Photo: Travis Latam / Courtesy of Jethro Tull

Ian Anderson Reflects on 50 Years of Jethro Tull

Famed singer-flautist Ian Anderson is marking Jethro Tull's 50th anniversary with a tour and new best-of album and he tells us all about it.

50 for 50
Jethro Tull
25 May 2018

Jethro Tull’s music has come a long, long way from the group’s 1968 debut album This Was. With the exception of singer-songwriter-leader Ian Anderson’s distinctive flute playing, that first record was very steeped in the blues — another example of the genre’s popularity in Britain at the time through acts like the Rolling Stones, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, and Cream. Yet Anderson had the uncanny foresight to expand the band’s music beyond the blues. After This Was, Jethro Tull evolved as one of the most successful groups of the progressive rock era by incorporating elements of classical, folk, jazz, world, and electronic music into the mix. With seemingly endless changes in personnel (with Anderson and longtime guitarist Martin Barre remaining the constants), Jethro Tull released a string of successful albums throughout the ’70s and ’80s, including Aqualung, Living in the Past, Thick As a Brick, A Passion Play, Songs From the Wood, and Crest of a Knave.

Throughout five decades, Tull’s music not only overcame changing trends (especially during the punk and disco eras), but left an indelible imprint on pop culture—whether it’s Tull’s theatrical and bombastic stage performances during the ’70s; or when the band infamously won the Grammy Award for Best Hard/Heavy Metal Performance over a heavily-favored Metallica in 1989; or an episode of The Simpsons that referenced an excerpt from Tull’s Thick As a Brick (A note for trivia fans: Anderson is the father-in-law of Andrew Lincoln, star of the hit TV series The Walking Dead).

These days, Anderson still performs Jethro Tull’s music, albeit now as a solo artist. To commemorate Tull’s 50th anniversary this year, Anderson and his own band—which consists of guitarist Florian Opahle, drummer Scott Hammond, keyboardist John O’Hara, and bassist David Goodier—are embarking on a North American tour starting on May 30 in Phoenix and playing a selection of Tull’s best-known works. Also coinciding with the tour is a new compilation release from Rhino Records titled 50 for 50, featuring 50 songs drawing from Jethro Tull’s 21 studio albums, to be released on June 1. But Anderson hasn’t completely relegated himself to ‘living in the past’: also in the works is a new solo record possibly due out next year.

On the eve of the North American tour, Anderson spoke with PopMatters about the 50th-anniversary milestone, songwriting, and admiration for Tull’s music from some famous artists.

What comes to your mind upon hearing that Jethro Tull’s music has been around for 50 years?

When I was a young lad, I was listening to music that was 50 years old: classical music, folk music, and some of the early blues and jazz that I heard. So I grew up with the idea that music was about longevity. I don’t think it’s so unusual. Perhaps in this year and the next few years, it will be the 50th anniversary of many surviving active pop and rock musicians who like me have been able to continue with their work, and sadly those who won’t have that privilege and that opportunity to entertain the fans one more time or a few more times.

It’s nostalgia, and I’m not given to nostalgia as a rule. I’m not a person who likes to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries or deaths. It’s not in my nature to really want to do a 50th-anniversary celebration of Jethro Tull. Last summer I decided, a little reluctantly, that maybe this was something I should do not for me, but for all the fans who’ve been buying our records all these years. Even if they were not around right at the beginning, they may have found out about Jethro Tull in the mid ’70s and gone back to the early work and know something about how it all came to be—just as some 17-year-old fan in Brazil might well do the same thing now, that they would be drawn back to the beginning to see how things developed musically.

Photo: Travis Latam / Courtesy of Jethro Tull

You and your band will be touring the States to mark the 50th anniversary. Aside from playing the familiar favorites, could we assume that there will be deeper cuts from Tull’s discography?

It’s concentrating mainly on the music from the first ten years of recording [1968 to 1978], not exclusively but most of it is—because that’s the period when most people who were Jethro Tull fans, they came to the music during that period. It seems to me rather logical to focus on that era when most people got to know about Jethro Tull. And as I say, even younger fans today finding out about Jethro Tull for the first time will be drawn back to that era when it was a bit more part of the evolution of the cutting edge of rock music as it developed in that period. So that’s the focus of the music.

