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14 October 1978
On Monday night, Jethro Tull became the first rock group to appear live from America on British TV. CHRIS WELCH sat in the control booth at Madison Square Gardens.
Fire crackers and steel bolts nearly aborted an historic satellite broadcast. On Sunday night a lunatic minority pelted Ian Anderson with missiles during Jethro Tull's opening night at Madison Square Garden in New York. Anderson came off stage in a black rage and threatened to pull out of the transatlantic TV hook-up, ignoring the elaborate preparations and publicity build-up.
"If it happened again during the show, I would just have to say what I thought of the audience, and I don't want my parents to hear me swearing on TV," said Ian, who took an hour to calm down.
"The tragedy is that most of the kids on Sunday didn't know what was happening and enjoyed the show. But I didn't think we played well and I was just miming to my own songs. I was being hit from above and behind by steel bolts and if people come supplied with missiles like that to hurt me, then I just feel like saying 'Fuck you, I'm taking the dollars and going.' And for me that is a complete betrayal of what Jethro Tull is all about. I actually do believe in those songs that I go out and sing, the songs from the albums mean a lot to me, and I want to give the best possible show and play the best music. But when this happens, just once in a while, then it destroys everything and I get really angry."
Sunday's show was virtually a dress-rehearsal for Monday night's telecast via the communications satellite, and necessitated the band preparing a new running order. A bad stage sound combined with the missile-throwing from fans behind the stage, and fire crackers from the auditorium, made the band tense and edgy. For the majority, the first show was a huge success; flaring gas lighters, thunderous applause and the obvious fanaticism of a 20,000 capacity crowd of new generation Tull freaks made it an impressive demonstration of the group's power and appeal after ten years on the road.
But the tension and strain on Anderson was obvious, with the knowledge that an estimated potential audience of 400,000,000 TV viewers would be seeing the band with every possibility of a serious incident on stage. Anderson is an intelligent, witty and sensitive man, whose family life is as important to him as his role as an eccentric rock hero, and he does not enjoy being set up as a target for crazies, who perhaps see him as a fairground freak and fair game for attack.
In the event the Monday — Columbus Day — concert and satellite transmission went off without a hitch. As the seconds ticked away in the control room at Madison Square Garden, the real stars of the hour, Tom Corcoran, BBC TV director of The Old Grey Whistle Test and his assistant, Rosa Rudnicka, kissed, lit cigarettes and emitted audible sighs of relief. The word came back from England: "Sound and vision were great." As OGWT producer Mike Appleton said: "It was just like doing a show from the Odeon, Hammersmith."
The real significance of the whole exercise, nerves and tantrums aside, was that this could be the start of a whole new concept of rock promotion, where special shows are televised all around the world, helping to cut down the vast cost of touring. But even the Tull hook-up cost in the region of 50 thousand dollars, with only the hope that losses will be recouped by selling video tapes of the show to other countries.
Up until a few hours before the show it was being said that the COMSAT hook-up was going to be used to televise the show from New York live to Brazil, Australia, Poland, England and all points East. But it was eventually admitted that only England took the live pictures. Video copies were taken to be sent to Australia and even Russia, but it transpired that the expensive Chrysalis production was not being taken by the Eurovision network. Whatever the TV yields, it was fascinating to watch the 24-hour build-up to the final 45 minutes of live transmission. As a combined Anglo-American operation it worked as well as D-Day.
As I arrived at Madison Square and found my way into the Jethro Tull dressing-room, Ian appeared armed with a pipe and deer-stalker hat, resembling a cross between Robbie Burns and Sherlock Holmes. Before Sunday's show he was full of quiet optimism.
"We're going to play a 45 minute set," he explained, "then we go off and bribe ten people to clap for us to reappear for an encore. The problem is, if we disappear after the first ten minutes of the show, before the transmission starts, that would look great on TV — 20,000 people booing."
Ian betrayed other worries too:
"What I'm keen to do is get across the atmosphere of the concert, otherwise it'll just be a bad sound maybe, and us sounding out of tune. I'd like it to be a social comment that captures the atmosphere, with kids talking about the band in the queues outside. I would like to know what they think too, but I'm stuck up here in the dressing-room. I'd like the TV to get the atmosphere backstage — even though it's not that electrifying, just me standing here with a cuppa tea. You see I have my doubts whether this will make interesting TV. Morecambe and Wise, who are England's funniest comedians ... right? They could not do their act for one whole hour. They need a big orchestra, dance numbers, and then they do their comedy routine for a few minutes. I have to sustain interest for the whole time and I don't know if that will work on TV.
"But I think that people are silly not to use the satellite link-up more because the technology is there. As an international concert I hope it will be the start of a trend and will replace the out-moded concept of the outdoor festival where everybody has to sit in a muddy field. But it's difficult to get new ideas across. If World War III was on the box tomorrow, only BBC 2 would show it."
