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19 June 1976
AFTERNOON OF THE ROUND TABLE
Ian Anderson and Giovanni Dadomo sharpen their swords and commence battle. Mike Putland, who took the pictures, acted as referee.
He's sitting at this vast natural-finish round table in what's referred to as the Jethro Tull office. There's an inhabited tropical fish tank in one corner and the walls are decorated with one quietly abstract painting, several photos of the group and the occasional gold record.
The singer's decorated in black tee shirt and jeans and shod with blue suede boots. His biker jacket is draped over the back of his chair and his mouth is in motion. After some diverting ice-breaking unpleasantries regarding an ex-SOUNDS staffer the banter begins in earnest.
It becomes speedily apparent that Ian Anderson rates beside the likes of Todd Rundgren and Bobby Womack as one of the great tongue athletes of our time.
For example, my introduction of the subject of the Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll, To Young To Die LP via the confession that the cartoon strip on the inner cover seemed like a post-mortem attempt at providing a story line for an album which, to me, seemed in itself a little loose conceptually prompts Anderson to divulge the record's entire history.
"We'd gone off to Switzerland to rehearse and to write and arrange for the new album and while I was there — we'd already recorded the title song and the mixing of it renewed my involvement with that particular song, although it didn't have anything to do with the other songs we were preparing for the record. And David Palmer (Anderson's long-time collaborator/ arranger) was with me and when we were talking about it he told me he knew this guy who was a friend of his who was in certain ways very much like the character in the song."
Palmer's ageing rocker pal was one Ray Lomas, says Anderson.
"And I thought it was a great name, and he had a wife called Ivy and a dog called Scout. And at some point we thought it would be really nice to write a sort of musical and stage theatrical thing around this character. Not in any way a nostalgic thing but just taking that song and expanding the song into a character and making a comment not about then but about now.
"Making a comment on today's fashion and style not just in terms of clothes and music but about basically the social behaviour of people and the way it's influenced by what happens to be the fashion of the moment, the way to be for young people."
What evolved — at least so far as the album's comic strip is concerned — goes something like this: Ray Lomas, 'last of the old rockers', in what is presumably a small provincial town, is a disillusioned post-teenager upset by contemporary fashion. His isolation is increased by the fact that all his old buddies have got married and gone straight, he applies for a TV quiz show, is accepted, and goes to London for the programme.
Whilst there he meets up with this tasty society lady but gets nowhere with her. Returning home he's more cheesed off than ever and decides to escape on his motor bike. He crashes and ends up in hospital but while he's there a rock band (Spike Norton and the Wheelies already) sparks off a revival in rock 'n' roll fashion. Therefore when Ray gets out again he finds himself back on top of the tree.
The strip ends with Ray receiving a telegram inviting him to make a 'demo hit single'. "Next week," comes the trailer, "Ray Lomas becomes a pop star!"
"We did the story and I started to write songs to illustrate specific points in the story," Anderson continues. It was still a non Jethro Tull project however.
"I was due to come back here before Christmas and I thought it'd be great to get Adam Faith to play the character because he's from that era, he's got the right sort of background, and also because he's an actor as well as a singer."
Unfortunately Anderson arrived in London to discover that Faith was already rehearsing for the play 'City Sugar'.
"So I thought well, that one's out, and I couldn't really see anyone else in that role. At that time I had around half a dozen songs for the group album and ten or twelve songs for this project and I decided that I'd either ditch it or do it myself."
The latter course was chosen, the material being tailored to the Tull format. This included the actual throwing out of a couple of collisions between Lomas and contemporary fashion that occurred around the middle of the story, says Anderson. He doesn't feel that this tampering had a weakening effect on the finished product however.
"In terms of the actual story thing I don't think it was ever important. I mean, you take something like the soundtrack for 'South Pacific' or something away from the film and as music it doesn't in any way tell a story.
"No soundtrack I ever heard ever tells a story; it merely illustrates in song — not necessarily the particular high points of a story, but certain points where music is the right medium for that particular part of the story. And that indeed was the way we approached it. It's very orthodox in musical type of terms."
