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May-June 1997, no.22
Leaves from the great book of Jethro Tull, courtesy of guitarists Ian Anderson and Martin Barre.
Jethro Tull's undiminished capacity as a vibrant live band is due no doubt to its remarkable ability to navigate complex song arrangements while maintaining a wildly paganistic, theatrical edge. How else to explain the fact that, after nearly three decades as one of rock's most prolific outfits, Tull continues to play to houses packed with loyal legions of fans? The band's basketful of classic rock hits recorded during its heyday in the Seventies certainly hasn't hurt, of course: songs like 'Aqualung,' 'Bungle In The Jungle' and 'Thick As A Brick' are all staples of their live show. Indeed, Tull has taken great pains to only play songs that work well in a concert setting, as elfin frontman and troubadour lan Anderson explains:
"In most cases, my favorite Jethro Tull songs will be determined by how I feel about them as live performance songs, not by the recorded identity."
While the band is more often recognized by Anderson's signature flute-playing abilities and those enduring hits, an under-appreciated facet of the band's music is the guitar finesse exhibited by founder Anderson and co-guitarist Martin Barre. The latter has been with the band almost since the beginning — a remarkable feat considering that no fewer than 22 different musicians have played with Tull over the years. Anderson and Barre are unsung guitar heroes, song-stalwarts who prefer to stick to the composition at hand rather than indulge in guitar pyrotechnics.
We recently caught up with Tull's twin towers to discuss the compositional, guitar and arrangement intricacies behind their catalog of greats. As Anderson explains, his creative spark hasn't waned over the years; in fact, far from falling into stale songwriting patterns, he has never deviated from his own ruggedly individualistic path — and if that means the hit-song days are long gone, so be it. Jethro Tull remains true to its vision.
"Most people find it much harder to be as spontaneously creative on their later work as they were with their first couple of records," says Anderson, "and some people have only one thing that they do. Not to be mean about it, but some great rock and rollers, like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, are pretty one-dimensional."
Rising to the occasion with characteristic impishness, Anderson raves on:
"Somebody like Muddy Waters, it's one-and-a-half tricks, in the case of Beethoven, it's more like four, five or six. But if you're fortunate enough to have more than one or two good ideas in your lifetime, especially ideas that are halfway original, you're a very fortunate musician indeed."
'We Used To Know'
Stand Up (Chrysalis, 1969)
IAN ANDERSON: "We hadn't played this song live since the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, but have started playing it again recently. When we were in the studio recording it, and I strummed up my acoustic guitar and Martin added his bit, it never occurred to me that what we were playing would eventually form the basis of 'Hotel California'. The melody is not anything like 'Hotel California', of course, but when you actually get to the chord sequence, the way in which the thing progresses harmonically, it is actually the verse of 'Hotel California'. The Eagles were opening up for Jethro Tull around that time. However, 'Hotel California' is a very, very popular song and 'We Used to Know' remains an obscure album track."
MARTIN BARRE: "We were going for something that we could use as a climax to the live show, an encore or the last number with a big solo. The guitar solo was all done in one take — I just went for broke. In those days I never really sat down and worked out the implications of chord changes. I just played by ear; sometimes I'd get lucky and hit a note that worked and on another take it might be a disaster. I suppose all that early emphasis on solos was a hangover from the jazz era where everybody had their solos. In some ways, it reflects on how boring the music was — but we got away with it."
ANDERSON: "I was fortunate enough to hear 'Bouree' daily through the floor of my apartment, because a music student was busy practicing on his classical guitar downstairs from me. So 'Bouree' was kind of stuck in my brain when I was looking for an instrumental piece to play in 1969. We had quite a lot of different arrangements of that piece, but I don't necessarily remember exactly where it all fits in, especially since some of it is, shall we say, improvisation. I'm really not convinced about all that reading and writing stuff. I suspect that it's the same with a lot of people who have a temperament better suited to just getting on with it and playing by ear and trial and error. Given the option, I think I would rather learn by ear than off the page."
