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Yabba-dabba doo! Once declared extinct, Jethro Tull celebrate their 25th anniversary with a box set and a rocking new lease on life.
Back in the mid-Eighties a magazine editor impatiently dismissed my idea for an article on Jethro Tull, calling the band a rock "dinosaur." Now, almost 10 years later, he and his Clash albums are fossilized relics — and I'm having a great conversation with Tull's Ian Anderson and Martin Barre. To quote Barre: "Funny old world," isn't it? Anderson — the band's driving force, composer, singer, acoustic guitarist and flautist — and Barre — Tull's electric guitarist — have been an inseparable musical team since 1969. Together, they've produced some of progressive rock's best-loved albums, including Aqualung, Thick As A Brick, Passion Play and Songs From The Wood.
Unlike many of the bands who qualify for the classic-rock label, Tull have kept their edge by continuing to produce new music, and by performing live year after year. Far from being dinosaur-ish, Tull concerts reveal a polished, confident and ambitious musical team, hardly content to rest on their laurels. Rather, they rework and rearrange what is already complex music into consistently awe-inspiring performances.
It's what we do. It's a service we provide (deadpans Anderson). I like to think that if I was a bank manager for a living, you would come to see me, ask me for a loan, and go away saying, "Y'know, he's very professional. He's a good bank manager."
While it's true that Tull's unorthodox mixture of 'Olde English' folk, rock and jazz fusion has cost the band a larger mainstream following, this very same musical diversity and independence has created a vast, loyal, core of Jethro Tull followers — whose devotion can only be compared to Grateful Dead fans. If you add to these the multitude of classic-rock fans who know the group through their FM hits (like 'Aqualung', 'Locomotive Breath' and 'Skating Away') it's easy to see how, for 25 years, Jethro Tull has sustained a powerful — if hard to define — presence in the rock and roll arena.
It is this same fan base that recently kept Anderson in the studio, preparing for an unprecedented release of three separate CD box sets. The four-CD 25th Anniversary Box Set, the two-CD 'best-of' Highlights set, and Jethro Tull's Other Boxed Set, a collection of previously unreleased vault-finds for the really serious Tull fan (due out in December, in a very limited edition, and including the long-dormant double-album recorded after Thick As A Brick but never released).
All of this is request-driven (Ian says, laughing with a weary air of disbelief). Really — I've got much better things to do with my time than get involved with this horrendous 25-year-old stuff.
In the final analysis, it is Tull's original blend of alternative, eclectic musical elements that sets the band apart. Viewed across the years, their unique musical identity can be seen, first, as a creation of the inventive mind of Ian Anderson — but also as a product of the collaboration between Anderson and Barre. Martin Barre's playing is a hallmark of the patented Tull sound, his musicianship a tool on which Anderson often relies to sculpt his pieces. In their 25 years together, Ian and Martin have forged a working relationship that is both creative, compositionally, and complementary in performance. Music history buffs beware: Jethro Tull's stock is rising, despite what your local deejay — or editor — may say.
How did you choose the material for the 25th Anniversary Box Set?
IAN ANDERSON: Well, clearly you can't go and do the same stuff you did on the 20-year album; this had to be a different package. So we tried to find some key points around which to pin a four-CD package. One CD includes most of a 1970 Carnegie Hall concert. There is a CD of classic Jethro Tull songs which we re-recorded more in the way that we play them these days. There's a CD of live material called Pot Pourri. And there's a CD of remixed Jethro Tull songs.
What made you decide to release the 1970 Carnegie Hall concert?
ANDERSON: It was just something that turned up. We discovered three reels of tape marked 'Carnegie Hall' — I had no idea that I still had them. I put them up on a multi-track just to check 'em out and thought, "Well, there's a kind of energy here." It was fairly early in our American career and we were just beginning to become fairly well known. So there was a kind of excitement that I think translated very well into the music we played. Although it's a very problematic tape, technically, it is live, it is real, and it is the way it was on that night.
'To Cry You A Song', which originally appeared on Benefit, and appears on the 25th Anniversary album, is one you haven't played in a while.
MARTIN BARRE: Yeah, I think it's a difficult key for Ian to sing. But it's a shame, because if we recorded it now, it'd be really good [laughs]. I mean, basically, it's a great song with good chords and a good riff, but when I listen to the guitar playing — oh dear, oh dear — I just find it a bit naive. However, it was 1970, and that's the way it was.
