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NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS
1 March 1975
1. Jethro Tull are still fully capable of selling out 92,000 tickets in Los Angeles
2. Ian Anderson has several interesting theories as to why this should be the case
It struck me fully the second time around. The first time — the first of the five Jethro Tull shows that were to take place at the Los Angeles Forum to an overall capacity approximation of 92,000 people — was witnessed by this writer through a fairly horrendous jet-lag indented haze; I nodded out during, I think, a rather tardy rendition of 'Aqualung' and had to be driven back to the hotel by the boyfriend of one of the Chrysalis reps.
But that second night, the faculties were functioning again ... moreover, they were set on the alert for some sturdy meat-hook of a story on which to hang this whole escapade.
Not that the folk at Chrysalis Records seemed over-concerned.
They'd furnished me with an open return ticket from London to Los Angeles, got their L.A. office to hitch up a hotel room, and left me in little doubt that my reason for being there was to inform the readers of NME in grand terms that J. Tull are taking the Great American Rock Circuit to the cleaners, rivalling even The Mighty Zeppelin in certain key states. "We don't care that much if you personally like them or not."
I "yassuh-boss'd" it out of that office faster than a speeding bullet with a complete set of Tull records and the haunting remembrance of Jimmy Page once coming up with the idea of calling the band's first (then-to-be-recorded) live set — 'Jethro Tull Bore 'em At The Forum'.
As far as I was concerned, I'd given up on Jethro Tull when I accidentally left my ex-army surplus greatcoat on a train commuting between London and Brighton back in the golden hinterlands of 1969.
I remembered them simply as a group of perfectly adequate musicians who'd had the good sense, in 1968, to inject a straight blues vamp with some Roland Kirk doo-dat scat and come on like ye mangy rat-haired vagabonds, thus establishing a strong platform to bounce off into 'progressive rock' when the blues boom took a creaky down-bound lurch.
From there on in, musical structures had seemed to get more torturously elongated, pretentions more feverishly gargantuan. I'd missed 'Aqualung' out altogether, sat through maybe 20 minutes of 'Thick AsA Brick' Royal Albert Hall concert, and even when, attracted perversely by the almost unanimous critical loathing that followed in the wake of 'Passion Play', I made an attempt to 'get into' that from that countered standpoint, I gave up in despair after listening to only one side.
I sniggered when 'War Child' was greeted with healthy 'thumbs-up' critical approval. Actually, I have since discovered 'War Child' to be a pleasant album containing a decent quota of interesting and palatable melodies and a couple or more clever arrangements. I noted all this while a cassette of the aforementioned warbled around my hotel room.
I also seem to recall reading at that moment a review of the previous night's concert in the L.A. Times. The headline was "Tull rhymes with Dull".
Not that it was anything new. The caption itself had been stolen from a Rolling Stone review of the same vitriolic anathematic intent. It was then that I felt almost portentiously protective towards the band — if only because it seemed only too easy for any rock critic to get all bully-boy precocious and vicious at the J. Tull Experience. Still, like I said, I wasn't over-concerned either way.
Until, that is, that second time around. It was some time past the initial Tull 'live statement' — a string section plays some 'classical music' (note quote-unquote) for some five minutes, the conductor 'browns off' (i.e. pulls down his pants in front of the audience) and then Martin Barre, Tull's guitarist, appears in a flash of crimson light, and, looking like a cheap Woolworths teddy-bear coming unstuffed, hits a determined E major. Bam-ba-lam. Ah ha. Heavy symbolism here.
Before even Anderson has strutted on his whole exaggerated roguish jackanapes guise, playing the whole hale-and-hearty bit in front of a band who look like puppet figures from 'The Pirates of Penzance' decked out in what looked like the old Beefheart/Magic Band threads, it's understood that basically we, the collective audience here at the L.A. Forum, should not take all this too seriously.
The real clincher for me though — that point wherein the ever-prone proverbial electric light-bulb positioned over one's noggin suddenly goes 'ping' and is illuminated with an inspired question, theory or otherwise — came some way into the performance just prior to Anderson himself launching evermore hale-and-heartily into 'Thick As A Brick'.
A quite spectacularly fanciable space-nymphet — actually Jethro Tull's secretary, Shona, decked out in Bowie-inspired flimsy garb — wanders on to hand the maestro his acoustic guitar and as she quickly makes her exit, Anderson makes the classic English lecher's arm-jerkily-erect-from-the-elbow-up manoeuvre followed by some totally 'nada' vaudevillian throw-away line like —
"You wouldn't believe she was my mother would you?"
