December 22, 2019

I think you can look at many, if not most of the Jethro Tull albums, as containing elements of progressive rock – not necessarily prog, which is a bit more fanciful, but progressive rock.

In November 2019, Ian Anderson announced that in September and October 2020, he’d be playing a series of eleven dates across the country entitled ‘Jethro Tull; the prog years,’ which would cover the period between 1969 and 1973, when Tull released several albums now regarded as classics in the prog genre, albums such as Aqualung, Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play. The tour will see Ian and his band focusing on some of the ‘heavy hitters’ from such albums and, for many long-time Tull fans, this will be a chance, probably one never likely to be repeated, to hear ‘live’ versions of classic Tull prog tunes which haven’t seen the light of day for many a year.

Jethro Tull undeniably hold a revered and unique place in the hearts of prog fans right across the generations, and their 69-73 albums will be the focus of this fan loyalty on the tour. In the early seventies Jethro Tull was at the forefront of the developing prog genre, a style of music where the previous parameters of musical and lyrical content were being rapidly expanded by a new generation of musicians, several of whom were classically trained, who’d grown up listening to albums like Sergeant Pepper, and bands like The Nice with their emphasis on the free expression of musicality. Songs were becoming longer and bands like Caravan, Van der Graaf Generator, Pink Floyd and Rare Bird had already released albums with one track taking up an entire side. At this time several albums were being described by rock critics as ‘concept albums,’ meaning albums which were more than just a collection of songs, with a central ‘theme’ running through them.  1971’s Aqualung was regarded by some critics as being a concept album, with the theme being ‘the distinction between God and religion,’ – but Ian Anderson rejected this description, describing Aqualung as just a collection of songs, with only a couple of songs referring to his thoughts about religion, and so decided to, in his words, ‘come up with something which really is the mother of all concept albums’. This became Thick as a Brick.

   Thick as a Brick (TAAB), based on an epic poem supposedly written by eight year old child genius Gerald Bostock but, in fact, written by Ian Anderson, was one continuous piece of music taking up an entire album, and it was initially conceived as a parody, a spoof on the works of Yes and ELP and a bit of a satire about the whole concept of grand rock based concept albums. It was initially targeted at those in the prog genre who, it was felt, believed the evolving prog genre was all ‘high-minded art rock.’ But seemingly not too many people got the joke as the album is considered by many prog fans as one of the finest in the genre, with Rolling Stone magazine placing the album 7th in its list of the ‘50 greatest prog rock albums of all time.’ Ian Anderson said of the album, ‘The skill was in trying to find the middle ground between people who took it seriously and those who got it as a spoof. I kind of think 50% were taken in by it and 50% got it straight away.’

TAAB was followed by 1973’s A Passion Play (APP). This was another chart topper, but it was also far denser musically and many fans found it to be almost impenetrable. The music and the arrangements were considered to be so complex, ambitious and labyrinthine that it was said many in the band found it hard to play. But as an album it was, and remains, an exceptional piece of music, with the quality of the musicianship lifting the album above many other bands of the time, and as a piece of music it has stood the test of time well. It even had the four minute saga of ‘The hare who lost his spectacles’ in the middle, and possibly only the Bonzo Dog band could have got away with something as off-the-wall as that.

I have a really high regard for Greg Lake as a singer and songwriter, and as someone with the task of holding ELP together musically

In terms of themes, they didn’t come much deeper than for these two albums, though neither album was as obscure as some critics claimed. TAAB concerned the transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, while APP told of the premature death of a young man viewing his own funeral, the subsequent journey through the afterlife and then eventually the voluntary return to an earthly existence. Heady stuff for 1973 when Dawn were extolling us to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree! APP received a critical mauling and he band came off the road for a while when the tour finished; the next album, 1974’s Warchild, saw the band reverting back to performing much shorter songs and with no grand theme for the album. Since this time, they’ve never done anything as ambitious again, apart from TAAB2 in 2012, which asked what would Gerald Bostock be doing forty years later, and began to explore other musical ideas and genres, while still being progressive in outlook.

So, how does Ian Anderson now view his work from the early seventies which, for many fans, was an integral aspect of the then developing prog identity? Ian agreed to talk to Velvet Thunder and offer his views on Jethro Tull’s prog years and prog in general.

 VT:  Would it be fair to say Jethro Tull almost fell into becoming a prog band because of your reluctance to see Aqualung as a concept album ?

 IA:  It might have had something to do with that idea, but in fact the first time I saw any reference to Progressive rock was in 1969 when our second album, Stand Up, was described like this, and I thought, progressive rock sounds like a good description of what I think I’m on about, this sounds good. And that’s where it sat for a while, but then the notion about Aqualung being a concept album arose, and it was certainly not my intention it should be musically regarded this way. It was packaged in a way to try and bring things together, to give it some sense of unity as a collection of songs, most of which had nothing to do with each other. Maybe three or four songs hung together with me talking about religion. I think there was a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek reference to prog, as opposed to progressive rock. The term prog doesn’t mean too much in the USA, despite the fact both TAAB and APP went to No;1 in the Billboard top 100 albums, whereas it does in Europe. There’s more of a fondness for the adventurous or even self-indulgent examples of that genre, so it works over here to use that term.

