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No. 62, July 1976
THE GOODOLE DAYS OF JETHRO TULL
And here I quote from their latest press release:
"Fortunately, the thrill hasn't gone for Jethro Tull. They may have ten consecutive gold albums, astronomical attendance figures, and the tax nightmares that signify you've made it several times over — but they never lose sight of their obligation to their audience, and they believe they still have a way to go in cultivating new followers. They entered the pop music arena as innovators, and it is purely by extending the limits of each successive stage show and album that they have kept that vital faith with their admirers. With international record sales in excess of 10 million, Ian Anderson still has to make it on his own terms. As he revealed to the Melody Maker: 'I'm probably one of the few musicians you'll ever meet who isn't jaded by music....from a very personal point of view, I want to justify that place on my passport where it says that my occupation is 'musician'.'
"On page one of their solid gold catalogue we find their first album 'THIS WAS' (released in 1968) — a collection ranging from acoustic ballads to explosive rockers — punctuated by Tull's trade mark ... the magic flute.
"During this period, Ian Anderson perfected a ragged and maniacal on-stage image that accentuated Tull's musical zest and originality. Hopping on one leg, in that tattered overcoat, while brandishing his silver flute, he was variously characterised as 'a mad dog Fagin', 'a deranged flamingo', 'a demented dancing master' and 'Toscannini on speed'....a journalist's dream, who would one day claim covers from Rolling Stone to Time"......
and one day, even, that supreme accolade — the cover of Zigzag!
Now frankly, I am no longer a Jethro Tull devotee ... for the simple reason that life's too short. I just don't have time to listen to their albums as Ian Anderson would like his audience to listen to them. To do Anderson full justice, you would have to spend hours and days and weeks getting to know something as complex as his 'Passion Play' — it's not an album you listen to as you're tyoing articles, or cooking breakfast.
Back in the Sixties, however, I used to think Jethro Tull was the greatest English band since the Rolling Stones — an opinion based on their image, music and attitude, bolstered up by my loyalty to Luton, that ghastly dump where I was born and schooled ... and among my favourite albums, still, are 'This Was' and 'Living in the Past'.
Anderson, being a new boy in town, was denied the honour of numbering himself among my friends, but I got to hear a lot about him through mutual mates — and I followed Jethro Tull's early career with avid interest. In fact, as British correspondent for a rotten and best-forgotten Dutch music mag called 'Rockarolla', one of my first stories was a piece on Jethro (an appalling load of ill-written pedantic hyperbole which actually reddened my face like a Baxiglow when I re-read it recently).
This, then, is the story of Jethro Tull's inauspicious start in life — based on my talks with various characters instrumental in their early days ... and I mean 'instrumental'; the vocalist, that self-styled 'one-line joker in a public bar', Mr Anderson, refused to grant me audience in a public ba, a saloon bar, his house, our house, his record company's office, or any other place. And who can blame him? Certainly not me. He's been harassed half to death by reporters for years and years so I guess he's entitled to a little privacy now.
Nevertheless, I did probe Chrysalis for a chat. 'I can but ask,' said dashing press officer Christie Briggs, but I could sense the reluctance in his voice, even though I asked for a mere ten minutes of his time.
I heard no more, so I assume that Anderson has had his fill of base journalists such as my good self, and intends to confine his interviews to the highly intellectual Harry Doherty of the highly boring Melody Maker .. but that's his loss. (Men a good deal wealthier in terms of mettle, genius and sterling have derived untold benefit from conversing with me — and, blimey, he only lives down the road, not 20 minutes away ... our nearest superstar neighbour, not counting John Otway). It's his loss but, as I say, it is also his prerogative, and my respect for him isn't even remotely diminished by his stance. I mean, I can think of no other musician who must feel the futility of the artste as much as he does — to be clapped and applauded as a circus clown or a vaudeville turn, rather than a modern day Constable or Dickens ... to see cretinous reviewers dismissing his recordings with dumb remarks like '...but it will sell by the truckload, and that's what matters'.
(Personally, I was very dis-heartened when he decided to sneak out of his much-publicised 'retirement' to clamber down into the gutters of rock 'n' roll again — it's not as if he'd spent all his millions on heroin and needed more fast bucks. I hoped that in his old age, he'd turn to a more graceful form of expression ... like I wonder just how much respect he has for his audience, his critics, the music industry, for the friends he's made over the last 8 years ..... but we're getting too serious here, and that's not my style).
