1967-68 | 1969 | 1970 | 1971 | 1972 | 1973 | 1974 | 1975 | 1976 | 1977 | 1978 | 1979 | 1980-81 | 1982-84 | 1987-89 | 1990-94 | 1995-98 | 1999-2001 | Home
15 May 1976
SO WHO'S TOO OLD TO ROCK?
... certainly not Tull's Ian Anderson, who tells Harry Doherty that change keeps him going
Ian Anderson looks positively out of place in the plush, upper-crust, £40-a-night Paris Inter-Continental Hotel. But, socially, he has learned to thrive on such anomalies.
Musically, Anderson refuses to display such compromise. While Jethro Tull have grown to become one of the world's biggest rock bands, Anderson rebels against the apparent security that such a position brings.
In many ways, he is a bitter and angry artist. Angry that he has not been accepted for what he is. Bitter that there are people who hold him in a time warp.
"Take me for what I am today," is the plea. "I MUST change."
On their current European tour, Tull have been testing a new stage act that includes a large section of the new album, Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die, another conceptual work that has brought some derisory cries from the critics.
The album, the story of an old rocker learning to come to grips with the changing times, was originally conceived by Anderson as a musical for Adam faith. When he found that Faith was already involved in another stage presentation, Anderson decided to make it a Tull album, though seven of the songs, on his own admission, were not written specially for the band.
But Too Old To Rock And Roll is more of a group album than any previous Tull release to him. It was a "complete" album with good songs and good playing, he argued.
"The songs capture a lot of what the group is today. The group don't like to play that many solos. I don't either. I think that as you play longer and longer in a group, you've got to play together with more sympathy.
"But it's difficult to contemplate what the functions of the members of a group should be at this time. I've always worried that people equate the Jethro Tulls and Led Zeppelins and so on with that kind of six-year-old rock group heavy formula, where every song must have a guitar solo; where every song must have a flute or a harmonica or whatever; where it's sort of obligatory, following the lowest common denominator. So it worries me to have solos just for the sake of showing off.
"Today, there are so many good young guitarists and drummers around and it would be wrong for them to do what groups like us were doing six or seven years ago, drum solos and guitar solos and that. Nobody wants to sit through that any more. You don't have to prove that you can play your instrument.
"Then, it was the day of the virtuoso musician. That seems to be rapidly disappearing. The best guitarists today in new groups are extremely integrated into what the group is playing. That would seem to be the criterion of what a good musician is about."
A lot of people didn't want Tull to change.
"Quite, quite. But then I don't want Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones to change. I'm just like a fan in that respect. I know, I understand why that feeling is, but at the same time, I've got to believe that it's my right to change.
"It's just like being a boxer, giving the odd little jab, not because it's going to hurt the other guy but to keep him on his toes just to see what the reaction is, because it allows you then to plan the next move, and the overall goal would be to get a knock-out.
"It's like that making records. The best record I make will be the last one I make. All the others are just building up to that."
And how would he know when this Utopia had been reached?
"I don't think you do. What I'm saying is that the last album I make, I mean the one before I die or lose the use of my limbs or brain or something, that will be the best I could do because to me they get better all the time. I can look back chronologically and I do actually think overall that each one is better than the last for different reasons that are important to me. To me, each one avoids some of the pitfalls of the one before.
"I think our fans weigh every album up with some consideration, it may not be to his taste. But it's something new, and at least it guarantees a change from what went before, an attempt to keep moving on.
"I suppose the story of my life is that I keep moving on, from one hotel to the next, but I always have a base to return to, both geographically and musically. In terms of recognisable tags, the base is closer to blues and folk music and it's particularly English. I don't owe very much to America apart from a liking for the fairly early urban American blues."
Did he feel it such a bad thing for people to expect the Tull that was acclaimed on Aqualung?
"No. As I was saying, I like Zeppelin and the Stones to do that. It's obviously what they do best. It's the continuing story of Zeppelin. They've had a go at doing different things but they stay much closer to their original musical format. I prefer them not to change, but that's wrong.
"I don't think it would be particularly hard to do that. I think it would be hard to play songs in the same style as well as those we'd done before. No doubt we could go on playing fairly reasonable music in that style that people say is the best of Jethro Tull."
