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NOTES FROM A DIRTY OLD MAN
Aqualung, the fourth album from Jethro Tull, remains as relevant and enigmatic today as it did when it was released in 1971. Classic Rock talks to Tull mainman Ian Anderson about religion, childhood, and old pervs in dirty coats.
Ian Anderson ponders for a moment.
"There wouldn't have been an Aqualung if we'd played Woodstock,"
he says finally, thoughtfully. Most bands would have lopped off a limb to play the legendary festival that brought the curtain down on the 60s. It was, after all, a defining moment for so many, be it Ten Years After ripping through 'Going Home', or Jimi Hendrix tearing up 'The Star Spangled Banner'.
But for Ian Anderson, for 33 years now the flute-flaunting rock minstrel at the creative heart of Jethro lull, not playing Woodstock is what defined the band.
"I persuaded Terry Ellis [then Tull manager and co-founder of their record company, Chrysalis] that Woodstock seemed a bad idea because it was a load of hippies smoking dope," Anderson says disapprovingly. "I got the willies about it. We'd have been branded a hippy band, and either broken up or been moulded into a certain sound. So I'm glad we didn't do it."
These days, Anderson may wish to see that cock-up as a 'career move', but the result of his decision was that instead of climaxing their first headlining tour of the USA triumphantly, the band found itself sidelined from the Woodstock rock elite — and minus their bass player.
The sacking of Glenn Cornick remains shrouded in mystery. One version is downright cruel: that it wasn't until the band was literally boarding the plane back to the UK that bassist was told his services were no longer required. And that Cornick was forced to catch a later flight, while Anderson never told him to his face why he was out.
Whatever the truth, as the winter nights of 1970 drew in, Anderson found himself under increasing pressure. Not only were long-time rivals such as Ten Years After and Led Zeppelin at their peak, but even Tull 'rejects' like Tony Iommi (who, having absconded to Tull briefly, was now back with Black Sabbath) were taking 'heavy metal' far from the progressive blues roots that had originally underpinned much of Tull's sound.
Nor was chart success assured for Tull. Their most recent album, Benefit, had fared well — reaching No.3 in the spring of 1970 — but it was a failure compared to Stand Up, which had topped the British charts the previous year. What's more, the band's last single had bombed compared to the previous Top 10 charters 'Sweet Dream' and 'The Witch's Promise'. Suddenly, Jethro Tull's star appeared to be fading.
Anderson was "horrified that by the time I was 22 my personal share of the band's debt stood at £70,000 — probably a million in today's money. And that's just scary beyond belief."
It's no surprise now, then, that Anderson admits to feeling under pressure (and understandably so) during that period.
"There was a lot riding on the next album. Aqualung would be our fourth album in four years, and until then it had been a gentle progression. This had to be an album that would be different ..."
But where to begin? For Anderson, finding time to write had always been a nightmare.
"We always recorded in gaps between tours. The only time we took time out to 'make records' was in 1981, which resulted in 'Broadsword'."
After a gruelling year on the road, including six months non-stop in the US, Anderson was tired of the wearisome chore of dragging a rock band around the world. Instead he yearned for a simpler, more direct style of making music. He discovered it in an unlikely source.
Roy Harper has always been a musicians' musician, a cult figure among his peers yet relatively unknown by the record-buying public. His acoustic guitar style and manically magical songs won him respect from the likes of Zeppelin's Jimmy Page — who'd paid homage to him on 'Hats Off To (Roy) Harper', on the then just released Led Zeppelin III; in the mid-70s Harper was seconded by Pink Floyd to do vocals on their Wish You Were Here album.
It was in association with Harper that Anderson found the courage to write songs on acoustic guitar and leave them that way on the record. Anderson had always used a guitar to compose, but prior to Aqualung he'd
"write the song and quickly hand it over to the other guys so they could do the big job of playing it; I'd just decorate it with flute or harmonica."
Tull's previous release, Benefit, had seen Anderson flirt with more acoustic guitar input, but it was with Aqualung that
"I took myself seriously to both sing and play, and then record and perform live in the way that I wrote. It was a departure."
It was all very well having a new, self-assured writing style, but what subject was Anderson going to apply it to? Tull's label, Chrysalis, had just pulled out all the stops to build a new state-of-the-art studio, and were keen to get their star act into it and recording. The stumbling block was just the small matter of the band having no songs to record.
"I'd never been a hippy," Anderson shrugs. "I didn't do drugs, I'd had no near-death experiences to write about, or disastrous relationships, so I drew on personal stuff."
In Anderson's case this was his years (not long behind him at the time) as a teenage schoolboy.
