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IAN ANDERSON SHOWS YOU HOW TO LOSE YOUR WAY THROUGH 'THICK AS A BRICK'
Paranoia shines in the eyes of countless couples wandering through the endless corridors of Madison Square Garden. Some wine and downers, bad vibes in the air. Outside, kids panhandle for a spare ticket or attempt to crash through the gate, but fail after a scuffle. Inside the aisles are clogged with bodies unwilling to move. A hundred heads turn to scan every new arrival in the row nearby; an atmosphere of horniness oozes out of countless inquiring looks. Suddenly, the lights dim and a scary feeling of impending trouble prevails. The aisles remain crowded — a rush at the stage is a distinct possibility. A bolt of light slashes the growing inkiness of the arena.
Into the cold blue spotlight onstage strides Ian Anderson, dressed in a bright red and green frock coat and black tights, a silver chain mail belt around his waist. He moves to the waiting mike while waves of applause crash down around him from as far as a city block away.
The darkness is shattered by the imitation sunlight of Instamatic flashcubes going off. Ian basks in the orgy of photons, soaking up energy for the grueling performance he is about to launch. Behind him the four other members of the group sneak to their instruments. The pounding of applause has still not stopped, but Ian senses that it has crested. Pointing dramatically upward, he announces a song for the man upstairs. The feeling of frenzy in the air miraculously disappears. Down in front, people start to back away from the stage. A blond bearded figure on crutches hobbles towards his seat, hesitates, and then hands his crutches to a friend, making it the rest of the way without help. Jethro Tull, the miracle cure.
This has been the reaction to Jethro Tull ever since the emergence of Aqualung. Listeners combed that album for a thread of meaning and found the message that conventional religion was dead and that the time had come for the arrival of a new God. Many elevated Ian Anderson, the man who brought our earth this message, to the position of a rock prophet or musical messiah.
Now the same listeners are hunting for the message of a new Tull LP, Thick As A Brick (Reprise). Actually, they may never find the album's meaning ... and those who think they already have are probably wrong. That's the way Ian Anderson has engineered it.
"It's up to each listener to find what he wants in it," says Anderson, lounging in the antiseptic green and blue decor of a motel room, "but what people read into the album is bound to be different from what I intended. I'm always surprised by what people find meaningful in my music (he says with a curious smile). I've already heard Americans give all sorts of explanations for its title, Thick As A Brick. That's a common British slang expression. It means someone's as intelligent as a bunch of crap.
"I got the idea for Thick As A Brick from my wife Jennie. You know, she's the one that thought up the character of Aqualung and wrote the words to the song. Anyway, I got the inspiration for the new album from eight or ten lines in a letter she wrote to me the last time the band was on tour."
THE CRITICS' SPUR
But that's the closest Ian will come to dropping a clue about what he thinks the LP is all about.
"The album is rather complicated and very personal," he explains, shaking aside some strands of his dusky red lion's mane from his darting feline eyes.
"The lyrics ramble quite a bit, though I suppose they do have a kind of chronological order. They're quite emphatic, with a lot of conviction behind them. Though I suppose they do sound meaningless and obscure in some parts."
When you ask what kind of conviction has gone into the lyrics, Anderson once again insists that each listener will have to work that out for himself.
The real substance of Thick As A Brick, he points out, is in its music, not its words. And strangely enough, it was the public's misinterpretation of Aqualung that gave birth to Thick As A Brick's melodic core.
"Aqualung was never meant to be a conceptual album, it was the critics that said it was. About halfway through it, I realized that two-thirds of the songs had some sort of relationship to religion or my attitude toward religion, but I never intended the album to be a single unit. Since then, because of Aqualung, I've wanted to do a record that was really a concept album."
THE REAL ESSENCE
"Thick As A Brick isn't a lyrical concept built around any one theme. It's a musical concept: all sorts of musical lines keep reappearing all the way through, sometimes in different keys or in different time signatures. There are no divisions in the piece, but I guess you could break it up into five or six sections. The whole thing was written so that we can play it in its entirety onstage when we perform it later this year. It even has room for extensions so that we can expand on the improvised parts without interrupting the flow."
His train of thought is halted by a minor crisis which has erupted: where to get coffee now that the motel's kitchen has closed for the night. The problem seemingly resolved, Ian returns to the musical essence of the new album.
"A long piece like Thick As A Brick is harder for the fellows in the band to play, but I know that they like doing things which are more complicated musically."
The complexity of so much of Jethro Tull's sound makes the large turn-outs at places like Madison Square Garden all the more surprising. The haven of simple, hard-thudding, leaden rock bands, with their melodic lines all too often lost in the far reaches of its hollow shell, MSG would seem to be the last place in the world for people to show up to hear the intricately woven tapestry of Jethro Tull's music.
"As long as I wear a long coat, play enough flute, and stand on one leg from time to time, we're going to attract people to see us. Once they're there, we can play a lot of different things and get away with it. But that doesn't mean the audience has to just sit back and soak it all in like some fancy act. You should have to work as hard to be a member of the audience as you have to work onstage to play the music. If I knew that they were aware of why they enjoyed us, why they came and how much of the music they understood, I'd be a lot happier that I was doing the right thing."
THE BALONEY BARRIER
It may be that audiences do understand the music, but do not understand Ian Anderson. A Tull fan from Batavia, New York, once wrote:
"Ian Anderson has to be the greatest genius ever to live on the face of the earth. For God's sake, listen to him now instead of after he dies like you did with Jimi Hendrix. Let this man lead us out of our present darkness and into the light of a new world."
But Ian does not see himself in such exalted terms. He'd rather be a rock jester than a rock saint.
"That's why so much of my stage act is really a parody of what a rock star is supposed to do. I'm just a straightforward bloke, and I'd hate to have to take the whole thing too solemnly onstage. Unless you're ready to laugh at yourself, there's the danger of falling into believing that you're a rock star. And so much of that is just baloney, you know. I try to remain logical about it and just take it as so much good fun. I'd like people to see the act humorously in part, the same way I look at it."
Rock writers who have strained mightily to describe the live Ian as 'a mad-dog Fagin', 'a demented dancing master', 'Toscanini on speed' or 'a deranged flamingo' have missed the point entirely. In light of his explanation, how could anyone not recognize so many of his theatrics for the put-on they're meant to be? On stage, Ian distinguishes himself by making wild grisly faces, parading around in a variety of mannered walks, flailing his arms, balancing precariously on one leg, bumping and grinding in mock sexuality, and at various times playing out caricatures of Jagger, Cocker, Zappa, and assorted rock flamers.
"I really enjoy doing the act. It's fun jumping about like that. That doesn't mean that I'm not serious about the music we play onstage," Ian quickly adds. "I'd say that about half the time, I'm as serious onstage as I am in the studio. I certainly don't want to detract from the music that I'm playing at the moment."
While Ian Anderson's energetic performance adds to Jethro Tull's stage presence, it does sometimes prove a distraction from the fine musicianship of the other members of the group. In person, the band sounds different than on record, playing a harder-driving brand of music with a greater emphasis on the heavy beat necessary to fill a large auditorium. Drummer Barry Barlow, heavy-set and sweating profusely despite the skimpy T-shirt he is wearing, lays down a steady beat with the welcome imaginative improvised variations of a Ginger Baker. Bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond — dressed in broad white and blue diagonal stripes, as if to draw some attention to himself in spite of Ian's showmanship — calmly strokes out a booming accompaniment to Barlow's throbbing drums.
Martin Barre, furry-faced and beaming like a benign bear, reserves most of his concentration for the neck of his guitar. He looks like he is constantly rediscovering the capabilities of his instrument and exulting in his ability to use it. John Evan, a childlike grin on his choir-boy face, resembles a bearded refugee from a classical conservatory as he shuttles about from piano to organ in his vanilla-ice-cream suit. From time to time, he pauses in flight and hops about onstage in time to the music.
"John enjoys jumping around as much as I do. Of course, he is a bit merry when he gets onstage."
Ian smiles and tilts his head back, pantomiming a swig from a bottle.
EQUAL PAY FOR EQUALS
"As far as playing goes, the other guys in the group are every bit as good as me, if not better. But everyone writes about me; I suppose it's because I have the longest hair."
Ian grins, but quickly turns serious so that his attitude towards the other members of the group will not be misunderstood.
How does Ian justify the fact that he's stolen the spotlight from the rest of the group?
"Jethro Tull isn't me, but I am Jethro Tull. I am the senior member of the group in terms of being the only original member left and writing all of our songs. I coordinate the music onstage and in the studio. But what the band does in its final form is up to the five members who make it up. We're all basically partners in Jethro Tull: we all get paid equal shares for performing. It isn't like I'm paying their way, you know. I personally don't have any plans to do any solo albums. As for the others, if they want to write and compose, they can certainly do so on their own. We seem to get along better than any of the variations of the group in the past."