I still love Luton, even though it's a shit-house ... and it is a shit-house — anyone who's ever lived there will tell you that ... a town without heart or spirit. It's hardly an eyesore on the scale of Halifax or some of those other northern monstrosities, of course, but you can stand at the top of Longcroft Hill and gaze upon acres and acres of high-density gloom; it's just like a giant bomb crater, blasted out of the Chilterns, and crammed with rubbish.
Like all big towns in the south east, the centre has been gutted and re-built to conform to 70s requirements — big litter-strewn areas of concrete and windswept tunnels, bordered by unlet shops and embroidered with ornamental fountains that don't work.
Perversely known as the seat of the straw hat industry, Luton is dominated by Vauxhall Motors — and during what's known as 'the Vauxhall fortnight', the place is like a ghost town ... everyone's at Clacton or Blackpool. Strange, then, that in the dying weeks of 1967, a bunch of herberts from Blackpool should decide to move to Luton.
Original Jethro Tull bass-player Glenn Cornick (now fronting a new band called Paris, with ex Fleetwood Macker Bob Weston) explains:
"After messing around with various local bands, I was asked to join John Evan's Smash — in terms of creativity, by far the best band in Blackpool. The line-up was Ian Anderson on vocals, John Evan on keyboards, Barrie Barlow on drums, me on bass, and a guy called Chick Murray on guitar ... he was a mad Scotsman, who wore green all the time — couldn't stand anything that wasn't green! He didn't know what the control knobs on his guitar were for, so he had a different sound every night ... but he was quite an interesting guitarist.
"We also had two sax players; a tenor player called Ranger (because he looked like the Forest Ranger in Yogi Bear ... had a prominent blue beard line), who was a Jehovah's Witness, always trying to convert us, and a baritone player called Tony Wilkinson, who was in a way the leader of the band, because his dad had more money to lend us than anyone else ... he got it together to buy the van and some equipment. He's working for his father's building firm now, I think."
It was patently evident that Blackpool was a musical cul-de-sac; at all venues within a 100 mile arc, soul music was imperative — and Anderson's brain began to wilt at the prospect of singing 'Hold On, I'm Coming' to mentally retarded teenagers for the rest of his life ... but one of the straws at which he clutched for survival happened to be a bright young booker called Chris Wright, who had got the band a few gigs when he was working for the Don Reid Agency in Manchester, and who was in the throes of setting up his own whizz-bang agency, the Ellis-Wright Agency (later to become Chrysalis), in London.
Cornick: "We phoned up Chris and told him we wanted to be a blues band. He already managed Ten Years After, who were doing extraordinarily well on the club circuit, and the blues boom, which threw up Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack and all that stuff, was starting to break nationally ... so he was interested in the idea, but told us we needed a blues guitarist before we could call ourselves a blues band. So we began to cast around for a suitable guy ... and all our thoughts on the matter seemed to point in the direction of Mick Abrahams, who we'd met on a gig at the Beachcomber discotheque down in Luton."
Mick Abrahams' reputation as a 'tasty guitarist' was not restricted to the Luton/Dunstable area, where he was regarded as a local hero; tales of his skill had even tentacle out as far north as Blackpool — probably as a result of his work with the Manchester based group, The Toggery Five.
The rollicking Abrahams, currently leading a new band playing good old blues stuff beaten by the acid winds of time, had started his musical career during the 'beat group boom' of 62/64 — as a member of a gang called The Hustlers ("I was the fat one in the middle with the Fender Telecaster"), before joining Neil Christian and the Crusaders.
"I worked on and off with Chris (Tidmarsh = Neil Christian) for six or seven months ... used to make about seven quid a night, which wasn't bad for those days. I remember seeing him with the original Crusaders, with Jimmy Page, and they were a really superb band — and Chris had this attraction too ... the chicks really went for him. He never felt the need for any form of rehearsal; it was amazing how he got away with it really. We used to wear orange shirts, black trousers, white high-heeled boots, waggle our bums, and play things like 'Lucille' ... then after about 6 numbers, Chris would come on and sing 'What'd I Say'. It was a real scream, actually."
