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Issue no. 5
JETHRO TULL: ONE FLUTE IN THE RAVE
Ian Anderson, the Pan-like monopedic flautist with a penchant for tastefully arrayed cod-pieces, has discovered that there is more to surviving the music business than a week in the Betty Ford clinic, like so many of his contemporaries. CHRIS WELCH ponders his words ...
"Don't panic!" yelled Ian Anderson, clad in ludicrous tights and striking the pose of a demented 18th century music master. It was a typical moment during Jethro Tull's British tour which began last October and sparked happy memories for fans of a band which has never stopped cocking a snook at musical fads and fashions.
The humour and the musicianship have remained constants throughout an honourable 25-year history which has seen Jethro Tull rise from local blues band to stadium rock giants. There were some years in the wilderness of critical disapproval, when it seemed the once super-hip Tull had been displaced by the perils of punk and the mayhem of metal. But today the band are still a vital musical force.
"Ah, the guitar is working, panic over," said Ian, having actually betrayed signs of agitation during the show at London's Hammersmith Odeon. For a moment it seemed like he might be fazed by guitars that had repeatedly failed him.
Most unusual for a man who likes to keep the world and his band under control. Not for nothing does Ian, the sharp-witted humourist, entrepreneur and multi-instrumentalist, have a reputation for discipline and strength of purpose. Normally he only has to lower his voice and fix people with a steely gaze and they tend to hop about and get things done. It's part of the reason Jethro Tull have survived thus far. Tull in full flight, with guitarist Martin Barre, drummer Doane Perry, and bassist Dave Pegg have all the tight execution of a well drilled orchestra, mixed with looser elements of folk music, jazz and rock. From the days of Aqualung and Heavy Horses to the 1991 album Catfish Rising, Jethro Tull have always been a mix of serious music and absurd theatre, violent hard rock and exquisite classical subtleties.
We were recently privileged to have an audience with Master Anderson at his English country home and at a local hostelry, where the Scots-born flute player, guitarist, composer and fish farmer, poured wine and conversation with equal flair and affability.
"We had a great anniversary celebration last year," Ian began to recall, as our limo jolted over country tracks. "Mick Abrahams and Clive Bunker (their old guitarist and drummer) played with us last year and I managed to persuade Jeffery Hammond and John Evan to turn up — looking very sheepish and embarrassed! We have been together for 23 years now, so I suppose there is a 25th coming up some time now.
"It was all put into perspective the other week when I was at some festival in Switzerland and there were some strange guys in dark glasses waiting for autographs. One of them asked for an autograph for his mother. I said: 'Oh, are you here on holiday?' And he said: 'No, I'm the lead singer with The Ramones, we're on before you tonight!' They were very charming and we spent some time with them, and I asked how long they had been together, and they said — 17 years. God, that's when the whole punk thing started! But compared to them, when you are talking about our history, you are talking old."
The band began in Blackpool in 1968 with Ian on flute, Glenn Cornick (bass), Mick Abrahams (guitar) and Clive Bunker (drums). Their first two albums This Was (1968) and Stand Up (1969) on Island Records won them a cult following and the character of Ian as the flamboyantly dressed, eccentric leader was a sensation in an age of deadly serious blues revivalists. The band's success led to the formation of the Chrysalis label and they went on to release a succession of increasingly sophisticated albums, from Aqualung (1971) to Thick As A Brick (1972) and the rock opera A Passion Play (1973). But did they ever imagine such a long career lay ahead?
"Realistically, I just thought if we could make an album, that would be a dream come true. It was something of an anti-climax when we made the first album and we were still playing small clubs. Nothing had changed! Before that I was playing in various school bands, and with the John Evan Band which preceded Jethro Tull, which was really a Grammar school Sixth Form band. We played youth clubs around Blackpool."
