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14 April 1977
IAN ANDERSON'S PEARLS OF WISDOM
Jethro Tull's 'Songs From The Wood' is a fresh breath of medieval air, as modern as it is ancient and traditional
"I want to produce an album which is different from anything we've done before," Ian Anderson mused over his breakfast some time ago at New York's Regency Hotel.
"It'll be less blues and more of some particularly British hybrid form — more modal, more Celtic. I find the music I'm writing now embodies something of the very earliest musical tradition, an almost religious music of celebration. I want to try to evoke something a little more spiritual and emotional."
Songs From The Wood, Jethro Tull's latest Chrysalis release, is Anderson's bid to fulfil that stated aim. Always a Heavy Elizabethan band drawing more from the olde folke tradition than rhythm & blues, Jethro Tull have given the new LP an even more pronounced medieval flavoring than gaeties of the past. With Anderson's hedonistic lyrics, the set has the thematic aura of a collection of organic, 16th century pastorals.
Jethro Tull's idiosyncratic and rarely imitated sound springs from the personality of Ian Anderson, whose whole adult like has been characterised by a streak of non-conformity.
"I burnt my boats at 16 when I decided to leave school," he says. "I didn't want to wait until I was 25 to begin an active life. I tried to join the police force, but they wouldn't let me in because I had already passed the first series of academic examinations. I wanted the responsibility. I felt that the police should be the most widely talented civil organisation that we have. It's the manner of recruitment that makes it less than that."
Turning to music, Anderson distinguished himself by not adopting either the Mod or Rocker party lines.
"I was actually a little too young for that era and I never belonged to either group. But certainly, because I was forced to come up against the Mod thing of soul music so prevalent in the discotheques, I rebelled very strongly against their taste. I found that to be a one-way trip; it wasn't their music, it was a black man's music."
Ian doesn't have much regard for the hippie era that followed either.
"Agh, it was a huge joke, it was just the same as the Mod deal. I don't think the West Coast music ever impressed the British, because it was musically very lacking. I mean, the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead guitarists were duff. Why buy the latest Grateful Dead LP when you could go to the Marquee and hear John Mayall or Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green playing the blues beautifully for 50¢. They were streets ahead of the American pop groups as musicians."
Drugs? Once again, Anderson is the odd-man-out.
"I've never smoked marijuana or taken any of those drugs. The main reason I don't do it is because everybody else does — it strikes me as boring. Had I been born five years earlier, I would have been there at the beginning of the drugs thing and probably really gotten into it. Instead, it was the norm, and if you didn't do it you were looked upon as having not quite grown up. Like the insistence now on little girls having sexual experience at 14 or 15 years of age — not because they want or understand sex, but because everybody else does it, and if they don't they're not part of the young society to which they want to belong. I ought to sponsor a contest for your magazine having people write in on the best reasons for retaining their virginity. They'd get some sort of special prize from me."
It's this ironically contrary straightness which at one time earned Jethro Tull the nickname 'Jeff Dull' among the ladies of the road.
"I think we got a small reputation within groupie circles for being no fun," Ian acknowledges without any particular regret. "Of course, everybody in the group went through those phases of taking advantage of that availability of female form — it's one of those lamentable things you go through and do for the wrong reasons — but our guys have always avoided like the plague anyone who was being passed around. It would be rather like pulling on some other rock star's worn out trousers. One likes to discover new things."
Anderson's obstinately independent attitude results from the confidence he's learned to have in his own opinions. Denying he wants to be reverenced [sic] as a pop star, he says:
"All I can be is an illustration of someone who seeks his own way in the world and asks a load of questions. I am an example of an average guy who raised himself intellectually, raised himself musically, raised himself socially, and raised himself in terms of good old entrepreneurial capitalist practice to achieve a state where he is considerably better off than he was when he started. But at the same time, I still react with and around the area of society from which I come. I don't dress like a pop star. I never buy leather goods in San Francisco."
