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11 March 1976
THE CODPIECE CHRONICLES
Throughout the theatrical proceedings of the Jethro Tull show in New Orleans' cavernous Municipal Auditorium, Ian Anderson frenziedly leaps and hurls himself across the stage as he sings. Dressed in multi-coloured tights equipped with codpiece, Anderson's appearance and stage demeanor are something of a cross between a Renaissance jester and a lunatic.
Even for a rock concert it's a bizarre affair. Scantily-clad girls, smiling like TV game show models, trot back and forth across the stage to hand Anderson the flute or guitar required for his performance. During the middle of 'My God', Anderson's musical opus of agnosticism, a janitor sweeps around the feet of lead guitarist Martin Barre. In the opening refrain of another song, a telephone rings.
But despite the barrage of Dada-inspired gimmicks in the show, the audience's attention stays focused on Anderson. For all intents and purposes, Anderson is Jethro Tull — having led the group from the start, he's the only member to have remained in the band from its first recording onward. John Evans on keyboards, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond on bass guitar and string bass, Barriemore Barlow on drums, and an all-girl chorus of strings round out the current touring ensemble: but there's no doubt about who's the star.
Under Anderson's direction as songwriter, vocalist, and more recently as producer, Jethro Tull's popularity has steadily accelerated since the release of their first album in 1968. The initial This Was, with its airy English folk ballads and jazzy flute sound, won the band a cult following that the later Stand Up and Benefit albums built upon — even as the group edged increasingly closer to the rock mainstream.
Jethro Tull's first concept album, Aqualung, was an early entry in the soon-to-be crowded rock opera race. Anderson's LP side of related songs about the title character — a wheezing down-and-outer in London — catapulted the troupe to superstar status. The release of Thick As A Brick, an album-long ballad, solidified the group's reputation and allowed Anderson room to display his lyrical talents by sketching childhood impressions of comic heroes and vaguely ominous father-son confrontations, recounted in mock-epic style. Later the same year Living In The Past, a two record collection of live performances and early songs unreleased in America, brought the group to Top 10 radio status via its title single.
Tull's most ambitious project to date has been Passion Play, an extended composition which Ian integrated into live performances with a film that he wrote and directed. But despite healthy sales and sold-out concerts, both the tour and the album were panned by a majority of critics as being contrived and confusing. Rumor spread that the sensitive Anderson was disbanding the group and had cancelled the remainder of their tour.
Two more gold records since that debacle have proven the durability of Jethro Tull's appeal. On War Child, Anderson returned to the conventional song lengths; another single, the bouncy 'Bungle In The Jungle', soared to the top of the charts last year. Minstrel In The Gallery appeared next, seemingly something of a compromise between the commercial and the more experimental sides to Anderson's ambitions. Along with shorter, catchy songs like 'Cold Wind To Valhalla', the album includes 'Baker Street Muse', a typically cryptic but somewhat bitter saga of sexual and musical tribulation.
A few hours before discarding black T-shirt and jeans for his more flamboyant stage garb, Anderson discoursed reflectively in his suite at the Fairmont Hotel — where Louisiana's Kingfish, Huey Long, used to hold court during his reign at the top. The interview began with the subject of Jethro Tull's treatment by the press, a topic to which Anderson often returned during the course of the conversation.
It took the music press in England some little while to wake up to the fact that we were actually around. We played for six or eight months all over the clubs in England and were one of the major-drawing underground groups of the time — by underground, I mean we received no national or music paper publicity at all.
Then we played at a summer festival in England to about 80,000 people — the Sunbury Jazz festival in 1968. Having played to lots of little audiences in small clubs, it all ended up at the festival. All those people had seen us play at one time or another, and we were, even if I say it myself, the hit of the festival. The only other act that had a similar reception at the three-day event was a surprise jam by Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker.
But we received absolutely zero press coverage on that occasion for one simple reason: the press were all in the press tent drinking free beer. It's the gospel truth.
