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THE MAN, THE DRILL, THE BAND
Forget all that stuff about how staid and boring '70s rock was. Well, don't forget it, because it was generally pretty dull. But for my money, an Englishman wearing tights and jumping up and down, playing flute and singing meticulous, rockily-melodic epic tunes in a band named after the 18th-century inventor of the seed drill is worth a look in any decade. And the fact that the guy (Ian Anderson) and his combo (Jethro Tull) have remained an arena-level act for nearly 20 years — during which time they've turned out numerous rock-radio staples ('Locomotive Breath', 'Aqualung', 'Bouree', 'Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll', 'Bungle In The Jungle', etc., etc.) as well as several complex-but-popular concept albums (Aqualung, Thick As A Brick, A Passion Play, et al.) — is also kind of neat.
Chatting away in a conference room in the Manhattan offices of Chrysalis Records (a company which grew from small independent to major label largely on the strength of Jethro Tull's immense '70s popularity), Ian Anderson seems a far cry from the flamboyant Dickensian wacko of Tull's live shows. In conversation, he comes off more like an agreeably sober, no-nonsense businessman — which, in fact, he is.
Anderson took an extended leave of absence from music after the 1984 Tull LP, Under Wraps, concentrating his attention on the Scottish salmon-farming business he'd started in the late '70s. Now, with his fishy extracurricular venture a big success, Anderson is back to promote a new Tull album, Crest Of A Knave, which contains the group's most commercial-sounding music in ages.
The LP is the band's 16th (not counting various compilations, a live set, and Anderson's 1983 solo effort Walk Into Light), and features the most compact version of Tull to date — Anderson, faithful lead guitarist Martin Barre (who joined in 1969) and bassist Dave Pegg (a member for eight years), plus session drummers Gerry Conway and Doane Perry, both alumni of previous Tull line-ups. Anderson took more artistic control of the project than usual, providing keyboards, engineering and some drum programs in addition to his usual vocals, flute and guitar.
"I was very, very selfish about making this one," admits the singer. "I really just didn't want anybody else to have any creative input on it at all, other than playing the final parts in the studio. The last few albums involved the other guys quite a lot, in the arranging and in writing bits of music, and I just felt this time that I wanted to get away from having input from other people — not because I thought I could do it better, but just because I wanted to be very selfish about it and take total charge."
Though Anderson is the only remaining original member (approximately 20 musicians have passed through over the years), and his lyrical attitude, stage persona and media profile have always dominated the group, he takes issue with the perception of Tull as Ian Anderson plus an interchangeable group of sidemen.
"A lot of people have gotten the idea that Jethro Tull has always been Ian Anderson being very dictatorial about things. But it's not like that — it has been on occasional songs, but very rarely on whole albums. The music has always been very much the product of the people who were in the group at the time, and everyone's opinion has always gotten a fair hearing.
"Most of the people who've been in Jethro Tull and left have left not because they got kicked out, but because of some mutually agreeable sort of plan. It's not a question of them outliving their usefulness and being given the push — although one or two of them were, not by me but by a sort of common consensus. Most of them have left because they decided that they wanted to get on and do something different — and in one case, because there was an actual feeling of incompatibility."
Anderson admits to feeling a bit alienated from the pop industry these days.
"When I started," he says, "rock music was just beginning to enter the phase of being independent from the trappings of show business that had been present in rock 'n' roll in the '50s and '60s. In the late '60s and early '70s, people of my age — people who were not part of a traditional show business background — were coming in and changing the rules and bringing quite a lot of integrity into the business.
"And now the music business seems to have gone full circle, back to being very much a showbiz phenomenon again. I don't think that the industry, at the moment, encourages the kind of environment where you can have a group that's likely to go on for 10 or 20 years. It doesn't seem that the industry is out to provide anything other than a very temporary sort of escapist thing, rather than a grassroots alternative culture or anything that's gonna change people's lives. And I think that the people going into it today are, for the most part, going into it because they want to be stars for a year or two.
"Jethro Tull is a very strange sort of mixture, and I find it very peculiar that we can get away with doing all of these seemingly contradictory musical styles," Anderson muses. "Maybe I'm wrong, but when I'm going from something like 'Serenade To A Cuckoo' which is almost cocktail jazz, to 'Locomotive Breath' which is archetypical riff rock 'n' roll, I sometimes think, "They can't like all of this, some of this must be turning people off." Sometimes you wonder if you wouldn't be much better off if you restricted yourself to a slightly more limited set of options and concentrated on doing them well. And maybe that's what this album is subconsciously about."
