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19 January 1974

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Passion Play, the critics and beyond ... Nick Logan pursues Jethro to an Alpine impasse

There are few bands more intrinsically British than Jethro Tull. Sure, we've heard all those stories of how they've spent the past five years jet-hopping around the world, working their asses off in Europe, America, Japan, Wembley and all stations to Betelgeuse, pausing only to change Y-fronts in the Old Country. But didn't we know all the time that they were really running an Army and Navy surplus store in Kentish Town and re-routing postcards and phoney progress reports from the Santa Monica Lyceum and the Tokyo Hardrock?

Not so, mes amis, I'm here to tell you: that wacky nine-legged eccentric known collectively as Jethro Tull is indeed the globe-trotting cosmopolitan that the group's travel agent's bank balance would have us believe. Why, aren't we now in wealthy cosmopolitan Switzerland watching Ian Anderson, Monsieur J. Tull incarnate, hob-nobbing with the Mayoralty of elegant Montreux — if not in fluent Francais, then least as if to the manner born. A strange sight indeed. Blackpool Baroque cheek-to-cheeking with the Chalet Chic. Well I'll go to the foot of our stairs.

But wait. There must be more to this than meets the eye ...

Montreux is where J. Tull set down their nine feet when they snuck out of the UK back in 1972, using this strategically-placed mountain-fringed resort as a centre of European operations for six months of that year. In fact, they formed such a strong attachment for the place that, when they played a gig in the Swiss capital of Zurich last year, the band declared the event a benefit concert with proceeds to go to "the youth of Montreux."

Something else came out of those six months in Montreux however, for here was planned and conceived the musical tractatus (henceforth known as A Passion Play) that united the critics of the Western World with a solidarity not witnessed since the release of 'Grand Funk I'.

Anyway, here we are in Montreux, in the restaurant of the Eurohotel, with Lake Geneva and the snow-topped Alps providing the backdrop for the presentation to the Vice-Mayor of the concert cheque for 50,000 Swiss Francs (approximately £6,500). A noble gesture in a business more noted for its gestures than its nobility ... And also a useful occasion for the putting straight of a few things that needed straightening out, which explains why Chrysalis Records have invited the press of Europe to congregate here to watch. Or, as Tull manager Terry Ellis put it when the presentation ceremony was complete and the assembly prepared for the real event — the press conference:

"We've asked you hear to clear up the confusion that seems to have followed the group's decision to retire from concerts at the end of last year, to clear up any misunderstandings that the group might have split up."

Fair enough, you might say. So what's been going on?

Plenty, says Ian Anderson, hair shorter and swept back from an almost Pharaohesque beard. The clatter of coffee cups is stilled.

To be specific, they've been making two albums, recording in London. One a group album, the other the soundtrack for the upcoming J. Tull feature film 'War Child'. No gigs planned at the moment, he says non-committedly, but they are certainly not ruled out when work on the film permits. And of the film:

"We have, for at least two years, been looking for a movie situation that we could use to get into something more subtle than the group can achieve on stage."

The script, says Anderson when pressed further, is based on a story of his, and features two main actors apart from himself and the group. They play the parts of God and the Devil in a story that concerns "the Heaven and Hell around us."

Wasn't Anderson originally cast in the role of God?

Not I, says he, handling the occasion with customary aplomb. That was a misprint.

"I think Jethro have possibly been the hardest working live group over the last five years. Not just in America but all over the world. And we have to play large halls most of the time. When we had the opportunity to play England last year, we chose to do two shows at Wembley rather than play lots of smaller halls over the country. We did that so we could play the show we had been playing in America, using all the lights and a lot of equipment, and generally keeping the show up to the standard it was in America. Unfortunately that standard doesn't seem to have been well-received."

Uhmm. Does one detect Anderson's gaze turning on the small but cuddly British press contingent?

"The thing that annoyed me was that people seemed to dismiss it casually (A Passion Play) — whereas it was a record that took a lot of time to make and needed time to listen to. It didn't seem that critics were prepared to take that time. Personally I think the music on the last album was our best-written, best-conceived — and possibly our most commercial as well — but it maybe wasn't too easy to get into first time around.

