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BBC RADIO, WORLD SERVICE
THE JETHRO TULL STORY
Part 4: War Child to Minstrel In The Gallery
I.A. "After the misguided attempt to gain some public sympathy behind that record company-instigated retirement story, it did in fact appear (if you looked at our British or American schedule) that we had in fact disappeared from the scene. However, what we were in fact doing was being engaged on a tour of the Far East and beginning the writing and recording of the War Child album."
Song: 'War Child'
"In fact the War Child album came out of the music that was written ostensibly for a film, a feature film, the fairly lengthy synopsis of which I wrote, which followed about three, four, five months of various negotiations behind getting that film to its pre-production stage, i.e. finding a director, finding ... or at least soliciting the promised assistance of the two key actors that I had in mind, and one or two other people who were going to become involved with script writing, dancing, choreography and so on.
"It was a very allegorical kind of plot, and one which I don't think had very much commercial viability, at least inasmuch as the big American companies were concerned. When we went to them with the idea of the script they were quite keen to go ahead, but they of course wanted the right of the final cut and they wanted a degree of control over both the casting and the director, which I wasn't prepared to give away. Basically when it came to getting the money out of the Yanks (and of course there wasn't the money at that point in time in the British film industry, and I certainly wasn't going to put any of mine in, on such a ludicrous project as making a film) basically they wanted 'stars', you know, it's the same old story. Very quickly I became disenchanted with the whole thing, and decided that if it really couldn't be done with that rather gracious sense of people doing something they all felt mutually involved with then I really didn't want to do it at all. So we called a halt to the proceedings, and out of the music that had been begun we rearranged it as the group album War Child.
"The War Child theme — the theme of the movie — was very closely related to Passion Play, which I think I said earlier on was the idea of what might happen to you when you die, exploring the different avenues of heaven and hell, of rightness, wrongness, and options of where one goes in the afterlife: a mixture of all sorts of half-baked religious ideas of the past and my own half-baked ideas thrown in for good measure. The War Child thing was really the story of that: a story about a young girl who was killed in a car crash at the beginning of the movie, and immediately after that first two or three minutes' worth of present-day reality then jumps into the wide unknown of an allegory, which is difficult for people to swallow anyway, which dealt with the idea of there being a heaven and hell, but in terms of the movie they were set in the context of very real places.
"It was set in a middling-sized town where the town council, the people who ran the town, were divided into two factions which had some vague similarity between Left wing and Right wing movements, but there wasn't a question of being 'goodies' and 'baddies' because what I was really trying to say in the film was that it's not a question of God being good and the Devil being bad because the roles are very often interchangeable. I mean, God comes in turning people to pillars of salt, and the Devil quite often gives people a good time with the odd pagan festival or whatever. I'm not saying the roles are really interchangeable, but I just attempted to explore the idea that the Devil might not necessarily be such a bad guy: he was full of the same human frailties as the rest of us. And God for that matter, who got himself very mixed-up in the movie, trying to keep things on the straight and beaten track."
Although the album War Child doesn't tell the story of the film that was never made, it does at least illustrate some of the scenes from the original synopsis.
"The songs aren't linked, and it's not a concept album in as much as it's not putting across any real story; there's not very much similarity in the style of the music on the album. It's a concept album only in as much as it does have behind it this unifying theme, but rather than put that across without the movie to back it up it seemed better just to leave that out of the equation altogether and present the music as a collection of songs. On the one hand there was a feeling that War Child was another concept album which was even more devious than the last two, and on the other hand there was a feeling that it was a cop-out back to the original 'lots of nice little songs' approach, and it even had a hit single on it. At least it was a hit in America: 'Bungle In The Jungle'. I suppose it seemed a much more commercial recording than the two or three albums previous to it."
Song: 'Bungle In The Jungle'
"'Bungle In The Jungle' has, so they tell me, an infectious rhythm ... I know several people were treated for it. It was one of the few real hits that we had in America, probably because it had that disco appeal. It concerned me a bit at the time actually, because I never thought of Jethro Tull as a group that anyone could dance to except me! And suddenly we had a song out which was being played on all the radio stations which presumably people were boogying to in discotheques, and I was horrified having to witness the end result of all that.
