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27 May 1978
IN SEARCH OF THE PIED PIPER
Chris Welch tracks down IAN ANDERSON and Jethro Tull in Germany
In Germany they call him Der Ratten Fanger Of Rock Van Roll [sic]. Literally translated it means the Pied Piper of Rock, and there is still something entrancing and seductive about the Man With The Flute despite gruelling years leading his flock a merry dance. Ian Anderson and the men of Jethro Tull have been on the road for a decade and show no signs of flagging despite physical exhaustion, mental anguish and all the knocks that the rock life can deal out.
It seems hard to believe that ten years have elapsed since Jethro Tull first emerged from Blackpool as an eccentric addition to the roster of the blues-based bands taking tentative steps towards creating the British progressive rock movement.
Tull started out at the Marquee in London, astounding fans with their eccentric brand of r&b. It wasn't long before Ian Anderson, clad in his battered coat, conducting his men with wild flourishes and displaying remarkable skill as a flautist, became a national figure. Hit singles and hit albums followed. Tull quickly became established as one of the meteoric bands of the late Sixties that were to take America by storm, set standards and build loyal audiences throughout the world, and survive much longer than anyone dreamed.
Today such bands are scorned by the impatient and ignorant as 'dinosaurs', but the fact that they are still there doing it, night after night, to vast audiences proves they must have been right somewhere along the line.
Last week in Berlin I saw the band play two hours with more energy than a brace of new wavers for 7,000 fans who were still yelling for more, while the staff of the Deutschlandhalle were clocking off for the night.
Ian Anderson, who remains the key spokesman for a unique band, is an intelligent, sensitive spokesman for rock music at large. His wit, good humour and energy triumph over the ill-informed prattlings that often pass for criticism, and his patience and desire to communicate good sense is somehow almost chastening.
In Berlin, backstage in dressing-rooms and in a restaurant after an exhausting show, he talked at length about the band's ten extraordinary years, about his views on the growing intolerance of audiences and press alike, and about Jethro Tull's immediate plans.
Had Ian devoted much thought to the fact that it was their tenth anniversary?
"We thought about it last year, hence the decision to put a live album out. We started experimenting last year with an eight-track machine, recording the shows, and the quality has been very good, so we've been recording this tour the last couple of nights and we'll be going to Switzerland to finish it, so hopefully it will come out in the autumn.
"It will be our first 'live' album although there was a bit of 'live' stuff on the Living In The Past album. This will be a double album of properly constructed music. It's interesting that it's not only our tenth anniversary but it's also one for Yes, Black Sabbath and er ... what anniversary is it for you?"
None at all, I mused, just ten years of wasted time.
"Well, there does seem a desperation for new music and new heroes," said Ian sagely, "not only among the groups but in terms of those who document what goes on, i.e. the writers and critics. And those who have been part of the shaping of today's music must come under the heading of — what is it they call us? Boring old farts, or dinosaurs or whatever. I would have thought you had a sympathetic awareness of what it's like to be in that position?
"I sense an actual hostility in some cases, and a great unwillingness to admit that roots might be in groups like Jethro Tull. It's okay to say, 'Yeah, man, I was really into Johnny Kidd and the Pirates,' but you can't admit that possibly your first awareness of rock music was through Jethro Tull at the Marquee, or Led Zeppelin in Chicago.
"That is somehow not decent, and I can't understand why people don't want to admit that's what got them into it in the first place. I held the early Rolling Stones in the highest esteem and didn't feel anybody could top what they were doing in that particular genre of music. It seemed pointless to try, which is perhaps one of the reasons why groups like Jethro Tull, Yes and ELP NEVER actually tried to top that.
"We've always felt that the groups of the '68-'69 onwards period, the progressive rock bands, seemed to carve themselves a particular musical niche, based on the music rather than the imagery or the social relevance of what they were playing. Which is very much the case now with the new wave and its sixth-form political stance our kind of group never wanted to get involved in, and in fact wanted to get away from."
But didn't Jethro Tull have the feeling that they were sweeping away all that had gone before, when they first emerged, just as the new wave claimed last year?
"Not at all, it was quite the other way round. There was nothing wrong with the pre-'68 scene. The Stones were regarded then as the group that started everyone off, and remember it was only five years before.
"We didn't regard them as idols to be overturned, although there was one gaff when a journalist who was always drunk, prostrate on the floor at concerts, that sort of thing, quoted me when I expressed disappointment after doing the Rock And Roll TV Circus with the Stones.
