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Further Down the Bench with Ian Anderson

Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson doesn’t like virtual music games—or any other kind of game, for that matter—but that didn’t stop him from giving us the longest and most wide-ranging interview we’ve yet had on the site. Nearly 40 years after recording the Rock Band tracks  “Aqualung” and “Hymn 43,” Anderson has plenty of sharp thoughts on music, politics, cyberspace and the world at large…

In Part One, he discussed his preference for playing acoustic over electric guitar, the upcoming non-Tull band tour, and reveals what was the worst song he ever wrote.

Part Two opens with a true story about what really happens when you play Shea Stadium and you’re not The Beatles. Also here are Anderson’s thoughts on receiving the MBE, his personal favorite Tull song, and a grizzled look at gaming.

 

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Brett Milano: This is a different subject entirely, but about a year ago they tore down Shea Stadium and a lot of talk was about The Beatles playing there, which of course was a famous [show], but you played there too. I’m wondering if you have any memories of that particular gig.

Ian Anderson: Yes, I do. I have two, two profound memories. One is the great insult that can be paid to a person is to assault him with urine. And one of the things that happened to me is, I was waiting to walk on at Shea Stadium while we were standing in an area where the audience was up above us at some point. And somebody – I felt something raining down on my head. I thought someone poured a beer or something, but then realized – from the smell – that it was actually that someone had peed in a drink glass or whatever and poured it down. I’d have to assume intentionally, since we were waiting for the cue to go out to the stage. It’s certainly an unpleasant way of starting a concert. Thank you very much. And these people I assume bought tickets and would be masquerading as fans, so it’s rather unpleasant. So that’s one memory. The other memory is rather like The Beatles. It was pretty impossible to hear what we were playing during the show, not because of the audience screaming and little girls fainting and going into orgasmic moments of pubescent confusion over the whole thing, but really because of the sound of nearby LaGuardia airport. [laughs] A lot of United and – what would it have been back then? – Allegheny and a whole bunch of other airlines who don’t exist anymore. Braniff, remember Braniff? [laughs]

BM: Vaguely.

IA: Lots of airlines that used to fly in and out of LaGuardia. And these days people know they’re not still flying, with a few exceptions. But it was incredible because the flights were just circling and coming in to land. It just absolutely obliterated the music. Especially in quiet sections of Thick as a Brick, you know the acoustic stuff was completely drowned out. So that was another memory. Somewhere at the back of that, you’re aware that The Beatles played there once and we played there and maybe it seems like a big occasion, but really it was just rather, not one of those concerts you remember for the right or good reasons, but just because it was a frustrating concert, particularly in the beginning.

BM: Speaking of things The Beatles also did, I know you got the MBE recently, and we in America don’t always know what that means. Could you tell me a bit about that?

IA: Well it’s more like the village postman award. The MBE is the lowest form of award given to you essentially by the Queen for services to the public. There’s the MBE, the OBE, and the CBE which – it’s not that they have different rank, but the order that is given to most people is the MBE, as a member of the British Empire. It’s just a recognition of public service, in my case services to music and public events. Now that the Westminster and the Number 10 are kicking about terms of royalty. We have a system in the UK where recordings are protected in copyright only for a period of time, a period of fifty years after they were recorded. In the US it’s currently ninety-five years because, strangely, Sonny Bono – he was the one who campaigned successfully to have copyright term extended to ninety-five years, I believe. And so, in the UK we wanted harmony with the Americans and a global right to protect the copyright for the great works, for instance of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, plus a huge amount of jazz and classical music and folk music and great recordings that I believe should stay out of the public domain and should remain as potential money-earning copyright recordings to the benefit of the music industry. To employ people, to pay musicians and they continue to be part of the economic cycle of music. In an age when a lot of people think you shouldn’t have to pay for music anymore, that you just get it free from the internet regardless of copyright, then that’s a sentiment that many people seem to support. Most of the music industry of course, did but unfortunately the politicians at Westminster, a few of them gave us their support and I think I got an MBE as sort of a “Thanks for trying, son” [laughs]. “Have this instead…” A medal from the Queen. Well, actually from Prince Charles, who’s the one who bestowed it upon me. But anyway, it’s a great thing to get, but most of us wouldn’t dream of adding those letters to our name. The big accolade is to become knighted, to become sir, as in Sir Elton John or Sir Paul McCartney, or even Sir Mick Jagger. And you don’t find these people wandering around referring to themselves as Sir Mick or Sir Elton. People happily accept these things and modestly put them to one side. And so it is quite probably with any honorary title. You can be very grateful and generously acknowledge your peers who’ve awarded you with such recognition, but I think it’s a bit in for a dig, a bit tacky to be wearing these as badges of honor.

