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BBC RADIO SCOTLAND
27 August 2001
OLD WILD MEN
I had a Royal Air Force greatcoat, an embarrassingly straggly beard, long centre-parted hair, and a copy of Jethro Tull's Thick As A Brick carefully kept in a polythene cover. And spots. I had lots of spots.
It was hard to tell if Ian Anderson, the mastermind of Tull, had spots. It was difficult in his case to see where hair stopped and flesh began. Tull, as we knew them, had melodies, a mad lead singer who played the flute on one leg, crunching guitars where necessary, and berserk lyrical concepts which dealt with God, school, parents, life, haystacks, and aliens. How could you not love them?
* * *
What I'm interested in is that at the age of 16 apparently you tried to join the police force — hardly what one would expect from a rock 'n' roll icon.
"I think I perhaps said that I tried to join the Police, but unfortunately Sting got the job. No, you're quite right, I did, at the age of 16, attempt to become a police cadet in Blackpool, but they turned me down because I had too many O-levels ... they smelled a rat, because they said 'Why are you running away from school? You should be staying on to do your A-levels and a university degree.' Which was quite true, I guess I was running away from school, but the things which appealed to me at the age of 16 were not staying on in school and going to university.
"I wanted to get out there and do a job, and the police force, as a career, long-term, really appealed to me; silviculture appealed to me, forestry work, growing trees; and I flirted with the idea of being a journalist as well — I rolled up at the local newspaper in Blackpool and tried to get a job making the tea or running errands or whatever, but they wouldn't have me either, so my fourth choice was to try and enter the music world. After a couple of years at art school, which were really a bit of a holding pattern ... I circled for a couple of years high above it all while I decided really if I thought music would be the right thing."
When Jethro Tull started they were a bit of a warped blues band — is that a fair description?
"It's a very fair description, and it was warped because, certainly for me, knowing as I did by the age of 18 or 19 that it didn't matter how much I tried, singing and playing harmonica and whatever, when I looked at myself in the mirror every morning I was whiter than white, and I just knew I was always going to be a white kid imitating my heroes, who were Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker and all those guys — I knew I really couldn't be one of those people. I knew that that was an alien culture — it was something to marvel at, something to admire, something to enrich the soul, but I couldn't be one of them. I just didn't feel right about imitating something that I had so much respect and admiration for, so I thought it was better to try and twist and turn this to a different advantage and to aim for something a little more eclectic, so for a time Jethro Tull were known ... well it's not true to say 'we' ... I was dabbling in classical music and different kinds of folk music, indeed what would probably be known today as World Music. I could take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and try and draw it together into some exotic stew, and that's what Jethro Tull had become by 1969, after the first few months or year or so of being an odd blues band."
How were you considered by your contemporaries at that time? You had a residency at the Marquee; you were really quite different I suppose from the mainstream, heads down, no nonsense, mindless boogie type of bands that were around at the time.
"Well there were bands like Savoy Brown and Chickenshack, and Fleetwood Mac in their early days, who were quite an authentic blues band who very much emulated their heroes — Elmore James and Muddy Waters and so on — but Jethro Tull, while we did some blues, were also writing our own pieces and ... I think our role in a way was almost to influence a little bit some of the bands like Fleetwood Mac, who then — I'm not saying it was just because of us — but they did start to branch out a bit and Peter Green became an excellent writer of interesting blues-influenced music, shortly before he went completely doo-lally and disappeared for twenty or thirty years!"
For which you do not bear responsibility ...
"Well, it's funny you say that ... Fleetwood Mac were in New York in 1969 and we were a little ahead of them, because we were getting accepted in America, and I went to see them play in some little club in New York city. We were almost established in America by then and doing OK, and Peter Green, who I really didn't know at all, maybe to nod 'hello' to and that was it, he was desperately anxious to talk to me , desperately anxious to get together ... he seemed a soul desperate to find someone to unburden something to. And I didn't know what it was, except that it all seemed a bit scary, and the Fleetwood Mac folks were not the easiest people to get to know in a way, and Peter, who seemed like a nice guy, just seemed desperate ... and I chickened out. I just couldn't ... it scared me. Whatever it was he wanted of me I just felt I couldn't or was unlikely to be able to deliver, and I couldn't face meeting up with him and going through whatever it was he wanted to go through with me. And I do feel a little guilty because of that.
