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The Prog Interview – Ian Anderson

The Prog Interview is just that: every issue we get inside the minds of the biggest names in music. This month, it’s flute-toting Ian Anderson…

Readers of a certain vintage may remember the BBC’s The Lively Arts documentary series. Broadcast in the 70s, it cast an eye over the life and times of sculptor Henry Moore, novelist Len Deighton and, in 1979, monsters of folk rock Jethro Tull. Like everything else these days, it’s now on YouTube.

But at a time when there was little pop music on TV, The Lively Arts offered a rare glimpse of the lesser-spotted prog rockers. In one scene, Tull’s Dunfermline-born leader Ian Anderson strides through the mountains near his home on the Isle Of Skye and ponders his relationship with music: “If you believe in being born to do something, then this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Thirty-six years later, Ian Anderson is still ‘doing’ music. There have been distractions, including his time as a salmon farmer, and the band Jethro Tull are no more. But the 68-year-old still makes music under his own name. Right now, he’s plotting a solo album inspired by the real‑life Jethro Tull (more on this later), and is promoting the recent rebooted version of the 1976 Tull album, Too Old To Rock’N’Roll: Too Young To Die.

In The Lively Arts, Anderson’s obvious intellect distinguished him from the popular tabloid image of the zonked-out 70s rock star. Nothing’s changed. In 2015, Ian Anderson still sounds like
a retired home-counties headmaster, and in world of rock musicians with often nothing to say and even less worth hearing, holds forthright views on everything from the environment to gender reassignment and fake American accents. Wind him up, then, and watch him go…

Is Too Old To Rock’N’Roll: Too Young To Die one of the better Jethro Tull albums?

I’d put it somewhere in the middle. It’s a quirky album. That’s because it was written as a stage musical. But like a lot of well-intentioned ideas, once you realise you’d be tied up in knots for the next two years of your life… Well, I didn’t have the stomach for that. But I did have this bunch of songs that could stand alone on any album, and others that were serving a function of illustrating the story.

Is that why the album included a strip cartoon telling the story of the main character, “the old greaser” Ray Lomax?

Yes, those cartoon frames are like little snapshots, because the songs are a bit detached, it’s not a flowing narrative.

The story of an old rocker resistant to changing times made sense in 1976 with the arrival of punk, but also every year since.

Yes. It’s the idea of someone stuck in a fashion, a culture or a societal position and refusing to give up his identity, and there’s a bit of that Luddite in all of us. So the title track has that uplifting chorus – a fist-waving, black T-shirt-clad moment of defiance… on behalf of those who are about to get their dentures renewed [laughing].

Minstrel In The Gallery was remastered earlier in 2015, presumably Warner Bros are working their way through the catalogue? Songs From The Wood next, then?

The truth is the copyright is running out on these titles, and record companies realise they can increase their dwindling profit margins by making use of these assets. They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. But the winner is the public. And it’s great news for the ancient artist’s ego.

How hands-on are you with these remasters?

I get to fool around from a discreet distance. But [co-producer/mixer] Steven Wilson’s remixes are very educated and wise and thoughtful. He’s a sensitive person who grew up with the Jethro Tull catalogue.

**Let’s go back to the beginning: did you ever experience an epiphany, a moment that made you go, “Yes! I want to be a musician.” **

It was more of a slow burn, starting as a four-year-old hitting a few notes on the piano to appease my ageing grandmother. If there was a tipping point it was Elvis Presley singing Heartbreak Hotel, but also skiffle in the form of Lonnie Donegan. The key message with skiffle was: “You can do this.” Any 11-year-old could strum half a chord on a beat-up acoustic. So we did. But at that point I still wanted to be an engine driver. Later I wanted to be a policeman.

You’d have made a good copper. How close did you get?

I was 17 and about to sign my name on the form when the recruiting inspector said, “Sorry, forgot to ask, do you have any O levels?” When I told him I had eight, he told me to come back when I’d been to university and he’d get me a really good job in the police. I felt rejected, yes, but it was good pragmatic advice.

Like Pete Townshend and Syd Barrett, you’re a product of the post-war art school system.

I went to art school [in Blackpool] and thought I’d have this cul-de-sac career, as an art teacher in a boys’ school somewhere in rural England. But I was 18, there was this growing subculture of blues thanks to John Mayall and Eric Clapton. Then, later, there was Sgt Pepper and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn in ’67. These were all signposts that maybe there was something in this for us.

You grew your hair, wore tight trousers and apparently your father worried that you might be homosexual.

My father did go through a period where, unfortunately, he referred to me as… [deep sigh] a jessie, which is an old Scottish term. It didn’t quite define you as homosexual, just girlie. But it was all in his mind. I grew up in that magic, 10-year period that saw the emancipation of planet earth – a respect for freedoms, equality for black Americans and a growing awareness that women shouldn’t just be baby-making housewife machines.