See what I mean? Now that is what I call a good long answer to a very short question. It doesn't really answer my original question however. A song like 'Salamander', I opine, had struck me as having only a peripheral connection with the plot, and I'd come to the conclusion that it had been dropped in as it were because as a simple love song - and in my opinion one of the album's finest lyrics — it would fit into any album where there's a boy/girl situation, or, of course, it could exist independently. Anderson's delighted.
"I would hope that all the songs work as songs. And indeed that's the only way they need or should work on a record album. I've never really got behind the idea of a concept album thing. I always found it from the start, a redundant phrase when they said of 'Sgt. Pepper' that it was a concept album. It was a bunch of songs certainly all of which didn't fit into a festive, circus frame of reference — in no way did they tell a story or anything. A few of them had a circus orchestra feel about them with people cheering in the background but no way could I see it as a concept album.
"Unless," he continues, "you're referring to the drug which induced that music — in which case most of my albums have been Lowenbrau albums!"
My other reservation about 'Too Old ...' concerns the lyrics. I suggested to Anderson that there are a couple of places where the lack of subtlety is at variance with his obvious eloquence. His reply's ready before I've even had the opportunity to justify my criticism.
"I deal in translation rather than education. I mean, I'm not putting forward new ideas, and in most cases not even new words — I'm translating into language for somebody else like me who doesn't have the opportunity to do what I'm doing, ideas and feelings."
I'm astonished by the swiftness of this defensive reply. It only occurs to me then that Anderson's no way as thick-skinned as I'd been lead to believe from some of the earlier interviews I'd read. Quite the opposite in fact. Maybe he thinks I'm gunning for him even. I'm not — it's just that I find it depressing when someone who's written some great songs fails to come up to his own standards. But we'll get to that later; meanwhile I'm content to blunt my blade a little.
Does he, I ask, simplify his writing intentionally? Fortunately for me Ian takes the question at face value (someone like Chuck Berry, I realise when I play the tape back, would probably have retorted with "Or am I really an idiot do you mean?")
"Oh yeah. I mean sometimes, because the constant quest I suppose is for the final simplification of something. Certainly over the last three years I've been of the frame of mind that economy is the name of the game, to be economical in words and music in order to encapsulate a proposition or an emotional output or whatever. It's ideal to be simple — and if I'm naive for doing that then I can only apologise for my basic naivete."
Ouch. Now maybe this is just a super-subtle way of putting over the "Or am I really an idiot?" reply, wrapping it in humility so that I suddenly feel like a real heel. But what if the apologetic tone is genuine? Either way the interview's already light years from the standard "Are you looking forward to touring Mongolia?" routines. I ease back a little more. There's nothing wrong with being naive, I say. Why, I'm pretty naive myself ...
"I've always been a fan," Ian confesses, "in terms of painting and literature of the rather sort of naive but enthusiastic perpetrators of the arts. For instance, one could never accuse Henri Rousseau of being a bad painter. A naive painter he certainly was but a great user of colour, a tremendous user of design, great character.
"And even Magritte is naive — I think — intellectually, and yet it all works. And I suppose one wonders if that sort of painter does it on purpose or if it just rolls out of the pallette that way. Or if it's actually a calculated attempt to arrive at some naive thing which says more than a more consciously sophisticated approach would. I don't know. My approach though is sometimes deliberately naive if you use the word naive in the context that I've used it."
And then, just as we finally seem to be agreeing on something we part ways again.
"I would not have thought though," Anderson concludes, "that it was suitable weekly pop comic language to use the word naive. It would be taken by your average readership as being a derogatory, if not slanderous (he laughs) statement."
I have to disagree on this one. For a start, I happen to think that the standard of writing in the 'Weekly pop comics' — all of them, not just this one — happens to be a hell of a lot higher than in at least half of the daily papers.
Plus I'd be delighted to think that at least a few people reading this piece had learned a new use of a much abused word from it. And finally, I think it's just a little silly to worry about the use of one word when you've just name-dropped a couple of painters.