"The song is actually just about the cruelty of life, the animal life in the city ... it sounds a bit trite to talk about it ... maybe it was even more trite to sing about it, I don't know. I'm sure I have my critics who would say yes, that was the case. But then I always seem to write those sort of songs which invite criticism; Jethro Tull is the sort of group which invites criticism just by being what it is. I hope it's because people expect a lot from Jethro Tull that we do get our fair share of criticism, and inevitably having a lot expected from you you tend to disappoint a certain number of people a certain part of the time. For everyone who likes Jethro Tull there's always somebody else who absolutely hates it. I suppose that's quite a healthy situation, and I probably do a bit to encourage that by, ohh, inventing titles like 'Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll, Too Young To Die'."
Another track from War Child is the whimsically titled 'Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of The New Day'.
"Ah yes, 'Skating Away'. It's a song which I think is basically a song of optimism: setting off as things are crumbling around you, rather bravely setting off across (in terms of the lyrics) the thin ice of the New Day. Making a total clean sweep. I always saw Martin, at least on the album cover, as being the one who ought to appear to be skating away, because he's fairly optimistic about things and bravely ventures into them like ... paying over the odds for a second-hand Bentley or whatever and finding out it doesn't work properly, there's no engine inside it or something."
Song: 'Skating Away'
Although the film from which War Child evolved was abandoned, a certain amount of the film score was recorded.
"We recorded quite a bit of the music, as another sort of ... because someone like me can't just jump into the movie industry and announce that I'm going to be largely responsible for getting a full-length feature film together and spending at least a million dollars of somebody else's money without putting the cards on the table and saying "Here's what I have to give." So we made a demo version of some of the orchestral music, which included a pastoral but nonetheless moving version of the War Child theme itself, which is typical movie-credit music.
"In fact the only way people have heard that, and we've never really announced that they have been listening to it, but we have, for a couple of years, played the War Child orchestral theme while the audience is coming in, taking their seats in auditoriums and so on. Other snippets of the music are what we've used as the intro to our coming on stage during the concert, just two or three minutes of loud music before we come on. So in fact quite a lot of that music has been heard over the last three years, but we've never told anyone who it was. Until now!"
Song: War Child orchestral theme (2 minutes)
After a fifteen month absence from the American touring circuit, the band embarked on a gruelling two month tour at the beginning of 1975.
"That was a long tour that we did, around the time of the War Child release, made all the more long because we had four ladies playing three violins and a cello on stage with us every night. We rather liked the idea of four ladies dressed up in evening gowns and long blonde wigs, an actual chamber music quartet on stage, and they had their own little solo spot. It was in fact quite fun. They found it very technically difficult to play with the group on stage because we tend to play at a rather loud volume, and I had all their violins fitted with pick-ups so they could be put through amplifiers so they could at least hold their own. It worked quite well, but I think after their two months on the road and of course the associated tours in Europe and England and so on, at the end of the year they were all perilously close to nervous breakdowns. In fact one or two of them actually had them.
"It's understandable I suppose: they were all from the classical tradition and played with orchestras, and they came along to this audition for a bit of a laugh, to do a rock group tour, and found themselves involved in it perhaps in a way that they didn't expect to become involved. I mean they did become part of the touring ensemble: they travelled with the group, ate with the group, but (with a few exceptions) didn't sleep with the group. Anyway it all got really difficult because we completely forgot that they all had periods and things like that which made them rather difficult, and they all managed to have them staggered at different times throughout the month so never a week went by without one of them being in a foul mood or breaking a violin or hitting the roadies or something. So they struggled manfully ... ha ha, no pun intended ... they struggled through it all and they did very well, all things considered."
Because of the significant part played by strings, both on the album and on the tour, David Palmer found himself more deeply involved with the band than ever before.
"He was co-writing the orchestral music with me, and indeed rehearsed the string players for their tour with us. It was at that point that David became much more involved with the group because he did fly out to America to rehearse them over there, and later on when a couple of them left and were replaced with a couple of others halfway through a tour he had to come out again and rehearse the slightly changed ensemble. He got his first taste at that point of being out of the UK and being in foreign parts ... again no pun intended ... actually with the group and living that sort of a life. So when we finally disbanded the string quartet and opted for playing those sort of arrangements with another keyboard instrument, David obviously was the man for the job. And since the post-War Child era he has been the sixth member of the group playing basically the arrangements that he adds to the group's music on record, usually using real strings, he then comes out and does that on the road.