And as we do on many of our concerts, it will be with a production show with full video and lights and various elements of not just celebrating the music of that era in music but also celebrating the involvement of 36 of the band members who’d been part of Jethro Tull over the years. So it’s a lot of people I’m bringing into the mix. They can’t all be on stage with us for obvious reasons, but we can catch a snippet of them here and there on video behind us and try to pay homage to all those folks whose musical skills, direction, and personalities became a part of how the band changed over the years.

There’s also a new three-CD compilation record called 50 for 50, which is probably the most career-spanning set ever from Jethro Tull. Was there any particular criteria in selecting the tracks?

Apart from picking obvious key tracks from the different albums, it’s also about trying to make sure that you keep it varied in terms of tempos and musical styles that the keys the songs are in. And they would be based on where they would be sitting in the mix…I pay attention to that because I like every song to give you a bit of a lift, it’s a bit of a change if you’re listening to music sequentially. I think having things in the same tempo and keys is a bit of a letdown. So there are those things to have to bear in mind. I prepared a list of 50 songs…the record company and some other folks had come up with their 50 favorites. It wasn’t far off. I might have modified my list a little bit. But I think most people who are familiar with all the music and the albums would come up with something fairly similar.

Photo: Travis Latam / Courtesy of Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull has been known for its astounding musicianship, but it seems like the lyrics at times have been overlooked. They often draw on important and timely topics such as religion, the educational system, and climate change.

In terms of songwriting, I don’t think I’m very often telling you too much about me. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve and write songs filled with personal angst, and I don’t reveal details of relationships. I tend most often to be an observer, and that probably comes from my background. At the same time, I was beginning to get into music, I was also furthering my interest in the painterly arts. And so my couple of years at art school were engaged in the same observational practices. You see things that you want to put them across to people in a way that is a personal vision, maybe in a way that they might not see those same settings, those same scenes, those same portraits, the same landscapes. They might not see them in the same way, but you personalize it, you give people information. But it’s observational, you’re not telling people what to believe or what to think. That’s my approach for most of the time in what I write. Sometimes I do write about a more personal emotional reaction to something. But I would say 80 percent of what I’ve ever written has been more observational than personal and revealing.

Most people would agree that 1971’s Aqualung is probably the definitive Jethro Tull album, certainly the band’s most commercially successful and popular release. At the time the band recorded it, did you think it was going to be a hit?

I can remember after we finished the final mixes sitting next to [keyboardist] John Evan in the early hours of the morning in some old night café in West London and saying, “What have we got here? Are we going to look back on this and think, ‘Wow, this is a great album,’ or ‘Are we going to think that this wasn’t so good after all, that it’s not going to get well received by the fans or the music critics?'” We really weren’t sure. But that’s a common feeling to have when you just finished a huge commitment to work to have misgivings. I think in commercial terms, I was not expecting a huge amount. I thought it was a better album than [1970’s] Benefit when we finished [Aqualung]. It was a bit more interesting, a little more light and shade, it was a bit more of a singer-songwriter album because there were several pieces of music which were not really full band things. They were me being more able to go into the studio on my own and just record something and then maybe add a few bits later either by the other guys in the band or a string quartet or whatever that might be.

I felt it was an album that did have its variety of input. it wasn’t just drums, guitar, bass, keyboards song after song after song — it’s all varied. I thought it would do okay. And it did okay. It didn’t come out as a blockbuster hit across the world. It came out reasonably and solidly, and then it went on from there to continue to sell [and] build a reputation, So over the next few years it really did clock up a lot of sales multiplatinum many times over. But It took a while.