Mostly the fledgeling Tull played ethnic folk blues and tried to develop their own material rather than endlessly copy the Stones. They'd go to the local record stores and buy compilation blues albums in search of rare songs. Gradually they realised they would never achieve anything by simply copying old blues hits. They decided to go down south, Mick Abrahams came in and Ian decided to play harmonica and flute,
"to justify my presence apart from standing up front in a black and red satin suit!"
When the band started to get recognised around the clubs, MGM released a record 'Aeroplane' under the misprinted name of Jethro Toe. The next single for Island (with the name spelt properly), was 'Song For Jeffery' followed by their first hit 'Living In The Past' (1969).
"We made the first album, played at the Sunbury Jazz & Blues Festival and became famous overnight. Our album was so successful it led to the birth of Chrysalis Records created by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis. The secret of our long term success is not just about talent and style but about preserving a long term relationship with an audience. You have to accept that the old fans drop off and you need to bring in more people. We are one of the longest surviving British bands, but I don't think Pink Floyd have ever been away either. We had one year when we didn't do very much — that was in 1985."
Undoubtedly another facet of Tull's success is Ian's own remarkable stage presence. How did it develop?
"There was a very competitive thing between me and Mick Abrahams in the early days. Mick is a good player and a good guy but he's very insecure, and he needs to be constantly reassured. This became obvious later with his band Blodwyn Pig when he went through the same crisis of 'they don't like me'.
"We had a tense relationship, although we had a lot of mutual respect for each other. It developed into a competitive thing between him and me on stage and the audience picked up on that. He was the not-quite-a-blues legend and I was the strange guy who did unlikely things. I used to walk past the crowds at the Marquee carrying my belongings in a Woolworths carrier bag with a flute sticking out. This was to set up the idea I was a bit fucking strange! I'd be wearing my dad's old Scottish curling blazer and raggy jeans and I'd look like some real old bum, and I'd have a hot water bottle in my bag which I pretended to drink from on stage, and an alarm clock timed to go off in the middle of some quiet acoustic song. Anything to disrupt the whole thing! Because the Marquee back then was like John Mayall's Blues Breakers and it was all so dreadfully purist.
"We came to epitomise, like Yes and ELP, the British progressive rock band, but we were much more bluesy. We just never sang in American accents! I always found it a bit strange that Rod Stewart and Elton John chose to sing in this incredible American accent. I don't understand — why? It doesn't help the songs in any way. We have never been academic or too serious either. We aren't the band who did 'Pictures At An Exhibition'! We have had elements of jazz and folk in our music but at heart the music of Jethro Tull has had a bluesy feel. Whether it's the bagpipes or John Lee Hooker, I like music that moves you."
After all these years Tull haven't lost their taste for touring and still have a huge international following. But Ian is amused at the reaction they get when they arrive in some exotic foreign parts.
"The promoter will say, 'Ha! Jethro Tull, she is a legend in my country!' But what he really means is, they'd much rather have the Rolling Stones but Mick Jagger is washing his hair tonight!"
Undoubtedly the most convincing and satisfying work they have produced in years. Here be songs rich in the Tull essentials — quirky humour, melodic sophistication and diverse influences. Gone are the flirtations with excessive keyboards, although there is judicious use of the inevitable drum machine operated by the leader. Few bands today eschew technological convenience. But essentially the stuff that made Jethro Tull attractive in the first place is back in place. Intriguing, amusing lyrics, sophisticated but not bombastic instrumental artifice and a way with a good tune, like the opener and first single 'This Is Not Love'. Martin Barre's rhapsodic guitar is given free rein of expression and the famous flute interjects, huffs and puffs and sneezes. 'Sparrow On The Schoolyard Wall' takes a while to digest but grows in stature with repeated hearings, as does 'Rocks On The Road'. The songs often have their origins in band experiences on the road, like 'Tall Thin Girl' which comes from a night out with drummer Doane Perry at an Indian restaurant. An album to please fans and encourage a new wave of Tull-ites.
Photo: DENIS O'REGAN
Thanks to Simon Lindholm for this article.