"I know a lot of people don't like the idea of strings muscling their way into the rock format, and they can be dreadfully slushy and overly romantic, but I do have a love for acoustic instruments. I also love loud electric guitar playing and heavy drumming and bass playing, but the idea of the two being somehow successfully wed together has always and continues to appeal to me. We have stayed with that idea almost from the word go, and we've continued to use strings where we feel that it works."
Up to this point, all Jethro Tull's albums had been recorded in London, but in early 1975 the band purchased a mobile studio.
"We'd been recording in England all of the time apart from the time we spent in Paris doing the album that didn't turn out to be Passion Play that was aborted and re-recorded back in England, but we'd often expressed certain misgivings about the English studios and thought that it would be nice to have a mobile studio environment where we could go and record at any time, including the possibility of recording live shows or whatever else. We were advised by our accountants that it would be a good idea to put some money into building a studio, thereby saving ourselves the continual studio bills that we pay every year to other people, allowing them to make a profit. We would also have the freedom to go anywhere else to work, which had certain beneficial tax implications, I won't pretend otherwise. We couldn't record in America, and we never have recorded in America apart from something that was recorded a long time ago in Carnegie Hall, because in America you have big union problems, and we have a problem there with the Inland Revenue because if we record there we will end up paying all of the tax to the Americans and then have to try and convince the British that we don't owe them the money as well. So America's always been out for us, to record in."
Minstrel In The Gallery was the first Jethro Tull album to be recorded with the mobile studio.
"We took it over to Monte Carlo, basically because through a friend of a friend we found out there was a studio, an old Monte Carlo radio station, an old-fashioned orchestral studio, which was free and empty. It had no equipment to go with it; it was just a big empty room, acoustically quite good for recording. It had a carpark next to it where we could park the truck, plus lots of hotels, and in the cheap out-of-season rate we could get everywhere it made it economically viable to go there and do the work. So we went there and rehearsed, and the truck came over and we made the album there. Basically it was a move to get away from what was becoming a bit of a yearly event: going into a British studio at a certain time of the year and trundling out another album. The mechanics or recording, the actual going from home to the studio in minicabs or whatever else, all of that was just getting a bit like something you did every year at a certain point in time. Going to Monte Carlo, theoretically anyway, was a nice change for everybody."
Song: 'Minstrel In The Gallery'
"The title track came up because the studio we worked in there had, as evidenced from the photo on the back cover, a sort of gallery part, a second level higher up at the back which is where we in fact made the album. We didn't occupy the greater part of the studio, but simply used it as storage and for making cups of tea and playing badminton. The actual recording was done up on this balcony area, although in comparatively modern architectural terms it did represent a hall with a gallery where musicians did in fact carry out their day's work. The title song (I can't remember when or where I wrote it) certainly fitted in with all of that and became the title of the album, simply from the way in which we made it. That's why we're all standing up there, you see, being minstrels in the gallery. The front picture of course is the historical version of the same idea."
The album Minstrel In The Gallery was released in the autumn of 1975 and reached number 7 in the American charts. The circumstances in which the album was recorded turned out to have a significant effect.
"The diversions of being in a famous holiday resort, even out of season, caused some of the group not to be around during all the rehearsal period or recording period, and it seemed to turn into a rather introspective album for me and had less of the group really coming through on it, which I think was perhaps a shame. Although obviously, as an album, Minstrel In The Gallery does have its merits and it has some good tunes on it, and it sounds to me ... perhaps just because I can look back around the time when we recorded it and where we recorded it, and feel there was something lacking in terms of the group's empathy, together as a musical outfit at that point in time. That was just the backfiring of an idea of going away somewhere with a view to getting more together, being in the same hotel and so on. But some of the guys liked sunbathing, and some of the beaches down there have young ladies on them without all of their clothes on, in fact without hardly any of their clothes on at all ... so the group used to go sunbathing rather a lot. Even looking out of the hotel window with binoculars, I remember, disrupting several rehearsals. These pop stars, you know, being very frustrated with the celibacy that they lead on the road.