Photo: Silvia Finke / Courtesy of Jethro Tull

I would guess that Aqualung is probably, even in the diminished record market, still clocking up sales to this day. It’s the opposite of Coldplay and many other bands having a huge instant hit—where suddenly the record is released and then a month later, you’ve sold 10 million copies. That did not happen to Aqualung or any albums I’ve made. I think Thick As a Brick and A Passion Play came out and went straight to number one on the Billboard charts, but that was more of a fashion thing because at that moment people were rushing out and buying it because the next album by Jethro Tull, not necessarily because they heard and liked it and then decided to buy it. I think it’s nicer to take it slow and steady and enjoy the moment, rather than having something that’s all over in a huge rush.

Fast forward to the present: you are currently working on a new solo album?

A year ago, we spent several days rehearsing and then a few days at a recording studio to do seven backing tracks for a new album which was all by that point last March all written, and we recorded seven tracks. At that point, I had to go on tour. I was looking towards to finishing it off during the course of 2017 with a view of releasing it this year, but along the way, the 50th-anniversary thing rather loomed large — not so much in my mind, but other people’s minds. By the summer I decided I would have to put the project on the shelf for a year because this would be a bad year to be releasing a new piece of product given that we have so many releases and re-releases of material to do with the 50th anniversary year. I think it would make it a bad year to expect fans to go out and yet buy another brand new album. Anyway, I’m well aware not just with Jethro Tull but with most bands who have been around for a long time with what the fans want. They don’t really want a new album by the Rolling Stones. They want an old new album by the Rolling Stones. What they want is something in their dreams that’s going to sound like an early Stones album. You can’t turn back the clock and do that again. They hope Pete Townshend will write another Tommy. I don’t think it’s very easy to go back and do that without it sounding rather cynical and heavy-handed.

And when do you anticipate it will be released?

Again, I’m being slightly overtaken by events. I originally was not anticipating doing these 50th-anniversary concerts beyond December of this year. We’ve already had lots of promoters from other territories coming forward and saying, “Can we do the 50th-anniversary here?” So It’s a little bit tricky. It looks like we’ll be running on with the 50th-anniversary concerts in other areas of the world into the first four or five months of 2019, so that rather pushes off a new album until we’re probably talking September 2019, when I could then really turn my attention to not just the fact there’s a new album out, but also all the press and the promo and performing some of that music live on stage.

Photo: Travis Latam / Courtesy of Jethro Tull

I never realized that Jethro Tull has some famous fans as diverse as members of Pearl Jam, the Decemberists, Rush and Iron Maiden, as well as Nick Cave. How does it feel to have made an impact on these musicians?

By the time you’re making records and achieving some success, you’re probably got 30, 40 or 50 influences. I think it’s very important to remember that if Nick Cave might have said something positive about Jethro Tull or a bunch of people say, “Oh, I’m a big fan of Jethro Tull,” I think we have to take that with a little bit of a lighthearted response: “Yeah—along with a bunch of other people that you are a fan of.” It doesn’t diminish it, I’m not trying to pour cold water on the idea. But I’m quite aware that if somebody says, “I love Jethro Tull,” I know for sure they love a whole bunch of other people as well. So that’s okay, and that’s the way it is for most of us. We’ll loosely say, ” I’m a big fan of,” especially when we think we’re going to get a free ticket or free album (laughs).

Having said that, you will hear from a few of those people during from the concert tour coming up because a few of them had been kind enough to take part in the show in a brief and useful way—since they give me about 12 seconds to rummage in the dark and find the right harmonica in a different key or to grab a water. So I have a few of those people who were kind enough to help out.

You are carrying the torch of the group’s legacy now as a solo artist through the shows as well as the records. It seems like a testament that the music still touches people after five decades.

If it touches my life, then it’s reasonable it might touch the lives of a few other people in a not too dissimilar way. That’s what brings me together with other people is through the music, because I’m not likely to sit and chat with them on an airplane or in a bar or in a crowded restaurant. I’m afraid I’m a little too insular, a bit of a loner for that kind of experience. On the other hand, through music, I’m a bit intimately involved with thousands of people, millions of people. That’s my way of reaching my fellow man, woman and child through music. In some ways, it’s rewarding to be able to do that in the field of arts and entertainment.