Back in 1972, Ian Anderson sang ‘Spin me back down the years and the days of my youth’ (from Thick As a Brick) and it seems to me that this is exactly what Jethro Tull has been doing over the last decade for old-time Jethro Tull fans, with the incredibly rich series of 40th anniversary box sets celebrating the glory days of one the UK’s finest rock bands. 2021 will mark a further release in that anniversary series – the deluxe six disc set of the A album, which has already been the subject of an in-depth review by Velvet Thunder. And later this year we will get another landmark piece of memorabilia – this time a wonderful tome entitled Silent Singing, containing the lyrics of every single song Ian Anderson has released (as both Jethro Tull and as a solo artist). Velvet Thunder has also seen inside the cover of this fascinating book. Anderson seems to stride across these two releases like some larger than life figure – like some modern-day Leonardo, in fact – not only writing music and lyrics, but writing essays, taking stylishly artistic photographs, and even acting rather well in videos. With all this going on, Velvet Thunder just had to speak to him about this remarkable artistic output.
The A album is often seen as a pivotal point in the band’s history, originally intended as a solo release and coming amidst rumours that the band had reached the end of the road. Anderson is happy to clarify exactly what was happening in the band at that time: ‘Yes, the A album was done during a hiatus after ten years of the band slogging around the world. Band members were ready to go and exploit some time to do other projects and get a bit of time off from the incessant touring. There was no timescale or schedule set to get back together’. With A being put out as a band album, matters precipitated as Anderson explains ‘It was just that we didn’t get back together again because following the release of the A album and the subsequent tour then it came across as a done deal that nobody would be coming back. But I did certainly talk to John Evans and Barriemore Barlow about further work and they both gave it some serious thought but decided it probably wasn’t what they wanted to do. I understand that. They’d been doing it for eight years in Barriemore’s case and eleven years for John Evans. So, I understand those realities, but it was unfortunate.’
For better or worse, the classic Tull line-up might well have stayed together if A had been released as a solo album. I inquire whether in retrospect Anderson thinks that releasing it as a Tull album was a compromise he shouldn’t have made. ‘I’ve said many times it’s one thing I do regret about the A Album’ agrees Anderson. ‘It was a very clear and simple message from the record company that it would be a hard sell as a solo album and I allowed them to gently twist my arm behind my back to agree to releasing it as a Tull album. They were doing their best to act on my behalf and as well as their own from a commercial point of view, so I agreed after a period of discussion. It was an artistic compromise which I kind of regret but on the other hand it’s a pretty good album with a great line-up of musicians.’
Those new musicians of course included Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music, Frank Zappa, UK), even if Anderson is keen to point out that Jobson ‘came into the recording on the very specific understanding that he was there as a special guest’. I observe that Jobson’s arrival meant that the keyboard sound of the band changed considerably. ‘Well it did in the first week or two of rehearsals’ chuckles Anderson. ‘The sound was clearly very keyboard dominated. I think both Eddie and I thought it would be nice to hear some electric guitar in certain passages so I called Martin who I think I recall correctly saying ‘I think you should find another guitar player because if it’s a solo album I shouldn’t be on it’. I said ‘well, I don’t know any other guitarists!’ which was really quite true. Martin came along to do ostensibly one song, but it clicked with everybody and we ended up with Martin being on all of the tracks.’
Pressing the point on Eddie’s keyboard playing, I point out that his synthesiser work on A seems very much to foreshadow the synthesiser-heavy sound of many of the ’80s bands. ‘That was towards the end of a ten-year period of analogue synthesisers’ reflects Anderson. ‘It was the Yamaha CS80 that was a piano-action heavy-duty keyboard that had big thick oscillator sounds and it was Eddie’s sound. He was probably not alone, but certainly the person you would have most associated with that instrument, particularly in live performance. I suppose by 1982 or 1983, we were seeing digital synthesis, digital sampling, and that ushered in a whole new level of keyboard instrumentation which was essentially digital and not analogue and therefore I think we were in a bit of a bridging period between the old analogue synthesisers and the new digital ones. The opportunities and the variety of instrumental sounds that could be conjured from that type of equipment were attractive and seductive to people like me who were trying to produce records that didn’t sound like everyone else.’