At the soundcheck in the vast, empty auditorium that normally plays host to boxing, basket ball and ice hockey, I suggested to the band they should play Joe Meek's classic hit for the Tornados, 'Telstar', which topped the chart when the first communications satellite went up in 1961. Barriemore Barlow pointed to his bright blue see-thru drum kit and said,
"Okay, get up there — you're on."
Thus I found myself playing a fairly sturdy tom-tom beat with Jethro Tull on stage at Madison Square, as Martin Barre, David Palmer, John Evan and Ian got stuck in to the evocative melody of yesteryear. What a shame the satellite wasn't working at the time.
If anybody had thrown any missiles at me during the performance, I think I'd have stormed off stage too, or threatened to cancel the show. But Ian rapped his pipe rhythmically on a flight case to tap out the ash and indicate that perhaps the soundcheck should continue with the regular drummer back on the trusty Ludwigs.
That night Uriah Heep opened the show for Tull and did very well indeed, which will surprise all the Heep-haters back in England. They thundered through 'Easy Living' and 'Sweet Lorraine' and won themselves an encore with a highly convincing display of enthusiasm from the teenage New York fans. Heavy metal disco it may be, but they achieved the difficult task of supporting Tull in creditable fashion, working themselves into such a lather of hysteria that it seemed likely the whole band would shake hands individually with every member of the audience.
The Tull set has been trimmed to an hour and 45 minutes, featuring such favourites as 'One Brown Mouse', 'Thick As A Brick', 'Heavy Horses', 'My God' and 'Aqualung'.
Sunday's show seemed fine to me, even though stand-in bass player Tony Williams, depping for John Glascock who has recently needed a heart operation to recover from an infection which began, incredibly, with just a bad tooth, only had a week or so's rehearsal. The band had already enjoyed success in Philadelphia and Boston, and the New York reaction was ecstatic. But as I joined Ian in his limo leaving the Garden for a famed Indian restaurant overlooking Central Park, he was sunk into the upholstery, and sank even further into gloom.
"Don't talk to me," he said, and the first few blocks through Manhattan's evening traffic were traversed in a silence that is often referred to as pregnant. Eventually came the outburst, as I dared ask the cause of Anderson's fury. And he described the rain of missiles that, apart from the odd firecracker, I had not spotted.
"They came from behind the stage, and if I could have seen who had been throwing them I would have said, 'Okay, let's have it out, come up on stage and do that.' I really don't think I can do a TV show, with millions of people watching, if I am going to be cursing and swearing. During the last few numbers tonight I was just mouthing obscenities."
Eventually a curry helped calm him down while Terry Ellis, boss of Chrysalis, promised that he would go out on stage the following night to explain to the kids what was going down, and to ask them not to throw anything dangerous on the stage. Ian, meanwhile, worked off his rage by embarking on a series of horrific tales of a nauseating nature not fit for satellite communications nor even the pages of the MM.
On Monday the streets of New York were filled with revellers celebrating Columbus Day and watching the huge parades down Fifth Avenue as tiny children in Paul Revere outfits marched with fife and drums, kicking up a deafening row. New Yorkers love parades, and if they are not beating drums, jogging, marching, twirling sticks and waving banners and flags then they are waving and taking pictures. They hardly need any British rock bands in terms of creating more noise and spectacle. With all their fans pouring into mid-town heading for Madison Square, and causing traffic blocks with attendant cops, hot dog salesmen and ticket scalpers, the din was enough to make any conscientious anti-environmental-pollutionist start shouting, "Okay, I give up, let's all make a racket."
The British contingent responded to the mounting tension, as zero hour neared, by repairing to the nearest Irish bar, there to consume vast amounts of Scotch and beer, "purely for medicinal purposes," as director Tom Corcoran assured me.
Tom, like Ian Anderson, is British to the core. A quiet, unhurried gent, clad in jungle hat and glasses, he had a terrible cold, picked up while on a jaunt to Woodstock. His assistant director Rosa astonished the giant American cameraman by hand-rolling her own cigarettes and matching them drink for drink. They made a strange but winning team, just the sort of people one imagined helped defeat the Luftwaffe. Although there were definite signs of panic as the time ticked away, both refused to admit they were in any way nervous about the enormous responsibility about to be heaped onto their shoulders.
As we regretfully quit the Blarney Stone to head for the tiny and cramped Hughes TV studios in the bowels of Madison square, Tom insisted there were no real technical problems.
"We checked out the stereo sound for radio on Sunday and patched in the television exchanges. There was a classical concert from here by satellite recently which was a disaster because after they had patched in the circuits somebody came along from the telephone exchange, said What's all this — we don't need this, and changed them all again, resulting in a different frequency response and a dreadful signal to noise ratio. We're fortunate in that we're using a circuit that is specifically for broadcasting. We have a special clock that will synchronise with the studio clock and will be put beside Ian on stage. We go on the air at 6.15 pm New York time and 11.15 pm London time. There will be a ten second wide shot that establishes we are in Madison Square Garden, and after the ten seconds Ian starts talking to a handheld camera as he walks onto the stage. We want to get the atmosphere of the place across, and he'll say what it's like to go on stage in New York in front of 20,000 people."
