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Interview: November 1969
IAN ANDERSON IS ROCK'S MERRIEST MADMAN
After hearing about this red haired flute player who goes skipping and jumping across the stage on one leg looking too much like the pied piper for the audience's comfort, it was a realistic let-down when Ian Anderson stepped sedately in for an interview with Hit Parader. He's calm, pleasant and intelligent, with the ability to talk to you knowledgeably about anything from the price of second-hand flutes in New York to recording techniques.
We started by asking Ian if he thought of Jethro Tull in two stages: the first and second album; and if he thought of Jethro Tull as the first underground group in England ...
"Of course there had been Led Zeppelin and Ten Years After."
Led Zeppelin I think on a very commercial level could be considered underground, but Ten Years After was sort of at the end of the blues thing. There was a whole blues invasion thing, Ten Years After, Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack, and all. And that sort of quieted down and then we heard your stuff, which sounded completely different from all that. Did you consider yourself part of that?
"In a way, because in England we'd been around at more or less the same time and came up the same way. It was just a means of gaining an entry, as it were, at the time. Obviously we changed. Ten Years After sort of went into a more rock and roll kind of thing. Sort of rock and roll, sort of pseudo jazzy kind of thing. Well, Fleetwood Mac actually have changed quite a lot. You know fifty per cent of what they do now is what would generally be termed progressive type things. It's definitely not blues in the normal sense of the word. It isn't twelve bar constructions and it doesn't use the usual clichés. They've invented their own, which is good.
"Probably everyone's aim at this stage is to invent their own clichés initially because that is your stock material from which you draw if you're improvising. You know your clichés. You know it's so much nicer to invent one or two of your own to kind of, ah, tide you over those difficult years when you're learning your craft which is, ah ...
"What we've tried to do initially is to gain a foothold in the whole thing by having a distinctive sound and a distinctive approach to music. It hasn't resolved itself in a strictly musical style as yet, which is a good thing. To attain a style after playing together, well, this band has only been playing together, well, less than a year, to achieve a style now would be constricting, definitely, because we would really be pigeon-holing ourselves in a particular category of music and attitude towards music at too early a stage. Although we might appear to have a style because of the instrumentation, I wouldn't really call it a musical style. We still draw on a lot of vague and various sources for our playing and for writing."
The binding force, though ... almost every group that isn't shooting for commercial records has some sort of a binding force. Fleetwood Mac, I think their riffs are their binding force. Your binding force is a much more total sound.
"Yes ... basically what we aim for ... what I aim for when I write a song is to write something which has an identity as a song. But I don't write it for myself, for any individual. It's written for the four of us to play with all four of us very much in mind. Which is why I do the writing and why the others don't complain about it, because I write for them just as much as I write for myself.
"It's almost really as if they are doing a part of the writing because musically we're very close; if in no other way, at least we are musically, and consequently there is a lot of sympathy for them in the things that I write. It could almost be argued that they're as much a part of the writing as I am although I'm the one who actually writes the words and writes the melodies and decides on the chords and so on, I do it so much with them in mind that they really are a part of it although not actively."
Do you think it's necessary in a group to have this kind of situation where one person is responsible, initially, for initiating the creativity? I think that groups suffer if everybody is going to write a song. There has to be one person who's responsible, who's the leader, to get somewhere. Do you feel that way?
"Yes. It depends on the individuals. It's not inconceivable that there might be four individuals playing together in a group for whom this attitude of everybody mucking in to write songs might work. You know, by and large it would seem the responsibility must fall on the shoulders of one or possibly two people to bear the bulk of the initial creativity around which your music is based. Otherwise is does tend to become confusing and too many compromises have to be made.
"I've never seen anybody who could actually sit down ... you know, I've never been able to work with anybody else, really, actually to sit down and put ideas together. I mean I could never do that with Mick Abrahams because he was very set in his style of both playing and what he wanted to write. And it would have been a compromise detrimental to the end product had we both tried to write songs together. We only did once or twice and it was a compromise, it was strained.
"So for that reason alone perhaps it's the natural thing to do to go off on your own to sort of approach it from outside: by looking back at the other people and saying what would they like and what would they do if they were doing it. Whereupon it becomes less of a compromise and more of an enjoyable task, you know, to set about writing something. Because you're not sort of ... you're not affected here and now by what somebody else is saying or doing, it's something you write and complete and then all play and possibly changes might occur but you're in more control, you have more control over things taking place at a slower rate rather than being decided upon by two people supposedly co-operating in the writing of a song. When the initial ideas for a song appear, which is perhaps the most important part, and if those are decided by more than one person, then it must be, well to me anyway, it's very confusing."