Lyrically, there’s a strong reflection on current events at the time of recording the A album. The famous Iranian Embassy siege took place in 1980 and is immortalised in the track Crossfire. Several tracks reflect Cold War realities, including Protect And Survive which was the name of a little booklet that the UK government distributed to all households with optimistic hints on how to survive a nuclear holocaust such as building a shelter under your staircase! I mention to Anderson that listening forty years on, the album has a time capsule feel to it. ‘Yes, there were some songs that were specific to that period. They reflected the breaking news stories and they reflected the mood of the time’ affirms Anderson before talking more generically about his lyrics: ‘Social documentary is what I do and it’s about what is going on in our world. And I’m not alone – but I sometimes feel almost alone – in being a songwriter who lives with the idea of social documentary as music. I do try to write songs about people in a context and a situation, and maybe a context that has something to do with what’s going on at the time. And there are other folk (who write like this) – Bruce Springsteen comes to mind as someone who paints you a picture which is a social documentary of life in New Jersey in the 70s. I fall more easily into that approach to writing music. Even back then before we had easy access to all the newspapers on the internet, I still tended to know what was going on and I watched documentaries and news programmes on TV as well as reading the newspapers. I always had an interest to know what was happening in that big wide world beyond my bedsitter.’
The two CDs in the box set that cover the full set of the concert recorded at the LA Sports Arena are a fine testimony to how good this group of musicians were on stage. I ask Anderson about the challenges of touring with an almost new band. ‘Well there’d been a lot of band changes prior to that so different musicians coming in was not the end of the world, and after all Martin Barre had been playing with me since 1969 and Dave Pegg had played with Jethro Tull for much of 1979 so three fifths of the band were quite used to sharing a dressing room or a beer after a show, so in the social context of being on the road it wasn’t too difficult.’ reflects Anderson. ‘Eddie had been on tour with us as part of UK, so we knew him pretty well. Mark was the only strange face and he was a very easy-going guy. Musically, it was always going to be demanding because Martin and I had to raise our game somewhat, particularly in terms of keeping up with Eddie who was very quick to learn things and very quick to get to the nub of a new song. There wouldn’t be much messing around. Other keyboard players might noodle endlessly, but Eddie would come up with an idea and refine it and bang that was it. There weren’t too many overdubs in the studio so for us it was really taking what we played on the record and jumping on the stage and pretending all these people weren’t there staring at us.’
I rather gingerly bring up the topic of the jumpsuits with big ‘A’ logos worn on stage, suggesting that the marketing might have gone slightly too far. ‘No, that was my fault!’ confesses Anderson. ‘I was the one who came up with the notion of us having those. They were actually made out of parachute material and we had all had those suits made but some members of the band before going on stage decided they preferred something different and in fact I was the only one wearing the white parachute jumpsuit on the stage and I found out half way through the first show that unfortunately when you sweat – as I did and still do like a pig – they become pretty much see-through and so I was somewhat embarrassed by wearing a soaking wet see-through parachute around my nether regions and the other guys were wearing different colours and different types of outfits that looked just as silly but didn’t reveal the lunchbox!’
The Slipstream video that was originally released in 1981 on VHS tape has also been dusted down and the audio remixed by Steve Wilson (as is all the box set) giving us some good on-stage performances during the tour. Slipstream also includes four music videos with tracks coming from four different albums, and there are humorous performances of Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Anderson doing a very creditable Dracula impersonation in Sweet Dream, in addition to popping up and shuffling around at various points as the Aqualung character. I point out to Anderson that he seemed like a natural actor. ‘All that was not my fault!’ declares Anderson. ‘I own up to the jumpsuits, but the video was something that Terry Ellis desperately wanted to do. He was our manager and one of the two head honchos at Chrysalis Records. Terry wanted to get into the world of TV and movies and so he wanted to put together a story-telling video that he could hawk at MIDEM (an annual film and television festival in France). So, Ellis financed the making of the Slipstream video and hired a guy called David Mallett who was probably the leading maker of pop videos at the time. David was very nice, pleasant, well-educated good guy to work with but he was hired to come up with ideas, and far from being the control freak that I’m sometimes portrayed to be, if someone is getting paid to do a job and they supposedly have that creative control then I am perfectly capable of obeying instructions and being directed so that’s what I allowed to happen. I didn’t feel very comfortable about many of the things he asked me to do but you know it’s a challenge to step into the role of performing under direction and I’ve always marvelled at how people can do that. Of its time I suppose Slipstream was interesting because it was very early on. There’d been quite a lot of pop videos – three-minute quickies – but I think it was probably the first full length promotional video. It was well thought of I think at the time in showing what that pop video format could become in a large-scale hour-long entertaining way.’
