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NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS
31 October 1970
THEIR GREATEST ASSET — BUT IS HE ALSO JETHRO TULL'S WORST ENEMY?
The Man and his Music: first of a two part series
There can be little doubt that Ian Anderson is Jethro Tull's greatest asset, yet paradoxically it might also be true to say that he's the group's and his own worst enemy. Much of the criticism that has been levelled at Jethro Tull — and that's a lot — can be indirectly traced back to the lack of audience understanding of the Anderson thought processes, and that, in itself, is due as much to a failure on Ian's part to communicate as it is to the public to comprehend.
Whatever the reasons, the fact is that Ian Anderson, on stage the Great Entertainer, detracts from Ian Anderson, the Musician. And although the group has gone out of its way in the past to avoid being dismissed as a "joke band" — cutting down the stage theatricals, adding John Evan — there are still many who, while maybe liking their act, refuse to take the music seriously.
It all comes down to this: If you turn in a good and exciting stage show that entertains, then there is a process of thinking that says it must be an act. If it's an act then it must be rehearsed. If it's rehearsed it's mechanical. If it's mechanical it's sterile and if the act is sterile then the music must be too.
Ian, who's contradictory behaviour off stage and on further confuses the issue, recognises the problem and agrees that the group's stage presentation can rub off against its music:
"Led Zeppelin get the same thing from the same people. Their critics are our critics. The people who put down Zeppelin are the same people who put down Jethro Tull. The people who think Zeppelin are contrived will think that we are contrived, while those who think they are exciting and relevant to today's society will accept us as relevant and exciting too. Maybe not in the same way — I like to think we are a little bit more controlled — but I hope it still has the same immediacy."
Anderson quotes as typical of the problem an American Underground paper's review of Benefit which described the music as artificial, likened Ian's songs to washing machines and accused him of dictatorially stamping out solos at the very first signs.
"People see you on stage," he comments, "and think that you must have rehearsed it to make it that way, and that it all must be a bit of an act. And, you're right, they do look on your records in the same light. If they don't like your stage act and think it is theatrical then they are going to look on your records and think they are contrived and mechanical too. I personally don't like to think of what we do on stage as an act because the word 'act' conjures up ideas of contrivances to gain applause ... it suggests something worked out for applause and appreciation. The fact is that everything I do or say on stage has been spontaneous at one time and if there is one movement I do every night it is because it is like conducting the music ... it is part of the arrangement."
"Like the first time we do a new song nothing happens, apart from maybe I tap my foot, but as the song develops something will grow out of it."
Ian's style of songwriting doesn't abate the critics either, being a style that flies directly in the face of his contemporaries' moves into freer, longer and improvised compositions. He, in contrast, writes songs that are concise and often short, with a simple unpretentious lyric line, a beginning, middle and end. In short, he writes songs.
At his new London home, after a meal prepared by Jennie Anderson, Ian and I sat down in the lounge-come-bedroom to talk about his introduction to, and thoughts about, music. A trumpet, violin and guitar were lying on the bed.
It was a guitar in fact, an electric one, that was Ian's first instrument, played in a group formed at school with John Evan, then a drummer, and Jeffrey (of 'A Song For Jeffrey' etc) on bass. He wrote spasmodically in those early days, material to supplement the group's mainly second-hand repertoire drawn from the least known Liverpool groups — "The Underground of their day" — and blues tracks found on records. Later they played Rolling Stones-type numbers and then switched to a Ray Charles/Jimmy Smith bag when John Evan left the drum seat to take up organ.
When Jethro Tull started, they played
"other people's music ... predictable blues stuff ... things Mick Abrahams said we should play."
There hadn't been time either for original material to be stocked up because although Abrahams and Clive Bunker still had day jobs Ian and Glenn Cornick, who had come to London from Blackpool together, were professional.
