Ian A. Anderson: The Curse of the Lone Grinner

IF YOU bought a copy of a 1969 Island sampler called You Can All Join In, you’ll probably remember the cover shot, which depicted most of the artists involved with the album standing in a field, looking decidedly cold and obviously sick to death of watching the birdie.

At the back of the crowd stands one lone grinner – his face probably frozen into this look of instant rapture. His name is Ian Anderson and, as avid followers of fluting frolics will know, he leads a band known as Jethro Tull who, at that time, had made an album called This Was, which was doing a tidy bit of business.

Also on this self-same cover shot is another gent. He’s bespectacled, wears a fur coat and has Stevie Winwood looking over his shoulder. His name too is Ian Anderson but, though he had made an album as well, not a trace of his vocal and guitar-playing ability was to be found on All Join In.

Odd? Well let this second Ian Anderson explain.

“I was leading the Country Blues Band and had a contract with Chappell’s Music, who recorded an album by the band and leased it to Island. All the sleeves were done, the pressing was approved and a track was scheduled to appear on ‘You Can All Join In’.

“But – just two weeks before my album was due to be released – Jethro Tull’s manager appeared from the States and said something to the effect that ‘You can’t have two Ian Andersons on Island Records. Drop the other one or it’ll ruin Jethro Tull’s chances of being the next Beatles.

“And as Tull had a contract with Island, that company decided to drop my album – whereupon Chappell’s leased it to Liberty, who issued it about nine months later.”

The album, Stereo Death Breakdown, sold very well. The people at Liberty were happy, Anderson was happy – and all seemed set for a fair future. But when Chappell’s recorded a second album by Anderson (Book Of Changes, partly a Blues Band affair and partly a solo album) it was taken by Phonogram, who had signed a deal giving them first refusal on all Chappell material.

Again disaster struck.

“It was the month when Phonogram decided to change to computerised distribution – and somehow they vanished off the scene for a couple of months. Even then, the sleeve they’d produced was so horrible that I got on the first train I could in order to tell them that it was the worst design I had ever seen.

“But all they said was, ‘What’s it got to do with you?…You’re only a singer!’ That’s when I decided to start Village Thing.”

Village Thing was intended as the great new Utopia of Folkdom. It would not only be a record company but also do-it-all concern – covering management, publicity and everything – specifically designed to keep folk artists away from The System. And all for just ten per cent.

However, despite a string of well received albums from acts like Wizz Jones, Tucker Zimmerman, Dave Evans, Al Jones, Fred Wedlock, Steve Tilston, Tight Like That and Anderson himself, the concept failed.

“It started out as a cooperative – all we hoped was that we could break even. But we lost a thousand in the first year – mainly because people wouldn’t pay their agency commissions. Anyway, ten per cent of folk club fees don’t usually add up to very much.”

So, disenchanted with the whole if-you-can’t-join-’em-beat-’em project, and finding himself being regarded as part of the very system he was trying to destroy, Anderson (now known as Ian A. Anderson) decided to return to just being an entertainer once more.

Always a rule-breaker – many a traditionalist has grimaced to Anderson’s renditions of such unlikely material as ‘Paint It Black’ or ‘Shirley Temple Meets Hawkwind’ – Ian A. decided that what the circuit needed least was a female Fender bassist.

This being the case, he immediately cast his lady, Maggie Holland, a former acoustic guitarist, in the role, and together the duo hit the road in the guise of Hot Vultures, a zany, good-timey, folk-blues outfit.

The mouth below Anderson’s Groucho moustache breaks into a smile when the owner explains Maggie’s involvement.

“She always said she fancied playing bass and reckoned she could do it. So we bought a bass – though I told her she wasn’t going to play along with me unless she was bloody good otherwise people would think I was using my wife just because it worked out cheaper or something.

“In fact, things came together very well – Maggie knew my music inside out and also knew her way around a guitar…and it’s not very hard to swop from guitar to bass.

“It’s all turned out fine because Maggie also drives our VW bus, which all our gear packs into. We’ve got a double-bunk in it so we can sleep while we’re out on the road, and we’re completely independent of everybody.

“You know, I was sick to death of being Anderson the organiser and the past 18 months or so, which I’ve spent touring with Maggie, have been among the happiest of my life. I’ve always approved of Rory Gallagher’s philosophy – he can’t wait to be on the road doing gigs…and he also tries to make records that relate to his onstage performances – he doesn’t believe in super, wipe-out productions.”

The Vultures have just had their first album released by Bestseller, a Belgian label that’s available here through EMI International. Titled Carrion On, it contains what is possibly one of the most eclectic collections of songs to be found on any current British folk offering.

Jimmy Reed numbers like ‘Baby What’s Wrong?’ and ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ are lined up alsongside traditional numbers like ‘Pretty Polly’, and Willie Dixon’s ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover’, which I remember being on the first Bo Diddley album I ever bought, rub shoulders with originals by Tucker Zimmerman, Derroll Adams and the Holy Modal Rounders.

There’s even a version of that old skiffle favourite ‘The Midnight Special’, which comes replete with John Pilgrim – remember him being one of Wally Whyton’s sidekicks in the Vipers? – on washboard.

Ian A. agrees that his music seems to touch most points on the musical compass.

“I’ve always been interested in what’s going on. I started out in ordinary pop, moved into R&B, then got interested in American folk music before being side-tracked into the country-blues thing. When that reached a point where I couldn’t take it any more I then began writing all my own songs for a while.

“When Hot Vultures began, I somehow found myself playing all the things I’d been interested in over the years.”

As a non-believer in musical categories I personally admire the Vultures’ attitude. But how do the simple, unsuspecting folk at gigs react when confronted by Ian and Maggie’s happy-go-lucky, all-embracing view of things.

Maggie elects to answer the question. “We don’t play many strictly traditional clubs, but if we do get booked into one by mistake they usually view our small P.A. and say ‘Oh dear, they’re electric – it’s going to be noisy isn’t it?’ But after the first half they usually rush up and tell us that it was much better than they expected – that’s getting to be the classic quote.

“But sometimes we hit a situation where the audience loves us but the organiser hates us because we’re going down well doing something he doesn’t approve of.”

Given the choice then, where do Hot Vultures most like to play?

“In Wales. All those grotty little mining towns are great – the people there really appreciate their entertainment, so Welsh gigs are some of the best you can do. And we have a good time in Belgium too because their scene is so much younger and they’ve less preconceived ideas about what is and what isn’t folk music.

“On the other hand, London folk gigs are among the lowest form on earth. There really needs to be a real folk centre in London – something like Les Cousins used to be.”

© Fred DellarNew Musical Express, 24 January 1976

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