I’m one of the people who thought the vocalist for Jethro Tull was Jethro Tull. With long, bushy hair and randy features covered in auburn facial fur, he looked like a Celtic madman standing on one leg. But I had it all wrong. The nefarious looking figure was Ian Anderson, front man extraordinaire, and he wrote some of the best tunes in the history of progressive rock.
The real Jethro Tull was born in 1674. A heavy in agricultural circles and credited with helping to form what became the bedrock of modern British agriculture, Ian Anderson has said the long dead inventor had no relevance to him. In desperate need for something to call the group before their first gig circa 1967, it was an early booking agent that picked the name Jethro Tull.
Born in Dumfirmlene, Scotland in 1947, Anderson spent part of his childhood in Edinburgh. In 1959 his family moved to Liverpool, England. There he was expelled from grammar school for failure to submit to corporal punishment, then still legal in England. He was heavily influenced by the swing, jazz and blues of his parent’s epoch and it shows on This Was, their first LP released in October 1968. Their two subsequent efforts, Stand Up and Benefit, revealed a band in something like transition from these roots. In 1971, the band left its chrysalis by releasing the legendary Aqualung. The progressive rock world was never the same.
As band lineups go, Tull claimed no less than twenty-three members over the years, including a temporary stint by Toni Iommi, lead guitarist of Black Sabbath. By far, the longest serving band members besides Anderson were underrated guitarist Martin Barre, bassist Jeffrey Hammond and drummer Clive Barker. Why do I sense Ian was not always an easy man with whom to collaborate?
Dissatisfied with his electric guitar playing, Anderson switched to the flute early on, the instrument for which he is most closely associated. He is no slouch at the acoustic guitar however and can claim expertise on a cadre of others. Tull became nothing if not a dynamo synthesis of rock, Celtic folk and jazz. Like all progressive rock, you never knew what the next tune would bring.
There was no need for megawatt light shows and pyrotechnics at Tull’s live performances. All eyes were on Anderson clad in knee high lace up boots, tights, cutaway jacket ala mediaeval times and that prominent codpiece. He lunged and fell back, one arm often waving or pointing, bending one leg and momentarily stretching it forward. Lips close to the mouthpiece of the flute, he liked to deliver a repartee of sounds that made the most of a beat in time. His face too was always in motion, always altering from open smile to glowering stare, from wide grins to seedy leers. Offstage, his was a wine barrel rich voice, using long-disused terms. To listen was to hear the past.
As a sometime English Lit freak and Anglophile, I lapped it all up and please, sir, always wanted more. From the lecherous character Aqualung, to the acerbic Minstrel in The Gallery, to feudal ballads like Jack-in-The-Green, Tull’s catalogue sent me down lurid Dickensian alleys into the great halls and cathedrals of kings, up on desolate moors to descend into the dells of thatched-roof hamlets, from the mullioned windows of vast country estates to shiver wind-whipped on the perilous shores of the North Sea. Not for naught was Anderson awarded an honorary Doctorate of Literature in 2006 from Heriot-Watt University, established in Edinburgh in 1821.
Anderson has largely kept his private life to himself. Still, there are tidbits. He has said his religious beliefs lie somewhere between deism and pantheism, which explains the message in songs like My God. He claims his trademark one legged stance developed somewhat accidentally. He tended to stand on one leg when playing the harmonica and it stuck. His first wife Jenni Franks wrote some of the lyrics to Aqualung. For a number of years, Ian owned and operated a successful Salmon farm on his estate Straithaird on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He has two children by his second wife Gael. They split their time between homes in Berkshire, England, Montreaux, Switzerland, Wiltshire, England, and Strathaird. Anderson is vehemently anti-denim, no doubt viewing Levi’s as a sign of the apocalypse. My favorite pied piper received the Member of The Order of The British Empire (MBE) in 2008 for services to music. One factoid from my personal life. When I bore my son in 1982, I named him Ian.
Jethro Tull as a band has not existed since 2012. Their tenure brought few disappointments. Now seventy-two, Anderson continues to write, arrange and perform solo work as well as collaborate in the studio and on the stage with a variety of other artists. Given the colossal body of work that officially spanned some forty-four years, it was no easy task to keep to the purpose of Classic Carbon Music and choose lesser heard tunes I feel best represent Anderson’s genius. I caved on Minstrel in The Gallery. But it was easy to choose a stanza of the lyric to the song that best demonstrates why Jethro Tull remains my favorite progressive band.
Life’s long celebration’s here.
I’ll toast you all in penny cheer.
Let me bring you all things refined.
Galliards and lute songs served in chilling ale.
Greetings well met fellow, hail!
I am the wind to fill your sail.
I am the cross to take your nail.
A singer of these ageless times,
With kitchen prose and gutter rhymes.
-Excerpt, Songs From The Wood, Ian Anderson
©2020, MJ Ostrander