“I’m Lucky To Have My Name Known Before I Die”: Ian Anderson Turns 75

Celebrating a milestone birthday for the legendary frontman of Jethro Tull

Ian Anderson (Image: Jethrotull.com)

There are many ways to kick off albums, but generally speaking, no matter what the genre, the band wants to say to the listener “Welcome aboard. Enjoy the ride.”

Many ways to do this. With a big bang. With a long teasing intro … (Obviously, we’re talking about the days when fans bought albums and listened to them in their entirety: Side 1, flip over, Side 2. Repeat if well-liked.)

Then, there’s Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick. Ian Anderson, the singer-songwriter, began the nearly 44-minute, one-song opus with a lilting “Really don’t mind if you sit this one out … “ 

I mean, literally, it was an invitation to the listener to take a pass. Being a fan of Aqualung, there was no way I could do this, especially after paying $3.98 or whatever I paid back in the day for LPs.

Many years later, I had a talk with Anderson, who turns 75 on August 10th. And the album, well, it had its 50th anniversary this year, too, in early March. 

I asked about that intro. 

“It was a kind of a brave and potentially rather insulting thing to have done to an audience,” mused Anderson, when we spoke seven years ago, “but it really was sort of a take-it-or-leave-it sort of affair. And people didn’t overtly take offense so it worked out OK.”

That it did. It spun on my crappy bedroom stereo turntable through the summer of ’72, as I read the cryptic fake newspaper text on the album’s gatefold cover, obsessed about who that Gerald Bostock kid was and tried to look up the skirt of that seductive girl posed on the cover. And, while listening, parsed the lyrics for meaning. Years later, I did a little digging and found out Anderson had, at one point anyway, said the album was “a spoof to the albums of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer … a bit of a satire about the whole concept of grand rock-based concept albums.” 

Hmm, not sure about that. I mean there was humor in it, but it seemed like an awful lot of work to go to to produce a “satire,” so maybe Anderson’s latter-day take was a bit of a piss-take.

I went to the Song Meanings website and found what I consider an astute take by a fellow – yes, I’m going to see it was a guy, most Tull fans were – who goes by gstormcrow. “One common theme in most of Tull’s lyrics is an implied narrator, akin to a Medieval court jester, whom tells absurd jokes riddled with hyperbole to humour his audience while hinting toward specific similarities of actual circumstances or events. Since he is considered a fool and not to be taken seriously, the jester’s jokes can be either safely dismissed for their absurdity or thoughtfully pondered for the meaningful questions they pose depending on the audience’s mindset.”

 

 

I’m with you, gstormcrow. In particular, vis-à-vis TAAB, I take this verse to heart (and in fact I can still sing it by heart): “And the sand-castle virtues are all swept away/In the tidal destruction, the moral melee/The elastic retreat rings the close of play/As the last wave uncovers the newfangled way/ “But your new shoes are worn at the heels/And your suntan does rapidly peel/And your wise men don’t know how it feels/To be thick as a brick.”

Thick As a Brick hit No. 1 and solidified Tull’s position as this curious, sometimes thunderous, brainy prog/folk-rock outfit that found a huge audience in America – on FM radio, in hockey barns and, for a while, even on AM radio.

All of this led by a singer-flautist who often balanced on one leg and sang songs as markedly English as anything the Kinks or Fairport Convention did.

Say this: Jethro Tull – formed in 1968 and eventually encompassing 27 musicians over the decades – never lacked for ambition. 

Personal note: Did I kick Tull to the curb when punk rock crashed my world in 1977, followed by post-punk etc.?

Yes, I did! And then I slunk back to the music in later years. As one does.

That remains true for Anderson to this day. Anderson dropped the Tull band name in favor of his own for his concept album, the double-disc Homo Erraticus released in 2014 (no more have come since) and had gone solo for five previous studio albums, beginning with 1983’s Walk into Light. (Jethro Tull released seven studio albums over that period.)

Why, I asked, is it now Ian Anderson and not Jethro Tull? What, pray tell, is the difference?

“I’m lucky to have my name known before I die and not just be somehow a figurehead under that Jethro Tull name,” Anderson said. “But the name Jethro Tull figures in most of the concerts I play, whenever I’m playing Jethro Tull repertoire which is most of the time.”

And so, the tour he was on was billed under Anderson’s name but the show was called Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera.

I recall when Roger Waters left Pink Floyd and was miffed – as was I – that he wasn’t filling up hockey barns on tour, Floyd fans not figuring out (I guess) he was ½ and maybe more of the creative genius of the band. Certainly, the lyrical driving force. Anyway, that’s another kettle of fish. 

Anderson explained: “I’m the guy that wrote the songs, the lyrics, the music, produced the records and stood in the front and played guitar and flute and a few other things so in my final dotage it’s kind of nice to think you might know my name. What it says on my passport, it doesn’t say Jethro Tull.”

