Jethro Tull on the State of the Whole World
Jethro Tull may not have existed as we know it today without a relatively unknown Chicago blues singer: J.B. Lenoir. To hear frontman Ian Anderson tell it, seeing Lenoir play in the mid ‘60s taught the aspiring musician that music could have an impact; that it could mean more.
Anderson recalls hearing Lenoir perform two songs about the 1965 marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery that sought to secure voting rights and other civil liberties for African Americans: “Alabama Blues” and “Alabama March.”
“I wasn’t really in touch with what was happening [in Alabama], but that had a profound impact on me in terms of a clarion cry,” Anderson tells TIDAL. “I didn’t have those experiences, so I couldn’t sing about those things, but what I could do was take it as an example and try to find my own experiences and things that I could sing about.”
More than 50 years later, and Anderson and his British prog-rock band Tull are still gung-ho about their causes of choice: nature and conservation. From the simple joys of the pastoral English countryside (1978’s Heavy Horses) to wider ruminations on the environment (1979’s Stormwatch), Jethro Tull has always been concerned with the preservation of our planet. And they’re still making music that incorporates those ideas — both onstage and off. The band is kicking off the second leg of its 50th anniversary tour on March 9 in Atlantic City, and plan to hit up cities around the world until the year’s end.
Fittingly, Anderson is more apt to chat about the state of the world today — compared to 50 years ago — than his upcoming tour. “Memorable? I don’t know. That’s like asking which one of my children is the most memorable or which one of my cats is the most memorable,” he replies when asked about the dates he played in 2018.
And, when probed about what video projections and onstage visual wizardry fans can expect come this weekend, there’s a shrug in his voice “I think that audiences these days probably expect a little bit more of a show that just you wandering on to the stage in a T-shirt and jeans and hacking away through a few old favorites and wandering off again into the night.”
What follows, then, is not so much an interview about the legacy of an iconic band responsible for bringing the flute to rock fans the world over (not to mention classic tracks like “Thick as a Brick). Instead, Anderson took the reins, galloping from topics as diverse as our over-lusty meat consumption to what he sees as the talent show tackiness of modern music.
I heard that Tull was working on new music. Can you share anything about what’s in store?
I just completed four songs and I have another three, which the band has done backing tracks on, but I have yet to do flute and vocals on. And then there are another five songs, which I will record during the next three or four months, that are more acoustic tracks — not full-band rock songs.
It’s thematic and conceptual; I don’t want to talk about what it is, because it would be giving the game away.
Tull has experimented in its share of genres. What can we expect from the band in 2019?
In many ways, we’re pretty much as we were in 1969 when we got off the plane for the first time in the USA. We are generally what was referred to in 1969 in the British music press a progressive rock band. I think what that was supposed to signify was music that was a little more eclectic, that drew upon other influences, not just the traditional American rock & roll or rhythm and blues. That might have been fine for the Rolling Stones, but we were more ambitious as far as drawing on influences outside the kind of obvious ones.
It really kicked off, in inspirational terms, with the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album and Pink Floyd’s debut album Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which was kind of wanky, psychedelic, progressive rock. Two years later, I think progressive rock was sort of born as a title — a designation for music that was more experimental and more… I don’t like to use the word ‘intellectual,’ but it was about stuff, as opposed to throwing musical paint at the wall.
I’m happy being part of that era of music that is, to this day, still something that is dear to the hearts of a lot of people, young and old, who want a little more challenge in listening enjoyment.
You’re reissuing Stormwatch, which in many way deals with conservation. Is that still a going concern for the band these days?
We are entering into a very different world, compared to the one that even you were born into. When I look back to the changes since 1947, not in terms of global warming, but in population terms, there’s slightly more than three times as many people living on planet Earth as there were the day that I was born. That in it itself should give pause for thought. That’s a very, very scary scenario when you think of having to feed an ever-increasing planetary population.
We can look at disastrous effects of climate change on food production, while nations of the world, who shall remain nameless, continue to eat meat three times per day and expensively produce cattle, and, in the ongoing destruction of rainforests, the crops we use as cattle feed. We should be planting crops for us to eat, not cattle.
If you were growing up in the ’50s and the ‘60s as a child, you were witnessing a lot of changes in the world in terms of agriculture, for example. Since I was born, the tiny little three-cylinder Massey Ferguson tractor gave way to bigger Massey Ferguson tractors and then to the colossal beasts that today trundle up and down the fields
The whole world is so different now. But I watched this develop as a child, and I suppose my generation would be finding it a little easier to see these changes than perhaps someone born into it only 10 or 20 years ago.
Will issues like this factor into new music?
I think that, in many ways, issues of ethical matters — whether it’s to do with conservation or animal welfare or climate change or just plain old politics, the prattling of the world, the steady swing toward populism and extremism in politics and the very divisive nature of politics, increasingly so throughout Europe and certainly in the USA — of course it’s going to be fodder for songs and music. But it’s not something that I’m doing as a crusade. I just have a natural inclination to reflect things around me.
In some ways, of course, as musicians in the latter part of the 20th century, we were not only reflecting what was around us, but we also played a small, but I think significant, role in changing that world around us.
Bands like us were part of what represented a quest for freedom, artistic freedom and cultural freedom. … I think we can all look back on that time [the ‘60s and ‘70s] as being a time when the reach of western music was such that it did illuminate and bring about cultural change. That said, I think the chances of Jethro Tull music being released in North Korea are pretty slim. And in Iran, it’s a flat zero.
Do you think music has the power to impact cultural change today?
I don’t think it can quite have the effect that it did back then, partly because it’s so universal and taken for granted. In terms of cultural change, there’s so many musical formats that are just so up their own asses — they’re just unbelievably repetitive and derivative. All these awful talent shows where people just copy other people. It’s just really quite dreary and mindless.
I don’t think you can say that that’s changing culture; it’s just become so mass-oriented, so immediate and so taken for granted. I don’t think it has quite the spark that it did back in the ‘50s through to the turn of the century — it was 50 years of jazz, blues, rock & roll. These were the things that had a huge impact, not only in the USA and the UK, but throughout Europe and throughout the world.
Also paralleled by the changes in culture, like the relative growth of freedom for women to play a part in society beyond simple childbearing and cooking dinner. The beginnings of the development of equality for those of other races and other religious beliefs. Things really, really changed.
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