Tom had five cameras, including the handheld one, and Rosa set up the camera angles seconds before Tom needed to press the appropriate button to activate each camera. As he got down to work, visions of Tull filled the monitor screens.
At the back of the building, on another level, was a huge mobile recording studio on loan from the Record Plant where Jeff Griffin of Radio One was shacked up working on the stereo sound with Robin Black.
"We could put all the TV sound in stereo, but right now it's in FM mono," said Tom. "The sound we're capable of putting out is far in advance of the sound that comes out of the average TV set speaker. Really this is no different from the other rock concerts that we do, like our live Christmas show for the Whistle Test special. The only difference is it's a bit further from the Odeon, Hammersmith. There's just a half-second delay over the COMSAT satellite, which everybody from the British Post Office to RCA have shares in and is used every night for news pictures. They've even had classical concerts from Tokyo over this one, but this is the first rock concert in stereo sound.
"Ian has been so professional about it and so well organised. We had a meeting in August and I came here to tie up the facilities. The only way we could get the mobile into the building was by letting air out of the tyres and taking all the ventilators off the roof of the tunnel into the building.
"Ian was a bit nervous about it all, but only because he wanted to do it right. He has been shouting at a few people but only to keep them on their toes, and he was justifiably upset when people threw nuts and bolts at him. I just don't understand why audiences do that. We did a show at Middlesex Poly with the Boomtown Rats and the kids were gobbing at the cameramen. Why?"
Tom shook his head, grinned, adjusted his jungle hat and got down to work.
It was 5 pm.
"How do you feel?" Tom asked Rosa.
"You wouldn't be scared if it was the Hammersmith Odeon."
The band began their show for the audience unseen on TV, and the American technicians seemed both amused and impressed by the British guests.
"Oh God," said a voice, "I wish I could remember what we do next. This is where it all happens, and this is where it all falls apart."
On stage Terry Ellis, the man who guided Tull from their earliest days, explained in cool and convincing fashion to blithely cheering kids that this was an historic event and Tull wanted it to be a success so they'd like their cooperation. And would they please not throw dangerous objects?
Inside the control room, momentary panic.
"Where's Tom?" said Rosa. "He's vanished. I can't do it."
On the wall a digital clock slashed away at the minutes and seconds without pity.
"Give him a kick and tell him to come down here, I'm panicking," said Rosa into her headset.
"Too bad we don't have colour on the monitor, that green face looks good with red hair," said a voice.
Another rasped over the speakers:
"There's a goddam mike open — stick it off."
"Who's complaining?" asked Tom, gently.
"It's 6 pm. We're now on satellite. Test run the credits. The first time was too fast — and that was too slow."
Mike Appleton looked up from a telephone.
"You'll be glad to know the pictures are going through okay to London. Five minutes to go and the show starts."
Outside on the stage, Tull make a mock exit, ending the first segment with 'Heavy Horses'. Then at 6.14 pm they began running the titles and the handheld camera picked up Ian coming back to the stage.
"Let's go up and take a look, eh?" he said chattily to the camera, and then on stage to the yelling thousands.
"We'll start with a number that goes back to 1972. Cast your mind back and spot the tune."
And with an encouraging cry of "Och aye" the band went into 'Thick As A Brick'.
"Twelve bars of glockenspiel," says Rosa, consulting her cue sheets and gabbling instructions to the cameramen.
6.28.03 pm: "No hitches?" I ask.
"Sssh," said Mike Appleton, crossing his fingers. Suddenly Tom gets animated, and his jungle hat twitches.
"There's a 10,000 cycle tone on the PA," he pronounced severely.
Ian Anderson seems to hear the same noise:
"I thought the Russians must have been trying to shoot it down," he jokes.
"That's bad, nobody makes jokes about that," says Tom, muttering over his pushbuttons.
"Okay Henry, take down the lights. Quick, John Evan is taking a bow — spot him."
Ian is announcing the members of Jethro Tull in his usual kindly fashion.
"Here's Martin Barre, balding as ever — a close thing between him and Elton John ..."
Tom is still muttering: "This is completely unrehearsed you know." Mike Appleton slaps him on the shoulder in encouragement.
The band go into 'Aqualung' followed by the glorious strains of 'The Dambuster's March' complete with balloons of enormous size punted out over the audience.
7 pm reads the digital clock, and the credits roll.
"Perfect. A nice ending. Now the band have got to do the rest of the show," says Mike.
"Thank you so much everybody," says Rosa to her cameramen. "That was perfectly splendid."
Tom looks up and grins. "Lovely," is all he says, as the weight of the world rolls from his shoulders.
"The next one will be really exciting," promises Des Brown, Chrysalis' International Director, who sees the future of the world in terms of mass communications. And Rosa is on the phone to London apologising for shouting.
"I'm sorry, I'm squeaking. I'm so excited."