I've always been wary of the press. Let's say that derives from a mutual suspicion, because any member of the press finds my personality and bearing at once at odds with what I appear to be on stage. But I say that what I appear to be on stage is me. When I go home tonight, there's no Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. There's no alteration on my attitude towards people or music — except that another part of my character becomes a little more prevalent than the part you're seeing now.
What part is that?
I become more in evidence physically and emotionally sometimes. But it's the same me. Nevertheless, I'm prepared to believe that it doesn't look like me. So obviously the problem that any journalist has is deciding which one of these two Ian Andersons he's seen is an act.
How would you describe these two Ian Andersons?
I wouldn't even attempt to do so. It's not my job. And as soon as I begin to analyse my approach to playing music on stage, it then becomes a very deliberate and conscious dissemination of what I'm doing. And as soon as it becomes that, it immediately goes against the grain of the music I write and play.
I don't sit down and say today I'm going to write a song that's going to about this or that and then calculate a means of arriving at that end. Whatever I write — a 40 second piece or a 40 minute one — has always begun its life as a pure emotional feeling or observation. The act of building that into a finished recording is, of course, to a large extent, contrived, in as much as its a conscious effort to derive a relationship between life and music and lyrics and put it into a sort of professionally embodied package and then sell it to the consumer and make money. All of that is a very conscious thing. I'm aware of all that, but I don't want to start getting any of that mixed up with the essence of what music is all about and the essence of what being a performer of music is all about.
Have you been surprised by the enormous success of Jethro Tull? It seems to me that it would have been impossible to foresee that the kind of music that the group was doing way back in the beginning would have ever reached such a wide audience.
All I ever wanted to be was just a professional musician. It was never important to be a success, which after all, is a very relative thing. Success is only what you're doing today compared to what you were doing yesterday.
Do you enjoy it?
Yeah, but I also get a lot of tears and personal heartbreak out of it as well. You take a week of seven concerts and three of them are going to be bad, at least in my mind. I'm going to come off the stage near to tears for one reason or another. There's many times I get into the studio and it just doesn't happen. Something I believed would be a good result just fails to materialize. I have to throw away the tape.
Have you ever wished you'd thrown away Passion Play, considering some of the negative response it received?
No. Obviously, if it didn't satisfy my musical intent, Passion Play would never have been released.
Were you surprised by the response to Passion Play? The word was that you cancelled the second half of the tour because of the critical reaction.
No, that's not true. The gentleman who works for the New York Times overheard that in a bar. I don't mean to be facetious. I personally researched the reasons for the appearance of that rumour. He overheard gossip that, due to the negative reaction to the stage performance of Jethro Tull's new album, Jethro Tull had broken a tour halfway through and fled back to England — with all the implications of returned tickets and promoters' money out of pocket. I won't say it was a lie, because I'm sure that the gentleman was just unprofessionally incorrect. He made no attempt to check it out with agency management, record company, or anyone else officially representing us.
Jethro Tull have never cancelled out part of a tour, let alone half a tour ... The only dates that have been cancelled have been when I'm ill. If one of the other guys is ill, I think we'd still probably make it on stage one way or another. But if it's me, it's unfair to go out to the audience and play without me ...
In fact, the Passion Play tour was as good as any other tour and better than the ones before. Seen retrospectively, it was probably more theatrically oriented a performance than what we're doing now, which is trying to get away from any tag.
We're not performers or actors in the sense that we're "show biz". We're not your David Bowie or Elton John. I'm not into that at all. I'm into being me. If I feel bad, I'm going to tell the audience. If in the last week I've had diarrhoea, I'm likely to speak about that.
That's what ideally it should be. Personal truth. It may be entirely irrelevant to the audience, but by dint of personality it becomes not just a personal exclusive truth, but relatable to other people. It becomes entertainment for other people as a by-product of what we're doing. That's what makes it work for them, and it may be an entirely different level than how it works for me.
Getting back to Passion Play, first of all you have to remember that it was only an hour — less than an hour in fact. The rest of the music was what comfortably might be described as "old favourites".
You used film as part of that performance. Are you still interested in movie-making?
We recently did some live filming and recording in Europe with a view to the possibility of the video disc becoming a commercial reality, within, conservatively, the next five years. It's already there and it already works; but I personally worry very much about video being a purchasable commodity, because it doesn't lend itself as readily to the more abstract quality of music.
Music is the prime abstract art. Not my music, I'm not saying that. But music, in its finest form, is the abstract, and literature is the verbal reality, almost on a conversational level. Film, since the talkies, has been the totally accessible, very immediate, art form. It works immediately. It has to, because conventionally it's employed as a one act experience — you go to the movie, see it, and go home. Whereas with music, one has access to repeated performances, either live or through recordings. Music stands repetition. One gets more into it as a result of repetition if the music is worth anything at all.
Particularly in England now, we've arrived at a media situation where the music is so instant — where it's designed to appeal only once. And I might not like it the first time.
I would hope to be involved with music that will withstand repetition. I'm into repetition, and the musical formats that we deal with employ repetition.
How would you react to someone who said that Jethro Tull's music is too repetitious — that the format hasn't really evolved since the Benefit album?
I would say where the hell does that leave the Rolling Stones and Elton John? Let's be straight. We all know that they have problems trying to find something that's not new, that's sufficiently close to what they've always done, but a little bit different. I mean, I don't need to talk about that. And anything I say is not meant as a put-down. To me, the Stones are the ultimate rock 'n' roll group. It's enough for me that they merely survive, because they embody my musical origins. They were the first group I was ever really moved by, because I was never that much into the Beatles.
You must have been into jazz. It seems to be a strong influence, especially on the first album.
Only in as much as it had a sort of passing interest for me in terms of seeing what kind of music was being played. I'm interested in music in general and I've listened to all sorts of music a little bit, but I've never been moved by anything on a continuing basis, other than a very limited selection of some Negro blues, which I find now is still as moving to me as it ever was. And I find that some of the indigenous folk forms of England and Scotland also continue to move me.
That comes through clearly in your music.
But I think perhaps because of the comparisons that have been made between what I write and the folky, traditional stuff, that I tend not to listen to any of that music at all. I certainly don't want to be a student of that kind of music; so if there's a similarity, it must remain really coincidental. It's something that I have only a passing awareness of. Since I was brought up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and I heard the bagpipes from an early age, it's a sound that rings in my ears. It becomes almost a folk memory of certain sounds and relationships of notes — a motive stirring of the blood.
What was your childhood like? In many of your songs there's a very strong attitude of rebellion against various father-figures, such as parents, the church, school.
I suppose my childhood was basically very normal — a normalcy which I've occasionally, ineptly, let come across in some of my lyrics. Possibly that's what appeals to other people. It's certainly not an unusual phenomenon to be in one's parents' bad graces during adolescence.
The songs verbalize for people, thoughts that they clearly have difficulty in verbalizing for themselves in the lucid way that the lyricist has, if he's a good one — or a popular one, I should say.
How did the conception for Thick As A Brick start?
It wasn't a conception really, just the act of writing a song thinking about what I might have been, what I began life as being, what kind of childhood images moved me — dealt with in a very oblique fashion, because I'm not setting out to create a threadbare tale of emotional woe or to even delineate emotional happenings. I'm just creating a background lyrical summation of a lot of things I feel about being a contemporary child in this age and the problems that one has — the problems of being precocious beyond one's age or having interests beyond one's age, and to some extent being ruled in a kind of heavy-handed, unexplained fashion by the father-figures you describe.
Not that I've had many dealings with the Church, but the few I've had, I found totally mysterious.
By the way, have you ever had any formal musical training?
No, no. I obviously know a little bit about it, but not in a formal sense. I don't read music.
