Dressing Up Was Great, But My Codpiece Was Notably Unfragrant: Jethro Tull’s Ian AndersonPosted by Mike Schumacher
Ian Anderson, the multimillion-selling prog rockers Jethro Tull’s frontman, told me in 1993 that 2000 would be a good moment to put up his flute. He says now, “I think I was confusing myself with British Airways pilots who are out when they turn 65.”
“If you’re a fully vaccinated professional tennis player, you might be able to play until your late 30s.” But, like John Wayne in a black-and-white western, those of us in the arts and entertainment get to die with our boots on.”
I could easily take a decade off Anderson’s 74 years by looking at his face on my laptop screen, but it’s still difficult to connect this loquacious, knowledgeable analyst of politics and history with the wild hippie dervish he was around 1970, famed for playing his flute on one leg. His troll-like hair has long since faded, but the passage of time is “both romantic and encouraging,” since it means he may continue to pay his grandchildren’s school fees in his later years.
Others who are older than I are still performing their jobs. All is fine in the world since Mick Jagger’s pants keep moving up and down.”
Fans of Jethro Tull may have worried whether they’d ever receive another studio album after the last one, which was a Christmas CD, was released in 2003. (although done in puckish Anderson style). New album out now. The Zealot is a zealot who is a Gene began in early 2017 with a list of primitive emotions compiled by Anderson: “Bad stuff like anger, jealousy, retribution, then good stuff like love, compassion, and loyalty,” he explains.
“How does it feel to point the stabbing finger / with perfidious kiss from those deceiving lips,” one song skewers Judas Iscariot, the disciple who kissed Jesus in Gethsemane to expose him to his enemies: “How does it feel to point the stabbing finger / with perfidious kiss from those deceiving lips?”
The Zealot Gene delves at how these emotions shape our lives now, just as they did when the furious Old Testament God poured sulphur and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah. Mrs Tibbetts is named after the mother of the US air force captain whose B-29 dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; in the quiet tracks scattered amid the album’s spiky rockers, Jesus is longingly invoked.
The title tune is about authoritarian politicians who are Twitter-happy; Anderson despises the usage of social media for its negative effects. “Donald Trump was relatively shiny and new when I wrote the songs,” he explains from his Wiltshire home, two weeks before Jethro Tull’s first post-Omicron gigs in Europe.
“You could already see how he thrived on polarization and division, but there are another five or six almost-dictators who equally well represent populism and the extremes of left and right.”
Anderson, who was chastised by rock reviewers in the 1970s for his grandiose conceptual thinking, is adamant that The Zealot Gene not be dubbed Tull’s biblical record. “I am part of who I am because of my interest in a wide range of subjects, from hard science to the cruel world of politics,” he adds.
“I’m an observer, which stems from my brief art history education – I have a mental image that I want to musically illustrate.”
“I can understand if people read my ramblings over the years and say to themselves, ‘Oh, if you’re constructing a list of terms, the ones that spring to mind regarding Ian Anderson would be pretentious, egotistical, arrogant, and self-indulgent.’ But, perhaps, you’ll also consider seriousness, studiousness, enthusiasm, and, most importantly, engagement.”
The present lineup of Tull is the first to record under the band’s name on the band’s 22nd studio album. Tull seemed to be finished when Anderson disbanded the previous iteration in 2011, terminating guitarist Martin Barre’s four-decade stint. Anderson restored the name for The Zealot Gene after making two solo albums in the meantime, and seven of the album’s 12 songs were recorded live in the studio by the whole band before the pandemic hit.
Tull joined the ranks of other classic-era progressive rock bands still active today, such as King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis, in going worldwide. The marriage of Anderson’s folk-tinged vocals, acoustic plucking, and rasping flute with Barre’s searing riffs and John Evans’ rococo keyboards, in sophisticated tunes that often violated the conventions of traditional pop songwriting, was crucial to their success.
