Jethro Tull originally formed as a band in 1967. Ian Anderson, the primary leader of the band, first formed his own band called The Blades in 1963. This band included several future members of Tull. Taking their name from a 17th century agriculturist who invented the seed drill, Jethro Tull was essentially a blues-rock band that heavily featured acoustic guitar, flute, and the vocals of Anderson who seemed to effortlessly combine rock, blues, jazz, and English madrigals into a seamless musical style. Anderson himself allegedly took up the flute after hearing Eric Clapton and realizing he himself was never going to make a mark as a guitarist.
Initially, the band was a blues band, channeling American soul music much the way the Animals had as part of the Birmingham scene. Anderson's bands moved around quite a bit, starting in Blackpool and moving around through London, Luton, and even Liverpool searching for steady gigs and influences. As a result, the band became somewhat eclectic with regard to their popular influences. Even at their most progressive and eccentric, however, Tull was always a blues-based band which Anderson never denied.
Main Creative Force
Jeffrey Hammond was a significant part of Tull on keyboards and a signature element of their sound. Barriemore Barlow, their drummer, was also equally influential. Much more significant in the Tull sound was Martin Barre who became the principal guitarist in 1969, replacing Tommy Iommi who would go on to Black Sabbath fame. Still, it was the flute, acoustic guitar, and vocals of Anderson that would typify the sound of the band. He was the personality, the face, the style of Jethro Tull, so much so that for many years most fans who saw the band live or saw them on TV assumed Jethro Tull was the name of that bearded singer with the flute and the crazy dance moves.
Most Likely To Be A Mainstream Rocker
While Tull had a number of drummers, Barriemore Barlow was the one who seemed to define their early style and he went on to play with a lot of people over the years, suggesting he had the greatest interest in diversifying his style. But Martin Barre as a guitarist could have played rhythm with just about anyone. As for Anderson, his solo work has been more classical than rock and while he certainly had the skills to front any band in the world, mainstream was never a direction he intended to go. So Barlow or maybe Barre get my vote.
First Hint of Prog Brilliance
The 1969 album Stand Up was clearly a sign of things to come. Tull's blend of jazz, blues, rock, and madrigals was evident on this album and the smooth cockiness of Anderson's vocals was equally obvious.
While I can name three or four Tull albums I like more, most people would tell you that the true masterwork, if there was one, came with 1971's Aqualung.
Aqualung was a loosely connected concept album that featured heavy doses of Anderson's scorn for organized religion. While the conceptual unity was sketchy, at best, the cover art combined with the imagery of the title track crated the perception of a menacing character that helped propel the album to great success. The tour in support of the album was one of the first mega-tours of the arena rock era of the 70s. It also established Tull as a huge concert draw. The band members, especially Anderson, became known for entertaining costumes and on-stage antics to go along with extended virtuoso solos and medleys. Whether you were there for the spectacle or the music, their 70s stage shows had something for everyone.
Influenced By Them
It is frankly difficult to find any band that appears to have been influenced by Jethro Tull. Theirs was a somewhat unique style primarily because Ian Anderson was a quitessentially unique performer. Like the Mothers of Invention, there really are very few musical combos out there with the chops to cover their music and probably even fewer who would have the audacity to try.
Jethro Tull famously won the first Grammy awarded specifically in the Heavy Metal category over the obvious favorite, Metallica. Tull didn't bother to show up at the ceremony assuming, like everyone else, that Metallica would win. Ian Anderson, with his typical tongue-in-cheek humor responded to critics by taking out a full-page ad in the paper pointing out that the flute is, indeed, a heavy metal instrument.
My Personal Take
I always liked Tull and for me personally, the closer they got to old English madrigals, the more I enjoyed it. They had strong folk ties to the famous British retro band, Steeleye Span, another band I liked. So it was albums like Songs From the Wood and Minstrel in the Gallery that I enjoyed most. I didn't get to see them perform until late in the 70s. My younger sister, herself a flute player, also managed to see her musical hero live. She insists to this day that she called out Ian Anderson's name and he waved his flute at her.
Tull was unquestionably a prog band that had the musical skills to amaze their audience. Anderson and Barre were the key performers on those long instrumental medleys, but it was Anderson's personality and charisma onstage that really made the band a huge success live. Tull was commercially successful enough to satisfy its members and to this day, Anderson, Barre, and any other former members they can dig out of retirement occasionally tour together just for the hell of it. Alas, their classical influences and folk-madrigal roots seem to be keeping the almighty RRHOF at bay. In a way, this is ironic. One of the oft-cited reasons for rejecting prog rock is the notion that it is pretentious and takes itself too seriously. Anyone who's seen Tull live would never accuse them of those sins. If anything, Tull tends to mock the overly serious pretentions of other rock bands. But not everyone seems to be able to see that.