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12 November 1993
With the ability to review a 25-year history that includes nearly a dozen different band lineups and 18 studio albums, Jethro Tull fans have had no shortage of ammunition for debating the merits of the various editions of the venerable British band.
But bandleader Ian Anderson, even on the occasion of Tulls 25th anniversary, isn't one to wax too nostalgically about past lineups. One thing he can say, though, is that being in the group today is more of a burden and a challenge than ever before.
It's a much harder job being in Jethro Tull in 1993 than it was being in Jethro Tull in 1973 (he says). Right now you've really got to have a handle on two or three whole eras of music.
The current lineup have inherited the musical demands of 25 years of Jethro Tull, recording and performing (he explains). They have to be very versatile in their technical ability. They also have to be very aware of the nuances in the different periods of Jethro Tull, of the areas where they have to be faithful to the original feel of some songs. But at the same time they have to be able to adapt and bring things within the orbit of their own style, to an extent, in the areas of music where that is, shall we say, the agreed way that we let the music go.
I think on a musical level in terms of character and personality you could point to a number of other Jethro Tull lineups and hold them up as being very important. But I think the current lineup is a lineup that on a musical level works very comfortably together. We understand each other and it's a very intuitive musical group that plays firmly and adequately throughout a whole range of ideas and styles and feels.
At its best, it really sizzles (Anderson concludes). This is an edition of Jethro Tull that would be equally at home playing progressive jazz rock or could equally well go in and play Irish folk music if we put our minds to it, because the enthusiasm and the skills and the abilities are there.
The core of the current lineup — Anderson on guitar, flute and vocals, Martin Barre on guitar and David Pegg on bass — has been one of Tull's most enduring units, playing together since 1979. Drummer Doane Perry, except for a brief hiatus last year, has been in Tull since 1984, while keyboardist Andy Giddings is in his third year with the group.
To many fans, though, one lineup has stood as the definitive unit — the early 70s edition that included Anderson, Barre, keyboardist John Evan, bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond and a pair of drummers, Clive Bunker and Barriemore Barlow. These configurations recorded such classic albums as Aqualung, Thick As A Brick and War Child. Anderson, not surprisingly, has a different, more pragmatic view of the Aqualung-era band.
I've been doing it for far too long to say "well, that was definitive period"(he reflects). That would seem to suggest that what happened before and what happened since is somehow lesser in merit. And of course I can't possibly see it that way, otherwise I would have stopped right after Aqualung. So for me it's just one of those periods through which we went.
In fact, Anderson's memories of so-called classic Tull lineups are not entirely warm. Though the band's fortunes were soaring during the time of Aqualung and Thick As A Brick — commercial breakthroughs that established Tull as one of the era's premier acts — life in the early '70s was not as pleasant as the band's success might seem to indicate.
The recording of Aqualung was not a happy period (recalls Anderson). We were not having a great time in the studio. It was a difficult album to make, for technical reasons. It also had to do with the fact that we were all pretty homeless and living in hotels and working every day during a long, fairly miserable winter trying to get that album finished. It wasn't a great time. It was an exciting time, but on a day to day basis, we were not really terribly happy. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of things were going wrong. So that doesn't for me hold any great memories.
And in terms of the touring that surrounded that period of time, it just seemed, well, I don't know; I guess we had some nights that were okay, and some memorable concerts, but it was a hard period that was not as enjoyable perhaps as some of the later periods of Jethro Tull, where tours had kind of settled down into much more enjoyable affairs, both musically and socially.
Musically, Anderson would agree with the popular perception of Aqualung as a watershed album in the group's history. The original group, which included Anderson, guitarist Mick Abrahams, drummer Bunker and bassist Glenn Cornick, was a blues/jazz-based rock outfit. The unit recorded just one album, This Was (1968), before Abrahams left, Bane joined and the band as a whole began to move toward a more Progressive rock sound. The next two albums, Stand Up and Benefit, showed considerable growth beyond the strict blues-rock sound, but Aqualung, released in 1971, was the quantum leap. With that record, Anderson says, he was determined to make Tull more than a rock band with a flute.
