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5 November 1989

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Jethro Tull still feels the sting of its Grammy award

There have been plenty of Grammy Award winners who, for a variety of reasons, have been absent on awards night. Among 1988's winners, Sting was in Brazil fighting the destruction of the rain forests, Bruce Springsteen was out fighting for human rights with Amnesty International and Michael Jackson was in Japan, closing a sold-out world tour.

This year, lan Anderson, flutist and lead singer for Jethro Tull, was listed among the missing when the name inside the envelope was read.

Like the rest of the band, Anderson, at his home near London, was sleeping.

"The band had talked about going to the ceremony after we were nominated, but the record company told us: 'The word is that Metallica is going to win, it's not worth the trip,'" Anderson said by phone from New York last week. "So we stayed at home."

"The next thing I knew, I was getting a phone call in the middle of the night saying 'you've won'. That was hugely embarrassing."

Perhaps, but probably not as embarrassing as it might have been if Anderson and the rest of Tull had made it to Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium to pick up the group's first Grammy in its more than 21-year career.

When it was announced that the band's Crest Of A Knave LP had bested releases from Metallica, Jane's Addiction and Iggy Pop in the new 'hard rock/metal' category, a chorus of bops rained down from the public balconies upstairs. Soon, even some of the artists on the main floor had joined in.

After the ceremony, critics were virtually unanimous in lambasting the conservatism of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences voters who selected Tull over newer, younger artists who better represented metal's late '80s explosion. They screamed that Tull, a band whose fusion of jazz, R&B and rock has been best known as fodder for classic rock radio, didn't deserve a nomination, let alone the trophy.

Anderson expects the reception to be much different when Jethro Tull pulls into the Chicago Theatre for two sold-out shows Nov. 14 and 15.

But there's little doubt he's still stinging from the Grammy rebuke and the tidal wave of negative press that ensued. In conversation, it was the first thing on his mind as he sought to clear the air with a writer who'd referred to Tull as "ancient" in print shortly after the Grammys.

"There's no doubting that it was an unpopular win," Anderson said in a measured, patient tone. "Some questioned whether we belonged in that category and others if we belonged on the planet. I think one New York paper even referred to us as "the now-defunct Jethro Tull." So I guess being 'ancient' is a little better than dead. But not much.

"I think the Grammy people, who happen to be artists and other peers, were recognizing an OK album, but more importantly, also recognizing the fact that Jethro Tull has been around for 20 years and never won anything before. I'm sure that it was a way of saying that it was our turn for some recognition, but it was embarrassing to be embroiled in something as controversial as it turned out to be."

In retrospect, Anderson is probably right. Few others have matched Jethro Tull's staying power (their first LP, This Was, was released in 1968) and knack for maintaining a core audience apart from the ever-changing mainstream. Though their albums in the mid-'70s, principally Aqualung and Thick As A Brick, brought them their greatest popular recognition, this is a band that has found success mostly on rock's outer track, playing to a select audience of devoted fans.

"We know we have a minority appeal," Anderson said. "But that minority appeal equates with somewhere between a half a million and a million record sales per album, plus catalog sales. From that point of view, it may be a minority in relation to the size of a Michael Jackson audience or a Rolling Stone audience — when, in a blue moon, they come out with a new record.

"But we're there regularly. It's easier to equate Jethro Tull in that context with the Grateful Dead, than other bands who pop up from time to time, cash in and leave. It's the same sort of large family quality to the audience. After all these years, probably the best kind of reward you could have is to go onstage feeling rather like the best man at a very large family wedding. That's what it's like most every night."

And like the Dead, who have recently gained a new younger audience to augment longtime Deadheads, Anderson said Jethro Tull has also found a new audience — among young rockers fascinated with classic rock radio and groups that made their start in the '60s.

It seems Anderson kept some of that in mind when, as writer, producer and engineer, he gathered the band to record Rock Island at his home studio earlier this year.

The album is steeped in Tull's trademark merging of blues-based rock with R&B and classical leanings. Anderson's flute, which was all but hidden on 'Crest', makes a welcome return on songs that vary from dark personal portraits to global themes.

Though Rock Island has moved quickly into the Billboard top 100, Anderson was wary about the effects the recent retro-summer escapade will have on its success.

"I think there's nothing wrong with playing 'Stairway To Heaven' and 'Aqualung' and stuff on American radio and paying to see the Who one last time. But the format ought to allow for some new material from new bands or new material for old bands.

"Nostalgia tends to be a dangerous emotion in music because it never tells the truth. You try to relive the past and it is far better in the memory than it is in reality. So you cling to what is warm and fuzzy in your mind without looking for anything new.

"That's why it's interesting, particularly in America, when you're playing to an audience where many of the people are only in their teens or in their early 20s. They grew up with Jethro Tull, their memories are not the memories of an adolescent hearing rock music [for the first time], but of a child 4 or 5 years old hearing what their parents were playing. They grew up with Jethro Tull the way they grew up with the Muppets.

"That's a different sort of emotion. It's not nostalgia, it's a kind of basic, primitive response to things that as a child were precious to you. That's what we hope to build."