Now I'll swear that nobody in that audience could grasp onto what was basically pretty duff but purely English humour, but they yukked it up all the same in a kind of massed hesitant communal bark.
The question then is "Why?", and that expletive can be easily amplified to a point where it embraces the whole Tull success story with an almost churlish obviousness, thus: Which is — why would some 92,000 peachy-faced inhabitants of a city that has witnessed rock dreams as vivid as those wrought by the likes of Brian Wilson, Jim Morrison and, last to home in this context at least, Frank Zappa — inhabitants of a veritable Promised Land for Chrissakes (I mean, where else in the world could you watch the 'Lucy And Desi show' and 'The Beverley Hillbillies' daily every morning on your T.V.?) — be wanting to form mighty queues outside obscurely-sited box-offices out beyond the Santa Monica Boulevard to consequently enter this bloated Bat-Cave of an auditorium so as to witness five blatantly ugly, uncharismatic Limeys putting on an albeit slick, professional show utilising oblique vaudeville, blatantly ludicrous theatrics and music which often comes out like a bunch of the weirdest forms ... anything from Elizabethan madrigal ditties to grunging heavy metal riffs all thrust through this communal mince-meater of a corporate [entity] which is ultimately Jethro Tull.
I was bemused, to say the least.
I mean, with all the other El Supremo hot shot rock auditorium-filling attractions there exists an undeniably obvious reason for their popularity, whether it be 'good Limey charisma' (Zep, the Faces), 'good Limey charisma plus Living Legend schtick' (The Stones principally, also The Who), good techo-flash bombast (ELP principally, also Yes), doper's epiphany (Pink Floyd), or cosmic epiphany (?) (Moody Blues).
It goes without saying — bad taste is timeless and probably a more lucrative commercial faculty in rock than ever (if you don't believe me, just check out Bachman-Turner Overdrive's attendance records here of late) but when it came to Jethro Tull, well, I was more than a touch bemused.
No Robert Plant pretty-boy-type in sight, no real guitar hero, no English equivalent to a Mark Farner (God forbid) here.
No wonder the back-stage area was utterly devoid of groupies. No glitter-puss either.
As far as the eye could see, it was all young kids, predominantly male in wind-cheaters and denims and, from what I could see, at the unfortunate age where hair and skin is not all it could be seated gawking wide-eyed at the Tull programme, like the two beside me who stared quite transfixed at the colour photo of Ian Anderson muttering ... "Yeah, dis guy Ian Anderson ... he's so-o-o far-out. He's the one who holds it all together, y'know."
I'll swear I combed that hall one night, trying to find the key via some out-of-the-blue, off-the-wall statement from some solitary genius in the crowd who would, unbeknown to himself, strike upon the absolute 'raison d'etre' for all this hoopla. But all in vain.
I mean, even my theory of Jethro Tull being some ludicrous teen doper's event of a band was all but blown back by a marked absence of that usually wretched stench of grass wafting through the auditorium.
I guessed it was going to have to be down to getting the word from the Big Cheese himself. Ian Anderson, that is.
I'd found myself reading a few of Anderson's interviews of late, long, in fact, before this whole scam was even a twinkle in some bright publicist's cranium.
He'd always struck me as a basically intriguing character — intelligent certainly, rather a radically toned-down Roy Harper in a very distinctive way. Both Anderson and Harper hail from Blackpool and the latter used to accompany Jethro Tull around to gigs in a transit van shared with John Peel, then doing a dee-jay spot in between sets.
That same North of England hardiness and determination to grapple with some bloated truth; that same predilection towards talking to excess but somehow making it cool by actually saying something amidst all the verbose bamboozlement. Anderson's main problem though as regards interviews was that he always seemed to be faced with total simps on these occasions.
So anyway, you walk into his suite at the swanky Beverley Hills Hotel with a few string-along questions to throw at him, from whence you presume some mighty dialectic will evolve, and here's Anderson dressed in cheapo functional black sweat-shirt and jeans, legs spread out on the table in a sort of half-hearted 50s punk slouch.
Both his face and his hair look distinctly unhealthy, the former sallow and parched, the latter starting to show signs of the years of back-combing and general mismanagement via a slightly receding forehead.