What period, I wondered, were we discussing as the generally acceptable period that is defined by many as the 'real Jethro Tull'? I saw it as the Aqualung period. He saw it as from the first album right up to songs on War Child,
"that I would think is typically Jethro Tull with a recognisable style.
"Sitting down and thinking about it, I can see why people say that. Those songs do actually obey certain sort of formula rules."
In moving on, then, to other shades of musical style and delivery, did Anderson feel he had matched the excellence of what people considered to be the best Tull?
"Probably not for those reasons that makes them the best to those people because of the certain rawness about those records that comes with a naive approach towards music, which is really what rock music is all about.
"It should be naive and, in a way, even groups that are very self-conscious in the way they dress and the stylisation in the way they perform their music — I'm thinking of somebody like Roxy Music — do it with an extraordinary naivety.
"I mean they have to be naive to do that in the first place, even though it takes an awful lot of calculated effort in terms of 'what clothes to wear?' and 'how are we going to develop this sound?'
"Rock music has to be naive and when you're no longer musically naive, or socially naive, or intellectually naive, and you start to get a little worldly wise, no way can you do that any more. If you do, you're just parodying what you did when you were naive.
"I have great admiration for the naive things. I think they're usually the best. Within that sort of rock music idiom, the riff, the solo, the heavy shouted lyric — I find that I'm going to be too calculated in my approach to it now because I've done it and I've seen a lot of other people do it and I just could not do it with the same careless abandon, because you become too sophisticated, musically.
"That sophistication, too, makes it rather difficult to regard with the same youthful exuberance the time, say, when we all first heard Jimi Hendrix. But there's no way, if Jimi were alive today, that he would be playing that way. He would be getting the same stick as Jethro Tull because he was a guy, if there ever was one, who didn't keep trading on the old trademarks."
There weren't too many of the established bands who have substantially progressed out of what might be considered the safety of their own territory, I remarked.
"I don't think many have. Perhaps one of the great limitations of rock music is that it is either temporary or a stultifying musical form, that you either have a couple of years of really progressive, progressing music in your particular framework and then you quit and forget it, or you end up doing the same thing over and over. You do it as well as you can, but eventually it's just going to turn you into a machine.
"That's why it really annoys me when people say Jethro Tull are a programmed sort of a group, because — less than any other group that has been going as long as we have that I can think of — we don't operate that way.
"At least we do get out with every album and do something that's gonna confound the critics. Nobody else does that. They're shit scared of the critics. I mean, I like to get good reviews as much as anybody, but if I have to play a certain music in order to please a critic in order to get a good review, I would be better employed in being a music writer than being a music player."
One of the high points of Tull's live shows for some years has been the adrenalin-building rocker, 'Locomotive Breath', which Anderson now describes as
"a very repetitive, rhythmic thing but in all honesty, I don't think it's a great song. The lyrics are all right and the basic rhythm and mood is all right, but I wouldn't write a song like that today because I would require something more sophisticated because I am more sophisticated.
"Sophistication is something that happens to anybody who begins their career as a naive artist. Take Frank Zappa. Each of his albums has an identity of its own. You like some and you don't like some of the others, but each one is different. And thank Christ for Frank Zappa who is, for me, the only thing that's come out of America, apart from Captain Beefheart at his best or worst, that means a light to me."
Anderson also has a theory that Jethro Tull '76 are as "underground" a group as they were when they first started playing. His logic is that they don't have to rely on the public relations machine the way a lot of groups do and that they haven't been noted for chart positions in recent years, and yet there is still an undercurrent of feeling about them. He cites as proof the forthcoming London Weekend Television hour-long special on the band (reported in last week's MM).
"The only time we ever left the underground, I think, was in England, the time when lots of people left and became distinctly overground on a commercial level. There was a time when bands like Jethro Tull and the Nice and Fleetwood Mac appeared on Top Of The Pops and improved the media for a while. And people like John Peel helped by playing people a little bit of music they otherwise would not have heard, including, for that matter, Jethro Tull in the early days. People like John Peel changed the media for a little while.
"Unfortunately, the media benefited from that change and asserted even more authority and have now rather excluded people like John Peel and Bob Harris from a position of power. In saying this I know I'm being a little bit down on the media but I do think that the BBC is now as bad as it was, as narrow-minded as it was, when I first came into this melee.
