Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson will never be too old to rock 'n' roll

On his 70th birthday, a tribute from a fan.

 |   Long-form |   09-08-2017
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As the lights dimmed, a hush descended on the audience in the cavernous multi-tiered hall. The musicians filed in one by one and took their positions on the stage. And then the familiar opening riff of the acoustic guitar began and the man playing it entered the stage, the spotlight following him. The crowd went into raptures.

He began: "Really don't mind if you sit this one out, my word's but a whisper your deafness a shout, I may make you feel but I can't make you think, your sperm's in the gutter your love's in the sink."

The dream concert of "Thick as a Brick" and its sequel "Thick as a Brick 2" was underway at the Royal Albert Hall.

Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull (having shed the Tull cloak and performing in his own right) was in his elements. In any case, Anderson was always the personification of Jethro Tull (founder, songwriter, singer, acoustic guitarist and flautist).

His indefatigable energy levels, his enduring stamina, his superb and sublime flute and guitar playing were in evidence for the entire duration of the show.

Anderson, despite his advancing age, showed that he still had a dynamic presence on stage. He leapt about, showed that he was still the master of the grand gesture - an outstretched arm here, a semi-pirouette there, eyes bulging and teasing. He paraded back and forth across the front of the stage, tip-toeing like an imp. He crouched. He stalked the stage as if drinking in the music, ensuring it is just so. He was a physical embodiment of his music.

And yes, he also stood on one leg while playing the flute; a pose he has a trademark on and the image of which has been adopted as Jethro Tull's logo.

Seeing Ian Anderson perform was sheer bliss. He may not have been as jaunty a minstrel that danced and sprang around the stage two and half decades ago when I first saw him.

He may not have been wearing his long coat and knee-high boots which he did in his earlier shows, but he still had a compelling presence.

The ecstatic crowd, beleaguered by knee issues and achy hips, were transported back to the days of a free spirit. The timeless Ian Anderson delivered a performance for the ages.

My wife and I have met Ian Anderson and his bandmates from Jethro Tull several times, and seen his shows since 1987 (Le Zenith, Paris) to 2013 (Royal Albert Hall). We have seen him perform with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia in 2004, and with Anoushka Shankar in 2008. And many other shows.

I first heard Jethro Tull in 1973 in school. A friend presented a spool which had their three albums - "Stand Up", "Benefit" and "Aqualung".

The spool played incessantly on our Wollensak tape recorder and it eventually ended up bruised and worn out. But it didn't complain. The music, once it grew on me, was fantastic.

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How many rock bands had a flautist? Not very many. I had heard the flute occasionally in The Moody Blues, Traffic and Genesis. Even Osibisa. But not in the way Anderson played it. Not in the way the flute became a fulcrum to their music. The songs and lyrics of all the three albums fascinated me. Songs like "Back To The Family", "With You There To Help Me", "Cross-Eyed Mary" and much more. What an incredible music. These albums set me on a magical path on which I am still travelling.

That's the thing. Jethro Tull is an acquired taste. But once you negotiate the musical and lyrical intricacies, it sticks to you like trout to a bait. You cannot listen to it with others. You cannot have it play in the background. It deserves your undivided attention and respect.

It obliges time and attention to let it work its charms. The songs' complexity and sheer musicality make them stand far apart from other bands. The music makes you think; it makes you work; you must strive to understand it. It is not handed to you on a platter. And Anderson's style of presenting it makes it intriguing.

But the return on investment is hugely rewarding and ever-lasting. And they turn you into a fanatic. No half-measures here!

Jethro Tull was formed in Luton, England in 1967. They were named after the real Jethro Tull (1674 to1741) who was an English agriculturist-farmer who perfected a horse-drawn seed drill that sowed his seeds in neat rows.

Jethro Tull had a unique and complex style. Although they began performing as a blues band with some jazz and classical influences, they moved to "progressive rock". This genre drew from many musical styles, and explored elaborate themes and told stories.

The musicians performed at a higher technical level; their goal was to create more artistic and serious musical works. Yet it would be wrong to slot Jethro Tull in that category.

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Jethro Tull circumvented easy identification. Certainly, they were a crucial part of the "prog-rock" movement, but their career preceded it and continued long after its heyday. In the late 1970s, they turned toward "folkish", mostly acoustic rock.

