IAN ANDERSON: TULL THE END OF TIME
by Paul Freeman
He stands (sometimes on one leg) as one of rock’s more musically adventurous souls. Jethro Tull front man Ian Anderson isn’t living in the past. He’s currently exploring the challenges of orchestral sounds.
The erudite, witty, Anderson has been integrating elements of classical into his music since Tull’s birth in the late ‘60s.
“To actually work wiith an orchestra as a whole and to do something other than just the decorative element of having some musicians put a little color and sparkle into some songs, it had to wait until about four years ago, following an invitation from a German orchestra to do a couple of shows with them.
“Instead of a fee, I asked them to pay for the cost of all the orchestrations. So instead of being paid in money, they gave me a bundle of paperwork. I’ve been using those arrangements, as well as building up a few more, as we’ve gone along, to come up w ith a variety of options, including classic Jethro Tull songs, along with crossover classical music, done in perhaps a jazz or folk kind of feel, some church music, some solo music.”
Anderson has been wary of the rock band-meets-orchestra concept. “That was epitomized by a recent request I had to take part in some extravaganza in Europe with a sizable orchestra, backing group of rock session musicians and assorted rock vocalists. If you saw the list of rock singers, you would understand exactly what my fears are -- that the orchestra just become a visual appendage, while some aging wankers in tight trousers and hair weaves prance about the stage, doing what they’ve always done, the same old stuff, in the same old way, with a bunch of inaudible orchestral musicians fighting to be heard amidst the cacophony of a loud rock band. The production people usually have no idea how to present orchestral, acoustic music, in the context of repertoire that comes from world of rock.
“I’ve heard it too many times, quite tragically. The only folks that got it sort of okay were the Moody Blues. But they didn’t play too loud on stage and the orchestra had a fairly easy job, quite easy music to follow and simple parts to play. What I do is a little more tricky.”
Anderson’s orchestral concerts are amplified, but never to the point where the orchestra’s instruments sound overwhelmed or unnatural. “To me, there’s something a little offensive about hearing acoustic instruments played overly loudly, way out of context. I know -- I’ve been doing it for 38 years.”
Despite the lack of ear-punishing volume, crowds respond fervently. “Audiences are quite uproarious in their support and appreciation of the concert. It’s just that when we’re actually playing, they remain silent and listen to the music, which, of course, is what an orchestral concert needs to be about, since all the musicians have to be really paying attention to what’s going on. They have to be able to see their music. They have to follow the conductor, follow cues from me and my other band musicians. We rely on a certain amount of goodwill from the audience to actually behave and not to shout out in the middle of songs, screech or do the sort of things that they might do, if they were at a football game.”
Rock music presents challenges for symphonic players. “Sometimes they don’t have experience working with strict tempo, where there has to be, for wont of a better term, a groove. That could be difficult for folks who’ve grown up with classical repertoire and have rellied upon lying in the midst of an ensemble whose musical timekeeping tends to be swayed, this way and that, by following a conductor. Some of our rhythmic phrases demand thinking ahead a few nanoseconds. It is a different ballgame.”
The tour involves working with many different orchestras across the country. Anderson and his band try to fly in the day prior to a concert, so they can devote six hours to rehearsing for the two-hour show.
Andserson and the classical players manage to mesh. “If I can win them over and have them doing their best and learning something from the experience, then it is very rewarding. Whenever I do a concert, there’s something new I learn from them, as well, both from a social, as well as a musical point of view. It rubs both ways.”
The classical community tends to be more respectful of rock than it was when Tull began. “Simply because of the huge increase in media availability of entertainment generally, most young classical musicians have greater awareness of contemporary forms, compared to 40 years ago, when classical musicians often lived in a very rarified atmosphere and rather looked down on anything that wasn’t strictly classical repertoire. That still does exist, but not nearly as much as before.”
The orchestral setting spurs Anderson to reimagine the Tull material. “I tend to see these songs in other guises anyway, whether I’m strumming them in a dressing room, hotel or on my front porch. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that you can revisit benchmarks which you created in the past. They don’t have to be that way forever. You can dress them up in a new suit of clothes, parade them down the street, take them out for a spin and hopefully get some admiring glances.
“But there are other pieces that I rather like reproducing in quite a faithful way. For instance, when we play ‘Wondering Aloud,’ it’s just like the record. But when we do ‘Aqualung’ from the same album, it’s a deconstruction of the original, a substantial reappraisal of the whole song and its dynamiics, and the addition of quite a bit of music that’s based loosely on the original, but goes off in other directions. So you can approach it in a variety of ways. It’s all there to be explored, really.”
