Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson isn't your typical Rock Star. He's never done drugs and has no use for the trappings of fame. So what does he have in common with the boys from Led Zeppelin? More than you might think.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Ian, I have four different statements about you that appeared in pretty notable publications. I was wondering if you could tell me if these are true or false. The first one is: you kept a urinal you used to clean as a souvenir.
Ian: I wish I had. I don’t have it anymore. It was one of the spare and probably cracked or slightly broken urinals that was in the store room of the Ritz Cinema in Luton in late 1967. My job was to clean the theatre, including the toilets, in the mornings, which took me half the day. And I thought, well, this old urinal is probably not going to get used, because it had a chip out of the side. So I managed to take it home. And I did keep it for a while with some idea of turning into perhaps a drinking fountain. But along the way it got abandoned, and the nearest I came to reliving the urinal moment was when we used to have a urinal bolted to the side of John Evan’s Hammond organ onstage, and at some point during the performance around 1972 he would pretend to relieve himself into said urinal to the amusement – and horror, indeed – of some of the audience. But it was, in fact, just playacting. Because he did in fact relieve himself into a beer can backstage, (laughing) but hopefully no one was looking during the drum solo. So, yes, partly true.
SF: Okay, next one. You refused to play Woodstock because you thought it wasn’t a big deal.
Ian: No, I knew it was going to be a big deal. The reason I didn’t want to play Woodstock is because I asked our manager, Terry Ellis, “Well, who else is going to be there?” And he listed a large number of groups who were reputedly going to play, and that it was going to be a hippie festival, and I said, “Will there be lots of naked ladies? And will there be taking drugs and drinking lots of beer, and fooling around in the mud?” Because rain was forecast. And he said, “Oh, yeah.” So I said, “Right. I don’t want to go.” Because I don’t like hippies, and I’m usually rather put off by naked ladies unless the time is right. Well, indeed, unless the money’s right.
SF: (laughing) Okay. Yet you toured with Led Zeppelin.
Ian: We did, but happily, outside the orbit of their nightly shenanigans, although Jimmy Page used to show us Polaroids involving close-up blurred parts of young ladies’ anatomy, often featuring soft fruit - that seemed to be in quite a lot of these photographs. Yeah, that’s about it. We kind of heard the tales, but we were on the periphery of all that, didn’t really experience it.
SF: Was that the way it was for many of the bands that you toured with?
Ian: That they stayed on the periphery? (laughing) No. My impression was that the majority of bands were really enjoying and living up those moments when they were temporarily famous and about to have the good fortunes of young ladies’ attentions thrust upon them on a nightly basis, which I could never have possibly kept up with the pressure to fulfill. So, yeah, that’s my impression, everybody was at it. I mean, out of all the bands, and all the people I’ve known, really, I’m probably the only person I know for sure never did what we popularly called “drugs” during all of that period. It was just something everybody did. And I didn’t really enjoy being around people who were doing drugs, so I just took myself often to read a book somewhere, and waited for it all to kind of evaporate from the rock and roll lifestyle. But of course it hasn’t. These days people drop as often as they did back then, like flies, sadly, before their time. One or two get lucky and manage to control it or survive it, like Keith Richards, but he’s one of the small number of people who seem to have emerged – not entirely unscathed – from the heady and demanding experiences of rock and roll.
SF: I read where you said that Led Zeppelin "showed you the way." So you must have learned something from them.
Ian: I think what they showed to all their peer group as musicians, was that there was, first of all, a very powerful and dramatic way to perform simple direct rock music and also to introduce elements of more eclectic music. Because Zeppelin, near the beginning, there were a lot of elements of folk music, and Asian music, and African music that crept into their stuff. And if Zeppelin had carried on, I imagine we would have had at least one or two Led Zeppelin “unplugged” albums, and probably some rather more esoteric offerings along the way, where they did explore more thoroughly those more eclectic musical moments that they hinted at early on. Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin did share that same interest, even passion, for music that was not the normal stuff of rock and roll. And perhaps they, too, were influenced in some ways by what influenced me: Indian music, Mediterranean music, and British folk music. And we shared a chum, a fellow by the name of Roy Harper, who’s one of the British folk musicians of the late ‘60s. And he was chummy with members of Pink Floyd and Zeppelin and with me. Not with the other members of Jethro Tull, who thought he was a bit weird and they didn’t really like his music, I don’t think. But he was someone who influenced me greatly right at the beginning, around ’68 when I first came across him. And I think that rubbed off a little bit on Jimmy Page, too, as did some of the other British folkies, like Bert Jansch and Davey Graham, and I think that music must have infected the early Jimmy Page style with some of its innovative guitar work.