I was trying, with the Aqualung album, to first of all deal with some lyrical matter that was a bit more varied in its subject material, what it was about and where it was from. So I was trying to create some variation there, some degrees of depth and dilemma in the lyrics (he says). And in terms of the music, it was a very deliberate attempt to try and integrate some genuinely acoustic performance into Jethro Tull as a rock band. It had happened to some extent on earlier albums, but Aqualung was the one where I think I had developed as an acoustic guitar player to the point where I could actually sing and play a song as a more or less solo performance.
So that was for me what was of greater merit about the album. It kind of stretched out the dynamic range of the group more, marked things out a little bit in terms of saying, "Hey, we don't have to have drums and bass in everything," and "we don't have to compete with Led Zeppelin or Mountain or any of our contemporaries at the time. We can go out and be a little bit more varied in our musical instrumentation, our dynamic range and our subject material." From that point of view, I guess it was a definite move on from what we'd done before. But to me it's just another album.
The next two Tull releases are two of the most unique, most often debated albums in the Tull catalog. Both 1972's Thick As A Brick (the first to feature drummer Barlow) and 1973's A Passion Play were single song concept albums. Anderson said the idea for Thick As A Brick grew out of the misplaced notion that Aqualung, with its occasional less-than-positive references to religion, was a theme album.
Says Anderson: Thick As A Brick was the concept album that Aqualung wasn't, but some people saw Aqualung as a concept album. When it came to doing Thick As A Brick, we said "Hey, let's really give them a concept album here. In fact let's make a little bit of a humorous statement about concept albums. Let's make something that's a bit of fun, not in a nasty way, not to deceive our audience, but just to take the genre and create something larger than life out of it, make a caricature of the concept album, but in a light-hearted way." The general tone of the album was quite humorous and quite light-hearted. A lot of people didn't see it as a joke. They took it very seriously.
I guess when it came to doing A Passion Play, we suddenly realized we created a bit of a monster in the fact that we had done the concept album and it had been taken seriously (continues Anderson). Our big mistake was then to go and move on to release an album that was a concept album, but without the humor, without the self-deprecating approach that Thick As A Brick had. Although Passion Play is these days one of those albums that a lot of people, a definite group of people, hold up as being their all-time favorite Jethro Tull album, it isn't one of my favorite Jethro Tull albums — but it has some good moments in it.
Two more albums — War Child and Minstrel In The Gallery — followed before Hammond-Hammond left and was replaced by John Glascock for the Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die album. The next seven years were an unsettled period for the band, filled with membership changes and several less-than-stellar albums, such as Heavy Horses, Broadsword And The Beast and the oddly futuristic 'A' album from 1980. By the 1984 release of Under Wraps, Tull was widely considered past its prime.
Then, after a three-year hiatus, a revamped Tull — featuring Anderson, Barre, Pegg, Perry and keyboardist Martin Allcock made a solid return to form with the 1987 Crest Of A Knave release. Featuring the popular tune 'Steel Monkey', that record was the group's most successful album of the 1980s.
The two studio albums that have followed, Rock Island and Catfish Rising, have only solidified the notion that Jethro Tull is enjoying a musical resurgence as the band members approach middle age. This year, the group is ostensibly touring behind the release of a limited edition four disc deluxe boxed set (which includes hits, rare tracks and a live concert from Carnegie Hall) and a stripped down, more affordable two disc greatest hits set, The Best Of Jethro Tull: The Anniversary Collection. For all the packaging centered around Jethro Tull's 25th anniversary, Anderson isn't treating the latest string of dates with any special reverence.
That's kind of how the fans see it, but we don't really think too much about that stuff ( Anderson considers). For us, it's just what we've been doing for a long time and what we'll be doing for a little while longer. It's just another series of tours. We're obviously aware of the 25 years thing, but that's just a little extra something to be cognizant of. I mean, it's not the reason for the tour. We would have been working anyway.
And next year's our 26th anniversary, a big milestone in everybody's career (Anderson, 46, says, with a light-hearted laugh). We might as well celebrate next year just as well as this year or last year.