“The flute,” read an advertisement in a British music magazine in 1989, showing a picture of a flute lying amongst a collection of metal rods, “is a heavy, metal instrument.” This tongue-in-cheek jab was commissioned as a result of the controversy surrounding legendary English band, Jethro Tull, who that same year took out the Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance for their record, Crest Of A Knave, beating Metallica’s, …And Justice For All. (When Metallica won the gong three years later for their Black Album, drummer, Lars Ulrich jokingly thanked Jethro Tull for not releasing an album that year).
The fact Jethro Tull – who many regarded as nothing like hard rock, let alone metal, hence the controversy and the fact the band paid for the aforementioned ad – were even nominated though, shows how much of a wide-ranging sound this iconic band have had over the years. Hard rock (whether you agree they were there or not), is but one of the genres crossed by the Tull, a band who began deep within the blues-drenched sounds of ‘60s rock n’ roll and who roamed the fields of folk, who wallowed in the electronic sounds of the ‘80s, who have embraced jazz and funk and even classical music.
It’s this wide range of genres and styles then, that permeates the conversation first up when I speak with Ian Anderson, founder and only remaining original member of the band. We’re talking about the fact Jethro Tull are playing Bluesfest, something Anderson seems to be struggling with – “It’s bewildering to me that a blues festival would feature Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan, let alone Jethro Tull,” he says – and we get on to the terms ‘roots’ and ‘world music’, discussing how jingoistic they are and what, exactly, they mean. “The word roots, I mean, every kind of music has roots,” he reasons, before adding with a sly laugh, “but rather like the hair on a blonde, they’re not necessarily very attractive.
“And there isn’t very much music that’s out of this world,” he goes on, referencing the term, world music. “Except in the case of my flute, which is currently in space.” As Anderson mentions this, I’m halfway through the act of rolling a cigarette and so do somewhat of a double take. Ian Anderson’s flute is in space? “It’s currently going around the earth at a lick of knots, being played in the International Space Station by Colonel Coleman of the US Air Force, an astronaut who’s up there. She plays flute, and she turned 50 on the evening before her launch, and I think she wanted to celebrate her 50th birthday in space by playing the flute, and so she took up my flute, her flute and a flute belonging to Matt Molloy from the Chieftains…so a little part of Ian Anderson’s vital bodily fluids are currently in space – I can’t remember if I cleaned that flute the last time I used it.”
The flute in question is Anderson’s back-up flute, and yes, it is indeed orbiting the earth as we speak, and yes, it does perhaps contain traces of Anderson saliva – truly, at least a part of Jethro Tull can accurately be described as being ‘out of this world’. Meanwhile, back on terra firma, the band itself marches on. 2011 sees the band 43 years on from their 1968 debut, This Was, and it also marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Aqualung (’71), perhaps the band’s best known recording, an album which is now regarded as a classic of its era.
“Yeah, that record is the subject of discussions with EMI at the moment because we’re doing some remixing and remastering in 5.1 Sound, a kind of collector’s edition which we’ll release this year to celebrate the anniversary of Aqualung,” Anderson explains. “And then next year is the 40th anniversary of Thick As A Brick, so we’re already looking at the 2012 calendar and beginning to put together tours to regenerate the Thick As A Brick material in live performance for the first time since 1972, in its entirety.”
Both those records did a lot for Jethro Tull, and indeed, a lot for modern popular music in general, being as they were, far from ‘normal’ – excursions into blues-based rock n’ roll with no thought for convention but with an eye on the surreal, and as such, these are records which are still played on radio to this day, something which I mention to Anderson, asking why he thinks these songs are still so relevant now. “Well, in the case of the Aqualung album, which was pretty good, I guess introduced in a more confirmed sense of my being more of a singer/songwriter, guitar strumming kinda guy, Aqualung had quite a few beautiful acoustic tracks on it,” he muses.