SF: You’ve talked about how when you’re on stage, you have a very heightened sensitivity. Does that happen when you’re writing?
Ian: Well, people don’t really come up to me if I’m writing. They can see I’m busy. (laughing) So it doesn’t really happen. But if somebody jumps on a stage and I don’t see them and I get grabbed by a stranger, my immediate reaction, whether understandably or otherwise, is to whack them, because I have to, in that split second, assume the worst: that that moment has come that most of us performers dread, when someone does actually come to do for you live in front of an audience. It is something that I guess a lot of us think about. It’s definitely a potential reality. There have been a few occasions when somebody has jumped on stage with that attempt. One very nearly successfully. And, you know, I wouldn’t be alive today if it hadn’t been for the vigilance and indeed the bravery of one of our road crew. But that aside, yes, it is different when you’re on a stage, because you’re kind of on the edge of what you can do, and anything that interrupts or interferes is very, very unwelcome. So that’s probably the worst time, you know, I’m just kind of walking down the street in London, somebody taps me on the shoulder, I probably won’t turn around and whack them. I’ll probably just recoil in horror and try to retreat as fast as possible, lest they be carrying the swine flu.
SF: Ian, I’m trying to find out how you write songs, and if you enter some kind of zone similar to your onstage performances.
Ian: Not really. I think it’s just applying yourself in a more concentrated way. But you’re aware of your surroundings, whether it’s a hotel room or a dressing room, or sitting somewhere in your house, in the same way as, just before calling you I was writing the last hour and editing the liner notes for our release on DVD of Jethro Tull: Live at Madison Square Garden in 1978. So I have to try to recapture and recall a lot of the events and try and put them into some informational and amusing context for a few hundred words of text. And that’s just the same kind of application, I think, whether you’re a journalist or a novelist or a songwriter. You become quite focused and concentrated, but I think you’re aware of your surroundings, and I think you’re very much aware of the passing of time, too, to an extent that you know it’s time to take a coffee break.
SF: In the song “Aqualung,” you do something very intriguing with the vocal effect. Can you talk about that?
Ian: Well, I assume you’re talking about what we refer to as telephone burbles, which is where you reproduce the sound of the telephone. You remove all the frequencies, except for a narrow band centering around about 1,000 hertz.
SF: Yeah, what gave you the idea to do that?
Ian: It epitomizes the limited frequencies of the telephone. It’s also like when you’re addressing a crowd through a megaphone. Or even perhaps the tinny sound of a voice trumpet, which is a non-active megaphone. It’s a form of address. It’s the sound that woke up young pilots in 1941 and sent them into the skies to battle the Hun. This is the sound of the Tannoy, the calling to arms of young men going up in their Hurricanes and Spitfires. It’s something that’s very much part of the blood of an Englishman. I imagine on American Air Force bases they had something rather similar, except it wasn’t manufactured by an English loudspeaker company called Tannoy. So you had probably another word for it. But it was the best part of something we know. We grew up in the age of these rather thin and reedy electronic ways of getting attention, whether it’s the telephone or the wartime Tannoy. And I suppose that spills over into a vocal effect on a rock album circa 1971.
SF: Why wasn’t that song released as a single?
Ian: Because it was too long, it was too episodic, it starts off with a loud guitar riff and then goes into rather more laid back acoustic stuff. Led Zeppelin at the time, you know, they didn’t release any singles. It was album tracks. And radio sharply divided between AM radio, which played the 3-minute pop hits, and FM radio where they played what they called deep cuts. You would go into a album and play the obscure, the longer, the more convoluted songs in that period of more developmental rock music. But that day is not really with us anymore, whether it be classic rock stations that do play some of that music, but they are thin on the ground, and they too know that they’ve got to keep it short and sharp and cheerful, and provide the blue blanket of familiar sounding music and get onto the next set of commercial breaks, because that’s what pays the radio station costs of being on the air. So pragmatic rules apply.
SF: The song “Bungle In the Jungle,” did that come from the phrase “rumble in the jungle”?
