In July of 1977, after five months of extensive touring in the US and Europe in support of their album Songs from the Wood, Jethro Tull were back home for the recording of their next album. The new songs they were working on manifested what was going on in Ian Anderson’s head, at that point living in the country for about a year: “I had an interest in the tradition of culture and farming. The horse-hoeing husbandry of the original Jethro Tull’s era was in the back of my mind.” Agriculture, domesticated animals, the harsh realities of living things in nature and nostalgic reflections on days long gone were all on the menu in the songs he was writing:
Heavy horses, move the land under me
Behind the plough gliding, slipping and sliding free
And now you’re down to the few and there’s no work to do
The tractor is on its way
He later said of this dark yet sentimental mood that settled over the album: “Heavy Horses is definitely a look into the past and singing rather sadly about the end of an era. I suppose the last evidence of heavy horses would’ve been pulling the carts laden with beer from breweries into towns. It’s a bit sentimental, but sometimes holding up examples gives you a new sense of appreciation. You realize times will change. They’ll be gone and won’t be coming back. So treasure them while they’re still here.” The album that came out of those recording sessions is certainly something to treasure. This is the story of Heavy Horses.
Heavy Horses is frequently linked to its predecessor, Songs from the Wood. Anderson moved to the country in 1976, buying a working farm. Life outside of the city and increased exposure to folk rock music after producing Steeleye Span’s Now We Are Six in 1974, sparked his interest in British folklore: “I wrote Songs from the Wood based on elements of folklore and fantasy tales and traditions of the British rural environment. You might describe Songs from the Wood as a contemporary folk-rock album, in the sense that it’s a rock album but it has some sort of folky feel, and it doesn’t owe really anything at all to blues or jazz or any black American music.” The album is now considered the first in a trilogy of albums finding the band digging deep into British folk music.
Heavy Horses is the second album in that trilogy, a logical progression after Songs from the Wood: “The first song written for the Heavy Horses album probably was the title track. I can distinctly remember playing a G minor chord and it just rolled on from there. So that was a moment of exercising continuity from Song from the Wood, because I was living in the same house in the same place, and getting a bit more involved in farming and other rural stuff.”
Anderson thinks of Jethro Tull albums in pairs, thus grouping Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses together: “These two albums represent one of the several times in Jethro Tull’s lengthy discography that the same idea followed from one album to the next. Stand Up is sort of an ‘up’ album, followed by Benefit, which is sort of a ‘down,’ dark album. Likewise with Thick as a Brick and Passion Play. When you’re making an album every year, I think you do tend to oscillate between having feelings of cheerfulness followed by feelings of introspection. I think that’s true of those two albums, and they do hang together as a pair.” Indeed there is a markedly difference between the two. Songs from the Wood is quite a cheerful, playful album. The mood darkens in Heavy Horses, music and words alike: “There are albums that have some dark moments like Aqualang, but they have some upbeat moments which are kind of whimsical and fun. And Songs from the Wood had that. And maybe Heavy Horses was a little more downbeat in that regard. Some of the songs might be quite playful sounding but there’s something a bit more bleak.” All that said, Heavy Horses is my favorite album in this trilogy (Stormwatch being the third). Musically I find it more complex and intricate. The production is perfect, and it is a great sounding album. The songs’ subject matter is indeed darker and deals with the harsher side of nature, while looking back wistfully at days long gone: “It’s unashamedly about something that was lamenting the passing of an age. It’s the equivalent of the end of the age of steam. Those things that you know aren’t going to be around very much longer, they do exercise an attraction and an appeal, emotionally and intellectually, because you’re having to chronicle something that you know other people are going to look back on and think, ‘What on earth was all that about? I’ve no idea what they were.’”
Heavy Horses was the first album Jethro Tull recorded at Maison Rouge, a new studio Ian Anderson built in 1977, not to be confused by La Maison Rouge Mobile, a recording studio built inside a Mercedes truck he built in 1975. The mobile unit, like the Rolling Stones’ Mobile Studio, was used to record in remote locations, such as Monte Carlo, where the band recorded the albums Minstrel in the Gallery and Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! The studio was built in Fulham Road, London, along which there was a rush four years earlier, to quote another Tull classic. Robin Black, sound Engineer on Tull’s albums since Benefit in 1970, joined the enterprise and ran the studio. Anderson: “Robin Black, who was the studio manager and the chief engineer, had a heavy personal investment in the design and the commissioning of all the equipment so it was almost more his studio than it was mine.” Robin Black’s sound engineering credits are far too long to list here, and his able studio skills produced great sounds on albums by Pink Floyd, Steeleye Span, Joan Armatrading and many more. Perhaps his crown achievement is Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, another Tull masterpiece and a unique sonic experience.
