This year marks the 50th anniversary of Jethro Tull’s first tour of the United States. The British band “flew in and did our first ever opening show in the U.S. at The Fillmore East with Bill Graham, who had previously booked our friends Ten Years After from Chrysalis Records, an embryonic record company,” said frontman Ian Anderson. “They had preceded us by a year in the U.S.A., rather like Led Zeppelin did. So Ten Years After were the senior model for the beginning of our career there, because we shared the same management and agency, and that began our long journey.”
A journey that still continues to this day. Ian Anderson recently spoke of the band’s history, the upcoming tour, his love of old churches, his dislike of cell phones and much more as the East Coast leg of the Ian Anderson Presents Jethro Tull: 50th Anniversary Tour wrapped up with shows in Atlantic City and Morristown. They will have at least two more shows in the area, though, in the fall: Sept. 13 at the Xcite Center in Bensalem, Pa.; and Sept. 14 at the Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, N.Y. Visit jethrotull.com/tour-dates.
To understand the legacy and importance of this event, one must grasp the background of how Anderson and the band evolved. For Anderson, it was a lack of patience that set him down a musical path which would eventually become a four-lane superhighway.
“I was in art college in the north of England and getting the feeling that as much as I loved the visual arts, to aspire to be a professional painter or sculptor in the world of fine art was probably not likely to happen, at least not in my lifetime,” he said. “Some people get famous after they’re dead, but I was a bit impatient and the idea of music and its immediacy appealed to me greatly. Many of the things that were my way of thinking in terms of the painterly arts, words like tone and line and form and color … these are the same words that applied in the world of music too. So it was a very easy transition to switch from visual references to musical ones, and to this day, I still tend to write lyrics and sometimes music with a picture in my head. I illustrate, in musical terms, something that is a visual reference.”
His musical career, he said, “wasn’t just about getting onstage and playing music then going to the bar and having a few pints with the lads. That wasn’t really my thing. I was more interested in how it all worked: How different cogs of the machine would mesh and produce, sometimes, quite a complex end result.
“So that was how I tended to think of music as a career. Maybe I’d become a record producer or an agent or a manager or do something that had perhaps a little bit more to do with the business side of it. Although I have ended up with that role as a performing musician, and I’m very lucky to still have my job.”
Decades later, with 40 album releases under his and their collective belts, Tull (as they’re sometimes known) are still going strong. Anderson recalled the group’s trials, tribulations and highlights over the years.
“I think there were a number of highlights along the way,” he said. “Probably in creative terms the second Jethro Tull album, Stand Up, which was released in 1969, was not only successful in the U.K. and Europe but it was the record that really took Jethro Tull into the headlining capacity in the U.S.A. I can remember being in the hotel in midtown Manhattan having breakfast, and at the time we were struggling a bit and didn’t have much money, and into the coffee shop walked Joe Cocker, and he came over bearing a large plate of bacon and eggs and whole wheat toast, orange juice and whatever else, to say, ‘Congratulations! I just heard your album went to No. 1 in the U.K.’ And I said, ‘I don’t suppose you’re going to eat all of that bacon, are you, Joe?’ I was a bit peckish. I think he gave me a rasher.”
He laughed heartily, then continued: “That was a highlight early on, but the record that tended, over a period of years, to break us in a number of territories, was the Aqualung album, which was a bit of a slow burner. It didn’t immediately take off anywhere, but it did solidly well and continued to sell over the years. By the time that we had gotten into the era of Coldplay, I remember checking with the record company to see if they had any cumulative sales, and the last figure they had was just about 12 million for Aqualung, which was just a little bit more than whatever huge album Coldplay had just released. And I thought, ‘Well, in cumulative terms, we can hold our heads up with many of the biggest selling acts in the world.’ Perhaps not quite in the realms of Pink Floyd or The Eagles, but not a bad sales figure, if you’re counting the beans.
“Then of course we went on to do, Thick As a Brick, which was a bit more adventurous and crazy. And then Songs From the Wood, another highlight album where, I think, the members of the band at the time were particularly cooperative in the sense of participating more in arrangements and ideas in the good spirit of the band. That was a highlight period, around 1977. Things got a little bit fraught towards the end of the decade, but ’77 was a good year — one of those years where we played The Forum in L.A. and Madison Square Garden. I was just looking today: I think Jethro Tull played Madison Square Garden 14 times over the years, which is quite a lot of shows.”
