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14 November 1987
(Issue no. 162)
KNAVES FROM THE GRAVE
You may imagine JETHRO TULL to be 'tweed-clad geriatrics', but with a 19-year career, the band remain fit, healthy and worthy of attention. MARK PUTTERFORD travels to Germany and finds at least one punter proclaiming that IAN ANDERSON and Co. are better than Mötley Crüe (!!!)
"Old farts firing on all cylinders" ... that's what I wrote on my postcard to Neil Murray,
grins Don Airey, the much-travelled keyboard king now handling the ivories in one of our oldest, most unfashionable and maligned rock groups: Jethro Tull. We're in Heidelberg, West Germany, where Tull are well into the second week of a European tour to promote their excellent new album, Crest Of A Knave.
Mention Tull and many casual observers and half-witted hipsters will picture a one-legged, bug-eyed flautist and a bunch of tweed-clad geriatrics doddering over creaking rural tunes. But people with reason to be far less biased than Don Airey will tell you that the monumental ignorance of such a pin-headed preconception is more unfair than ever now the band have trimmed down and wised up to what they do best. Ask those who packed Heidelberg's Rhein Necker Halle recently.
"Their best show for ten years", "A great concert" and "Better than Mötley Crüe" (even Ian Anderson didn't believe that one!) were just a few of the comments I managed to extract from the punters after more translation difficulties than a free-for-all row at a UN meeting.
And it is indeed a fit and healthy Tull currently treading the boards, characterised by long-standing guitarist Martin Barre who has lost two stone recently and now looks younger than he did 15 years ago! The Tull stage set is a much simpler one than those of contemporaries like Yes and Genesis —
We didn't want to exploit the people by having huge production costs which would then have to be passed on to ticket prices (says Barre). We think the music is the most important thing, and I'm sure our fans agree —
and the material is carefully culled from a 19-year back catalogue.
From the new album there's the bouncing bravado of 'Steel Monkey', the guitar-heavy muscle of 'Farm On The Freeway', the tongue-in-cheek epic 'Budapest' and the thundering 'Jump Start'. From the dim and distant past there's ancient favourites like 'Songs From The Wood', 'Thick As A Brick', 'Heavy Horses', 'Living In The Past' ("A song which we used to loathe from the days when we were — gasp! — POP STARS!" - IA), 'Hunting Girl' and a finale of 'Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll', 'Aqualung' and 'Locomotive Breath'. And weaved neatly in between there's solo spots and instrumentals like 'Serenade To A Cuckoo'.
Like all Tull shows there's a definite beginning, middle and end, as the band hit hard at the outset with an effective combination of oldies and newies, relax in the midpoint lull that accommodates Don Airey's dramatic keyboard solo, Doane Perry's drum spot and Martin Barre's 'Nelly The Revenge' (!) solo, and then go for the throat (or at least the neckerchief) from 'Too Old ...' onwards; the point at which the previously laid-back audience rush to the front and make like pools winners almost every night, curiously enough.
Centre-stage, Ian Anderson defies the balding and grey-haired signs of old age with an amusingly manic performance peppered with all the familiar gesticulations and witty asides. Acoustic and electric guitars, cymbals, tambourines, flutes . . . he juggles them all like a maniacal medieval minstrel — being particularly adept on his trusty flute considering his handicap of a deformed little finger which prevents him from reaching top notes — and he acknowledges the applause with humble bows and imaginary forelock tugs.
There's an infectious sense of fun about Tull these days too (although bassist Dave Pegg seems to enjoy being whipped a little too much during 'Hunting Girl' ...), and the band certainly hasn't lost its sense of humour. During a short Bach interlude for example, Anderson, Airey and New Yorker Perry act out a silly sketch involving a scantily-clad female, and for the middle section of 'Jump Start' the band's road-crew file onto the stage with cardboard guitars in white coats and sun-glasses for some synchronised chorus-line head-banging a la Status Quo. Even old gimmicks like the balloons are treated self-mockingly: this time the giant orbs have 'Oh no! Not the balloons again!' daubed across them.
After the show, as roadies scuttle around busily like beer-bellied ants, Ian Anderson scans the empty sports hall with one hand pushed deep into an old pair of brown corduroy trousers and the other clasping a smouldering pipe, quite happy with the way the show went tonight. He's a quiet and mostly serious man — the complete antithesis of his stage persona — and in his lumberjack shirt, boots and sheepskin jacket looks every inch the farmer. He finds Kerrang's interest in the old folk rock band he began in '68 quite amusing.
