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Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson: My Life in 10 Songs

As the pioneering prog rockers celebrate their 50th anniversary with a tour and new box set, their leader reflects on the tracks that defined them

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As Jethro Tull celebrate their 50th anniversary, Ian Anderson discusses 10 songs that have defined his career.

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For Ian Anderson – prog rocker extraordinaire and the world’s best one-legged-stance flautist, bar none – a half-century career in music is no remarkable feat. “It’s not any particularly novel or unusual occurrence,” the Jethro Tull leader says nonchalantly through his dry British accent. “This year marks the anniversary of many other bands who did things around the same period of time. King Crimson started in 1968. So did Yes, Rush and Deep Purple. And of course it’s Led Zeppelin’s 50th anniversary too. So there we go.”

But what he fails to acknowledge is that none of those bands, no matter how out-there they got, were able to blend their hard-rock aspirations with the same levels of pomp, guile or unapologetic pretension as Jethro Tull. None scored FM-radio gold singing lyrics like “Lend me your ear while I call you a fool” (“The Witch’s Promise”) or by writing a 44-minute, tongue-in-cheek prog-rock song (“Thick as a Brick,” presented in two parts on the original LP and packaged in a fake newspaper) or by playing frilly flute solos over Renaissance-inspired folk-rock (“Songs From the Wood”).

In their 50 years, Jethro Tull have notched an astounding 15 gold or platinum albums in the U.S., as well as two Number One LPs. Their most famous song, “Aqualung,” has a guitar riff that’s as cutting and memorable as “Iron Man” and “Smoke on the Water,” and their music has influenced Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Porcupine Tree, Pearl Jam and Nick Cave, among others. Yet the band has not yet been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the only time it has won a Grammy was in the Hard Rock/Metal category – a concept that seemed so preposterous to Anderson that he didn’t bother to show up.

Now, despite the singer’s apparent disinterest in anniversaries, the group – which has cycled through dozens of members over the years – is celebrating its legacy with a 50th-anniversary tour and a new compilation album, 50 for 50. For the latter release, Anderson picked 50 songs from Tull’s 21 albums for a three-CD set.

To give the group its due, Rolling Stone spoke with Anderson about Jethro Tull’s history, and the singer put some of those songs in context. “I suppose in my late teens I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m ever gonna do justice to being a blues singer. It’d be farcical for me to pretend to be something that I’m not,'” he says. “So I started trying to play and begin to write songs that were a little more eclectic.” Here, he picks 10 songs that show how Jethro Tull progressed.

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1

“Beggar’s Farm”

This Was (1968)

This was one of the first pieces that I wrote; I think technically I cowrote with Mick Abrahams, our original guitar player. It was essentially a 12-bar-blues–derived piece, but lyrically it was a little unusual. It was a relatively successful attempt to take the essence of black American blues and turn it into some middle-class white boy [music] – not too far from being a clone, just to be influenced by that style and have that mood. But I wasn’t trying to sing it as if I was imitating Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf or any of my heroes from when I was a young teenager.

It had a kind of slightly jazzy feel going on in it as well. When I wrote that song and we started playing it, I’d only been playing the flute for about eight weeks [laughs]. But when we recorded it, it was about six months down the line, so it’d settled into something reasonably competent in regard to the recording.

Ones of my influences back then was a peer act that we sometimes appeared with. They were a band called Fleetwood Mac, by which of course I don’t mean the Fleetwood Mac of today; I mean the original “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.” Peter Green was the fine and very lyrical guitar player and very good singer with Fleetwood Mac. I think he’d replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and then migrated over with John McVie, the bass player, into what became Fleetwood Mac.

But the way that Peter did songs, he had this great knack of taking things that were essentially a blues piece and then turning them around into what was being referred to as “progressive rock.” It was no longer just an imitative and rather implausible copying of black American folk-blues. It was doing something else with it that I think was peculiarly British, really. I always thought if Peter Green had done “Beggar’s Farm,” it would have been a whole lot better song. Because he just would have brought his particular touch to it. He would have done the same kind of thing as he did with “Black Magic Woman,” which was a song that Fleetwood Mac used to do and then was covered successfully by Santana. So that’s what was behind that.

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2

“Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square”

Stand Up (1969)

I remember walking past a pawn shop and seeing an instrument hanging in the window and buying it. It was a small, Russian, three-stringed balalaika. I fashioned a pickup to put on it from an old electric guitar and recorded “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square.” It was a whole different ball game. It had nothing to do with the blues anymore. It had a sort quirky, English feel with this strange little balalaika played through a Leslie cabinet or some kind of vibrato unit to give it a wobbly sound.