 VT: Why do you think so many fans didn’t ‘get the joke’ about TAAB, given Rolling Stone has placed it at No;7 in its list of the Fifty all-time great prog albums ?

 IA: I hope I got it about right in trying to put it across in terms of the album cover artwork and the general marketing of the album. I tried to position the album so that 50% of the people would be scratching their heads, asking what was all that about, and the other half saying, ‘oh it’s kind of a spoof of prog rock.’ But in its own way it kind of became prog rock because that was the intention. It was about trying to create that ambivalence, especially as a stage performance. If you’d watched Jethro Tull performing TAAB in Tokyo in 1972, you’d have seen the entire audience scratching its collective head, wondering what it was all about, but in Australia and the UK they definitely got the joke, with 75% of people seeing the album was poking fun at Yes and Genesis. I try to create a little mystery in the way it was put across and, by and large, I would have said I hit the target, with half the people getting the joke and half not. But, no matter, musically and entertainment wise, it hit the mark though some found it bewildering with its peculiarly surrealist British humour.   

VT:   I’m actually old enough to have seen APP being performed in its entirety ‘live’ and remember leaving the hall thinking it was a good show but wondering I’d just seen.

 IA: You were probably in exactly the same position as the band because they didn’t understand what was going on either. We dutifully learnt, rehearsed, recorded and then performed those pieces, but I’ve got used to the idea, over the years, the musicians I’ve worked with, they hardly ever read the lyrics or paid much attention to what’s going on, they’re usually more engrossed in their own particular piece of the jigsaw puzzle, which of course is vital, and aren’t usually too interested in going into the details. When I write new songs these days, I always send the band a demo of the music and a copy of the lyrics, and essential elements like chord charts, but I definitely get the feeling few of them read the lyrics. Certainly, they’ve never talked to me about it. I’d say to them ‘let’s start from the line where I sing blah blah,’ and they all look at me with bewilderment because they don’t think of music in terms of lyrics, they pay more attention to the sound of the lyrics, the sound of the vocal. Which is okay, because I’m not obsessed with what the Hi-hat is doing at any point in time, or a bass run descending through a sequence of semitones. I’m not concerned with the details, as long as it sounds right.  Maybe I’m a bit different to most people because I’m a song lyricist, therefore I do recognise it’s an important part of understanding the musical contribution, but I forgive others for not thinking the same way.

  VT: Because of the release of two albums consisting of only one piece of music each, would it be fair to say Jethro Tull are in some way partly responsible for some of the later excesses of Prog ?

  IA:  I think it’s entirely fair because those people who’d consider the self-indulgence of prog rock as being a bit annoying would probably find at least a couple of our records as being at least as annoying as anything ELP might have dreamed up, so I have to agree, from this perspective, I’m as much to blame as anybody. But, you know, the odd thing about that era, the fact is there was a certain disdain and contempt expressed publicly by the emerging punk music generation, but in later years it became quite apparent many punks had a bit of a soft spot for prog, to say the very least. Several have told me they saw a particular show or were influenced by something I wrote. The original guitar player in the Red Hot Chili Peppers told me he was hugely influenced by the opening guitar music to TAAB, and Johnny Rotten was a big fan of Aqualung. Sting said he was inspired by the fact that, with Living In The Past, you could have a hit record even if played in 5/4 time. They realised you could step outside the box and do something out of your comfort zone and make a connection with a broader audience. We’ve had a few chart moments, but in only one case did I ever sit down and try to obey any of the rules about pop music while realising it had to be no more than three minutes to get it on the radio.”

  VT: You once claimed you thought very few fans ever listened to TAAB and APP all the way through. Was this said tongue-in-cheek or was it a serious point ?

  IA:  It was partly serious because people, when they actually sit and listen to a piece of music, I think there’s a difference between listening and hearing. At one time, back in the day, when people used to gather round the record player and listen to the new Cream or Hendrix or Jethro Tull album, joints or cans of beer would be passed around, and people would be listening but not necessarily hearing what was being played, because people would be talking or there’d be other extraneous noises, so I imagine listening and hearing are not quite the same thing. A lot of people may claim to have listened to these two albums but the truth is they probably heard it but likely as the background to a social occasion. Today, people are far more plugged in, listening on their various devices, and they really are listening to a piece of music. They’re not sharing it with anyone else, it’s now a personal experience.

  VT: Jethro Tull’s prog albums are still cherished by fans forty five years later on, with new generations of fans picking up and enjoying what are regarded as classic albums. Given Tull moved on from prog, how do you view this ?