The studio opened in June of 1977 just in time for the band to start the recording sessions for Heavy Horses, sharing studio time with other artists: “It seemed quite important to me that it should stand alone as a commercial enterprise, therefore when we had people like Gus Dudgeon coming in taking 7 days of work, then he got the priority and we would be standing there at midnight waiting for Gus to finish so we could get in and do a session from midnight to 6am.“ Colin Leggett, assistant engineer to Robin Black at the time, remembers: “The atmosphere for the Heavy Horses sessions was always good, although you were always on your toes for Tull sessions. They were always a 2pm start, and they usually finished by about 1am or 2am, never really late. Tull sessions were different from other bands. Some bands would take five hours to even get going, total lunacy, but Tull were always ready and on the ball.”
Progressive rock artists such as Gentle Giant, Renaissance and Genesis recorded their late 1970s albums in the studio. This was the twilight period for the genre and while it remained Jethro Tull’s facility for their early 1980s albums, the studio started shifting towards pop acts. In 1980 a second, smaller studio was added. An ad for the studio read: “Maison Rouge, simply two of the finest studios in Europe. Two twenty four track studios, fully automated, bar & lounge.” After it was sold in 1982, the quality of musicians recording their albums in the studio declined rapidly to the likes of Wham!, who made their inconsequential debut album there.
Ok, time to talk about the music. I will review my favorite tracks on the album in chronological order of recording date. The first is the album opener, …And the Mouse Police Never Sleeps, recorded in July 1977. This tune sets the tone for the whole album in its style and lyrics subject. The galloping rhythm was inspired by drummer Artie Tripp who played with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. In 1972, the year the Captain’s band opened for Jethro Tull on their US tour, they released the album The Spotlight Kid. The album included the song Click Clack featuring an interesting groove by Tripp. Anderson: “I kind of borrowed the backbeat weird syncopated strange rhythm. It’s not exactly the same, but it definitely got that rather odd, offbeat feel. Luckily, Barrie Barlow had cottoned on to that as well as he was in the band when we had Beefheart on tour with us in the USA.” Anderson is a fan of Beefheart and Zappa and was involved with the recording of the band Mallard, a group formed by ex-members of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Barlow was also a fan, and upon hearing that Tripp had given up on drums and became a chiropractor, he sent him a drum set to lure him into playing the instrument again.
The song is not really about mice, but rather the cruel, savage beast that hunts them, otherwise known as a cat:
Look out, little furry folk
He’s the all night working cat
Eats but one in every ten
Leaves the others on the mat
The album features a number of songs about animals, and this is perhaps the bleakest of them. Anderson on cats: “What I really like about cats is that they appear to be such passive, lovable creatures who just lie there doing nothing, when in reality they are nasty, vicious animals who do terrible things to other furry little animals. People always have this idea that nature is lovely and fluffy and cute, but the truth is nature is actually too tough for almost all of us. That’s why we live in towns, in nice warm houses. The natural, animal world is a horrific place.”
Keyboardist and arranger Dee Palmer adds one more musical anecdote about the song: “I wrote what’s called a fugue exposition based upon Three Blind Mice. If you listened to John Evan and me on organ and various keyboards and you fish deep enough you can hear a short burst of Three Blind Mice in there.”
Also in July 1977 the band recorded the lyrical, allegoric love story Moths. This song features one of my favorite lyrics by Anderson, who was inspired by John Le Carré’s novel The Naive and Sentimental Lover, a rarity in his rich bibliography for not telling an espionage story. From the title you would think this is another song about animals, or insects in this case. But no, moths refer to a fictitious game described in the book. Anderson: “It’s a weird and tricky love story between three people, Shamus, Cassidy and Helen. Shamus the bad guy, is the seductive, crazy man, he’s the dangerous sex, drugs and rock’n’roll Ozzy Osbourne guy. And Moths is a game invented by Le Carré, which Shamus plays with Cassidy and Helen, in which a candle is placed in the middle of a billiard table, and you score a point for each time you bounce the white ball off each side of the table around the candle.” Anderson marries the game and the love triangle intrigue with real moths:
The leaded window opened
to move the dancing candle flame
And the first Moths of summer
Dee Palmer wrote a great string arrangement for this song, beautifully complementing Anderson’s voice and flute solo parts. Palmer later recalled the recording session: “What impressed me most of all in the course of recording the album was that Ian went into the studio with an acoustic guitar, and in two takes recorded Moths. It’s full of odd bar lengths, it’s not like 1-2-3-4 repeated until you fall off the chair, it’s very intricate. I watched him play the guitar and sing the song – twice. And one of those two takes is the master! It was stunning.” In March of 1978, after the album was completed, the band convened in Ian Anderson’s house to shoot a few promo films. One of them was Moths.