The room itself is sparsely embellished with personal possessions, basically only an acoustic guitar and a motor-cycle jacket stand out.
Anderson will later state that his whole existence revolves around such rooms and his ability to function with the absolute minimum of possessions.
"One of my cop-outs ... these mechanisms in my brain, if you like, is that I can carry all my possessions with me down an airport corridor."
Anderson in fact lives out of hotels. Period. He's done so for over two years now ever since he and his wife separated.
Before that, there was a home — "this very small house" which had involved decorating, buying furniture and all that until ...
"It was very constructive actually — not to mention instructive. I just realised slowly that there were all these other ... options and that those options were what I wanted to pursue."
At this time Anderson's total possessions consist of maybe ten antique guitars, four motorcycles ("three at John (Evan)'s house, one here in L.A. at a friend's house"), a couple of tea-chests full of old clothes, some J.B.L. High Efficiency Monitors and a couple of tape-recorders that he considers as merely tools for his work. A hi-fi system is laying around "somewhere" in storage.
"It's not a frugal existence by any means though it is a very simple existence ... uncomplicated."
But expensive. Hotels and taxis do cost money — "approximately £200 a week" plus eating out — Anderson hates to be cooked for.
"I just ... I just really like to take a girl out for dinner. That, to me, is it, y'know. A real joy."
Like Pan's People, for example, whom Anderson considers "just really good birds". That's why he had them perform for four nights at the Rainbow with his band.
"You see," and here he gets almost assertively defensive, "I like Pan's People. I'm attracted to Pan's People. They're the sort of girls I'd like to go to bed with ... well, let's say, take out to dinner. My lawyer, for example ... now he makes a ritual out of going to his pub and watching Pan's People on the box there. It's a ritual to him and he loves it.
"And I was the same for those four nights. I mean, I was standing there in the wings just positively 'glowing', y'know. I enjoyed the magic of it. It was a personal thing for me. Those four nights were the extent of my sexual contact with Pan's People and it was totally rewarding ..."
Above all though, and far and away beyond all the "options" and "freewheeling" that Anderson's current lifestyle allows him to indulge in, his hotel existence gives him the kind of detachment that ultimately forces him into a creative frame of mind, facilitating the composition of at least "one new riff ... one verse ... just something to make a mark" per day. Nothing less.
A day is in fact totally incomplete without some new musical or lyrical conception having been dragged through Anderson's personal wringer of a creative impulse. When the actual 'validity' of such feverish activity is questioned Anderson is, at least, candid:
"I'm more concerned with making music as opposed ... sometimes to making good music. I could never see myself pondering over a work ... taking two years to bring it to fruition. Most of these rock musicians who've bought houses in the country and to all intents and purposes 'settled down' quote-unquote, actually buy the luxury of making music as a hobby.
"I pride myself on being a musician seven days a week. That is my job. I mean, on my passport it reads — vocation: 'Musician' — and I'm proud of that. I actually glow when I read that."
O.K., O.K., but Anderson will then in another context proclaim forth on the subject of the agonies of being committed to such an all-embracing task.
"Music is something that doesn't do the pain of it all justice. It's a painful process ... it really is. It's not any kind of amputation or exorcism. You're not removing anything ... instead you're using it as a model, exhibiting it and having to live with it. Like, I have to live with some songs that I absolutely loathe."
"Ah, ha, I knew you were going to ask me that and I'm not going to tell you simply because there's probably some poor frail being out there reading this whose favourite Jethro Tull song is exactly one of those that I detest. I wouldn't tell him that in front of him just as you would never tell me to my face what you think of me ..."
Actually, Ian, I think the greater body of your music sucks.
I didn't say that at the time and I'm still wondering why I didn't. Instead I let him get into a further revealing rap about himself, prompted by a question about Anderson the 'artist'.
I mean, surely here was a man with some high-flown theories about the quality of art, the place of the artist in society, or better still, his own worth as an artist.
Instead, he quickly shrugged off the whole schmear, claiming that the true worth of art and its purveyors could only be seen in a "historical" context and that he wasn't even concerned with the tag for now.
I proceed to throw up the whole "I quit" scam that blew up in the wake of 'Passion Play'.
I mean, c'mon Ian ol' buddy, here you are telling me that you don't particularly "care" for the term 'artist' and yet you got involved in something that was to all intents and purposes the biggest piece of "misunderstood creative soul" boo-hoo since Whistler's Mother died. I mean, come clean.