"I was full of industry and activity, writing songs and really working very hard. I think the others felt as though it was a holiday as well as a recording session. I'm being a bit hard on them really because they did do their best, it was just overall ... there was an atmosphere which wasn't conducive to getting down to it all the time. I mean I was as bad as they were, really; we ended up playing games half of the day, silly games, playing badminton ... we converted the studio into a badminton court. We didn't have a net so we used a long piece of gaffer's tape, you know, the fix-all of the rock group, with copies of the imported Sun and Daily Mirror slung over them for a makeshift net. And Barrie's wife had sent him a badminton set from Harrod's all neatly boxed up as a Christmas present or birthday present or something, and we succeeded in one week in smashing all these Harrod's rackets up, much to his dismay, and we had to buy him some more.
"It was good fun, and it had its point as a way of working. It must have done, because we went back again with Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll and did the same sort of thing again, we made our next album there as well. The actual sound quality and the actual production of the album I think was really among the best that we've done. From that standpoint it was a good studio, a good environment to work in, and having the mobile set up in the way we wanted it to be we really did get a very good sound quality and a good atmosphere on the music."
As usual with Jethro Tull, there's a wide variety of music on the album.
"One of the problems on all of our albums is that we do cover quite a lot of musical ground with each album; we've always tried to make them quite a balanced selection of music. They all have one or two or three heavy songs on them, they have one or two quiet, gentle pieces, and one or two humorous pieces or whatever. They're always fairly diverse, so one of the problems we have when it comes to music-paper criticism time, that you get a reviewer who likes his Jethro Tull on the rocks, he likes it heavy and hard, and he doesn't like hearing me singing in a romantic mood or singing gentle music with violins in the background. And then you get other reviewers who like that sort of thing but don't like Jethro Tull pretending to be Led Zeppelin or whatever. You get all levels of criticism: people who like one thing or the other, but you don't often find people who like the broad spectrum that we do tend to play.
"Hopefully, stylistically, we do make it hang together, but nonetheless there are different dynamic levels, different degrees of instrumentation, different sorts of emotional wherewithal lyrically that are in there, which do make it a little too ... eclectic for people, which lands us in trouble. People do tend to like a couple of songs, but the rest they hate. I can understand it; it's maybe that, as a group, we have rather broader tastes in music. We like to play a bit of this and a bit of that, especially doing a two-hour show, because playing two hours of non-stop heavy rock 'n' roll would be a complete bore, and likewise playing two hours of nice acoustic music would be a complete yawn. So we do try and go for the overall dynamic range, and perhaps it is a mistake to feel that we also have to put it into a 40-minute record; maybe a 40-minute record is not like that. Maybe we should be a bit more wholehearted with our musical approach on record, I don't know."
Well, side two of Minstrel In The Gallery is largely taken up with yet another extended piece of music, 'Baker St. Muse'.
"Yeah, that was a sort of suite that was written as a whole, put together as a mini-conceptual thing within the whole album which consisted of four or five or six segments of music. It related to some part of my life when I lived in a little rented mews cottage just off Baker Street, at which point I was very much alone, just sort of sitting there, and wandering about a part of town that I wasn't familiar with. I'd never lived in the centre of London before, and used to spend a lot of time just wandering up and down Baker Street. I forget the material behind it, but there's some indication I was pursuing the attentions of some lady at the time, who incidentally is in fact now my wife, so there's a happy ending to every story."
Song: 'Crash Barrier Waltzer’
Since Ian had played a far larger part in the making of the album, it might have been natural for him to think in terms of a solo album.
"No, I've always avoided the suggestion that I might do a solo album, really because I think whereas any other members of the group could make a solo album without it detracting from the identity of Jethro Tull, if I made a solo album I think it would be rather different. It would conflict with Jethro Tull as a group, whatever it did on stage and whatever it brought out on record; it really would detract from the Jethro Tull identity which is, I hope as people see it, it is a group, it isn't just me, and it's something I am at pains to point out. I do my part in the group, which is a certain organisational job of work, a certain inspirational job of work in terms of writing a lot of the music. But when it comes to playing, it's played by the group as a whole. I'm the singer, and I play a few other instruments, but the other guys play what they play because they're good at it; that being the case, we are very much a group and try to keep it that way."
Song: 'Cold Wind To Valhalla'
Interviewer: BRIAN MATTHEW