Three months later, after the band went on tour in Australia continuing their support of Songs from the Wood, the band resumed the recordings for Heavy Horses in October of 1977. Two more songs about animals were recorded during these sessions, one of them the album closer Weathercock. Sometimes I measure how great albums I review are by the songs I leave out, and this is a good example, as Weathercock is certainly a very fine song. The other ‘animal’ song from these sessions was dedicated to Lupus, Anderson’s dog who was immortalized on the front cover of Songs from the Wood.
Anderson on the song: “The subject can be taken both literally, as a dog, and analogously as a tinker, traveler, the person who leaves town the next morning – in my case before the reviews are printed, or perhaps in the case of the song before being set upon by the father of the daughter you slept with after being put up overnight in some farmstead. So on that level it’s kind of romanticizing of a rather roguish lifestyle.”
I can hear more influences of various Zappa bands and again Art Tripp (aka Ed Marimba) in the excellent marimba part on Rover, played by Barlow.
After another break for a month to tour the US again with Songs from the Wood, the band came back for the final recording sessions for Heavy Horses in December of 1977, producing my three favorite tunes from the album. The first is Acres Wild, an intricate song that masterfully combines acoustic folk instruments, mandolin and violin, with rock music. Lots had been written about the folk influences on Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses, and Ian Anderson reflected about that, explaining his move away from American blues music that so captivated many of his contemporary bands in the late 1960s: “As much as I enjoyed trying to play white man’s middle-class blues in the ‘60s, it was my intention to try and find musical influences that, if they were the parallel to black American blues, would be in Europe. My inspiration comes from folk music, classical music, and of course I embraced church music. It just felt a little easier for me to develop my music along those lines, because I felt that I was drawing upon my own cultural roots and not stealing somebody else’s.”
The violin part is curtesy of Darryl Way of Curved Air, who toured with Jethro Tull and opened for them a few years earlier. Way about the recording: “We did it in a single session, which was quite intense. What I remember most is how particular Ian was about what I was doing on those two songs and the amount of takes I had to do to get it exactly as he wanted it.”
One of two epics on the album, No Lullaby may be the odd one out on the album as lyrics go, devoid of historical folk references and animals. It was written for his son James when he was a baby, as Anderson explains: “I wrote this anti-lullaby which invites the child to stand up and face up to the demons and the bogeymen and the other scary things of the night – come out charging with rattle in hand.” Not exactly the material I would play to a tot who is looking for his dose of sweet dreams as he prepares to sleep.
The highlight on this track is Barriemore Barlow’s drumming, who’s contributions on this album are some of his best in a magnificent career with the band. In an interview to Modern Drummer magazine, the interviewer asked Barlow how he incorporates the paradiddle, a drum rudiment many students practice in their formative years, into his playing. Barlow replied: ”Oh God, I don’t know! I don’t think in technical terms. I’ve never had a lesson in my life…why are you shaking your head, it’s true! A couple of years ago, I decided, since I make my living being a drummer, maybe I should check out some drum books and see what they’re about. So now I do have some knowledge of what a paradiddle is, but I still don’t sit there and think ‘I’ll throw in a paradiddle here.’ It’s a totally intuitive thing.”
And we come to the last song in this review, the title track and one of Tull’s most iconic pieces of music. This is a proper moment to talk about those heavy horses. Like many other inventions of mankind, they were conceived as a war artifact. When knights started wearing heavy armor, bigger horses were in need to carry them. In time they were found useful as transportation vehicles, able to handle poor medieval roads pulling carts loaded with goods. Their final purpose was found on the farm when new tools, including (ha!) Jethro Tull’s Seed Drill, needed the strength that a heavy horse could provide. The advent of motor vehicles in the beginning of the 20th century reduced the demand for these fine horses, and that demand kept declining until their numbers dropped from over a million at their peak to a few thousands in the 1960s. Anderson on the horses: “There are very few breeders of heavy horses, and those breeds are now under serious threat of extinction because there are simply not enough mares and stallions left to do the business and not enough people to keep a horse that has no practical use in today’s world. It’s not a riding horse, or practically speaking, a draft horse any longer, in the sense that it’s pulling a wagon. The interest has been falling away. There’s a drive to try to save the breeds that are most under threat, because several breeds of heavy horses are traditional to our country.”