The conversation turns to the upcoming publication Silent Singing: The Complete Lyrics Of Ian Anderson And Jethro Tull. I firstly inquire where the idea came from. ‘It’s an idea that’s three of four years old and one of the things that I thought I might do should an unlikely pandemic come along’ jests Anderson. ‘From May or June 2020, I really got down to it – which was basically to go through some 250 songs – everything that had ever been recorded – and to painstakingly listen to all of them several times to accurately transcribe the lyrics as they were sung on the day. They are not always the same as you would find online if you go to one of those lyrics sites where people just copy and paste the same errors endlessly and sometime people don’t know what a word is so they make it up. There are a lot of things out there that are utterly wrong. And even on the album covers themselves when lyrics were printed – which applies to not all but many of the albums – there were also typos and transcription problems because perhaps some office secretary was given the job of writing out the lyrics and perhaps I didn’t pay enough attention going through them. Even when you use your original lyric sheet that you might have been working on in the studio, sometimes on the day you just sing a different word but you don’t notice it and it becomes part of the record and it’s too late to go back and change it. So, it was on and off work of sitting at my office desk with headphones on and putting that all together and writing all the additional material. There’s not only the lyrics; there’s lots of general pontification about the song writing business, album by album paragraphs of description about why that album came about lyrically speaking. So, there’s a lot of stuff in there, plus I wanted to illustrate all the albums with a photograph that would sum up visually what lay behind one of the songs on the album. I delved into photographs that I already had and in many cases I went out and shot new photographs that would illustrate a particular song. Clearly some of them are self-portraits in one context or another, others are out and about social documentary images that I took during visits to various places in the last few years since the advent of high-quality digital photography. These days photography is probably my creative outlet apart from music.’
I ask Anderson to give some more details about the different versions of the book that will be available, and having built up our expectations Anderson sheepishly explains ‘I have to point out that the lyric book, Silent Singing, is not something you can have in your possession via Amazon Prime tomorrow. It’s taking pre-orders at present (see link at the bottom of this article). There will be three different editions of the book, from the straight-forward hardback version, then one with a limited number of signed copies, and one with a very limited number of signed copied bound in leather that is going to empty your bank account in the process! But given that this is probably my sole income in these 12 months, I don’t feel embarrassed about getting paid for doing something that I’ve spent many many hours on.’ Anderson continues explaining the origin of the title: ‘Silent Singing as a title is based on what I was doing when I was listening to it all. I was listening to the music with my eyes closed and the headphones on and the fingers poised on the keyboard of my computer to write down as fast as I could what I was hearing, and double-check it and triple check-it and punctuate it, and grammaticise it in a way that made sense to me at least. And I was listening and singing along silently to all these songs as I was doing it. And I thought to myself ‘this is not poetry, this is something that you kind of participate in and I would like to think that people – assuming they have a few Jethro Tull records – would sit and listen to those Jethro Tull records as they read the words on the page’. That’s the experience I had when writing the book and one I might hope to share with the fans who take the trouble to buy it and look at its many glossy pages.’
I note that many of the lyrics were written at a time of gatefold vinyl sleeves with the lyrics printed on them, but with advent of firstly CDs and later digital streams, I wonder if there is a danger that future Ian Andersons are wasting their time trying to write thoughtful lyrics? ‘I think it is much harder to write original and innovative music in this day and age because we only have 12 notes on a musical scale and we have a number of genres and sub-genres of music but quite frankly not a busting amount has changed in 50 years’ reflects Anderson. ‘I can remember meeting Tony Iommi in 1968 and the Tony Iommi that year was the same that you’d hear if Tony picked up a guitar today: a very identifiable sound, a very identifiable way of playing, and what became very quickly referred to as heavy metal was a genre that essentially has not hugely changed to this day. The same can be for progressive rock. The technology behind it is much more sophisticated but if you listen to many of today’s prog bands you will definitely hear elements of Yes and Genesis and ELP and a whole host of bands that were doing that 40-odd years before, so it’s harder to find new things musically speaking that are really different to what was going on in the past. Lyrically however, we deal with the words and the knowledge and the subject material around us today and that is as original as you want to make it. If you wanted to write a song about the pandemic, then you couldn’t have done that a year or so ago. So, there’s always scope for something new lyrically speaking. That’s a statement based on the assumption that you don’t want to write an ‘I woke up this morning; I’m feeling blue; my baby left me’ type of perennial love song. I personally couldn’t devote a lifetime to writing those sorts of songs and someone else has already done it countless times and far better than I would ever do it. I pick up on what’s left, and what’s left is the huge world out there of interesting, taxing and unfathomable things that the human race is capable of in the streets of our cities, in the far horizons of South Dakota and even occasionally in outer space.’
