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Never Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll

Jethro Tull are back in India, and this time they are jamming with Anoushka Shankar. The inimitable Ian Anderson tells us how he was never a fan of the Beatles and why he thinks politics and music don’t mix

rsiwebadmin Dec 10, 2008
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The wild-eyed, sporran-shaking minstrel has made way for the measured, yet iconoclastic, elder statesman, but, forty years on, Ian Anderson is as much a thoughtful and thought-provoking performer as he was when Jethro Tull first appeared in 1968.

An entire generation of educated, middle-class Indians grew up with the thundering, yet lilting, melodies and lyrical turn of phrase of Jethro Tull ringing in their ears, and it is they, perhaps with teenaged or older offspring in tow, who turned up in large numbers to watch the band play at the 100 Piper’s Pure Music Concerts in Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru between November 27 and December 3, in the somewhat unusual, but entirely exotic, company of Anoushka Shankar.

At the sprawling English countryside estate that he calls home, Ian Anderson found time to answer, with customary wit and verve, the clumsy questions, via telephone, of a life-long fan masquerading as a journalist on the eve of the band’s departure for Eastern Europe – before proceeding to India – as part of Jethro Tull’s 40th anniversary world tour that has taken them to three continents en route to a fourth.

The cover of your first album in 1968, This Was, featured all four band members dressed-up as bent, old men, with woolly white hair and beards, indicating that, even as you launched yourselves, you were looking ahead and looking back at the same time. How have things measured up in the 40 years that have gone by?

Well, of course, in 1968, I didn’t really anticipate having a career in music as a performing musician for more than a very few years, if I was lucky. Because, statistically, most people fall by the wayside after a year or two, and that was, statistically, likely to be the fate of us as well. But I always thought, in the preparation of the first album, that if we were lucky enough to go on to make a second album, it would be very different to the first, stylistically, anyway.

And as it turned out, one primary band member fell by the wayside after the first album, purely because he was a blues guitar player and I just didn’t want to make blues albums. Because I’m a white guy, I come from middle-class art school England – I don’t come from the Delta, I don’t come from Louisiana, I wasn’t at the Watts race riots in ’64. I’m just not part of black American culture.

Whilst it’s very much a part of rounding off a musical education, by learning to understand something of the blues from a technical and clinical point of view, I don’t think that emotionally I would have felt very comfortable or true to my own Anglo-Saxon spirit by trying to make a living, long-term, imitating black American blues.

So I knew the second album would be something different and it seemed appropriate to call the first album This Was Jethro Tull. Because it was Jethro Tull when we began – but it wasn’t going to be Jethro Tull a year later.

Dressing up as old men was simply just a neat little reversal twist on the idea that this was Jethro Tull. But it was not through any visionary process. Now that we are old men, we look quite different.

The theme of age has cropped up on another occasions as well, like Too Old to Rock ”˜n’ Roll: Too Young to Die!

Well, I think age has always been an issue with music, particularly for me growing up to find that many of the musicians that I listened to as a child from the world of big band American jazz were no longer alive and some of the blues musicians that I listened to when I was a teenager, it turned out, were no longer alive and those that were alive were probably the age of my father.

So, I had in my head that the best music was played by old guys and that the young upstarts would come along learning their craft and some might have more musical worth than others. But it wasn’t really until about 1967, when I heard Eric Clapton that I realised that some of the young guys who were coming up through the ranks actually really could play music.

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So there was quite a buoyant spirit in British contemporary music around ’66-’67. That was the beginnings of a more serious, more musician-ly kind of approach to youthful music. Prior to that it had been pop music, which never really never seduced me or appealed to me with its whimsical, simple little tunes, fun though they may be. I was never really a fan of the Beatles, I didn’t go for that “pop-py” stuff at all, I much preferred the slightly darker, more challenging sounds of jazz and blues and folk music.

1968 to 2008, Martin Luther King Jr to Barack Obama. You’ve been witness to a wild kaleidoscope of events, yet, barring the occasional hint, never been overtly political like others in your time.

Bob Dylan gave some gravitas to social and political issues. John Lennon, I suppose, made naïve, simple statements that alerted people to issues of the time, although, I think, they were rather echoing sentiments that were already there. They weren’t pioneers; they reflected what was already happening. But their reflection created greater awareness for the general public, especially the young public, to issues that were social and political.

