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7 December 1974
IAN ANDERSON'S WAR
Mid-afternoon in Oxford Street, London, and Ian Anderson is entering a hotel room accompanied by a crate of Lowenbrau. The room had been set aside for our conversation, and with aides from his office, Anderson was regretting that there really wasn't enough space or peace inside their HQ to carry on an interview there.
"Considering I keep the place going, I think they should give me a bloody suite at Chrysalis, or something! When I'm old and grey or bald, it'll be Leo Sayer who keeps the place going, but in the meantime ..."
A chance remark, not meant seriously. Yet a little pointer to the sharp edge of a personality who rarely accepts anything at face value. Fiercely analytical, hypersensitive to the point of often blushing with anger, brimful of complexes, strangely defensive. But truly, a rock magician. You can't teach this one-legged flautist new tricks, and the brilliant dialogue he carries on with an audience is there for all to see ... in the size of crowds at concerts and in the record shops.
Jethro Tull are at a new peak. All round the world their concerts sell out — and the new album WarChild has repaired any damage that might have been caused by a year's convalescence from public view. And, rather like Muhammad Ali, Ian Anderson is enjoying the kill.
There are no outward signs of his realisation that he has become a rock superstar. He laughs at many of the trappings, and, thankfully, hasn't lost the crucial ability to laugh at himself. More importantly, perhaps, Ian today is in a mood for knocking down a few myths about the rock circus.
"I pose in front of a mirror before going on stage ... and I have a good laugh. I think: 'You must have some nerve to go out there looking like that.'"
"We can't all go on making really big money any more on the level we've enjoyed for the last five years or so. And if we have to get back to Vox AC30's, that's the way it has to be ..."
"and what we're attempting must go a little in that direction."
So here we are in London West One, after another whirlwind Jethro Tull smash tour of Britain, and Ian Anderson cuts a rather intense and tired figure. His sense of humour and a barely visible identity crisis add to the complicated make-up of a gaunt Fagin whose conception of rock is not as we perhaps planned it yet is cunningly telepathic in its communication with the fans. Ian chose the Melody Maker in which to psychoanalyse himself, and talked freely on a variety of topics ...
Most successful music has a range of feeling attached to it, but Jethro Tull, for all the band's remarkable communication with an audience, appear to me to rely heavily on theatrics to the exclusion of emotion. Ian denies he is an unemotional or insensitive actor:
"I must be emotional to even consider what I do. Emotion is very much dependent on the personal relationship which exists between artist and audience. It is SO personal. I certainly don't feel devoid of emotion when singing or talking — it's one of the aims.
"If I try and hold something back it makes it very difficult. You have to give of yourself — not necessarily all for the audience — and if I don't feel I have done everything, I've disappointed myself.
"Sometimes, my communication with the audience comes out in what some people apparently regard as rude lines. But if I've just been to the toilet before coming on stage, I mention it, perhaps, and if I say I can't get out of this jock strap, then that's exactly what has happened. It's mentioned because I'm aware of the absurdity of wearing such a garment! And I want other people to find it funny.
"And if I make rock star antics like gesturing with the flute, I am not saying to little girls: 'Rush me.' I am just wondering if someone will take it seriously. The point is that people dislike the sham of being offered something totally contrived. We've got to play the same music every night, and if it was not an honest performance, I'm sure I wouldn't be able to do it."
So does Anderson regard himself as an actor first and a musician second?
"Acting doesn't enter into it, directly, because to actually go on stage, standing up there, pretending to ad-lib or pretending to enjoy the music, would come across badly. I must have an idea of how it sounds and how it looks. I have the subconscious ability to project what is essentially an acquired skill.
"If I was going to act it out from start to finish I'd have to do that better than most actors, and the kids would see through it. I don't possess a talent for acting but I do possess the ability to learn words for songs. And I have a limited talent for remembering things I said the night before. Every night, something new happens.
"Everything I do on stage other than actual rehearsed music has begun its life as improvisation. The ability to put that across, again, is not acting, but the awareness of the similarity of the occasion. I really have to feel relaxed on stage. And I'm not a performer off stage.
"I'm not relaxed doing TV, either. It isn't me to do the Old Grey Whistle Test. It would take us a few rehearsals to gain confidence to transfer what we do to a television studio. So in essence, I am not an actor."
Yet anyone who has thrilled to Jethro Tull in full flight will bear witness to Anderson's stranglehold over the stage and his command of audiences. Did he feel a position of power over the audience and over his musicians?
