"Living in the Past" is Jethro Tull's highest-charting single on the US Billboard and UK Singles charts. It first appeared as a 1969 single which had been recorded for their album Stand Up; however, it saw album release on Living in the Past in 1972.
One of the most famous aspects of this song is its nonstandard time signature: It uses 5/4. This puts it in the category of "quintuple meter," where there's five beats per measure. If you need some more familiar context, try singing the lyrics to "Living in the Past" to the tune from the theme from the TV show Mission: Impossible. But not too loud, lest the whole office hear you. Maybe the most famous example of this unusual time signature is "Take Five" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
Ian Anderson is one of the most intellectual popular artists in rock, and also one with the sliest sense of humor (trust us, we interviewed Ian). So "Living in the Past" is clearly poking fun at somebody, being about wishing to live in a peaceful time before a war. But is it directed at the fighters ("Now there's revolution, but they don't know what they're fighting"), or at the ones who chose to close their eyes to the fighting? We'll leave it to the jury.
Here's what Ian told us: "Two or three times I have in the early days tried to write something that was deliberately in a more pop context. 'Living in the Past' was written specifically as a single, albeit a little bit of an oddball song, being in 5/4 time signature, it wasn't obviously the choice of a listening public to have a complex time signature. But I tried to work within that framework of doing something that set out with a non-common time signature, but would have some catchy appeal because of the musical rhymes and the title, and that succeeded."
As quoted in a 1984 interview for the UK music magazine Kerrang!, Ian Anderson said of this song: "To be honest, I've always loathed and detested that song. In fact, when it was first a hit, I used to hide in a corner and cringe. But the guys in the band now are keen to play it, and you know, I'm beginning to grow accustomed to the damn thing."
A bit if trivia, Ian Anderson became a big-shot businessman. He managed a string of successful salmon farms, dealt in guns, and owned a group of other non-music-related businesses. Oh, and don't forget his hobbies, which include wild cat sheltering, motorcycling, and Indian cuisine.
Anderson told Mojo December 2011 that he wrote the song after Jethro Tull's manager, Terry Ellis, challenged him to write a hit single, "to keep the pot boiling." To humour him Anderson replied, "Sure Terry, just give me a couple of hours and I'll run upstairs to my room and write a hit single, as you do." So the Jethro Tull frontman "fiddled around with an acoustic guitar and a flute line, and it was done, really, in a couple of hours." And "to further humor Terry and amuse me, I decided I'd write the least commercial thing I could by using an uncommon 5/4 time signature and a definitely not-trendy title, 'Living in The Past.'"
Ian Anderson explained the song's meaning to Mojo: "Lyrically it was a bit of a rejection of the swinging fashion of that post-Beatles, slightly hippy idealistic period," he said. "There were a lot of people talking pompously about love and peace and revolution and, you know, people then as now were quick to jump up and scream and shout, but they're not actually really quite sure what they're stamping their feet about."
With Tull keyboard player John O'Hara handling the arrangements, Ian Anderson reworked this song with the Carducci Quartet for the album Jethro Tull: The String Quartets, released in 2017. This version, titled "In the Past," opens with the 5/4 riff played with plucked strings.
Mickster from Texas, TxI'm curious as to what the REAL lyrics are, for the "hook" of this song. The dozens of typical lyrics-sites have 2 or 3 variations and after listening to it for over 20 years, I'm not sure myself. It sounds like at the end of the 1st verse he sings either "Oh, keep on giving ... let's go living in the past" or "Oh, be forgiving ... ". I think that even though they both make lyrical sense, that he says the former. The way it is sung in the 2nd verse, it sounds even more like the former and the "we'll keep living in the past" end makes almost no sense lyrically with the latter. I don't know if Ian has ever published the actual lyrics anywhere, as he supposedly detested the song for years (Kerrang).