HATRED FOR ROCK 'N' ROLL
Jethro Tull would not have come to be without Ian's parents' decision to move from Edinburgh, to Blackpool, when he was twelve. While at school there, he became friends with John Evan, who had been forced by his parents to take piano lessons. One day, John played a Beatles album for Ian and got him interested in pop music.
"When I was younger, big band music was the first thing I listened to. I never liked rock & roll by the original groups; it was simple, crude and vulgar. I found it boring and still do."
Ian concentrates as he recalls his musical roots.
"The Rolling Stones and the Beatles, every song they did had an identity while every rock and roll song is just like every other rock and roll song. When I was about sixteen, John and I decided to get a group going. After the initial struggle of getting some equipment together, we started playing youth clubs under the name 'Blades.' It was funny, really, because we got the name when John's mother bought him an organ and we decided to name the new band after her."
After that, they played in a soul group together. They both went on to art college, but Ian decided to drop out after a year and go to London. There he met Glenn Cornick. Jethro Tull was formed around Christmas of 1967, when Ian Anderson and Glenn joined up with drummer Clive Bunker and blues guitarist Mick Abrahams.
A TASTE OF CREAM
"At first we did a lot of twelve-bar blues because that was what Mick Abrahams liked. It was also the only thing people wanted to hear in clubs at the time. I suppose Cream was a big influence on us. In a sense I play flute like Eric Clapton plays guitar, with a strong accent on the rhythmic sense of the music."
Jethro Tull's first album, This Was, recorded in late summer of 1968, represents the early days of the group. As the liner notes state, "This was how we were playing then — but things change. Don't they?"
"You get tired of playing songs of love or of some kind of social commentary. There are so few things you can write songs about, I guess you always come back to that."
Ian's thoughts ramble as he thinks about the changes in his songs.
"I'm not a clever writer. I like to share emotion, but I'm no genius. I have to work hard at writing. I try to sit down and work at it every day. Even when we're on tour, I try to concentrate on writing a couple of hours a day."
Ian stands and stretches, then walks to the dresser on the opposite side of the room, stops, and glances briefly at his image in the mirror.
"I learn about myself through writing songs. I suppose it's a selfish attitude, but all artists are selfish."
Ian shrugs at the idea of having to justify himself.
"I am singing about my experience rather than some problem shared by everyone. It's up to me to express myself in a way that satisfies me. The point will come some day when people will no longer make the effort to listen carefully to my music. Then I will be out of luck, I suppose. But I haven't had to compromise in my writing until now: I never have had to deliberately write commercial music."
When reminded of a line he wrote in 'Wind Up', the last song on the Aqualung album, "I'd rather look around me, compose a better song, 'cause that's the honest measure of my worth," Ian looks surprised. At first he seems not to have remembered writing it, but then a look of contented recognition crosses his face. He seems pleased to have been the author of those words and even more pleased that someone should use them to try to sum up his attitude towards his work as a musician.
"That line is the honest truth."
He sits back smiling happily, contemplating in wonderment the fruits of his fertile talent.
* * *
The clouds of mystery and deliberate misinformation that have surrounded Thick As A Brick suddenly grew denser as the time neared for the record's release. Tull's American management office was still in the dark about the contents of the new LP when a cable came through from England announcing that the title track had been penned by eight-year-old literary prizewinner Gerald Bostock. The management staff, relieved to have its first scrap of information, immediately phoned the Bostock story to Tull's public relations office, who in turn passed it on to the press.
No one suspected that the 'Gerald' message might be a hoax until Circus revealed an exclusive interview in which Ian Anderson admitted he'd authored the entire album himself. Several days later, Circus placed a telephone call to London, where Roy EIdridge of Tull's British management office hesitantly conceded that the Bostock story was a practical joke.
"You're asking me if it's a put-on?" said Eldridge. "Right! You'll see when the album comes out the relevance of the Gerald Bostock thing. That story was also given to the British press," he continued, barely suppressing a chuckle. "They'll swallow just about anything."
Meanwhile, Eldridge kept mum about the real meaning of the LP.
"I don't think Ian wants to say anything about that until sometime after the album is released," he declared. "I don't really know why he feels like that, but I think he just doesn't want to say anything for a little while."
Note: the colour promotional photos in this article are from January / February 1971.