"I do feel," continues Anderson against the rattle of coffee cups and the stare of TV lights, "that music ought to require the same effort from the listener as it does from the musician who plays it. Obviously that's a very broad statement. It maybe doesn't apply to people who play funky music — when they just stand there and get it on, and the audience can reciprocate at the same level. But musicians who play more structured music, or lyrics with more depth ... then that requires greater attention."

Doesn't it require explanation as well?

"In some cases it may be very good to explain it beforehand. But I rather like the idea of offering the individual the opportunity to read into things what they will ... people listen in different states of consciousness and they will, whatever you say, make their own interpretations. I would far rather put the ball firmly in their court and say, right, we've done our bit — now, here you are.

"People seemed to object to the fact that they actually had to sit down and listen to it more than once, and to qualify the statements of their criticism — they seemed unwilling to do that to a large extent. They would rather dismiss it in a few words, which I do find unfair. It certainly doesn't reward me in any way whatsoever for months of work. It's not a very constructive criticism. Criticism ought first of all to be beneficial to the artist.

"Unfortunately, criticism tends to be aimed at the audience rather than the artist and, even more unfortunately, seems to have an effect on what the public might believe, might buy, or might come to see. because very often they seem to have no other source to turn to other than what they might read in the papers."

At which point Terry Ellis cuts in:

"If the group felt that the audience hadn't enjoyed what they did, then I don't think they'd be upset by any kind of criticism they got from the press. After all, they create for their audience, and if their audience doesn't like it then that is a genuine case for concern."

The decision to stop touring, however, affects the audience, not the press.

Ian Anderson:

"Absolutely, but that was just one of the reasons given in the press statement we made at the time — the fact that we were disappointed, hurt, by the criticism we received in the press. People do read and take notice of what is written in the papers, and it's a little bit worrying to know that you're going out there on stage having to face some sort of ... y'know, it's just not normal any more.

"Criticism aimed at a specific piece of music is fine if it's constructive to the artist. I found nothing constructive in what I read, and I can only assume that it would have adversely affected public opinion if we'd have carried on this year doing odd tours in between making the movie. But there were other reasons, the biggest of those being that we've been working non-stop for five years, making records and playing tours, and for a couple of years now we have wanted the chance to do something different."

When Terry Ellis called time-out and the assembly splintered into smaller groups, I talked to Anderson in the bar and asked him if he felt Jethro wasn't too self-contained, too insular a unit to allow any kind of criticism through.

"Insular, yes, but we always have been, and if we're worth anything at all, I think it's because of that, because we keep so much to ourselves. None of us really have any social involvements outside the group ..."

But doesn't that cut off possible channels of constructive criticism from outside?

"Well, I think a lot of that criticism comes through in those brief seconds on stage when you pick out a couple of faces in the audience, y'know — or from people who write letters. In the past I've had really horrible letters, but I've never had any horrible letters about the new album. Not one bad letter."

Among the critics who gave A Passion Play a unanimous roasting, there must however have been some people who genuinely felt that a fine band was misusing its talent. Or taking the wrong direction. Would you listen to them?

"There's no such thing as a wrong direction. There is only one direction you can take — because each album is a mirror image of how the band is thinking at the time."

Accepted. But would he listen to that criticism?

"I would listen and discuss the thing endlessly, y'know. I would discuss it endlessly with Terry or with any of the people in the office — and they have every cause, for commercial reasons, to say, if warranted, 'Look, we're a bit worried about this ...'

"I would listen to any critic who qualified the statements he made. But with A Passion Play there was more than usual adverse criticism which wasn't qualified, which simply exhibited the attitude: 'Well, okay, Tull have done their sort of epic Thick As A Brick thing. They've got that out of their system and we don't want to go through that again.'

"What those people don't know is that we made three sides of a double album during the time we were in Montreux, three sides of a double album which was just songs, y'know. But it didn't have this great amoebic surge, this growth thing that playing an extended piece has.

"I think Passion Play was so much better than Thick As A Brick in musical terms, lyrically and so on. But it's not an accessible album. I still don't think it warrants the kind of criticism that says, 'This is clearly not a good piece of music'£ (derisory) — or that it waffles, or that the lyrics are obscure or whatever ...

"What pisses me off," said Anderson later as we discussed wider areas of press criticism over coffee, "is that the next album returns closer to songs, and everybody's going to think it was a calculated move on our part because of what happened to Passion Play."

C'est la vie, mes amis.