Ian Anderson: “The delight in making music is that you don’t have a formula…”

IN 1972, JETHRO TULL released Thick As A Brick, an entire album comprised of one song. Critics hated it. “You can listen to it, but it is beyond me why anyone’d want to,” Dave Marsh scoffed. The American public was far more charitable, sending the album to #1 for two weeks in June, making it the most unusual chart-topper in US history.

The song is a treatise on the lure of conformity. Fitting then that the album went to great lengths to defy convention. The lyrics are credited to 8-year-old Gerald Bostock, whose story is detailed in the 12-page newspaper (the St. Cleve Chronicle) contained in the packaging. We learn that Gerald won a prize for his poem, which was rescinded when it was deemed he had an “extremely unwholesome attitude towards life, his God and Country.” The story continues with Anderson discovering the poem and writing 45 minutes of “pop music” to go with it.

Forty years later, Anderson recorded a sequel: Thick As A Brick 2, which presents five possible outcomes in the maturation of Gerald Bostock, who now has his own Facebook page. Ian took the show on the road, performing both Thick As A Brick and its sequel in their entirety, in a tour that continues throughout 2013.

That Ian is still performing the piece is testament to his connection with the concept, and the idea that slight variations in one’s life can have drastic consequences. As he explains, there have been a few times when Jethro Tull recorded singles to please the masses, but what he performs on stage has a special meaning.


Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Ian, on the original ‘Thick as a Brick’, you had to at one point condense it into a radio friendly version. How did you decide what to put into that version?

Ian Anderson: Well, back in 1972, you had to be aware of what was then called AOR radio – it was a delicate beast. It could only in most cases manage to play music that was in bite size portions. So we had to think about giving the option to American radio playing little edited sections of ‘Thick As A Brick’, so they didn’t have to delicately drop the needle into the middle of a long track or lift it off after the three and a half minutes. So we did that specially for American radio.

It was never released publicly in that form, but in limited editions which were sent out to radio stations in the US, which is the only place where the record got played, anyway. It never got played in the UK or anywhere in Europe, it was just not that kind of music.

And then when I had to consider the remixing and remastering of Thick As A Brick I, the opposite side for the new album Thick As A Brick II, I had to figure out the edit points to present the option to download individual pieces as opposed to having to buy the whole album. Some artists choose not to do that – famously Pink Floyd – and don’t want to have their music unbundled to offer it in song length pieces. But I accept that that’s the musical appetite of most folks these days. They don’t really have the time or the concentration to listen to a whole album in one go. They want it in manageable pieces. So that option exists on iTunes and Amazon to download the music in convenient song lengths of two, three, four minutes.

Songfacts: Do you always write in terms of albums, or do you write sometimes in terms of the songs within those albums?

Ian:         Well, it depends on the album. Most albums I have recorded have been a collection of songs. And the songs vary in length from half a minute to in some cases, like Thick as a Brick, to two sides of a complete conceptual piece. But normally speaking, I suppose the average song length to me is four or five minutes if I’m writing songs.

But if I’m trying to join the dots and present a bigger picture and have themes that reiterate and develop, then I’m thinking of a bigger scale of music. Whether we call them songs or call them movements, a greater body, a concerto, a symphony, or whatever in classical music terms, then I structure the music in a different way. But I don’t always write the same way. Sometimes I write the music first. Sometimes I write the lyrics first. Sometimes I write both together. Sometimes I have a title first. I don’t have a modus operandi that means I always make music in the same way.

The delight in making music is that you don’t have a formula, that every time it’s a little private exploration as to how to arrive at a conclusion. It’s good not to have a methodology that you apply every time. I like the fact that the approach can be different in each case.

Songfacts:         You don’t have a methodology, but is there anything you do to goose your creativity?

Ian:         Yeah. I wake up early in the morning. It’s always good. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night; in the middle of a period of sleep I’ll suddenly wake up with an idea for a song or a line of music and run to the bathroom, scribble it down on a piece of paper, and leave it next to the toothpaste so I find it in the morning. But other times I just get up earlyish – 7 o’clock, whatever it might be – and try to be creative before the household awakes. Because then there are other distractions. You know, the phone stars ringing, the cleaning ladies are Hoovering around the office. So it’s easier for me first thing in the morning.

Songfacts: You’ve talked about how coming up with that raw, unrefined energy of youth is more difficult as you get older. How do you go about conquering that challenge?

Ian:         Well, I think some things as you get older become easier. Certainly easier to focus on, as long as you keep your physical dexterity as a guitar player or a flute player. So instrumentally, music certainly doesn’t create any greater problem here. My fingers work pretty well and my brain seems to operate at speeds when I’m on stage in front of an audience, or in the studio, or even just sitting down writing music. So I don’t find any of that to be any more difficult.