I promise you, you won't see any TV-smashing on the road with us (he says, almost apologetically). We're just a bunch of old fogeys really ... although actually I'm feeling quite chuffed at the moment because I found out the other day that some of the Chieftains are older then us!
The band congregate and shuffle past the backstage door crowds, happily signing everything that's thrust before them, before climbing wearily into the small Volkswagen van that ferries them around. Dave Pegg jokes about the show —
We're not bad for our age, are we?
he laughs — and this opens the floodgates for a stream of 'age' jokes and anecdotes.
We went to see Pink Floyd here a few years ago (Ian recalls), and despite our attempts to conceal our identities by wearing these rather ethnic hats and having our collars turned up, we were spotted by some fans. We quickly gave them our autographs and told them to keep quiet about us being there ... and then we discovered that they thought we were the Dubliners!
Back at the hotel, the band sit quietly in the bar reminiscing as usual. It would be easy to assume that Tull are indeed 'living in the past', but beneath all the self-deprecating humour there's a new sense of excitement brewing on the favourable feedback from Crest Of A Knave.
I don't think anyone in the band was too overwhelmed by the last album (Under Wraps — says Dave Pegg). It was too complex for a lot of people. But we're all pleased with the new record and we're delighted other people are picking up on it too.
This time we recorded everything in a much more relaxed, much more uncomplicated way (adds Martin). I think we've used keyboards a bit too much in recent years, so this time it was good to get back to arrangements that were written around just the guitar and the flute. After being weighted down with complex arrangements on some of our previous albums, the fact that this one is much simpler and straightforward benefits the songs and makes them more immediate and accessible. It's the best album we've done for some time, and I'm enjoying playing more now than ever before.
That's easy to say, of course. But there's a sincerity about Martin Barre that typifies Tull's music, and it would be difficult to argue with the widely admired guitarist's new zest for live work now that he jogs three miles and does 200 sit-ups every morning before breakfast.
I feel a helluva lot better lot better at 40 than I ever did at 25 (he beams), and now I watch what I eat and drink I find it easier to stay fit. Besides, I thought I had to go on a diet and shape up when I saw all these new young Guitar Heroes coming along ... because I mean, they've all got hair!
Barre (who, incidentally, will be working on a solo album in the near future) is in fact one of the most highly-respected guitarists within his profession, with people like Ritchie Blackmore and Iron Maiden often raving about his work. But the unassuming Englishman isn't quite as enthusiastic about the music of the new Guitar Heroes like Vinnie Moore and Yngwie J. Malmsteen.
They're all fantastic players (he says), and they're so over-developed they've learnt in five years what most older musicians took 10 to 20 years to learn. But these people are also very naïve and immature musically, and I find the music they play incredibly bland and quite awful. They're beyond their years in technique, but very backward in songwriting ability, and although they've learnt all the tricks, they haven't learnt how to put songs across using contrast, feel, colouring and so on. Gary Moore has got it just right: he writes really strong melodies and puts them over with a marvellous sense of interpretation. Vinnie Moore may be able to fit 64 notes into each bar, but I can only listen to about two tracks of that kind of stuff, and it leaves me unsatisfied.
We leave the hotel bar without throwing up or smashing a single glass, and get some sleep before the long train journey to Munich the next day. The following night, at Munich's huge Olympiahalle, Tull go through their well-rehearsed paces again and leave a large, attentive and lighter-waving audience thoroughly satisfied ... although again it's not until 'Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll' that most backsides leave their seats. Tull's unique and quirky brand of rock doesn't always seem fully suited to such big arenas, but they triumph time and again through sheer professionalism. As Don Airey says:
I think they're the first proper 'band' I've played with, and I find them fascinating: no one ever makes a mistake! You get these new bands doing great business in the charts, but people aren't flocking to see them live because in the studio it's all done on synths and drum machines, and live it's all so flat. It's product rather than people. With this band everything is so genuine and authentic because everyone can play so well, and I think that's why people are still flocking to see the band after nearly 20 years.
With the band preparing to leave for another European destination on this latest successful trek, Ian Anderson narrows his eyes and considers the perennial appeal of Tull as they approach the big Two Zero with another puff on his pipe.
It isn't that surprising that new people are coming to see us all the time, because that's always been the case (he says). But I am surprised by the people who claim to be influenced by us. I mean, we got a nice message from a band called Anthrax the other day saying they think we're great ... and who on earth are Anthrax?
Caption for top picture: "Martin Barre: looks younger now than he did 15 years ago (what the *@?! did he look like 15 years ago? - Ed.)"
Thanks to Skip B. for this article.