“That was a really important album that brought together the extremes of rock instrumentation and very much an acoustic guitar, singer/songwriter approach,” he adds. “So it’s an album I still draw from a lot in concerts.” It’s an album that’s still revered around the world, one recorded back in 1971, a time when rock n’ roll was still new and there were still boundaries to be pushed, limits to be tested. To go deeper then, beyond how relevant Aqualung still is, how are Jethro Tull themselves still so relevant? Perhaps relevant isn’t the right word, maybe popular is the word I’m after, for they’re certainly that.
The Tull’s first record, This Was, was released as mentioned, in 1968, but preceding this was six or seven years of build-up, Anderson forming The Blades in 1962, a band which contained more than just a couple of soon-to-be Jethro Tull members. As such, Jethro Tull, particularly Ian Anderson, have been around (pretty much) for just shy of half a century. So again: why are they still so popular? How have they lasted as long as they have? “I think it has to do, as with many bands of our era, that there’s a recognition that some of the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s is landmark music that deserves to be remembered, and so a new generation focuses on that music as being part of the history of contemporary music,” Anderson waxes.
We get a bit deeper here, talking about how there’s not that much more to be done with rock n’ roll, you can’t really expand upon it, and it’s the same with classical music, blues and jazz – “Most of what you could actually call jazz was all wrapped up in a bow by the ‘80s,” he remarks – and so Jethro Tull were at the coalface, making this music as it was happening, hence their current popularity. I venture that as well, it’s been the band’s wont to experiment, sonically, that’s seen them last as long as they have – they’ve certainly not stuck to any one musical formula.
“I think to some extent, there’s two things going on,” Anderson replies after some thought, not really paying my thought much nevermind. “There’s part of your awareness that you have the older generation of fans, and the younger generation of fans who are primarily going to see what you might call a heritage act, a minor legend in the world of popular and rock music. And then on the other hand, you have those who have followed the band for years and years and years, and who are perhaps a little more in tune with the idea there should be continuing evolution…just because you hit the age of 40 or 50 or 60, it doesn’t mean you have to fall into being some sort of cabaret act or a mobile jukebox, or indeed, a musical hooker.”
What Anderson is getting at, is the reason they’re still so popular is because the younger generation comes to see the ‘legend’, whilst the older fans are there to see the classics, but also the musical evolution, and so are more than happy to let the band indulge themselves with whatever genre or style they see fit, and so will keep coming back to see them play. Simple, really. It’s at this point that we turn to the future, or perhaps the present, for I’m interested to know what it’s like being in Jethro Tull in 2011, as opposed to 1968, or the mid-‘70s, or even the ‘80s. No doubt a lot of it is vastly different, but given Jethro Tull – and Anderson in his solo guide – are always striving to hit new heights, perhaps overall it’s not as different as you’d think.
“We should perhaps consider that this isn’t just Jethro Tull or Ian Anderson we’re talking about, there are so many acts – maybe we forget just how many there are – many of whom are older than I am, who are out on the road, it’s what they do,” he exclaims. “I think there is a sense of identity that continues to be expressed, and there are many musicians like me who, if they tried to define to themselves in private what they’re about, who they are, what their life has been, would find they were quite proud and a little obsessed to be musicians. And so, whether you’re Eric Burdon in his advanced years or a frustrated Mick Jagger…there’s a bunch of us out there who just can’t quit, it’s what we do. And I find there’s a certain charm in that.”
Therein lies the reason why Jethro Tull are still around today, still releasing records, still playing festivals like Bluesfest, still being played on the radio – it’s what they do, and they can’t do anything else, it’s just not on the cards. So, to wrap up, where to from here? Is there an end in sight to Jethro Tull? “Well, much of it really depends on physical health,” Anderson says. “And mental health too, the ability to focus and concentrate on the demands of music.” It’s a simple answer really, and one which speaks volumes. Jethro Tull will only hang up those instruments when it’s not possible for them to play any more. Here’s a band who straddle more genres and styles than they care to remember, and they’re keeping on keeping on, which is one reason why we love them so much, why we still think they’re out of this world.
Samuel J. Fell