Anderson was born in Scotland in 1947. His family relocated to England when he was 12. He grew up hearing his father’s big band records, Presbyterian church music, Scottish folk, classical and then skiffle. As a performer, his first influences were acoustic American blues and jazz.
As for rock, “It was part of my peer group pressure to at least listen to and be aware, but it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed, either listening to or playing. I was always more inclined towards acoustic music. By the time I took up the flute at age 20, I’d been playing tin whistle, harmonica, saxophone, acoustic guitar. For many years, I’ve been the acoustic musician in what is generally perceived as an eclectic rock band. Much of the time, rock band is indeed what it is. It’s just that my role is somewhat different than the other guys.”
Anderson’s charismatic vocals and riveting flute-playing, often while hopping on one foot, helped Jethro Tull carve out a niche. “The flute was an instrument that had been seen in other bands on occasion. The Moody Blues had featured a flute and Traffic had a saxophonist who played the flute. Even Peter Gabriel in Genesis, I saw a photograph recently, waving a flute around. I don’t know if he actually played it. But if you’re dressed as a giant sunflower, a flute might not be too out of keeping,” Anderson quips.
“But the reality of having an instrument that was not generally part of my peers’ arsenal of weaponry was appealing. It made us a liffle different from the rest of the bands at that time. It got people noticing. It may have seemed a little bit of a gimmick. But from the earliest time, although I couldn’t play it very well, I tried to give it some elements of dignity and musicality.”
Musically, Tull veered away from formulaic rock. “There are great bands who took a safe path and became archetypal mainstream rock bands, like Toto or Foreigner for example. It’s not my kind of music, but I’m a great admirer of Lou Gramm’s singing and the musical arrangements of Toto. When it comes to Bon Jovi and the more packaged... trouser,” he chuckles, “it’s ‘Check please!’ Then it just reeks of every cliché in the book, really.”
Anderson admires musicians who seek new challenges. “Sting seems to be a restless soul. For all the critical disdain, he is a man who has musical integrity and likes to keep trying things. David Bowie, not enjoying the best of health these days, also springs to mind. Over the years, he has constantly reinvented himself, to present not only different music, but a different persona behind the music.
“We look forward to seeing what Bowie will do next... in a way that we don’t necessarily look forward to the next Rolling Stones album, because we know what it has to sound like, because there is neither the musical ability nor the musical adventurism behind the Rolling Stones -- not in any way to detract from their position as the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band. But it’s easy to say that when Led Zeppelin are not around and Jimi Hendrix is dead. So I suppose the Stones are kind of it, really, for an ultimate, nostalgia, big-scale rock act. Although U2 are headed in that direction. Give them another 10 years, they’ll be not dissimilar.”
Anderson, meanwhile, will continue to test the boundaries. “I can afford to do that. I’ve not really ever been in that position to be compared to the great bands who’ve sold huge numbers of records and played to huge audiences. We’ve done a bit of that. But it was just a bit of an accident of fate, really, that Jethro Tull found itself playing stadiums and selling millions of records. I rather think it’s just a curious anomaly, because, over the years, we’ve not been a mainstream band. We’ve always been kind of outré in our position in the scheme of things. So to have sold 50 million albums or whatever it is we’ve sold, just defies belief, really.”
The Tull catalogue withstands the test of time. “EMI came to pick up all of my master tapes today. There are literally tons, accumulated over the years. I had asked if they wouldn’t mind taking them away and keeping them for me, because I have no space and it’s such an onerous responsibility having all this stuff gathering dust and gradually falling apart. When you actually look at it, it’s a colossal amount. A four-tonner van was bulging at the seams taking the stuff away today, off to the clinically air-conditioned and impeccable storage facilities at Abbey Road studios in London, where it will probably be kept for a llittle while longer... until it finally dissolves into toxic landfill material which conservationists will be rather ashamed of.”
Like classical, rock has become a musical institution. “I have absolutely no doubt that the music of some of the great pop and rock bands will last for hundreds of years into the future. Whether it will be enjoyed in the same way, I don’t know. But rock music has achieved a kind of identity. As a genre, it is pretty much formed and complete, wrapped up in a bow. There are not many places it can go and still be called rock music -- just as classical music is defined by, roughly speaking, 300 years of great compositions. I guess rock is kind of a contemporary classical popular music form, just as jazz and blues are.”
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