"And Cat Stevens was another guy who somehow attached himself to me in a funny kind of way just before he packed up ... and I sometimes wonder if ... not that I'm the ideal avuncular person to sit down and pat them on the head and say 'There there, what's troubling you son?' ... I'm probably not very good at that at all — I wouldn't have been then and certainly aren't now — but sometimes I regret that I didn't at least give them the time of day to at least unburden their soul and tell me what was bothering them, because two very fine and two very influential musicians have been lost to us — not in the way that Jimi Hendrix was because he truly snuffed it — but lost in the sense that they drifted off into something else. I'm sure Cat Stevens is resolutely happy with what he's doing and doesn't intend to return to the music biz, but one wishes that a little persuasion could have been brought to bear at the time when he made that eventful decision to pack it in."
I want to talk a wee bit about your image, because at those early residencies at the Marquee I understand that you used to queue up outside, in particularly scruffy dress, sussing out the crowd before actually going on stage. And it established a kind of look which became very current — particularly in my school, it must be said — the Jethro Tull look ... [laughter from IA] ... the long overcoat ...
"It probably didn't help you get the girls any more than it helped me! [laughter] I'm sure we all drew a blank in that department ... but yes, it was a look, but an ill-advised one.
"No in fact I wasn't exactly scruffy — I think my father would have been mortified to have heard you say that, because in fact what I was wearing at the time, and pretty much the only clothes I had, were a smart, dark blue blazer with the Dunfermline Curling Club badge on the front [laughter from interviewer] ... and a grey overcoat which I used to wear which he gave me. He just gave me these two things when I left home. We weren't really speaking at the time — it was not a bad ... it was not a good relationship. And he threw these couple of items of clothing at me and said 'You'd better take these, it's going to be a cold winter,' he said, in December 1967, and indeed he was right, it was. And I used to wear these clothes on stage ..."
A Dunfermline Curling Club blazer?? On stage?
"Absolutely — a very chic thing to be wearing in the world of blues and rock 'n' roll ... carved me out from the others, I can tell you! I thought they were rather smart clothes actually, at the time ... [laughter] but it did probably seem a little odd, especially when I had my Woolworth's paper carrier bag, in which I think I used to keep a hot water bottle, a couple of harmonicas, my flute, a strange bamboo flute with a saxophone mouthpiece attached to it called a claghorn — a dreadful instrument that I invented — and an alarm clock, which was timed to go off at the most inopportune moments, in the middle of our guitarist's guitar solo or something. So I used to have these sort of odd ... I was a ... I was a ... I was a sort of Curling Club bag lady come to think of it!"
You never know, it may come back into style Ian ...
As far as the success of Jethro Tull was concerned — it should be said you were called Jethro Toe for some reason before you were Jethro Tull — a name which pops up on bootlegs to this day I believe — but there were three albums, This Was, Stand Up and Benefit, and by the time Benefit came out you were really beginning to be one of the world's biggest bands I think.
"Well, around the time of Benefit we were ... that was in the first three months of 1970 ... we were recording Benefit, and it was rather a dark album, probably because we'd spent '69 mostly in the USA, and that was a little frightening in a way. We came across a lot of rather dark and frightening sides of American society. You know, firearms would sometimes be in the audience in the hands of people who were clearly unstable ... I picked up rounds of live ammunition off the stage ... I had to do a show wearing a Kevlar body-armour vest when someone was supposedly going to kill me on stage that night. There were unpleasant things about it that really marred what otherwise might have been a pleasant decade of becoming quite successful in the USA."
Can we talk a little bit about the Aqualung album — Aqualung and Thick As A Brick were both very important albums, again [laughing] in the kind of society that I inhabited in Scotland at the time. I know that Aqualung still seems to have this amazing power to intrigue people today. There was a full interview with you in Q Magazine or Mojo about it [Classic Rock magazine, August 2001 — AJ]. All this business of the figure on the front cover — I believe you were actually quite upset that people thought it was you?