Well you can’t but applaud Anderson for his approach. Plus, one shudders at the thought of a love duet between Aqualung and cross-eyed Mary. I do rather cheekily ask whether his partner has ever asked ‘why don’t you write a song about me, Ian?’. ‘Er……’ responds Anderson, initially stumped by the question, before continuing ‘you know that’s something that I would very rarely do. I have maybe two or three songs that I would say are definitely attributable to my wife but it’s not in literal or absolute terms. It’s inspirational rather than word for word betraying of the privacy of emotions. For that reason, I tend not to write about people and relationships. I think it is a betrayal. There was an American lady (Carly Simon) who had a song You’re So Vain and there was always this endless questioning about who she was singing about. I don’t think she ever really owned up as to who it was which is very appropriate. I think these things should be left like that. You know the kiss and tell type of memoirs may be salacious and amusing such as Keith Richard talking about the size of Mick Jagger’s willy wobbler but frankly it’s not something we need to know! I doubt that Mick Jagger, when he read or heard what was in Keith’s autobiography, was smiling from ear to ear. I think he was probably marginally pissed off and phoning his surgeon in Geneva to see if he had to pay by the centimetre for a penile extension. So, as a songwriter I try to exercise diplomacy when singing about people who in the real world have been the genesis of a song. Harry and Meghan are current examples of people who just don’t seem to get it. There are some things that you don’t need to say. We’ve got used to social media being an outlet for pointless and often disturbing opinions and thoughts, anger, rage, retribution, and it’s not my cup of tea. I don’t do social media apart from professionally of course. We have to have social media sites but that’s marketing and promotion, it’s not me telling you what I had for breakfast – which remains a deep and unfathomable secret.’ I promise not to ask about breakfast but Anderson quips ‘And I’m sure they’d get a very good deal on Ryvita if they mention my name. Woops!’.
Looking further ahead, 2021 also marks the 50th anniversary of Aqualung so I ask whether there are any details yet about what the 50th anniversary package may contain. ‘Well, been there and done that’ explains Anderson emphatically. ‘Steve Wilson actually worked on Aqualung – it was the first remix that he did (the 40th anniversary package). It’s a little difficult just ten years later to do that again. It would just be more of the same because there aren’t for example any other alternative takes or bibs and bobs from the studio. In fact, there was almost nothing to begin with because when we had ten tracks for an album we were desperate to get it wrapped up and into the factory for pressing because we had tour booked and commitments made so there was no relaxed easy going ‘ oh, let’s try another song’ or ‘ let’s choose the ten best for the record’. There just wasn’t time. So, there won’t be a glossy box set for the fans with new stuff that they haven’t heard before, but there will be a vinyl repressing on recycled vinyl in a recycled card album cover. So, there is a celebratory piece of product there for the fans to buy but it’s not a radically different one and it’s not an elaborate box set. It’s a repressing of a special anniversary version of the album along with that some video material which I was nearly approving last night! I have to make a few little changes to a promotional video made by a young videographer in Iran, working from I assume his parents apartment in a high-rise somewhere outside Tehran – if he hasn’t been executed yet for mingling with Western forces, I don’t know. But he was recommended by a friend and I passed that on to Warner Music who contacted him, so we are just in the throes of wrapping that up. In today’s world I consider listening to a vinyl record the aural equivalent of a Japanese tea ceremony. It’s something very formal, very slow and calculated; it’s a ritual. And I have to say that engineers working on cutting vinyl master lacquers do from my perspective a much better job than was the case back in the 70s. These days cutting vinyl is like being in a germ warfare laboratory. Many people will have heard Jethro Tull albums with serious little clicks and rumbles and things in the background – which is courtesy of either George Peckham the cutting engineer or me smoking heavily and puffing ash into the air!’
A smoke-free version of Aqualung will certainly be something to look forward to! But, pending that, we can wallow in the enjoyment of the A box set and the Silent Singing book which can be ordered here: