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5 February 1977
Ian Anderson doesn't talk often but when he does, he really lets go. JIM EVANS just listens.
Take one. Many years ago. The demented dance-master, hopping on one leg in a tattered overcoat while brandishing a silver flute.
Take two. Top of the Pops, Christmas '76. No more the mad-dog Fagin of yesteryear as he mouths his way gently through the festive commercial 'Ring Out Solstice Bells'.
Take Ian Anderson. The scene: the Jethro Tull office, Oxford Street. Mr Anderson, looking every inch the country squire speaks, as much with his hands as with his cultured voice, about himself, his band, his music, his image, his all. Listen carefully to Uncle Ian 'cos he ain't goin' to repeat himself.
His music. The new album 'Songs From The Wood' is out this week.
This is the first album we've recorded in Britain for three years. We did it over a full three months — September, October, November. We all lived at home during this time and commuted to the studios. You're more relaxed if you can sleep in your own bed at night. And we were all able to take a day's holiday a week.
Every album we do has a different motive. This one was done a song at a time. I told the band I had written all the material before we went into the studios. I hadn't. In fact the first song we cut, 'Solstice Bells', I wrote the same morning we recorded it.
Thinking about it afterwards, I suggested to the record company it would make a commercial Christmas single. They woffled for a month before deciding to release it. It sold. In the week before Christmas it jumped from 42 to 28. Then it died on Christmas Day. If the record company hadn't dithered so long, it would have been a bigger hit.
It's interesting. I remember last spring I made a bet with a journalist that we would be on Top of the Pops by the end of the year. I wonder if she remembers.
Mr Anderson takes cigarette holder from pocket, inserts Dunhill King Size, lights and draws heavily.
Don't tell me Tull are becoming a commercial singles band?
Between '69 and '71 we went through a bad time, a confusing time. Like other so-called 'underground' groups, Fleetwood Mac, The Nice and others, we had a string of hit singles. It was awkward. We'd almost dived full-length into the teenybop bracket.
I was featured in 'Jackie', a colour poster. It was weird. I felt like Frampton the first time round. The pin-up in a little girls' magazine. It was wet, strange even. And confusing. The singles lost us our credibility with journalists and with the music business in general.
Then we went to America where we became much more popular, much more quickly, but through our albums, not our singles. When we came back here, people weren't remembering our hits. On our British tours now, we reckon to play to a total of around 70,000 people, the same number of albums we reckon to sell in the first three months of release.
I wonder if it's the same 60,000 people who bought 'Solstice Bells' in the three weeks before Christmas. I don't know. Maybe singles could be a way of increasing our audience, getting hit singles again could be a viable proposition.
We have another single planned, 'The Whistler'. The lyrics are a bit heavy for radio, it' s a more serious single. I'll get in the studio and re-do it at the end of the tour.
And so to an Anderson hobby horse.
If you do a more serious single, you don't get on the radio playlist. The Radio One play list — and all the commercial stations run similar lists. It's like having to do an audition every time you bring out a record. All they want is the same old predictable stuff.
People like me became so disillusioned we stopped doing singles for a long time. Others who are less concerned with artistic ideology compromise to the playlist requirements. What do you get? 200 records a week that are boring and repetitive.
Personally, I'd like to hear much more variety on the radio. I think they could be more generous to our sort of material. Now FM radio in the States — British radio stations could take an example from that. They're not what you'd call underground radio, they play a lot of album tracks and cover a wider format of music. But AM radio over there is worse than Radio One, strictly Top 40 stuff.
But don't you get an airing on the more progressive shows, John Peel perhaps?
A-ha, John Peel! No, you won't hear much of us on his show. We once agreed to interrupt a tour to do a recording special for Peel. We drove down from Edinburgh especially for the recording session. The band was unstable at the time, with Mick Abrahams and that. I'd only agreed to do it as a favour to Peel.
Anyway, his producer, some guy called [John] Walters, kept interrupting, coming up with these smart-alec comments. I had a row with him and he went to Peel. Peel took it personally and that was that. It's a pity. In the early days he used to travel with us and compere the shows. I suppose it was a case of us preying on his sensitive area.
The same happened with Marc Bolan and Peel. Bolan saw him in a bar, didn't buy him a drink. Peel took it as a personal affront and that was the Peel-Bolan relationship over.
While we're media bashing, how about television?
You have to rely on the TV producers and I'm always nervous of people who don't know us. In February, we're doing an In Concert. Because of the union thing, we have to use the BBC equipment and technicians. I'm worried.
Did you see Renaissance the other Saturday? It was a dreadful piece of television. You couldn't hear the drums, they'd put the drum mikes three feet above the cymbals. It was crazy, like the group didn't have a drummer. If it had been me, I'd have bloodied the nose of the person responsible.
I hope they get it together for us. I've learnt the hard way and made mistakes in the past. I'm going to make damn sure live television doesn't ruin our music.
So it's Anderson the sensitive artist. Nervous? Do you get very nervous before you go on stage?
Nervous in the sense of getting keyed-up, especially when I've got new songs to remember, but after the first couple of nights of a new tour everything's usually OK and you just go on to enjoy yourself. I only worry if I've got a bad voice or don't have all the necessary facilities.
I've only ever cancelled one show and that was because I was in a wheelchair. I damaged my foot in a crack on the stage in Germany. I jumped and landed on the wrong level.
I can understand how people like Nureyev get windy, paranoid about uneven stages. I mean their livelihood is at stake.
We take our own when we tour America. Though I didn't break my leg, it's permanently weakened. I damaged it again in Monte Carlo kick-starting a motorbike. It's still dodgy.
(Perhaps standing on one leg and playing the flute for so many years hasn't helped the injured leg). Anderson produces, arranges, writes everything for Jethro Tull. Does he like to use his talents to help other bands?
I was called in to mix the Steeleye Span album 'Now We Are Six'. It wasn't particularly enjoyable. They were having trouble and had called me in hoping I would bale them out, wave a magic wand. It wasn't satisfactory.
I did enjoy doing the single 'Thomas The Rhymer' for them, I was surprised it wasn't picked up by the radio. It probably wasn't because it had odd bar lengths, some bars of seven. I like doing that, something a bit different, experimenting with new ideas. Until I run out of ideas, I've no cause to worry. But as for working for other people, I don't have the time to do it properly, unless I come across some excellent new band.
Do you get annoyed when people compare all your albums to Aqualung?
I don't think they do. In America, Aqualung was our first big seller and they see it as our major work. There are comparisons and comparisons. The Beatles had the problem with 'Sergeant Pepper'. That was considered the ultimate Beatles album. Anything they did after that would look inferior in comparison. And it happened to the Who as well. How could they follow a monster like 'Tommy'?
Knock on the door. Enter record company person. Have you finished yet? No, we've only just started. Five minutes then, OK.
A quick one to finish then. Your starter for 10, Britain or America ...?
I'd only consider living in America if I was as popular in Britain as we are in the States. My home is Britain and I'm inspired by living here in this country. Playing in Britain is good fun. Here you've still got the best audiences in the world. They understand the language better, you have to survive by your wits.
In America a lot of it goes over their heads. A British tour is relaxing, but transportation over here is a bore. I'm nervous of driving. I don't like the motorways, all those accidents.
I'm proud to be British. I'm very nationalistic. In America, I'm privileged to be accepted as the epitome of a British gentleman. I open doors for people and behave politely, they like that.
Hand shakes. Exit Anderson, the nervous articulate gentleman of British rock music. Tull we meet again ...
Thanks to Mike Wain for this article.