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‘The Broadsword And The Beast’: Behind Jethro Tull’s Heroic Synth-Rock Epic
In Depth

‘The Broadsword And The Beast’: Behind Jethro Tull’s Heroic Synth-Rock Epic

A sword-wielding saga, Jethro Tull’s ‘The Broadsword And The Beast’ album blurs the lines between medieval fantasy and modern politics.

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Transporting listeners to a far-off world of Viking invasions, chivalrous heroes and medieval musings, Jethro Tull’s 14th studio album, The Broadsword And The Beast, marked a bold sonic departure for the iconic prog-rock band. Merging the raw power of hard rock with 80s synths and electronic soundscapes, The Broadsword And The Beast is a daring exploration of Jethro Tull’s versatility and artistic vision. Here’s the full story behind the group’s epic sword-wielding saga…

Listen to ‘The Broadsword And The Beast’ here.

The backstory: “We tried to recapture a romantic element of fantasy without making it too quaint”

By the early 80s, Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson was living on the Isle Of Skye, not far from the west coast of Scotland. At a remove from the stresses of urban life, the songwriter would often embark upon scenic walks across Skye’s rugged and picturesque terrains. As he found himself surrounded by stunning landscapes of rolling hills, rocky cliffs and tranquil lochs, the island’s mystical atmosphere and rich Celtic history weighed heavy on his mind, and he began to reflect upon Scotland’s past.

“In times gone by, the Viking longships came up the sea lochs of Scotland to pillage and plunder and generally have their wicked way with the locals,” Anderson said in an interview with Classic Rock magazine. Inspired by historical accounts of legions of bloodthirsty warriors besieging the Scottish waterways as he stood on a headland, Anderson began to envision what would become The Broadsword And The Beast, his lyrics emerging as windswept musings on the early medieval period.

Envisioning a back-to-basics rock album of sorts, as he put pen to paper Anderson sought to combine the poetic imagery of the Dark Ages with contemporary lyrical concerns. By this point in Jethro Tull’s career, the group had already flirted with Elizabethan lore (Minstrel In The Gallery) and pastoral whimsy (Songs From The Wood, Heavy Horses), but this time, Anderson wanted to cast his gaze further back in time, fusing the heroic thrust of medieval fantasy sagas with the stark realities of the present day.

“We tried to recapture a romantic element of fantasy that had been missing for an album or two without making it too quaint or pixie-like,” Anderson explained to Trouser Press. This would prove to be an opportunity for Jethro Tull to move away from folk-rock altogether and reassert themselves as hard-rock stalwarts, updating their sound with 80s synths and electronic soundscapes. As Anderson put it to Prog magazine: “You take a direction, adapt a style to suit your palette and move on.”

The recording: “It’s more of a rock album, it’s a lot of straight-ahead 4/4 stuff”

Unlike the fleet of Vikings invading the Scottish coast, however, not everything was smooth sailing on the Jethro Tull longship. Though guitarist Martin Barre and bassist Dave Pegg were up for braving the waves, there were stormy seas ahead. Since the release of the band’s previous album, 1980’s A, keyboardists John Evan and Dee Palmer had parted ways with the crew, as had drummer Barrie “Barriemore” Barlow.

After enlisting Gerry Conway to take Barlow’s place, Jethro Tull finally headed to Maison Rouge Studios, in Fulham, London, and recording sessions for The Broadsword And The Beast got underway. Before long, however, it became clear to Anderson that something – or, perhaps, someone – was missing. To remedy this, Peter-John Vettese, a 25-year-old keyboardist who had cut his teeth in a jazz-fusion group called Solaris, was brought aboard midway through the sessions, and he immediately changed the band’s direction of travel.

With Vettese introducing cutting-edge 80s synthesisers into the mix, Jethro Tull began to steer themselves into the previously uncharted waters of the new-wave era, ensuring they remained anchored to their own past through Martin Barre’s hard-rock guitar riffs and Ian Anderson’s flute-playing. The song Beastie, soon to become The Broadsword And The Beast’s opening track, was a synth-rock creature feature, Anderson evoking the spectre of Beowulf to examine the claw marks depression leaves upon the human soul (“He’s the beast upon your shoulder/He’s the price upon your head”).

