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IAN ANDERSON: THE JETHRO TULL AUTODISCOGRAPHY
Interview by Tom Silvestri
Through many personnel changes and a career that spans 15 years, Jethro Tull has maintained a consistently innovative sound. The band's seminal contributions to post-Beatles rock, however, are often overlooked by those who didn't witness their explosion upon the scene in the late '60s. Here's a recap from charismatic group leader Ian Anderson who, contrary to rumor, smokes a very agreeable blend of pipe tobacco.
"My own musical history goes back to about the age of 11, when my father bought me a cheap Spanish guitar and encouraged me to play. I never did learn to play to his satisfaction — probably haven't to this day. I sort of scratched around, just about picking out a tune on one string. (I'm self-taught on the instruments I play.) It wasn't till I was 15 that I tried to figure out what these mysterious 'chords' were, and went on from there to pick up a basic understanding of music from listening to people like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
"The Stones' influence on me wasn't so much musical as an example of how one could rebel against the popular concept of being a 'rock' or 'pop' musician. The world was full of people like Herman's Hermits: very slick, very showbiz bands, the kind you could have on the Carson show and everything would go really smoothly. Even the Beatles were sort of smug and nice lads ... or so it appeared in those days. It seemed particularly brave to take something as exotic as American black music and shift it into a kind of British R&B as the Stones did. There were a few other bands doing it, too, like the Animals and even, to a lesser extent, Manfred Mann. And then there were real wizards like the Graham Bond Organization with Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and Dick Heckstall-Smith, taking it more from a jazz angle."
This Was (1968)
"Jethro Tull evolved out of the purist blues boom in England, in which the idea was to play urban blues in a more conventional, faithful way. Fleetwood Mac, Aynsley Dunbar, and John Mayall were pretty serious about the blues, very mission-conscious. Our band was a bit more tongue-in-cheek. We were naughty guys; we didn't take it so seriously, but it was still blues. And we did more of a country blues as well, more acoustic and gentle.
"Yet I quickly became dissatisfied with what we were doing. I found it hard to go onstage and convincingly be a polite shade of black. What really got me was that I was singing something that was essentially stolen. And it wasn't just stealing music, it was stealing somebody's emotions and point of view, almost pretending to have an awareness of what it means to be black.
"We invited Mick Abrahams to leave the band, largely because of his desire not to play more than three nights a week or more than 200 miles from Luton, but also because he was very set in his ways as a musician. That was a very good point for me to find my own music totally away from the blues thing."
Stand Up (1969)
"'Christmas Song', recorded right after Mick left the band, was a baptism by fire for me. It was the first time I was on my own in the studio with the job of making a record — no producer, just me and an engineer. It's an important song for me, one of my favourites in that it did have some little thing to say. David Palmer gave it that slightly classical, very English string sound that made him valuable over the years.
"'Christmas Song' gave me the confidence to write an album's worth of material that didn't owe its allegiance to 12-bar blues, and to introduce other sounds. I went around acquiring odd instruments to play, like the balalaika on 'Fat Man'.
"As the flute wasn't really an instrument with which I could shape the sound of the band, I bought a guitar again around this time. My odd little acoustic style is just what I play when writing songs. Apart from struggling with the instrument on my own, my influences were Bob Dylan's first few albums (which I'd missed the first time around) and of course English folkie types like Roy Harper and Bert Jansch."
"We did this after we'd done three U.S. tours and gotten off the ground there. The experience really did turn us around.
"New York's Fillmore East was all right; it was a concert situation with a seated audience. But the Fillmore West in San Francisco really upset me. I wasn't prepared for people who were out of their brains, flaked out on the floor and dancing around like lunatics. I didn't like strobe lights in my face all the time, that hippie stuff ... and I hated the hippies. Love and peace and flower power and nuts and berries — it was like a ritual; if you didn't participate you were the odd man out. Of course, people who saw me jumping about onstage thought I was taking every drug under the sun. No matter how many times I would say politely, 'No, thank you, I would not like a joint,' they'd say, 'Aw, c'mon, man, hey ...' Rather than be rude or get angry I bottled it up; all these feelings of growing up among a generation I felt I didn't belong with surfaced on Benefit.
"The songs were an attempt to see if there was any life left in heavy riff music in the Led Zeppelin/ Mountain sense. They weren't great songs. A lot of my songs around that time don't mean a lot to me because I wasn't very happy with what I was doing. I was becoming a 'rock star' and should've been enjoying it but I wasn't; I was having a rotten time. I was very close to giving up around then."
