Backstage Pass: Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson

(Chrysalis/Brian Cooke, March 1978)

By  Peter Braidis

As the wild-eyed, flute-toting frontman for Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson has always been … well, a little different.

In this classic interview from 2002, the always-entertaining Anderson regales us with, among other things, tales of cleaning toilets, winning a controversial Grammy, his interactions with Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne, and the days of “Jethro Toe.”

Well actually I’m going to start with something that I was curious about that I read once. I believe you used to clean toilets way back when, and you kept one of the urinals in your house as a memento. Is that true?

Ian Anderson: Yeah, I did for a short time. When I first tried to become a professional musician, I did take a job as a cleaner in a movie theater in the South of England, and unfortunately, it was my job to clean out the toilets, which was a particularly unsavory part of the job. I don’t know if it’s the same today, but for some reason when people go to the movie theater they seem to have their minds on other things and their point of aim is somewhat distracted. (Laughs) So it was a messy job.

Yeah, I don’t think times have changed.

IA: No. Well, perhaps not. In Europe if you go on the trains in Germany, there’s a little sign telling men that it is advisable to sit down on the toilet to have a pee in order that they don’t wet the seat or the area around for subsequent customers.

I’m not sure how many men obey that, but it certainly seems quite a good idea.

But the urinal that I liberated from the store in the cinema was a slightly cracked, damaged, chipped porcelain urinal and it certainly wasn’t anything they were going to use, because it had a little chip out the side. So I liberated this from the store and I took it back to my little one-room, cold-water apartment, and I kept it for a year or two. But when I got married it was decided it wasn’t quite the thing to have around the first marital home. So it didn’t make the transition to the rest of my life.

I was just wondering what you’ve done with your Grammy.

IA: I wish I could answer the question. I’ve really no idea. I talked to my wife about this a few weeks ago. I said, “You remember that Grammy thing — that sort of horrible, plastic-y thing that came on little wooden splints?” I said, “Whatever happened to that?”

She said, “I really don’t know. It’s around somewhere.”

But you know, no one knows where it is. That shouldn’t be taken as a sign of disrespect for the Grammy Award system, or, indeed, the accolade of winning a Grammy, because after all, it’s not just a bunch of drunken bums from the world of records, radio or even the press that makes these decisions … but the problem is, I’m just not a keeper, a hoarder of trophies and reminders of things. I don’t have any gold albums.

Regarding the Grammy itself, how shocked were you when you found out you were nominated in the Hard Rock/Heavy Metal category?

IA: Well, I was very shocked that we were nominated. That was very surprising when I heard that we had been nominated. I was truly, truly surprised and questioned this with the record company. I said, “Look, this is a kind of weird thing to happen. We’re not really hard rock or heavy metal,” and the record company said, yeah, well we just kind of put your name up for nomination because, well, frankly there wasn’t another category that we thought of. This was actually the first year for this new category…

It was announced in the Grammy system. But prior to that, there really hadn’t been a category in which they felt it was worth putting us forward. I mean I was never going to win Best Male Vocalist or we weren’t going to win Best Group, because you know, that’s usually reserved for more popular, pop music kind of acts. And they didn’t have a category for best one-legged flute player, so I guess the record company just shoved us into this new category and figured, what the hell, let’s give it a spin.

And then strangely, of course, it was accepted, and I suppose the fact that we were the unlikely nominees alongside, if memory serves, Metallica, Iggy Pop, Jane’s Addiction — whatever they were — and one or two more that I can’t remember the names of. But at that point, I said, “Hey look, we’ve been nominated and that’s pretty weird. Maybe, maybe it’s not so unlikely that we might actually win,” because apart from Metallica, who were the hot shots around town in terms of hard rock and that kind of metal approach, it was early in their careers. And I thought, well, for all we know, the voters might think, oh good old Jethro Tull, they’ve been around for a while and no one ever gave them a Grammy before, so perhaps we’ll favor them.