"It was the television special that never happened, and I was upset because they were my idols and I had been personally invited by them onto the show, and then seen a hollow shell of a group. Admittedly, they managed to magically get themselves together from a complete shambles.
"But from the first days of rehearsal I couldn't understand what had happened to them. Brian Jones spent all his time tuning his guitar, and never actually played anything at all. And the rest of the group ignored him and wouldn't talk to the guy, although he was obviously in a terrible state. I spent quite a long time talking to him to try and find out what was at the bottom of this terrible problem, but he wouldn't commit himself to playing a chord or doing anything at all. The others just let him sit there at the side of the stage trying to tune his guitar.
"The journalist quoted me as saying that the Stones couldn't play any more, which in a sense I was saying, but more in sorrow than anger and with great respect. But that was the only time I might have appeared to put anybody down, other than get angry about what various rock stars have purported to have said about the tax situation!
"There was that front page story in Melody Maker when I came back at Zeppelin because Robert said that thing about paying 98 per cent tax. Both he and Rod Stewart in the space of one week had done national paper columns saying that they were doing a bunk because of 98 per cent tax.
"I understand they might have mentioned 98 per cent, which was then the rate of tax on unearned income, but that only represents a small part of money, i.e. interest. In reality you pay, on international earnings, something in the region of 68-70 per cent, which is still a lot, but there is a helluva difference between telling the public it's 98 per cent and trying to gain this terrible sympathy, and the truth of the matter, which is you get to keep 30 per cent of everything you earn, which in the case of those guys amounts to hundreds of thousands a year.
"I got upset because I thought they were misinforming the public, or more likely the newspaper was at fault for not having checked the figures, which was my gripe. It's all a load of rubbish, nobody pays 98 per cent."
Tull hadn't gone to live abroad for tax reasons?
"No, but obviously we have considered the alternatives, and we did get Swiss residency papers, but when it came to the crunch we decided we preferred to live in England. If we decided to flee the country for more money, then it would become one of a string of compromises, and you'd have to start thinking in terms of making hit singles and heavy promotion.
"Living in England helps keep you realistic and sane, and moderately well off. Obviously we are not stoney broke and we pay a lot of tax, but I like the old adage of the jazz musicians — I'm just happy to be working. As long as there is a gig to play, why worry? I complain about tax too, but I thought it was stupid of melody Maker not to check the figures before quoting Robert Plant about 98 per cent. All you've got to do is ring up the Inland Revenue."
I bowed my head in shame and mumbled an inadequate apology. Ian continued his mild-mannered tirade:
"I tried to get that across but of course it ended up as the old Jethro Tull-Led Zeppelin argy-bargy thing. It's amazing. So many times I've gone on record, I thought, having said that Led Zeppelin were the best rock and roll group in the world. I've said that so many times, but I've never seen it in print. (JETHRO TULL SAY ZEPPELIN BEST ROCK BAND IN WORLD SENSATION!) For some reason it sounds so boring, they always leave it out."
How did Ian feel about the rock press after ten years of ups and downs?
"Ups and downs is exactly what it is. In the final analysis it's something not to be taken seriously. If I read something that is adversely critical of what Jethro Tull is doing, I like to be told in a fair amount of detail why. If someone says, 'This is a load of rubbish,' I like at least to have the option of profiting by somebody else's opinion and finding out WHERE I may have gone wrong."
I shivered at this heavy irony, although the room was quite warm.
"Sometimes I feel, after reading an article, that the guy has sound reasons for putting it that way. It may make you feel a bit small, but at least it is a profitable exercise for the artist to hear that maybe something he has attempted has failed to come across. It's just one man's opinion, but if he presents a set of arguments in a cohesive manner, it's profitable, but what I don't like is when I become the victim of FASHION, or when I'm the victim of 'We've given them three good reviews, now it's time for a bad one.'
"Occasionally we do get hatchet jobs. One rock paper sent a stringer up to Glasgow who hated the group just because we hadn't given the paper any tickets for the concert. The guy actually admitted in the interview it was a hatchet job! He admitted he had been sent to see us because he didn't like us. I just can't understand why they should do that to us. I find it amazing.
"I had to cover myself in Glasgow in case he was there again, and just said to the audience, without any further qualification: 'Hey' — and spelt out the initials of the paper. And they all went 'BOO!' They stood up and went bananas. Just those three initials. Mark that. One of the problems of the press is that whatever you say this week is forgotten the next, and it doesn't matter what you say, a week later it is all changed."
