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10 October 1987
(Issue no. 157)
CREST OF A WAVE
With new Jethro Tull album 'On The Crest Of A Knave' [sic] just released and a UK tour underway, CHRIS WELCH throws caution to the wind and suggests that band leader and 'wild man of the flute' IAN ANDERSON should hire some groupies ...
Jethro Tull, legendary stalwarts of rock, are on the crest of a new wave of excitement. Not so long ago, the band, led by wild man of the flute, Ian Anderson, were dismissed by critics as relics of yesteryear. But now there is a dawning realisation that Tull are still a vital force for great and powerful music. Fans are raving over their new album On The Crest Of A Knave, which marks a return to old Tull values. Even cynics are admitting it's their best album in years.
More amazing is the tremendous esteem the Tull men have in the eyes of those who have never seen the band 'live'. They cherish classic past LPs like Thick As A Brick (1972), Songs From The Wood (1977), and the more recent Heavy Horses. In these albums we find the seed of Tull's appeal: imaginative songs, brilliant playing, and the sound of sneezing flutes. There have been many changes in the band's personnel, but Martin Barre remains as Ian's right-hand man, and on the new album plays some of the most fertile guitar since the invention of the seed drill.
Crest Of A Knave is Tull's first album in three years, and their 21st to date. Among the standout cuts are the ten-minute mini-epic 'Budapest', with guest violinist Ric Sanders, and the ballad 'Said She Was A Dancer', so laid back it sounds like Dire Straits. But, says Ian, cocking a quizzical eye,
"I'd sooner be influenced by Dire Straits than the Pet Shop Boys!"
With a world tour kicking off in Edinburgh on October 4, Ian was in reminiscing mood, and revealed he is thinking of marking the band's 20th anniversary, which falls next year, with some kind of celebration.
"We started at the Marquee in 1968 when there were a lot of bands buzzing, like Traffic, John Mayall, Chicken Shack, Joe Cocker, The Nice ... and Led Zeppelin! It would be nice to get a few of the guys around then and film a couple of nights at the Marquee for TV, to celebrate our anniversary. People like Steve Winwood might like to come along. We wouldn't want to resurrect the groups as they were then. It would be a bunch of balding, overweight old men, who haven't changed their guitar strings in ten years! I hate all that nostalgia thing, but it has been thrust upon me by outside forces. I would prefer to go on to 25 years. A quarter of a century would be more significant. Nevertheless we ought to do something, and it would be more fun to do something with the band and guests from that era."
Would Ian consider a reunion concert of all the past members from Jethro Tull? He looked aghast.
"It would be difficult with some of the ex-members. Some of them literally do not play at all, and have not played for several years. Clive Bunker, our old drummer, still plays, but Glenn Cornick (bass) was last heard of in LA with pink hair being a middle-aged punk. All I know is his royalty cheques do get cashed! Other guys like Jeffrey Hammond have not played since 1975. He put his equipment away and that was it. He'd made enough money and didn't have to work again for the rest of his life — he amuses himself painting. John Evan has also completely given up music."
Looking back on the early years of Jethro Tull, did Ian find it all a blur?
"No, I see it very clearly. There are three distinct phases of Jethro Tull. When I started playing the sole urge was to find an alternative to being a bank manager, and having a proper job of any sort. It seemed like a fun way of making a living. I wanted to pay my rent in a bed-sitter and survive for a few years. Being a musician seemed a fantastic escape. I left school early and thought I might go back after a few years playing. You have to grab that chance of playing when you are young, 'cos you don't get a second chance."
Ian went to art school for a couple of years, but spent most of his time reading music papers. He discovered the existence of the fabled Marquee and the London music scene, and dreamt about making £100 a week playing his trusty flute and guitar. Filled with passion and ideas he set about creating one of the most enduring stage characters of all time, a demented figure looking like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Ian looks back on those days with amused fondness.
"It all seemed out of this world. I found I really could make a living playing music. But as soon as the whole thing became successful it became a serious business."
