Classic Rock Corner

Forever Tull: Ian Anderson Still Totes Rock's Biggest Flute

Say it five times fast: Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson.
Say it five times fast: Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson. Photo by Nick Harrison/Courtesy of Leighton Media
We are in an era where so many of the musicians who came into prominence in the 1960s are having the 50th anniversary of various dates, whether their formation or either their debut or best-known record. Jethro Tull is no exception, as later this year it will be a half-century since the band formed, with singer/songwriter/flautist Ian Anderson its guiding force and sole constant member.

Not that the man who sang “Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die” was expecting that kind of longevity with the group. And today he gives young musicians the same advice that he followed.

“I always tell them you have to have a Plan B or even a Plan C. The world doesn’t owe you the right to [make a living] as a musician,” he offers. “I always thought if music didn’t work out, I seriously would consider being a policeman or a journalist. I could have been a reasonably good cop! Or I would have learned enough skills to be a songwriter or a record producer.”

Tull in the "Aqualung" era: Standing (L-R): Clive Bunker, Ian Anderson. Sitting: Martin Barre, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, John Evan.
Photo courtesy of Leighton Media
As part of the current tour – though the billing is a bit confusing (more on that later), fans will hear the Tull warhorses like “Aqualung,” “Locomotive Breath,” “Thick as a Brick,” “Living in the Past,”  “My God” and “A New Day Yesterday.”

For deeper fans, it’s also a good time to love Jethro Tull, as a number of the band's records have returned to shelves (or online shopping carts) with expanded editions full of all sorts of musical goodies. The most recent is a 5-disc, plus book treatment, expanded edition of Songs from the Wood, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Mind you, why any fan would want or need, say, a dozen different versions of “Jack-in-the-Green” is not surprising to Anderson. “People have obsessive hobbies they are crazy about, and that’s part of the human condition. You can’t get enough of it!” he offers. “The record companies have now learned you have to offer music to buyer whether they want this huge box set or the record on vinyl or CD or a single MP3. Thank God there hasn’t been a revival of cassettes!”

Chrysalis Records
Something new in Tull music from Ian Anderson is the recent side album The String Quartets. Here, Anderson and arranger John O’Hara collaborate with the Carducci String Quartet for classical takes on Tull material. Anderson provides flute and occasionally sings, but it’s spare. Not straight covers, the new material may take a melody or theme or motif from one song – or two – to create a new piece of music. Anderson has been adding elements of classical and orchestral music as far back as 1968’s “A Christmas Song,” so it’s a genre he feels comfortable with.

“It’s something you can always learn something new about. I’ve done things like this before, but always in the context of ‘rock band plus orchestra,’" he says. "But this is the first time album was driven by no bass, drums, or rock instruments in the mix.”

But back to the upcoming show, which hits Sugar Land's Smart Financial Centre on May 30. It is billed as “Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson” (with the band’s named in much larger letters), yet the players that will be onstage are the ones listed as the “Ian Anderson Band” (on…which defaults to) and not the “Jethro Tull Band.” Some members overlap. Anderson’s publicist says to call the show “Ian Anderson, presenting the music of Jethro Tull.” Confused? In any case, joining Anderson onstage will be David Goodier (bass), John O'Hara (keyboards), Florian Opahle (guitar), and Scott Hammond (drums).

And then there’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For years, this writer would tell anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) that the three most egregious exemptions were Deep Purple, Yes, and Jethro Tull. Now that those first two are in, could Tull be next? Not if Anderson has his way – he’s not interested.

“You have to remember it’s a particularly American institution whose focus is on American music and a few British bands who have [been derived] from American music, like the Rolling Stones or even Rod Stewart…I mean it would be like England giving a knighthood to Bruce Springsteen!” he says.

“People like me don’t belong in the Hall of Fame, and I would be genuinely embarrassed if it came up," Anderson continues. "I would feel churlish if I said no, and people would think I’m an ungrateful son of a bitch. But it probably isn’t going to happen. I am not a kind of guy for awards ceremonies and dressing up. I’m a party pooper. Bob Dylan probably felt the same about his Nobel Prize. It probably scared the shit out of him!”

click to enlarge
"People like me don't belong in the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame," Anderson says, though many classic-rock fans disagree.
Photo by Nick Harrison/Courtesy of Leighton Media
Instead, Anderson says he would like to see acts like J.B. Lenoir, Mose Allison, or Captain Beefheart in. He mentions that Beefheart’s former boss, Frank Zappa, made an attempt to contact him before his 1993 death, though he never found out why.

“We never got in touch or met, and I had no idea what he was going to say. Maybe it was going to be ‘fuck you, I hate your music!” But I was a big Frank Zappa fan, even when he was badmouthing Jethro Tull all over the press!”

Still, he knows that people can change their opinions – and he uses himself as an example. Anderson was very much against the Iraq War and in particular, the involvement of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush. But he had since revised his opinion about Bush, after reading the 2010 memoir Decision Points.

“I thought he was very funny and erudite and self-aware about his period of his early years when he went off the rails. And well-spoken about the anxiety and difficulties of being an American president, especially in the face of 9/11,” Anderson sums up.

“We all lampooned him when he was prone to gaffes or lapses of memory, but it’s a tough job," he adds. "He wasn't’ such a bad guy. Not maybe the greatest president...but a whole lot better in retrospect now than we thought at the time!"

Ian Anderson performs Jethro Tull at 8 p.m. Monday, May 30 at Smart Financial Centre, 18111 Lexington Blvd. in Sugar Land. Tickets are $39.50-$89.50; 281-20SMART.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero