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NATIONAL ROCK STAR
5 February 1977
JETHRO TULL — THOSE PRESS KNOCKS HURT
RockStar Question Time in the Jethro Tull office at Chrysalis, just past the Piranha tank. MARTIN THORPE investigates
Tell me about the new album Songs From The Wood.
It took a little bit longer than usual, became we did it all in England — the writing, the rehearsing and the recording. We were all living at home, which meant commuting in, and that obviously is time consuming. For me it was useful, though, because some of the songs were written on the train. It was quite fun to work that way.
Did you have deadline problems?
Obviously an album is best out when you're ready to do concerts. You do end up having a deadline, but it's a self-imposed one. In my case I impose the deadlines.
Looking back, do you think that Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll, Too Young To Die worked as an album?
Rock 'N' Roll — I'm sure it was a workable record. But most of the records, I find (especially after a year), they don't seem that good any more. And maybe a couple of years later they start to assume their final resting place in terms of my own mind.
Musically, I think it was a good album. The greatest deficiency would have to be that it was a little story, and the story itself was the weakest point.
There are some small elements of me in the story line, but the "too old to rock 'n' roll" statement was not in any way applicable to me. It was a comment on the state of the business — fashion, sheep-like herds believing what they read about punk rock, for instance.
Jethro Tull haven't really shown very many influences throughout their time.
I've made deliberate attempts to avoid what was fashionable, and I suppose I've over self-consciously avoided it. This current album — perhaps its biggest fault is that it does avoid any American music. It avoids R & R style, it avoids blues.
Maybe I've been too deliberate in my attempts to stay away from the influences I have undoubtedly had in the past. Generally I'm interested in avoiding American cliches.
After the success of 'Ring Out Solstice Bells' you must be pleased to see the fans active. There are still a lot, obviously.
There are about 60,000 of them, which is very few, but enough to undertake a concert tour of the UK and sell out every night. It's enough to sell a respectful number of albums.
I am flattered to find a changing audience. I see people drifting away at the upper end of the age spectrum because they have other priorities in life, like mortgage repayments and children on the way, etc. It's probably better to take the wife to the pictures one night a week than buy that new rock album. On the other hand, at the other end of the age scale, we get an influx of people around the 15 and 16 mark, which mostly happens in America.
After the Passion Play incident, when you went off the road for a while ...
What incident's this? How do you define 'incident'? There was an ill-conceived PR attempt on Ray Coleman at Melody Maker, whereby our previous manager decided, with all due respect to him — it was a laudable attempt to blast Jethro Tull across the headlines — but he decided we should capitalise on our negative MM review that Chris Welch had given us at Wembley by undertaking to get a MM headline to score one back. He told the paper we were upset by very negative reviews, and would be undertaking no further tours.
The headline said 'Jethro Quits, unfair criticism', and they probably quoted me, which is absolute rubbish, because I never said a word to anyone. It was a PR stunt which badly mis-fired. An attempt to gain some sympathy from the fans of the group. A silly thing to do. I am at fault for letting it happen.
The reality of the situation was that we did have no definite plans to tour after that, because we'd been on the road for five years.
In fact, we were only not playing together for a month, we got back into the studio after a month to make another record, and then in the summer we went out to Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, where we hadn't been for two and a half years. As far as the UK and US were concerned, we appeared to disappear for a year, but we didn't. We were out gigging as usual.
Are journalists more wary about criticising you now?
No, they love it They jump in with both feet now, whereas they just used to dip their toe in.
So success has its problems?
I walk around the streets of LA, and people come up and ask for my autograph. In London they don't.
I don't think I could live here in Britain, if it was like it was in LA — I don't like being bothered. I like a quiet life, I like walking down the streets of London looking more like an IRA bomber on his day off than a pop star.
You live in the country. On a farm?
I live in a family type of house, the sort of house a doctor might have. I reckon myself to be on a par with your average member of the medical profession, or perhaps a lecturer at university. I'm on a par socially, financially, and intellectually.
So I deserve that sort of a house, nothing ostentatious; I love living there, it's way out in the country, surrounded by wild and rough woodlands and foxes and animals of all sorts. I'm in charge of this little island universe of nature, and I do like it I respect it.
I treat my wife's horses as if they were giant hamsters, and they treat me the same way. Like, I'm a sort of tadpole or something. As a child, I was brought up on the outskirts of Edinburgh and then Blackpool, so the countryside was always within bicycling distance.
