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5 February 1977
IAN ANDERSON: KITCHEN PROSE, GUTTER RHYMES
Jane was shortly to make her West End debut in a striptease spectacular at the Casino de Paris opposite Gloria Shock. She had devised and choreographed an elaborate act for the occasion in which she had cast herself as Venus, arising, not from foam-crested waves, but an ornate facsimile of a chocolate box. She had assumed the professional name of Miss Candy Box. It was to be, I assumed, a hard sell with a soft centre.
She demonstrated the act to a few friends one night in the summer of 1973. I recall the occasion here because I remember that as she rose majestically from her satin cocoon there flickered silently on the television behind her a series of rather intriguing images of a beautiful ballerina being pursued through endless corridors before throwing herself, finally, through a full-length mirror (captured in slow motion for heightened dramatic effect).
It seemed a rather poignant juxtaposition, I thought.
The film, I should explain, was a television commercial for the recently released Jethro Tull album, A Passion Play, the cover of which featured the same ballerina spread-eagled, as if crucified, with a comma of blood trailing from the corner of her mouth. It was the first time that I had been impressed by Jethro Tull or by anything one might even tenuously associate with the group.
I had seen them once, in 1968, at the National Jazz, Blues & Rock Festival at Sunbury (it was the year before it moved to the permanent location it now occupies at Reading). I remembered them only for the agility with which Ian Anderson — then no more than an average vocalist in a ragged overcoat — avoided the variety of cans and bottles aimed in the group's direction by a curiously irate audience.
This introduction to A Passion Play, however, provoked my interest and suggested considerable improvements in their music. I never did get around to hearing it at the time though.
Its critical reception veered from the lukewarm to the hostile and, I will admit, I soon became indifferent to the potential delights of the recording, which had by this time become notorious as an apparently inflated and incoherent concept. Its reputation was not enhanced in my opinion by Anderson's subsequent attack upon the critical incompetence of the music press and his public decision to suspend all activity in the Tull camp. It seemed unreasonable and petulant.
That was, of course, only the briefest interlude in Tull's career: Anderson fulfilled the obligatory one album a year contract with his audience thereafter, and as each release became imminent it was invariably prefaced by a series of interviews in which he usually expressed, with commendable bluntness, a contempt for his critics and an affirmation in his own talent.
It often made compelling copy, and he was not easily ignored. He seemed a geezer well worth engaging in some kind of dialogue. I mean, anyone who consistently patronised Roy Harper couldn't be all mouth and cod-piece ...
So we find ourselves confronted with Anderson, settling into another round of verbals with the press prior to a British tour (Tull's first appearance here in over two years), which will coincide with the release of a new album, Songs From The Wood.
A copy of the album — a mildly entertaining aural polaroid of Ye Olde England, I fancy — is conspicuously placed behind his left shoulder. Jethro Tull memorabilia decorate the walls of the office: posters, record sleeves, a sprinkling of gold albums — evidence of JT's continuing universal popularity.
Anderson occupies a corner of the room, lounging in his rustic tweed ensemble like a village squire after a night of determined debauchery. Jet-lag, he explains. He'd flown in from America late the previous night. But one is struck immediately by his alertness and the articulacy of his conversation. jet-lagged or not, he's loquacious to a fault, he's a marathon verbalist with an exhausting capacity for talking any topic of conversation into the grave.
I'd heard, for instance, that at the Tull concerts in Los Angeles recently he'd launched into a bitter tirade against L.A. Times columnist (and sometime MM contributor) Robert Hilburn. At each of Tull's concerts — they played for three nights in the city — Anderson provoked the audience to jeer and revile this unfortunate individual.
I mention this to Anderson, and he's off at once at a terrific pace, explaining at length the motivation for his outburst and the satisfaction it gave him ...
He was assured that he was the only person I mentioned by name on the tour and it wasn't something I did to every journalist in every town. And, having been assured that it wasn't a part of what he called 'the script', and, yes, I did HATE his guts, he was overjoyed to have that kind of supreme recognition, and he wrote a very nice review of Jethro Tull for the first time in years.
I must say, I DID dislike him. He'd been very nasty to a support group who played with us once, and shortly after — perhaps not as a direct result of his review — they disbanded. It was a group called Carmen.
He said that their singer just banged a wooden pole on the ground whilst doing a tap-dance. Actually, what the man was doing was a classical flamenco dance, which he had perfected after years of training.
And it deserved more applause than some smart remark which would imply to those people who weren't at the concert that the man was a bloody idiot or a moron doing a tap-dance.
He was so down on them, and I think it's unforgivable to trample a group — a support group opening a show under difficult circumstances — in that manner.
That's not on. It's NOT ON AT ALL! He was simply being cruel. And he'd given us several bad reviews, and I think we'd been treated in a heavy-handed, unfair fashion. But that one review was the thing that got me, really. It shows a lack of responsibility to the rock audience. And he has the SAME audience as me. The SAME kids. And, whether we like to admit it or not, any aspirations we have to our respective arts have to accommodate this thing about offering a public service.
