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PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG SQUIRE
Ian Anderson rules OK. For an hour I've been waiting in the foyer, talking to his manager, his wife, watching his employees bustle about. It's Maison Rouge, Anderson's property and one of the nicer recording studios in London — small, relaxed, without the desperate hip of most of the specialist rock places. A money maker, though, and when Anderson arrives it's as the boss. He's been lunching with TV people, planning a Tull feature in an arts show.
Anderson is wearing tight brown cords, a shiny camouflage jacket and one of those dumb, Jethro Tull-type pork pie hats. He's better looking than I expected and much more charming. On the rock writing circuit he's got a bad reputation, as arrogant and tedious, and it has been a long while since Jethro Tull got reviews to match their sales, but now, Anderson's qualities seem different-professional, articulate, interesting. His arrogance is there alright but it rests not on self pride but on his determination to take charge of whatever he's involved in, to do a good job. This is an interview job and so he takes it over. He doesn't suffer fools gladly, especially when he's working, and my CREEM tag set him briefly bristling, remembering his last CREEM occasion, when Lester Bangs took him on and shouted him to a tense tie. This time he's not going to lose control. He eyes my clumsy cassette and warns that
"I talk quickly because I don't want to have to lie. If I talk fast enough I haven't got time to think about if it's lying or not so it's probably going to be the truth."
I'm uneasy enough as it is, without this threat. The only reason I decided to do this interview was out of hostility. I've never liked Jethro Tull much, found the music both fey and turgid and never listened enough to hear the lyrics. Anderson himself, one-legged like a stork, is a fetishized flute player, his fans' estimations of his skill way beyond anything I've heard him achieve. Earlier I'd heard his wife say that Ian didn't allow their young son to go to Tull gigs because he wouldn't understand what Daddy was doing. I don't go to Tull gigs either, and for the same reason. I've never understood Tull's appeal. There are lots of other bands that I don't like but millions do but I can hear why. Tull, on the other hand, make no sense to me whatsoever and that's really the only question I came here to ask: why on earth should anyone fancy you?
But Anderson's too clever, too impressive for me to put it like that and the question comes out different, like it's my fault not his and I'm asking him to help me become a Tull fan too. And he's not that helpful, doesn't understand much himself. Begin with the audience:
"I've really no idea who they are and I've really no idea what they like about us. I posed this question on the last tour in America, particularly at the end of last year's tour, because the audience was so overwhelmingly young again. There was this incredible element of fifteen and sixteen-year-old kids there, who would have been seven or eight when we started and I don't know why they're there because why aren't they supporting the trendy up-and-comings? Why aren't they supporting their own heroes instead of latching on to the heroes of the Generation before them? I don't know the answer. I find it distinctively worrying. I'm very gratified that they're there and people say I should be really pleased because this is your audience for the next five or ten years — you've actually broken that age barrier, they're yours. But I still find it worrying.
"I find it worrying because why weren't the Sex Pistols doing it already? Why aren't all the other groups who've had a go and haven't made it? In America particularly, and on the world stage, there still seems to be this handful of groups and most of them are British. It's your problem as a sociologist and it's my problem only in that I feel some responsibility for the fact that they're there, perhaps getting beaten up or mugged on their way home. That's the only way it worries me, because I can't really probe into the whys and wherefores of who they are and the reasons they like Jethro Tull. I don't know."
So. Does Anderson still believe in his old 60's notion of rock progress, of his audience growing up with him?
"I think that notion died on most of us five years ago because it became firmly apparent that at the age of 25 or thereabouts most people get married, most people have a kid and take on the responsibilities of a wife and child, a mortgage, their per capita half a swimming pool and three-quarters a Chevy or Ford Cortina. They have all these things and music becomes a luxury and competition becomes greater for that audience. They arguably have more money to spend and I'm not suggesting that Elton John or Fleetwood Mac or Peter Frampton — all these people — deliberately set out for a middle of the road audience, it may be accidental that their choice of music appeals to those people. I hope so for their sake. But in my case it would be a deliberate attempt, if I made one, to reach out to that vast middle of the road audience."
But why should over-25s be middle of the road?
"There's something rather sobering about having domestic responsibilities that inevitably rub off on your taste. It's horrible to have to equate a sober taste with someone like Fleetwood Mac, but Fleetwood Mac obey all the rules, they really do — musically, harmonically and stylistically they obey the rule book, I mean to the letter and they do it pretty well. And that, if you like, is a sobering quality which is readily embraced by people who don't have the fervent sort of listening approach of adolescents really identifying with something. They want music to relax to more than music to get fired up to.
"And that's why it's a shame that the punk rock thing is so laden with the fact that it's very derivative musically of things that you and I are familiar with — the rock, the riffs, the beat. We've all heard and experienced it probably twice already. Punk rock is just another time for the same old tried and tested elementary rock riff, same old electric guitar, same old drum kit set up the same old way. And it's so class-ridden, 'the music of the working class'. The great thing when I came in was that it was classless. It was great back then. People did cross the borders of style and class. But the punk thing is a working class thing and so you only get someone hyphen something following punk out of a terrible mixed-up rebellious thing."