On the current Jethro Tull tour, Dave Pegg is doing double duty, playing sets with both Tull and opening act Fairport Convention, of which he's been a member since the early '70s. Anderson — who's forbidden noted carouser Pegg from touching "the demon drink" until after the show — expects the influential British folk-rock combo to prove a more appropriate match than many of the bands Tull's been paired with on past treks.
"It is very difficult for Jethro Tull to find a support group who the audience are not going to be rude to. Most of the bands that have played with us over the years have had a hard time, and that's not good for us. The best support group we ever had was a group called Yes, and the best support group that Led Zeppelin ever had was a group called Jethro Tull. The ideal support group is one that's gonna go on and try to steal the show every night, a group that's gonna make the headliners go out there and work.
"There's been a whole bunch of groups that have been suggested to me that definitely are not right to open for Jethro Tull — it would do them harm and it would do us harm, because the audience would be in a bad mood by the time we went on, and that's not how you want your audience to be."
This tour (with Anderson, Barre and Pegg augmented by Doane Perry on drums and Don Airey on keyboards) is the band's first in three years, and finds Anderson taking a distinctly upbeat attitude.
"During the '70s," he says, "music for me ceased to be fun, first and foremost. Fun was a by-product on a good night, but basically it was work, and you hoped that here and there you would come away from it feeling 'Oh, what a lovely way to earn a living.' And now, after taking a break from music and devoting three years to developing my salmon business to the point it's at now, I'm coming back to music with the same sort of feeling I had about it when I first started.
"I'm not having to play music to make money to send the kids to school, because I've got something else that does that now. And because I've got other professional things going on the side, I can go out and play at music now — which is what motivated me to do it in the first place."
Meanwhile, Anderson's salmon business has emerged as one of Britain's chief suppliers of the finny fellers.
"I know that people must think I'm a bit crazy to get into salmon," says Ian. "The only thing that actually annoys me is when people ask if it's some kind of hobby. For more than 50 people whose livelihood depends on me making the right decisions about the business, it's anything but a hobby. I'm not just trading in salmon, I'm trading in people's lives, in an area of the country where there is very high unemployment and very little in the way of prospects for young people.
"I'm very involved with the salmon industry now, and in certain areas I am better known as a salmon farmer than I am as a musician — there are a couple of television programs in Britain in the next month, not about Ian Anderson as a musician but about Ian Anderson as a salmon farmer. It's an industry I'm particularly drawn to because of the social implications and because I can feel that what I'm doing is part of changing something in a very tangible way — which I don't think I ever did or ever will do as a rock musician. And I can see the difference that it's making in people's lives and to the landscape.
"So it's really the music that's the hobby for me now, in the sense that I'm now doing it for the kicks I can get out of it; and I don't have to do it as a business. I still have to deal with the business aspects of it, of course, but my prime motivation for playing a concert is the same as the motivation for someone who's coming to that concert — that it's gonna be fun for a couple of hours."
Anderson doesn't seem overly fazed by the fact that Jethro Tull no longer commands the level of public devotion it did in its megabucks heyday.
"It doesn't particularly bother me that we are not as popular a group as we were in the mid-'70s. When we played New York in the mid-'70s, we could expect to play to 50,000 people, and when we play New York this time, we'll probably play to only 30,000 people. But 30,000 people in New York is still pretty good after 20 years.
"I expect that the new record will do a bit better than the last one, and most people have been saying reasonably nice things about it, but it's just another step along the way — the next one could be right back down again. Those considerations have ceased to be of major importance to me; I'm far past that stage. The ambitions that I have now exist on a much more personal level — things I want to try and come to grips with as a musician, and things I want to do better. I don't really care about playing 10 nights at Madison Square Garden — that sort of thing doesn't matter to me anymore, and anyway we're never gonna do it.
"There's a good chance that maybe I will still be trotting out here and doing this in 10 years time," Anderson predicts. "But if that is the case, I hope the reason I'll be doing it is that it's genuinely a barrel of laughs, and nor just because I wanted to see if I could get to 50 and still be doing 'Aqualung'."
HAROLD DE MUIR
Note: the photographs published here are from the 1984 Under Wraps tour.
Thanks to Skip B. and Casey Drumm for this article.