Actually, the music that we play before the concert begins is some music that I wrote for orchestra which has never, and will never, be released, because it's an amateurish attempt. It sounds good, but it ain't. I know that it isn't actually good music. But I'm dealing with something that immediately sounds like classical music. Therefore, I'm not about to expose myself to ridicule or — even worse — acclaim for it. It's the first time I sat down to just write some music and see how it turns out and get some other people to play it. I did that really as an experiment in 1974, just because I wanted to see if it was fulfilling. It was actually extraordinarily fulfilling. I collaborated with my good friend David Palmer, who's worked with us over the years on strings or whatever else we have on record that we didn't play ourselves.
What about ambitions in the way of writing without music? Poetry, fiction?
I doubt it would be poetry. I've always had a great suspicion of poetry because the best poetry, I think, falls within a relatively classical style of writing and to work within that area would seem very imitative of style, if not of content. It's rather like saying, "Sit down and write a classical ballet." One could obviously go out and find a Russian folk theme that has not yet been explored in ballet and one could deal with it in musical terms along the lines of Tchaikovsky and deal with it in choreographic terms along the lines of one of the Russian dance masters of old. And one could arrive at a classical ballet which could, with sufficient money, staging, and stars, be enormously successful. But it would be a sham nonetheless, because it no longer has anything to do with the age that spawned it. It's no longer a product of the romantic glorification of the form and spectacle that is ballet.
It's the same with Shakespeare. You have to ham it up — Laurence Olivier it up — in order to be successful. You can't recreate it in a modern style and have it be successful. It merely becomes an amusement, a diversion, an academic exercise, rather than having a real place.
So we must necessarily deal with modern technique and style or else go so far back that no-one is forced to make the inevitable comparison. I find, personally, less enjoyment in the modern styles of poetry or prose or dance or serious 20th century music. I think the visual arts are the only area in which modern technique has really applied itself, if one calls modern art the period from the precursors of the Impressionists on until today. There we obviously already have a tremendously solid and retrospectively valuable collection of art product — a new tradition, if you like, since the 1890s. It may continue to be possible with photography and the visual arts. But that gets us back to the question of repetition. It's something which horrifies me, because it's very hard to do.
It would be hard, for instance, if Jethro Tull was to play three or four times a year at your local, friendly coliseum, to enjoy it the second or third time. It tends to become like ballet, something that you take in occasionally, like watching a Walt Disney film at Christmas. It's something which you look forward to; it satisfies your expectations; and it fulfils a certain function in the yearly cycle. That's what we're doing in public performance.
Do you feel a danger in Jethro Tull becoming an "event" in that sense?
Yeah, but obviously I'm aware of it. I'm not going to let it happen, or happen only to the extent that I'm willing to go along with it some of the way, providing a sort of public utility service. But I'm not going to let that become the sole reason for continuing to do what I do. No way.
I'm not sufficiently professional to be able to do that anyway. I mean, I would get bored and I would let it show, and people would become bored and they wouldn't come back the next year.
Does it ever get really stale, playing basically the same songs, with the same musicians every night on a tour? Is there room for much improvisation?
Everybody has room, every night. Room to move and room to breathe. It's very important that we are regularly changing little things, almost on a day-to-day level. Someone says, "Can we change those 12 bars there?" or "Let me do this and you do that." It may be a change of one note in a set arrangement or it may be a loose discussion about some improvised piece of music.
It happened last night. There was a change in about 36 bars that we just loosely discussed, and it was an improvised piece. It happened in the encore, towards the end.
You still feel excited about what you're doing then.
Yes. But could we digress at this point? It may be irrelevant to your needs, but I'm just a bit curious. You must necessarily come with a viewpoint, just as an audience has a viewpoint. I discern fairly strong ideas that you already have about Jethro Tull's function, Jethro Tull's right to its popularity and musical output.
What do they come across as?
I think you possibly feel that the group is stale, that I'm necessarily becoming bored with it and thinking about some other possibilities. That Passion Play or Thick As A Brick has somehow been a blundering attempt to get away from the real creative ability that might have shown in our earlier music.
