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I Am Flute: An Interview With Ian Anderson Of Jethro Tull
Mick Middles , February 8th, 2010 05:34

Mick Middles shelves his Fall records for one afternoon, stands on one leg and chats to Ian Anderson of THE TULL!

Whirling flute, throbbing bass… clattering white keyboards; a jagged fusion of folk, jazz, rock and blues colliding behind the unprecedented sight of leery-eyed, bearded man standing on one leg playing the flute.

A dreary vision of greying prog or one of the great iconic sights of British rock? Once, I took the former view, as did many. Once it seemed right to just turn a corner.

In truth, there are few bands who have wavered so dramatically between the hip and profoundly unfashionable… from stalwarts of the English underground to the antithesis of punk. (Although, in the post-punk regroup, Jethro Tull faired rather better than their progressive counterparts. Such wildness, such diversity, such naked musical courage. Such qualities, it seems, eventually conquer even the most shuttered minds.

And here I am, 33-years after ‘Anarchy in the UK’, ‘New Rose’ and Spiral Scratch had seemingly dispatched such progressive leanings to an eclectic graveyard. Here I am indeed, looking forward to a Jethro Tull concert!

What’s more, when I mention this to people who, also, enjoyed the thrust of punk year zero, they all react in the same way. A pitiful glance followed by a shrug and then inevitable submission.

“I bet that will be really good, actually”.

Indeed there is a strange fondness for Jethro Tull and it manifests in the most unlikely places. (Manchester, for instance, although there is a distant connection. One time Tull blues guitarist, Mick Abrahams, spent time in the semi-legendary sixties Wythenshawe combo, The Toggery Five - also featuring Sad Café/Mike and the Mechanics, Paul Young and latter-day Herman’s Hermit, Frank Renshaw). Ian Anderson – symbolic Tull front man – grew up in and around Blackpool’s dense neon jungle.

Despite these northern roots, Jethro Tull began life as a blues soul covers band in Luton, shape-shifting through several pre Tull units… John Evans Band, Ian Anderson’s Bag of Nails and the Ian Anderson Blues Band, among many others. Dull monikers all, and certainly not powerful enough to convey the oddness that was beginning to separate them from myriad R&B wannabees Perhaps it was the fact that Anderson would wield a flute, that set them apart, for not only way it a pull away from the norm in the musical sense, it was visually somewhat alarming.

As, indeed, was Anderson. Legend has it that the front man spent time working as a cleaner in the Savoy Theatre in Luton and, emerging from that very place one day, he was clothed in long scraggy great coat and was carrying a urinal containing his ‘butties'.

“Well that’s kind of true,” Anderson says today, after I mention this vision.

“I had a lampshade on my head as well… just some stuff, just some junk. It was a kind of anti-showbiz but, well to be honest it was still showbiz. It was a way of setting us apart from the rest. I kind of played up to that tramp-like figure. It served me well and seemed to suit the music. It is odd to think back… well, I don’t think we really thought about it. We were hunting an oddness when most were simple blues purists.”

While this oddness came initially from Anderson, it soon spread through the band, Mick Abrahams, Clive Bunker, Glenn Cornick, immediately adopting the name of a 19-Century figure who invented the seed drill, using the workings of a bellow organ. Just a name although, almost without thinking, the band attained the look of rural figures from that period.

“It fell together and it created an immediate and obvious gulf between us and just about every other band in Britain,“ says Anderson, referring to the mass musicianly movement from besuited beat combos into the high colour of Edwardia and psychedelia. A residency at The Marquee Club was swiftly followed by the most significant performance of their early career, down the bill at the Eighth National Jazz and Blues Festival at Kempton Park Racecourse, Sunbury (August 11, 1968). On a bill overflowing with overtly earnest blues purists (Tull took the stage at 5pm, immediately after Chicken Shack), they simply exploded into effortless theatrics. It was here that Anderson truly cemented his persona… wide-eyed, speed-crazed hobo rather than Bohemian, adrift and, for once, truly existential.

“Do you think so?” asks Anderson thoughtfully. “I guess that’s true. I mean, we always had a dislike of bands like The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and Chicken Shack… not personally, but I could never understand why they felt it necessary to sing the blues with an America lilt in their voice. And, indeed, within their playing. This was great music but it wasn’t THEIR music. Almost without thinking we found ourselves within the music. It helped that I had a flute. Not a well-known instrument of the blues but we were determined to keep our Englishness intact. That became our thing.”

