“We flew in and did our first ever opening show in the US at The Fillmore East with Bill Graham who had previously booked our friends Ten Years After from Chrysalis Records; an embryonic record company, they had proceeded us by a year in the USA, rather like Led Zeppelin did. So Ten Years After were the senior model for the beginning of our career there because we shared the same management and agency and that began our long journey.”
A journey that still continues to this day as Jethro Tull launches yet another tour of the US. Founding member and front man Ian Anderson recently spoke of the band’s history, the upcoming tour, his love of old churches, his dislike of cell phones and much more as the east coast leg of their “50th Anniversary Tour” wrapped up for now with shows in Atlantic City and Morristown, NJ.
To understand the legacy and importance of this event, one must grasp the background of how Ian and the band evolved; for Anderson it was a lack of patience that set him down a musical path which eventually became a four lane super highway.
“I was in art college in the north of England and getting the feeling that as much as I loved the visual arts; to aspire to be a professional painter or sculptor in the world of fine art was probably not likely to happen, at least not in my lifetime. Some people get famous after they’re dead but I was a bit impatient and the idea of music and its immediacy appealed to me greatly. Many of the things that were my way of thinking in terms of the painterly arts, words like tone and line and form and color; these are the same words that applied in the world of music too. So it was a very easy transition to switch from visual references to musical ones and to this day I still tend to write lyrics and sometimes music with a picture in my head. I illustrate in musical terms something that is a visual reference; that’s always been part of the way I write, not all of the time but most of the time. So I still think in those terms and it seems to make it an easy transition and when that occurred I was about 18 years old I thought that music could be a career. Perhaps not long term as a performing musician but since I had an interest in how the business worked and I talked with managers and agents and people involved behind the scenes because I was fascinated with how it all came together; it wasn’t just about getting on stage and playing music then going to the bar and having a few pints with the lads. That wasn’t really my thing, I was more interested in how it all worked, how different cogs of the machine would mesh and produce sometimes quite a complex end result. So that was how I tended to think of music as a career; maybe I’d become a record producer or an agent or a manager or do something that had perhaps a little bit more to do with the business side of it. Although I have ended up with that role as a performing musician and I’m very lucky to still have my job.”
Decades later with 40 album releases under his and their collective belts, “Tull” as they’re sometimes known are still going strong. Anderson recalls the group’s trials, tribulations and highlights over the years.
“I think there were a number of highlights along the way, probably in creative terms the second Jethro Tull album, “Stand Up” which was released in 1969 was not only successful in the UK and Europe but it was the record that really took Jethro Tull into the headlining capacity in the USA. I can remember being in the hotel in mid-town Manhattan having breakfast and at the time we were struggling a bit and didn’t have much money and into the coffee shop walked Joe Cocker and he came over bearing a large plate of bacon and eggs and whole wheat toast, orange juice and whatever else to say, “Congratulations! I just heard your album went to number one in the UK” and I said, I don’t suppose you’re going to eat all of that bacon are you Joe? I was a bit peckish; I think he gave me a rasher,” he recalled with a hearty laugh. “That was a highlight early on but the record that tended over a period of years to break us in a number of territories was the “Aqualung” album which was a bit of a slow burner; it didn’t immediately take off anywhere but it did solidly well and continued to sell over the years. By the time that we had gotten into the era of Cold Play I remember checking with the record company to see if they had any cumulative sales and the last figure they had was just about 12 million for “Aqualung” which was just a little bit more than whatever huge album Cold Play had just released and I thought well, in cumulative terms we can hold our heads up with many of the biggest selling acts in the world. Perhaps not quite in the realms of Pink Floyd or the Eagles but not a bad sales figure if you’re counting the beans. Then of course we went on to do, “Thick As A Brick” which was a bit more adventurous and crazy and then, “Songs From The Wood” another highlight album where I think the members of the band at the time were particularly cooperative in the sense of participating more in arrangements and ideas in the good spirit of the band; that was a highlight period around 1977. Things got a little bit fraught towards the end of the decade but ’77 was a good year; one of those years where we played The Forum in L.A. and Madison Square Garden. I was just looking today, I think Jethro Tull played Madison Square Garden 14 times over the years which is quite a lot of shows.”
To achieve such levels of success, there are many pieces to the puzzle. With them on the road once again; how does the past compare to today and how important are the relationships they’ve built over the years?
“Corporate music is worldwide, Live Nation, AEG and one or two other aspirants to that kind of position in the scheme of things; between them it seems they control 90 percent of the music industry in terms of live performance,” he stated. “I’ve always liked the idea that we continue to work with independents wherever we can, those who maybe have managed to stay alive without cashing in and selling their business and their relationships to the big boys. That’s what it’s about when you have a relationship with artists; it’s very tempting to try and cash in on that and pass them on to someone else and that doesn’t always work. Sometimes it’s a bit of a high ambition to think that just because you have a long relationship with an artist and you decide to call it a day that you can pass them on like some kind of asset because of course you don’t have contracts with promoters you have them for individual concerts but not contracts for them to represent you in the lifelong sense of being tied to them forever. So relationships with promoters do tend to be based on mutual trust, honesty, getting the job done; that’s the best way I think to have a relationship with people in the music industry rather than be contractually tied. I have a high regard for our promoters in different parts of the world and it’s always a pleasure to think that they’re still alive and kicking and we continue to work with them.”