In 2003, the band released The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, which was well received, and re-released, in 2009, with an added, a live disc.
“That was one of the earlier, original concerts that I did at Christmas, which was recorded at St. Bride’s Church in England. I think we had recorded the original album a year or two before that and then we did a live version of it at one of my first live Christmas concerts, and since then … well I continue, to this day, to do a few of our great medieval cathedrals and even some churches elsewhere in Europe where we carefully blend the Christian musical liturgy with a secular concert of some respectful and appropriate nature to celebrate the Christian Christmas. I’m not one of these ‘Happy Holidays’ kind of people. It’s Christmas (laughs) but that’s about the only thing that I have in common with your current president (laughs).”
Then there was “Jethro Tull the Rock Opera,” an incredible masterpiece of live music and video technology rolled into one. Well-conceived and constructed, this was a display of precision timing, craftsmanship and the history of the band’s namesake told as never before. Anderson elaborated on the production, his venue preferences and his feelings on cellular devices during performances, mincing no words about the latter.
“The opera was in some ways sort of a poor man’s Pink Floyd in terms of production, glitz and glamour,” he said. ” ‘Thick As a Brick,’ when we did that in 1972, it was really very amateurish. It had a general verve and simplicity and good nature about it but I think it worked in theaters. So it’s always been my returning dream to do, from time to time, concerts that are more of a production rather than getting up onstage, playing a few songs and heading off into the night. I do try to do that much of the time — probably more these days because the technology is more within reach.
“I remember playing a concert somewhere recently where there was a video wall behind us that our servers and equipment could be made to interact with and I remember thinking how enormous the physicality of this video wall was. There was probably a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of LED PCs that were put together to form this continuous huge wall of video. I went to see Black Sabbath in their second or third final concert ever and remembering seeing the size of their video wall and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s about four times what I could afford to do in a concert (laughs),’ but of course this was in the O2 Arena in London, which is way bigger than Madison Square Garden, so you really do have to do everything on a very grand scale at that level.
“I’m a theater guy; I don’t really like enormodomes. I remember going to see Iron Maiden a few months back in a similar venue and they were these tiny little figures onstage, no matter however big they may be on the video screen. I can get that experience watching YouTube. I’m much happier in a theater where everyone sits down and hopefully switches off their damn cell phones.
“There’s nothing more off-putting than sitting there and in front of you in your eyes is somebody holding up a smart phone with the screen lit up filming something. As a member of the audience, that gets me really, really angry. Almost as angry as it is when I’m onstage and I’m facing people with their phones in the air, and of course they don’t know how to work them properly and they’ve got those nasty little focusing lights on them. So you’ve got these bright lights in your eyes and that’s quite off-putting, when you’re trying to concentrate on music and suddenly lights are flashing on and off in front of your face and they are incredibly bright. People are obviously unaware of what they’re doing and, frankly, a lot of them just don’t care, anyway. When you politely ask them not to use their cell phones, they just think, ‘Well, fuck you! I bought a ticket I’ll do what I like.’ There’s not much I can do about it, whether I’m a fellow audience member or performing. Am I going to be picking a fight with a stranger? That’s not something that most of us want to do, hence they get away with it all of the time. I think, ideally, that the audience members ought to just tap someone on the shoulder and say, ‘Excuse me, please don’t do that,’ and I’d be very grateful if they did.”
While it has been 50 years since Jethro Tull’s first U.S. tour the band came together year earlier, in 1968.
“We’re actually about to embark on ’51 Years of Jethro Tull,’ which is our coded term for the production concerts that begin in Europe later this year,” Anderson said. “We will be changing some of the material from the 50th anniversary production concerts that we did last year. We will be performing in the U.S.A. on three short tours where we will vary the music a bit from the stuff that some of our fans saw us play in various parts of the U.S.A. during 2018.”
Still, he said, “we will continue to call it the 50th Anniversary Tour, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned,” since “technically, in America, it is the 50th anniversary of Jethro Tull’s American experience.”