But that was one of those more original and unusual pieces that I think caught the fancy of British fans who catapulted the Stand Up album into the charts at Number One. When that happened, Joe Cocker came to announce it to me over breakfast at the Loews Midtown hotel in Manhattan, in the summer of 1968. He said, “God, congratulations. I just heard your album went to Number One in England.” And I said, “Yeah. I don’t suppose you’ve got an extra slice of bacon there, Joe, that you’re not gonna eat,” because we were very poor in those days. 

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3

“Teacher”

Benefit (1970)

We recorded two different versions of “Teacher.” We did one for the USA, which was the radio-friendly version that was on the American edition of the Benefit album and another for the U.K. Interestingly, our manager is convinced to this day that this is actually a song I wrote about him and that he is the teacher, which is complete bollocks. In fact, what I was singing about was more those creepy guru figures that would mislead innocent young minds like those of the Beatles. They would suck in people and use the power of persuasion to bend their will and lead them on a spiritual path to enlightenment. And a lot of the time, of course, it was just about getting your money and driving around in a big, white Rolls Royce, which struck me as worthy of writing a song about. I wasn’t singing necessarily about spiritual leaders of a particular ethnic persuasion or a particular religious view, but just the idea of the teacher, the guru.

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4

“Locomotive Breath”

Aqualung (1971)

The Aqualung album was somewhat uneasy in terms of actually making the record because we were working in a new studio that Island Records had built in a converted church in London. We were in the big room, which was the body of the church, and it was just so echoey and horrible and cold and really quite a creepy as a place to work. Led Zeppelin were in the nice cozy basement studio that had been the crypt, which was a moderate, modest size place.

So we struggled a bit with the sound, trying to get something that was going to work for the more intimate singer-songwriter songs. Because it was a departure, I went in without the guys and just recorded myself. And then maybe they would come in and add a little bit afterwards. “Locomotive Breath” was actually an utter failure when we tried to play it all together. It didn’t jell. We didn’t get the groove. I think John Evan recorded the piano intro, then I went out into the studio with two drum sticks and clicked them together because this was in the days before click tracks, and then I went out and played to with a hi-hat and bass drum. Then Clive [Bunker] went out and added the tom-toms and the cymbals. And then I played the electric-guitar rhythm part all the way through. And then we had something that was beginning to sound a bit like a song and it had that kind of metronomic feel, which I wanted it to have, because it’s about a railway train running on the tracks. So it should click-clack in time.

It was my first song that was perhaps on a topic that would be a little more appropriate to today’s world. It was about the runaway train of population growth and capitalism, it was based on those sorts of unstoppable ideas. We’re on this crazy train, we can’t get off it. Where is it going? Bearing in mind, of course, when I was born in 1947, the population of planet earth was slightly less than a third of what it is today, so it should be a sobering thought that in one man’s lifetime, our planetary population has more than tripled. You’d think population growth would have brought prosperity, happiness, food and a reasonable spread of wealth, but quite the opposite has happened. And is happening even more to this day. Without putting it into too much literal detail, that was what lay behind that song.

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5

“Aqualung”

Aqualung (1971)

Well, the character Aqualung was based on a photograph that my first wife had taken. She was studying photography in some college in London and she went off on some student assignment to shoot photographs of homeless people living in south London under the railway arches. She came back with some pictures and one particular character caught my eyes. He was someone who had a defiance about him, maybe even a little bit of anger, but at the same time, he was uncomfortable, slightly fearful, particularly of being photographed by a young woman. I suppose in a way, it made him feel like an object of curiosity or a little ashamed. So with all of those thoughts in my head, I said, “Right, well, let’s write a song about this. You scribble down some ideas on a piece of paper, and I’ll come up with some music.” And so she wrote some words and we fashioned that into lyrics. Some of the lines were definitely not lines I would have written. Like, “Snot is running down his nose” was not one of mine [laughs], it was one of hers.

It was probably the only time actually ever in my life I’ve really collaborated with anybody on a song. I remember sitting in a hotel room somewhere in America with my guitar, and I came up with the opening riff of the song. It was on an acoustic guitar and I wrote it as an acoustic piece of music, but, when I showed it to Martin, I said, “Look, forget what you’re hearing, just turn it up all the way on your Marshall amp and play this line. And it’s gonna work.” I suppose inspired in a little way by the drama of Beethoven’s opening notes of the Fifth Symphony. You take a few notes and you come up with some motif, which is powerful, and it establishes the whole nature of the song. It’s a great trick when you can do it. Deep Purple did it with “Smoke on the Water.” Cream did it with “Sunshine of Your Love.” When you come up with one of those simple, magnificent riffs, it’s a great thing to own. It’s a fine jewel in the musical firmament.

