Jethro Tull Bassist Glenn Cornick Dies at 67

Glenn Cornick formerly of Jethro Tull

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Jethro Tull Bassist Glenn Cornick Dies at 67
| published September 1, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

He created one of the weightiest, most thundering bass lines in rock music, in a barrage of rumbling tunes often offset—improbably—by a flute, creating a voice print instantly recognizable to pop and rock fans worldwide.

Glenn Cornick was a bass player for Jethro Tull, a classically British heavy rock band fronted by Ian Anderson, and backed by Mick Abrahams and Clive Bunker (others passed through the band over the decades, including John Evan, Jeffrey Hammond and Martin Barre). To hear Cornick’s thundering bass line was often to hear a trademark sound: few Jethro Tull songs could be mistaken for the work of other major bands at the time, and Cornick’s rumbling, train-like sound (think: Locomotive Breath) was the band’s signature underpinning. The musical topping, often light and airy, was that trademark flute—performed by Anderson, one of rock and roll’s few practitioners of the flute. The effect worked, and worked well, giving the band its signature look and sound.

The progressive Tull sound was unique, which sounds like a cliché but in the case of this band was so inescapably true that after only a few notes most rock fans knew the source of the sound. Mixed with the melodic weightiness were Anderson’s lyrics, more poetic than the work of many bands, more literate than most. The group’s name was derived from the British agricultural engineer, philosopher, reformer, and inventor who—among other things—perfected a type of horse-drawn seed planting system which would revolutionize agriculture and increase the output of farmlands in Europe and the United States, literally changing the face of the map.

The agriculturalist Tull died, ironically, in a town called Hungerford in 1740. Just the sort of oddity that the British love, and the sort of thing that Anderson, Cornick and company embedded in their music and lyrics.

Cornick was a founding member of Jethro Tull, but in fact only remained a member from early 1967 until late 1970, when he left to form his own band, which became known as Wild Turkey. Before Tull, Cornick had been involved in other bands—The Jailbreakers and The Vikings, to name but two—but it was his foundational work with Jethro Tull which made him into one of rock’s superstars. Later, after Wild Turkey, he joined forces with Bob Welch (then no longer a member of Fleetwood Mac) to form a band called Paris. That partnership would last only a few years, and then Cornick would meld into the German heavy metal band Kathargo for one album. Cornick was widely known to his colleagues for his dry and ironic sense of humor, as well as his easy-going comraderie with bandmates.

The band Jethro Tull was what one might delicately and politely describe as a “band always in search of a new sound,” sometimes a euphemism for “a band with a revolving door for its personnel.” But this translation would be unfair to the band’s seemingly lifelong mission: to make their music evolve in progressive and sometimes innovative ways. As a result, Tull fans often align themselves to specific periods in the Jethro Tull catalogue in the same way that fans of the Canadian band Rush might pick a “phase” of the band’s progression and declare that era to be representative of their best work. For me, as an example, Jethro Tull reached its apogee of sound and innovation in the early 1970s—the Aqualung phase. Leaving behind any semblance of its 1967-70 blues and early R&B sound (just as Fleetwood Mac had done), Jethro Tull’s music evolved into one of rock’s most thundering and layered packages. Though Cornick was already gone from the group, his signature bass line was still present—not as a mere homage to his skill, but as a central fact of the band’s identity.

Cornick was born in Barrow-in-Furness, in England, in 1947. Largely self-taught, he had perfected the bass guitar while still a youngster in school. Cornick was a member of beat society and a few of the early bands he joined were parts of the same British beat culture that would produce Pete Townshend and Keith Moon.

After several years of working with other rock bands in the early 1960s, he started playing alongside schoolmates Anderson, Evans and Hammond even before Jethro Tull had acquired its name. Legend has it that the band went through dozens of early name changes—normal in those days as members moved in and out in search of better pay or more upwardly-mobile acts. After initially having as many as seven members in one band, the group decided to split and start over with a smaller, more compact act. The newly-formed nexus consisted of Anderson, Abrahams and Bunker, with Cornick on bass. Once, after a few nightclub gigs which were particularly successful, the club’s manager tossed out the idea of naming themselves after someone from the history books. When the club manager suggested Jethro Tull, the British agriculturalist and inventor—the name instantly stuck.

Cornick died of congestive heart failure this weekend at his home in Hilo, Hawaii at the age of 67. There had been reports in the musical press for months about his failing health.

On Jethro Tull’s official website, Ian Anderson penned a eulogy for Cornick.

“Glenn was a man of great bonhomie and ready to befriend anyone,” Anderson writes, “especially fellow musicians. Always cheerful, he brought to the early stage performances of Tull a lively bravado both as a personality and as a musician.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

I Believe Rock Can Do Anything; Who I Am, Pete Townshend; book review by Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 28, 2014.

The Delight of Music: A Look Back at Quincy Jones; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 8, 2013.