Still "Outside the Accepted Framework": An Interview with Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson
In 1972, Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick" took ambitious prog rock to the top of the charts. Forty years on, frontman Ian Anderson means to do it all over again and discusses his plans with PopMatters.
When you have taken a one-song prog rock concept album to the top of the charts, had another record beat Metallica to a metal Grammy award, and played a duet with someone in space, the obvious question is: what's next? For Ian Anderson, rock's foremost exponent of the flute and lone consistent member of prog giants Jethro Tull, the answer is to overturn decades of reluctance and to make a sequel to that concept album, 1972's epic Thick as a Brick. Packaged with a 16-page newspaper and featuring cryptic lyrics on the end of childhood written by a fictional boy genius, Jethro Tull's fifth LP topped the Billboard 200 in March '72 despite being, to some extent, a joke.
Thick as a Brick may be regarded as a classic, but is revisiting one of the most excessive prog projects of the '70s really a smart idea in 2012? In this conversation with PopMatters, Ian Anderson discusses the legacy of the original album, details the backdrop to Thick as a Brick 2, and discusses what he has in common with Formula One drivers who refuse to give up.
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Looking back at Thick as a Brick forty years after its release, why do you think it has continued to have such an enduring impact?
I think it stands as one of the more extreme examples of progressive rock really going out on a limb and presenting quite a lot of detail, in terms of people getting their teeth into the conceptual thing. I suppose it differs from all – as far as I'm aware, all without exception – concept albums of that era or any era in that it was a parody. It was deliberately designed to be a spoof on the generic prog rock concept album of that era as exemplified by Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Genesis and King Crimson and the like. It was kind of spoofing that whole thing. But as with a lot of occasions when parody is used, it's a comedic mask behind which there are elements of seriousness. Once you buy into the idea of an eight year-old fictitious child poet as the author of the lyrics, it's a bit like buying into Peter Pan, or Star Wars or whatever it might be. You're entering into a fantasy world and people rather like doing that - even when they know it's a bit of a piss-take, really.
Do you think there's an aspect whereby once you've got people involved in this fantasy world, this fictional frame narrative, that allows you to say some things that you wouldn't be able to otherwise?
Yes I think it certainly does, and the same applies with the new record as well. There are things I'm doing on this record that I'd never dream of doing in lone songs, because they would either be a bit scary or without any context, they could be a bit too savage. It certainly allows you to do things which as a songwriter, you perhaps wouldn't normally do. But then most songwriters don't work in big lengths, with big ideas. It's always more convenient to write bite-sized portions in the way that music is consumed by the listener in three or four minute pop lyrics. I've always felt that some of my best lyrics are less than three minutes long and it's great when you can do that – be succinct and get the message across in a simple, clear idea. That clarity of great little songs is something I admire in other artists and once in a while I think I get close to doing that myself. But on the other hand, taking it to the other extreme and doing the big things is immensely satisfying as well as immensely challenging because it's well outside the accepted framework of pop and rock music. You stick your head above the parapet doing progressive rock in the year 2012 and there will be a lot of people lining up to take a pot-shot! But I'm a big man, I can take it and they should give it their best because I'm a quick mover.
We've definitely seen that over the years – it reminds me of the song "Only Solitaire" (Anderson's reply to critics of Jethro Tull from War Child, 1974) and that being used as the title of a fairly well-known music review website. I'll ask you more about songwriting and lyrics in a minute, but you mentioned the challenge of these big projects – how challenging and daunting is it to go back and play Thick as a Brick live again after all this time?