Aqualung, Tull’s breakthrough album from 1971, featured layered medieval rock that may have been heard in baronial halls and pubs if amplifiers had been available in Elizabethan times.
“I loved the blues,” he recalls of the band’s road to Aqualung. “But it was just a pragmatic way of opening the door, because it wasn’t really what I wanted to do musically.” “The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn served as signposts.
“I want to try to do something like that, something eclectic,” I thought.
Thick as a Brick (1972) and A Passion Play (1973), classically oriented concept albums consisting of single 45-minute compositions, featured Tull’s distinctive sound. Music critics were put off by A Passion Play’s intricacy and Miltonian afterlife metaphor, not to mention the fanciful story that connects the two sections.
In the early 1970s, the band was very un-glam, but they discarded their grungy image to embrace flashy mummery. With its mocking of cant and hypocrisy, Anderson’s cavorting bug-eyed troubadour was rooted in court-jestering.
Anderson still plays on one leg now and again, but not to the point where his dignity is jeopardized. “It was fun,” he continues, “and looking back on it, it was probably too much fun.” Much of it was ridiculous, but I figured that if anybody was going to wear tights and a codpiece, it should be me.”
Terry Ellis, Tull’s manager and producer, introduced Anderson to the Royal Ballet’s costumer in 1972. “This ingenious individual devised a racy codpiece design.
Anderson remembers chuckling, “He made a couple of them that were moulded to look like they had a wriggly monster inside.” “In the end, I went with the one with the nice bulgy shape.”
‘How does that feel?’ he said as I clipped it on. ‘It feels fantastic,’ I remarked. ‘How did you figure out my size?’ And he said, ” – “Well, when I looked at you, I thought we’re about the same size,” Anderson says in a flirty tone, “which I thought was as good a response as any.”
“Fortunately, I had slightly muscular legs and a firm, trim bum back then, and I resembled a deranged Nureyev with a flute.” The codpiece was a fantastic investment in terms of being noticed, but it was a pain in the neck to have to tie myself up in it every night to go on stage.
Furthermore, it needed extra-careful dry cleaning beyond what the local laundry business could provide. It ended up looking like a Hell’s Angels original since it wasn’t washed.
So, even if I was simply standing in the wings, if you were within 20 meters of me on stage in 1972 or 1973, I signaled my presence with a noticeable absence of aroma.”
Tull’s fortunes plummeted in 1979 with the loss of their former bass player John Glascock, who died at the age of 28 from a heart problem. The band that started out as a Blackpool blues band in 1963 dabbled with synthesisers in the early 1980s, but it was a combination of hard rock and proggy grandeur that won Crest of a Knave an unexpected Grammy win in 1987.
The standouts among Tull’s five consecutive albums before The Zealot Gene, Roots to Branches (1995) and J-Tull Dot Com (1999), combine worldwide music influences and examine ageing. Anderson has asthma and hasn’t been able to achieve high notes since overworking his vocal in the early 1980s, but his voice is in good shape now.
Anderson apologizes for “nicking” the name of the Berkshire agronomic who designed the horse-drawn seed drill when asked what Tull’s legacy should be. “I was embarrassed when I realized who Jethro Tull was when our booking agent gave it to us, but we couldn’t change it because we’d just gotten the Marquee residency and were starting to get some positive feedback.”
It’s something I’ve always felt bad about.
“Then I’d say that Jethro Tull put in a lot of effort over the years.” Some may think we tried too hard, but it’s better to try and fall flat on your face every now and again than to sit comfortably backpedaling in order to maintain balance.
In the context of punk, I’d become restless if I performed generic music like the Stones or even the Who, or the Ramones. I feel compelled to get going and accomplish something that will enable me to come near to what I believe I am capable of.
“I’d be grateful to receive the result by email at some point if you could elaborate all of that and put it in a three-line epitaph for my tombstone,” Anderson adds. “I could even get the stonemason to work on it right now.”
Thanks to Graham Fuller at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.
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