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Did you know there is no flute in "Aqualung"? The most famous song by the most famous flute-rock band ever assembled is driven by guitar and piano. Until now, that is. On the 2017 album Jethro Tull - The String Quartets, "Aqualung" is transformed into "Aquafugue," the renown six-note riff played on violin and viola, with a flute part added. There are also new versions of "Locomotive Breath," "Bungle in the Jungle," "Living in the Past" and several other Tull hits and rarities reworked with the Carducci Quartet, recorded primarily in Worcester Cathedral.

Anderson picked up the flute when he realized he'd never be as good on guitar as Eric Clapton. Instead of finding an instructor to teach him meticulous fingering and consistent tone through repetition of scales, he devised his own method, essentially singing into the instrument, creating a new sound in the process. In his hands, the flute shed its effete image and became a dashing and dynamic lead instrument, his improvisations as thrilling as any guitar solo. He even found a rock posture to strike on stage: a one-legged stance yogis know as tree pose (evolved from his days playing harmonica, when the stance helped his breathing).

Beyond the flute, Anderson is one of the most fascinating figures in music. He's never done drugs, he skipped Woodstock because of his aversion to hippies, and he once owned the biggest supplier of smoked salmon in the UK. When I first spoke with him in 2009, he told stories about taking home a urinal he used to clean, touring with Led Zeppelin, and how a Jethro Tull song influenced "Hotel California." Here, he talks about making the String Quartets album, and the time he thought he had been shot on stage. Turns out, the blood wasn't his.

Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I enjoyed very much this String Quartet album. John O'Hara [arranger] explained how he didn't just transpose the music into new instruments. I'm wondering how you approached your flute playing on these parts?

Ian Anderson: In most cases, we went through the music discussing, after having decided on what songs we would do, to look at the places where I might play flute or sing. And not completely in detail but to some extent, we discussed those and built that into the arrangements for the string quartet. But in places I suggested that violin one took the melody and I might play a counter melody or a harmony rather than the obvious thing of me playing the top line.

I tried to avoid just doing the obvious and there were some places where I wasn't entirely sure what I was really going to play because it was either improvised or worked out when I came to listen to the mixes of the string quartet parts. So, there was no formulaic approach to doing it. I think you've got to do it song by song and treat each one on its merits. Some are a little more obvious in terms of what your options are, some of them deliberately we made a little less than obvious.

Songfacts: Tell me about reworking "Aqualung" with the lyrics moved around.

Ian: Well, of course, there was never any flute on the original "Aqualung" recording so this was written as a fugue, which means it doesn't repeat with the normal numbers of bars in it that you would find in the original recording. The idea of having the string quartet play it as a fugue to introduce it and then to kind of get into the obvious payoff rendition that the fans would recognize was a little bit of arts meets crafts. You know, the more creative approach to doing the fugue arrangement and then delivering the more artisan approach to the familiar elements that people know, including a bit of vocal just to sell it, I suppose.

But, you know, some of the songs are done in a more esoteric way. I think you've got to try and balance it up so that it's not all too clever. You've got to mix it up a little bit.

Songfacts: Yeah, and in some cases you didn't include lyrics at all on these songs, which takes a whole storyline away, but you still have an expression. What was your approach to that?

Ian: When I first thought of the idea of doing a string quartet album, I wasn't anticipating doing any vocals at all. It was just that I thought in a few places it might work to literally pay lip service to the original songs by adding something in. Plus, there are a couple of songs that were done very much as they were originally recorded, like "Wond'ring Aloud" and "A Christmas Song." Those were both early pieces of mine that were the first occasions where I used a string quartet. We used one in 1968 when I recorded "A Christmas Song," and then on the Aqualung album we featured a string quartet on a few pieces.

Songfacts: You were talking about art meeting craft and I was interested in your relationship with classical music, which plays into your very mathematical background. You didn't study classical music, but clearly you're very steeped in it. I'd like to get a sense for how that plays into what you are doing here.

Ian: I didn't really hear classical music as such until I was already making a living as the frontman of Jethro Tull. So, it was mainly Bach and Beethoven I suppose I came into contact with, but I felt that it fairly quickly became one of the few musical genre influences that I had.