I was pleasantly surprised to see 'Sossity' [Benefit] on the 25th Anniversary package.
ANDERSON: I always hated that song — or rather I thought I did. Because working on 'Sossity' on the Carnegie Hall tapes, I realized it's actually okay. In fact, right before this interview I was sitting with our keyboard player, Andy Giddings, and we were literally working out the chords and the parts to that song with a view to including it in this year's live concert. But when it comes to doing it live now, I came to the conclusion that I would rather play the flute lines, which I think are a haunting part of the song, than play acoustic guitar at all.
BARRE: 'Sossity' was a compilation of two acoustic guitar parts, one played by Ian and one that I played. And it's a very strange one. The only way I could re-learn it was by getting the multi-track and listening to my part on its own. It's a great song, but I had no idea what I played.
I hear you have another interesting reissue project in the works — in addition to the 25th Anniversary Box Set and the Highlights CD's.
ANDERSON: One of the things we're doing for a release this Christmas is something called Jethro Tull's Other Boxed Set — in a limited edition, really for the dedicated fan — which is a lot of unreleased studio stuff as well as live recordings. Right now I'm finishing work on some material unearthed from the tape vaults — three sides of an unreleased double album that we abandoned in 1972. And although it's of limited value to me personally, the fans know about this stuff and a lot of them really want to hear it.
This is the music you recorded between Thick As A Brick and Passion Play, but never finished?
ANDERSON: Yeah, we were about a side away from completion of a double album when we decided to stop. We ran into a lot of technical problems at a particular recording studio in France, and became pretty dispirited. We decided it was actually easier to start fresh and write new music. But it's interesting music, in the sense that it does evoke something of the early Seventies — as well as our specific approach to the early Seventies, in terms of trying to come up with something that wasn't quite the mainstream pop or rock music of that era. It says something about the era, if only perhaps that the music is extremely eclectic and somewhat unusual — and somewhat preposterous and bombastic! [laughs] But if you view it with a smile on your face, then it's okay. It doesn't sound too bad.
BARRE: I haven't heard it for a long, long time, but Ian played some tracks for me today and it's actually very, very good; there are some really good ideas and nice sounds — and it's quite well played! Some of the music is very, very complicated.
Are they separate songs or an extended piece like Thick As A Brick ?
BARRE: They're all separate pieces of music — but it's unfinished, so the original idea might have been to string it all together. But we never got that far, and the way they're presented now is as separate pieces of music.
Did you compose all the music?
ANDERSON: Probably not. I say "probably not" because I think if I had, it would exist somewhere as a demo or some other kind of thing. I suspect we probably went in with a number of themes and it evolved as we went along, because we were kind of rehearsing and recording at the same time in this country chateau recording studio.
Is that how Thick As A Brick was put together? [Ed. Note: Thick As A Brick, released in 1972, features one song stretched over the entire length of the album.]
BARRE: We were talking about that today, in fact. Thick As A Brick was all done in succession — we started off at the beginning and worked our way through the album. And Ian really wrote the material day by day. So, on a Friday we'd finish off with a sort of soft acoustic thing and then Saturday morning, Ian would turn up and say, "Right, we'll go into a guitar solo here, and a riff," or whatever, or, "We'll change key from Bb to Eb," whatever — it was done day by day. And it was good fun because you never really knew where things were gonna go. It was recorded that way as well — in sequence, on the same piece of tape. We'd record an intro, get the tape right and go home. The next day we'd start again right there, either drop in or do an edit, and record the next piece of music.
Ian, you and Martin have been making music together now for almost 25 years. How did you first get together?
ANDERSON: Well, when I first saw Martin he was a sax player — played tenor sax and a bit of guitar in a band called Gethsemane, a kind of a progressive soul outfit. I noticed him because he also played flute. They were a support act for us somewhere down in the south of England in Jethro Tull's early days. And when Mick Abrahams left the band and we held some auditions, Martin applied.
BARRE: The audition was comical. It was held in a big room, and the walls were lined with guitar players — I mean everybody was in the room waiting to play. And guitarist 'number one' would take his guitar out and play a blues, and Ian would sort of walk around the room, listening. Then when he'd heard enough he'd tap Clive [drummer Clive Bunker] on the shoulder and that was the signal to stop playing, and obviously it was time for the next one.