I'm increasingly comfortable because I'm spending a few hours most days working on articulating that music. It's partly a feat of memory, although that's starting to click into place for me – I'm not sure the other guys in the band are finding it as easy, judging by some recent emails – but we'll get there. We start rehearsing together properly next week so I would think that after three or four days we'll be beginning to have confidence that it'll be OK. But it is pretty daunting considering we're doing it from a standing start, really – they haven't played that music before. They are all familiar with the first part of side one, and the rest of side one is fairly straightforward albeit a bit tricky in the keyboard department. The second half of side two is by far and away the most difficult part. From my perspective, because there's a huge amount of flute playing crossing over with a huge amount of vocals and acoustic guitar playing. You can't do two vocals, two acoustic guitars and two flutes at the same time when they coincide and rather stupidly I let my enthusiasm get the better of me in 1972 and layered too much many things on the record – a mistake I only made on Thick as a Brick 2 in one little place. There's a crotchet overlap between the flute and the first syllable of a vocal, but I shall get around that! Side two of the original album is pretty much a handful, and of course hasn't been played by me – let alone anybody else – since 1972. That's the trickiest thing but if you asked me the question again I'd be saying “oh yeah, no problem”. At least I hope I will...
I think it's only when side two clicks that you really realise how strong the album is as a package – I know I'm looking forward to seeing how it all comes together when I get to see a date on the forthcoming tour.
The thing I realised going back to it was how complex the flute playing was: Thick as a Brick always struck me as an album mostly about lyrics, mostly about fairly amateur theatrical delivery. But I'd forgotten how much flute there is on the second side, there's an enormous amount of flute on there and some of the flute lines which lie behind some of the vocal lines are the really strong things going on. Going back to March of 2011 when I started to make the commitment in terms of organising with promoters for 2012 I had to figure out how I was going to play Thick as a Brick, with what lineup of people, with what additional forces I'd need to make it happen on stage. I know when we did it back in 1972 we did actually leave some bits out and fluff around the reality with some of the parts of music. The intent is to much more recreate what is on the album this time around, and I do have one extra person on stage, so it's a six-piece instead of a five-piece this time around. It's going to sound, I would hope, pretty much like the original and the new album doesn't really pose those problems because it was written, rehearsed and recorded as a live performance so it's much easier to do in the sense of recreating what's on the record. Because there are no superfluous elements on the new album, it's all played live, there's no duplication for anybody. The improv guitar moments, for example, were just part of the take. It's a great testament to Florian Opahle (German session guitarist and long-time Tull live collaborator) that he was brave enough to do that because most guitarists would say “can I do this as an overdub?” It's good that we did capture and retain that live performance in the studio with the new record.
I've read that for a little while you resisted the idea of making Thick as a Brick 2...
Well, if by “a little while” you mean 39 years then yes.
Yeah, a little while... what was it that made you eventually that it was the right time?
The many overtures made to me by fans, media people, record company people over the years for me to do Thick as a Brick Part 2 or Aqualung part 2 or whatever has been going on for ages and ages, and I have no desire to go back and do a nostalgic thing and revisit that period, particularly from a narrative point of view. It would not appeal to me to go and pick up the thread of what happened next. For those reasons I never wanted to go back and do that nostalgic revisit to 1972... I only really got a handle on how to do it after a conversation with the ex-lead singer of Gentle Giant Derek Shulman in New York, or wherever we were. We were talking about this, he was trying to persuade me to do a sequel and I explained the reasons why I didn't want to do it. But at some point one of us said, “I wonder what Gerald Bostock would be doing today?” That was the question, and followed on from that was question of what would have happened to the St. Cleve Chronicle, the 16-page newspaper that formed the original packaging. Those two questions just kind of buzzed around my head over the next few weeks and in January of 2011 I sketched out some possible scenarios of what Gerald Bostock might be doing today - and immediately the idea came of the Chronicle simply being an online parish newsletter and a continued parody of parochial life as a website. Just as I did my research back in 1972 by reading lots of small-town local newspapers to source the content from, I did the same thing this time by checking out lots of small-town and village websites just to get an idea of how things looked. Of course remarkably, things are very often the same but we're dealing with contemporary issues and today's life in a few small parish communities so it is necessarily different to how it was then. But we've tried to keep some characters, or sons and daughters of characters, alive on StCleve.com – there's the continuity in terms of parody and fun, and smutty and schoolboyish humour. In terms of lyrics on the album, it's a departure because there's no parody there – it's about real stuff, and real people. Whilst it may fool around with stereotypes of people, be they investment bankers or corrupt evangelists, it's based on reality and stuff that's out there in the world today. It is set in today's world, and I only briefly look at how Gerald's life might have got to where it is today. It's a satifsying thing to jump 40 years and to make those comparisons, in terms of changes in our culture and our society in those 40 years.