I, however, felt wary of confusing music with politics and felt, rather like the Church and the State, they should remain apart. And so, in the very rare occurrences when something of social and political relevance has crept into my music, it has been fairly disguised or is just a footnote to a greater text, which is the rest of the lyrics. I always tried to keep away from overt politics; it just doesn’t seem to me like it belongs in music. I think, if you are good enough as a poet to integrate it in a subtle and intelligent way into your lyrics, you might have a go. But I don’t think I’m that good.

But your music did influence an entire generation.

I think Jethro Tull and many other bands, who helped shape popular and rock music particularly in the Sixties and the Seventies, did have a profound effect on a generation of people in far off lands.

It is of some consolation to me that in countries like the former USSR and in Latin America, for a generation of people growing up and going to college and university, there was a sub-culture of western music, although it might have been forbidden by the authorities. And whether under communism or fascism, it did find its way into the lives of people for whom it represented not only some kind of artistic freedom, but, more importantly, a social freedom and perhaps a political freedom.

What does this coming together, this blend of Eastern and Western, of classical and rock, of the kind you are attempting with Anoushka Shankar, mean to you?

Sometimes, it’s actually the conflict between musical styles that make it interesting – and not for it all to blend together and stitched up into a seamless, cosy, comfort blanket. I think you can have a few rough edges and have a few moments of tension. I like the idea of people coming together from different backgrounds, but I also like the idea that the differences should be stressed, as well as the similarities, finding common ground in terms of music and expression and basic human emotions. By all means bring these things together, stress the fact that under our skins we are all essentially the same, but on the other hand we are all essentially quite different – and I for one like to keep the differences well and truly alive.

Unlike the occasion you shared the stage with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, have you “planned” the structure with Anoushka Shankar?

Yes, we have communicated over the last few months by e-mail and tossed around a few ideas. I sent her some music that I’ve written for us to play together which she might reject or embrace. We will embark upon a few excursions, with some pieces from her latest album and a couple of Jethro Tull pieces fairly well known in our repertoire, where we’ll give Anoushka a free rein within. So I think we’ve pretty much got it sewn up in its essence.

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We met for the first time in London in October. Anoushka told me that that she is not a morning girl – it was breakfast at 11:30, which is like an early lunch for me. It wasn’t so much about talking about music. It was, I suppose, about getting used to the idea of looking into the eyes of a person you will see next at a press conference in Kolkata and shortly afterwards at a rehearsal stage.

Anoushka might have found me quite terrifying or vice versa, but at least the ice was broken and we both smiled a lot and we both have a relaxed feeling about getting together to work together creatively.

It does make it a little more exciting when you begin to know a person and find that you have some common ground and that you live, to some extent, in worlds that are far apart and in a generation very far apart.

While I’m not quite as old as Anoushka’s dad, I’m getting that way. I’m slightly more than twice her age, but she’s catching up fast  – and I’d like to point out to these whippersnappers a couple years from now she’ll be half my age and a couple of years after that she’ll be less than half my age. It’s always good to remind girls just the right side of 30 that they’re soon going to join the club!

You play close to a 120 concerts a year. Does that not make things fairly hectic?

It’s good to keep busy, we shouldn’t complain. There are lots of people, in the months to come, who are going to find themselves out of work, who thought that everything was rosy and then had a considerable tightening of the belt.

But what we need to remember about all this is that this is an ”˜own-goal,’ it is actually an implosion of the global economic system. This is not something precipitated by a small thermo-nuclear device or a couple of large armies or a medium-sized asteroid striking the earth. This is an own-goal struck by greedy bankers, and greedy politicians – but it’s also about the greed that we as individuals manifest daily in the desire to get something for nothing – and we all do that.

We fuelled this fire and brought about a completely unprovoked own-goal. There is no point in going around saying, ”˜Oh dear, how terrible it is’ and ”˜Those same awful influences from outside have affected us.’ No, no, no, this came from us. We are the ones who spent on our credit cards, we’re the ones who took out ridiculous mortgages, we’re the ones who expected to get a free ride in a pushy and aggressive global economy and we’re now getting our comeuppance and I think we all have to remember this ”“ and it’ll remain for a few years to come.

Think  of how much worse it would have been of there had been a nuclear war, if Israel had decided to strike Iran, had there been another 9/11, had there been another major environmental disaster. This was a time of relative tranquility on Planet Earth – and we still managed to fuck it up!

You’ve had a career spanning four decades. What next?

There are things that I’m quite interested to develop in my own future other than music. One of them is writing more for the media. I don’t have a particularly burning desire to become a novelist or to write an autobiography ”“ but anything is possible.

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