Through drummer Carlo Little, who'd also been in The Crusaders, Abrahams played in The Savages, behind Screaming Lord Sutch, for a while, before reverting to a locally based group, Yensons Trolls, which had organist Jimmy Ledgerwood (now running Paiste Cymbals in Germany somewhere), Andy Pyle on bass, and Clive Bunker on drums ... and he stayed with them until the start of 1966, when he and Bunker moved to Manchester to join The Toggery Five, a bunch of exiled Lutonians who had a pretty strong following in the north and on the continent.
"We came back to Luton around Christmas 1966, when The Toggery Five fell to bits — as it had to, and started a new group with Pete Fensome on vocals, Andy Pyle on bass, Clive Bunker on drums, me on guitar ... that was McGregor's Engine."
For most of 1967, McGregor's Engine was the cat's whiskers in Luton, achieving huge local status as a result of their wild, solid-packed gigs at the beachcomber at Chaul End, and the Purple Door in Upper George Street (formerly the Tudor Coffee Bar, which had housed one of [Pete] Frame's legendary folk clubs 2 years earlier).
"Looking back, I don't think we were any great shakes," says Abrahams, "but at least we were playing something original ... and I was playing what was regarded locally as pretty interesting guitar."
Indeed he was; hardly a week went by without the local newspaper, the Tuesday Pictorial, making some reference to Mick Abrahams or McGregor's Engine.
Abrahams: "One night in October, I walked into the Beachcomber, s I often did, and had a look at the band — who happened to be John Evan's Smash. They were pretty good, and had this intriguing singer who peppered the set with bursts of flute playing ... and afterwards, we got into a long conversation which culminated in Ian asking me if I wanted to join the band. They'd heard about me, apparently, and reckoned I was the bloke they needed to help them break out of the circuit they'd become rutted into.
"I said I'd be happy to join, because McGregor's Engine was beginning to run out of steam at that point, but I told them there was no way that I was going to move to Blackpool or even to London — because I had a good job in Luton, and was not about to chuck it up to become a pop star ... I'd been all through that before."
The only alternative was obvious: if they wanted Abrahams, they would have to move to Luton ... which is what they did.
Cornick: "We got back to Blackpool after that gig, Chick Murray left the band, and Ian got on the phone to Chris wright ..... told him we'd got this great new blues guitarist who leaps around, pulls faces and does all the other things — so Chris told us to move down and he said he'd try to get us some work.
"We did a few gigs, as a seven piece, but the money ran out almost immediately ... we simply couldn't make ends meet on our pitiful income — so we had a meeting, during which everything came to a head: Ranger decided to pack it in — partly because he was finding it such a drag to get back to his Jehovah's Witness meetings, and the other sax player left too. John Evan decided he didn't want to stick around, and he opted to continue his studies — he'd always wanted to study physics, so he went off and did that ... he couldn't envisage the band ever making it. Neither could Barrie Barlow; he had a girlfriend back home and he left the band too ..."
By November 1967, two weeks after they'd set off on the road to stardom — they were down to 3: Ian Anderson, Glenn Cornick, and Mick Abrahams, who brought in his old mate Clive Bunker on drums ... whereupon they became an "out and out blues band, but with a distinctive style and sound because of Ian's flute" Abrahams points out.
The next few months were bleak: having nowhere else to go, Ian managed to get himself invited to the Abrahams household for a spot of turkey and warmth — otherwise it would have been a miserable Christmas indeed (unlike the following year when Anderson cut a Christmas single, from which Abrahams was specifically excluded).
Unable to score any social security, Anderson was obliged to seek a job which might supplement his gig income to the extent that he could just about eat and pay his rent — and unable to find openings in either brain surgery or nuclear physics, he was obliged to take employment as a lavatory cleaner at the Savoy Cinema, bang in the centre of town ... and thus he entered that state which most superstars are forced to endure at one time or another — a state known in the biz as 'paying one's dues'. Anderson, of course, was paying not only his dues, but those of his erstwhile cohorts who weren't prepared to endure such humiliation and deprivation, but were only too happy to roll back a few years later when Jethro were riding the charts.