Playing "variations of 'Dust My Broom'," it wasn't until the band were a good few months old that the situation eased enough to allow them to write their own songs. At the time of the first This Was album those songs were very blues influenced — "jazzy blues." But a collision between Anderson and Abrahams was on. Mick didn't like Ian's songs and Ian didn't like his, that being one of the reasons why the guitarist left and conceived Blodwyn Pig.
From then on the unchallenged provider of Jethro material, Ian sat down to transcribe songs that had been flying around his head since months before. For the first time he was free to write as he wished —
"there was no longer any necessity for them to be either bluesy or jazzy."
The result was Stand Up and a set of compact, concise little songs that left Jethro Tull with an unmistakable and original style. But although Ian accepts this, he sees the sound and the treatment more responsible for the distinctive quality than the actual songs.
"They are linked by the fact that they use the same elements," he maintains, "but arranged in different ways."
And the elements?
"Simplicity — like that of the blues or R & B era. Simplicity of the forthright approach, with variations of intensity from the simple song to the heaviest and rawest."
With a quest for knowledge in virtually every sphere of human activity, in music this has taken him deep into the intricacies of the subject.
"I want to be conversant in all the techniques involved, in writing, arranging, producing, the whole bit,"
says Ian. He talks music in terms of tone colours — there's a further analogy with art in the miniaturist quality of his songs — and feels that recorded works need to be a little deeper and more subtle.
"Whereas on stage you can get that colour by the visual effect of actually being there creating the music."
He had recently bought a trumpet when I met him, never having played one before.
"I wrote a song on it the first day I had it," he told me proudly.
He regards Stand Up in retrospect as being a little too contrived as far as the performances went and feels that Benefit was too much of a rushed job — although disagreeing with the previously mentioned review on the question of solos.
When we last met, Ian told me that he kept his lyrics to simple themes — himself, his friends, his work, Jennie — because he didn't consider himself qualified to comment on anything else. But on the next album he seems to be moving towards more involved themes.
"Many of the songs," he says, "will have a relationship with each other ... they will be able to be taken on two levels."
Switching on the tape to play me a track called 'The Passenger', Ian rummaged through a pile of song books to find and read the lyrics.
"You see, this one is about a man on a train but it can also be seen as drawing analogies between a passenger on a train and a passenger through life ..."
And as if to ward off any suspicions I might be forming:
" ... But it's not pretentious, at least I don't think it will sound pretentious when you hear it. It's not like the Kinks making their potted little statements about men in bowler hats.
"It will also be a little more humorous as an album. There's a song called 'The Pool' (reads lyrics) which is about Blackpool and the sort of thing Ringo might sing. And then there are still the personal songs about me, like 'Wondering Aloud', which is a love song."
Often dissatisfied in the past, Ian feels that the new songs will be better for the group because for the first time since he started writing he no longer has to work to deadlines. The new songs he has been able to live with, to play back and listen to numerous times, and be sure of.
"I don't now have to say 'Oh Christ, I've got to write something to finish off the album.' Working that way I've sometimes written songs and recorded them quickly and then afterwards wondered if they were the right songs for the group. Nowadays it is more relaxing. I also find it a lot easier to write in America now that Jennie can be with me."
The important thing to him, says Ian, is that people buy their records for the reasons they were made —
"because we like the songs and enjoyed making it. It seems a bit silly to say it, but if the next album sold only 200 copies and those 200 people were still playing that record in five years' time that would really knock me out. That is what I really want to do ... to play music that people will remember. Music that will still have the same feel in the years to come and not just be the biggest thing of its particular year."
Note: 'The Passenger' seems to have been the working title for 'Locomotive Breath'. It is also possible that this is the 'long song' mentioned in Disc magazine, of which 'Cheap Day Return' was originally a part, and which may have encompassed 'Locomotive Breath' and perhaps 'Tomorrow Was Today'. It is interesting to imagine that Ian was considering an extended concept piece in advance of Thick As A Brick ... and that 'Life Is A Long Song' would have made an ideal opening segment in a similar low-key acoustic vein.
Thanks to Gerrit de Geus for this article.