"Do you really want to know what happened at the time?" counters Anderson. Sure, I retort.
"O.K. well ..." and he sets off on an authoritative, believable rap about how the band had been on the road constantly for Christ knows how many years, and just decided to have a holiday. Chrysalis felt they had to document the fact of this temporary retirement by blowing a whole scam up out of all the negative reviews that 'Passion Play' had received.
The band mutely went along with it all, settling back in their country homes, cementing relationships, spawning offspring, buying lawn-mowers.
Only Anderson remained active. His retirement lasted
"a couple of days ... I had a couple of curries and then decided I was bored."
He consequently wrote three albums' worth of material, including a bunch of classical music which he recorded but has refused to put out, fearing that J. Tull fans would buy it on name alone and be disappointed. A film screenplay was also conceived.
O.K., Ian, but this historical perspective. I mean, did I not read in another leading rock weekly how you reckoned you'd ultimately be remembered as a member of a group who had a flute-player who stood on one leg.
"Sure, but you've got to remember that historical perspective will turn, say, Red Indians into guys with red-skins who carried tomahawks and killed buffalo. I mean ... how can anyone satisfactorily picture oneself in such context?"
Feeling argumentative, I set out on an earnest rap about how, if I was Bob Dylan, say, and some kid came up to me and said "Hey Bob your music really inspired me. It really changed my attitude to life, I feel, for the better, etc etc. Thanks a lot," then I'd feel really great. Therefore, if history framed me as some cultural benefactor, then I'd be more than satisfied.
Anderson smiles to himself.
"That's amazing because I've never really felt that way, y'know. I've never really liked music that much. I've admired musicians, mind, but ..."
Hey, but that's a pretty self-consciously 'soulless' thing to admit.
"Yeah, but that's like me saying I don't smoke marijuana or take cocaine. I'm a human being, for God's sake, with real ups and downs. I've never been drunk. I can drink beer throughout a day, but I've never ever been drunk in my life. I couldn't cope with it. I've got a certain discipline that can cope with elations and depressions. My approach as such ... listen, I can't say anything more revealing or ultimately impersonal because you ... you at some stage along the line are going to have to edit this and fit it out into two tidy pages for the NME. I just can't tell you the truth and by that I don't mean the truth as opposed to lies. (Pause) This is really terrifying ... I feel like I'm dragging my guts out and laying them on the table ..."
O.K., so why do interviews in the first place then?
"That's a really good question. It's a weird thing actually, because I feel when I'm doing them, I'm usurping a position that should be allocated solely to new British groups. I mean, I love being British ... I love British groups."
OK, Ian, so do you feel a kinship with other artistes then?
"Sure I do. I feel a kinship with Beefheart ... with Roy Harper ... with ELP and Yes."
What? I mean Harper and Beefheart? Sure they're trying something, but ELP? A bunch of soulless bimboes piddling out bombastic spews of classical music?
"Hey, are you going to keep that line in? That line about "watering down the classics"? Great, I hope you do because that'll allow me to defend that particular band. I really like ELP ... sure I listen to their records.
"I can't pretend that I enjoy everything they play but I truly ... I truly feel this ... that they're trying to elevate their own musical level and there's a kinship there if only because they are a part of an attitude that I personally hold very dear — an attitude that instinctively steers away from the obvious. I mean there's Beefheart ... sure he's saying something original through this naive school of activity way out on his own. But Beefheart proclaiming this artistry which is what he does just about all the bloody time isn't necessarily more elevating than the accidental artistry of Keith Emerson."
Yeah but Emerson is so bloody mechanical his fingers do all the work.
"I just can't see that. I mean, Christ, playing something like 'Rondo' requires so much physical and mental effort that it can't ... it has to be more than a juke-box. Christ, even Alvin Lee doing 'Goin' Home' for the 19 millionth time ... it has to mean something. The effort alone must mean something. I mean, for us 'Passion Play' ... in order to play that demands a commitment."
But I'm talking about ...
"That raw special thing, right? Like Harper, right! For maybe 40 per cent of the time, it's remarkable. I'm not the emotive indicator of my own mood. Harper's just lucky to be able to play like that. For me ... my thing is to maintain a consistency in live performance without taking away the possibility of that extra special factor — the spontaneous moment.