Some of the songs emerged, notably 'Wind Up', 'Hymn 43' and 'My God', that are at the emotional heart of Aqualung, now seem to Anderson like
"a jumble of religious stuff from my teenage angst years. Religion wasn't an obsession, it was a part of growing up, like learning about girls' naughty parts. You misunderstand it, get confused, and it may not smell that good. So it's no surprise that seven years later you're writing about it."
Anderson's own religious upbringing was not that strict. His childhood vision of God was as
"a tough cookie, while Jesus was a strange guy who could walk among lions and tigers and not get eaten."
God was a fearful authority figure, personified in the Rev Dr Luft, "a fierce fire-and-brimstone guy" who combined the roles of divinity teacher and headmaster at Anderson's grammar school. Even though he knew Anderson's sceptical views about religion, Luft insisted that the 15-year-old did a reading at the annual school service. A doctor's note (Anderson's teen years were racked by migraines) enabled him to duck this duty.
That Anderson brought such experiences into his writing was no big deal — after all this was the Age of Aquarius, Godspell and Jeremy Spencer bunking off from Fleetwood Mac to join the Children of God; no self respecting band could forego the chance of a bit of spiritual questing. 30 years later, Anderson is quick to say that the songs on Aqualung were "simple, naive and quickly written, born out of my cynical teen years." What was amazing was the response to them.
"In America's bible belt, Aqualung caused real anger. There were record-burning sessions; they thought I was some kind of anti-Christ. In Spain and Italy, big Catholic countries, they went fucking nuts. The wonder is that no one tried to kill me. I'd have been an obvious target!"
Back home, British critics discovered in Aqualung something far scarier than the anti-Christ: a 'concept' album. Even now, Anderson groans at the now derogatory term.
"I said at the time that it wasn't a concept album, but a whimsical collection of odds and sods."
He can't help but agree, however, that the sleeve notes and cover indeed 'dragged it all together'. 'Concept' album or not, one consequence of Aqualung being accepted as such was Anderson's desire to hit back at the critics.
"After Aqualung, we thought: 'Right, let's go nuts and give the critics what they want and really give them a concept album.'"
What they got, in quick succession, were Thick As A Brick (1972) and A Passion Play (1973).
Did we say earlier that you can't make an album out of one and a half songs? Well, Thick As A Brick managed to stretch basically one theme across every inch of its vinyl surface.
"This was the time of Monty Python; it was meant to be surreal, a mix of vaudeville, pantomime and an insider's joke. It was obviously a send-up. But in America everybody took it deeply seriously."
Such unity of purpose, however, was distinctly absent from the recording of Aqualung. The central character wasn't even, strictly speaking, Anderson's invention; he was 'found' amid a bunch of photographs the singer's first wife took as part of a college photography project. Jennie Anderson had scribbled notes on the backs of the pictures she had taken of homeless people in a park; Ian then adapted the words to create the wheezy, vulnerable, filthy yet sad lech of the title track. To this day, the former Mrs Anderson still gets two royalty cheques a year for her efforts.
But she could just as easily be receiving bugger all. Technically, the recording of Aqualung was, according to Anderson, an "absolute nightmare." The studio was brand new, and installed with all the latest high-tech gizmos and gadgets. So high-tech, in fact, that they couldn't get it all to actually work.
"It was untried and prone to problems," Anderson recalls balefully. "The room, the equipment, the monitors, they all sounded dreadful. And worst of all was the atmosphere. The room was a huge, enormous, spooky barn, made for an orchestra. We'd wanted studio two, an easy space with a low ceiling, but they'd already booked it."
The 'they' in question were Led Zeppelin, Tull's arch rivals.
"We were matey with most of the guys," remembers Anderson, if through somewhat gritted teeth. "Jimmy Page was quite affable; John Bonham was a complete nutcase but a genuine bloke."
And Robert Plant? These days, Anderson has the mantra down pat:
"Whatever the origins of our falling out, it was my fault."
Plant, the cocky, garrulous Black Country showman, couldn't have been more different from the diffident Anderson, who off stage was shy, quiet, and rarely mixed socially with his band.
For Anderson, the rivalry with Plant was more than just a character clash.
"It all dates back to the early days of Tull, when we were wheeled into one of those showcase club gigs where the industry bigwigs drank. Halfway through, Alexis Korner came over and said: 'I've got this great young singer I'd like to sit in with you.' Well, you don't say no to the father of British blues [Korner, not Plant, by the way], do you?
