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Behind the Curtain: Interviewing Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson in 1975
For his latest Behind the Curtain entry, rock journalist Steve Rosen recalls his admiration of Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson — and the particular challenge that interviewing Anderson in 1975 presented.
OK, I’m just going to come out right here at the beginning and say it so there’s no confusion. I am going to clear the air, let you know where I stand: I think Jethro Tull is one of the most inventive, innovative and essential bands in all of rock. Ever.
In my listing of the 10 or 20 greatest bands of all time, I would write down their name.
So have I stirred the pot? Rattled some bones? Are you in the throes of uncontrollable laughter, your razz meters turned to 11? Are you right now wishing you could reach through your monitor (or laptop) so you could grab me by the collar, slap me silly and ridicule me with taunts of, “You moron. You suck. Die.”
You done? Got that out of your system? Doubtful I can change your mind, so I won’t even try. I can tell you what I know about them, from spending some time with Tull figurehead Ian Anderson and longtime guitarist Martin Barre, why I think they’re so remarkable and why they’ve been everybody’s favorite punching bag for about the last 12 eons.
For starters, they were pegged as a prog band from the get-go and I always thought that was wrong. “Everybody” hates prog bands, right? Unless you were a prog person, you would never listen to Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Genesis — but you’d sure as hell listen to Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, so what’s up with that? In that context, Jethro Tull had a strike against them before they even stepped up to the plate.
They actually began as a blues band, emerging from that London scene where bands like Fleetwood Mac, Humble Pie, Free, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown and others were shaking things up. But they quickly shed those blues shoes after just one album [This Was, their debut] and turned to a much more melodic, hard rock sound with their second record titled Stand Up, which walked its way to number one in the UK charts. Oh, ye of little faith.
Was it a progressive rock album? I don’t think so. Big electric guitars, some bluesy stuff, some folksy acoustic elements but prog? Hardly.
So why the tag? The flute, man. That long metal tube Ian Anderson was blowing on all the time. Some stupid, narrow-minded critic, some simpleton who doesn’t know shit about music or songwriting, arrangements, or textures, mistakenly calls Tull’s music “progressive” because he sees some stringy-haired dude dancing around in a trench coat, perched on one leg playing a classical instrument and since he can’t call the band classical he calls them prog.
There was nothing that complex about the music on Stand Up. There weren’t weird time signatures or complex, lengthy, rambling, avant-garde instrumental sections. Those were four-minute songs, melodic, simple to digest.
The “prog” tag stuck like some ignominious badge of dishonor, Tull were doomed from the start. It didn’t matter that Benefit and Aqualung, their third and fourth albums, were insanely amazing records and sold unbelievably well because the damage had already been done: Jethro Tull was labeled a prog band and well, that was the end of the story.
At least that’s what I think. If Peter Gabriel or Sting or some hip, au courant band of the time had written and recorded those songs, everybody would be hailing those artists as trendsetters, world class songwriters. But Jethro Tull performed those songs and Ian Anderson, a kind of strange cat who played the flute wrote and sang them and for some reason neither the band nor singer was hip and if you dug the band you yourself weren’t hip. In fact, if you liked Tull you were persona non grata.
I am persona non grata and proud of it.
So, I was tickled to have the chance to sit and interview Anderson during their 1975 Minstrel in the Gallery Tour. No, I was honored. I thought he was one of the best songwriters ever and as you now know I love the band and to have that opportunity of meeting and talking to him was fucking cool.
I had flown out to one of the band’s gigs — I can’t remember where — and in preparation I had listened to all the seven previously-released records, though all I really cared about were Stand Up, Benefit and Aqualung, which were without question the high-water marks.
(Honestly, just so you think I’m not some sycophantic super-fan who loved everything they did, I didn’t like the other albums very much).
Arriving at the hotel in the morning, I was told I’d speak with Ian that same afternoon. As the tour manager walked me down to his room, he told me it was Ian’s birthday today — August 10th — and that he was turning 28. The tour manager knocked on Anderson’s door and Ian answered. I walked in and realized he was taller than I thought. We sat down at a table and as soon as I settled in, pulled out my $10 cassette player and $3 microphone, readied my notes and made sure the batteries worked, I said, “Happy birthday, Ian,” thinking that would be a cool way to start and break the ice.
What a fucking mistake. He kind of grimaced and shot me a look of displeasure and disdain, a facial expression I’d encounter many times before the afternoon was over. Well, that sucked, I thought to myself. Though he was upset over the comment, he looked much younger than 28. His face was long and thin, wrinkle-free, a goatee sprouting from his chin. His hair was kind of reddish brown and an earring in his left lobe completed the picture of Anderson as pirate. He wore long black boots, dark pants and a t-shirt. His legs were crossed and rested comfortably atop the hotel room coffee table.
Before I could ask my first question, Ian asked me one: “Have you heard the new album?” Uh oh. “No, Ian, I haven’t. The label didn’t get me a copy.” And there it was again, that look, that fucking horrible glare meant to wither and intimidate anybody on the receiving end of it. “You haven’t heard the record? How can you talk about it then?” I am reduced to single, non-intelligible grunts.
“Er, uhh, mmm,” I mumble, a troglodyte. As I try and find a mental cave into which I can safely retreat, Ian brings out the guns again. “Well, we’re not going to talk until you’ve heard the album,” which further reduces me to a non-speaking primate. You know that evolutionary chart where the gorilla-type creature is on the far left, that monkey beast walking on all fours? Well, I’m somewhere to the left of that. I haven’t even made it out of the ocean yet.
Lost in the metamorphosis unfolding in my brain, all rational thought now gone, my reverie is interrupted when Ian says, “Here is a cassette. Go and listen to it and come back in an hour.” It is a demand and not a request. I am shrinking by the second and will soon disappear completely.
I retreat to my hotel room, put on the tape and begin making notes. As I’m listening to the music — which leaves me cold except for the title song, which harkens back to classic Tull — I can’t really blame Anderson for his response. Who wants to sit there with some uninformed journalist who hasn’t even heard your new record and have a conversation with him? I can understand that. What I don’t appreciate is why he had to be so dismissive and condescending about it, but what I’ll soon learn is that’s just how he is.
I scribble notes and return to his room. We sit back down and begin talking. I’ve only had an hour to digest the entire album so it’s difficult remembering details but Anderson is satisfied I’ve heard the music. We talk for about an hour and he is verbose and has a lot to say, but he is generally one unfriendly dude. There is an edge about him and you never feel quite at ease, never want to turn your back on him.
I ask him, “Why don’t you make albums like Stand Up or Benefit anymore?” No, I don’t say that but I want to. He is rude and disrespectful and I don’t like it. When the last word is spoken, I make a hasty retreat.
Sometime later I interview Tull guitarist Martin Barre, and it’s like night and day. He is engaging, funny, sympathetic and sincere. I tell him he is an amazing guitar player and he is almost embarrassed by the compliment. It’s impossible to understand how that dynamic worked for as long as it did, but it’s precisely because Barre is so easygoing that he was able to roll with the punches, so to speak.
And there was a lot of shit. In 2017, Anderson reformed Tull after a long period of inactivity to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of This Was. Barre was not invited to participate. In fact, Ian would eventually fire every musician who ever played in Jethro Tull. It was almost as if the flute player wanted nothing to do with the band he helped create.
If any of you read my previous Behind the Curtain story, you know I buy and sell guitar picks. Well, I wanted an Ian Anderson pick and so I wrote to him. This is how he responded: “Sorry — I have only my own new guitar picks — Martin – .73mm M — and I use the same one for quite a few months before throwing it away. In fact I have some that sit in a guitar for many years.
I am not a fan of overvalued memorabilia changing hands on eBay and elsewhere. Always a problem when giving to charity etc. It just gets sold on to others willing to pay silly money, especially when authenticated by the artist. If I am willing to sell my 1836 Martin or my 1937 Martin 0-45 I will let you know. There will be a free pick in the headstock.
“My old stuff goes in the trash bin or is burnt.”
Ouch. All he had to say was he didn’t have any, but that wasn’t enough. When I interviewed Martin Barre, I asked him everything and how it affected the entire Tull legacy but the guitarist wouldn’t rise to the bait. I knew he wanted to say more but didn’t, though he did acknowledge that Ian had totally blackened the band’s remarkable career.
Notwithstanding, I still love Jethro Tull. Anderson is one of the most gifted songwriters on the planet and even if the band hasn’t released a good album in like a thousand years, they still remain one of the most creative and enduring groups of all time.
Just don’t tell Ian I said so.
April 8, 2021