"Aqualung contains some humor, and I think it's a better album than Benefit. Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of songs from this period: 'Aqualung', 'Locomotive Breath', 'Cross-Eyed Mary'. Some of the acoustic songs on Aqualung, like 'Wond'ring Aloud', are still very meaningful to me. Even Benefit has one or two good songs. But I can't feel very positive about these entire albums or the recording of them, which is very important. Making a record has to be a good experience overall; it mustn't be all negative ideas.
"We were over the hill in England by now, out of style (inasmuch as we'd ever been IN style). But we'd just started headlining tours in America. We had Yes as an opening act, and they made us work very hard. They were really polished; perhaps a bit much with the tambourines and peace and love everywhere from Jon Anderson, but a very strong band. We'd also played with Led Zeppelin and occasionally managed to 'blow them off', as the press said — only because Led Zeppelin would throw away the show some nights when they were in a bad mood. When they tried, they made us look like idiots."
Thick As A Brick (1972)
"Thick As A Brick was a joyful release from any tradition of blues or rock 'n' roll or whatever. We thought that since people were now discovering us, we'd only have an album or so before we'd be coming back down again. That's why this was so weird: we'd go out in a blaze of glory with some ludicrous album with a ridiculous cover, full of complex, abstract, and contradictory ideas — probably the last album we'll ever make but let's do it anyway.
"The whole album started from that little acoustic song at the beginning. We let it evolve naturally, with the band making little decorative contributions here and there, and then coming in with a big bang.
"I was very passionate about getting some acoustic music in there, though. I was very disillusioned at the time with heavy rock 'n' roll, and playing it to an audience that didn't want to hear anything else. I wasn't very good at it because I'm not a heavy rock 'n' roll singer.
"To my amazement the album was a big hit. It left us in a quandary: 'Well, what do we do now?'"
Living In The Past (1972)
"At this point the band was very current, at least in America. It's always exciting to discover a new band, and when you find out they've made a couple of records already you rush out and buy those as well. You feel proud: 'I found this band.' People were doing that to us, so it seemed a good time to put all our hard-to-find tracks on an album."
A Passion Play (1973)
"This came during a difficult period when we were briefly tax exiles. We were trying to make a follow up to Thick As A Brick and got nowhere, largely because of the technical problems of working in a foreign studio. Plus everyone was displaced emotionally and feeling kind of mixed-up about running off with the money and trying to hide it in Swiss banks, which is a bit obscene.
"Around this time I started getting a lot of poets thrown at me as 'influences'. One that came up all the time — I can't remember which — always struck me as strange, because for years I'd thought he was a famous international golfer. I've always hated poetry and never gotten anywhere near it.
"It's inevitable that I'm going to come up with ideas, tunes, and lyrics that bear a startling resemblance to something else, but I really don't want to know about it. I worry enough about nicking bits here and there without getting too learned about literature or poetry or even other people's music."
"Starting with this album we got reasonably coherent as musicians — not strictly in terms of accuracy but in achieving a solid band sound. Our early stuff is pretty ragged, although it has some charm because it's sloppy.
"WarChild was quite an enjoyable album to do and fit in well with what we became as a live act.
[String section leader] "Patrick Halling was a 'fixer'; he'd played in orchestras and as a session player of light music. He found the string players for us and made sure they gave it their best. Few of those string players have any feel for rhythm, and they don't have any great respect for rock musicians either. I think it worked very well on 'Bungle in the Jungle' and 'The Third Hoorah'.
"I don't like huge orchestras. I prefer between four and twelve people playing nice parts — that beautiful 'Eleanor Rigby' sound."
Minstrel In The Gallery (1975)
"When it came time to tour for WarChild and this album we had to find string players who'd go out on the road. A string quartet seemed appropriate for Minstrel In The Gallery. Instead of a bunch of guys, who might blur the identity of the group, I hit upon the idea of getting women to go onstage. We got the four ugliest women we could find and put them in horrendous wigs and velvet dresses. Of course, with four female string players, the odds were about 3-to-1 that at any time at least one of them would be having her period and be in a foul mood and aggravating the others, so there was always a bad vibe going on. Especially as they were all fairly highly sexed; I was propositioned by a couple of them and no way did I want to go to bed with them. Lesser mortals than myself within the band succumbed to their late-night charms and lived to regret it. I think John Evans had all of them, which led to one of their husbands' arriving in the middle of an American tour to kill him. After two or three tours we thought, hmmmm, let's get David Palmer a keyboard synthesizer and take him on the road instead.
