by Ken Micallef

It’s completely feasible that if Jethro Tull’s founding drummer hadn’t retired from the road in the early ’70s, just as the band was becoming an international phenomenon, his name would come up as often—and as reverently—as Messrs. Bonham, Moon, and Mitchell. And all the support you’ll need for that theory can be found in the grooves of this classic-rock masterpiece.
The legendary rock drummers of the ’60s and ’70s all had their trademarks: John Bonham’s bombardier assault, Mitch Mitchell’s rolling-triplet rock, Levon Helm’s rustic finery, Zigaboo Modeliste’s splintered New Orleans beat…. But Jethro Tull’s Clive Bunker is harder to nail down, his drumming impossible to condense in a string of simple descriptors.
On Tull’s first albums—This Was, Stand Up, Benefit—Bunker parlays strong rudimental skills and a devotion to Cream’s Ginger Baker into lithe, jazz-influenced rock drumming that’s malleable enough to propel blues, psychedelia, and the band’s nascent prog rock. But he’s largely an enigma on these early releases. Captured on primitive eight-track tape machines, Bunker’s drumming certainly gets its point across, but without the sonic minutiae common to today’s Pro Tools–enabled, digitally perfect recordings. So we listen closely, bending our ears into the sonic wind to decipher every note of this potent, dark-hued, and still mysterious style.
Aqualung, from 1971, confirmed Jethro Tull’s achievement as one of the most popular bands on earth. The album birthed the “FM Alternative” radio hits “Locomotive Breath,” “Cross-Eyed Mary,” and the title track, and eventually sold 7 million copies—incredible for a work featuring a filthy, deranged beggar (Mr. Aqualung) on the cover, along with lyrical themes of greed, religion, death, and fate.
From Bunker’s bold flam-triplet entrance and the ringing tom-smacking groove of “Aqualung” to the grand 2 and 4 of closer “Wind-Up,” Aqualung reveals an inspired performance informed by searing press rolls, surging tom patterns, and agile groove syncopation within artistically bent drum conceptions. Bunker’s beats spread the songs gracefully, all spacious propulsion, beautiful cymbal shimmer, and supple snare/bass combinations that are more Jack DeJohnette than Kenny Aronoff. The title track’s finale remains stunning: Bunker alternating between raging 8th-note-triplet fills, crush rolls, and tension-filled tom stabs as guitarist Martin Barre dive-bombs a final explosive note.
Bunker’s drum sound is equally unique on Aqualung, tuned somewhere between ringing jazz tonality, resonant folk (to match leader Ian Anderson’s pastoral flute leanings), and the flat, muffled studio sound popular with ’70s recording engineers and producers. The album features one of the greatest drum performances of the early ’70s, on par with Led Zeppelin II, Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire, Billy Cobham’s Spectrum, and Simon Kirke’s booming blues drumming on Free’s equally under-considered Fire and Water. That Bunker remains largely unheralded for his compositional drumming is a crime.
Bunker departed Jethro Tull after Aqualung, tired of the road and intent on raising a family. As opposed to what some fans assume, though, he remained relatively active, appearing live and on record with acts including Blodwyn Pig, Steve Hillage, and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, and releasing solo albums as recently as 2005. But it’s his performances on Aqualung and the other early Jethro Tull albums that have guaranteed his place in the annals of rock history and that remain endlessly inspiring to fans of the most classic of classic-rock drumming. Ken Micallef
Hot Stuff
“Cross-Eyed Mary” It’s fun to cherry-pick Bunker’s heroic Aqualung drumming bar by bar, inseparable as it is from the album’s prog-meets-pastoral music. Gene Krupa–ish floor tom rolls introduce “Cross-Eyed Mary,” flowing into measured cowbell funk verses and a finale of face-hammering tom fills, staccato full-set tattoos, and sizzling press rolls that merge into open single-stroke rolls and a smack-down final note that recalls a dismembered head bloodily plopping into a waiting basket.
“Aqualung” After an ominous opening guitar riff and flam-tumbling intro, an 8th-note unison tom march leads to the main groove, with Bunker striking two toms on the downbeat in what sounds like a too-widely-spaced flam, creating an off-kilter, dislocated stride that adds to the slightly queasy pulse. Bunker pumps bass drum 8th notes in the verses while crashing on 3 of each bar, the sum effect like an unwelcome warrior entering castle gates to his own preening gallantry. Spacious, Hal Blaine–worthy fills rejoin the music after a brief acoustic guitar interlude, within a relaxed funk beat. Then it’s off to the races, as Bunker’s rhythm gallops through a winding Martin Barre guitar solo. Ian Anderson’s imagery of Aqualung—“snot is running down his nose, greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes”—leads to the finale of epic whole-note guitar chords, Bunker storming the air with flying rolls in a crescendo of manic rhythm beauty.
“Locomotive Breath” Recalling a court jester slapping hand drums and ringing finger cymbals, Bunker’s playing here is all pert tom punctuations and a bass-drum-driven four-to-the-bar groove accompanied by tom fills. The fills roll merrily along, driving unison accents with the guitar and bass, bringing to mind a drunken king’s court of dancing girls, jesters, and shriveled monks.
Aqualung (1971)
Aqualung • Cross-Eyed Mary • Cheap Day Return • Mother Goose • Wond’ring Aloud • Up to Me • My God • Hymn 43 • Slipstream • Locomotive Breath • Wind-Up
Ian Anderson: vocals, acoustic guitar, flute
Clive Bunker: drums
Martin Barre: electric guitar
John Evan: keyboards
Jeffrey Hammond, Glenn Cornick: bass
Produced by Ian Anderson and Terry Ellis