"So up comes this youthful guy who looked too pretty to be in a blues band. I don't know what it was we played, but as soon as I heard Plant, I knew: 'Uh, oh, I'm in trouble here.' I'm sure I felt at the time a bit jealous that this guy was on stage in a place where we already felt a bit uncomfortable. He'd taken my place, and I guess that rankled."
Things got worse. For Zeppelin's crucial 1969 American tour, they invited Tull to be their support act. "Which I was very pleased about," Anderson recalls. And so he should have been. The tour created the bedrock of support that would propel Zeppelin into the rock stratosphere, and gave Jethro Tull that crucial entry into the North American market.
But Plant still needled Anderson. The Zeppelin vocalist
"made some comment about me being too serious and not hanging out with the guys. I said: 'I'm just a quiet guy, I keep myself to myself.' And he was a bit disdainful of that. And it was that night that my overcoat went missing ..."
This was no ordinary overcoat. For Anderson, his battered coat was more than just his stage trademark.
"It was special to me, that coat. It was the only thing my father gave me when I left home. He tossed this old thing at me — we weren't speaking at the time — and said: 'You'll need this, it's going to be a cold winter.'
"And it was. Playing clubs in the winter of '67 to '68, it was so bloody freezing. We didn't have an audience; that coat was the only thing that kept me warm. And it was a way of clinging on to my relationship with my father."
Then, in "some wretched ballroom dressed up as a rock-type club, in Connecticut or Chicago, we were in a single communal dressing room. And my coat went missing. Word got back to me that it was nicked by Zeppelin or their road crew, and that upset me. I can't believe he [Plant] nicked my coat. But it was a real personal loss."
Anderson hardly poured oil on troubled waters when he later suggested in an interview that his own lyrics combined with Zeppelin's music would lead to a pretty nifty band, effectively suggesting that Plant's lyrics were the weakest link in Zeppelin's otherwise formidable rock armoury.
"He was obviously pissed off. I met him years later at a Prince's Trust gig, and he said: 'Let's put it all behind us.' I was shocked. I didn't realise it was such a big deal. It's a shame, because it was all born out of a misunderstanding."
A misunderstanding of a musical kind soon underwrote the Aqualung sessions.
"'Locomotive Breath' was notoriously difficult. We [Martin Barre on guitar, John Evan on keyboards, Clive Bunker drums, and Jeffrey Hammond, who was literally learning to play bass] couldn't get it together as a groove at all. We tried it live in the studio, but it didn't work."
Anderson's response was typical of the session — and indicative of his growing creative grip on how Jethro Tull was to sound, at least in the studio:
"I went into the studio alone and laid down four minutes of hi-hat and bass drum. Then I overdubbed acoustic and electric guitar. Once we had something on tape, the band went: 'Ah, that's what he's on about!' Clive only had to do fills on the torn toms. Then we tacked on the intro — that is, Martin's guitar on the front end. And it was a very good piano piece, almost classical, almost Beethoven, then it moves into a blues feel ..."
This patchwork method of recording, so different from Tull's previous live-in-the-studio approach, was partly down to Anderson's desire to make Aqualung different.
"Benefit was fairly straightforward — more riffy — but on Aqualung it was a departure to break things up into whimsical acoustic numbers and big, dramatic heavy rock ensembles."
The change in recording style was also down to Anderson's increasing autonomy in the studio.
"Knowing which songs would be done which way would be dictated by the fact that I was often on my own in the studio. I'd do a bit on the acoustic guitar, and if the band still hadn't turned up then maybe I'd overdub it a bit more. By the time they turned up, that was it, I was done.
"I felt a bit guilty about it, because there was a feeling that the boys were cut out of the loop. But that's what I wanted to achieve, I didn't want everyone playing all the time. It takes a real man to stand up and be counted for being silent."
One band member who didn't have much choice about keeping musically silent was Jeffrey Hammond (or Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, as the replacement for Glen Cornick had found himself re-monickered). Fans felt they already knew the incumbent, an eccentric pal of Anderson's, from Tull songs 'A Song For Jeffrey' and 'Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square'. But although Hammond had been a member of the Tull clique for a long time, and had played bass in school day bands with Anderson, he was no musician.
"Jeffrey was in at the deep end," Anderson admits. "He didn't have traditional musical skills."
Which meant that with the virtuoso bassist Cornick out of the way (and Clive Bunker also about to leave, albeit on friendly terms, to get married), Anderson now had Tull's creative palette pretty much all to himself.
Like keyboard player John Evan, another Anderson associate from their teen days, Hammond was prised away from college before graduating.
"We taught him the parts, and he'd diligently sit there, practising hard until his fingers were falling off. But it was good with Jeffrey. It slowed us all down, so we were a bit more patient with the arrangements."