"Yes. Our then manager Terry Ellis, who was one of the co-owners of Chrysalis Records at the time, was obviously anxious to try and promote and market the album in a way that was going to lead to some enhanced level of success, so he got the artist who did the painting to make the hobo, the homeless person figure, resemble me. And I wasn't too comfortable about that at all.
"I do remember posing for the artist to make some sketches from, but I thought I was posing in just a ... I was probably more compliant than someone dragged in from under the railway arches in East London. I thought I was posing as a stereotypical sort of ... person, a type of person. It wasn't actually supposed to be me. But they made it look a little bit like me, and I always felt uncomfortable about that. And I felt uncomfortable that the album was promoted as a kind of concept album, because it wasn't, it was just a bunch of songs. Three or four songs had something in common, but the rest were completely loose cannons. And so it was very much as a reaction to that critical response that Aqualung had of being a concept album that I then embarked upon what I described as 'the mother of all concept albums' ... we thought, 'If they thought Aqualung was a concept album wait till they hear this, we'll give them a real taste of that medicine.' And it was supposed to be a bit of a spoof, a bit of a send-up of the concept album notion ..."
This is Thick As A Brick, which was one long song ...
"Yeah, and it was done in a lighthearted way, and in a way in which I thought everybody would get the gag, even to the point of my pretending that the lyrics had all been written by a 12-year-old schoolboy ... and I think probably there were a lot of people who got the joke, but an alarming number of people who didn't! I sometimes even now endure sleepless nights thinking that perhaps Tony Blair has a copy of Thick As A Brick in his record collection somewhere and still thinks it was written by a 12-year-old boy ..."
Let's take the story of Jethro Tull along a bit, because by the mid-70s you were a huge band right across the world, been on the cover of Time, Rolling Stone, played at the Shea Stadium ... the first band since The Beatles to play the Shea Stadium, is that right?
"Well with good reason, because it was a dreadful place to play! What people forget about Shea Stadium is that The Beatles couldn't hear themselves play because of the audience going nuts, we couldn't hear ourselves play because of the audience going nuts and the fact that by then there were 747s landing every six or seven minutes ... it was ridiculous ... the flights, they tried to divert them for part of the evening, but then the wind changed and they had to bring them in on a different runway ... I mean literally every three or four minutes there was a whopping great jet about two hundred feet over our heads coming in. It made for something less than a musically perfect evening.
"Somebody had urinated on my head just as I was about to walk out of the tunnel onto the stage right at the beginning of the show [laughter from interviewer] and that didn't put me in a good mood either [more laughter] so as far I was concerned you could leave the Shea Stadium and The Beatles together. Not a place I wanted to go back to."
As far as playing is concerned you kept on playing, worldwide success was always there, there was always a huge fan base for Jethro Tull, and that went on right through the 90s. You continued recording, lots of 'Best Of' albums, and then in 1996 the dangers of rock 'n' roll and all its attendant travel caught up with you — not because of drugs or anything like that, but something with is now very much a buzzword for travellers, and that's DVT.
"Mmm, well not directly because of travelling that I got that, it was indirectly the cause — directly the cause was that I fell over on stage in Lima in Peru during a South American tour ..."
Were you just getting a bit unsteady on your pins, Ian?
[laughing] "Well, I wish it was as simple as that ... we'd played there a couple of years before, and I should have remembered that this was backing onto the Pacific Ocean at night at very high humidity, and everything was really just wet, you know, everything was slippery and wet from condensation. And the fact that I played there two years before, I knew it was like that ... but I just took a tumble on stage. I just misjudged something, my foot slipped out from under me, and I went over badly and tore the ligaments in my knee.
