Ian Anderson and Martin BarreUnlikely as it seems today, in 1978—during the heyday of punk rock—an album about draught horses and life in the English countryside claimed a place in the American Top 20. But Jethro Tull’s Heavy Horses wasn’t an anomaly. Other progressive rock groups like Yes and Genesis were still at their height of their popularity, and Tull had worked hard to achieve international stardom, touring constantly since their 1971 breakthrough Aqualung.

Three years before Aqualung, guitarist Martin Barre had joined the then-struggling folk-rock outfit. With a gravel-and-guts tone that he could also coax into a pearly sheen, he added balance and edge to their colorful frippery and replaced Tull’s earlier blues-inclined guitar attack, courtesy of Mick Abrahams, with something more snarling and toothy. Without Barre, a veteran of pub bands and Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding’s group Fat Mattress, the hard-charging Aqualung would have been a softer affair that wouldn’t have propelled Tull into the jet set.

Seven years later Barre and bandleader Ian Anderson were still the primary architects of the group’s sound, and Heavy Horses is one of their most beautifully articulated designs —an album that balances the folk charms of Tull’s earliest discs with a true rock and roll heart.

Heavy Horses is the centerpiece of what Tull fans have dubbed the group’s “Folk-Rock Trilogy,” sandwiched between Songs from the Wood and Stormwatch. Songs from the Wood was in some ways a return to Anderson’s primal musical roots, with its tales of fairies and unbroken wilderness and an accent on acoustic sounds that put his flute squarely in the limelight. Stormwatch seems the effort of a band beginning to seek new directions, which Tull would find in the ’80s via synthesizers and sequencers. But Heavy Horses distills the most charming influences of the life songwriter Anderson was leading on a country farm—stories of barn mice and workhorses, acoustic textures provided by mandolins and a mesh of flat top guitars—with rock urgency.

Jethro Tull Heavy HorsesThe disc is also a marvelous summation of Barre’s style, which Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler has called “magical”—a blend of jazz, rock, and folk teamed with a fondness for controlled, sugar-dipped distortion that’s made him utterly unique.
When Tull started recording Heavy Horses in 1977, Barre had recently tweaked up his arsenal of gear with Les Pauls and Hamers and Marshall amps. He’d begun fine-tuning his tone and approach in the 1950s, when he got his first guitar and received Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery albums from his father. His lead playing ever since has reveled in the nuances of jazz, weaving chromatic runs of cleanly articulated notes in bright, rounded tones throughout Jethro Tull’s mostly major-key canon.    

Barre moved from his birthplace, industrial Birmingham, in 1966 to psychedelic London, where a job he’d been promised with Screaming Lord Sutch fell through. Oddly, his first gig in London was as a saxist with a band called Motivation. Somehow Barre—whose father was a frustrated clarinetist—persevered and found himself playing on bills with Pink Floyd and sharing a house with the members of what would become the Average White Band.

Martin Barre with his ES-330After a time he claimed Motivation’s guitar seat and—in a bit of foreshadowing—sometimes doubled on flute. In ’68 Barre saw Jethro Tull for the first time at a festival where they opened for Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Traffic. By the end of the year and two auditions later, he replaced Abrahams, igniting Tull’s golden age.

From the beginning Barre was a Gibson devotee. According to his biography at martinbarre.com, his “dream guitar was a cherry red Gibson ES-335. It cost £175 ($250) in 1964. I couldn’t afford the payments, so eventually I bought the Gibson ES-330 sunburst—cheaper at £155. My dad signed the lease agreement.”

By the time Barre joined Jethro Tull he was playing a late ’50s Les Paul Special. He’d purchased his own after falling in love with the tone and playability of one he’d borrowed. His amp was a Laney 50-watt atop a 2x12 cabinet, which he traded up for a 200-watt Hiwatt with a 4x12 by the time sessions began for Tull’s second album, Stand Up, which was Barre’s first recording with the group.

His search for a more snarling sound next led him to a Les Paul Custom—which he discovered was a fake—and a Hornby Skewes Treble Booster to gnarl up the Hiwatt’s tone. With that combination and a Dunlop wah-wah pedal, he entered the studio to record 1970’s Benefit.

Shortly he added the Copycat echo that would be integral to his stuttering chords and licks on the next year’s Aqualung. Another factor in the crystallization of Barre’s sound just before that pivotal album was his meeting Leslie West, lead guitarist for Mountain. Smitten by the hefty guitarist’s equally impressive rumbling-tsunami-of-Martin Barre (L) with Leslie West (R)maple-syrup wail, Barre purchased a 1958 Les Paul Junior like West’s. It became the Aqualung guitar and was abetted for the sessions by a battery of amps that included his Hiwatt, a Fender Super Reverb, and a generic 12x6 combo of mysterious origin.

Barre—an obvious sufferer of gear fever—had acquired more vintage Les Pauls and a Fender Broadcaster, and begun playing Explorers and other models by Hamer, by the time Heavy Horses was cut. He added to his effects chain an MXR Phase 90 and Flanger, plus permanently wired a Boss CS-2 compressor in line with his amp. He also switched to Marshall’s 50-watt heads and 2 x 12 cabs.

As a result, some of the sweetest, most singing sounds of Barre’s career are on Heavy Horses. The CS-2, in particular, helps him achieve controlled single note lines that ride on the cusp of feedback without deteriorating. You can hear its contribution to the honeyed voice of his runs—often in tandem with Anderson’s flute—spiked by punctuating power chords on the title track, a nearly nine-minute long ode to animal-powered farming. Likewise the pedal—as well as the classic blend of humbuckers with raw Marshall horsepower—contributes to the singing delicacy of the jazz-like weave of melodic lines and heavy riffs on the guitar showcase “No Lullaby” and the gleaming tone on “Weathercock,” where Barre creates a meeting ground for Eastern modality and English folk music.

He and Anderson developed a style of interplay that is at its peak throughout Heavy Horses. Like circling butterflies, their paths overlap in unison patterns and then break off into flights of improvisation or, in Barre’s case, gruff chordal statements that emphasize a lyric or turnaround. “And the Mouse Police Never Sleeps” subverts their usual modus operandi as Barre plays counterpoint to Anderson’s flute excursions. “Moths” is also a subtly compelling guitar showcase, with a weave of acoustic and electric six-strings fluttering through the mix as Barre uses volume swells to good sweeping emotional effect.

Thirty years later, Jethro Tull—at least Anderson and Barre and whoever joins them on-stage and in the studio—are still at it. In addition to a total of 21 Tull studio albums, Barre and Anderson have recorded several solo discs and are reportedly working on another Jethro Tull disc for release this summer.

Barre still has the ’58 Les Paul Special he played on Aqualung and subsequent Tull recordings. It appears on “Count the Chickens” from his latest solo disc, 2003’s Stage Left. On that album he also plays a Taylor acoustic, a Gibson L-5, a bouzouki, the cherry red ES-335 he once dreamed of owning and finally purchased in 2002, a mandolin, a Hamer Custom, a Stratocaster, and several hand-made custom acoustic guitars—proving that gear fever is incurable.

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