Does that mean that Jethro Tull are going to be the classless musicians for the teenage generation forever? Is Ian Anderson still going to be a teen idol at age 50? 60? 70?
"No, I can't see it. I find it a little bit disturbing to walk out on stage and see two 14-year-old girls screaming just like I seem to remember on newsreel seeing them do that to the Beatles. And I'm thinking it's 1977 (it was when I was last on stage) and here's a couple of little girls, much too young to copulate with, and there they are actually screaming and doing a number equivalent to Beatle mania. I think this can't be. I'm 30 now and this just isn't really decent. But it's still marginally acceptable at the age of 30. At the age of 40 it's going to be quite indecent. No one's got there yet, but Mick Jagger's well on the way. Nobody's got too old to rock 'n' roll but there is a difference between being 40 and being 30 or even 35, 36, 37."
By this time I'm finding it hard to get a word in but what I want to ask is what Jethro Tull actually sing about, what it is they think they're doing when they're doing it and how this ageing is affecting it. I don't get to ask this very clearly but it does emerge that Anderson is a great Ian Dury fan, partly because Dury doesn't pretend to be young.
"I thought to myself last night: I wonder what he would think of my music. I actually like him and I don't like many people and I'm sure he wouldn't say 'Oh, I like your music too' because he probably doesn't. And he'd probably say 'You're not singing about life out there on the streets and things as they really are.' My answer would have to be 'Well, I did once upon a time, seven or eight years ago. I did then but if I'd carried on singing about that for seven or eight years I would now be living a very conspicuous lie because I do not choose and no way am I going to carry on living in a bed sitter.'
"I did do it to the point when it was absurd. I had a number one record and I still lived in a three pound a week bedsit and it was obviously not right anymore. I wasn't kidding anyone and it would be silly for me to do that now. I like my dogs and cats and horses and my house and the things that I have, that I've worked really hard for. These are the things I enjoy. They're not things I own — I don't believe in ownership of these things — they're things that I've somehow paid in hard cash for the right to enjoy. And I do enjoy them. They mean an awful lot to me.
"I'd like to think that someone like Ian Dury, say he was inordinately successful for five years, would have the same problems as I have had in terms of what shall I do with the money? You can blow it on parties, dope, flash cars, private cinemas but perhaps because I'm Scottish, too canny, I refuse to throw it away. I would rather have something tangible at my disposal and also something I can feel a little bit responsible for. That's one thing money buys: the right to acquire responsibility for things or people or animals or whatever.
"I try to write songs that aren't too different from the way I live and so my songs have necessarily had to change, as I've grown away from having a working group sort of life. As the logic of success prevailed we made a commitment to going first class in the world and then it suddenly dawned that it's not on to sing as if we're sitting down there. We're not anymore. We're sitting up here. And we can't really sing about sitting up here because that's irrelevant to most people and sounds a bit cocky, so it became a little more abstract. Lyrically things became more abstract and started taking on weird and weighty connotations, which were amusing for a bit, amused me, but after a while you want to get back to the direct meaningful songs that are about something and actually deal in fairly accessible English. You're forced to think what is there to write about, what moves me, and that's what I write about now, whatever it is that's left.
"Stylistically, I've always said that we can't be a heavy riff group because Led Zeppelin are the best in the world. We can't be a blues-influenced r&b rock and roll group because the Stones are the best in the world. We can't be a slightly sort of airy-fairy mystical sci-fi synthesizing abstract freak-out group because Pink Floyd are the best-in the world. And so what's left? And that's what we've always done. We've filled the gap.
"We've done what's left. That may partly explain our popularity and we've done it for the most part without the aid of gargantuan feats of PR and manipulating the daily press with scandal stories. And we still are one of the most popular groups in the world. There is no explanation. At the same time as being one of these top groups, we are somehow not. We are somehow different."
It's true. Jethro Tull are different in their lack of flash, their lack of hype, their lack of parasites, their lack of personality — I can't even remember who else is in the band. Tull musicians don't encourage groupies and they aren't groupies themselves — no hanging out with the international rock jet set.
Anderson, with his confidence and responsibilities and aloof efficiency, is a country squire of the most traditional sort. His conversation was studded with anti-Americanism (he likes Ian Dury for his cockney vowels, for example) and Songs From The Wood, the last Tull album, sounded pretty much like straight old country folk to me. Anderson defies any purist folkie leanings but he did describe the new album, Heavy Horses, as Songs From The Wood Part 2 plus a bit more Jethro Tull, and his concern did seem to be that it not be heard as twee.
But it is a British country record, celebrating shire horses and Anderson's dog and cats on a track called 'And The Mouse Police Never Sleeps'. Not twee, because not romantic and not hippie is Anderson's hope. It's about town and country, the former's dependence on and exploitation of the latter. I didn't hear it and probably never will. But when I left I touched my forelock. Anderson was very gracious and I started musing that if Tull's success is based, as Anderson at some point said, on "a lucky coincidence", then there must be millions more potential country gentry wandering about Britain's pubs and clubs, guitars clutched in sticky hands, waiting for their lucky break. They're mostly disguised as punks at present.