True enough. However the band’s first album, This Was, was still rooted to the blues and, even then one strongly sensed that this was a band fighting their way out of a corner, Nevertheless, it was a success (reaching number 10 in Britain and establishing Tull at the heart of Island’s new underground roster… even if they would soon leap into the welcoming arms of Chrysalis). Within six months they had produced one of the key British singles of the late sixties, ‘Living in the Past’ (reaching number 3 uk) and an album, Stand Up, that seemed to define the era.

(I speak from first-hand experience. At the age of 13, I would hover around bus shelter’s clutching Stand Up to my side… an album that came complete with a revolutionary pop out sleeve. It was also impossible to escape the swirling allure of ‘Living in the Past’. In an age when the pop single was largely frowned upon, Tull had succeeded in creating something effortlessly addictive… a single that could truly challenge T-Rex in the perfect pop stakes. As I sit here writing this, 40 years later, that gorgeous refrain swirls through my head… and still it sounds fresh, still it gladdens the heart.)

While it remains their commercial peak, it also kick-started a string of hugely evocative singles – ‘Sweet Dream’, ‘The Witches Promise’ – and the series of albums that cemented their legacy, Benefit, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick and, in a later hugely successful Tull format, Minstrel in the Gallery. Songs From the Wood, A Passion Play. A musical landscape that expanded with each passing release.

The albums would see Anderson edging further and further into a novelistic lyricism….ok ‘concepts’, if you like, with characters such as the precocious ‘Jeffrey’ (‘A Song for Jeffrey’ on ‘This Was’, Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square’ on ‘Stand Up’ and ‘For Michael Collins. Jeffrey and Me’ on ‘Benefit’). In addition came the mightiest character of all, Aqualung, mostly thought to be a simply Anderson’s onstage persona….

“Well I was simply writing more and more and characters came into play. Again, we didn’t wish to string together a series of blues lyrical clichés. The lyrics became bigger… and the music expanded accordingly.”

Aqualung, in particular, might not seem so PC by contemporary standards… a leery tramp who inhabits the pavements. And yet it was a thinly veiled attempt to mask Anderson’s loathing of organised religion and, as such, was once praised by John Lydon circa early PIL - whose ‘Religion’ on Public Image Ltd took a rather more direct approach. Nevertheless it was indeed curious to see the ultimate punk icon openly praising Tull… a band surely banished to the shadows by the punk thrust.

“We loved the punk bands… or many of them,” says Anderson. “I never trusted the swearing and spitting and always thought that Johnny Rotten would be somebody’s son and probably a really decent chap underneath it all… which soon proved to be the case. What I couldn’t understand about this enforced belligerence was the way they also complained when people took against them. That seemed ludicrous. But I loved many of the band… The Stranglers, The Damned."

Even within Rotten’s leer, there would be a touch of Tull… a glimpse of Aqualung?

Anderson: “Maybe, I don’t know. I didn’t know Johnny Rotten at the time but I did meet him further down the line. Well, many years later at an awards ceremony and he was really nice to me. We got on really well but what surprised me the most… no, what ‘shocked’ me was seeing him chatting away with Phil Collins. They were the best of buddies… fine but, well it didn’t seem right, somehow.”

There is little doubt that Tull were profoundly affected by punk. Indeed their comparatively mundane 1976 offering, Too old to Rock’n’roll, Too Young to Die could hardly have been more appallingly timed (or ‘perfectly’ timed, depending on your point of view). Emerging just two months before The Ramones' ferocious debut album, it immediately set Tull at the very antithesis of the rock&roll zeitgeist. Could any band seem pitifully adrift? (AS a result, they retreated rather stubbornly into the then misty areas of folk… surely one of the most ill-timed retreats in rock history?) Well maybe. However, while one senses that CBGB’s was hardly reverberating to the whimsical strains of Thick As A Brick, punk was immediately marginalised in the States. Proof of this lies in the recently released Live at Madison Square Garden DVD where, in a performance broadcast live to the BBC, Tull performed before an ecstatic and curiously youthful crowd… and this in the city of Ramones, Television, Talking Heads and Blondie?

