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21 March 1977
ROCK'S HEAVIEST BREATHER IS IAN ANDERSON ON FLUTE FOR JETHRO TULL
In most respected annual rock music polls, Ian Anderson of the English group Jethro Tull has a lock on the category of 'Miscellaneous Instrument'. He invariably ranks No. 1 — with a smirk. That's because Anderson, 29, doesn't just flaut it on stage. He also suggestively flaunts it, working heavily miked snorts, grunts and gasps into his lewdly bug-eyed, tongue-licking flute solos.
But reviewers who write Ian off as more pander than Pan aren't really listening. That outrageous theatricality may help make his current 30-city U.S. tour SRO [standing room only], but it can't explain why Tull's new elegantly restrained LP, Songs From The Wood, became his 11th straight gold album the day it was released. Not to mention the sixth headed for platinum, joining such sophisticated 'concept albums' as Aqualung and Thick As A Brick.
"Critics never know what to make of us," Anderson marvels, "because it's self-mocking satire. What is real? What is masquerade? Sometimes I myself don't know,"
he adds modestly of his own intricate weaves of odd time signatures, subtle chord shifts, affecting harmonies and folk roots that tie a thudding rock 'bottom' to a lilting Elizabethan tranquillity.
"I don't play it safe," Anderson says by way of credo. "Of course, I'm jaundiced. Anybody would be fed up with the airy-fairy people that rock collects. So much of it is style without content. Any taint of an Elton John or a John Denver situation is horrendous. Once you get the middle-of-the-road disease, you've lost that pure, rebellious, aggressive stance you once had."
(Indeed, the name Jethro Tull comes from a 17th century agricultural revolutionary).
Yet between tours Anderson retreats to his 16th century red brick farmhouse on 74 acres, Pophleys, in Buckinghamshire, 38 miles from London. The new tame-for-Tull LP and the near-normal stage get-up this time out (in jodhpurs, red bowler and vest) reflect the influence of his wife of one year, Shona Learoyd, now seven months pregnant. The convent-educated daughter of a wealthy wool manufacturer, she met Ian while working as a press officer at his label, Chrysalis Records. Despite the band's history of turmoil, Shona, who graduated into onstage special effects, outlasted his flutes. (He travels with 16 of the instruments and treats them so roughly he's gone through three a night).
"He bullied me," she sniffs, "and had me wearing everything from leotards to fishnet tights."
She's since enjoyed her revenge, lopping off inches of his stringy hair (she still trims it), and has weaned Ian from a black-only dress fixation.
"Black only made him look so gaunt and ill," she found.
Shona reports that, once home, Ian is "100 percent normal." His tastes are uncommonly square: he chain-smokes but is drug-free, detests "namby-pamby health food addicts" and has contempt for denimed conformism.
"Ian's a closed person," says Shona, "and doesn't make friends easily."
His reclusive social life revolves around local farmers, an occasional ballet (Shona studied for 10 years) or movie. He won't tax-exile himself, he says, because even his tiny 'net' of £90,000 is enough for anyone.
As a child in Scotland and then Blackpool, England, Ian, the son of a hotel manager and later night watchman, was a promising student but played rugby only reluctantly and kept weaseling out of choir. Finally he quit school at 15 when "I realized I didn't want to become anything" (in terms of a career). He spent a year studying art, then, while working as a moviehouse janitor in London, rotated through local bands until he traded his guitar for a flute. Inspired by the breathy harmonics of jazz artist Roland Kirk, Ian developed his self-taught feverish technique, which eventually surfaced as the lead feature with Jethro Tull in 1968. Since the group's first U.S. tour in 1969, opening for Led Zeppelin, Anderson says proudly,
"It's always been distinctly without any PR assault on fragile minds. We've never needed it."
As for the future, Ian muses:
"I have the wisdom and experience to tailor my performances to my advancing years. Of course, I can't be jumping about when I'm 60, but I hope to go on performing as long as I can draw breath and I believe that's possible."
On tour now, Anderson whimsically dedicates one of his all-time hits to captious critics: 'Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young To Die!'
"It's a subconscious impulse to raise my leg, not because my underpants were too tight when I was a young boy."
His favorite tour, he finds, is a one-night stand:
"When you give everything you've got, you don't want to hang around."