Fans of prog rock icons Jethro Tull have a treat in store with two live tours in 2020. Frontman Ian Anderson will be visiting a number of small venues, in April and May, for Ian Anderson on Jethro Tull, an intimate evening of chat and archive video footage about his career and the history of one of the world’s most successful progressive rock bands. He then returns, in September and October, with the band for The Prog Years Tour, 11 dates across the UK, including Perth and Glasgow, drawing heavily on material from Jethro Tull’s more “prog” albums, much of it focusing on the early classic albums including Stand Up, Benefit, Aqualung, Thick As A Brick, and Passion Play.
Jethro Tull are one of the most original and enduring bands, having been with us, now, for over 50 years. I vividly recall an early appearance of theirs on Top Of The Pops, circa 1970, performing The Witches’ Promise. This was one of a string of early, historically-flavoured hits for Jethro Tull that brought them to a wide audience. I remember being captivated by the image of Ian Anderson, the tousle-haired, flute-playing minstrel, perched on one leg and looking like a man possessed. This was not your run-of-the-mill pop star. This was a man with an extraordinary self-belief and confidence needed to conjure such an outrageous figure and succeed in the fickle world of pop music. I put it to Ian that he must look back on Tull’s history with a great sense of pride.
“It’s with a great sense of luck, really!” he replies. “When you set off as a young person into the music industry, with hopes and anticipation, only a very few people get lucky. Those that do really are incredibly blessed in the sense of it happens at the right time. I always think of all the people that didn’t make it to being professional musicians or even successful professional musicians. So the first thought is, how lucky I am.
“Having worked with 36 other band members over the years, they have all been, in different ways, talented musicians who have contributed to the sound and the on-going vitality of the group. So I’m happy to be accorded such polite and pleasant sentiments, as you just offered, but we have to remember, I’m just the flute player!” he laughs.
Just the flute player? Come on now, Ian, you’re being a little modest. Ian was the guiding inspiration for Jethro Tull having almost exclusively composed the band’s entire output following their 1968 debut album This Was. As the vocalist, and visual focal point of the band, Ian was, to many, Jethro Tull. When he set out on this musical journey, did he ever imagine that he would still be touring and performing all these years later?
“When I was a teenager I always had the idea that music that I liked to listen to was music played by old people. I grew up listening to black American blues and folk music, church and classical music. The people who had written or performed that music were either very old, not feeling terribly well, or dead, and that was a thought that I always had. It didn’t seem odd, if you set out to be a musician as a life career-choice, then you kind of hope that you’ll be doing it when you’re an old person too. That’s how it’s turned out to be!
“I suppose for the first two years, when you can’t really be sure how things are going to work out… But I always had in my head that if I could get a couple of years under my belt, and do OK, then hopefully, without any rash action or choices or ill health, I should continue to have my job long after the regular retirement age for a Boeing 757 pilot, or whatever.
“There may be another five years or so for some of us to carry on doing what we do in the public domain if we’re lucky. (Pink Floyd founder) Syd Barrett was an early casualty of mental ill health and drugs but a lot of folks who were part of the world of progressive rock, over the years, have gone. Two thirds of Emerson, Lake & Palmer are no longer with us and it’s not going to be too long before the vast majority of those who began in the early days of rock will have passed on as well. Enjoy them while you can.”
On leaving school, the young Ian Anderson studied at art college in Blackpool. One of the common denominators among many of those associated with rock in it’s various forms, Syd Barrett included, was the influence of their time spent at art college. Why was this such a productive breeding ground for musical talent?
“Art school was a very important parallel side of creativity that inspired many of us to move into music and I’m no exception. It was a very fundamental part of the mix of influences and ideas and creative urges. I think that’s why the British Arts School system produced so many musicians in the sixties and seventies and, even to this day, encourages you to think about line, form, tone and colour, words which apply in the visual arts and, of course, in the musical arts.
“We found it an easy shift, I guess, from learning the skills of drawing and painting and the history of art. Looking and being inspired by the work of visual artists, it was easy to take a right fork in the road and move to relatively untutored skills in the world of music which, of course, is what so many of us did.
“Hardly anyone ever made it in the world of rock and pop music having begun at music college. Elton John, reportedly, went briefly to the Royal College Of Music and decided to leave to try and concentrate on writing songs but didn’t finish his studies. There are a few that will have had music lessons or singing lessons but the majority of people were just self-taught by imitation or being within a peer group where ideas were shared and learned to play their music in a very natural and intuitive way.”
Perhaps, then, it was creative thinking outside the box (a phrase unheard of in 1968, so Ian was already ahead of his time!) that drew him to the band’s unique selling point, the flute.