'To Cry You A Song'
Benefit (Chrysalis, 1970)
ANDERSON: "I know Martin always likes playing that but Martin likes a lot of the pieces from the Benefit album. He and I played harmony guitar on that. Basically, it was just a riff piece that I came up with and said, "Here, Martin, this is the riff," and just left it to him. Haven't heard that one for quite some time, actually. It's not one of my favorite songs."
BARRE: "The influence for that song was Blind Faith's 'Had To Cry Today,' although you couldn't compare the two; nothing was stolen, it was just a nice riff. The riff crossed over the bar in a couple of places and lan and I each played guitars on the backing tracks. It was more or less live in the studio with a couple of overdubs and a solo, lan played my Gibson SG and I played a Les Paul on it. I was playing the song on this current tour at a sound check and everybody sort of turned around and said, 'What's that?' The guys In the band don't know the music from that era. It's [Mountain guitarist] Leslie West's favorite Jethro Tull song. I suppose if there is anybody that ever influenced me at all, West was the one. I felt if I could play like he did, I'd be very happy. Stand Up was a bit nerve-wracking for me, as I had just joined the band and was sort of feeling my way, but Benefit was more fun. I'd become more confident by then."
'Sossity, You're A Woman'
BARRE: "'Sossity' had two guitar parts and was the first time lan and I played together. I remember it very well, and I remember which guitar I played — an old Echo acoustic. We played together on that and on 'Nothing to Say'. We sat in the studio — I played fingerstyle guitar and lan played with a plectrum."
Aqualung (Chrysalis, 1971)
BARRE: "Things were very difficult and very tense, but at the end of the day, this was an important album. I think the songs were so good that it really carried the album through, lan wrote all of it inasmuch as he wrote the riff and the verses. The form was just verse-riff and he had the lyrics. We needed a guitar solo, so I said, 'Why don't we just base it on the chords of the verse but break it down into half-time, then do a sort of round sequence to do a solo over?' And it worked well. While I was doing the solo, which was going really well, Jimmy Page walked into the control room and started waving. I thought, 'Should I wave back and mess up the solo or should I just grin and carry on?' Being a professional to the end, I just grinned."
'Thick As A Brick'
Thick as a Brick (Chrysalis, 1972)
ANDERSON: "That was something that derived from things I was fiddling around with while I was on tour in the U.S. I had just purchased my first Martin guitar, and I played it on the song. A small-bodied guitar lends itself — because of its wider fretboard — to the style of playing that allows you space between the strings; they are easily picked. A lot of people sort of assume that it was a fingerpicking style, but in fact it was all just played literally as single notes with a plectrum. The album itself was a response to the critical assumption that Aqualung had been a concept album, which it was not — although clearly, there were a few songs that did hang together. 'Thick' was a deliberate attempt to come up with what Saddam Hussein might have referred to as 'the mother of all concept albums'. It was all delivered tongue-in-cheek, particularly in terms of its live performance. We delivered it in a way in which people were clearly not quite sure whether it was a very serious exercise or whether it was a of light comedy. In truth, it was both of those things."
BARRE: "There were a lot of songs on that album that we just tied together. We would rehearse a song and then do a link which would go to the next song. I remember staying up working on that album until four or five in the morning, getting a few hours of sleep and then starting again. Very often Ian would come in not knowing what the next piece of music was going to be and we'd just sit down and do it. He'd say, 'Got an idea for the next bit?' Other people added ideas and lots of things that John Evan came up with on Hammond organ became classic Tull bits. It was the most difficult music we had played up to that point, as there were lots of odd bars and time signatures."
'Minstrel In The Gallery'
Minstrel in the Gallery (Chrysalis, 1975)
BARRE: "I'd write a guitar solo for each year, so I wrote one for the Passion Play tour which ended up being tacked on at the beginning of 'Minstrel'. The thing about those solos is that they got better as we went along. It was all right for the time, but I'm glad I moved on."
Too Old To Rock And Roll (Chrysalis, 1976)
ANDERSON: "This employs one of those hybrid tunings, not really an open tuning, but it has a number of open strings which allows you to play things that you can't play with a regular E tuning. It was one of the rare occasions that Martin and I actually sat down in a studio and played live acoustic guitar together. The only problem is that you don't have a lot of time in concert to fiddle with tuning up. It isn't just the question of dropping the pitch of a couple of strings, since you do that on any guitar you have to re-tune everything — you change the tension of the untouched strings by virtue of reducing the tension of the strings you are detuning. So it's not just a 10 second operation, but 30-40 seconds to retune two guitars, and our band is not very well known for being able to cover for each other while tuning."
BARRE: "It's a very difficult piece of music. I remember lan suggested we do it on a tour. I spent two whole days learning it, because it's an open tuning and I didn't know which one it was. It's not a normal one. It took me hours to work out. I tried three or four tunings before I got it right and then I had to learn it. The result was the best thing we did together."
Heavy Horses (Chrysalis, 1978)
BARRE: "That was one of those really loud songs played with the amps up full. I played a Hamer guitar in the studio with Marshall amps at 10. I used to use a Gibson Les Paul sunburst, until they got so valuable that I had to buy tickets for it on airplanes. That sunburst went everywhere with me — breakfast lunch, whatever, I couldn't trust it ever going out of my sight. Eventually I thought, "This is wrong," and started playing Hamer guitars. And then the technology caught up and you could get just as good a sound from guitars that aren't antiques. The Gibson is worth $40,000 today."
Crest Of A Knave (Chrysalis, 1987)
BARRE: "That's the album where a lot of things were of my invention. There are still chunks of the music where lan very much knew what he wanted, but I think my input was far greater on that album than on any other. On 'Budapest', there are bits of acoustic guitar that I wrote. I think the formula that works best is when lan writes the music and then the band arranges it and adds ideas. Then lan writes the lyrics and performs the vocals."
'Rare and Precious Chain'
Roots To Branches (Chrysalis, 1995)
ANDERSON: "After the first few rehearsals, I suggested to the other guys that we drop it. They persuaded me that they thought it was one worth working on a bit more to see if it would gel. It turned out, at the end of the tour, to be one of the more enjoyable pieces to play. I played acoustic guitar all the way through — in fact, the song began with just me singing and playing acoustic guitar and then the other guys came in and worked over the song. It was just about the only song on the album that was done that way. Everything else was rehearsed by the band and recorded very much as a live arrangement. I was trying to stay within the general terms of a more Eastern scale, without precisely observing in an academic fashion, the real details of Indian or Arabic or Spanish or central European or whatever different building-block designs of music exist."
BARRE: "The song was done at the end of the album, and greater attention was given to feel than to getting something that was spot-on musically and played metronomically perfect. I think we were looking for phrases that didn't sit in the obvious place, with the result that most of the songs on the album started on beat two of the bar. I think lan wanted it all to sound a bit different without it being bars of fives and sevens and nines. So, although it's strictly in fours, it doesn't have the appearance of being so because things do start in a strange place within the bar."
'Roots To Branches'
Roots To Branches
BARRE: "The whole album was recorded as live as possible. We recorded a whole series of albums in lan's first studio, which didn't have a live room. Under Wraps, Walk Into Light, Crest Of A Knave and Rock Island were all recorded with drum machines and stayed as is or were replaced by live drums played by Doane Perry or Gerry Conway. The songs were all built up from click parts, then the guitar, bass and everything else was added. It was sort of music by jigsaw method. Ian was keen to rehearse and record as we had done in the early days."
Reprinted from: 'Guitar School', June 1996
Photos: GARY GERSHOFF / RETNA
Photos: 1987 Crest Of A Knave tour.
Thanks to Simon Lindholm for this article