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19 May 1995
TAKING LOVING CARE OF BUSINESS
Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson tells Chris Campling how to have fun, make music and remain solvent
Let's explode a rock myth: Ian Anderson did not stand on one leg to play the flute. No, the first time the music got to him in such a way that impersonating a flamingo was the only way he could fully express himself as a musician and, indeed a human being, he was playing the harmonica.
It was back in the days before Anderson's band Jethro Tull was even properly Jethro Tull. They were, though, already the hard-rocking-jazz-blues outfit lovers of what would be called 'progressive' rock would soon rush to hear, and Anderson
"used to sort of lay back and go for the high notes and one leg would sort of wave around in the air," he says. "Just one of those things you do when you're 19."
Music writers started mentioning the flamingo bit in their concert reviews but, somewhere in the mix, it merged with Anderson's other claim to rarity — he played the flute, about as obvious a rock instrument as the ukulele.
"I started reading that I was a flute player who stood on one leg," he says. "I hadn't been aware I was doing it, and I was embarrassed; I wanted to be taken as a serious musician. So I stopped doing it for about three weeks. But then I felt people were expecting me to do it because they'd read about it, so I included it in a dutiful sort of way."
These days, the one-legged Pan flautist makes his appearance about three songs into the show.
"That's when the photographers get the picture they want and they can clear off and let the people in the front row see properly."
The teenaged Anderson of nearly 30 years ago already knew one thing about making it in the rock biz: give the people what they want. Since then, Jethro Tull, named after the 17th-century inventor of the seed drill, have sold upwards of 40 million albums, collected more than 60 gold and platinum albums, and Anderson is a man of untold wealth (well, he wouldn't tell me, anyway).
Mention of his financial success is important. This man treats music as a business — not terribly cosmic for a product of the hippy-trippy Sixties. But in a week which saw the first chilling installment of The Music Biz, a grisly portrayal of blood-sucking record companies having their wicked way with idealistic (or dim) pop stars, his capacity to control as much of his life as possible is impressive.
His latest project is a case in point. Now in the shops is a non-Tull Ian Anderson album called Divinities. It has not been recorded for Chrysalis, his record label for the past 25 years, but for EMI's classical division. There are no lyrics, and no electrified instruments. Flutes, Pan pipes, strings — all that orchestral stuff — play on a classically informed concept album based on the world's religions. There are no obvious singles on it, although the beautiful 'In Defence of Faiths' could, with words added, become a hymn sung long after Anderson is dead.
Anderson is taking Divinities on the road in Europe and America, putting the substantial (in most countries but this) weight of his name behind his gamble, but he knows he could be on a loser here.
"I don't get backed by the record company," he says. "I delivered the master tapes and the artwork, for which I get a high royalty rate in classical terms. But if it takes a caning I don't get the costs of making it back, EMI don't get their marketing costs back, and when it tours bums don't go on seats. Happily, the ticket sales in America are going well."
And how does he know the sales are going well? Because he rings and finds out.
"It makes me feel a lot more confident knowing that I have a reasonable amount of control over what I'm going to do," he says. "And if I say I'm going to do a promotional tour or be on a flight, I'll be there. I don't need someone to send a car to fetch me or hold my hand. I set my alarm, I get up, I go to work. I don't like being treated like a child."
Far too many of today's rock stars know no other way, of course.
"It's like a vicious circle," Anderson says. "The more record companies treat bands like complete imbeciles the more they behave like them."
So he and his people ring — or fax, or e-mail — to book the venues, flights and hotels around the world in the months before he tours. And man, do Jethro Tull tour.
"There are a lot of new markets in rock'n'roll," Anderson says. "India, South America, Czechoslovakia, South Africa ... You do India, then go on to Australia, by way of Hong Kong, then, since you're travelling that way anyway, maybe you'll nip into Hawaii, then carry on across America. It makes sense to tour that way, not just for the band but for the crew and equipment. You get better air deals, freight deals, that type of thing."
You must surely also get pretty tired. Why not stay at home, record a little, gig a bit, and keep a friendly eye on the Scottish salmon-smoking business that now pulls in 12 million pounds a year? "Because it's fun," he says.
Fun is the reason for a lot of what Anderson does. The qualms about putting Divinities before a possibly less-than-thrilled public are stilled by the fun of writing, arranging and recording it, and the anticipation of playing it on stage. After all, the business he is in is rock'n'roll.
"I don't think they are separate beings," he says. "Being onstage is a mixture of being a man at work and having a lot of fun. I know things have been taken care of because I'm the guy that's been doing it. I know about the ticket counts and the press and the security arrangements and who's getting backstage passes. I don't have a thing to worry about, other than falling over."