It started off with blues and folk music and church music and then I rather left blues behind because I wasn't black and it felt like being a bit of a charlatan, doing the music form that was not just about gutsy funky music, but was the voice of black America. It was black American folk music and when I started listening to that as a teenager, I didn't fully appreciate the ongoing story of what it was like to be a black American making music in the social context and even in the political context like J. B. Lenoir, who few people know of but was quite a politicized black American blues singer in the mid-'60s. He sang about the race riots in "Alabama Blues" and "Vietnam Blues." He was almost unique, I think, in being able to draw from a number of possibilities, not just the usual "I woke up this morning..."

Black American blues tended to be, like many other popular forms, mainly about human relationships: being in love, out of love, and singing of the torment of all of that, usually in a kind of upbeat and amusing way, which is what I think made it so popular in my country in the '60s. When we heard that music it was playful. We liked the playfulness of it but we didn't really understand, or I certainly didn't, what the culture was that it was coming from.

So, when I became a little more grown up, I felt I was going to be a charlatan. It's all very well if you stick with that kind of approach, which I suppose some people have done over the years. Joe Bonamassa is as white as they come and still plays blues and R&B rather like I tried to do, but he took it into a slightly different area where it was no longer black American folk music, the way he played it.

But I didn't feel that I wanted to stick with that music form. In some ways, it's rather limiting because harmonically it doesn't develop very far and it's a lot about improvisation, not so much about real structure or part writing. So, it didn't appeal to me long term to stick with that. Forms of classical and folk music from different parts of the world became a stronger influence than blues and jazz had been for me when I first started.

Songfacts: What are some of your favorite versions of the cover songs that have been done of Jethro Tull?

Ian: Well, my favorite one, which you probably wouldn't know, would be a cover by Roy Harper, a contemporary new-English folkie as he was in the '60s. He covered a song of mine called "Up The 'Pool" – the 'Pool being Blackpool, which is where he and I spent some of our years growing up, not together, because we were a few years apart in terms of our familiarity with the town and the music scene.

But Roy did a cover of that song, I suppose because it meant something to him as well as me. So, for personal and emotional reasons that's probably the favorite one.

Songfacts: How do you feel about the various metal covers that have appeared?

Ian: Well, there are a lot of folks in the world of heavy metal and hard rock whose influences include Jethro Tull, but I think we have to put it in perspective that young Bruce Dickinson or other members of Iron Maiden growing up and as children hearing Jethro Tull, it made some impact on them and it made them consider that music amongst many other influences, in terms of what it could do for them.
Jethro Tull won the first-ever Grammy Award for Hard Rock/Metal Performance, beating out Metallica and AC/DC. Their record company congratulated them with an ad in Billboard pointing out that the flute is indeed a metal instrument - at least in the literal sense.

But, we've always got to remember that whenever somebody says, "I grew up listening to your music," just because they happen to be very successful in their own right as musicians today, it's a mistake to think you're their prime influence. What they're doing is tipping their hat and citing you but probably amongst 50 other influences that were important to them in their learning process.

Just as, if you asked me, I would list a whole number of folks that were from the world of blues and jazz and folk music that meant a lot to me as a teenager growing up, but I couldn't say that any particular one or two or three were so much more important than the others. There are many of them. I'm sure we all have those. So, it's nice to have a bit of flattery from people but I don't make the mistake of thinking that I was so important to them. Just one of many.

Songfacts: Considering how much material you've made, I'm surprised how few times your songs have been sampled. Is that because you don't authorize the samples?

Ian: I don't recall ever being asked. I mean, these things happen and it doesn't particularly bother me, really. If you spent your time chasing every nuance that seems to echo some element of your music from a copyright point of view, then I think you would become a rather ugly person, so I just let it go.

Songfacts: Your String Quartets album was recorded in churches, which seemed to create this incredible atmosphere.

Ian: Well, I have to be quite candid in saying that my choice of venues was based on practical issues: what was available, was there enough sound isolation to make it practically possible to record in those venues, and was there a comfortable acoustic to work with, in the sense of the ambience of the place.

Most years I do a few of our grand medieval cathedrals and I'm familiar with the large-scale environment of our biggest, oldest and incredibly dramatic pieces of architecture. I'm not a Christian so it's another day in their office rather than mine, but I'm quite at home in that environment and in raising funds for the maintenance of the buildings and supporting the Church of England, as I do, in that endeavor. It's something I'm quite familiar with. [Here's Ian performing "I believe in Father Christmas" with Greg Lake at a magnificent church in London.]

