by Blake Maddux –
In February 1968, MGM Records released a single called “Sunshine Day,” which they credited to the band Jethro Toe. Thankfully, the song did not become a massive hit. Otherwise, the British music magazine Melody Maker would have voted Jethro Toe the #2 band of the following year, smack dab in between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and with The Who suffocating in its wake. Jethro Toe would have also been the band that scored back-to-back chart-toppers in the United States with albums that each consisted of a continuous forty-something-minute song. And neither last nor least, Jethro Toe – quite possibly the most artistically and commercially successful progressive rock band of the 1970s – would have beaten out Metallica and AC/DC for the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Grammy. (Hey, a flute rocks pretty hard as a lead instrument, you know.)
Of course, it was the correctly named Jethro Tull that became arguably (but briefly) the most popular band in the world in the early 1970s. Spearheaded by singer and flautist Ian Anderson, the group named after an 18th century agriculturalist and inventor incorporated elements of blues, jazz, classical, rock, and folk into its heady prog-rock brew.
Despite a slew of personnel changes and diminishment as a commercial force, Jethro Tull continued to record and tour throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Since 2010, Ian Anderson has released two albums under his own name: Thick As A Brick 2, a sequel to the 1972 masterpiece that included lyrics that Anderson credited to a fictional 8-year-old boy named Gerald Bostock; and this year’s Homo Erraticus, which includes liner notes signed by the grown-up (and still made-up) Mr. Bostock.
Anderson’s current tour is divided into segments devoted to Homo Erraticus and the best of Jethro Tull. Those who fancy hearing what the former sounds like and what the latter includes should proceed to Lynn Auditorium on Saturday, November 1, where Anderson will be joined by bandmates Florian Opahle (electric guitar), Scott Hammond (drums), John O’Hara (keyboards), David Goodier (bass), and Ryan O’Donnell (vocals, theatrical input).
Lynn Happens recently spoke to Ian Anderson by phone about his music, his thoughts on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and whether or not he will be visiting an old colleague who lives in Marblehead.
Blake Maddux: Have you ever met or otherwise been made aware of anyone named Gerald Bostock?
Ian Anderson: Um, I don’t believe that I have, but there was a boy at our school called Bostock. That’s where I got the name from when I came to write Thick As A Brick. I remembered the name of one of our schoolboys from our school in the north of England, Bostock being a fairly common name in counties like Yorkshire in the north of England. So, that’s where the name came from.
Maddux: Does your opinion what constitutes “the best of Jethro Tull” differ from that of audiences?
Anderson: I think if you took, you know, 10 people in the audience and asked them to write their version of their 20 favorite songs of Jethro Tull, you would find some common ground. But you would probably end up with a top 100 not a top 20. People have their own ideas, and my job is to try and balance the heavy hitters and the iconic songs that people expect to hear and I, too, expect to play because I like doing them. But I also have to try and put in a few things that are a perhaps bit a bit more unusual from the back catalog, maybe things I haven’t played for many, many years, or perhaps even haven’t played at all live. So I try and mix it up a little bit and come up with what I think is a good balance. But to go out and campaign amongst the attention of the audience, you’d have to write a special computer program to make any sense of it. It would be so varied.
Maddux: Is there a difference between fans in Europe and fans in America on that question?
Anderson: Well, it varies a little bit. There are certain songs that I think were particularly popular in the U.S.A., like “Teacher” or “Bungle in the Jungle,” but weren’t necessarily so popular in Europe because their popularity in the U.S. was as a result of getting a lot of radio play. But in Europe we don’t really have radio play for rock music to any great extent.
If you went to Germany, you’d probably find the songs from the Broadsword [and the Beast] album in 1982 were very popular with the German audience but wouldn’t necessarily be popular with the U.S. audience because that album didn’t really resonate with our audience in the U.S.A. very much. So there are differences. I guess you’ll find to a fairly strong degree most people would generally be in agreement with, you know, the more obvious things. Of course audiences are different everywhere you go, but they’re not rabidly different.
Maddux: What do you think is the most underappreciated album that you have ever recorded?
Anderson: I suppose at the time the album A Passion Play was one that probably got a lot of notoriety and probably turned off a lot of fans who found it too detailed and confusing. But over the years it’s somehow regained its poise within the Jethro Tull repertoire and for a lot of people it’s their number one favorite Jethro Tull album these days. So, you know, things do come and go in terms of the perception of them in that historical sense. But, you know, there are albums that, I just mentioned one, Broadsword, which was a particularly successful album in Europe, but one that didn’t really click in the U.S.A. But the reason for that was to do with the change in radio broadcast formats at that point. A lot of the classic, what were then called AOR [album-oriented rock], stations changed their format, thought they needed to move with the times and started playing alternative 1980s rock. So probably Huey Lewis and Blondie, Billy Idol were getting lots of play but Jethro Tull wasn’t. And after two or three years, as you may know, things changed around again because, basically, that isn’t what a broad sway of the listening audience wanted, and things went back to the old regime. Stations went back to what became then referred to as the classic rock format, and Jethro Tull started getting played a lot again. In 1982, we were not getting much radio play, in 1986 we were getting a lot of radio play with the album Crest of a Knave, which won a Grammy. Not necessarily that we did anything particularly different, it was just the changing format of American radio. The failed experiment to try and ditch the music of the 70s and replace it with the music of 80s, but that isn’t what the public wanted, so most of those stations switched back to being the classic rock stations that we know today.
