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30 September 1989
(Issue no. 258)
ROCKIN' ON AN ISLAND
After 20 years in the business and 18 studio albums, Grammy-winners JETHRO TULL ain't about to let a little thing like a disgruntled band called Metallica upset them. But vocalist / mainman / flautist IAN ANDERSON did look a touch fazed when hit with an opening question cheekier than interviewer JOHN HOTTEN himself ...
Ian Anderson, occasionally one-legged Jethro Tull mainman, raises an eyebrow semi-obscured by pipe smoke and furrows his brow just enough to suggest that my asking him if he's a dirty old man might have ruffled his gentlemanly demeanour just a tad.
"Hmmm ...," he considers. "I suppose you could say that."
This opening conversational gambit has been prompted by 'Kissing Willie', the opening track on Jethro Tull's 18th studio album, Rock Island. A bawdy tale of oral sex in a market town, it's the latest in a long-ish line of examples of Anderson's rampant 'schoolboy humour'. It's a part of the Anderson enigma. As seriously as he still takes Tull, such silly songs, in one-per-album moderation, appeal to him. Reclining in the splendour of his magnificent 18th-century Home Counties farmhouse, the owner of a Scottish fish-farming business that employs over a hundred people and that takes up a decent chunk of prime land in the process, says he doesn't want to be thought of as a "Lord of the Manor, because I'm not." He must be, but he isn't really. Ian Anderson is a very successful musician with an evidently excellent business brain. Wealthy, and so he should be, but he doesn't flaunt it.
He maintains a mild amazement that Tull are still packing 'em in in excess of two decades after they formed in the very un-rock 'n' roll coastal town of Blackpool.
"All you can say about us really is that we're sort of a rock band. With mandolins and flutes. Certainly not a Heavy Metal band."
Conversely then, he's very proud and not at all flippant about the Hard Rock / Heavy Metal Grammy awarded to Jethro Tull last year. The category was created for the first time in 1988 to enable the music industry to acknowledge America's burgeoning Metal market, headed in a blur of multi-Platinum statistics by the likes of Guns N' Roses, Def Leppard, Poison and, yes, Metallica. Jethro Tull, following their now infamous 'victory' over the San Francisco Thrash-boys, favourites for the award and who played at the presentation ceremony, have become Metallica's bogie band.
"I must admit it, I was surprised when I heard that we'd been nominated in that category," confirms Anderson. "But then I heard that the people who vote are 6000 industry people, writers, musicians, recording engineers . . . my peer group, really. People who've been in the industry as long as we have. Then it made sense. However, I rang Chrysalis (Tull's record company) before the awards, and I was told it wasn't worth me attending, because we weren't likely to win."
But win they did, and the rent-a-crowd assembled to give the event some 'atmosphere' for the TV cameras took exception in a B-I-G way. The award, accepted by persons unknown in Anderson's absence, was presented amidst some unsporting boos, anti-British hisses, disgruntled hog-noises and ageing rocker-type hoots of derision.
"It's lucky I didn't go really," imparts Anderson, "because there's no way I could have accepted it under those circumstances. I'd have had to give it back or something. That would've caused a bit of a stir.
"When we did win, I thought that it's not because of one particular album, but more for twenty years of Jethro Tull being around. They must've thought, "They're not such bad guys after all, so give 'em a Grammy!" The fact that it was in the Metal category really, really pissed off some members of the press because they thought we shouldn't even have been nominated. And when we actually won, they really got their knickers in a twist. However, we won it, Metallica didn't, and they may or may not live to fight another day. The other argument of course is if Metallica stay around for twenty years then they may pick one up."
A final shot at this storm in a blood-stained Metal chalice if ever there was one:
"The Grammys are the music industry honouring their heroes and the press just have to sit and report it, with no say in it, and they don't like that. My own view is that it's just a bit of American fun. I can't see why people should get so upset at us. As if it's our fault we won!"
Jethro Tull's problem is that they fall between two stools in an industry that delights in fitting everything into neat little clichés. Obviously, not balls-out Heavy Metal Bastards; there's room enough in that eccentric bag of theirs for acoustic guitar, mandolins, marimbas and other obscure, twiddly, folk-type instruments. But there's also 'Aqualung's meaty wallop to consider, or the epic 'Broadsword' and the rattling, aforementioned 'Kissing Willie'.
"I've spent a lot of my musical life trying to fit acoustic instruments into a rock setting. As a result, we're not like Chris De Burgh. We're not that sort of middle of the road Foreigner thing. We're rougher and readier than that. Your magazine has covered us several times. We're on the periphery of that sort of thing. A curious anomaly, really.
"The other day I actually went into HMV on Oxford Street and bought some records. I hadn't bought one for a year. And I bought the first three Led Zeppelin albums. It struck me that they're really not that far removed from what we do. A lot of heavy, blues-based riffing, but also flute on 'Stairway To Heaven'. They were a curiously Celtic sort of rock band.
"Maybe the problem is that Metal's become a bit too one-dimensional. Bands who do the big stuff in tight spandex trousers leaping off the drum riser. Too much high energy without relief. But I have MTV, and the best thing on all week is the couple of hours of Metal. It's fun and mock-menacing and I love it. It's a special phenomenon and a very valuable thing, but it's certainly not original."
At this point, Anderson is interrupted by the telephone. America, for some reason unknown and unbelievable to anyone who subsequently gets to hear about it, want Jethro Tull to make a car chase Miami Vice-style video for 'Kissing Willie'.
"One synopsis is of a car chase with private detectives," confirms Anderson. "It seems quite absurd that anything like that would happen to people like us. It seems to ignore the lyrics completely. The lyric immediately suggests Aylesbury not America."
The band's resistance to being pigeonholed seems to frustrate the world over. But given that they're different to everyone else, how does Rock Island differ from their 17 previous studio albums?
"Well ... not a lot really! I only have a few ideas, I really do. I only write about four or five subjects. One learned musician once told me that Beethoven only had five or six ideas in his entire life. He just kept developing them, probably until it culminated in his Ninth Symphony, the so-called Heavy Metal symphony."
So have you got it right yet?
"No. And the answer to your next question is that you're always chasing that dream. One perfect take, the perfect live version of 'Aqualung' ...
"But I keep trying. I may be writing another song about something or another, but I'm trying to get it right."
Ian Anderson can take solace in staying around for twenty years, getting it more right than most, putting out a new album of accomplishment beyond most bands, and what's more, with a few more years in the old dog yet. Rock on, and don't forget the flute.