“I guess while the flute was never heard in blues, as we knew it, it did feature in the world of jazz, quite a lot in folk music and a great deal in classical music. So it was an instrument that I thought might find it’s place within a blues band as more than a novelty instrument, as an equal to the electric guitar.
“That’s what set the early Jethro Tull apart from Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack, Fleetwood Mac and all the other blues bands at the Marquee Club, they didn’t have a flute player. That made us stand out a little from the crowd and didn’t do us any harm when it came to establishing a visual image. It was accredited to me rather more than I deserve because I wasn’t the only flute player in town. There was Ray Thomas (Moody Blues) and Chris Wood, the saxophonist with Traffic, played a bit of flute. I wasn’t the only flute player in town but I think it’s true to say I was the loudest!”
The years have been kind to Ian Anderson and today he is one of rock’s more distinguished elder statesmen, still a showman, although the demonic wild eyes and tortured facial gymnastics are now confined to the history books. He speaks in an eloquent, a mellow tone, his thoughts considered and benefiting from the wisdom of ages. He sees parallels between the music of 50 years ago and today although he offers a word of caution about the responsibility that comes with having a public voice.
“It was a very exciting time and I think that people would say that now is a very exciting time for music, except that when I hear anything that is, supposedly, contemporary and the latest thing, I can’t help but be reminded of the origins of rap music which goes back, really, to the end of the seventies. It’s an entirely old music phenomenon which happens to be dressed up with a few more hand signals and, generally, rather inflammatory and, quite often, extremely nasty lyrics. It is, essentially, like Twitter to a drum beat.
“So I don’t find anything musically or culturally interesting about it because it seems always tinged with a lot of unpleasantness. I know it’s not always the case but I don’t find any enjoyment in hip-hop, or whatever term is currently applicable, because it’s so repetitive in terms of what it’s saying. At best it’s very naive, inflammatory politics, at it’s worst it’s just people bad-mouthing and using extremely bad expressions with regard to other human beings, which I find regrettable. It usually demonstrates it’s a good idea to sit and think it through if you’re going to release a piece of music, let alone say anything on Twitter.
“I’m a self-editor when it comes to song-writing, I’m really careful about what I say. Nonetheless, times do change and what might have been acceptable fifty years ago could be quite politically incorrect today and I have to accept that there are some things I’ve said in song lyrics that I wouldn’t choose to express in that way today. Times change and so do our perceptions of what is acceptable.
“But there are certain absolutes in that and when you set out to be deliberately cruel and hurtful, to be abusive and to stereotype and vilify on the basis of gender, race or political affiliations, I think that’s a step to far. It always was, it always is and it always will be something that is best left out. If you’re going to express political or cultural views in songwriting you have to have a very light touch and let the people do the heavy lifting when they investigate. Let them think it through. It may inform their opinions or it may just fly over their heads but I think you should have a light touch and trust people to look at your words and look behind your words to get the sense of what you’re conveying. That way it has some artistic merit and isn’t just a diatribe that could be equally expressed as prose in a Twitter.
“At the end of it all we are what we are, it’s just that some of us perhaps choose to be a little more careful. In my lifetime, I can think of at least three or four times where I have shot my mouth off, only to regret it later. It all too easily happens but a lot less now than in my early days when I was less guarded and more likely to say things that made me sound clever or purposeful or powerful. We all make those mistakes and I have to remember to extend the hand of friendship to those who err on the side of vilification, because they may change their minds as they get older. Or, on the other hand like Donald Trump, they may not!” he laughs.
“Let’s just thank the Lord that Donald Trump is not a rap vocalist in a successful band and that he’s only a US president where, arguably, he can do less harm!”
And so, before Mr Trump presses the wrong button and the world comes to an end, we have two Jethro Tull-related tours to look forward to in 2020, the UK legs of what promises to be another busy year for Ian.
“I’ve got about 80 concerts coming up in not quite as many countries but in the UK I have nine shows in April and May, talk shows chatting about the origins of Jethro Tull and the beginnings of that era of music, anecdotal illustrations and little musical moments that I shall conjure up. Then, of course, we have a Jethro Tull tour in October and that is focusing on the examples of progressive rock from Jethro Tull’s vast repertoire. The title The Prog Years is a little disingenuous but I did this intentionally to point out to people that the prog years, in the case of Jethro Tull, began towards the end of 1968 with the writing of the first couple of songs that were precursors of, what became known as, progressive rock in 1969.
“And they continue into 2020 because there is one piece of music we play which is, as yet, an unreleased piece of music in the progressive rock vein. For Jethro Tull progressive rock is not just some narrow window of time, The Prog Years is meant to show that progressive rock is alive and well and has been for 50 years now.”