"Well I'm sure that if I said to an audience 'I want you to clap your hands,' they wouldn't. That's why I have never tried it. People may witness what they conceive as some sort of power that comes from the music, record or lyrics. It may happen for some people — but I personally don't feel in the role of some guru figure."
Ian is wary of the media. He always was. And the pounding given to 'Passion Play' confirmed his suspicions that there were people going round playing games.
That album, and the band's Wembley performance of it, received a unanimous pasting and convinced Ian of the desirability of retiring for a year. The self-imposed lay-off seems to have worked — but how much friction had been caused inside the band? Their self-confidence must have been battered ... and there must have been some soul-searching?
Anderson didn't reply to this directly, but said that when they had the first rough tapes of WarChild, they all went and played Passion Play and Thick As A Brick with them. The band all got deeply into Passion Play to the exclusion of the other records, including the new album.
"It was a tight and gripping experience for us all," he said. "This was eight months after we'd played 'Passion Play' on the road. When I heard it, it rekindled the anger I felt at critics ...
"For me it is an album which has stayed with the same authority as when I wrote it. Obviously there is the odd track we play on stage which I feel still has something. With Passion Play I really do feel that it stood up. I still get letters now about Passion Play but never about the previous albums. It's extraordinary the number of people who have written to me about what they think the lyrics meant. When they are young they don't view with cynicism or intellectual awareness. They are not afraid.
"It is still a clear cut thing to me what it means. Many people have written to me with a very accurate description of what it was. The way that I write allows a lot of people to interpret in their own fashion. I am not just saying one thing. I am saying a lot of things to a lot of people. The music means different things to different people."
His music, he declares, will always deal with imagery rather than attempt to be black and white.
"I want to insist that every listener makes a tiny bit of effort to reach the music and interpret what I am saying. My words put out feelers. It's up to listeners to pick up on them and get from them what they wish — I'm not attempting to be clear cut. I want to deal in terms that invite questioning. Balm for the masses is no use whatsoever.
"Since the record doesn't self-destruct after you have played it once, I'd like people to play it twice or maybe a hundred times. We do tend to judge music on its rhythms and whether you can tap your foot to it. But most of our music deserves to be listened to several times. I'm still listening to Beethoven and I still don't understand what he is doing, but I'll get there some day.
"God knows that whatever I ultimately make of Beethoven I will never derive the same interpretation as what was intended — and I hope he respects my right to my interpretation — but at least I have a willingness to try to understand it. I am not necessarily putting our music on a plane with Beethoven: I'm just saying that music grabs you first time round or it doesn't."
Here, Ian took his predictable swipe at critics who had panned the band:
"After so much work, when somebody wipes you out in one line it is as if they have hit you in the stomach after a full curry. I must be allowed to be hurt and sensitive. Of course I am going to go away for a week and sulk ... I am not anti-this and anti-that. Only against an unnecessary and unqualified sort of criticism."
But when you go to concerts, Ian, don't you react black and white and say to yourself: "That's good or bad" and make flat decisions like any reviewer might?
"I don't go to concerts much, but I always carefully watch the groups who play with us on the road. I always learn a lot because I absorb it over several performances. Standing at the side of the stage, you pick up a funny atmosphere.
"I don't often go to watch a group sitting out front in the audience. I find that gives me too much music and at some point there's saturation level and I can't take any more. I get unbelievably nervous watching other people on stage and comparing that with what I do. I can only imagine our act must look so absurd."
What was the last concert you saw?
"David Bowie in Los Angeles about three months ago."
Did you feel nervous for him?
"No, not nervousness for him but nervousness because I know what's happening, like, has he checked that microphone before he started, or, how does he know it's going to work? It's impossible to go out and enjoy a concert.
"I could probably learn to enjoy going to concerts and watching bands play. But it would take a mental effort to sit and enjoy it because I am thinking about what I do when I get up there. It looks like a performance when you're sitting out there. Looking back at David Bowie and Steeleye Span on stage — pasted-on faces because it is a stage, dammit! It is a theatrical event and one tends to be aware of it."
When on stage, Ian says he is not playing a theatrical game although he enjoys the humour of a Jethro show.
"I enjoy a good laugh. I pose in front of a mirror before I go on stage, sometimes, because I find it amusing. I look at myself and smile ... I enjoy looking at it because I think it's a good costume — and I think I have got a good pair of legs.