Musically, what was most notable about The Broadsword And The Beast is how it jettisoned the complex time signatures Jethro Tull often dabbled in on their more overt prog-rock work, as on career-making early-70s albums such as Aqualung and Thick As A Brick. “It’s more of a rock album, it’s a lot of straight-ahead 4/4 stuff,” Ian Anderson would later explain, in an interview with Cable Music TV USA. “It doesn’t get too clever too often, which makes it fiendishly difficult to play on stage, because if you get it wrong in 4/4, everybody knows!”

As the Broadsword And The Beast sessions progressed, Anderson’s 9th-century-inspired poeticism poured into his lyrics almost as if they were being written in monastic calligraphy. The song Broadsword – eventually released as the album’s lead single, in May 1982 – wonderfully showcased Anderson’s medieval-inspired take on chivalry with a heroic saga of sword-wielding paternalism. “It’s the idea of standing up and protecting the family unit,” Anderson further explained, “putting himself to the fore.”

With the songs almost complete, Anderson enlisted Paul Samwell-Smith (Cat Stevens, Carly Simon) to mix the record, and his input was so integral it eventually earned him a fully fledged production credit. “We found Paul Samwell-Smith, who we knew from The Yardbirds, and he came in towards the end and took a lot of pressure off me,” Anderson told Prog magazine. “We worked well together, we had this good accord and bounced off each other very well.” Now in the can, The Broadsword And The Beast was ready to be unleashed.

The release: “This is a bit more wistful, it’s a bit more romantic”

Released on 10 April 1982, The Broadsword And The Beast would soon peak at No.19 in the US and No.27 in the UK. Better yet, it became Jethro Tull’s best-selling album in Germany to date, entrenching the band’s popularity in mainland Europe. “This is a bit more wistful, it’s a bit more romantic,” Anderson declared at the time, “in as much as it treats subjects that, I hope, will have some universal appeal.”

With eye-catching artwork designed by longtime Jethro Tull fan Iain McCaig, the album cover features a demonic hooded figure with golden wings, emerging from the ocean’s depths with sword in hand. The runic symbols along the edge of the sleeve took direct inspiration from Lord Of The Rings author JRR Tolkien, translating some of the lyrics of Broadsword into Dwarvish (“I see a dark sail on the horizon/Set under a black cloud that hides the sun/Bring me my broadsword and clear understanding/Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman”).

Despite McCaig’s Tolkien-esque touches, the album’s second single, Fallen On Hard Times, saw Anderson momentarily sidestep fantasy altogether to directly address modern-day political themes. “It’s talking about inflation and the impression I get that the politicians never dare give it to us straight,” the singer explained to Cable Music TV USA. “It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, in fact.” Full of mesmerising slide guitar from Martin Barre, the song would go on to peak at No.20 on the US Mainstream Rock Chart.

The legacy: A testament to the group’s ability to reinvent themselves

As Jethro Tull embarked on a tour in support of The Broadsword And The Beast, they pulled out all the stops with a typically theatrical display of showmanship, bringing a Viking ship on stage and affording Anderson the opportunity to wield a broadsword like a manic swashbuckler. Though the singer has since admitted that the album did not get the MTV support they had hoped for, The Broadsword And The Beast saw Jethro Tull adapt to the new-wave era with a synth-rock sound that impressed many of their contemporaries, most notably former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett.

Showcasing tales of heroism, chivalry and the clash between ancient and modern values, Anderson’s lyrics immersed listeners in a fantastical world to remind them of why, a decade after their breakthrough, Jethro Tull were such a respected and influential rock act. Ebbing and flowing with some of the best Jethro Tull songs of the 80s, The Broadsword And The Beast continues to resonate to this day, and the album remains a testament to the legendary prog-rock group’s ability to reinvent themselves while staying true to their ideals.

Buy the ‘Broadsword And The Beast’ 40th-anniversay box set here.

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