The things that get more difficult are the physical aspects of performance. I’ve just come back a few hours ago from South America. Every show was hot and really humid. I mean, really, really humid. So it was physically quite demanding giving those shows. But so far so good. I don’t think there are any big issues with getting older. But there will be. I’m sure there’s going to be a time when matters of physical health will be what curtails my activity. So it’s only a question of time whether it’s six months, six years, or 20 years. But there will come a time when someone has to say, Look, I think you’d better stay at home, you’re not in a fit state to get on an airplane anymore.

Songfacts: It happens to the best of us. Do the songs ever change meaning for you over time?

Ian:         Not really, no. The songs have a distinct meaning. And for me a lot of reference points. And when I’m onstage performing a variety of material, whether under the name Jethro Tull or my own stuff, I do have a pretty clear idea of what I’m singing about and what the circumstances are. So I try and put myself in character regarding those performances. And that’s not difficult to remember.

But there are songs that I don’t really feel that I can get into that kind of character performance of them. I prefer not to do them. If they don’t have flesh and blood any longer, then I prefer not to play them.

Songfacts:         What are some examples of those songs?

Ian:         Well, the song “Teacher,” for example. I’m not saying we never played it. We probably did back in ’69, ’70. But I don’t remember playing it very often, and I always found it an awkward and difficult piece to play, because of the subject material and because of my own sort of feeling about the song. I just didn’t enjoy it. So it’s not one that’s featured in our performances in the way that songs like ‘Aqualung’ and ‘Locomotive Breath’ do, because they’re very much about a very specific thing, and to me they’re exactly the way that they were when I wrote the songs. I don’t have a different interpretation of them just because some years have gone by.

Songfacts:         Was ‘Teacher’ inspired by a specific event?

Ian:         No. Well, only in as much as it was the need to come up with a pop song format that might get us some radio play or be in the singles charts. It was a deliberate attempt to write a piece of more generic pop/rock music. Which is probably why I don’t really like it very much. It just seemed a bit forced, a bit too structured in that kind of vein. So it’s not one that I’m comfortable with at all, no.

Songfacts:         And it’s not in character for you to buy a ticket for somebody and take them on a vacation.

Ian:         No.

Songfacts:         Are there any other blatant attempts to write a pop song in the Jethro Tull canon?

Ian:         Two or three times I have in the early days tried to write something that was deliberately in a more pop context. ‘Living in the Past’ was written specifically as a single, albeit a little bit of an oddball song, being in 5/4 time signature, it wasn’t obviously the choice of a listening public to have a complex time signature. But I tried to work within that framework of doing something that set out with a non-common time signature, but would have some catchy appeal because of the musical rhymes and the title, and that succeeded. I did it again with ‘Teacher,’ and I did it some years later with a song called ‘Ring Out, Solstice Bells.’ These three or four times I have deliberately attempted to write, if not a pop song, at least a song that was catchy enough to be getting radio play and achieve something in the singles charts. But these were all occasions back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, not something I’ve worried about in the last three decades.

Songfacts:         One thing that you talked about in the ’70s was the possibility of writing what you called a substantial either “love song” or “out of love song.” Did you ever take a go at that?

Ian:         I’ve been closer to it than Frank Zappa, who studiously avoided ever revealing any kind of of a heart-on-sleeve moment. Frank Zappa was worryingly, a writer who hid behind the mask of a comedic lyric. And, much as I love Frank Zappa and a lot of his work – and I mean no misrespect for him – I did feel it was a missing part of the jigsaw puzzle, that he just didn’t ever go there. And I think it was because he was a little bit emotionally repressed in some way. He couldn’t ever show that soft underbelly of his personality in his musical work.

And I’m much more outgoing and more emotional than that. But still by the standards of most pop and rock music, I’m not that kind of a writer, really. I tend to be more observational. I, too, employ comedic elements in my music, but not, perhaps, in the same streetwise turn of Frank Zappa. I do try to cover the big picture of human emotion, but they’re not usually romantic love songs. “Shakespeare Play” has got elements of romance in it, but it’s also got a lot of death, violence, jealousy, anger, whole bunch of other stuff going on that makes it a bit more interesting. And so I think my music does echo the wider range of emotions, not just the soppy love song. Done that a few times. But it’s not my stock in trade.

Everybody else seems to do that relentlessly. Most pop and rock song lyrics are about the being in love or not being in love scenario, and I think that’s well covered by everybody else. I don’t need to make it my stock in trade.

Songfacts:         How did you get the idea to do ‘Bourée’?