"It's difficult to make my act look real, you know. Yet from the other aspect, it's the easiest thing in the world because I am used to doing it at a certain level. It has become more theatrical, I suppose, because it is more contrived."
When a rock band like Tull takes to the road, it's like a circus, and there are massive travelling plans. Did Ian mourn the simplicity of a tour today compared with the pleasures of a gig when they were struggling? Had things become too stage-managed?
"I regret the simplicity not being there any more, yes, but we couldn't, say, go back to the Marquee because we couldn't capture the essence of what happened in that club in 1968. And I couldn't have gone on after 1969 if we hadn't started travelling first class in aeroplanes, because in order to make travelling a practical thing, you just have to be comfortable. We don't have a limousine each, though — we do whatever is right at the time.
"It's important to be able to check into a Holiday Inn and order food at any time of the night and have no problem with that sort of thing. I couldn't have gone on eating really horrible cheap food, sharing rooms with other members of the band and feeling awful after a flight and having to go straight on stage. I didn't enjoy sleeping in a Transit with John Peel in the back on some motorway, and I don't think he did. We were after something. He was after some musical aspirations through the musicians on his show, and I imagine we were after what we achieved as well.
"It was awful in the old days. We felt we had to work eight days a week because we owed so much money, but you can't go back and recapture this. For the time, it was OK. Something new and exciting about it — but only because we knew it would lead to something more fruitful. I don't remember liking it then."
However, Ian thinks the music scene has come full circle when one considers the financial crises facing the world. Rock bands need a lot of money to put on an act of sophistication on the road, and since the money is getting harder to secure, the more simplistic shows of yesteryear could return:—
"It is becoming increasingly difficult to promote shows with the same standard as in the past. We have great tax burdens — but I'm not leaving the country, get that clear! But to continue what we are doing well — costs are rising all the time and it may well be that in a few years the competition that exists between most touring groups will be greater and the increasingly harsh imposition of most governments will maybe force us to go back to the Vox AC30s.
"We sold out in Britain, which is very gratifying. When we go back to America, together with Elton John, ELP, Moodies, Allman Brothers, Stones and Pink Floyd, unless we do capacity business our profit margins will go down so much that we will all go out of business. It is silly to dwell on tax angles — everybody's sick to death of hearing about the shortage of money. The boast of the day will be — eight of us, including one roadie, we travel in a taxi, and carry our amplification in the back.
"Scrub the taxes thing because I don't want to complain. Everybody else is complaining and I am bloody sick of hearing about it. Any money that we might have made in the last three or four years is worth 30 per cent less than it was then."
So with Jethro Tull's claim to be one of the top five rock acts in the world, Ian conceded that there was a strong competitive spirit building up between the supremos of rock. It had been forced on them by the money situation, he said — but it seems evident that as they all near their peaks of popularity, a certain amount of desperation for the final kill is becoming evident. Yes, Ian agreed, he is taking careful note of the activities and positions of the other major acts. Such a confession is fairly new from a rock star of his status: in times past, words like 'competition' have been laughed away with the philosophy that they have their gig and we have ours. Not so any more.
"International economy is beginning to affect the individual lifestyles of members of the band," said Ian.
He went on to castigate the bands which had written into their contracts incredible lists of demands such as crates of champagne in the dressing rooms. Ian believes these people are acting out a crazy game and kidding themselves.
"We are not into contracts which say: 30 crates of Dom Perignom. We pay for anything in our dressing rooms ourselves."
He laughed at the antics of some of the bands and said:
"We all know which ones we're talking about but I'm not going to mention them here."
And he was incensed at the unilateral ban on rock groups from London's Royal Albert Hall. Two or three bands' fans had made it impossible for them all. Anderson regarded this as unfair, because the Albert Hall was the best gig — "the ONLY gig" — in London.
"No reason and no logic, they just wouldn't let us back. And it's not our fans who rip up the seats there. A few fans make it impossible for all of us. It's all wrong — people are supposed to be able to go in there and get their rocks off on whoever they like — Beethoven or anybody. In 30 years people will be going to the Albert Hall and enjoying who they want to see, so why not now? We are just going through a phase where contemporary music is unacceptable on certain levels. At the Steeleye Span concert, people were standing on the seats and dancing in the aisles. They don't do that when we played."
There's the hotel wrecking, too. Various hotels round the world have blocked rock musicians after animated stories of excesses, but Anderson's sense of humour doesn't extend that far:—
"I mean, it's quite funny that a group stuck all their hotel room furniture to the ceiling with glue, but I'm unhappy about it because I can't go back there now, and I'd like to. There's a room which has a memory for me because I wrote a song in it, and because of the stupid behaviour of these people I am not able to return. That is annoying."