Much of Anderson's confidence comes from the security that his career is founded on an increasingly thorough knowledge of his roots.
"When I first learned to play, the main reason was to earn money and meet girls. It was only by going back and re-examining the origins of the music around and developing them in a slightly different direction that music became satisfying. You've got to model yourself on someone. The problem is that today's younger groups don't model themselves on someone they've discovered, they model themselves on groups that everybody knows.
"When they first pick up an instrument, they've already heard an awful lot of the very best music that's been coming out of the speakers for 10 years. They're very derivative. It's not enough to weld together Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and Pink Floyd; it will be far too obvious. Far better to go right back and examine their roots. You've got to go right back to the beginning for your catalyst. Otherwise you'll be like Kiss — playing the same old riff a little louder, dressing a little more garishly, but musically nothing to offer."
Ian had the instinct to avoid such temptations himself when Jethro Tull was starting out.
"I put Zeppelin next to the Rolling Stones as the two groups of all time for me. I don't fit in to that category, because I've made it a deliberate part of my function to find other things. One had to go into other areas of music, because it was all too evident that the Stones and Zeppelin had got that particular approach sewn up. They do it as well as it will ever be done."
Reaching for a niche of his own, an alternative to the blues-based forms, he was attracted by the folk artists of the later sixties.
"I believe that some of us have a folk memory of the music that our ancestors played," he says. "I became aware of Pentangle, who were important because they were from a folk and jazz background and made something new of music for a while. I always liked Bert Jansch, he's a very, very important person. Without Bert there could never have been a Donovan, or Roy Harper even."
Having built up a sizeable following with Tull's distinctive sound over the course of twelve albums since 1969, Anderson now feels it's time to innovate further.
"I feel obliged to take risks with the music. I hope it'll be something people will immediately respond to, though, because it contains basic elements of rhythm and melodic simplicity and verbal imagery. I'd rather do the most unusual album of the year rather than necessarily the best selling one. It's time for a rather larger step into the unknown."
Indeed, Songs From The Wood is probably like no other album that will be released in 1977. The title tune opens as an a cappella madrigal and then proceeds with choppy pageantry. 'Jack In The Green' is the protest of a leprechaun figure troubled by the encroachment of modern civilization. (Reminds me of 'Morris In Chains' from Robert Coover's magical book, 'Pricksongs & Descants'.) 'Cup Of Wonder' is a mild, melodic feasting air suitable for digesting a little Sherwood Forest venison. The last two numbers on Side One are the oddest of the LP. 'Hunting Girl' involves strange sexual tastes (Anderson uses a whip as a prop on this one), while 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells' is a celebration of Christmas cheer.
Side Two opens with 'Velvet Green', an idyllic, harpsichord-laced trysting piece. It's adorned with mist, lowing cows, the scent of wild roses, and "your legs in the air, walking on velvet green" in a scotch pine grove. 'The Whistler' is a carpe diem seduction ("I have a fife and I've come to play") reminding us that Britain's first rocker was Andrew Marvell (1621-78). 'Pibroch (Cap In Hand)' is a longish, heavy lament, by definition a martial bagpipe air, but unfortunately Ian passes up the opportunity to employ the regal sounding windbags. The capper on the album is 'Fire At Midnight', a comfortable, fulfilled song about dying embers and going upstairs and folding your clothes — a lulling fade out on Ian Anderson's Midsummer Night's Dream.
Is Anderson at heart really the paganistic character he acts out on stage, the satyr-like figure that artist Guy Pellaert portrayed in his 'Rock Dreams' book?
"I do have a fascination for children," Ian admits, "but it doesn't extend to rape or murder or anything sexual. I would like to think that when I'm an old man I'll carry around a pocket full of lollipops to give to little kids, and maybe I'll say something that they'll remember some day that might be meaningful. I remember when I was a child I'd run into various strange figures like that sitting in a park, and they never interfered with me sexually. But people like that could make you aware of something about human nature that your parents could never pass on to you."