15 Apr 2017

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, not living in the past

From RNZ Music
Jethro Tull live in Hamburg in 1973

Jethro Tull live in Hamburg in 1973 Photo: wiki commons

Love them or loathe them, you can't deny Jethro Tull's rightful place in the pantheon of classic rock. En-route to New Zealand for shows next week, Kirsten Johnstone speaks to Ian Anderson, the band's singer, flute player and only constant member over the past 50 years.

If it weren’t for Eric Clapton and a cold London winter, Jethro Tull might have ended up a forgotten B-grade blues band from Blackpool called Jethro Toe. Instead, they became one of the most recognisable folk/prog/rock bands of the 1970s.

Inspired by The Beatles, school chums Ian Anderson, Jeffrey Hammond and John Evan had formed a band, playing blues and Motown covers with four other musicians. In late 1967 they moved to Luton, North of London and found it financially impossible to support seven musicians. Even as a trio, gigs were hard to come by. The band were destitute for a few months, living hand to mouth.

Ian Anderson performing with Jethro Tull, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, 1977.

Ian Anderson performing with Jethro Tull, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, 1977. Photo: wiki commons

It was around this time that Ian Anderson saw Eric Clapton play - and knew then and there it was no use competing. He’d never be as good a guitarist as Clapton. Figuring that he wasn’t able to pay his guitar off anyway, he went back to the pawn shop and bought a flute for £30.

“It was attractive because of its compactness, I could slip it in a coat pocket. It’s a very practical instrument to play.”

He taught himself to play in two weeks, and Jethro Tull had their point of difference. Those breathy, half sung, half played, fluttering flute lines set them apart from the legions of other bands on the scene.  

“It was a matter of necessity,” Anderson says of his unique technique.

“I couldn’t really produce the clear classical tone, and to reinforce the sound of the flute in the context of a rock band, with electric instruments, I found that singing and playing at the same time gave it a bit more authority.”   

Anderson says he has a broader range of tones now. The 69-year-old practises every day.

“My occasional chum James Galway, the classical flute player, told me as he got older, it was even more necessary to play every day to keep up the level of performance, and I think that’s absolutely right.”

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson in 2007

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson in 2007 Photo: wiki commons

He still plays flute on one leg sometimes while performing - a move that became Jethro Tull’s trademark image.

The band have gone through blues, pastoral folk, prog rock, and even beat Metallica for the hard rock/heavy metal Grammy award in 1989. For Anderson it’s always been about fulfilling his own artistic need to evolve.

“You have a simple choice, don’t you. You either become an entertainer, and you’re out there to basically offer a service to an audience. And for a lot of people, that’s a worthwhile and giving occupation. There are others who are driven more by egocentric demands, and are out there to do something for their own gratification, and I suppose I’ve always been one of those.”

Which is not to say that a Jethro Tull show is self-indulgent - far from it.

“I’ve always felt that if I was having a good time on stage, if I am engaged with the music, if I am driven in that obsessive way about music, there is more chance of that passing over to the audience, with a sense of being genuine.”

Though he admits that his most recent songs are his favourites to play, he recognises that the audience are mainly there to hear songs from his successful early albums, Aqualung (1971), Thick as a Brick (1972) and Songs from the Wood (1977) amongst others, and the band deliver “a pretty broad picture of the Jethro Tull repertoire.” They also play with a visual backdrop, as he says “I think people expect rather more these days than five guys on stage in t-shirts and jeans, absent-mindedly trotting out their greatest hits. We try to give it a bit more theatricality, a bit more punch.” Just don't expect ballet tights and sequinned codpieces this time around. 

See Jethro Tull in New Zealand:

Dunedin 18 April, Regent Theatre
Christchurch 19 April Isaac Theatre Royal
Wellington 20 April Michael Fowler Centre
Auckland 22 April The Civic

Music Details

Artist: Jethro Tull  
Song: Living In the Past
Composer: Anderson
Album: Living In The Past
Label: Chrysalis

Artist: Jethro Tull  
Song: Bouree
Composer: JS Bach/Anderson
Album: Stand Up
Label: Chrysalis

Artist: Jethro Tull  
Song: Locomotive Breath
Composer: Anderson
Album: Bursting Out
Label: Chrysalis

Artist: Jethro Tull  
Song: Bungle In The Jungle
Composer: Anderson
Album: War Child
Label: Chrysalis

Artist: Jethro Tull  
Song: A Song For Jeffrey
Composer: Anderson
Album: This Was
Label: Chrysalis

Artist: Jethro Tull  
Song: The Whistler
Composer: Anderson
Album: Songs From The Wood
Label: Chrysalis

Artist: Jethro Tull  
Song: Too Old To Rock n Roll Too Young To Die
Composer: Anderson
Album: Too Old To Rock n Roll Too Young To Die
Label: Chrysalis

Artist: Jethro Tull  
Song: Songs From The Wood
Composer: Anderson
Album: Songs From The Wood
Label: Chrysalis

Artist: Jethro Tull  
Song: Aqualung
Composer: Anderson/Jennie Anderson
Album:  Aqualung
Label: Chrysalis