"It was like a rifle shot going off, you know, the snapping of the ligament is actually quite an unpleasant, quite loud noise [interviewer groans] ... it was even heard by our guitar player over a very loud E major that he was playing at the time ... so it must have been quite a loud crack. It was something that over the next few days, in fact a couple of weeks, for me to carry on playing meant I had to go on in a wheelchair with — as I was advised to do — with my leg strapped up. And this was actually the worst possible advice. In Australia, particularly, and perhaps in America they would take the very opposite view which is to quickly get you to start using the leg again. And of course I didn't get that advice from the South American folks that attended me — they wanted to plaster it up and keep me immobile. And of course I had to jump on a plane every day and go to the next gig a couple of thousand miles away or whatever, so I was spending a lot of time travelling with my leg strapped up, and somewhere along the line between then and getting to Australia after the surgery I had in the UK in the meantime, a DVT developed."
So you're in Australia with this deep vein thrombosis ...
"When it was diagnosed, yeah."
At one point you definitely thought you were going to die, didn't you?
"Well actually the frightening thing was for some reason it had been reported in the papers, and I think one paper actually reported that I had died, which was a bit unfortunate, because my children who were at school at the time, boarding school ... I didn't want them to read ... to get the wrong reports! Trying to keep people informed, you know, but yes, it was a bit dangerous, but sort of OK, and after about a month they reluctantly let me travel back to the UK. The clot hadn't completely gone away, but with contemporary miracle drugs to keep the blood sufficiently diluted it was reasonably safe ... as long as I didn't actually tell the airline!"
You are, as you've said, still flying, still touring, and I've been looking at your tour schedule for 2001 and it's absolutely hectic. Do you still find it as exciting? I know there's the sort of gang element as well — you get away from home as a band, you hang out with your mates, you go for lots of curries and have a few pints ... is it still as enjoyable night after night after night?
"Well ... yes, it's enjoyable, but it's enjoyable in a funny way, because I don't think I've ever been ... I've never really enjoyed it in the sense that ... I do see other people come off stage and they're sort of really happy and punching the air in triumph if they've had a great show or whatever, and it's not like that for me. Before a show and after a show I am alone, deeply thoughtful about what I'm going to do or what I've just done, and I need those moments of preparing for and preparing afterwards to come back to a normal mode of living for the next 22 hours. It's very important to me to have that quiet period of coming down. I'm not one of those people who enjoys it in the way that I think people enjoy scoring a goal in a football match, or enjoy having knocked out Mike Tyson or whatever — it's not that kind of punching-the-air victory kind of thing, I don't feel that way at all about it.
"I feel ... I'm confronted by a lot of good moments and bad moments in every show, you know, you have a great chorus and halfway through the next verse you have a terrible moment, and then somewhere in the middle eight you pick it up again! Every song is a series of ups and downs on a really personal, intense level. It's fast, it's furious, really demanding of concentration — you're thinking of the words you're singing, you're thinking of the emotions behind it, it's a whole lot of ups and downs. So no show if perfect or anywhere close to it. But hopefully no show's a complete disaster either. In the worst show you play there's still going to be a lot of great moments that fill you momentarily with joy.
"But I don't come off at the end of a show punching the air with ... in a sort of victory sense, like that loathsome, loathsome tennis player we have, that Tim Henman guy ... I just hate that fist-clenching, you know, 'woarrrgh', I just hate that, that . . that . . hate people doing that, really annoys me ..."
Is it the sports psychologists telling them to do that ... ?
[sighs] "Well more the fool bloody Henman for letting someone con him into ... it's a deeply unpleasant thing to do. If he needs to psyche himself up by it ... I feel like punching him in the face when he does that [astonished laughter from interviewer] ... it's really objectionable, I really dislike that."
I have to say I have a degree of sympathy with that point of view! As far as your future's concerned, you've produced (we haven't had time to talk about this) a number of solo albums ... do you see the band continuing? Do you see yourself concentrating more on your solo work? Will it ever stop?
"Ummm ... well 'yes' to all three of those things really! Absolutely. Yes of course the band's going to carry on playing, and we have . . next year, tours are already being booked right now. And sometimes that feels good, to know that you're still working; sometimes it's a little daunting, that you know you do have commitments out of which you can't wriggle. And yes I do want to work on some more solo things, I do enjoy doing other things with other people, and I get some intriguing and unusual offers to do things with other people, some of which it would be nice to find the time to take up. And yes it will come to an end. But not before they drag me off screaming."
Interviewer: TOM MORTON