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It was written to confound expectations and its composer grumbled: “I’ve always detested that song.” Its melody was tied to an awkward time signature and it was difficult for other singers to make it their own. But once a song is released, it can gain a life of its own, and that certainly applies to Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past”.
In 1969 the group’s future was uncertain. Jethro Tull had released their debut album in 1968 and its title, This Was, made it clear that they had already moved on. Their guitarist and joint lead vocalist, Mick Abrahams, had left, and the band had ditched the bluesy rock they were known for. So their manager and producer, Terry Ellis, asked them to write a hit single “to keep the pot boiling” while they formulated their second album.
As Tull were an underground attraction in the nascent prog-rock scene and had barely enjoyed any singles chart action, singer Ian Anderson was bemused. “Sure, Terry,” he told Ellis. “Give me a couple of hours and I’ll run upstairs and write a hit single, as you do.”
Anderson resolved to create “the least commercial thing I could”. He wrote it in 5/4 time, making it difficult for dancers. It opened with a bass solo from Glenn Cornick, soon joined by Anderson’s flute — hardly traditional pop fare. The lyrics scoffed at hippies and, to put the tin lid on it, the title, “Living in the Past”, rejected the Swinging London, bell-bottom-wearing era. Hit single? That’ll show ’em.
Yet the song was as catchy as measles, and the string arrangements of Lou Toby warmed it up beautifully. Anderson admitted: “When it was first a hit, I used to hide in a corner and cringe,” but soon the singer’s one-legged tramp act was flogging “Living in the Past” on Top of the Pops, where, he claimed, he’d seen Cliff Richard trying (and failing) to dance to it.
It was Jethro Tull’s biggest hit on both sides of the Atlantic. While 5/4 time was unusual for a pop record, it was not unique: the most famous example is the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five”, and The Beatles’ “Within You Without You” and the Mission: Impossible theme utilised this tricky meter.
So jazzier musicians found the time signature quite a simple matter. Canadian trumpeter Maynard Ferguson delivered a typically brash version in 1971, arranged by John Cameron, whose band CCS, fronted by Alexis Korner, had recorded it a year earlier. CCS’s cacophonous cover was played at breakneck speed in an even more demanding 5/8 time.
The song was reabsorbed into pop. Elegant 1960s singer Billie Davis made it feel like a bossa nova on her 1969 debut album, with the distinctive bass part played by Herbie Flowers, who also graced CCS’s version. Midge Ure tackled it in 1985, with a production full of the glossy electronics of the day. Indie band Cud roughed it up in 1989. Francis Dunnery, a contemporary prog musician, delivered the most radical “Living in the Past”, rewriting its lyrics as an attack on Catholic education.
Perhaps Ian Anderson was right, though; this hit with the catchy hook did not prove commercial in the long term. Jethro Tull’s version was the only one to chart, and remains a rarity in a pop landscape dominated by dance beats.
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, ft.com/life-of-a-song
Main photograph: Getty