Over the years, it has been said that no one knows the real Ian Anderson, for he is indeed a loner. I wondered how many insights he had of the musicians who formed Jethro Tull, and asked for his summing-up of each member of the band. Here's how Ian reacted:—
JOHN EVAN: — "There is nothing about John other than an unbelievably normal, boring sort of ex-university student, settled down with a wife and seven beagles. He is always wearing a white suit. He is into being super-normal, a quiet, pleasant guy.
"Says, 'Looks like rain today, figs are doing fine and cabbages are coming on okay.' When he comes out on stage he is exactly the way he is then, always. We have a saying which goes: four of us and the remains of John (he's always on his hands and knees). There is something about him which precludes his walking in a normal way. Not because he is drunk or anything.
"Somebody once gave him a duck. He carried it and took it everywhere with him. Somebody must have trodden on it because it had a broken leg. He put it in the bath for a swim but the water was boiling hot and it was swimming around in circles trying to get out. He is a danger to anything living or breathing around him."
JEFFREY HAMMOND-HAMMOND and BARRIEMORE BARLOW: — "They cling to the other side of life and they are into reverting to domestic husband/father figures. They are very serious and passionate, domestic, responsible, caring human beings. Evan you might describe as schizoid.
"Barry enjoys life but when he comes back off the road, they are both very considerate of the other part of their lives which they have erected. They both have a conception of what life should be like off the road. They are very friendly, have similar musical tastes and I always think of them together. They think and feel music along the same lines. Whereas John and Martin and I don't have so much in common."
AND ON MARTIN BARRE, Tull's exceptionally gifted lead guitarist: — "Life for Martin is a mixture of fantasy and reality. He enjoys the fantasy more than the reality. He's at home with his big house — not that big, but fairly big — and big car and lives a fairly normal life, but when he gets that break on stage for his solo, it's something fantastic, and I can't resist watching him.
"He's amazing. I mean, for Martin, the ultimate would probably be having all of Pan's People in his living room, but once he'd got them there he'd be really nervous. He is a complicated guy in one sense but straight in another. For someone to shout fuck off to Martin on stage when he's in the middle of a solo is like somebody stealing my wallet or my woman."
Do you think Jethro would survive if you quit, Ian?
"I think they would survive in some way."
Do you regard it as your band?
"I think I work harder than the others but that is because the jobs I do take up more time than theirs — writing most of the music and perhaps being involved with interviews and album covers. Maybe we'd all be better off if the responsibility of doing different things in the group was delegated in a different way. I don't have any evidence that the others could write forty minutes of music within a month that would be suitable to be put out on record.
"Their output probably is very small. From time to time something is used on an album or credited where it belongs. If anybody does something better than I have, then we will use it. Martin might come up with ten bars and we'll slot it into the music we are working on. A lot of people think Terry Ellis and I and I split the money 50-50 and the rest of the group are on wages. The group is on a five-way split as far as concerts and royalties are concerned.
"There are more areas of decision-making which the group would refer to me because of my greater experience. On a lot of musical issues I have to say, 'do you really like this piece because I'd rather drop it, I've gone off it a bit,' and they say 'well, we like it,' and I will sing it anyway even if I don't enjoy it because the others enjoy playing it.
"If Martin comes up with anything it's like a field-mouse in the palm of his hand because he doesn't produce much. There is something very powerful which Martin evokes on stage. I am passionately involved in what he plays."
Are you physically fit so that you can charge around the stage the way you do?
"I don't think I'm fit, no."
Do you smoke and drink a lot, then?
"Yes, I suppose I drink between eight and a dozen Lowenbrau. And I smoke cigarettes. I've never been drunk in my life, and I never smoke dope. I don't like not being me. I like to be in a position to listen to what's going on all the time, and especially of course on stage. If someone shouts out to me: 'Get on with it,' I want to be physically capable of saying: 'Oh, I'm sorry,' and taking notice of that complaint and doing it."
If you had to write the musical obituary of Jethro Tull, how would you sum up the band?
"A bunch of guys, generally with me standing on one leg, and a guitarist who always did a funny solo and an organist who never knew what day it was.
"I wouldn't mind seeing that written about standing on one leg — because people can relate to it. Oh — and I'd say that we never actually went out there and blew it."