No, I'm sorry if that's come across. I think Thick As A Brick was a fantastic, really surprising album for the group to do. I'm not that familiar with Passion Play. I've heard it once and haven't really formed any strong opinion about it.
Well, between those two records there was actually a double album recorded of new material. It wasn't released and the tapes were burned, apart from one which emerged on War Child as the sole survivor of a year trying to do something different than Thick As A Brick. That double album consisted of individual songs ranging from a minute and a half long to eight or ten minutes. They were all related, in a sense. We recorded three sides of that double album, and I, rather than the group, felt dissatisfied with what seemed to me to be a conscious attempt to be doing something different than Thick As A Brick, without really having any reason for doing so. Because what I really wanted to do was something like Thick As A Brick, only better and more intense.
So finally we went back and recorded Passion Play, which was written and recorded in a very short space of time, but under great emotional intensity. I can understand that it would be difficult for other people to relate to it, because they would just say, "What's all this going on? I don't need this. Let me get back to my Cream's 'Greatest Hits'." One can expect that things like that will happen, but I've got to be prepared to take risks musically to satisfy myself and the other members of the group first, before I start thinking about satisfying an audience.
I think it's an impossible position for an artist of any kind to feel that he always has to be topping himself. That's got to be the surest way to burn out.
Well, you see, War Child was done after first having taken a long time off the road. For six months, we didn't play concerts and War Child was like getting back together with the guys in the group after three months of not even seeing each other very much, then saying, "Right, we have to start rehearsing a new album." It was like entering a new phase of the group's existence. I enjoyed playing fairly simple, shortish pieces of music — a sort of renewing thing, another cycle. It was an enjoyable album to make, a very easy album to make. It had a good vibe to it.
Then we had a single from it ('Bungle In The Jungle') which was a very catchy, sort of commercial sound as far as all the disc jockeys were concerned. So everyone sort of thought, well Jethro Tull is back playing it safe, doing something nice and inoffensive. For us, it was absolutely the right thing to do at the time, because that was the mood.
Since then, there has been lots of personal, emotional, and domestic problems with members of the group. It's a different mood now. Minstrel In The Gallery is much more intense, much more introverted, much more a solitude. It may again be seen as a totally sort of uncommercial thing. People may really not like it. And I shall be somewhat despondent and disappointed if people don't enjoy it.
But finally, I have to do what I want to do. Otherwise, we have no possible excuse for getting together, me and the audience. We have no reason under the sun to even breathe the same air, unless it's the result of me saying I'm playing what I want to play because I actually have to cope with this and say it for whatever obscure or selfish set of personal reasons. So there exists a coincidence where other people derive some enjoyment or some emotional sort of reward from that. That's all it amounts to really, a coincidence, because I'm not terribly responsible when it comes to catering to what people want.
I think what you may have detected in some of my questions was a feeling that much of what you do has the danger of becoming stale easily. You're dealing with a fairly simple musical form, and you're not at all a simple man.
My big private goal, my actual composing ideal, is just to write a 30-second piece that just totally evokes something. Everyone will say, "I know just what he means." That's my sort of private thing. I don't get caught up in that too often, just once in a while. There's a song on Minstrel In The Gallery called 'Grace'. It's just a 40-second piece. I literally woke up one morning and looked out the window and just sang words that perfectly evoked for me a feeling, and put it to a sort of quartet arrangement for strings. For me it evoked something that I think countless people will sort of share in and understand. The only twist is in the words:
"Hello my lady,
and the next line: "May I buy you again tomorrow?"
And "May I buy you" is so ambiguous, whether it applies merely to the $2.50 breakfast at the airport or the whole thing. I mean, we pay for all this in one way or another. That ambiguity is a consciously put-in thing, but it's not something that anybody will really pick up on, though some people obviously will. The last line doesn't even need to be there for most people. It's there as an extra twist, an amusement. It's there if you happen to feel, like I do, a certain cynicism about all your pleasures in life. Because I wake up some mornings and the sun is shining and the birds are twittering and I feel like going out and strangling the little bastards.
JOHN ALAN SIMON