Ian:         I got to the point where I was playing the flute every night on stage in the early part of ’68, and so by the end of the year, I was casting around for an instrumental piece as a successor to the Roland Kirk piece, ‘Serenade to a Cuckoo,’ which I’d been playing most of 1968. I wanted something that had a syncopated jazzy feel, but a melody that wasn’t associated with the jazz world or the blues world.

And ‘Bourée’ was a little bit of music that came to me through the floorboards of my bedsitter in London, because there was a media student in the room below who kept playing over and over again this refrain of the Bach tune ‘Bourée.’ He played it on classical guitar, but he only ever got the one bit, he never progressed beyond that basic thing. So I kept hearing that over and over and over and over again, and decided that I would try to use that little tune some way as a starting point for an instrumental piece.

And Martin Barre, who literally at that point in January ’69 was just kind of auditioning to join the band, said, “Oh, I know that. I think I’ve got the sheet music somewhere for Bach’s ‘Bourée.'” So it was something we could fairly readily embark upon as a variation on a classical piece of music.

Songfacts:         Earlier you mentioned ‘Locomotive Breath’ as one of the songs that you really connect with on stage and can get into character with. What is it about that song that you connect with.

Ian:         When I wrote it, I wasn’t deliberately setting out to write a piece of music on a particular subject. But it evolved during the writing process into being not terribly specific, but about the issues of overcrowding – the rather claustrophobic feel of a lot of people in a limited space. And the idea of the incessant unstoppable locomotive being metaphor for seemingly the unstoppable population expansion on planet Earth.

When I look at it today, it does, for me, become very crystallized in being a song about unmanageable population expansion. It’s something that concerns me even more today than it did back when I wrote it, when the population of planet Earth was only about two thirds of what it is today. So in my lifetime alone, we’ve seen an enormous increase in population, and an enormous increase in the degree to which we devour our limited resources. So the idea of population planning and management is something that I think we ought to be thinking about a lot more than we do. Does that mean I think we should sterilize everybody after the age of 30? No, of course not. The size of the family you want to have is going to be your choice. But, you should make that choice knowingly, wisely, and responsibly.

I do hear this sometimes being said: “Oh, I want to have lots of babies. I want to have five, six, I want to have as many babies as I can, I love babies.” Well, some people love collecting stamps or gold coins or cars. I don’t think you should collect children just because you have some obsession about the scampering of tiny feet around your house. A responsible family should think in terms of having one or two children, and that’s it.

We’re not living in biblical times where we go forth and multiply. We have to think about how we’re going to manage the very limited resources that we’re encapturing, the most obvious one being water, which is becoming more and more an issue in many parts of the world, especially as we veer into the area of the effects of climate change. But asking people to think about population management, it’s not something that politicians want to go near, because there are enough alarmed voices. As soon as you start talking about the need to curb the baby making process, it does smack of something that people find very repugnant, being told how many children they can have. And of course, it’s got to come from inside, not from outside. People have got to be taking a responsible view.

I’m lucky, I have two children. A boy and a girl. My daughter has two children, a boy and a girl. We’re very lucky. We don’t need any more. Why would you possibly want more? It seems to me, you’ve been blessed with having children at all. If you have one of each sex, then I don’t think you’ve got any excuses to say, Well, I think I’m going to have a few more. Yeah, well, fine. But we can’t all take that view.

In most so-called civilized Western democracies, the natural child birthrate is below two for fertile women. And when educated people make a choice, it falls to somewhere around 1.8 in most countries of Europe. It’s only pushed beyond two by, in our country, for example, because of non-indigenous folks who come here to take advantage of the welfare system and get child support. It’s in their interest to have as many children as they can possibly squirt out, because they get paid per child. It’s a free handout from the state. That is the reality. And it’s one that, unfortunately, is driving our population, because we’re a very popular destination for immigrants from other countries. That pushes our birthrates alarmingly high.

And these days in most places where people have choice, where women have the choice and have the freedom to make that choice, they choose to have less than two children per, I hate to use the word, but fertile women, that being the judgment. Well, you have to describe that infertile women don’t have children. Men don’t have children, women do. And so the general message is the replacement factor is described as how many children on average are born to a woman of child-bearing age in a given country. Even in Italy, Roman Catholic country, supposedly we believe what the popes, past and present, tell us: no birth control. But in Italy, the replacement is less than two. It’s actually lower than in the United Kingdom. So women in an educated Western society choose when given that choice to have fewer children. Which is encouraging. But it’s very often the men of the household who attempt to drive these things and scatter their seed a little more widely.

So those are the issues touched upon in ‘Locomotive Breath’. And it’s indeed touched upon in some music that I’ve been writing in the last few weeks.

© Carl WiserSongfacts, 11 April 2013

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