When the band formed, Anderson had a vague idea of who the real Jethro Tull was. The band’s agent, a history major, chose the moniker, saluting the 18th century agriculturalist. “I’d always avoided doing [research] in the past,” said Anderson, “not wanting to know too much about him, through the kind of embarrassment, I suppose, of having hijacked his name.”

But then there was a drive Anderson and his wife were making through Northern Italy in 2014. He took in the rural farmland, thought about how crops were grown, “just paying attention to the agricultural methods of that region.”

“It just passed through my mind,” he said. “’I wonder what old Jethro Tull would have made of this? Would he have been interested in the kind of agriculture that was practiced elsewhere in Europe?’ And since I was a passenger in a car and had an internet connection via my phone I looked up ‘Jethro Tull the historical character’ and read a little bit about his life story.”

“I found that indeed Jethro Tull had visited France and Italy to study the agriculture there and he did learn and incorporate some of those ideas into his treatise on agricultural improvements called ‘Horse-hoeing Husbandry,’” Anderson continued, referring to Tull’s 1762 book. 

Anderson found there were connections in Tull’s personal life, too, the resonated.  “When I read them, I immediately conjured up songs I’d written in the last 40-odd years,” he said, “and suddenly I had about 20 songs I could make a list of that seemed, in some way, to be quite apt in touching upon a certain part of his life and times.” 

Which would also double as: “A means of doing a best-of-Jethro-Tull, set to a narrative.” Let’s face it: No matter what Anderson has going on his head, whatever the linkage, there are classic songs fans wanted – needed – to hear. 

Anderson had the idea to pluck aspects of Tull’s life for the concept tour, but did not want this Tull to be living in the past. “I moved it into the present day and near future,” he said, “so I could touch upon the challenges facing agriculture and food production worldwide in the years to come in the face of climate change and the limited resources we will be facing as certain areas become very difficult to produce food in.”

That became the rough framework of Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera, though I can’t say when I saw the show in Boston, I would have gleaned much of that had I not spoken with its creator prior to.  

It was a multi-media show – Anderson plus four live musicians and three backing singers that Anderson said “live in a suitcase.” 

“You have to bear in mind,” said Anderson, “my special guests are virtual guests who are on a big screen behind me travel in two pieces of check-in luggage in the form of two video servers that have all their parts and that is we plug in.  My special guests are with me but I don’t have to buy them dinner or a hotel room. They do, in fact, get paid for repeat performances.” 

About 30 percent of the show used pre-recorded vocals from the singer-actors, mainly young female singer-violinist Unnur Birna Björnsdóttir and young male singer Ryan O’Donnell. An older singer, David Goodier, was also in the mix. (Goodier was the bassist for latter-day Tull and is mostly for Anderson solo, but was sitting out this tour.) They sang separately or duet with a live Anderson.  

“Frankly,” Anderson says, “it’s kind of more fun having these characters behind me, 20 feet tall, rather than just little people on the stage. It’s nice having the big bright imagery that we can make it part of the overall package.”

They played five tunes from “Homo Erraticus” – “Prosperous Pasture,” “Fruits of Frankenfield,” “And The World Feeds Me,” “Stick, Twist, Bust” and “The Turnstile Gate.” And, of course, classics like “Heavy Horses,” which starts off the two-act show, followed quickly by “Wind-Up” and “Aqualung.” Others, such as “Farm on The Freeway,” “Songs From The Wood,” “Living In The Past,” “A New Day Yesterday,” and “The Witch’s Promise.” Some of those were rewritten slightly, with the actor-singers on screen taking parts. It came to a roaring climax with (no shock) “Locomotive Breath’ – yes, there’s an engine on the big video screen and that chunka-chunka guitar riff played by Florian Opahle. It was the point where the audience stood as one.

Both that show and the three-act double-album were clearly ambitious, dense projects. Sure, Anderson rested on some laurels concerning the former (though reconfiguring the context) but with Homo Erraticus he’d written 15 new songs, about – as the London’s Independent paper put it – a nomadic Neolithic settler, Christian monks and Iron Age blacksmith. 

Some windy detail from Anderson: “The poor old Neanderthals got overtaken and came to end between 30 and 50,000 years ago, although in some circumstances they had bred with Homo sapiens,” he says, “so we’re fertile offspring of that conjoining. Indeed, I myself discovered – and I was really pleased – to find out I was 2.4 percent Neanderthal until I found out to my dismay that the European average is actually 2.5 percent. Throughout Europe it varies between 1 and 4 percent. Only in the last five years has this been known that there was literal cross fertilization between these two species. It made some people a little uncomfortable because there is a different DNA mix between people of different ethnic backgrounds, and some people get a little twitchy about it. We’re not all the same; we’re all mixtures of species and not just Neanderthals and Sapiens.”