Okay, so maybe a lot of people will just slide over the names of Magritte and Rousseau and forget about them. Well, maybe there'll be just a handful who'll get curious and find out who they were and what they did and get into something that'll give them a lot of pleasure as a result.
And coming back to Anderson's own work, i.e. in the new album's 'From A Dead Beat To An Old Greaser', why the hell bother to mention Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac and Rene Magritte if you're worried about going over people's heads? No, old pal, I think you're presuming naivete on the part of our readers and that's a bit dangerous.
"Well," says Ian, "I think that great audience out there wouldn't claim anything different. They're into 'Match Of The Day' aren't they? I mean, they probably seriously considered David Bowie as Prime Minister."
Anderson pauses for a second, realising perhaps that he's in danger of going over the top.
"That doesn't mean anything bad about them," he adds. "It's just that they read the dailies and actually think 'Oh, I suppose that's what's going on' or 'That's what we know to be going on because that's what it says here.' And if you say 'naive' they will think of the obvious reference, which is not the literal meaning but the customary one."
Now I expect that there's already quite a few SOUNDS readers sharpening their pencils and getting ready to write angry letters about what a thoroughly nasty conceited person Ian Anderson is. Hold on though, because things are going to get even more interesting as we proceed. For the moment though Ian and I finally agree we've reached some kind of stalemate and decide to get back to the subject of music. After all, this is a music paper, right?
Right. So finally Ian asks me to back up my criticism of the lyrics. Well, I reply, in the lyric to 'Crazed Institution', for example, there's the phrase 'platform soul'. Now to me that's such a dreadfully obvious pun that I reckon only Tony Blackburn would find it amusing. I mean, Jesus, how can I reconcile that alongside a beautiful line like 'War Child's 'Skating away on the thin ice of a new day'? Did Anderson really write it like that or was it just a typesetter's idea of a laugh?
"Well," he admits, "I wrote it that way and sang it that way. But you must remember that everything I write is — PSHH! (he makes a swift sweeping gesture with his hand), like that. I don't sit and pore. I re-write very little, and I only re-write it when it has to be ... when I've got too much to cram into a 40-minute album and I've got to pull something out and therefore I've got to tie some loose ends together and still make some kind of sense from my point of view.
"But I don't re-write when I do something like 'platform soul' — I don't sit and think 'Is that good or is that bad?' I said it, I'm responsible for it and ... If I'm worth anything it is that I'm essentially a lot more honest than most of the purveyors of mindless pap that operate within the music business. And I don't say that from a particularly high horse but because it happens to be true.
"I mean you must talk to those other geezers, you know what they're like ..."
Well ... I have to agree. Yes, I do get to meet a fair number of cretins in my line of work. We both laugh, however, I add, a lot of the pap purveyors take what they do very seriously ...
"Yes, but how can, for example, Greg Lake take what he writes seriously? Or Jon Anderson? Of course they do, but how can they if they were half the man I was in terms of pen and paper? I mean, I admit to that sort of responsibility for something that might be a bit irksome after you've heard it once or twice. And of course it's irksome to me, as indeed most of the songs and most of the music are.
"But having come to grips with the transitory nature of its value to me a long time ago, I'm of the opinion that whereas I'm not the speed, flow of consciousness writer like Jack Kerouac I'm sufficiently strong in my prevailing attitude of letting it come out.
"I write most of what I write when I'm actually into writing it — it comes out very quickly and it's not re-worked or re-written. The two albums that were the quickest for me were Passion Play and Thick As A Brick, which may or may not add up after what I've been saying."
Are you saying that when you've finished you've finished?
"Yes, except for the fifty percent of songs that I go on playing onstage. They go on to another kind of life — there's a different sort of a life, there's music and there's lyrics."
In the next breath however Anderson almost seems to contradict himself. Up to now he's given the impression that he rushes through his albums realising that there are bound to be flaws but accepting them as a natural part of the creative process. And it's precisely this aspect of what success does to rock 'n' roll writers that worries me, the way that people relax their discipline once they start to 'make it'.