How did Ian feel after ten years on the road, working hard, writing, recording, getting good and bad reviews. Was he now fairly phlegmatic in his attitude?
"Most people who know me and the rest of the group the longest, all say we have changed remarkably little and we are still here doing the same gigs! And that fills people with a kind of dread about the real bitter truth is about why we do it. Either we are true showbiz professionals and say the show must go on, or else we must need the money, or else we are so locked up in our own little world we just go on doing it until we have heart attacks on stage.
"The truth of the matter is ... we are always trying to do a better gig than we did last year. We change the arrangements, we still do old songs and we try new stuff. There is no-one more surprised than me that we are still doing this. Really. By the end of 1969 I felt I had done what I wanted to do and that was it. We played the world and had fairly impressive record success and I thought then: 'Well, that's it, there's nothing more to do.'"
Didn't they ever consider alternatives?
"We looked into making movies, into television, giving it all up and doing something else, me becoming a producer, that sort of thing. We gave serious consideration to all the alternatives; all the band did. And we all still do. If we come offstage knowing it's a bad gig, we'll sit in our hotel rooms afterwards thinking, 'Let's become car salesmen.' That's the frame of mind you get into. You need an option on your way of life, and sometimes it gets so bad you can't face the idea of going on stage the next day."
How would Ian define a bad gig?
"Most of them are defined as bad. Because of things beyond our control, usually acoustics problems which result in peculiar audience reactions. For example, Berlin has been one of the most policed concerts we've ever played, until recently. The audience were kept rigidly in their seats and the atmosphere was absolutely sterile and oppressive. It was a gig you went on and worked at and got nothing back. Then last year, suddenly it was different and the atmosphere was very nice. Munich was dead as a dodo. And it was because of the level of security."
How old were Tull fans now?
"You see them carrying the albums for autographs and they usually have Passion Play, Too Old To Rock and Roll, Minstrel In the Gallery onwards. You don't see many Benefits or Stand Ups or Aqualungs. Our fans are probably in the prime of their concert-going life, and they seem to be getting much younger in the States.
"The average age three years ago was about 24. Suddenly last year it was just a sea of 14 year olds and I couldn't understand what had happened. It's somehow a frightening thing to have crossed the generation gap without having taken up a new stance in terms of image or publicity machine. Somehow the older brothers are passing their interest in us onto their younger brothers. It's gotta be on that level.
"I've talked to some of our new fans and they can vaguely remember Jethro Tull when they were getting out of short pants, but didn't take much notice of it, until they started buying their first records around 12 years of age. Their general attitude towards the new wave is criticism on musical grounds.
"They are the kids who must exist at any point in time for whom music must have more depth and variety. I'm very fond of some of the things I hear under the new-wave banner. My main criticism is that most of the groups play the same sort of music and are so locked into a style.
"They've probably only been playing their instruments for a couple of years and this is the one and only thing they can play. There is no structure to the songs, no dynamics, no ups and downs, no different tempos, and it's hard to understand how they can progress and headline a concert and be expected to play, as we are, for two hours. How on earth can they sustain the high-energy thing for two hours without a variety of music that's going to keep an audience remotely interested, let alone them interested as players? We'd get very bored if we had to play the same sort of thing for two hours."
But to be fair, didn't Jethro Tull play a more simplistic, raunchy music when they first started their career?
"I'm sure we did, I'm sure that's how it all began. I wonder if the simple, derivative, third-hand blues that we began playing was not just a means to an end? We accepted that and, in a funny way, so did the audience.
"We were expected to progress into something a bit more individualistic. We were part of the blues boom, but just for the first six months. It didn't go much beyond that. I saw Bethnal on TV the other night and the clothes and behaviour were a means to an end. They look and sound like a punk group but had an articulate violinist who knew his way around the instrument. The group were exciting and had something different. I thought they were really good and wondered if they were knowingly jumping on the bandwagon to get themselves a platform to develop musically? It's what I hope they're going to do. Become an important group musically that's going to produce something to interest ME as a listener, because I want to be entertained too."
If Ian were 16 now, would he feel sympathetic towards the new wave?
"Oh, I expect I'd start off playing high-energy, aggressive stuff and use that to advantage. Yes, I'd probably be a punk, you're right. When we started out we thought the Rolling Stones were fantastic, but soon decided there was no point being another Rolling Stones. We didn't suffer from that Eric Burdon complex of wishing we were black. Sooner or later you have to own up to the fact you are Whitey and have to play white music.