"I mean, I could be on talk shows. I could smile and shake the hands of my guests. And, of course, I wouldn't want to, but when we play America, that's the sort of thing I have to get into. I'm amused to take on the character of the ... uh ... compere. How else could I go on dressing the way I do and singing the way I do?
"You see, my audience ... as a whole, has no desire whatsoever to actually question why I may dress the way I do on stage, or question the lyrics I happen to be singing. They'd rather accept it all per se.
"I mean, and again the difference between me and Roy Harper is that I would be prepared to board a jet and fly across the Atlantic in order to be at peace ... to be alone enough to write a song. But Roy Harper is actually prepared to go to Finland with a haversack, to camp in the snow in the tundra on skis in order to acquire a more romantic, meaningful truth. I would never go that far."
Anderson has had weird eccentric camaraderie bouts with both Beefheart and Harper in his time. The latter would phone him up at five o'clock in the morning in order to get him down to a session he was recording and Anderson would grin and agreeably shamble along.
Beefheart though — now Beefheart was something else. Anderson got involved with the Captain and his old Magic Band to an extent where, now, he's more or less taken over a Magic Band regrouping involving Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton and John ('Drumbo') French with Tull arranger, 37-year-old David Palmer on piano.
"Beefheart was too much of a tyrant who demanded too much credit. The music on 'Trout Mask replica', 'Lick My Decals Off' etc was really all Mark and Bill (Rollo and Morton) who picked up bits of what Beefheart was bashing out incoherently on the piano and moulded it into an actual musical form."
Van Vliet was a bully, a brilliant bully sometimes, according to Anderson, but a bully nonetheless, who played upon his band's equally brilliant naivety.
"At one point I actually said to Mark, listen, if you're scared of writing music yourself, I'll get you a monkey to play piano for you so you can take the music from him. Because that's what Beefheart really did for that band."
This time, according to Anderson, it will be better.
"I'm determined that this band will be the Magic Band."
A record label is being looked into.
"But the thing about both Harper and Beefheart is that both of them are what they so adamantly proclaim. Harper is a romantic ... Beefheart is far-out. I mean I go through similar situations which I don't want to talk about and which I don't want to use to vaunt myself into that elite. I mean, but I can get so depressed that I cry ...
"I mean, now I'm quite sane! In two hours' time who knows, I might be rampaging around the room on a bed in black rubber underwear. You certainly won't know if I am or not!"
OK, then let's get down to the grist of the matter. Chrysalis sent me here to herald the fact that you and your band are veritable titans in the concert halls of this country. That ultimately is the only reason I'm here talking to you and I still have not discovered any key factor — any definitive raison d'etre for this state of affairs. I've eavesdropped on audience conversations, I've played the jaundiced observer, I've scoured the L.A. Forum to practically no avail. So what do you, the performer and consequent object of all this avid attention think it all boils down to?
"Christ, I couldn't suggest one of the many reasons for my popularity that might exist. I mean, that is your job, isn't it? You're in the 'objective' seat and I'm ... in the 'ejector' seat (laughs). Christ, that sounds like somebody else I know ..."
So I've failed.
"It's weird because I did a radio show a few days ago and it developed into one of those phone-in marathons. I was really curious to experiment in that field as opposed to taping just another semi-conversation with a bunch of Tull tracks slotted in. So they announced live over the air that Ian Anderson is in the studio and if anyone wants to phone in, blah, blah. And I mean, the switchboard was jammed literally ... all these lights going on. And all the people on the phones maintained this incredibly unabashed ability to make quite stunningly stupid remarks like ... how many of them just said 'What's happening, man?' with the token 'How long have you been playing flute?' thrown in for good measure."
"Christ, there was no real confrontation of any form. Someone asked me what sign I was and I said 'Stop-Go — but not necessarily in that order.' And the next person who phoned up said 'Hi, I'm a Leo.'"
So how do you pacify the fans who want to know?
"Oh I'm civil, in that classic Graham Greene Englishman style of gruff politeness. Someone who says what is necessary and tries to get out of it. I'm not into preaching at all."
"You know it's funny really. I often wonder some four minutes before I go on ... I mean, they're all out there ... waiting ... anticipating, and I'm very casual and calm really with a ciggy and the last bottle of beer around, laughing at it all backstage in my dressing room. I've thought about putting up a screen above the stage and videoing those last minutes so the audience can see it all going on. I mean, it would probably destroy the total impact of course ... but then again it might add something.
"Actually I'm totally normal, really. That's probably my weakness."