The current Tull line-up

  IA:  I think you can look at many, if not most of the Jethro Tull albums, as containing elements of progressive rock – not necessarily prog, which is a bit more fanciful, but progressive rock. It’s drawing upon different influences which might be considered eclectic. It’s music attempting to extend the boundaries of conventional rock. There’s some of this in most of our albums, I would think, certainly from 1968 onwards through to the present day, progressive rock is still a big part of what I’ve done. The difference is there’re a lot of progressive rock bands who only just do that, and they don’t feature the singer-songwriter-guitarist approach. They don’t utilise elements of English folk music or German classical music or world music from India, but I do try to mix things up a lot more and not do just the one kind of thing. Jethro Tull, to many people, are a folk-rock band, but to others we’re a progressive rock band and, to some, a heavy rock band. It’s fair enough to call it what you want. I think, when I decided to call the tour the Prog Rock years, I was being somewhat disingenuous, and I hold my hands up to that, because people might have the idea the prog years is some narrow window when I was banging on about that kind of approach, but it goes all the way from 1969 and it’s a little more than fifty years where progressive rock has been an element on most of my albums along the way. Maybe a few didn’t have that more progressive kind of sound, but I think, broadly speaking, you could say they’re all the prog years, and you’d be right in a sense.

  VT: Given the likely expectations of fans when they come to see this tour, how hard do you think you’ll have to work to get ‘match fit’ to play songs you may not have played for quite some time ?  

  IA: Well, I’m always going through my repertoire, all the albums, all the tracks, to find new things for future events, but I’m usually pretty familiar with them. It doesn’t take me that long to relearn something, even a complicated song I’ve never played on stage before, as far as I know, such as something from the Stormwatch album, Dark Ages. It’s a complex and quite a lengthy piece of, well, almost prog metal really… in fact, when I heard the original demo for this track a few months ago, I sent a copy to Steve Harris with a message ‘this might make you smile, Steve, because it sounds like you playing on this track.’ It was actually me playing bass on this track but it sounded like Iron Maiden. I played bass on this track back in 1979, before Maiden became famous, though I’d really struggle to recreate this today. But the flute parts, the vocals and the guitar parts come back to me fairly quickly, so it doesn’t take me that long to prepare a song. For the other guys it’s a bit more of a task because some of them weren’t even born when Tull first played them! So, they have to approach these as something they’ve never heard or played before in their lives, learn it and then add their own little embellishments to it.

Good luck to Martin (Barre), as he’s out and about in all sorts of places, enjoying the fruits of many years of hard work and having a great time.

  VT:  This is quite a good time to be a Tull fan, isn’t it, what with your forthcoming tour and also Martin Barre out on the road with his take on early Jethro Tull.

  IA:  Yeah, which is something I suggested about fifteen, twenty years ago he should be doing. I had a couple of conversations with Martin, saying he should be preparing for the future and thinking about life beyond being the guitar player in Jethro Tull, because this is a part of his musical legacy and it’d be good for him to go out there and do his reading of the repertoire he’s performed on. I did offer a couple of caveats, which were don’t get a singer and don’t get a flute player otherwise you’ll sound like a Jethro Tull tribute band and be trapped in imitating something, and the person playing the flute will be endlessly compared to me, nicely or nastily. So I told him he should focus on Martin the guitarist doing interesting arrangements based on the melodies and the parts he originally played, but it’s up to Martin what he does. But it’s tough when you step out of the shadows and try to take on the front man role. Good luck to Martin, as he’s out and about in all sorts of places, enjoying the fruits of many years of hard work and having a great time.

 VT:  Finally, xcluding your own music, within the prog genre, do you have a favourite album or piece of music you could point to and say ‘this is what prog is and what it should be about’ ?

 IA:  Ah, that’s kind of a tricky one really, because it’d be easy to pick a Yes album like Close To The Edge or a Genesis album. But the thing is, I’ve never really been a musical fan of Yes or Genesis, and I’ve never worked with Genesis though their career paralleled ours and they became a different thing when Peter Gabriel left. They’re very clever musicians and great collectively onstage but they wouldn’t necessarily come to mind. I think the epitome of all prog bands would be Emerson Lake and Palmer and, although I never really got into the work of Greg Lake at the time, I subsequently worked with Greg a few years before his untimely death, and I have a really high regard for him as a singer and songwriter, and as someone with the task of holding ELP together musically, because the slightly erratic nature of the playing of Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer meant Greg was the solid rock which made it all gel. They were a great band onstage, and I think people unfairly humiliated them as being the arch proggies, obsessed with their own vain devotion to their instrumental prowess. They worked with Jethro Tull some years ago when they made a comeback, and they had a good sense of humour about themselves and their perspective of what they did, and it was a great privilege to have them on tour with us. I’ve worked with Greg in churches and cathedrals a few times before he became too ill, and I play I Believe In Father Christmas as a hats-off to Greg Lake and to pay my respects to him, as Greg and I played it together a few times. So, in my kind-of long winded way, I’ll fasten onto ELP’s Tarkus, which is of course mostly instrumental.”

And with this, Ian signs off and goes on to talk to Radio One, leaving fans to speculate on what awaits them when Ian and his latest incarnation of Jethro Tull take to the road in 2020…