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Two years ago, Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson was one of the most highly visible, most easily accessible stars in the often-reclusive rock kingdom. In January of 1969, following his first American debut at New York's now defunct Fillmore East, Ian was pictured whirling in his plaid jacket across the stage, his reddish locks exploding into a kinky halo around his face, his silver flute clutched tightly in his whirling hand.
By June of 1970, following two successful tours, the eccentric flautist had cropped up in Life Magazine standing in his now famous one-legged flamingo position looking for all the world like the villainous Pied Piper of rockdom. In Circus he appeared in four feature articles, cavorting with the other members of Tull across concert stages and through expensive restaurants. And from the spring of 1971, with the release of Aqualung, to the early summer of 1972, following the release of Thick As A Brick, Ian Anderson had filled both the underground and the Establishment press with wicked witticisms, esoteric phrases and profound philosophies.
But in mid-1972, even as Thick As A Brick was swiftly soaring to the top spot on the American charts, Circus was busy reporting that Ian Anderson, a man who a few months earlier would have talked the ear off any reporter who posed a musical query, was suddenly refusing to speak.
I've said everything I have to say (he noted at the time). And the road is too gruelling a place to do interviews.
MAD FAGIN GRINDS TO A HALT
It has been two long years now since the torrential flow of articles about the devilish dancer ground to a halt ... two years since Ian last relaxed in a hotel room with a reporter and held forth on his philosophies of music and religion ... two years in which — like Bob Dylan and Greta Garbo before him — Anderson has ducked deeply into a shell of enigmatic silence. But in the last few weeks, with the release of his new album, Passion Play (on Chrysalis Records), Ian's silence has rapidly begun to take on a shadowy new significance.
Even the puzzled officials at Ian's record company — Chrysalis Records — have begun to search for the meaning of what one of them calls "a very strange album." Despite Passion Play's rich melodic bent — often reminiscent of jazzy King Crimson or progressive Yes — the lyrics are full of literary ambiguities that overwhelm the imagination. Images of fallen angels blend with visions of "gentle men in leather bound". Ice-cream ladies wetting their drawers clash ludicrously with captains of the cricket teams. Old dogs howling with madness, "little sister's immaculate virginity" and "bony shoulders of a young horse named George" only add to the obscure tale Ian appears to delight in telling. And many of the album's early listeners have winced with confusion as they heard Ian link Lucifer's fall to quotes from Christ, Biblical legends, references to Hamlet and a string of philosophical obscurities in order to form one single 45-minute enigma.
TALKING TO A WALL OF PUZZLED FACES
What did it all mean? And why did Ian refuse to talk about it?
Several months ago, Ian agreed to give a statement to Circus on his recent activities. What he originally suggested would be a lengthy description of the LP's inspiration turned out instead to be a short, curt explanation of his own silence. From the London office of his management company, he declared that most journalists come to his interviews with a set of questions hastily dashed off in the ten-minute bus trip to his office. They ask their questions quickly, half-listening while Ian answers. And the final interview, usually rushed into type, is usually wrong in its assumptions about his work.
It's often done without much thought (explained Ian impatiently). I spend twelve months working on an album before I let it out of my hands, and it reaches 500,000 people. Then a reporter talks to me for fifteen minutes, writes an article in an hour, and his article reaches a million people. I want my music to talk directly to the people ...
From the puzzled expressions on the faces of the Tull-watchers who have paraded, exhausted but perplexed, out of concert stadiums across the country this summer, the logical question seems to be: "Does the album say anything 'the people' can understand? And if not, why not?" The answer may well lie in the events of the year in which Ian constructed the album — a year in which he drove himself to exhaustion and into a seclusion that may have cut him off from the very listeners he wanted so badly to communicate with.
MAKING THE FIERY PASSION PLAY
As Ian has admitted in a rare conversation with a Scandinavian disc jockey [NME 24 March], Passion Play was actually written over a year ago. And the band first marched into London's Morgan Studios to begin the torturous recording process way back last September. Why, then, would Passion Play not see the light of day until this summer? Explained Ian:
Once we left the studio and listened to the music we had recorded, I realized that my ideas had changed. A few months later, after we had already taped Passion Play, we decided to do the whole thing again.
During the late winter and early spring, the band trooped down to France's Chateau d'Herouville, the stone-walled combination castle and recording studio, to begin the thankless task of re-recording the music. And once finished, they returned to Morgan Studios to put the finishing touches to the LP before dashing off to Europe for an extended tour of the Continent.
As the wet English spring chilled the strongest of bones, reports trickled in from across the Atlantic that Ian was frantically working as long as eighteen hours a day, seven days a week to prepare Passion Play for its release. The tireless taskmaster — the same man who had fired Mick Abrahams two years earlier because the lead guitarist would only work four days a week instead of Ian's required seven — had curfewed his four Tullites to their beds early each evening to prepare for the following day's hectic activities. The only brief word Ian would give on the in-progress LP was that
It's a piece I wrote about life and death, but it's not limited to that subject.
WORK TAKES ITS TOLL
By March, shortly after Ian issued his brief statement to Circus on his reasons for hiding from the press, tension and pressure appeared to have taken their toll on the energetic flautist. A month before Tull was to perform two sold-out concerts at Wembley Pool Stadium in London, the word was leaked to the press by a management official that the concerts had been abruptly cancelled due to Ian's "exhaustion breakdown".
But the sardonic twist in the official's voice implied that nervous breakdown might be a better term. A year-long haul across the globe without a vacation had ended with a collapse that would keep Ian confined to his bed for several weeks. And the work-oriented Calvinist was confessing to his close associates that, on the brink of a massive American summer tour, the Passion Play stage act was nowhere near completely rehearsed.