The final result is that their writing deteriorates into — word of the year — self parody, something that's happened to any major writer you'd care to mention, be it Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, Dylan, or whoever. So when I ask Anderson if there's anything of his he'd like to go back and re-record I don't really expect an affirmative answer. More fool me.
"Yeah — I've often thought particularly about re-recording 'Aqualung'. If I could re-record that ... But having actually re-recorded it once for BBC Radio — only a year or so ago — it isn't as easy as one's emotional brain says it ought to be.
"In fact you tend to be making the same mistakes over again, or you find that the songs have become meaningful to you only in the sense of playing live to a very real audience and the attempt to re-record them has neither the remote recording studio atmosphere of the original or the live vibe of the present mode of playing it. It sort of falls between the two camps and ends up sounding like it. So it doesn't work to re-record I don't think. It's hard to do.
"I don't usually re-record anything. If it's duff after two or three takes then that's usually it for me. Most things I do I really do in one or two takes. But that doesn't mean they're good or bad because of it, it's just the way I have to work. I mean, I don't go in under-rehearsed; I've sat and played through my part in a hotel room somewhere until I feel capable of doing it."
But isn't there a point in that room where you want to change it?
"Yes — and by the time I'm mixing it I think it could be better. But that's a false kind of approach because the ways in which you would have it be better — it's already too late. Not so much from the point of view of practical problems — it's too late for that, but it's too late because emotionally you've outgrown that song already, you've changed.
"And after all as a writer the whole point of doing it is to actually consistently be modifying and bending your own opinion and viewpoint and your emotional output one way and another and back again, just a constant re-valuation of yourself. That's the whole point of doing it. And if one failed to be changed in viewpoint after writing a song there'd be damn all point in doing it in the first place.
"That's not a get-out, it's not a cop-out for me," he concludes, "that's how I feel about writing, what it's all about for me. The absurdly selfish act of writing, of somehow enlightening yourself a little bit as to who and what you are as a person as well as a writer somehow becomes fodder for other people's imaginations.
"Which is all it can ever be even at very best. I'm well honoured if some fifteen year-old high school kid in America takes the trouble to write me a letter to say 'I bought that album of yours and I listened to it and I felt this and I thought that.' Really that moves me an awful lot — I hope if I ever have kids that I make as much impression on them as I have on some of those fifteen year-old fans. That's all it's about."
Anderson's been machine-gunning words in my direction non-stop, and it's only when he finally cools down that I recover my sense enough to try and get some form back into the dialogue.
Like I said at the start, he's an express rapper, and it's precisely because he tends to talk a lot faster than most people think (possibly himself included) that he ends up talking himself into dangerous corners.
Those things about 'Match Of The Day' for example would provide excellent raw material for anyone wanting to do a hatchet job on him. Does he realise that's what he's doing, I wonder. Surely he's not really that arrogant? He quietens.
"Yeah, yeah. I know, I know. I'm wrong to say it really. I'm even wrong to do interviews. But I can't help it because I can't conduct myself you see in any way other than appearing to be sure. And by God it hurts — you know, when you add up the goodies against the bummers at the end of the day you have cause for rejoicing and tears at the same time around bedtime. Or I do. And I think about it an awful lot.
"But the only way to approach the next day is to try and wind up that sort of confidence — which is what it is, an inner sort of drive, a 'Right, let's get stuck into the next twenty-four hours,' y'know. And if that appears as arrogance then I can only say that it's something to do with my basically dour Scottish nature that I come up that way. But my attitude is really that of being eternally optimistic and getting stuck in again."
In the end it finally makes sense why some of Ian's music is brilliant and some of it's bullshit. It makes sense that he's alternately monstrously conceited and disarmingly honest, intelligent, stupid, funny, tragic, serious, trivial, sincere, ambiguous, alone, vulgar, urbane, generous, petty, confused and determined. And about a hundred thousand other things.
Skating away on the thin ice of a new day ain't easy, especially standing on one leg and playing the flute.
Thanks to Mike Wain for this article.