The current manager of the Savoy (A.B.C), which has now been converted to a 3-in-1 cinema to catch dwindling audiences, has no recollection of Anderson. Hardly surprising, since there must've been 2 or 3 changes of management in the interim — but one of the women who flogs sweets and hot-dogs reckons she remembers him. "He was batty," she says, "... never took his work seriously — always fooling about. I wasn't at all surprised when he left ... you could tell he wasn't cut out for the work." I should bloody well think not, lady!!
Of Anderson's exploits during his bog-cleaning days, two tales have entered the annals of local folklore — and you can find any number of glory seeking bullshitters who claim to have witnessed these spectacles.
The first involves his lurching out of the cinema with a tattered lampshade on his head, crossing George Street, making a bee-line for the lamp-shade counter and trying on about a dozen new models ... each time examining himself in a nearby mirror, and asking the sales girl if she thought it suited his complexion, or whether she could recommend one of a more suitable design.
Then we come to the day when, during routine replacement of leaking bogs, one of the new ones was found to be cracked — whereupon Anderson took it upon himself to parade it around town under his arm ... even taking it on the bus, according to one 'eye witness'.
His scruffy old overcoat and paper bag of belongings became his trademarks — and people got used to seeing him loping along New Bedford Road in the direction of Studley Road, where he and Cornick shared a flat.
Studley Road is close to Moor Park and Wardown Park — Luton's two prime areas of public greensward — but also close to Brook Street, which during my school days was the street of a dozen brothels ... all of which have now been bulldozed to make way for modern, inelegant flats. A quiet, residential road lined with those knobbly trees the council insist on pruning into ugly shapes — Anderson and Cornick lived up at the top end, in a big house, sub-divided into flats and bedsitters. (The electoral register lists seven entirely unrelated occupants, so presumably it's still let off).
Glenn Cornick: "We used to live in the bottom flat, which was a dreadful place. I used to come in late and find Paddies in my bed! They'd usually just come out of prison for not paying their rent, and moved straight back in ... they just broke the back door down and walked straight in. I didn't have any belongings, but if I had, I would never have kept them there. Most of my memories of that place revolve around trying to get unwanted Paddies out of my room without getting my face bashed in."
And it was here that Anderson spent those boring months of Jethro Tull, living in a style between that of a prince and that of a pig.
Meanwhile, the gig situation began to improve. They'd started off by going out under a variety of names including Bag of Blues, Ian Anderson's Bag of Blues and even John Evan's Smash — though the northern management company who 'owned' that name dissuaded them from using that one any more — and eventually they settled for Jethro Tull, though nobody can recall exactly who suggested the name.
Cornick: "To begin with, all the bookers in the office wanted to call us different names — and they booked us out as such. We never knew who we were from one gig to the next! Often it was a case of looking at the posters outside the gig to see who we were supposed to be that night."
[By] The Famous Mac Garry
Hand-written by Pete Frame
Next month: How Jethro broke the percentage at the Nags Head in High Wycombe and came away with 33 quid instead of 30 ... how Chrysalis got together ... Jethro hit the charts ... Mick Abrahams gets kicked out on his arse ... Jimmy McCullough fails the audition as his replacement ... Glenn Cornick gets kicked out on his arse ... Anderson's old mates start coming back ... Clive Bunker gets kicked out on his arse ... more of Anderson's old mates start coming back ... Mac Garry gets to visit Ian Anderson but gets kicked out on his arse ... Alvin Stardust joins Jethro Tull ... Ian Anderson gets kicked out on his arse.
Note: all interviews with IA state that he worked in the Ritz cinema in Luton (Gordon Street), not the Savoy (51 Gerge Street), so the Savoy employee's 'memories' of IA are rather suspect.
Note: in this 2009 interview with IA, he confirms and elaborates on the story about him carrying a cracked toilet around Luton:
"It was one of the spare and probably cracked or slightly broken urinals that was in the store room of the Ritz Cinema in Luton in late 1967. My job was to clean the theatre, including the toilets, in the mornings, which took me half the day. And I thought, well, this old urinal is probably not going to get used, because it had a chip out of the side. So I managed to take it home. And I did keep it for a while with some idea of turning into perhaps a drinking fountain. But along the way it got abandoned ..."