Maddux: Of which honor are you more proud: the Best Hard Rock/Metal Grammy or the induction into the National Association of Brick Distributors Hall of Fame in 1991?
Anderson: I’m afraid I’m not really one for awards. It’s always nice to be given a peer group award by people who are in the business, which, of course, applies to the Grammys. But it’s a bit like chart positions. I think there’s a terrible danger that people take it all too seriously and start to fret that they don’t see the conspicuous signs of success. Frankly, I know who I am and I know what I do, so I don’t really need to be reminded by hanging things on the wall that tell me what a clever chap I am. It just doesn’t really play a role in my life at all. Looking around the walls I don’t see anything that’s remotely of that sort of thing. It’s not that I disregard it or don’t take it seriously. It’s just that I don’t feel the need to have them on display or even really think about them. I could put several letters after my name if I wanted to be a bit pompous. You know, I could add Doctor of Literature twice, I could add MBE after my name, but of course I don’t because it would be seen as a bit pompous. It’s silly, really. But I know people who do have such awards, whether they’re honorary doctorates or Queen’s awards, and they actually do put them up after their name, and they’re very proud of it. That’s up to them to do, but I think I would feel a little silly if I did that.
Maddux: I take it, then, that you are not particularly keen on becoming a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Anderson: Well, I’m rather keen on not being in it because it is the American rock and roll hall of fame. It’s there, as far as I’m concerned to celebrate American music and American artists. It may include people who are heavily influenced by American music but aren’t American citizens. But I think Jethro Tull doesn’t really fit because we’re neither American citizens nor is the music we play – or most of the music that we’ve played since our first album – really influenced by American music, certainly no more so and much less so than classical music or folk music of European origin. So I don’t think we really qualify on any grounds to be in the American rock and roll hall of fame. I can think of a lot of American artists that ought to be celebrated in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long before they scrape the bottom of the barrel to find Jethro Tull.
Maddux: Do you think that there are some best of-worthy numbers on Homo Erraticus?
Anderson: Well, I certainly hope so otherwise I wouldn’t dare release it, would I? It’s music that I’ve written, arranged, recorded, produced in the same ways I have all of the albums that have been released simply under the Jethro Tull banner. So to me it’s another day at the office. It’s what I do. (laughs) I don’t think it’s better or worse or indeed any different except that it’s not going out under the name Jethro Tull because I tend to use my own passport name most of the time these days when I’m doing performances.
Maddux: What is it like to work with Steven Wilson on both your new material and the remastering of the Jethro Tull back catalog?
Anderson: We have a good understanding of the way each other work after doing several albums together. Largely he can get on with things and the way he would do it is present everything in a kind of roughed-out format. I would listen to it all, make some comments, maybe go to the studio and sit with him for a few hours and we would change a few things, move a things around a little bit, and I’d leave him to it again and he’d send me some more stuff to listen to. It’s a well-worn pattern, so it’s just quite easy when you have a way of working with somebody that you can, you know, you can second-guess to some extent what the other person’s going to do or think. Having done several albums with Steven it’s just kind of easy for us both to work together and it doesn’t require a vast amount of input from me. But of course, ultimately he wants to make sure I’m happy with everything and so we do spend time together.
Maddux: Dave Mattacks, a former drummer for Jethro Tull, lives in Marblehead, a town not far from Lynn. Do you plan to see him?
Anderson: Well I haven’t been in touch with Dave Mattacks for a while. I do remember he turned up somewhere where we played, I think in Boston, at a concert a few years ago. It was good to see him and, as always, to hear what he’s been doing and what he’s up to. But, I doubt if the email address that I have for Dave Mattacks is one that still works. Like many people that I’ve worked with over the years, they pop up from time to time and it’s always good to see them. But I haven’t received any requests for tickets or passes or whatever from Dave Mattacks and I wouldn’t really know how to go about getting in touch with him if I did.
But, you know, we’re not there on vacation. As I say, it’s another day in the office. You come through my office door, it’s business only. I’ve got a full day schedule, so I’m not really there to hang out. People who enter my workspace, they better have a damn good reason to be there. I’m not there to, you know, have a little drinky or celebrate old times. We’re very, VERY busy from the load-in in the morning until the load-out at night, everybody is pretty much flat-out. No one has time to hang out with buddies, old or new. So it’s not a good time for meeting up with folks. My meet-and-greet responsibilities are usually with media people that I owe something to. One in a while there are some friends or family or people that crop up that I always feel very embarrassed or short-changed by the fact that I only have a couple of minutes to say hello, and that’s it.
Ian Anderson at Lynn Auditorium, Saturday November 1. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster ($47 – $87, plus fees), at the box office during City Hall business hours, or by calling (781) 599-SHOW.
Also see Maddux’s interview with Creedence’s Stu Cook – Creedence Clearwater Revisited is at Lynn Auditorium this Friday.