But Aqualung isn't all Anderson's shout. With every Tull album since blues hero guitarist Mick Abrahams had left the band, Martin Barre, his replacement, had fought to find his own voice. By the time of Aqualung, for example, Barre had all but abandoned the bluesy phrasing evident on Stand Up, his first album with Tull.
Ironically, 'Locomotive Breath', one of Aqualung's standout tracks, sees him laying down a soulful, blues-filled intro. But it was the guitar solo on the title track that had Barre sweating.
"Jimmy Page had come up to the control room, so Martin was excruciatingly embarrassed," Anderson recalls. "Which is probably why he did it in one take so he didn't have to be watched any more."
Aqualung was also to serve Anderson his own dose of embarrassment: the sleeve artwork. He still shifts uneasily in his seat at the mention of it. That hunched, long-haired, great coated old sod bears a striking resemblance to Ian Anderson circa 1970.
"The artwork was one of those Terry Ellis things," Anderson says now. "Terry's contribution as 'executive producer' meant he turned up to a session and nodded wisely. Covers and packaging was his world, so we let him do it. This Was was my cover, but by Stand Up Terry came up with the concept and the artist. Benefit I hated — terrible, dreadful. Aqualung was the third of the trilogy.
"Horace Silverman was the artist, I think. [Burton Silverman — AJ] The illustration was meant to be based on the old tramp my first wife had photographed, but Terry wanted the cover to look like me, with the old coat and everything. I was really unhappy about being used for that front cover — I don't want to be seen as the subject of that song!"
And you can't blame him. The Aqualung character is more than just a poor old sod — he watches 'little girls with bad intent' and hangs out with cross-eyed Mary, the "poor man's rich girl" who'll "do it for a song".
Anderson is all too aware of the darknesses hinted at in the songs.
"'Cross Eyed Mary' — yeah, the potential child abuse is kinda weird in that one. Aqualung's got a thing about little girls. And I have not, as far as I can recall, ever been the victim of any kind of fiddling from people of any age. I've never been propositioned by a homosexual — and I'm really pissed off about it!
"As a child, you're aware that there are grubby guys who want you to sit on their knee," he continues. "I remember my mother getting upset because there was a builder in the road who used to invite me into his hut for a sandwich at lunchtime. He was a rough, dirty bloke, but he never touched me or said anything suggestive."
Although Anderson may resist the identification of himself with Aqualung the character, the album was perceived in many ways as the seminal Ian Anderson release. It was the Tull album where he finally took total creative control of the band. It was also where he found the strength to perform as well as compose acoustically. The former may have led to future flights of ego in some of the baroque excesses of Thick As A Brick or A Passion Play; the latter lead to the unique sound of subsequent albums Songs From The Wood ('77) and Minstrel In The Gallery ('75).
Although Anderson's post-Aqualung songwriting would grow in sophistication, it would never again reveal such angry passion. For Anderson himself (and also for many critics), Stand Up is the band's most important album:
"We weren't a little blues band any more. It was my first step into writing songs with lots of influences: jazz, blues, classical and folk; even world music, using balalaikas, or the Mediterranean feel of 'Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square'."
He admits, though, that Aqualung
"has moments that are a benchmark, moments that have an absolute value. 'My God', 'Aqualung' and 'Locomotive Breath' are classic Tull songs which typically we will always play in every gig.
"This year [their tour is currently scheduled to arrive in the UK in November] we'll do 'Aqualung' as it is on the album; 'Locomotive Breath' will be like the record; we won't be playing 'My God' this year, as we've done it every previous year. But if you ask me to play 'Hymn 43', I'll just jump out the window. 'Wind Up' I have lots of good intentions about wanting to play. As the title suggests, it was written as an encore song. But it was also written about the things that wound me up as a 14-year-old. But as a 50-something-year-old, I find it hard to sing — just as Roger Daltrey must find it hard doing 'My Generation' with The Who.
"With all its fear, guilt, embarrassment, reverence, loathing — all those things mixed up — 'Aqualung' is still all there. I can't walk around London or New York without being haunted by the image of homeless people. It's even more a reality now than it was then. And I'm like everyone else: some days I'll toss a coin into someone's cup, other days I'll cross the road when I see a homeless person. It's a mix of emotions, including the guilt about not being able to deal with it or make it better. But I'm not embarrassed to tell people. It's a song that talks about something that it's difficult to talk about."
Which is why, 30 years on, Aqualung remains such a marvellous album. The tragedy is that 30 years from now it may be just as poignant.