What will people expect to see from Tull on stage after so long?
Having started the theatrical approach around Thick As A Brick we now feel a little guilty that it's taken the place of the musical guts with a lot of groups. We don't want that to happen to us. It shouldn't be predictable for 100%. We fulfil expectation for 80% of the time, and play around with them for the other 20.
That's why they come to see Jethro Tull. They want to be manipulated just a little bit. They like to feel a little unpredictable. They don't know what I'm going to do, whether I'm going to give some journalist some stick, from the stage, or whether I'm going to be really nice, or not say anything, or do a lot of ballet that night, or whatever it is they think I do.
I like to ad-lib. I really do enjoy doing it. I have my greatest heartbreaks on stage, and my greatest enjoyments. One night in three I can feel really awful, because I haven't done that thing I'm all about.
I've gone back to the hotel and cried, frustration at somehow not being able to get things to happen. You have to weigh it up each night just why you're going out there, and the answers are so many and complicated that you never have the answer.
I don't know why I do it. I'm going out there to find out why.
You still seem to be happy playing live.
I would think I'm getting happier doing it, than less happy, because I went through some very unhappy feelings about playing between 1969 and '70 particularly. I really nearly did pack it up then, I'd had enough. All the drugs — not me — just going out to an audience which was like on the floor in the Fillmore West, just flaked.
It sickened me so much. I thought it was terrible, couldn't take it. I didn't want to play to those loonies back there.
What pulled you back from it?
Though it would seem that the greater part of the audience was half dead, there's always that little nut of kids there who are really alert who don't do dope and are really into you. They helped. But with someone who's out of their brain, you find them laughing about something you said two minutes ago. You can't accept that you're really communicating anything at all.
If the time came when Ian Anderson was finished, would you recognise it?
I wouldn't accept someone's bland statement that it's time to lie down. I might decide to pack it in, but I should imagine the reason would be quite different from being told by someone.
So you don't think the Press accurately reflects public feeling?
I don't think Press reports reflect the audience terribly much, but they can influence at least within a period of a few weeks. The kids who buy a music paper and read about you see "Christ it's a terrible album" again and they're not motivated to rush out and buy the record. They might buy it later if they've heard it on the radio. But it does harm you. And this is not an opinion, it is a fact backed up by the simplest market research.
Are you hurt by criticism?
I'm hurt, because I always seem to get the most stick from people who I've known for a while, or who've loved the group, or I've got on with, and then a couple of years or four years later they've turned around on you and they don't give you that benefit of the doubt.
They can't accept that maybe this record isn't their cup of tea and that you have the right to change, to experiment a little bit, but they hammer you as if you've insulted them in some way.
If they're people I don't know — it could be anybody, of course — we're going to get rotten reviews. But once people you feel have some sort of credibility, and have known and understood the band for a long time, when they suddenly hammer you out of the blue, even if the record was awful, if it was really a bad record, we still didn't deserve this from him. Maybe from someone else, but not from him. It just doesn't seem fair.
If you decide to pack in, what reasons would there be?
Well, I suppose it would be because I had something else to do that I ultimately found had a more profitable and creative payoff. If I suddenly thought that writing novels, spy thrillers is the thing, then I would get stuck into that. Or being a painter again, but something creative.
But you're still enjoying it all at the moment?
I become more involved in music the more records I make. I find I get more excited about the next one really quickly, and immediately on to new ideas. Like last night — I would have sworn I could have told you what the next album was going to be called and contain. But the next day you think, "well I got carried away. Maybe it's not such a good idea after all."
So we're going to see Jethro Tull for a while?
Well I'm afraid so. I can't honestly promise to bow out at the appropriate time. I would have to be selling something less than a thousand records for an album before I actually gave up, before I actually thought I'd had it. I mean, really had it. I mean on 10,000 record sales I could still make a profit.
In a year, worldwide, we will sell 800,000 records. I'll give you my personal guarantee on that, and that's regardless of reviews. But if we get great reviews, and if we had a hit single from the album in America, obviously where most of our sales are, I'll guarantee you we have two million sales in a year. So things ain't bad.
Elton John may sell four million, and Peter Frampton may sell three million, and we're only doing a lousy two million, but what the hell. We've still sold more records to date than Peter 'Stripped to the navel' Frampton.
Thanks to Mike Wain for this article, and Gerrit de Geus for confirmation of the publication date.