Some of the auditions lasted 10 seconds, some of them lasted a couple of minutes — and of course the whole thing was ludicrous. [laughs] And when I started playing, I just couldn't take my eyes off Clive Bunker's shoulder, 'cause I just thought, "When the tap comes, I'm out the door!" [laughs] It was just terrible. You can imagine trying to play under those circumstances! I mean, I played like a complete lemon. I was so disappointed at how I played, because I loved the band so much and I knew that the gig was just tailor-made for me. I was a very shy person at the time, but something motivated me to phone Ian up, just to ask if the job was still open and if I could get a second chance.
ANDERSON: We had actually already decided on another guy, but I said to Martin, "Well, okay, come by, but we're not going to do a big audition. Just come see my in my room, and we'll play something together."
BARRE: So I went round to his flat and sat down. Ian always says he couldn't hear what I played because I was breathing so heavy.
ANDERSON: Martin arrived with just the [electric] guitar, and I couldn't hear him because he didn't have an amplifier! He was playing — I mean, I could see his fingers move — but I just really couldn't hear what he was playing. [laughs] But it looked to me like his fingers were going in the right place at the right time. It looked okay. So we somehow gave him another chance to come and play with us live.
BARRE: They eventually asked me to come to this pub in north London for a day, just me and the rest of the band. And it went well. So, at the end of the day they said, "Right, we'll start rehearsals over Christmas." This all took place over the period of a week. Strange, isn't it? Funny old world.
ANDERSON: At that stage Martin was very interested in developing his technique and improving things. He was good for me to work with, I guess, because he was not conditioned to doing things a certain way. He was an open book on which it was possible for me to write — in the sense of coming up with ideas for songs; an important vehicle through which I could develop some ability at writing songs. So, Martin was always a great guy for me to work with.
What does Martin mean to Jethro Tull?
ANDERSON: Well, I think Martin is Jethro Tull and, next to me, he's the longest-serving member. I mean, I would say that the dominant image of Jethro Tull is probably me standing on one leg playing the flute, as well as certain obvious songs. But the next thing after that has got to be something to do with Martin Barre. So I would say Martin is the dominant Jethro Tull personality in the musical sense. Although Jethro Tull has many different facets and characters, according to the finer points of who makes up the band at any point in time, you get the feeling that if you took Martin Barre away, it really wouldn't be Jethro Tull any more.
Martin, over the years, how much has Ian influenced the way the guitar comes across in Tull?
BARRE: Well, he doesn't dictate parts to me, but he's very influential — because I think he's always had a clear idea of how he wants things to sound. And I must say that I've given Ian full control in some areas. I mean, if Ian says, "I think you need this sort of a sound," I'll go with it. As long as I like the sound, I trust his judgment. Because I have to give him the credit for being able to foresee the finished result. For some reason we've never really had any differences of opinions — it just never happens. We just normally think alike. Nowadays, I think I just know Ian and his music well enough that I know what he wants.
What are the mechanics of your working relationship?
ANDERSON: Very often — especially if it was an improvised section — I would leave him alone for an hour or two and he would do two or three takes. Then I would come and listen to it and say, "Well, the shape of that bit is good," or, "That's a good idea ..." We would talk about it and throw it around, and then maybe try and come up with a solo that embraced a few different ideas.
Is that done without any tension between you and Martin?
ANDERSON: Uh, I hope not. Because I think tension plays an important part in it. I don't mean tension in a negative way, but tension in the sense that I would think that he'd be there trying to please me as well as himself. But I'm a much harder taskmaster on myself than I would ever be on anybody else. I'm very ruthless about my own performance.
BARRE: It's the way any musician is. You try something and if it's not right you try something else. You try a few different avenues — different sounds, guitars maybe, amps, a new approach to playing the part — and you know when it works. But there are no rules at all to the way we do things. Sometimes Ian leaves me in the studio to put down a guitar part and sometimes he knows what he wants and says, "I want certain guitar lines between the vocals" — maybe they're lines that he's gonna play on the flute as well. Sometimes he's come in then and said, "I like it, that's great." But then there are times when I'll try out different things and he'll say, "I like that one — but I don't like that one." There are just no rules. But inevitably it works well because I've usually come up with what Ian wants. Most of the time I'm left to myself and come up with my own ideas.