So I remember actually saying to the folks at the record company, “Well, who knows? We might actually win this. Maybe Metallica will do it, but it wouldn’t surprise me.” However, the record company didn’t feel the same way. They thought it was completely unlikely, and we were lucky to be nominated and they sort of felt pretty sure that Metallica was going to win, and they didn’t want pay for me or any other members of Jethro Tull to fly to Los Angeles for the Grammy Ceremony. They said well, we’ve got Pat Benatar and Huey Lewis going, and that’s as far as the budget would stretch.

That’s right, this was Chrysalis Records.

IA: Right. So they didn’t want us to go. And we were basically working in the studio that evening when there was a phone call very late at night, and our publicist in the record company rang us up and said, “You won’t believe this, but you won the Grammy.” And I said, “Oh great, great, I’ll tell the other guys, thanks very much,” and that was it. That was all that happened really, no big deal at all.

Until the next day when we found that it had been, to put it mildly, a controversial win. And then having subsequently seen a tape of the show, poor old Alice Cooper had to hold up the Grammy with no one coming to collect it and to be greeted with resounding boos (laughs) from the rafters from both the Metallica fans, who were mightily pissed off that their heroes hadn’t won, and, indeed, from all the press contingent who were outraged that Jethro Tull had won this Grammy.

And I thought that was very weird because at the point when we were nominated, there wasn’t a peep.

No one said a word. Because, I guess we were considered such unlikely people no one got upset at that time. But when we actually won, (laughs) they got their knickers in a real twist. It was something that upset them greatly, and it was at that point that I thought, “Damn, I wish I’d been there. It would have been so fantastic to be out there at the Grammys and have everybody boo when I walked out there.”

It would have been like a “Spinal Tap” moment.

IA: To walk out at this showbiz award type of thing and have just a wall of people booing would have been unbelievable, and I’m sure some pissy and utterly wicked comment might have parted my lips (laughs).

I believe you would have been capable of that. Here’s a question for you. Your very first single, I think it was anyway, “Sunshine Day” …

IA: It was actually made prior to Jethro Tull being Jethro Tull. It was a demo, actually.

Yeah, they just kind of threw it out there. Did they not actually list you as Jethro Toe?

IA: Yeah, and we were never really sure why, whether it was an genuine typo or whether the producer at the time, in some hope that he might circumvent actually having to pay us or run foul of our management — because it was released without any real approval — he just went ahead and did it, and we were called Jethro Tull at that point. But he put this thing out calling it Jethro Toe, which sounds like he might have been trying to capitalize on the name, whilst legally saying no, that’s just a coincidence, that has nothing to do with Jethro Tull.

But whatever it was, it really didn’t matter. It only sold about 23 copies (laughs) — just a collector’s piece for those strange folks who go to those strange occasions called record fairs and actually buy pieces of scratchy old vinyl and take them home to hoard in the privacy of their own homes, into a world of a … I don’t know what kind of disease would go with collecting vinyl.

Your song “One Brown Mouse,” which is actually my favorite Jethro Tull song, although it’s a bit obscure, I think I read that it was inspired by a Robert Burns poem. Is that right?

IA: Well, that’s right. There’s been more than one mouse that was the hero of penned ditties. So it was Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet who wrote [the] ode, “To A Mouse.”

I had a mouse when I was a little boy, and I used to sit and watch it and wonder what went on in that tiny little brain as it sat there in its little cage, playing on one of those wheels for exercise. But Syd Barrett, in the early days of Pink Floyd, I think he had a song … he had the words, “I’ve got a … I’ve got a…”

“Bike”?

IA: It was a song called “Bike” yeah. “I’ve got a mouse, and he doesn’t have a house, and I don’t know why I called him Gerald, he’s getting rather old, but he’s a good mouse.” So that’s a silly non sequitur, but that’s Syd Barrett for you! (laughs) But that’s another same kind of thing. I think the mouse is the villain of the domestic animal world, you know, someone who infiltrates our houses as a rather unwelcome guest. But I guess we all have that soft spot for that little mouse who kind of hides under the floorboards and in the rafters.

