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15 September 1984
WRAPPED UP TIGHT
The smell of success? For this interview, not the thin atmosphere of air-conditioned record company offices, nor the sterile tang of a posh hotel suite. No folks, here the air is wholesome, healthy as a bowl of fruity muesli, but the odour is distinctly fishy! Fresh salmon to be precise. The overpowering pong of fresh salmon wafts through this Inverness plant with the pungency of a baked bean convention ...
What, or whom, you may well ask, has this place, where a whole smoked side can be had for a mere £4.75 a pound, to do with music? Why, who other than old 'Aqualung' himself, Ian Anderson (age unknown), leader of Jethro Tull whose new album Under Wraps has just been unwrapped to coincide with the band's first British dates for two years.
Director Ian was doing a fortnight's duty as supremo of this smelly concern, tangling with accountants and all the business the aquine entrail trade entails. So when I was wheeled into his office for this executive appointment — I was punctual, but hung loose for 45 minutes before being summoned — I was half-expecting the famous beard to be hung over a bank manager's suit.
Not so. Apt to his later description of the average Tull fan as
"owning at least one combat jacket, might even have bought a Marillion album ..."
he's decked out in fatigues and flak jacket (here comes the press!), reclining in a leather armchair; fully the casual Commander-in-Chief!
But did he expect to be taken seriously — I mean it's not everyday one of us cool (ahem), bigoted (splutter!) London pen-men is offered coffee in a fish factory by a musician host?
"I just assume you're gonna crucify me anyway! If I was a journalist and I came here to interview Pete Townsend sitting with his feet up on his executive desk in his factory where they produce luxury food for the upper classes, I'd destroy it, because it is laughable. It's extremely boring as well. Being a salmon farmer, it's an incredibly boring thing!"
Still, the whole caper is in perfect accord with Ian's pompous reputation — hearsay perhaps due to his detached manner; frequently he lopes off into totally irrelevant asides! But such an entrepreneurial oddity is bound to fuel the critics. So how's he justify it to himself?
"Because I love doing it! I'm really into it, but from everybody else's point of view it's incredibly boring. So hopefully we get that out of the way and going home on the aeroplane you think, actually I don't think I'll crucify him after all for being into fish because in fact it's so dull my readers are gonna get really bored reading about smoked salmon, then they might not buy the paper next week, hen heh heh!"
Enough said! Except to mention that a former Tull road manager is now Ian's fish farm boss! And perhaps to hear how smoked salmon slot into his lifestyle.
"The whole thing about music is it ought to be fun. It's easy when you're 17, it's quite easy in your mid-20s, it's still fun, but your parents are obviously anxious that you appear to be settling down a bit.
"Now, when you get into your 30s, a lot of things about it have become absolute bastards, like the flying, I hate it. And whereas you used to breeze into hotels and be aggravating, get a hard time from the waiter — all good fun — after a while it would be nice to be allowed to go into the restaurant!
"But the bit that's got to be fun is when you go on stage, music is a spurious thing. So to preserve it as the fun in your life you've got to have something else in your life that's more down-to-earth. And for me the serious straightforward business isn't nine-to-five but it's the nearest thing to it. It's kinda organising myself but rather than having a record label or video company by having something totally different."
Different strokes for different old folkies, I guess. Certainly it's hard to detract from fan's individuality. His personal touch is, of course, largely responsible for Tull's uniqueness — a uniqueness, he agrees, that creates a "love em or hate 'em" atmosphere around the band. This he grudgingly accepts, though
"a lot of people who hate it haven't ever listened closely."
Such ignorance is attributed to "other factors" deterring the hearer.
But while shying away from actually declaring pride in his style — "I'm just aware it exists," Ian prefers, perhaps sensing a scurrilous prod for pomposity — a certain reverence is shown in his refusal to blow the cookies by trying to verbally communicate the versical content of Under Wraps.
"I've always been a passionate believer that when people listen to a record for the first time they really shouldn't have too many ideas. Seeing songs described really puts me off because I'll try to relate it to what I'm hearing, and it often doesn't make sense."
Ignoring this affront to our rights as album reviewers, I ask does Ian therefore see music as art?
"I began as an art student so I take it I am arty in my music too, and I don't want to apologise for it. But it's still got to be really essential. It has to go everywhere from being a bit tongue-in-cheek to being deadly serious to being a little arty farty to being basic rock 'n' roll. But the whole essence of pop music is such a trivial thing that you really have to be naive and unbiased to get what you're hearing first time.
"In the broadest possible sense," he continues, "what I write are halfway intelligent pop songs."
Words that ring truer (accepting pop music's face as a constantly regenerating, updating one) by Under Wraps than by any other of his band's albums of recent years. State-of-the-art computer tools of the type Tony Mitchell orgasms over are embraced into the Tull set-up alongside flute and steel-string to fluorescent effect, and with an up-to-the-minute briskness that should startle ready detractors. Strangely, Anderson himself seems oblivious, or apathetic, to this possibility.
"I think it's better integrated, but we're not trying to sound modern. I don't like the word, because you can't sound modern if you're my age! I'd rather your reaction was, well, I've only had a couple of listens, I quite like it, I'm gonna have another listen, because it should grow.
"It's progression the only way you can progress really, which is I suppose like a crab, forward but off at a distinct angle. Or a bit like driving down a newly completed housing estate road, you might make a left, go so far, but there's probably some half-completed houses, a bit of room to turn around, and you've got to go back and join the main road again. That's the inevitable face of pop music, the whole cyclic thing, it just happens."
Ian is equally aware of the "impatience for a turnover in the assemblage of talent" before the British public these days, but
"obviously would like to feel there's still a place for the older bands."
Taking age with grace, this elder statesmen of rock seems to be satisfied with the relative (compared to the 70s) modicum of success he's enjoying, without harbouring hopes of setting the Naughty 40 alight with every next single — respect for his niche, and its limitations. The likelihood, he says, of Tull reverting to gimmickry to wow the world, like makeup and black stockings (can you imagine it!) is minute.
"It would be even more boring than smoked salmon!"