The band's driving force was Ian Anderson and its defining characteristics was Anderson's flute playing. He was self-taught on the flute and added interesting effects such as singing while playing and flutter-tonguing (frullato), which created distorted sounds.

By the time they released their fourth album "Aqualung" in 1971, they had achieved international acclaim.

"Aqualung" was a career-defining work by Jethro Tull that sounds utterly unique and epitomises the band that made it. "Aqualung" manages to sound not only fresh but vital, even these days. Against the backdrop of a mechanised and materialistic society, the album's primary targets - organised religion and social Darwinism - still resonate. Anderson had the audacity to get both priests and politicians in his sights.

"Locomotive Breath" - the de rigueur encore played at every concert - depicts the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails with "no way to slow down". "Aqualung" is heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history.

The band was on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when "Thick as a Brick" became the first album comprised of one continuous song. Although Anderson wrote all the music and lyrics, he co-credited the writing to a fictional schoolboy named Gerald Bostock. The concept of just one long song may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for "prog-rock" fanatics.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45-minute to one uninterrupted song (and Jethro Tull did it twice). "Thick as a Brick" was as ambitious as progressive music had been. It signified what was now possible in rock music.

I possess the original disc along with the full-size newspaper cover. The 12-page mock newspaper containing a lot of puns, cleverly hidden continuing jokes (such as the experimental non-rabbit), a surprisingly frank review of the album itself (written by Anderson under a pseudonym), and a little naughty connect-the-dots children's activity still enthralls me. And no electronic format can beat the quality and the charm of playing the vinyl on the turn-table.

"A Passion Play" represents Anderson's finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was at the height of his instrumental prowess. It's a gamble that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work. The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound.

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In the vast discography of Jethro Tull, Anderson's writing may appear to many as oblique or impenetrable. But then it's not him, it's you.

The brilliance of his wordplay is something to savour. The simply outstanding oeuvre is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

Their live shows used to tread the fine line between musical pantomime and rock show. With his shaggy mane, full beard, and penchant for traditional tartan-plaid attire, knee boots, and cod piece for a normal pair of pants, Anderson acquired a reputation as a mad Faginesque character with his Olde English imagery and stage antics like playing the flute or harmonica while hopping up and down on one leg.

Over the years, the long-haired bearded wild man of the early '70s yielded place to a mostly bald man shorn of his long locks, a normal pair of pants, white T-shirt and vest. And if you look carefully, a hint of a paunch too. But that doesn't matter. The playful singer still moves about like the young wild-eyed performer of his youth and his musical performances remains magical.

For his age, he is still remarkably agile. It hasn't dampened his ability to be as exuberant as his music. He is still mad, still a genius.

Anderson ended Jethro Tull after a 45-year run. While Anderson continues to maintain creative stewardship over the Tull legacy, he isn't interested in trying to add new material to it. Anderson has stated that he thinks of the band as a repertoire and when he performs, he is performing "the music of Jethro Tull".

Anderson's decision to end Tull seems to have released him, freed him and inspired him. Despite performing for almost 50 years over the last few years Anderson has been supremely active both in composing and performing. For the past few years, Ian Anderson has been experiencing a genuine creative Renaissance. In the past five years, he's created three major concept productions/rock operas and a pair of related albums: the brilliant "Thick as a Brick 2," produced in 2012, 40 years after the original; 2013's effort "Homo Erraticus" and now, "Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera".

Yet for all their success, Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. They should have been enshrined years ago but it wasn't meant to be. The reason: it's not because they're not good enough, but because they are too good.

Without equivocation, it can be stated that there has been no multi-instrumentalist bandleader capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. The fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant even now is sufficient evidence of genius. In the end, Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull are not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

In the court of public opinion, his works will persevere and will be alive and well.

On August 10, Anderson turns 70. I doff my hat to the Svengali of pied pipers, to the man who has given me and millions of others pure bliss. He will live in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners till as long as the discs spin.

Also read: To be gay in India and not belong: Aligarh needs to be watched

Writer

Ajay Mankotia Ajay Mankotia

The writer is a former revenue official.

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