Now I’m a huge, huge Black Sabbath fan, and even though it was only for a few weeks, I know Tony Iommi filled in for you guys for a while in the late ’60s …

IA: Well, let me put that one in perspective. Tony met us … actually, when, I’m not sure. There might have been other guys who became part of Black Sabbath, when Black Sabbath was actually Black Sabbath, but in a band that supported Jethro Tull, towards the end of 1968.

Tony Iommi was there playing with whoever, and we sort of talked to him. He was a very nice guy, and when Mick Abrahams departed from the band at the end of ’68, amongst about, I don’t know, four or five other guitar players that we … I don’t want to use the word auditioned.

When Tony came … he and a few other guitar players, we just kind of got together for a couple of hours — three hours, four hours, whatever — in the afternoon and just played a few things. And I ran a few new ideas by them to see how they reacted, but it wasn’t like a formal audition. It was more just like people that you met: David O’List from The Nice — if you remember a band called The Nice, featuring Keith Emerson in his pre-Emerson, Lake & Palmer days — came along, you know, and we played together for a while, in my little room for an afternoon. Martin Barre came along. He didn’t get the job, but he did later, and Tony was one of those folks.

The only time he was really sort of involved in the band, professionally speaking, was when we were asked to “The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus.” We didn’t have a guitar player, and Tony kind of came along and stood in on guitar — not actually playing, he was miming to the backing track. I was singing and playing live, but the other guys were on tape. So that was Tony’s only appearance with Jethro Tull. It was literally as someone we met before and was a nice guy, but he wasn’t really right for Jethro Tull. He knew that and I knew that. It was, well we played together for … I recall being in a rehearsal room somewhere in London, but I know we spent an afternoon together and played two or three things.

Tony was great at doing some things, but there was some other stuff, particularly amongst the new songs that we were writing, that weren’t really up his street. It wasn’t stuff he felt really comfortable with and so, you know, it was a moment that came and went really. And I’m sure from Tony’s point of view it was the best bit of luck he had all that day, that he didn’t end up joining Jethro Tull. Otherwise, (laughing) he wouldn’t have gone on to enjoying the position he did with Black Sabbath. In many ways Tony became the prototype of the heavy-metal riffer.

And there’s the irony, that you guys won the Metal Grammy before they did.

IA: Oh well, there you go. I guess looking back on it he too probably feels rightfully quite proud of the role that he played, you know, back in the early days of Black Sabbath. They actually played with us in America. I don’t think they did very much because the guy, Ozzy Osbourne, inclined sometimes not to manage doing the show (laughs). I remember going to his dressing room and saying, “Well, aren’t you gonna bloody get up there and play?” And he’d say, “No, I can’t sing tonight. I have no voice. I can’t do this.”

Anyway, I guess in the early days Ozzy was the kind of — I don’t know — probably not as important a figure as the musical substance in particular that came from Tony. It more or less evolved, this style of playing these monophonic riffs. There was no rhythmic part. It was just doom-laden, monophonic unison riffs with the bass, although people like Cream had made a living out of doing bluesy based riffs.

This thing that Black Sabbath did was somewhat different. It didn’t really owe much to the blues. It was more of a kind of statement out there in the gothic land of metal before anybody really knew what the term meant. Not that I’m sure what they mean now. I think Tony was very much a key man. In fact, it was my great pleasure a few years ago when I was asked to present Tony with an award, at the Kerrang! Awards in London. And so it was good to see Tony again after a few years and give him whatever it was that, if he’s like me, he’s left in a closet somewhere (laughs) where he can’t put his hands on it.

I saw a car commercial not too long ago using “Thick As A Brick.” How did that come about?

IA: Well, [that was] through my publishers, Chrysalis Music, who phoned me up and said there’s this company, Hyundai, and they want to do an ad using some music from “Thick As A Brick” and they need your permission. And I said, “Well, I don’t have a problem with that,” but given that they wanted to re-record a sort of 30- or 60-second version of it, I said, “Well fine, but if they’re going to re-record it, maybe they want me to do it for them, because I can do that pretty quickly.”
So we agreed that I would re-record it, and they sent me a story board and specific timings, and I had a pretty good idea of how the ad was going to run. I just put together a couple of different versions and sent it back to them. And then they tore them apart and put them back together in a slightly different order, which wasn’t actually the way I intended it to be anyway. But, for whatever reason, they edited it the way they wanted it run, but it’s me playing. They left off all the nice flute-y bits at the end, which was the best bit, but it is actually me playing. So I took about three hours to play a few different instruments on that and put it together.