But to have recorded a string quartet in Worcester Cathedral, in the main body of the cathedral, would have been an acoustic disaster. We would have had to close-mic everything and more or less ignore the seven seconds reverberation time, which doesn't really suit the intimacy of a string quartet. So, that's why I chose to record in the crypt of Worcester Cathedral, being a smaller series of vaulted little sections in one of the rooms below the body of the cathedral. And that was a slightly more tameable acoustic environment and luckily, we were able to block off the access to the crypt. They kindly let me have a lock-out on that. Normally it's open to the public all the time, which of course doesn't work if you're trying to record music with a bunch of Chinese tourists ogling while you're doing it and trying to get selfies with you.

So, that's why I chose that. I also chose a historic church in a little village in the Cotswold hills of south-west England [St. Kenelm's Church in Gloucestershire] because geographically it was located in the right spot for us all to get there pretty easily. And, again, we could have a lock-out of that because I support the historic churches preservation body, which is not a government body. Church here doesn't get any support from the state or city - it's self-funding. Even the great cathedrals, running as they do with millions of dollars a year in operating costs, have to find that from the private sector through donations or selling tickets for entrance, which many of them now are forced to do in order to continue with the renovation and upkeep of the buildings.

So, that's why I chose those venues, but you could be forgiven for adopting a cynical view thinking, "This is a good marketing ploy." I think it certainly sounds better than saying we recorded in some drab dungeon recording studio in Soho in the middle of London. I mean, one recording studio is like another and so I didn't really want to do that. It would have been easier in many ways, but I wanted somewhere that was a bit more challenging and where the spiritual nature of being in that kind of a building, the history, the ghosts that linger, were on our side.

The String Quartets Tracklist:

"In the Past" ("Living In The Past")
"Sossity Waiting" ("Sossity: You're a Woman" / "Reasons For Waiting")
"Bungle" ("Bungle In The Jungle")
"We Used to Bach" ("We Used to Know" / "Bach Prelude C Major")
"Farm, the Fourway" ("Farm On The Freeway")
"Songs and Horses" ("Songs From The Wood" / "Heavy Horses")
"Only the Giving" ("Wond'ring Aloud")
"Loco" ("Locomotive Breath")
"Pass the Bottle" ("A Christmas Song")
"Velvet Gold" ("Velvet Green")
"Ring Out These Bells" ("Ring Out, Solstice Bells")
"Aquafugue" ("Aqualung")

Songfacts: Yes, I certainly don't think it's a marketing ploy. You've played hundreds, if not thousands of different venues in your career. Which is your favorite?

Ian: Well, I suppose if there's one that means a lot to me then it is the ancient amphitheater at Ephesus in Turkey because not many people have played there. St. Paul played there, famously, and got a rough ride. But, generally speaking, if you're playing in something that's quite big, that's about the size of Madison Square Garden in terms of audience capacity but is a crumbling set of ruins really, from a health and safety point of view is quite dangerous. They started doing concerts there in the '80s and '90s and they had to cease because of the damage that the lower frequencies from amplified instruments was causing to the stonework, so we just got in at a narrow opportunity of time and played there. And shortly afterwards, that was the end of amplified music concerts. They still, I believe, occasionally have classical music concerts there, but we just happened to be there at the right time.

You can still smell the lions and the gladiators and sense the history of all of that because, of course, it was a very important part in the years following the death of Christ. Ephesus became a center of early Christianity. So, it has a long association with the development of the Christian church in what is a Muslim country today. Having played a few times in other places in Turkey, I have a soft spot for Ephesus. I think anybody would feel that if they were there, it's so redolent in historical references.

Songfacts: What is the strangest thing that's ever happened to you at a performance?

Ian: Well, strange as in not very nice, there's a couple of those. I had a plastic beer mug of urine tipped over me at Shea Stadium from the audience as we were waiting to go on through the dugout to walk out to the stage in 1975. That wasn't very pleasant, going on to do a show stinking of somebody else's piss. That was rather an unfriendly act on the part of a citizen of New York.

Somewhere else, I think it was on the West Coast, I was hit by something in the chest and I looked down and saw blood running down my open-neck shirt and assumed that I'd been shot, and this was the adrenaline kicking in. I couldn't feel the pain, I could just see the blood running, and I continued to sing for the next few seconds. And I put my hand down to feel what the entry wound was like, wondering if I was just going to collapse any second or how badly I was hit, only to find a little piece of string, which I pulled out and removed a freshly extracted tampon from inside my shirt. A very generous and thoughtful gift that someone had produced from the core of her inner being and flung with amazing accuracy to hit me in the chest in the middle of a show.