"It was terrible then. It's terrible now, but there was a little point in time where I think it got better. But it ain't now.
"It's the men with the big cigars again. There's not a decent manager in the business. If you had a group you could not, at this point in time, find them a manager that was worth an iota. You couldn't do it. I know. I tried. Not for me, but for other people. That's one reason why young groups are finding it difficult to establish themselves."
But even the ultra-confident, self-assured Anderson would have to admit that the popularity of Jethro Tull in Britain has been on the wane. While Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were shooting into the chart on advance sales, Tull have had to content themselves with scratching the lower regions, and be happy they've even done that. In the States and in Europe, they're bigger than ever. They're on a par with the Stones and Zeppelin in the States.
Ian Anderson prophesied to the MM six months ago that Jethro Tull would enjoy a resurgence of popularity in Britain in 1976; that they would become bigger than ever before; that they would pick up lots of new, younger fans. Five months into the new year, the signs of this happening are about as clear as London on a foggy night.
Anderson says he's not too worried, though there seems to be a definite desire to regain old areas of strength and win new ones at home. For a change, he sat back and thought about the situation.
"We still get gold albums every year, you know. I mean, they are all gold albums and a few of them are platinum now. I don't think I'm worried that people don't rush out and buy them all at the same time. I think I'm glad if the fact that they don't jump straight into the chart illustrates cautiousness on the part of the public, and I'm very pleased for the public because they're not wasting their money by just rushing out and buying something, then finding they don't like it and complaining about it.
"I suppose our record sales have not been as good world-wide as Zeppelin or Floyd, but the Pink Floyd records get played as musical wallpaper muzak, for parties and easy listening. I don't think anyone could ever say that Jethro Tull music is put on as background music for parties. That's the last thing I would ever want. I'd much rather people sat down and listened to it than have it played while people sit round and talk about football.
"It would certainly be true to say we've lost ground but I think, also, we haven't been represented in Britain terribly well. I don't think we've been presented in any way at all. I think we've just continued to exist and makes token appearances as far as the public is concerned. It's only since I've been back these last few months that there's been any relationship at all between the radio stations and Jethro Tull.
"But there are people far more deserving than me who should be in the minds of the British public. It's very blatant to come out with something as nasty as this and very rude of me to say it, but I do consider, for the most part, my lyrics over the past three or four years have been better than most other people of my sort have produced.
"The only guy who writes on a par with me is Roy Harper, who comes in some ways from a similar background.
"I love to hear Roy Harper playing the guitar and singing and bumming a lift on the motorway, because that's what he is to me, but for Christ's sake, if he can't try to change, if he can't have a go at being in a rock group and wearing a suit on stage and being a rock and roll star, then there's no justice in the world.
"He should at least have a go at it, and he might just be better than the rest of us at it because he's deviating and his albums all have identities. People are scared of him, scared of his music, which is ridiculous because sometimes he is obscure, and sometimes poignantly simple, and he's a very, very good writer and yet he's largely ignored.
"It's criminal. People are afraid of him because he doesn't fit into the mould that others would have liked to put him into.
"Roy Harper is a very good example of someone who continues to experiment with what he's doing. If you only knew how important it is that that guy, for one, just doesn't do what everyone wants him to all the time, because he's always having a go, whether it's with a brass band, whether it's ringing me up and asking to join the group, which he's done — I'm quite sure that in the same week he rang up Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and asked to join their groups. He's something special.
"He's got more than a little in common with what I like to play and what he plays. It's just that I happen to have a rock and roll group and he doesn't. He's an important person. Like Zappa, for the same sort of reasons. He just doesn't sit back and plug on at that level of music that he's made his name by. Every album is different."
But what about Anderson's "'76 is gonna be a big year" prediction?
"I must confess I'm slightly put off by the fact that the 'Too Old To Rock And Roll' song was completely refused as a single by the rock press and by BBC radio. I hadn't realised just how difficult it is at the BBC these days to get plays."
Were these appearances on television and radio part of a concentrated attempt by Anderson to win Jethro Tull more fans?
"I don't think it's a question of getting back in vogue. It's a question of my perhaps naively believing that rock music does have a place, or should we say free enterprising rock music has. In other words, not being hyped by management or record companies, which my thing isn't. I hope that by appearing I've made it a little bit better than it might otherwise have been."