Well, it’s aired quite a bit over here, for what it’s worth. I don’t even remember what car it is.

IA: Well, they could have sent me the money or maybe about seven cars! (Laughs)

Or maybe a wheel?

IA: Well you see the joke’s on us, because Hyundai and, let it be put on record here, in terms of competitive professional motor sports was one of the top rallying cars in international off-road rallying last year, tremendously successful. I mean absolutely the peak of professional motor-sport vehicle, absolutely a winner, Hyundai. But not obviously the same car you get for about $15,000 or whatever you buy one for in America and travel to the mall with. This was their factory, specially prepared, super powerful, amazing off-road rally car.

Now, I know you love cats, as do I. I went on the website and saw what you’re doing for certain species. How did you get involved in all that?

IA: Well, I’ve always loved cats even as a child and some people grow up being doggy people and some people like cats. I mean the majority of cat lovers are women rather than men but so are the majority of flute players also women rather than men, which goes to demonstrate in at least part of my life, I show my feminine side. But that’s about as close as it gets, guys. I’m quite happy to recognize my more feminine traits as long as I don’t have to get in bed with your brother. (Laughs) Because I haven’t actually managed to have had a homosexual experience, which I’m a little bit disappointed about because somewhere along the line it would have been nice to been seriously propositioned, but sadly, I’ve never had a proposition, and I’m a bit pissed off about it really. I mean, what the hell’s wrong with me?

But even when I was a youth, I didn’t get any of those dirty old men trying to middle up to me on a park bench or put their hand on my knee on whatever. Yet, I’ve been around gay people for a lot of my life, I mean people I worked with or met, yes, loads of gay people and yet, they don’t seem to fancy me. It’s a bit depressing really. I mean in a way, I’m quite relaxed about it in the sense that they didn’t put me in a situation where I would have to offend somebody by spurning their advances, but it would have been quite nice to have been asked to the party.

Yeah, for the ego. Well do you know the Meow Mix song? You know for the cat food.

IA: No, I don’t believe we have that over here.

I was hoping you’d do an unplugged version of that some day. Something to think about anyway.

IA: Oh yes.

Well, now as far as the new live record, Living With The Past,  I just received it yesterday but I listened to …

IA: Well, you’re a lucky guy. I haven’t received it at all, I still haven’t got one — well let me see, no, no, I managed to download two-thirds of the artwork for some last-minute tweaks that the European company needs to do.

Well, the artwork’s pretty cool.

IA: Of course I’ve got a master copy of the record because I was there (laughs). I mean, I produced it and mastered it, but I don’t have an official pressing, as it were. But I’m looking forward to getting my copy.

Well you should because the sound quality and the production is just fantastic. It’s really cool to hear you doing stuff from every part of your career, from “Roots To Branches” to “Sweet Dream” and of course “Aqualung” and stuff like that.

IA: Yeah we tried on the CD not to just make it a part of the soundtrack of the DVD. We tried to, you know, include a few extra and sort of off-the-wall kind of things from other performances. The CD and the DVD kind of have their own identities although they basically show the same essential artwork and are very close cousins. But the CD was kind of fun, because it was mastering all the DVD material, which was two hours worth of music, and I got that done first. Then I went back to pluck from that, and find some other sources of material for the CD, you know, for the audio product. So it was pretty fun. I kind of listened to snippets of old recordings to find five or six pieces that were going to be something, not too ancient, but live performances of a different sort and I came across some stuff I had done a couple of years ago and got a couple of pieces, from about ten years ago that must have been done for radio. They were as you would describe, unplugged and more acoustic rendition of  things that were fun to do.

FURTHER READING: IAN ANDERSON’S TEN ALBUMS THAT CHANGED HIS LIFE


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