You can't belittle that, because you're offering the public information of one sort or another. You're offering a stimulus, perhaps, or an emotional reaction. Whatever, it has to be ordered and given with some responsibility. Not just in the pregnant here and now, but in the grand context of what rock and roll is about. And, I think if you don't take all this seriously you end up working for the Enemy. The EN-EM-EE.
Yes, quite. Point taken, Ian.
It will, perhaps, be clear from this outburst that Anderson rarely prevaricates when he is in the mood to cancel the opposition. yet he can simultaneously be infuriatingly elusive. He has, for instance, a canny technique which he employs to avoid certain questions. He simply doesn't answer them.
At least, not directly. Instead, he will meander obliquely around the proposed topic of conversation, expressing his considered opinions (variously pertinent, arrogant, conceited, perceptive and banal) with a persuasive eloquence.
He's an entertaining raconteur, and one is easily seduced by the flow of language and images as he becomes increasingly animated. He can, if allowed the freedom, manipulate the interview to conform to his own design and desires.
He once remarked, interestingly, that he saw rock as a kind of disciplined charade, and it is possible to divine in the manner that he conducts and attempts to dominate and orchestrate conversations, a determination to preserve an enigmatic profile.
This, I think, can be attributed to a vague paranoia of the press and his own inclination to avoid (despite the frankness of some observations) revealing too much of his own personality. Inevitably, this has provoked a certain confusion of identification and explains the contradictions apparent in his work.
For example, he continually undermines his stature as An Artist —
I'm only an artist in the sense that I have a dressing room. I'm an artiste —
but becomes rather aggressive if he suspects one of denigrating his performances or songs.
I happen, for example, to mention that I found much of Aqualung — regarded by many Tull aficionados as his masterpiece, and still the group's best-selling album — to be rather crude in its exposition of a rather obvious philosophy.
Anderson immediately races to the barricades.
I wouldn't say that it was CRUDE. I think some of the songs are perhaps reasonably naive and simplistic in terms of what I'm writing today. But I'm not saying that it is a bad thing.
There may be some songs that I'm not happy with, and I wish I hadn't done them in a certain way. I wouldn't write them in the same way today. I'm INCAPABLE of writing them in the same way. Arguably, if I did them today they would be too refined and too sophisticated to work in the way they obviously worked for the people who liked, and continue to like, that record in its original form.
I still perform songs from that album on stage. In the same way as the originals. In the same spirit. Because what works on stage is the here and now. You can bend emotionally to fit the song.
You can remind yourself of the circumstances that provoked the song, hopefully without getting into nostalgia; you should sing the song because of what the song is about rather than because it reminds you of something. It's an emotional interaction, and I can still feel the passion in those songs. I think, obviously, there has been a development in my writing. I think one's emotions become more sophisticated.
It's not a question of intellectualising what one has done in the past, or approaching it academically as something of musical worth. It is an emotional reaction to that work that is essential. And, although one's emotions have become a little more complicated and there are more complex interactions of different feelings, those songs, I think, are still strong enough to cut through it all. Particularly on stage.
Just as I think he's coming up for air, he adds a qualifying coda to his virulent defence.
I'm still not very happy with the record, actually. I never was. For technical reasons. It's a rotten record in terms of production, which was basically my fault. And I take full responsibility for that deficiency.
I almost apologise for daring to criticise it.
I'm still interested in Anderson's notion of rock as a disciplined charade.
I'm particularly interested in this idea in the context of his writing on WarChild and, especially, Minstrel In The Gallery, the two albums that followed Passion Play. There is in both records a profound cynicism and a wry bitterness that is expressed through the sly humour of several of the better compositions: 'Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of The New Day', 'Minstrel' itself, and 'My Zero To Your Power Of Ten Equals Nothing At All', for example, but disguised occasionally by the almost flippant manner in which they are treated.
The essential optimism of Passion Play (which, in retrospect, is no bloated monster but merely a naive adventure that sounds like the result of Roy Harper jamming with the Nice on lyrics by Tristan Tzara) is replaced by a tersely documented misanthropy.
These songs, frequently venomous, are not entirely expressions of defeat or despair or hatred: Anderson — like Harper, whose influence here seems quite considerable, despite Ian's protestations — seeks to undermine the complacency of his potential audience, and to provoke them into a re-examination of their individual plights. They are, he says, attempts
to make them a little more self-seeking ... to make them consider their place in the world, and to make them reconsider the factors that contribute to their slow death.
In the sense that any creative expression which attempts to disrupt conventional thought is subversive, I argue, these songs are essentially political. Yes, he agrees, they could be construed as political, but he is uneasy about committing himself fully to a discussion on this aspect of his writing.
He prefers to see himself as a kind of elusive court jester, offering a commentary from a variety of perspectives. If he can maintain the kind of distance which attends the behaviour of a Fool, then, he argues, he will be able to continue his work.
Like a jester, you always have to be aware of falling foul of the ruling entity, be he the king or the duke or whoever. There's always the ultimate audience you have to play to. You seek to amuse them at first, to draw them in, and then, when you have their attention, opportunities arise to speak to them pertinently. It's useless to antagonise them. You'll lose your bloody head.