"And as we played a lot in America we didn't want to take coals to Newcastle, and the Americans seemed quite happy to hear our British-sounding music. They have always recognised Jethro Tull as being a very British group, and that's what we've done ever since, which is to use less and less American idiomatic rock 'n' roll."
Is that the key to the secret of the success of the 1968 Class of Bands?
"Yes, partly, added to the fact that most white Americans had never heard their own culture, the black American blues. On our third US tour we found Muddy Waters playing in a bar to six people for 25 dollars. That ignorance of the music's roots was going on as recently as that. The music was totally unrecognised and uncared for."
Ian admitted that American blues-style singing had long been phased out of his repertoire, so I wondered if he had been influenced by English folk singing. But he bridled at this and almost reared up. Born in Scotland he prefers to be influenced by music from North of the border, and claims he has never listened to or liked English folk.
"I have very little time for the academic approach to folk music, but we all possess a folk, racial memory, an emotional response. It happens to me when I hear the pipes. It strikes a responsive chord, and I try to recreate music of a similar style without being authentic."
It seemed to me there was a definite split in Ian's musical personality, between his approach as a flute player and his direction as a singer, writer and guitarist.
"Oh yes, there is a tremendous difference. Big problem. 98 per cent of the writing is guitar music because it's a polyphonic instrument where you can produce chords. With a monophonic instrument like the flute or human voice, you are dealing with melodies alone. I have difficulty in relating my ideas to the REAL guitar player in the band, Martin."
Mr Barre appeared in the dressing room and explained that the band had spent a solid two months of rehearsal for this current tour:
"We had to re-learn the album, because after you've done a studio album it's such a relief of pressure you go away and forget about it. When you come back to play it on stage you have to re-learn your part. Psychologically you always feel under-rehearsed on tour, because of the pressure. The first shows are always nerve-wracking, but it's good in a way, for the adrenalin. That first show was unbelievable, so nerve-wracking. We were up in Scotland and couldn't believe we'd go out and play the thing right, without it all grinding to a halt. We change a lot of the instruments around from the album to stage, so there's a lot of relearning anyway.
"We put one major instrumental bit into this show to feature the guitar and drums, when Ian wasn't on stage. We've done guitar and drum solos for years, but we wanted to change it for this show, and we just about got that right the day before the tour was due to start."
The tension in the dressing room increased as time wore on. John Evans began pounding his practice keyboards. Martin disappeared to check his beloved guitars. Ian re-emerged, clad in the famed white leotards, somewhat smudged with back-stage dust.
Roadies began to search frantically for unopened cans of beer in the dustbin full of ice. Voices in the corridor began to shout urgently, and Jethro Tull assembled and began to file towards the stage, displaying enough traces of nerves to show they really were ordinary human souls, just like the rest of us, and that, ten years or not, the thought of 7,000 pairs of eyes was enough cause for alarm.
I enjoyed the concert even more than their recent Rainbow performance, although the acoustics of the Deutschlandhalle and the sheer size of the place made the band seem somewhat remote.
Among the high spots were Martin Barre's beautifully constructed guitar solo on 'It Was A New Day Yester, But An Old Day Today' [sic], followed by Ian's surprise entry on flute which drew a roar of appreciation, and the guitar and drum outings on the unnamed instrumental sans Anderson.
With songs from Thick As A Brick to Heavy Horses, the band performed a satisfying mixture of material old and new that adequately represented their ten-year output. As the strains of Eric Coates' 'Dambuster's March' boomed across the hall, I wondered somewhat nervously if the Germans might not object to this hint of nationalism, but mercifully the tune seemed unknown to them, and certainly to the young Americans present, who have probably never heard of Guy Gibson, Barnes Wallis or the bouncing bomb.
The band like to play the theme as giant balloons bounce over the audience, and the three unleashed in Berlin survived several minutes of pummeling before exploding in a shower of chalk dust. At least they weren't filled with water.
There was a great thunder of feet as the fans demanded and got their encore, but I was surprised to find a somewhat irritated and exhausted Jethro Tull after the show. It took a good half-hour before Ian, Martin and the boys restored their normal good humour. They found it hard going to the kind of response they were used to, night after night.
To the lay observer it had seemed a thoroughly enthusiastic reception, but Ian explained that the first hour had been a fight. As hearts ceased pounding and sweat was washed away, the Tull men became once more hale and hearty and even an hour-long wait for the main course at the Winter Gardens restaurant failed to damp their spirits. Martin talked loudly in front of our hosts about the exploits of the dam busters, and Ian froze any threats of sycophancy among the table guests with a subtle turn of phrase or a piercing look.