When you hear the eventual result, say three or four weeks later after it's been played a number of times, are you then capable as the creator of a piece of music to negate it, at least in terms of the musicians that are playing it?
"Um, well no, not ... it hasn't happened so far. I haven't thought that anything I've written was actually wrong. Sometimes I've gone a little beyond the bounds that perhaps one of the individuals is capable of playing. In which case it means sort of a time gap in which someone develops their technique to the point where they can cope with it. I mean this happens with me as well. I sometimes write things ... I want to play something which I can't play. I might wish to use a piano on a certain track in the studio and the technique of playing it would be totally beyond me, I mean I'm sure it would because I don't play piano, but in which case the others all disappear for some lunch and I would sit down for an hour or so and learn how to play the piano that I want to do, you see.
"This sort of thing occurs all the time. You know, that you do something that you can't do. It isn't necessarily wrong. It's something that you're not able to do yet which might be looked at as a mis-calculation on my part. But I rather look at it as being something which keeps the band moving as individuals, in terms of their individual capabilities on their instruments. If I was to write well within the limits of everyone's capability the thing would become stagnant individually, although it might possess a whole character which was satisfying; it would still be a little bit disappointing for them to be playing what they knew they could play quite safely without having to improve."
I think you're getting into the difference between technique and musicianship. One of the problems, one of the major problems of rock and roll music I think, is that technique can suffice for musicianship. Someone can go out and buy a bass and with very little can then learn the technique of going from A to E and then changing and going to D. And can form a group and play. And if you had learned that bass run, and if somebody said that they had to play piano and they had to play those three notes, they could then sit down and after a certain amount of practice they could play the riff on the piano. Does this lead to musicianship eventually? Like if someone in your group can't play a particular line and they practice and learn how to play it, do you think that inherently teaches a musician something about the music of it, or have they just learned a clever riff?
"Well that's a very difficult question to answer without going into depth, but just from that first point of view, if there is something that one of the fellows can't play that I would like him to play because of the song demanding that, he might learn to play it intuitively given a certain amount of time. He might already possess the feel of playing it but just lack the technique. In which case, after acquiring the technique, the whole thing is well understood and becomes a part of a musicianly approach, that particular piece of music. If, however, he doesn't intuitively feel the music, and has to just play the technique and learn to play almost as it were like reading a copy, like reading sheet music, then he may have acquired some technique without really understanding where it fits into the context of his overall understanding of music.
"Sometimes this could happen, but one would hope that given more time we all possess a sufficient degree of musicianship to understand what we play. Not just to play blindly if it's something we cannot play technically, but learn to play it technically and also gain the understanding as time goes on if it isn't already there. Usually it is. I think most of us possess a feeling ... you know, I think even people who don't play instruments might possess a feeling for the music and are lacking simply the technique: they inherently possess a certain amount of musicianship completely apart from technique. They have an understanding of the music, of the concepts, it's an intuitive thing.
"On the other end of the scale you often find piano teachers will teach a tone deaf child to play piano. Which is extremely distressing, to see somebody who firmly believes they're a pianist who plays like a machine and doesn't even ... couldn't even sing you the line or couldn't play a simple melody by ear. I once actually knew a piano teacher who was tone deaf. Which is extraordinary: that people can get into this position in the music world at whatever level it is, you know, who have so little musicianship although they possess technique. Hopefully people can shuffle themselves in between those two extremes. The person who has no technique, but has a feeling, an intuitive feeling for music, can buy an instrument and learn to acquire a certain degree of facility on the instrument and learn to play music with feeling and with understanding. Unfortunately somebody who is tone deaf is really better off laying bricks or sweeping roads."
Or being part of the audience.
"Well yes, this is a distressing thought also, that perhaps twenty per cent of the people in any audience might be tone deaf for all one knows, which is ... it may not negate their being there but it makes it a bit suspicious, particularly if they're bopping up and down and sort of grooving and saying, "Wow man, too much!" In which case you begin to think, well, perhaps we should have a little booth at the door in the way in and they all have to sight read two bars of music before they're allowed entrance to the hall or something (laughs)."
Thanks to Casey Drumm for this article