He admits that he is reluctant to reveal too much of his personality to the public. 'Minstrel In The Gallery', for instance, he criticises for being too personal a statement:
It was like Roy Harper being in love. It was that bad, that intense. You see, there are a lot of things about me as a person that I would never want to tell the audience.
My private life, such as it is, is exactly that: my private life. And in no way would I undertake to present that publicly. Obviously, when you write there is a degree to which a song is a revelation. You reveal guardedly certain things about yourself.
But you're subject to your own censorship. You temper, therefore, a certain amount of raw experience with a little emotional fiction, and what you reveal is necessarily subject to this built-in editorial system. I'm old-fashioned, really, about a lot of things.
It's like sex (he concludes facetiously). I'm very old-fashioned about sex. I only like to do it with girls.
He continues, curiously, to play into the hands of his detractors by refusing to comment with any consistent gravity upon the value of his work.
It is, in one sense, encouraging to discover that beneath his frequent expressions of arrogance there does lurk a strain of humility and irony and self-deprecation, but his self-criticism does border paradoxically on the self-congratulatory.
He describes himself in the lyrics of 'Songs From The Wood' as "a singer of these ageless times — with kitchen prose and gutter rhymes." He reads the lines aloud: "I think that's excellent," he says, anticipating the kind of approval he expects from his critics.
You might think such a comment would be applicable to the work of the latest punk rock group or Bruce Springsteen,
he remarks — condescendingly, I feel, in that he virtually begs your disagreement —
but I think it is applicable to me. It's about as seriously as I want to be taken.
It's that old, disciplined charade, again, I fear, for minutes later — after I've presumed his ambition as a writer to be greater than the majority of his contemporaries, in that he's prepared to wander into the provocative areas they'll barely contemplate — he bounces back with a calculated snub:
Let's face it, they wouldn't be capable of it. Let's be honest, I'm a bit brighter than most of them. We both know that. If I was afraid to presuppose that what I have to say is supremely worthwhile and worth bending an ear to, then I wouldn't have the right to put it on wax.
I'd be wasting everybody's time. That, perhaps, is the difference between me and a lot of other people who write lyrics that are very predictable and full of cliches. A lot of people write lyrics that, as far as I'm concerned, are like ... well, it's like musical Meccano sets. They just rearrange these materials into something that resembles, in music, an emotion or an idea. But it's no more than cheap duplication.
It isn't real. Some of us have tried to get beyond all that, but ultimately it will be seen that we've failed.
I wonder if it is his complete faith in his own work which makes him so apparently sensitive about to criticism.
No, I don't have a hang up about the press (he argues). I do get some good reviews from time to time. I'm not anti-press. I don't have a down on the press. I don't have a fixation with bad reviews. It's not the case at all. Sometimes I'll be angered by something, but I don't let it affect me in any overwhelming sense.
And one thing people don't stop to consider is the fact that very often the unthinking praise of a record or a concert can sometimes leave you more heartbroken than the meanest words of criticism. Because you are often praised for the wrong thing, or you are praised for a part of the record to the exclusion of the whole, and the part of a new record that is probably praised is likely to be the part that reminds that critic of something you've recorded previously, which implies that he hasn't come to terms with the newer things on the record. Which in turn implies that they haven't come to terms with the changes in the music.
But I insist upon different environments, and I insist upon making different records. I don't want to repeat myself. And I fully accept that successive records are going to disappoint certain people simply because they don't sound alike.
I'm sure that experiments are not applauded enough for being experiments, because most people would probably argue with the right of someone — like myself — who is going to sell half a million records on advance orders alone to experiment and play about with that kind of financial investment.
But I'm not going to conform to their preconceptions. You can't think like that. So I do what I do anyway. I change. It's unfortunate that some people will be disappointed. Songs From The Wood will disappoint a lot of people who were into Passion Play or Minstrel. They'll want an album that sounds like one of those albums, and it is conceivable that they'd actually be satisfied if I put out one of those earlier albums and just put a different title on it. It's people with that kind of mentality that will be disappointed.
Songs From The Wood is just a different album from the last couple. There are no heavyweight lyrics on it. There's nothing heavy about it at all. It's a quiet, happy, relaxed album, because that's how I felt at the time. It's not an album where I attack anybody or stir things up.
He pauses for breath, which is a novelty in itself.
But I'm already thinking about the next album. It's conceivable that the next one will be a LOT heavier. Invariably, you see, I have a new album planned by the time the most recent one is in the shops. There's always that discrepancy, and you're always judged on the most recent one, and you're usually already nine months ahead of everyone, and working on the next album. It's terrifying. I wish I could take everyone along as it's happening.
No. Don't go away. Ian hasn't finished.
I'll tell you something. I've got a single coming out shortly which is really going to stir things up. And there are some things I want to do this summer in England that will cause an awful lot of fuss. I mean, the lyrics for this new song are really hard. It's about how bloody rough it all is at the moment. I think it's about time somebody said something about it all.
Indeed, to paraphrase a line from one of his songs — we've been a bit short of heroes lately.
Note: the 'new song' in question may have been 'Living In These Hard Times'.