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6

“Thick as a Brick”

Thick as a Brick (1971)

I suppose you can pick any little section of Thick as a Brick, but let’s maybe talk about the first three minutes, which open up with the words, “I really don’t mind if you sit this one out.” In other words, it’s opening up to rejection. I knew in writing a spoof prog-rock piece, maybe half the people would get the joke and half the people would just get pissed off. And I wasn’t very sure that, in America, it would be well received.

It was taking something rather surreal and preposterous and then putting it before you and making you believe in the improbable, like an eight-year-old, precocious schoolboy has written these lyrics. That was the idea and I can remember very vividly coming up with this little repeating phrase on the acoustic guitar with a capo on the third fret, playing what essentially is a D chord and thinking, “Yeah, this is a nice little thing.”

I wrote the first three minutes and went off to meet the guys in the Rolling Stones’ rehearsal room in South London in Bermondsey, and sat down to say, “OK, this is the first part of the new album.” So we learned the first few minutes and then, the next morning I wrote another three or four minutes and met the guys in the afternoon and we recapped what we’d done the previous day and added another four minutes to it. It went on like that for about 10 days until we had the whole album written and rehearsed. It was done completely sequentially. Then we went into the recording studio and we recorded it in about 10 days. It took longer, actually, to put together the album cover with all the artwork and the 16-page newspaper with three of us working on it than it did to record the album.

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7

“Skating Away (on the Thin Ice of the New Day)”

War Child (1974)

This was my first song talking about the issue of ecology and, in this specific case, climate change. Back in those days, scientists believed that we were heading towards a period of global cooling, that we could be heading towards a new ice age. And in fact, they realized that in fact, no, we’re heading toward a period of global warming. So my song became kind of redundant. But the idea was sound. And I still have a fondness for it today, because it is talking with optimism about facing the changing world and a changing climate to which we have to adapt, bravely and optimistically. And it feels very apt and appropriate for today.

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8

“Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die”

Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! (1976)

The title came to my mind on a very, very bad, turbulent flight in the USA. I hate flying anyway, but this was a really bad flight, and I was convinced we were all gonna drop out of the sky, and just the words came into my head, “I’m too old to rock and roll, but I’m too young to die.” And I wrote that down on a piece of paper and decided to make something of it [laughs]. Rather than write a song about fear of flying, it seemed more fun to write a song about an old biker who refuses to change with the times and clings to his lifestyle, to his culture. And along with the clothing, the fashions, the music and the things that are part of it; in other words, he’s a bit of a luddite and doesn’t take well to change. It wasn’t an instant, out-of-the-box favorite of our audiences, but it seems to have caught on over the years, perhaps because people think I’m singing this in an autobiographical way. But I’m not. The character is in the third person in the lyrics of the song, so it’s quite clearly descriptive. 

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9

“Songs From the Wood”

Songs From the Wood (1977)

I wrote “Songs From the Wood” based on elements of folklore and fantasy tales and traditions of the British rural environment. Our PR guy, Jo Lustig, had given me a book about English folklore as a Christmas present, and I thumbed through it and found lots of little interesting ideas and characters and stories and things that I decided to evolve into a series of songs. You might describe Songs From the Wood as a contemporary folk-rock album, in the sense that it’s a rock album but it has some sort of folky feel, and it doesn’t owe really anything at all to blues or jazz or any black American music. The title track is quite a nice one, because it has a lot of carefully contrived harmonies which I sang myself in the studio. But probably more than any other Jethro Tull album, the guys in the band contributed elements of the arrangement that I think were quite creative. One or two of them were the authors of some of the songs and indeed got paid their appropriate, scientifically derived fraction of the mechanical royalty for all time. Well, at least until 70 years after they die when copyright runs out. But they can be assured of a few coins dropping through the letterbox for a while to come.

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10

“Farm on the Freeway”

Crest of a Knave (1987)

Once again, it’s harking back to that sort of era of farm life. It’s more social realism. In this song, I’m talking about the time when American farming, in particular, was under a huge amount of pressure and threat due to the building of roads. The economy of everything was becoming much harder, not only for American farmers but farmers pretty much everywhere. To me, it seemed like a good opportunity to write about an interesting subject. It just had to be set in America, rather than Europe; it’s not “Farm on the Autobahn.”

We won the heavy-metal Grammy for that album, which was a bit of an odd event. I don’t think people voted for Jethro Tull because of the category we were in; it was just an opportunity to vote, to give Jethro Tull a Grammy for being a bunch of nice guys who hadn’t won a Grammy before. And frankly if there’d been a category for best one-legged flute player then I would’ve won that as well, but there wasn’t. 

In This Article: Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull

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