Progressive rock, also known as prog rock, is one of the many subgenres of rock and roll. Complex, ambitious and thought provoking, progressive rock utilizes whatever tools deemed necessary to create the desired effects. In other words, any style of music is fair game for prog rock, from folk to classical, and one of the best progressive rock bands in history is Jethro Tull. Headed by frontman Ian Anderson, the catalog of Jethro Tull songs are packed to the brim with compositions rich in tonal complexity and theme. Their narratives run the gamut of tales of the fantastic, to stories of young prostitutes. Such an ambitious and varied selection of songs have kept their fans intrigued for decades, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
10. A Song for Jeffrey
“A Song for Jeffrey” was released in 1968. Composed by Ian Anderson, “A Song for Jeffrey” concerns Ian’s great friend and bassist, Jeffrey Hammond. The two became friends in grade school, with Hammond later joining the band as its bassist. According to Anderson, “It’s not clever lyrically, but it’s really about Jeffrey being a slightly wayward lad who wasn’t quite sure where he was headed in life. He knew that he loved painting, but he seemed sometimes without direction and rather lonely. So I thought, ‘Well, I shall write a song with his name in it.” In 1975 Hammond decided to leave the band in order to devote himself to his love of painting.
9. Heavy Horses
“Heavy Horses” comes off the 1978 album of the same name. The song itself is a tribute to those tough horses of Great Britain who were responsible for helping to build their great nation, farm their fields, and carry them into war. Done in a folk rock style, “Heavy Horses” expresses Ian Anderson’s love of the animals, “I suppose it’s almost an equestrian “Aqualung” in a way. Once powerful and majestic creatures find themselves on the scrap heap, forgotten by society and replaced by machines. I’m not particularly obsessed by the animals, and it’s not intended as a heartfelt campaign to bring them back into service, but I do have soft spot for horses.”
8. Too Old to Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young to Die
“Too Old to Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young to Die was composed by Ian Anderson and released in 1976. Supposedly, Ian Anderson was experiencing a rather rough flight, and found himself thinking those words to himself, too old to rock ‘n’ roll and two young to die. Not the most encouraging words to hear oneself say during a bad flight, so he turned it into a song! In this tale, we hear the story of a biker, Ray Lomas, who has seen better days, and is in the stage where his life is winding down due to old age. Appearing on the 1976 album of the same name, this song soon became a fan favorite, though failed to make a connection to the masses, so didn’t chart.
7. Hymn 43
People who take their religion and use it as a way to rationalize their bad behavior toward others, have a skewed view of spirituality. They do a tremendous amount of damage to those around them. The more influence they have the worse it is, and that is what “Hymn 43” is all about. Written by Ian Anderson, “Hymn 43″ is a blues for Jesus, about the gory, glory seekers who use his name as an excuse for a lot of unsavory things. You know, ‘Hey Dad, it’s not my fault — the missionaries lied.'” Released as a single, it hit the charts at 91 on the Billboard Hot 100.
6. Songs from the Wood
A favorite of Jethro Tull Frontman and composer, Ian Anderson, “Songs from the Wood” was not only a critical success, but also one of Andersons top Jethro Tull songs. Performed in folk rock tradition, the song is found on the 1977 album of the same name. According to Anderson, “I wrote ‘Songs From the Wood’ based on elements of folklore and fantasy tales and traditions of the British rural environment. Our PR guy, Jo Lustig, had given me a book about English folklore as a Christmas present, and I thumbed through it and found lots of little interesting ideas and characters and stories and things that I decided to evolve into a series of songs.” (“I wrote ‘Songs From the Wood’ based on elements of folklore and fantasy tales and traditions of the British rural environment. Our PR guy, Jo Lustig, had given me a book about English folklore as a Christmas present, and I thumbed through it and found lots of little interesting ideas and characters and stories and things that I decided to evolve into a series of songs.”)
5. Bungle in the Jungle
Jethro Tull put together an album entitled War Child. The album was meant to be a soundtrack. However, the film was never made so Jethro Tull released it as an album in 1974, where it hit number 2 on the Billboard Charts. According to Anderson, “I feel self-conscious about it because I wrote it for radio play; it just feels a little too deliberate.” Ian also stated that Bungle in the Jungles lack of global attention was that it only has meaning for Americans, and no one else.
4. Cross-Eyed Mary
“Cross-eyed Mary” is one of Jethro Tulls best known and sympathetic characters. Found on the album, Aqualung and composed by Jethro Tull frontman, Ian Anderson, “Cross-Eyed Mary” is a song about a young female prostitute. Her character has an important role to play: Even though she’s involved in unsavory activities, she is reacting to her situation. She herself is a good, kind person. As a side note, the protagonist in the song “Aqualung” makes an appearance as one of her ‘clients’.
3. Locomotive Breath
Found on their 1971 album, Aqualung, “Locomotive Breath”, is widely considered by a favorite by fans, receiving frequent airplay on classic rock stations. Ultimate Classic Rock christened “Locomotive Breath” their third favorite Jethro Tull song of all time. The theme of the “Locomotive Breath” revolves around society and its problems. Here, the locomotive represents the negative effects of an ever expanding population, with “Old Charlie” a metaphor for God. The song has been covered multiple times, including Styx who performed it on their album, Big Bang Theory.
2. Thick as a Brick
The album Thick as a Brick is made up of just one song of the same name. Part one is on side one, and runs for 22:31. Side two holds part two,and lasts for 2 1:05. However, a version was released specifically for radio play which lasts 3:01 minutes. The songs narrative involves a young man who is considering two possible futures. One future concerns military service, while the other path involves the arts. Released in 1972, it hit number one on Billboards 200, and certified gold.
Composed by Ian Anderson and Jennie Franks, “Aqualung” is the title track of the 1971 album of the same name. Despite this being considered by many as Jethro Tull’s most famous song, it was never made a single. According to frontman Ian Anderson, “Because it was too long, it was too episodic, it starts off with a loud guitar riff then goes into rather more laid back acoustic stuff…” After all, back in the days before the internet, top 40 radio was the king, and top 40 radio only played snappy, 3 minute pop tunes. As far as theme goes, “Aqualung” centers around the plight of the homeless and how we as a society pretend not to notice them.
There you have it, our personal list of the 10 best Jethro Tull songs ever produced. If you are new to either progressive rock or the Jethro Tull band, we hope that this list has encouraged you to try more prog bands. Jethro Tull has carved a niche out for itself as the king of prog rock, and for good reason. Each album resonates with their fans. Whether they take on the topics of politics, religion, and even animals, they do it in a unique way, a way that belongs to them alone. In fact, once you dare to reach your hand into the bag of Jethro Tull songs, and pull out a few treasures, you just may find yourself a fan for life.