Unlike some of your peers, you’ve always sung in a British accent, though.

I lived and breathed black American blues, but I’d not done those stereotypical things I thought black American bluesmen did – picking cotton or working on a chain gang. It didn’t seem sensible to me to follow in the footsteps of some lower, middle-class white boy by trying to sing like a black American.

You must have tried it at least once though?

I supposed I did when I first tried to imitate those songs. I heard Mick Jagger, though, and that put me off. It’s the same with Elton John. I think, “Why are you singing in that stupid voice?” I don’t think it’s insulting – just a bit wet. Amy Winehouse would have been twice the person she was if she’d sung in something resembling her own voice.

This is clearly a bit of a bugbear for you.

It’s just plain silly. I’ve said this to foreign female singers too: you’d be much more interesting – and sexy – if you sang in your natural French, Swedish or German accent rather than that awful international American/English.

You like a good accent on a woman?

Yes [laughing]. In a way. Look, I’d much rather hear anyone singing in their own voice. Look how we loved Ian Dury and Alex Harvey. Otherwise I’ll assume you’re fake.

Throughout your career you’ve always been out of step with
your contemporaries. Was there any sex and drugs on the road with Jethro Tull?

No. But it wasn’t because of any morality, it was because I was shit scared of catching some awful disease. I also didn’t want to risk my addictive personality by smoking anything stronger than cigarettes. I’m not one of those people who could smoke a couple of cigarettes a day. I was smoking as many as I could afford. So I thought I’d better control that before I got involved with everyone passing around the standard soggy joint… which I thought was a bit like licking the handle of a gents toilet. Why would you want to do that?

Was there ever such a thing as a Jethro Tull groupie?

Compared to other bands, there weren’t, because we were moderately ugly. They weren’t non-existent but they tended to be with their boyfriends. That’s something I have always thought was nice about our audience. Generally speaking there was an even gender mix.

So the popular image of Jethro Tull as a blokes’ band is inaccurate?

Our audience tended to be more boy/girl. But it can be slightly more male-oriented in certain cities. It also wasn’t unusual to see people of Indian and Pakistani origin and black Americans at our shows. Jethro Tull also found fans in Latin America and Asia.

Why do you think that is?

It’s a good by-product of the broad influences I had as a writer. I have always had an interest in other music, even when sung in a language I couldn’t understand. I drew from it all. Whether it was Charlie Parker and bebop or some exotic Indian classical music.

Tony Iommi played with Jethro Tull briefly in 1968, and said he was shocked by your work ethic, and tried to get Black Sabbath to be more disciplined.

Tony was never exactly a member of Jethro Tull. We were just mutually exploring the possibility of doing something together. But, yes, if there was anything Tony did learn it was that if you’re supposed to be there at 10am for a rehearsal, then be there.

Are you a tough bandleader then?

Probably a bit of a pain in the arse. But I’ve always been a stickler for punctuality.

Do you think that’s unusual in this business?

Maybe it’s unusual. I’m not the archetypal pop person who fits the romantic ideal of the louche, laid-back character who just drifts in and out of things. Life’s too short. I like to get the job done and I enjoy finishing on time.

You were a salmon farmer for 20 years, and the Tull albums Heavy Horses and Stormwatch tackled rural and ecological issues. Are us city folk still ignorant about the countryside?

I think there’s a widespread ignorance about food production, which is what farming is all about. The poor farmer producing milk is not given much in the way of encouragement from supermarkets, and our European cousins enjoy levels of support and subsidy not so evident here. We know it must change – but we’re living on an overpopulated planet.

What’s the solution?

We need to accept our resources are limited. The number of people on the planet should be around three billion. Latest UN reports estimate it will be between 11 and 13 billion, and in light of climate change that’s going to produce some very big challenges for the future.

Do we all need to stop procreating?

In most countries where women have an education and are given access to family planning and a career, it’s 1.6 children per fertile woman. But in certain countries because of the culture, tradition or religious beliefs it’s five, six or seven. I have two children. I admit, there was a time I said to my wife [Shona], “Maybe we should have a third child?” And she said, “You know, we’re lucky we have two healthy children, what do we want another for?” And I’m very grateful now that we just had two.

You were starting to worry about these issues in the 70s then?

We didn’t know then the impact having large families would have on the planet. But in 1974 I wrote a song called Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of A New Day, based on the science of the time, which suggested there was a new ice age in the offing. Later, Antarctic ice core samples started to tell us differently and we were going the other way with global heating.

Would you say you’re pessimistic about the future?

I’m not an arch pessimist, no. I think that we will find methodologies in agriculture that will make food production more effective. We’re already beginning to learn lessons.

In what way?