ANDERSON: In terms of a particular song, a particular chord sequence or a particular obvious melodic riff, the chances are it's part of the music I've written. But when it comes to putting all the detail and the finer points together, it's Martin's invention. I will usually push him to consider as many possibilities before we commit ourselves to a definitive route. For me, that's part of making music. Most of what Martin plays is of his invention, not mine. Most of the things that in some way make him special as a guitar player are that way because he is special as a guitar player.
Ian, your acoustic guitar playing really came to the fore somewhere around Aqualung and Thick As A Brick — a very distinct 'Ian Anderson' style. Where did it come from?
ANDERSON: Well, in terms of anybody else's playing, back around 1968, '69, there were a few guys who were a part of the 'contemporary folk' scene — Pentangle's John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention — and were certainly not traditional English folk players. Although some of their techniques were traditional folk, they seemed to be doing something different: singing very personalized songs that, seemingly, did not have a great deal to do with the American tradition. Seeing people like that gave me the confidence to try and strum a few chords and sing. And that's how it started.
In those early songs, your playing is characterized by intricate things that are unique to your style. Do you remember consciously trying to develop an original approach?
ANDERSON: I would try and find the little things I could play with my limited technique — something that would relate to the melody, or harmonize with the melody, or produce a little turnaround. Some little embellishments that would be relative to the song. They became very much a piece of the song, part of the arrangement.
Have you ever considered making an acoustic solo album?
ANDERSON: I would very much enjoy making a solo album that featured predominantly acoustic instruments. But I would have this real problem straight away, which would be that I couldn't really go out and play that kind of thing live. And although I enjoy the acoustic guitar stuff, I mainly like to slip it into the context of Jethro Tull music in its larger sense. I like it when I can include an acoustic guitar for a couple of verses, and then switch to the flute. That's the way I tend to think these days; it's kind of really important, especially at this time in my life, to do things that I can play on stage.
Martin, I hear you're working on a solo album.
BARRE: Well, it's looking good, I'm pleased to say. I started it late last year and I'm happy with what I've got. Hopefully, I'll be finished by the end of May and it will be out by August or September. I'm doing all the guitar playing and I hope to be singing. It's sort of bluesy rock, with a few oddball things thrown in to make it interesting.
Do you think people will compare it to Tull's stuff?
BARRE: Well, it wouldn't bother me if they did. But I don't think they're gonna find any comparison. It should have a bit of Tull in it, because, you know, it's me. [laughs] I think it'd be tempting to say to Ian, "Come and do a bit of flute," but I think that if you do a solo project, really, it has to be yours. And I definitely didn't want to get guests on it — people with a name. I just think that's a cop out. I just want it to stand on its own merits.
You've written some music for Tull over the years — such as the long opening to 'Minstrel In The Gallery'. Anything else of note?
BARRE: Well, I co-wrote 'Paparazzi', 'Nobody's Car' [Under Wraps], and a bit of 'Heavy Horses'. There are sort of tiny little bits here and there, such as in Crest Of A Knave. Some of them might be 10 seconds long, others might be 30 seconds. But they're hard to judge on their own. Take 'Heavy Horses', where Ian wrote the song, and said to me, "I want an instrumental middle piece." Obviously, whatever I wrote was influenced by the song — it had to blend in with the music that already was written. So although it's my music, it was written to be sympathetic to the song. So if you're asking if my music is similar to the things I've written within Tull — I'd have to say no.
Ian, Tull's repertoire contains a lot of instrumental music — some entire pieces, some sections. Have you ever had the desire to focus even more on instrumental stuff?
ANDERSON: It's one of those things that I'm aware of. It's a bit like making the 'Acoustic Guitar Album', or writing a huge, sort of symphonic instrumental work. I mean, I've got plenty of time ahead of me to do that stuff. [laughs] I can do that in 10 years. But right at the moment I'm still just about young enough to carry on within the rock and roll context with a bunch of guys that I enjoy working with. So, when it comes to doing things like writing movie scores or instrumental albums, or acoustic things, or doing a flute album — they're all sort of tucked away in my head, and one day I will probably do those things. But my most driving enthusiasm is to continue doing what I can only describe as progressive rock music. Because, for me, it is a progressive area in which to work. It doesn't mean you have get more complicated — it doesn't have get more highly structured or academic or cerebral. It actually has more to do with coming up with little ideas and themes and nuances within the music that either I haven't done before — or have done, but am gonna do a little better.
Photos: GEORGE BODNAR
Thanks to Simon Lindholm for this article.