IRON CURTAIN DROPS WITH A THUD
When Tull arrived in Evansville, Indiana on May 4th to begin two days of rehearsals before the first gig, a Circus reporter was assured that Ian was on the verge of talking about the LP. But only days before the concert, Circus was notified that the Iron Curtain of secrecy had again descended over the band. Not only were reporters to be denied interviews with Ian, but Ian didn't even want reporters to see any of the band's shows! Said one close source: "He doesn't want fans to go to his shows with preconceived notions based on something they've read. he wants them to be able to interpret the performances for themselves." But Ian also welcomed the press's absence for another reason. "The shows aren't going well," admitted one executive. "Ian thinks they're disastrous. He's under a lot of pressure."
NOT A PEEP FROM 'PASSION'
Those who gathered at four stadiums from Evansville, Indiana, to Johnston, Pennsylvania, to watch the five prancing Tullites soon realized they were in for a not-so-subtle surprise from Ian. First they were hypnotised by a blinding circle of pulsating light that accompanied the sound of jungle trills and heartbeats on a film screen high above the stage. After the automated light-sound trip, they were dazed by the image of a ballerina with grotesquely staring eyes and twisted body rising as if resurrected to dance off into a mirrored doorway.
And finally, with a burst of smoke, they were wrenched from their tranquil state of meditative illusion by the crazed-looking figure who ran into the spotlight, clad in tight blue pants and a black codpiece that gripped his groin. He was followed by Martin Barre, a diminutive balding gentleman in what Ian called a "Jungle Jim" green safari suit with its painted animals. Then out strode John Evan, resplendent in a white doctor's suit, flaming yellow shirt and polka dot bow-tie. Barrie Barlow stalked the stage, a vivid creature of the night in red shorts and top. And bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, clad simply in knit Mexican top and yellow pants with a straw hat perched atop his tousled head, completed the dazzling picture.
Welcome to an evening of light entertainment with Tull,
quipped the mad magician-turned-conductor, whirling his golden flute like a baton as he swooped to one boot-clad knee. But despite the fanatical applause that met the band's performance, the five members of Jethro Tull exchanged frustrated frowns as they trooped off stage two hours later to drown their sorrows in a six-pack of Budweiser. For the strains of Passion Play had not been heard all night and would not be heard for the band's first four shows.
Ian was forced to placate fanatical Tull freaks who viewed the first concert of the group's summer tour with the familiar chords of Thick As A Brick and Aqualung. Why the repeat of the old material? "Passion Play just wasn't well rehearsed," admitted one member of the entourage. "And Ian won't perform it until it is."
Again the clamp of secrecy gripped the band as one calamity piled on top of another. Concerts were cancelled in Dayton, Ohio, and in Columbus when a local school proved incapable of handling the band's electrically heavy equipment. A College Park, Maryland concert was rescheduled on May 7th after the truck that was carrying the band's equipment failed to arrive, and the truck driver was immediately fired. The cancelled concerts greatly disturbed Ian's sense of professionalism, but they gave the band the needed time to finally pull their act together. And on the 216th hour of Tull's tour, after four days of rehearsal in Knoxville, Tennessee, the sweet acoustic strains of Passion Play were heard on stage for the first time.
NEW LYRICS LEAVE A SOUR TASTE
In a Newport, Virginia, paper one local reporter praised Ian's Ian's twenty-five minute flute solo as the "purest of silvery reed tones". His Passion Play was hailed as one of the musical highlights of 1973 in Nashville, Tennessee. And from Owosso, Michigan, to St Lois, Missouri, journalists marvelled at Tull's outrageous antics, musical prowess and sensational film clips.
But if heaps of praise were tossed at Tull after most performances, his new lyrical bent left a sour taste in more than one mouth. At the 19,000 seat Forum in Montreal, Canada, one year after Thick As A brick was heralded as "the best rock show of the year" by two local newspapers, reviewer Bill Mann ridiculed the new act as "probably the most self-indulgent and contrived show that Ian has ever come up with ... it's a real chore to sit through." Mann dismissed the lyrics as "leaden". And a progressive music disc jockey sitting nearby was heard to groan, "This is the beginning of the end for Tull."
Has Ian, in his fanatical drive for perfection, for clarity in his music, driven himself to the brink of collapse for naught? Has he isolated himself to the point of losing touch with the people who enjoy his music the most? Despite the beauty of Passion Play's music, with its enchanting multi-instrumented spells woven on record and in concert, has Ian tossed his fans an overly obscure lyrical code that cannot be deciphered?
Perhaps Ian himself answered these questions best when, two years ago, he gave the following statement to one reporter:
I don't think music should be easy to listen to. There's an unhealthy tendency afoot nowadays to make rock music easy to absorb. That's exactly the opposite of what I want to do. I think music of all kinds should require an effort from everyone involved. Both musicians and audiences should be struggling towards something, even if it's not necessarily the same thing. To be getting somewhere toward communication, they should be growing and climbing toward something — making an effort ... and probably not getting there!
Note: there is some debate whether Ian was indeed confined to his bed through exhaustion or whether the Empire Pool concerts were cancelled in order to gain more rehearsal time for the US tour. Some of the statements in this article seem rather muddled: there were no 'four days' free following the start of the tour on 4 May, unless some of the shows were indeed cancelled.
There is, however, genuine debate as to whether Passion Play was premiered on the first night in Evansville, PA, or delayed until Hampton, VA on the 11th. This review of the Evansville show makes no mention of the Play, with Thick As A Brick being the opening number following the heartbeat sequence, as was also the case (although perhaps for different reasons) in the following show at Clemson, SC, on 5 May (see Neil Thomason's setlist database).
Thanks to Dag Sandbu at Collecting Tull for this article.