Whew. How did the songs played live from it dovetail into The Rock Opera?

 “It doesn’t have anything to do with it whatsoever,” Anderson cheerfully admitted, “although I suppose there are some little crossover elements in terms of my lyric writing. But it’s a separate issue. [The theme] is Homo Erraticus, a separate species, the wandering man, out of Africa looking for a better life and someone’s head to stamp on in order to get it.”

Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera (Image: Google)

Was it exhausting to be Ian Anderson? Asked about his ambition – that when he was young and now – Anderson said it depended on the definition. 

“I think as you get older you have more calm about what you do – you’re not ambitious perhaps in a ruthless way – but [when you’re young] certainly that would have been necessary to be a little bit ruthless and driven, sometimes not in an entirely pleasant way because when you are trying to succeed in a very difficult and quite competitive marketplace, when new music was being born in the ‘60s, you had to be driven to survive the disappointments and literally the hunger and cold. It was pretty miserable for a few months trying to become a professional musician. Luckily, after a few months we began to be noticed and picked up a bit of a following and it developed fairly quickly after that. But for a few months, I was not far from despair and tears on occasions.”

So, with all the history, with over 60 million albums sold worldwide, does Jethro Tull belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? The argument has been passionately made, but Anderson is not one to make it.

“If your music stylistically isn’t very American, then I don’t think you necessarily belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Anderson said, “so I’m perfectly happy to sit out there on the periphery looking in. Am I worried about my not being – or Jethro Tull as a band entity – inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Not at all. I don’t think I should be there. It’s a very American institution so I think it should be there first and foremost to identity and to celebrate great American music.”

As a group, Hall of Fame voters have not been terribly welcoming of the English wave of ‘70s prog-rockers.

“Part of that also has to do with the position of Rolling Stone and the background of all of that,” said Anderson. “People like Frank Zappa were rather disdainful of the British invasion; they felt somehow threatened by it and Zappa spoke rather badly of Jethro Tull. The memories I have were quite personally upsetting because I was a huge Frank Zappa fan. But he badmouthed us a couple of times publically and that was a bit hard to take.

“Strangely, before he died, he started reaching out to people. I got a message passed to me that Frank wanted me to call him, giving me his home telephone number. I deeply regret I didn’t have the nerve to let the phone ring and have someone pick it up. I called him three times and hung up, being terrified, because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t let the phone ring and speak to Frank. How do you deal with a guy that you’ve carried with you for a couple of decades the belief that he really didn’t like you and suddenly he wants to call you when he’s on his deathbed. Whatever it was he wanted to talk about I have no idea and never will now.”

You tend to think he wanted to make amends, clear the air or whatever, but I suggested to Anderson, Zappa being Zappa, maybe he wanted to say you still sucked.

Anderson laughed. “Yeah, that’s it. That might have been the outcome: I just wanted to tell it to your face before I fuck off.”

 

 

Latest posts by Jim Sullivan (see all)

 You May Also Like

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

One thought on ““I’m Lucky To Have My Name Known Before I Die”: Ian Anderson Turns 75

  • August 10, 2022 at 6:38 pm
    Permalink

    Wow! You certainly hit a nerve with me in writing about Ian Andrson simply because he has always been in my top-5 favorites! What a talent! I recall the first live concert I attended to see them. It was in Cleveland, Ohio and the album just released was “Passion Play”! Well, you’re already familiar with all of their hits to date. You’re sitting there with great anticipation, wondering how this one is going to be accepted I mean, really, you know it’s going platinum but just can’t wait to hear it live, with the Jethro Tull guys literally live and 15 feet in front of you.

    This was my first time seeing Jethro Tull live; it was 1974, I believe; I had this beautiful young lady clinging to me because it was her first live concert of a very well-known group, and she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it and how to act! Honestly, it went swimmingly well and having not seen them live myself I was surprised to see Martin Barre the first to appear on stage. This was in the old days when Ian, Martin, and the other guys all looked and dressed like rejects from a homeless shelter! Anyway, Martin comes out first on the first notes of the concert; he’s somewhat squatted down and doing this “squat-like walk” playing the first notes of the concert, and I said to my date, “there he is,” meaning Ian Anderson since it ended up that both of them looked like unshaven vagrants. Quickly I returned to my senses and corrected myself before Ian made his first appearance. When he did, he was wearing this long brown overcoat that was almost reaching the floor, he was ‘totally unshaven’ for what appeared many months, so it was an honest mistake since I had called it wrong and was feeling bad about it.

    After they began to play the rhythm of the tune and Ian’s dancing around, standing on one foot, and the other antics I was used to seeing covered my mistake since those two guys almost looked like brothers! Overall, the concert was superb, with them playing the entirety of “Passion Play” and almost the entire Aqualung Album. It was probably the best live concert I’d ever attended, and I wasn’t even high!

    D.O’D.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.