We’re omnivores. We like meat. But let’s not eat meat three times a day. We know too much red meat has consequences, particularly when it’s processed. The other reality is that all forms of processed foods use vast amounts of water. That’s another area where we’re in denial. There is a finite source of water in certain parts of the world. [Former Soviet Union leader] Mikhail Gorbachev said to me, over lunch…

Hold on. You had lunch with Mikhail Gorbachev?

Yes, we had a lunch meeting some years ago [during Jethro Tull’s 2008 Russian tour]. He said, “This is what wars are going to be fought over, water! Not oil.” He was thumping his fist on the table and making his point very eloquently in Russian. Fortunately we had a very good translator.

There have been so many people through Jethro Tull since 1968. Have you made many enemies?

There’s been 27 people in Tull, including me. I haven’t made enemies, but some have made enemies of each other. There are people who still don’t talk to each other and I’m a bit miffed about that. It began with [original guitarist] Mick Abrahams and the late [bassist] Glenn Cornick. Right from the get-go, there was a problem. It got nasty. Not in fisticuffs, but physical threats.

Has there even been a Jethro Tull punch-up?

Martin Barre had a fight with a dressing room chair once, which caused me no end of joy, because Martin so rarely lost his temper. But luckily he chose to attack a chair rather than me or another band member.

Of those ex-band members, the most surprising story concerns former keyboard player David Palmer, who underwent gender reassignment in 2004. How much of a surprise was this to you?

I never had a hint of it. I always thought of David as a man’s man – a bearded, gravelly-voiced sort of chap. But not long after he left [in 1980] we started to notice things.

What things?

We were doing a fan convention and our ex-bass player Jonathan Noyce whispers to me, “There’s something weird about David Palmer. He looks like he’s got a bra strap under his T-shirt.” Later, my wife said to me, “David’s walking a bit funny these days.” It was a kind of mincing walk. At the time I thought he was just having a later-than-midlife crisis. But it came to a head when the News Of The World parked outside my house.

They thought that you were the one who was planning a sex change?

Yes. They wanted to see me wearing a nice party frock. I went down to talk to them, and they said, “We want to talk to you about your plans to change into a woman.” They said they had it on good authority but wouldn’t reveal their sources. So I said to the lady journalist in the car, “Look at me. Look closely into my eyes. If you think you see a woman, then you see one fucking ugly woman.”

So how did you find out the truth?

Later David’s partner phoned us in tears. I called David and he said, “Ah, Ian, there’s something I would like to get off my ever-increasing ample chest.” It came as a shock, but you have to give support and approval. David had his final surgery and became Dee Palmer, and is now a seriously old woman but a happy one!

You’ve maintained good relations with all these ex-members then.

I talk to most ex-band members on an irregular basis, and have never found anyone difficult to deal with. You could argue cynically that’s because they get their royalty statements and they don’t want to piss me off. We’ve all pissed each other off at some time or another, but we’re part of a big musical family. There were few fights, and none of the things we gloatingly observed with, say, The Who or Cream. Jack Bruce tells of Ginger Baker pulling a knife on him twice. Having worked with Ginger recently, I can understand Jack’s concerns.

Did Ginger pull a knife on you?

Not a knife, but he pulled a verbal on us. I don’t want to go into all this… [Anderson appeared alongside Baker at a Jack Bruce charity tribute in London in October]. But it was deeply disappointing to discover he was such a let-down as a human being and a professional musician.

Your last two albums, Thick As A Brick 2 and Homo Erraticus, have been credited to Ian Anderson. Is this the end of Jethro Tull then?

I think I’ve been misunderstood or misquoted on this. Jethro Tull is the repertoire [emphatically]. The repertoire of Jethro Tull, the rock band, is not something that comes to an end. It will go on for a long time into the future after I’m dead and gone.

Is there still confusion?

Some people think it’s my stage name, yes. I am not Jethro Tull. It’s the name of an 18th-century agriculturist who invented a seed drill. Having not studied that period of history, I, in my ignorance, accepted the name in the first week of 1968 when an agent suggested it for the band.

After all this time, have you actually read Jethro Tull’s 1762 essay, Horse-Hoeing Husbandry?

Someone gave me a copy, but I never read it. I studiously didn’t want to know too much about him. Then in summer 2014 I was travelling in rural Italy and I thought, “I wonder what old Jethro Tull would have made of this.” I looked him up on the Internet and found to my astonishment he’d travelled in Italy and drawn some inspiration from their farming methods. Within half an hour I had drawn up a list of songs relating to his life. So that’s what I’m doing now.

**So you’re making an album based on the life of Jethro Tull? **

It won’t be set in the 18th century, though. I’ll put it in the modern day or near future, and bring in some contemporary issues. Jethro Tull, the repertoire, is alive and kicking. But this will be Ian Anderson. Without wishing to sound pompous or arrogant, I would like the world to know my name before I die.

For more information, see www.jethrotull.com.

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