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27 September 1975
THE MINSTREL BOY CALLS THE TUNE
Ian Anderson on the making of Jethro Tull's latest album 'Minstrel In The Gallery'
Ian Anderson has just turned 28 years old, a fact which pleases him none too greatly. His physical appearance belies his true age — reddish hair and beard frame his thin face and the lanky frame is rarely stationary. Though the subject of age puts a damper on his thoughts, the prospect of talking about Jethro Tull's newest album does not. Titled Minstrel In The Gallery, it is a far more personally reflective record than War Child or any previous Tull project.
'Minstrel' first took shape last Christmas when Anderson left England to pursue the solitary task of writing material for a new album, a somewhat irregular process for the singer/composer.
"I left England on December 12 when everybody was getting ready for Christmas and I went away because I wanted to be on my own. I rented a house in another country and stayed there alone until January 12 and that's when I wrote most of the music. They're all the kind of songs you sing when you wake up in the morning ... songs of the last year waking up in the morning. Because that's all an album ever is. I write most of the things when I'm on the road actually so it's unusual for me to go away and write specifically. It's harder to go somewhere and write specifically because it's much more of a self-conscious sort of effort. I prefer writing on the road."
Thick As A Brick, Aqualung, Benefit and Stand Up were all conceived on the road (A Passion Play was written primarily in England), and account for the more universal message they seem to be making. The new album was recorded in Monte Carlo with the help of a special mobile recording truck Tull commissioned to be built. This resort town was chosen because it offered a suitable studio building to be used in conjunction with the mobile unit. 'Minstrel' was recorded during April and May and followed much the same pattern as past Jethro recordings: three weeks rehearsal, three weeks cutting and one week final mixing. Though the album sessions flowed, there is a certain aggressiveness present in the tracks which stems not from band differences but rather from their environment.
"It drives you crazy being somewhere like that for nearly two months. It made me sick getting up in the morning and watching all these people lying on the beach with their amazing vanity. Most of them are really ugly people, physically grotesque; the women are unattractive and the men are obscene. And they lie there in the sun getting a tan to go back home to the office and say, 'Look where I've been.' And they do nothing ... I get very aggressive in that sort of situation because I've got a lot of things to do. Anyway, no doubt some of that aggression came out in what I was singing about."
Minstrel In The Gallery, though it contains a certain belligerent feel in some tracks, is, in essence, a sensitive autobiographical portrayal of Ian Anderson. He plays the part of the minstrel and in Anderson's unique style brings the listener into his own experiences.
"The songs are personal songs but they're all different," he says. "It's not a concept album. 'Minstrel In The Gallery' is just all about how I'm up on stage and they're all down there and how it really amazes me that I don't alienate everybody because of what I sing about. Either they don't understand or else they're giving me the benefit of a lot of doubt. But, in the sense that we play anywhere and everywhere we are akin to the minstrels of old. If there's a gig we do it, and we get accommodations for the night and food. It's on a day-by-day living basis."
'Cold Wind To Valhalla' is a plaintive calling to the passing of heroes. In this moving song Anderson admits he doesn't have the courage to be a real hero but does see himself as a sort of anti-hero. Clutching a cigarette in his spindly fingers, he explains:
"It's all about why there aren't many Evel Knievels left. Valhalla was the place where all the Norse heroes went when they died. I just explain some of that in words and imagery but then go on to say that there aren't many of them left up there these days.
"I mean, I would dearly have loved to have gone to the moon. I can conceive of no finer thing than to have actually been the first guy off the planet. I think that would have been most enlightening. But maybe Neil Armstrong thinks the same about what I do. Maybe he wants to write a song and get up on stage at Madison Square Garden and sing it. There aren't many people like them left; there's a lot of them like me."
'Minstrel' leans heavily on the relationships between people and 'Black Satin Dancer' is just such a song.
"It's a girl's song," Anderson suggests. "It's just a song recognising sensuality. It's the type of song Led Zeppelin would write if they could write lyrics. Except, in fairness to Led Zeppelin, they would have had a better riff and it would have been heavier. With my lyrics and Led Zeppelin's music we might arrive at something halfway there."
The songs are all laced with the unmistakable Tull flute which takes a similar role to the one played in Benefit. The flute is present as a solo instrument, a solo voice, and rarely plays arranged parts; the lines are mainly improvised and sets the instrument as the main melody line.
Only in 'Requiem' does the flute play an arranged passage, another 'girl's song'. It began originally as a much longer piece with more verses and though Ian admits it was more effective in this form, he realised it did tend to ramble. In the end, he opted for the shorter version and used the first and last verses only. It was also one of the more difficult songs to record.
"Originally it was a piano song and it just didn't work. It has a particular progression in there which is sort of Bach-like played on an organ or piano — a descending bass line. It was very cold; it wasn't right. It meant doing a backing track and me singing afterwards and it just got out of hand. When the girls arrived to do the string parts I said, 'Well, since we've done the arrangement for them we might as well have another crack at it and I'll just do it once, one take, just me playing the guitar and singing. Either it'll work or it won't work.' So the next day I went in; red light on, roll the tape, and bang, that was it. A one-off thing and it came out sounding more the way it should."
Anderson agrees that 'Minstrel' is less of an electric album than War Child because the band is not playing all the time on every track. On War Child, all the music was written before the lyrics whereas in this case some of the words were done before the music.
"I had a chance to think about all the songs a lot more before we got to rehearsal. On some of them it was clearly better that that they should be left unadorned with other instruments. But the electric thing is there; it's emphatic when it's there. I mean it works but there's no superfluous playing."
There's a good bit of this electricity on 'One White Duck/010=Nothing At All' — two separate songs put back-to-back because they represented the antithesis of each other. The first part is about going away and leaving the lady begins with nothing more than the image of the free and wandering spirit; the second half speaks of a diminishing love-return situation.
The 'Baker Street Muse' (play on the word mews) is Ian again, this time reliving a real-life situation where he went for the woman and she "didn't want to know. My attempts were politely refused." He first tried to con her into it with some line, some angle ("my Baker Street ruse"), and when this fails he tried being heavy ("my Baker Street bruise"). He finally accepts himself as being nothing more than a "Baker Street muse".
A short 'Grace' closes the album in a sort of cryptic double-meaning. At the end Ian sings: "Hello sun, hello bird, hello my lady, hello breakfast / May I buy you again tomorrow?", and one wonders if he's referring to you in the plural or just referring to the items mentioned.
"The cynical part of me believes all of this we pay for in one way or another. It isn't free by any means. We have to put back in what we take out. I mean I take my share of it looking out the window and you've got to put it back. You've got to pay for the next one, you've got to pay in advance."