"We recorded a lot of Minstrel in Europe on a mobile studio, and were touring a lot. I think a sense of dislocation got into the record, especially the second side."
Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll: Too Young To Die! (1976)
"This began as an idea for a stage musical; David Palmer was always keen on doing something for the theatre. I thought up a character who dresses in an old-fashioned way and is out of time but carries on doggedly — and then suddenly finds himself in style again. It was a dig at the cyclical nature of fashion, and it was a bit strange because not long after the album came out all those bands erupted in England wearing tight trousers, pointy shoes — all the stuff the character in the album was wearing.
"Once tunes and lyrics started coming out, we found ourselves making it into a Jethro Tull album, which was probably not a good idea. It wasn't particularly attractive to be talking about being 'too old to rock 'n' roll.' The number of times I got asked, 'Are you really too old to rock 'n' roll?' I had to say, 'Well, it's not an autobiographical album.' I knew I'd be asked that, but I didn't expect to be asked in every single interview for the next five years."
Songs From The Wood (1977)
"When I became thoroughly involved with the woman who is now my wife, we decided to buy a house in the English countryside. I had always wanted to do that, but only when I had a woman to share it with and the time felt right to raise a family. Nevertheless, these songs weren't written sitting at home happily around the fire but in the back of taxis and airplanes and at Holiday Inns all around America. When you're sitting in some lonely, so-familiar hotel room, there's nothing you want to write about that's there. So you evaluate your life — who you are, where you live, the people around you — and you make songs about where you've come from and where you're going back to.
"I think the only song I did write at home was 'Fires at Midnight', after a long night in the studio. 'Jack-in-the-Green', too, but that was just a quickie I wrote the day before we started mixing the album. I wrote it in an hour before leaving for the studio and played all the instruments on it that night."
Heavy Horses (1978)
"This contains one of my few conscious references to a poet, Robert Burns — who was rather awful, with his corny lines but in that wonderful Scottish lowland vernacular. He wrote a poem called 'Ode to a Mouse' about a farmer tilling his land and accidentally destroying a field mouse's nest. Then he apologizes to the mouse with this marvellous, gentle sentiment. My interpretation of that idea is 'One Brown Mouse'.
"I do like the way this album hangs together with Songs from the Wood and Stormwatch. Songs is sort of ... woody, with little bits of folklore in it. Heavy Horses is darker and moodier, as on 'Acres Wild' and 'Rover', but I think it has the stronger songs in some ways — the title song for example. And then ..."
"... Completes the trio. There's a lot of weather here, too, but the lyrics aren't just about countryside; they're more socially-oriented.
"Halfway through making Stormwatch, John Glascock became very ill and then died. This was the last album with that edition of the band (Evans, Glascock, Palmer, Martin Barre, and Barriemore Barlow). I think it was the best Barrie Barlow ever played, partly because I was filling in on bass. He and I never got on very well — he wasn't a spontaneous enough drummer for me. But because I was playing the bass we had to work together, and I think we did well.
"This is one of the albums I really like, especially 'Elegy', which David Palmer wrote. I played a solid silver flute on that because I wanted as nice a sound as I could get. I've never thought of myself as a flute player per se, though I enjoy playing and waving it around. I have a lot of these cheap, nasty flutes made by a well-known American manufacturer who's never even allowed me to buy them wholesale. They're not very good, but I bought quite a few back when I used to break more than I do now and I still have a lot left."
"'A' became a Jethro Tull record at the behest of the record company and against my better judgement; it was originally to be a solo album of mine. It continued what Stormwatch started, much more electronic and concerned with current affairs. It was written around news broadcasts, things I'd read about in the paper that morning, written about that day and rehearsed with what accidentally became a band that afternoon.
"It was put together very quickly in a terrific atmosphere of people playing together and being challenged by each other's abilities. I really enjoyed making it. I didn't enjoy finishing it, mixing it, because I felt very nervous about calling it a Jethro Tull album. The actual recording of it was great."
The Broadsword And The Beast (1982)
"We tried to recapture a romantic element of fantasy that had been missing for an album or two without making it too quaint or pixie-like. It's a happy balance between the various things I've sung about or played over the years.
"Any album we make now could be the last. (I've been saying that since Benefit, haven't I?) We recorded about 20 songs and let [producer] Paul Samwell-Smith and the record company have a large hand in the track selection. The final decisions had to be endorsed by me, but I didn't want to be too self-conscious about making an album that was meant to redefine what Jethro Tull had been and should be about."
Thanks to Ed Donnelly for this article.