So, that was a kind of an odd one, but there are one or two every year that are pretty weird for one reason or another. Unfortunately, we've had a few deaths. It's all the bad stuff you remember, because if you don't remember a show you have to assume it was OK. I only remember the bad ones or the things that went wrong.

We've had a few deaths. At Red Rocks Arena we had a suicide there - somebody jumped off the rocks. That was one that was in a drum solo. And then somebody else in another show in California plunged a samurai sword into his gut during a drum solo. So, I always warn our drummer these days: "Keep it short."

Songfacts: My goodness. Well, on a positive note, the last thing I have for you, I'd like to hear about the best part of your job.

Ian: Well, fundamentally, what it's about is the opportunity for self-expression. But that's a rather vain and indulgent reason to be doing what I do. But, I suppose that's what we all do, whether we're writers or actors or singers or musicians: we enjoy the self-expression and the communication, which is what makes live performance ultimately much more satisfying than recording, where you have to imagine that there's someone out there going to listen to what you're doing.

But, probably the most enjoyable part is the opportunity to visit and, to some little extent, to interact with people and places that I would never have had the opportunity to visit if it wasn't for the job that I do. I suppose I could have been a British Airways 747 captain. I probably would have got to visit lots of places then. Arguably, I would have had a lot more time off.

But what I do is a good balance of getting to know places a little bit, not too much, just getting a feel for them and a feel for the people, without having to feel trapped by it, in the way that it's so easy to be if you go on vacation somewhere and the second morning you wake up thinking, "When's my flight home?" And that does, of course, mean you are kind of trapped in a place that maybe you've exhausted its possibilities after 48 hours and you're not really enjoying it. Whereas I get to leave town the next morning.

March 22, 2017. String Quartets is available on Amazon and iTunes.
Photo (3): James Anderson

    About the Author:

    Carl WiserCarl was a disc jockey in Hartford, Connecticut when he founded Songfacts as a way to tell the stories behind the songs. You can also find him on Rock's Backpages.More from Carl Wiser
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Comments: 3

So happy to see Wond'ring Aloud on the String Quartet album. One of Ian's most beautiful songs, along with Slipstream in the same album. I was lucky enough to see Jethro Tull in their prime ... early 70s at the Sydney Opera House. Before Aqualung, about the time of the magnificent Benefit album ????????????????????Dale from Zushi, Kanagawa, Japan
What a wonderful interview of a remarkable artist. Ian Anderson is unique in his field. There is a certain intellectualism that is exposed every time he opens up on his art. Sometimes this intellectualism makes one believe that Mr. Anderson could have easily been a professor of classical philosophy. He is a joy on so many levels. I wish he were more appreciated in his field and by the critics. -Paige AndersonPaige Anderson from California
Nice interview with Ian Anderson.I've long been a fan back to my teen days when I was first introduced to Jethro Tull's music via their second album Stand Up.It was a buddy's attic hangout and an old shot to hell turntable,which seemed to slow down. Perhaps it was the "giggle weed". Well makes no matter,I'm well beyond that stage;and either fancy a Merlot or Chianti. No,not with fava beans.
First time I saw JT was at the Fillmore East c 1971. Quite the night. A powerhouse three man band,Tin House opened,led by Floyd Radford on guitar. Incidently Floyd is in the aerospace industry,playing music part time somewhere in Florida.
Next up was Edgar Winter and his White Trash band.
Still with me kid? Tobacco Road,Save Our Planet, Keep Playing That R&R.
JT capped off the evening,opening My God from Aqualung. The band snuck on stage in near darkness,save for the glow of power on lights of the amps.
This little old man(or so I thought) sat center stage strumming and singing the opening stanzas of My God. At the appropriate minute the band came in like thunder.I could feel the vibrations off my chest being only five or six rows back.
I had occasion to meet Ian back in 2009 at his Count Basie performance. We spent 5 minutes chatting. I regaled him with those aforermentioned memories.
"Not a good night for us that night Peter",Ian stated. He further added," The sound wasn't right,as if the balance was off". He certainly got it right,hasn't he?

Why isn't JT in the R&RHOF? Have you dove into that topic?
"Induct Jethro Tull into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" On Facebook
Facebook.com/Peter Szewzek
Peter Szewzek from Springfield, Nj
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