Taking a wider view on the matter of working horses, Anderson added: “There had been various horses used in cultivation, but there were small, working horses, the pit ponies that pulled coal out of the ground. Working horses are not all necessarily of a larger stature, hence the album’s dedication.” And so, fittingly with the theme of the album, it included credits that read: “This album is dedicated to the Highland, Welsh Mountain, Shetland, Fell, Dales, Cleveland and the other indigenous working ponies and horses of Great Britain, who, however tiny or great in stature, can truly count themselves as being amongst our HEAVY HORSES.” The front cover of the original LP also included part of the lyrics from the song:
Bring me a wheel of oaken wood
A rein of polished leather
A Heavy Horse and a tumbling sky
Brewing heavy weather.
Heavy Horses was the first song written for the album, and a number of things stand out for me on this song. The first is Ian Anderson’s vocal delivery as he begins to sing after the first minute mark. Funny enough he did not see it that way: “I know some people have a lot of affection for the title track, but when I was recording that, I had a stinker of a cold and when I listen to the opening vocals in the quiet part of the song, I can hear the mucus and the congestion going on through my nose – it almost sounds like it was processed through something. Well, it was, in a way.” Maybe mocus should be used a sound effect more often, because it really works here.
The second is Dee Palmer’s orchestration. She (then he) wrote many wonderful string parts for Jethro Tull on most of their albums since 1968, but this may be her pinnacle amongst them. She said of her work on that track: “I’m proud of Heavy Horses because the score on that song is the perfect mix of a rock group and a string quartet.”
The third is Martin Barre’s guitar parts. What more can be said of his brilliant work throughout the years he spent with the band? On this track alone he dishes great riffs that could fill out a whole album. Years later Barre said he considers Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses to be two of the albums that best show his playing. A true epic, with so many twists and turns you wonder how they managed to make it sound so together. Here it is, mimed perfectly in the March 1978 promo film and including footage of those majestic horses:
After the recordings for the album were complete, the band posed in Ian Anderson’s house to proudly celebrate their achievement. Barre: “Ian had got the cut glass out of his drinks cabinet, and had run into the kitchen. We’re all in there with our bow-ties, looking forward to a nice brandy or something to toast at the end of the album, and he brought in a bottle of Coca-Cola! The glasses in the photo are all full of Coke! I think that’s what’s known as Scottish brandy but I’m sure we celebrated somewhere else later.”
The front cover photograph was a different matter altogether, requiring Anderson to handle those heavy horses in a full day of shooting. He remembers: “I was holding on – they were very big! They were actually pussycats, those two horses – they were very good. The absurdity was that the shots that were taken were from a very long way away. It could have been so much easier. They wanted to get the valley in the background and the brow of the hill to give it some context, so I was a long way off. I had to walk an awful long way with these animals!”
The album was released in the UK on April 21, 1978 and entered the chart a week later, peaking at #20. The songs were not exactly the hit material in a period when punk ruled the airwaves. The tender Moths was released as a single in the UK but did not chart. The US distributor decided to skip that single release, seeing no hope of making a dent in the singles charts. The album, on the other hand, did well in the US and reached #19 on the albums chart.
Heavy Horses remains a favorite of mine in Jethro Tull’s wonderful run of albums beginning in the late 1960s. It is perhaps their last great album, released in a year that pretty much closed the chapter on the classic progressive rock era of the 1970s. Martin Barre, recalling that period: “I think Songs from The Wood and Heavy Horses are two of the best albums from my time in Jethro Tull, Certainly from a songwriting point of view.” Never at a loss of words, Ian Anderson sums it up best: “Songs From the Wood and Heavy Horses were partners in an exploration of something that was not true to form in terms of either musical or lyrical content but it was ‘along the lines’ of – in the same way that classical composers would often borrow from elements of folk music or other traditions that were fertile ground for developing their own music. But overall, I do think that Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses encapsulate the element of folk-prog-rock. Yes, that’s as good a way as any of describing Heavy Horses – it’s one of Jethro Tull’s folk-prog-rock albums!”
The following sources were used during the writing of this article:
Jethro Tull Heavy Horses 40th Anniversary ‘New Shoes’ Edition booklet
Various interviews with Ian Anderson and band members on Jethro Tull’s website and band-related sites
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