Ian: Well, that’s a good point. It was actually late ’72 or early ’73 when I was in Paris recording an album that never got released, although one or two of the tracks made it out in 1974, but that was at a time when I was writing an album that was exploring people, the human condition, through analogies with the animal kingdom. And that particular song was perhaps the more obvious and the more catchy of the tunes. Eventually it was finished and saved in time for the War Child album, sometime later. And indeed, since “Bungle in the Jungle” had been released in the year 1974 on the War Child album, “rumble in the jungle” may have been taken from that. Because that took place on the 30th of October in 1974. Maybe they were alluding to what was a well played song, even on AM radio.
SF: Okay, so your song came first.
Ian: Well, it certainly did in terms of writing it. As to the actual time of release, I can’t be 100% sure on that. But chances are it was somewhere prior to that.
SF: Your song “We Used To Know” is certainly an influence on “Hotel California.” Can you talk about that?
Ian: It was a piece of music that we were playing around the time… I believe it was late ’71, maybe early ’72 when we were on tour and we had a support band who had been signed up for the tour, and subsequently, before the tour began, had a hit single. The song, I believe, called “Take It Easy.” And they were indeed the Eagles. We didn’t interact with them very much because they were countrified laid back polite rock, and we were a bit wacky and English and doing weird stuff. And I don’t think they liked us, and we didn’t much like them. There was no communication, really, at all. Just a polite observance of each other’s space when it came to sound checks and show time. But they probably heard us play the song, because that would have featured in the sets back then, and maybe it was just something they kind of picked up on subconsciously, and introduced that chord sequence into their famous song “Hotel California” sometime later. But, you know, it’s not plagiarism. It’s just the same chord sequence. It’s in a different time signature, different key, different context. And it’s a very, very fine song that they wrote, so I can’t feel anything other than a sense of happiness for their sake. And I feel flattered that they came across that chord sequence. But it’s difficult to find a chord sequence that hasn’t been used, and hasn’t been the focus of lots of pieces of music. It’s harmonic progression is almost a mathematical certainty you’re gonna crop up with the same thing sooner or later if you sit strumming a few chords on a guitar.
There’s certainly no bitterness or any sense of plagiarism attached to my view on it, although I do sometimes allude, in a joking way, to accepting it as a kind of tribute. It’s a bit like this tribute Rolex that I’m wearing.
SF: (laughing) You can get those in New York City.
Ian: Well, a counterfeit, or a knockoff, I’m making the obvious joke. That’s just getting a laugh on stage. Fair game.
SF: One more statement for you: For an MTV segment, you sprung up from behind trees in Central Park to serenade picnickers with your flute.
Ian: I can’t actually recall doing that… this presumably was an MTV mini-documentary or something, was it?
SF: No, this came from a radio station, promotional material.
Ian: Okay. Well, I would have been put up to it by somebody – it’s not the sort of thing I would instigate. Because I actually find it very embarrassing to perform in any way to an audience in the open air outside, and not in the context of a stage performance. I’ve had to do it once or twice that I can remember, and I do find it very, very uncomfortable. When I say “have to do it,” I’ve been requested usually by a TV company or somebody to do it in order to, I suppose, be counted off a little quirky and folky, and it’s rather like being a busker. You know, you’re out there doing this in a public space, and people are either recognizing it or are surprised, or think you are a member of a tribute band, or they don’t recognize you at all. However the response, it’s always as embarrassing to me as it is to them. So it’s not something that I’ve tried to do very often.
SF: Were you guys ever on MTV?
Ian: Oh yeah, we were one of the very first bands to go into MTV in New York and perform. Yeah, we actually went in just to do an interview, but we took a couple of guitars in with us. When we were in there, we said, “Well, let’s play something for you.” And they said, “Oh, we’re not geared up for that.” And I said, “You know, let’s strum a tune.” And we played a couple of things. And they were wildly impressed, and said, “Wow, this is great.” You know, “wish all the other people who came in here would do that.” And, “Listen, next time you guys are back in town, come in and play live for us again.” Well, of course, we never did, because they never asked us. And MTV shortly afterwards came out with that series MTV Unplugged. So I rather like to think we might have in some small way sparked a little possibility there to get bands who were known for rock music to come in and do an impromptu acoustic performance. And, which obviously was extremely popular and successful, and in particular for Eric Clapton.
SF: Yeah, definitely.
Ian: We were on MTV a lot during a specific period of time, around ’86, ’87, around the time of the Crest of a Knave album, we had a couple of tracks there that we did videos for, which were played quite a lot on MTV. Indeed, I think the one called “Steel Monkey” was in kind of heavy rotation for a while, since it was a pretty straight ahead, up-tempo funky rock song. Kind of a ZZ Top style, sort of fitted the mood of the day, really.