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Never Too Old to Rock & Roll - Jethro Tull

NEVER TOO OLD TO ROCK & ROLL - JETHRO TULL

By Howard Davis


Ian Anderson then

As Greil Marcus recently observed in an NYRB review of Robbie Robertson's autobiographical Testimony, in rock and roll there is always an origin story. In the case of Jethro Tull founder Ian Anderson, he claims to have been influenced by his father's big band and jazz record collections and the emergence of rock music in the 1950s, but became disenchanted with the "show biz" style of early US stars like Elvis Presley - which is somewhat ironic, given the fact that he was once referred to as a "deranged flamingo" and displayed a perverse relish in going on stage in tights and a cod piece. The stance continued to grace many Jethro Tull album covers, while the facetious liner notes for Thick as a Brick contain a quote about "the one-legged pop flautist, Ian Anderson". The album was packaged up with extraordinary art work that has rarely been bettered and would not be possible today. In fact, Anderson's tendency to stand on one leg while playing the flute came about largely by accident, as he was inclined to stand on one leg while playing the harmonica and holding the microphone for balance, as his early attempts in the notorious Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968) film clearly show.

Fortunately for Kiwis of a certain age, antediluvian dinosaurs of the rock era seem unable to resist a valedictory tour 'down under.' Anderson is no exception and the brief four-concert tour billed as the "Very Best of Jethro Tull" features such legendary staples as Living in the Past, Bouree, Thick as a Brick, Aqualung and Locomotive Breath. It caps a busy year of touring and a new album by the 60 million album-selling and Grammy award-winning band. At Wellington's St James Theatre on Thursday night they performed a tight and highly professional set, accompanied by some polished ligthing design and audio-visual backdrops.

For true aficionados, early Tull is still the period when Anderson sounded most original and fresh (Stand Up and Benefit), before he stacked up such platinum 80's FM hits like the sweepingly melodic Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day and the ludicrous Bungle in the Jungle. Certainly, few singers before Johnny Rotten were able to convey a sense of scornful derision, indignant disdain, and necrotic aspersion better than Anderson, especially in the rasping and sulfurous lyrics to Aqualung -

Drying in the cold sun
Watching as the frilly panties run, hey, Aqualung
Feeling like a dead duck
Spitting out pieces of his broken luck, oh, Aqualung

Sun streaking cold, an old man wandering lonely
Taking time, the only way he knows
Leg hurting bad as he bends to pick a dog end
He goes down to a bog and warms his feet

Feeling alone, the army's up the road
Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea
Aqualung, my friend, don't you start away uneasy
You poor old sod, you see it's only me.

Although his voice is now largely shot, Anderson's flute playing is stronger and more muscular than ever, albeit owing a considerable debt to Rhasaan Roland Kirk. Never afraid of employing complex time signatures and precision chord changes, Tull's signature Baroque passages of flute and acoustic guitar still manage to pack a hefty punch. In the 1990s, Anderson began working with simple bamboo flutes, using highly expressive techniques such as over-blowing and hole-shading to produce note-slurring and other dynamic voicings. In 1995, he released his second solo album, Divinities: Twelve Dances with God, an instrumental and orchestral work composed of twelve flute-heavy pieces that pursued various themes with an underlying motif. Since then, Anderson has released three more song-based solo albums, The Secret Language of Birds (2000), Rupi's Dance (2003), and Homo Erraticus (2014), which he described as a progressive rock concept album blending rock, folk, and metal music. Peaking at #14 in the UK album charts, it was his most successful ever solo album.


Ian Anderson now

Now back on the road again, and with Anderson still firmly in the driving seat, Tull have aged gracefully, thanks largely to a myriad of personnel changes which have kept their sound raw and angular, while Anderson's notoriously temperamental talent has forged a back catalogue of extremely strong songs. Substantial and consequential? Maybe not (some less generous critics have even suggested they are a tad bombastic and overwrought), but undeniably good fun - despite Anderson's sometimes preening pretensions in the past. He seems to have mellowed somewhat and retained a sense of self-deprecating humor over the years - always an advantage, if you wanted to survived the incandescent excesses of the sixties and seventies.

Part of Anderson's longevity in a business notorious for burned-out basket cases is due to the fact that he took control of the band's management early in his career, as he happily revealed in a fascinating 2008 interview in The Telegraph - "I don't think it's something everybody should do, only if you genuinely enjoy organising, but I heard some bands were not making any money from their tours and, quite frankly, I thought they must be stupid. If they watched where their money was going more closely they wouldn't have allowed themselves to be mismanaged. Doing it all myself gave me the freedom from worrying that I might be ripped off. We had to learn quickly, because we discovered some less than correct accounting practices had been organised by our accountants and it sparked an Inland Revenue investigation. We've now got different accountants."

Anderson is now almost 70 and shares his 400 acre mansion in Wiltshire with his wife Shona, but it was his childhood experiences that fostered his frugal attitude to money. He was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, where his father ran the RSA Boiler Fluid Compan and still remembers being given the responsibility to go and buy breakfast rolls on a Sunday morning from the baker half a mile down the road. It was instilled in him at an early age that the money he was given was not to be lost or spent on any other purpose. To this day, Anderson negotiates the best flight and hotel deals on tours to maximise the band's income and does not like too see too much taken off the top line. If band members want something from the mini bar, they have to pay for it themselves, and younger members of the crew learn quickly that this is a job, not a party.

Anderson is famous for being parsimonious - "A US tour is complex because you're dealing with a plethora of local and federal taxes and ever changing exchange rates. Whenever I get a spare minute I'm always tweaking my Excel spreadsheets and I derive a great satisfaction from it. I have a line that says 'contingency - 2%', but if I was as much as 2% out of budget I would slit my wrists." The band also sets its own ticket prices - "I know some bands have put their ticket prices right up, but they are probably being managed by hit-and-run agents … I want to make sure that a night with Jethro Tull is affordable. Personally, I would baulk at the idea of spending as much as £100 on a ticket, but maybe my trouble is that what I do for a living doesn't appeal to me. I don't like loud music, so I would never be in my own audience!"

Apparently, Anderson's considerable business savvy has been amply rewarded, as he is now a director of four companies - Jethro Tull Productions Ltd, Calliandra Productions Ltd, Ian Anderson Ltd, and The Ian Anderson Group of Companies Ltd. Clearly, he's come a long way from trying to hop around on one leg.

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