“We were huge in the States… I think only Led Zeppelin could claim to have been a bigger export and they did it by the grand way they interpreted blues songs. We learned how to put on a huge show, pyrotechnics… the works really. Americans love a show and we just went for it with complete honesty. It’s funny because we did try and help to break a few British acts who you would have thought would have faired better over there. Alex Harvey was one. They toured with us and seemed to suit us in many ways. But Alex proved perhaps just too idiosyncratic. Strangely the other one was Ian Dury, who I also adored as an artist but again, it was just a bit too much. To this day I am not entirely sure why. It could be that both Harvey and Dury would evoke a peculiar British trait… that of being somewhat damaged. This is celebrated in Britain but not in the States.

"We represented something very different. A real self-confidence. Americans adore and applaud that. In Britain it is thought arrogant. I am arrogant onstage, I guess. I will admit that.”

Nevertheless, it might indeed seem odd, given the very English elements of Tull’s music. However, one senses that Jethro Tull’s early Stateside ventures, where folk and blues would mix freely, would actually be reflected nearly 40-years later in the Americana upsurge. When I tell Anderson that feint echoes of Tull can now be seen inhabiting albums by Midlake and Fleet Foxes… in Kings of Leon, he remains nonplussed.

“I haven’t heard of that. I don’t think there is a deep significance there. Perhaps their parents had Jethro Tull albums? That would make more sense.”

It is, I guess, the cyclical nature of musical taste that has brought Jethro Tull back into our contemporary vision… well, mine anyway. A second DVD springs to mind. One of those Live at Montreaux affairs which sees a shorter haired Anderson unleashing his infectious personality on a willing crowd… pushing also, a bag of familiar tunes to the splintered edges of cacophony. This came as something of a surprise, for not so long ago, an American soaked Tull had attained an unbecoming showbiz sheen. So much, in fact, it seemed that Tull had gone the way of all musical innovators… i.e., grown ever so dull. But the Live at Montreaux is, once more, a show of gentile insanity… a scruffed, ageing and Bohemian band unleashed into a new wild life. Growing old disgracefully indeed. ‘Locomotive Breath’, a fave of ‘Aqualung vintage’ pounds like an oversize reptile. A lovely chunk of unhinged rock. So which Jethro Tull will we find on the March tour of the UK?

“A bit of this, bit of that,” says Anderson.

“There are the favourites, of course, plus a few songs that haven’t been aired so much over the years. It’s a chance to dress them up a bit… push them somewhere else.”

“And any new writing?”

“I was writing last night, actually. Up late and writing. I have sent material over to America where the band are working on it. That’s kind of how it works these days but they seem to like what I am doing.”

Well, it’s a distanced affair, with Anderson remaining the hinge, of course, though joined by Tull old timer, Martin Barre and long standing drummer Doane Perry, Dave Goodier and John O'Hara. Various unusual musical instruments will be duly handed around. This will not be the Tull who opened on The Rolling Stones infamous Rock’n’Roll Circus, How mad they seemed… and, hopefully, how mad they are still. For Ian Anderson flies between the black and the white. Not many ageing rock icons can claim such a thing. But there he is. One legged and whistling. Fresh from the salmon factory and still, in every sense of the phrase, out there!

Jethro Tull start a 23 date UK tour starting next month.

MARCH

Fri 5th Northampton Royal & Derngate 01604 624811
Sat 6th Oxford New Theatre 0844 847 1585
Sun 7th St Albans Arena 01727 844 488
Tue 9th Torquay Princess Theatre 08702 414120
Wed 10th Brighton Dome 01273 709 709
Thu 11th Ipswich Regent Theatre 01473 433 100
Fri 12th Reading Hexagon 0118 960 6060
Sat 13th Southampton Guildhall 023 8063 2601
Sun 14th High Wycombe The Swan 01494 512 000
Tue 16th Swindon Wyvern Theatre 01793 524 481
Wed 17th London Union Chapel 020 7226 1686
Thu 18th Bristol Colston Hall 0117 922 3686
Fri 19th Croydon Fairfield Halls 020 8688 9291
Mon 22nd Derby Assembly Rooms 01332 255800
Tue 23rd Manchester Apollo 0870 401 8000
Wed 24th Birmingham Symphony Hall 0121 780 3333
Thu 25th York Opera House 0870 606 3595
Sat 27th Newcastle City Hall 0191 261 2606
Sun 28th Aberdeen Music Hall 01224 641 122
Mon 29th Perth Concert Hall 0845 612 6328
Tue 30th Glasgow Pavilion Theatre 0141 332 1846
Wed 31st Liverpool Philharmonic 0151 709 3789

APRIL
Thu 1st Sheffield City Hall 0114 278 9789

More details on JethroTull.com.

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