play for a top 10 record, so they sent it to Chief Womble Mike Batt to sprinkle some festive fairy dust on it. The results weren’t good, so the original version was then released late and despite the best efforts of the likes of Diddy David and Radio 1 it only got to number 28.
Despite that it’s of stood the test of time as a ‘out of time’ curiosity. It’s a song that references a pre-Christian culture. Compositionally the song structure references the early 70’s, the keyboards sound like the late 70’s and the flute marks it out entirely as Tull which remains their trademark for better or for worse to this day.