"Good luck with the rest of your tour," gushed one soul.
"Thank you, I am sure it will prove adequate," observed Ian dispassionately.
As we patiently awaited the arrival of pepper steaks, I asked Ian about the significance of heavy horses in his life, those beasts of burden once so common throughout the land, and now the subject of their latest waxing.
"I'm not particularly interested in horses as such but I read an article about them and just the title — 'Heavy Horses' — suggested a song and conjured the necessary images. I don't own the horses on the album sleeve, I just borrowed them. Most of the heavy horses today are used for shows and demonstrations, but they aren't dying out, they're very much on the up as a breed.
"When I was a lad I remember our milk being delivered in Edinburgh by horses and that's only going back 20 years. They do say that horse-drawn deliveries will come back, where people have to stop every few doors. Some breweries still use them because it's more economical."
Ian mentioned his birth-place and emphasised that Scotland was where he felt most at home.
"For the people as well as the countryside. I was brought up there, in the woods and the fields and it's nice to realise that in later life. I lived in Blackpool, it's true, but for me it was only a great leveller, a totally hostile and strange environment and very frustrating, being an insular place and very showbiz too."
Ian was anxious to dispel the myth of the jet-setting rock star, and, having experienced a few aeroplane trips myself, there is nothing particularly glamorous about balancing a plastic knife in severe turbulence over Greenland.
"For ten years now I haven't had weekends off or a chance to go down to the pub for a drink or sit and watch the telly. We wouldn't have missed the success of the group obviously, but nearly all of us in the group can say we only have one friend apart from each other, which is pretty poor in terms of ten years of getting around meeting people. I have never really made any friendships within music. There are lots of people we know but somehow not the sort of people you would ring up if you had a night off."
Why didn't Ian enjoy tonight's show?
"I let it get to me. After three songs I got a bit ratty. It wasn't that they weren't responding, it was just a let-down after last year when there was a very good atmosphere. There are so many factors involved in how people react. We did a gig a few nights before that was incredible, with people singing along to the songs. They knew them all, it was unbelievable. But tonight was disappointing."
We have looked at the past, but what does the future hold for Tull? They will undoubtedly continue performing, in search of that elusive all-time great gig, and the ultimate album.
In the meantime, says Ian:
"We have the live album to worry about. And there are a few songs I'm writing. While the group have a holiday I'll probably do an album on my own of acoustic material. The live album will be out in October, and Spring of next year is too early for another group album. So I'll do this album of acoustic songs, although I don't like to think of it as a solo album."
One aspect of the rock life that Ian felt most strongly about was the increasing hostility and intolerance of audiences towards new acts, or even established ones that were seeking a wider audience, and he thought it boded ill for the future of rock.
"One of the reasons we don't have a support act on our tour is that we just can't find one that audiences will accept. I remember hearing 12,000 people booing Alex Harvey, who I like and had invited to tour with us. Of course he didn't help by telling them they were shit.
"It's happened to quite a few of the acts who have supported us. Captain Beefheart had a really hard time. But we only got our chance playing on shows with Yes and Led Zeppelin and I appreciated that. In the old days people wanted to hear all the groups. Now they only have the patience to hear the headliner.
"Livingstone Taylor came on stage to play one of our shows and had hardly played a single chord on his guitar before they were throwing bottles and cans and booing. Within 30 seconds he was hit on the head and knocked down and had to be carried off.
"He was in tears in the dressing room because they wouldn't listen to his music, and I was too. In a rage I promised him I'd go out and tell the audience what absolute bastards they were, and rushed back to the stage. And when I stepped out — what happened? 23,000 people cheered me as if nothing had happened. What could I do or say? I just zipped up and played for them. But I didn't understand them.
"If we put on a support now, the audience would stay in the bar until we came on, and the poor group would have to play to a quarter-full house. I just can't explain the kids' behaviour. Livingstone Taylor was totally destroyed and I've never seen him again. If we were a new group supporting Led Zeppelin today, they'd probably do the same to us, and I find that very disappointing. How will new acts get their chance?"
Note: this photograph shows a typical horse-drawn milk cart, Edinburgh. Sean Connery used to earn a few pennies working as a delivery boy on one of these.
Der Ratten Fänger von Rock und Roll translates literally as The Rat Catcher of Rock and Roll ...
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