So as those relationships took root, Jethro Tull began to branch out in other directions. Changes in personnel, solo projects and more all make up the fabric that is their tapestry; even recording a well-received Christmas album which came packaged and released with a live disc some years after the original studio recordings.
“That was one of the earlier, original concerts that I did at Christmas which was recorded at St. Bride’s Church in England. I think we had recorded the original album a year or two before that and then we did a live version of it at one of my first live Christmas concerts and since then; well I continue to this day to do a few of our great medieval cathedrals and even some churches elsewhere in Europe where we carefully blend the Christian musical liturgy with a secular concert of some respectful and appropriate nature to celebrate the Christian Christmas. I’m not one of these “Happy Holidays” kind of people; it’s Christmas (laughs) but that’s about the only thing that I have in common with your current President (laughs).”
Then there was, “Jethro Tull The Rock Opera,” an incredibly done masterpiece of live music and video technology rolled into one. Well-conceived and constructed, this was a display of precision timing, craftsmanship and the history of the band’s namesake told as never before. Anderson elaborated on the production, his venue preferences and his feelings on cellular devices during performances; mincing no words about the latter.
“The opera was in some ways sort of a poor man’s Pink Floyd in terms of production, glitz and glamour,” he explained in amused tones. “Thick As A Brick,” when we did that in 1972; it was really very amateurish. It had a general verve and simplicity and good nature about it but I think it worked in theaters. So it’s always been my returning dream to do from time to time concerts that are more of a production rather than getting up on stage, playing a few songs and heading off into the night; I do try to do that much of the time, probably more these days because the technology is more within reach. I remember playing a concert somewhere recently where there was a video wall behind us that our servers and equipment could be made to interact with and I remember thinking how enormous the physicality of this video wall was. There was probably a quarter of a million dollars worth of LED PCs that were put together to form this continuous huge wall of video. I went to see Black Sabbath in their second or third final concert ever and remembering seeing the size of their video wall and thinking, wow that’s about four times what I could afford to do in a concert (laughs) but of course this was in the O2 Arena in London which is way bigger than Madison Square Garden so you really do have to do everything on a very grand scale at that level. I’m a theater guy; I don’t really like enorm-o-domes. I remember going to see Iron Maiden a few months back in a similar venue and they were these tiny little figures on stage, no matter however big they may be on the video screen; I can get that experience watching YouTube. I’m much happier in a theater where everyone sits down and hopefully switches off their damn cell phones. There’s nothing more off putting then sitting there and in front of you in your eyes is somebody holding up a smart phone with the screen lit up filming something; as a member of the audience that gets me really, really angry. Almost as angry as it is when I’m on stage and I’m facing people with their phones in the air and of course they don’t know how to work them properly and they’ve got those nasty little focusing lights on them; so you’ve got these bright lights in your eyes and that’s quite off putting when you’re trying to concentrate on music and suddenly lights are flashing on and off in front of your face and they are incredibly bright. People are obviously unaware of what they’re doing and frankly a lot of them just don’t care anyway; when you politely ask them not to use their cell phones they just think, well fuck you I bought a ticket I’ll do what I like. There’s not much I can do about it whether I’m a fellow audience member or performing; am I going to be picking a fight with a stranger? That’s not something that most of us want to do, hence they get away with it all of the time. I think ideally that the audience members ought to just tap someone on the shoulder and say, excuse me please don’t do that and I’d be very grateful if they did.”
“I encounter that in all of the cathedral shows that we do and we do ask people to turn off their cell phones, partly because it is a cathedral or a church and it’s not very respectful in a house of God whether you’re a believer or not. I don’t do this because I’m a Christian, I just do it because I like playing music in old places; because I’m very respectful of the traditions, I go by what I believe are a set of unspoken rules. I find it really disrespectful to be using phones in a church in that way so we ask people to switch them off but the quid pro quo is; in the encore you can take all the pictures you want. That’s your eight minutes worth of go nuts with your camera and we get it out of the way at the end and hopefully everybody feels that they got that moment; it’s kind of a trade off, a bit of a bargain that we have to strike with people to buy their compliance for the rest of the show for the sake of everybody.”
Formed in 1968, Jethro Tull had its 50 year anniversary in 2018 but they continue to celebrate their first show in the United States which occurred in 1969. They will return to the US in July for three west coast shows after an extensive European tour and then again in September for four shows; one of which is at the Xcite Center inside Parx Casino in Bensalem, PA.
“It was actually 50 years since Jethro Tull became Jethro Tull, it was the end of January 1968. We’re actually about to embark on 51 years of Jethro Tull which is our coded term for the production concerts that begin in Europe later this year. We will be changing some of the material from the 50th anniversary production concerts that we did last year. We will be performing in the USA on three short tours where we will vary the music a bit from the stuff that some of our fans saw us play in various parts of the USA during 2018. Technically in America it is the 50th anniversary of Jethro Tull’s American experience so we will continue to call it the “50th Anniversary Tour” at least as far as the US is concerned.”
To discover more about 50 years of Jethro Tull and their return to the US, please visit www.jethrotull.com.