Do you think another influence into the record is your own life, and how things have changed for you in that time?
There's always going to be a little bit of autobiographical content to everything. It's how you lend some authority to what you write – you give it that weight by drawing on your direct experiences and indirect experiences from people that you know well, or a little. It's a mixture of your own experiences, other people's experiences and making some stuff up – that for me is what is always in songwriting. It's always easier to talk from some personal standpoint with some conviction. I had a long list of things that Gerald might have become, and one of the ones that would have appealed to me most was Gerald as a politician – but in some ways that's such an obvious one I thought I'd keep that for the album cover rather than make it a song lyric. One of the other things I thought of was Gerald as an astronaut – improbable but fun, this speccy little boy who presumably wasn't very popular at school, was arrogant, precocious and probably not very good at sports might just have become the rocket scientist who might be a contemporary astronaut. He'd be about the right age to be doing a few months on a space shuttle... the trouble was that around the time that I was writing it I was a little bit too close to that world because my flute playing was still floating around in low-Earth orbit. So if I'd done that I would have been drawing on personal stuff from real life astronauts, and that's something I'm not prepared to do because it's too direct and everyone would know who I was talking about and where I'd got it from. It would probably embarrass the couple of astronauts in question... and a third one, come to think of it, from the next mission. I've always tried to stay clear of anybody ever thinking “oh, this song is about me” or worse still people thinking “oh, that song is about him or her”.
Going back to the possible fates of Gerald Bostock, I imagine that in today's climate the idea of his becoming a politician might just have opened up too big a can of worms...
There again, it would have been very tempting to draw on some personal stuff about real politicians, in fact real people I know in one or two cases. So I wouldn't do that because it would be too obvious – you might not get it, 99.9% wouldn't get it, but there would be a few who'd say “I bet that character is so-and-so”. You can't do that, it wouldn't be fair to Geoff Hoon... oops, sorry. Once you start to go into some of the more exciting and meaty bits of what you know about people you can give it a personal quality that makes it real, and you are betraying family secrets so it's not something I'd choose to do.
What is it that keeps you going and keeps you motivated to get involved in big projects like this?
Well most of the things I do are not big projects in the sense of it being a big recorded work or indeed something that's going to go on for months at a time – I do lots of small projects, which sometimes involve writing or learning new material or pushing myself into something I've not done before. For example, something I did a few weeks ago was playing with a symphony orchestra in Potsdam – most of the material was tried and tested with other orchestras so that wasn't too testing, but there were one or two things that were new and hadn't been played with an orchestra or indeed at all. It's a bit scary, you have to do some new stuff but that's part of what I enjoy doing, the stimulation of there being that tension, that stress, that unknown. It makes you focus your mind, and as you get older I think you've got to keep doing that – which maybe explains why Kimi Räikkönen and Michael Schumacher are still “driven” to drive. I can understand that it's not just just about proving that you can still do it, or win a race or whatever – it's actually for very personal reasons. It's about showing yourself, not showing off to other people. It's the conviction to show that you can focus the mind and the body to achieve a result. I suppose in all honest those guys in such a competitive and gladiatorial sport know that it's very unlikely they're ever going to achieve the greatness they did before – but for the people who do what I do and ponce about on a stage playing an instrument, it's a lot easier. You don't have to risk life and limb to do that. In many ways though, it's the same thing – it's about the determination, and the focus on crystal clear thinking you've got to have. It's rewarding in itself, and I think it's a source of drive and determination just to prove it to yourself.