The money poured in and Jethro Tull were so successful their management company were able to found a record label, Chrysalis, on the income generated. Despite behind-the-scenes tensions and rows, Tull became one of the biggest acts of the late Sixties, and their appeal endured throughout most of the Seventies. Yet it would be hard to imagine a band with their mix of styles from jazz to blues, folk and rock, being successful today. Was the rock scene more open minded in those days?
"Well at the risk of appearing like some contented, smug, archival rock historian ... it does seem to me that when I started, bands were encouraged to be different. You could well go down roads that might lead nowhere, but nobody minded you getting a bit excessive. Groups were at least exploring, with great gusto and enthusiasm, which gave rise to a lot of important music, from Hendrix and Cream to Jethro Tull.
"In the mid-Seventies, there was a burn-out of the progressive ideal and people criticised us for getting too clever and too pompous. It was Genesis, ELP and Jethro Tull who were responsible for that. It did become too arty and too clever. And what with Emerson, Lake & Palmer with their own limo each ... come on!"
But hang about, Ian Anderson had a big limo too.
"Oh yes, we've always had limos, but only when the limo companies offer a better deal than the local taxi firm."
Many who jeer at the major bands of yesteryear forget they usually started out as just the germ of an idea in the minds of penniless art students. There was no big record deal for Jethro Tull or giant publicity machine when they started.
"The whole point of doing Tull was for fun. Making a living was a terrific bonus. Then in the second phase, by 1972, the money was coming in and there were tax implications and it all got serious. We were in our early twenties, and started looking for houses and we began to think, 'This can't go on forever. The bubble will burst. We have to be careful ...'"
The grind of churning out albums and tours eventually tapered off, even though Tull always fought to be different. The rock scene had changed and Tull grew older. Now, they find themselves in a third phase where Ian doesn't have to rely on making music for a living. He has a highly successful fish farming business in Scotland, and once again music, making records and touring have become a pleasure.
"I don't worry so much about the record having to be successful," said Ian, "and so the music has a lot more improvisation and there is a return to my blues roots. People see Jethro Tull as a kind of Heavy Metal folk band, a weird eclectic mixture. The main influence for me has always been the blues, and that is what the music on the new album is all about. There are very few folky elements, mostly it's Martin and me playing the blues. There's less keyboards and more guitar and flute. In fact I played what keyboards there are on the album.
"We expect to play most of the album when we go on tour, and from the feedback I've had in America from people who filled in a questionnaire I designed, the overwhelming majority saw it as representing the style of music they wanted to hear Jethro Tull play. They sound it 'significantly more enjoyable' than the last few Tull LPs. It gave me some confidence to know Tull's career is on an up.
"To expect to come back on the level we were on in the Seventies is a bit much, I know, but I think we'll be fairly successful. I want to go on making good Jethro Tull records and I think a lot more people are going to enjoy our music. I've heard it brought up about the Dire Straits influence on a couple of songs, and I think it's more to do with the problem I had with my voice in 1984. I pitch everything down in a lower voice and am more casual in the delivery. Less long notes, so I can deliver it on stage every night within the restraints of growing old! Some people have told me they thought Dire Straits were influenced by Martin Barre's guitar work."
Ian isn't too worried about comparisons, and in any case feels that people don't listen that closely to every last note a band plays.
"I don't think half the people who come to hear us even bother to listen to the lyrics. We might as well let the drum machines and the synthesisers get on with it!"
For those who are interested in their source material however, 'Budapest' (originally intended to last over 20 minutes), recounts the sighting of a girl in her underwear, backstage. It caused quite a stir among the well-behaved, happily married chaps.
"We don't run into that sort of thing too often at our age," laughed Ian.
He painted a grim picture of life on the road with Tull.
"Normally there are just the guys in the group who have a drink at the hotel and then go to bed to read Agatha Christie novels. Or we sit around and say: 'Hey, remember the time back in '73 when ...' and that's all we talk about. There is an anecdote, a bloody good laugh, silence again, and then someone says: 'Yeah, but what about the time when ...' There is this pathetic ritual night after night, until we stop ourselves."
Maybe Jethro Tull should hire some groupies to go on the road with them next time?
"Right! Just for appearances' sake, if nothing else."
Note: the second photograph shows IA with Pan's People, November 1974, London.