BM: Let me ask, a couple of minutes ago, you named “Back to the Family” as one of your worst songs. If somebody put a gun to your head and asked you to name a couple of the best, what would those be?

IA: Oh wow, well, probably…I’ve often cited the song “Budapest” as an all-embracing Jethro Tull song, because it is essentially, it starts off as an acoustic kind of groove and it’s a blues-influenced song with some classical, western classical influences and a middle instrumental section and it gets quite rock-y towards the end, but it’s a sort of mid-tempo, solid, straight-ahead tune with some combining elements of acoustic music, rock music, and classical music. And it’s such that it wraps up a big chunk of what Jethro Tull is about. An albeit rather long song by radio play standards, but I think that’s one of my good songs. It’s a song that is observational. It’s not autobiographical, it’s an observational song. I guess that’s what I feel most comfortable doing is writing music that is – it’s about people in a landscape. If I continued to be a painterly person, having begun studying art as that goes in England, then I’d carry on with that. I guess I would have been someone who liked to paint people in a context. I wouldn’t have been a pure landscape painter and just painting scenes of romantic rural bliss. I would’ve been someone who wanted to see people in that context. I wanna see them close up and personal, and look at them. But I wouldn’t want to be a portrait painter. I was just in the National Portrait Gallery a couple of days ago and I thought, “I’m gonna make myself go,” because I’m not really a fan of portraiture or such, but I should go and see what some current prize-winning portrait painters are up to and in the summer exhibition at the National Gallery. And I went and thought, well, it’s very, very good, but I’m missing something. Which is I have all these glorious people and shiny and detailed close-up in many cases, but I don’t know where they live. I don’t know what they’re doing. I don't know where they live. I don't know what they're doing. I don't know why they're there, why are they sitting like that? What's the context in which these people exist for this frozen moment of time? I'm not happy with that missing information. So I rather like the idea of people within a landscape. I like to sing songs about people, but I've gotta position those people in a context because for me it brings them to life. That's what I feel happiest doing as a songwriter. But I don't only do that or always do it, but that's the area where I feel most comfortable. I'm least comfortable singing heart-on-sleeve, autobiographical, personal-sounding, emotional songs. I'm least comfortable doing that. I've done it, but it's not something I make a huge habit of.

BM: It seems you got away from that after maybe the first few albums. I guess everyone comes into it somewhat doing that, right?

IA: I guess it is partly because it's very much expected because that makes up the big body of work of most of what's been written in pop and rock music. It is about singing about emotions. And they're usually pretty simple and they're usually connected to being in love or out of love, but that's the classic love song isn't it? In all of its variety and it's probably the thing I feel least comfortable doing. I don't find that easy. It starts off as a given, really, for a young songwriter to be working in that area and then I suppose you develop, perhaps by hearing other people or by just trying it out yourself, you start to find other ways to give music some substance literally and you find other subjects to treat and a different way of doing it. You add more strings to the bow or strings to your guitar in my case and try to do, give a little more bread to the songwriting experience.

BM: I always wondered if the woman in "Budapest" whether that song has kind of followed her around as being the girl in that song. Has she ever connected with you since that song happened?

IA: Well there's no connection with me in the first place. As I said it's an observational song, it's about watching someone who became the subject of the song. And I'm actually singing a song really through the eyes and ears and fantasy of someone else. I won't mention who that someone was, but it's someone else close to me. And I'm kind of singing it for that other person, really. It's partly based on being in a room and seeing something, partly based on somebody else recounting to me their thoughts about it. But it's a sort of look-but-don't-touch song, and as such I think it's ultimately, although sung in a way which might suggest a kind of sexist approach, it is very much a hands-off sort of beyond this point we don't go kind of song. I think it's not necessarily the best song, but it's one that does embody the elements that I like to think are strongly associated with the Jethro Tull audience and music experience. It wrapped a lot of those things up. But no, I've never - I seem to remember a couple of times, we've played many times in Budapest since then and a couple of times the promoter [has said], "Ah, you know the girl who was the trainee or young athlete or whatever it was, apparently she knows about the song and blah blah blah blah blah. You know would you like to meet her?" And I said, "Oh goodness me, now would I like to do that?" Apart from anything else she's, I would imagine, she's probably someone approaching the age of forty, so it would seem, it would be a little awkward, I imagine, for her too. To be a mature lady, probably married with children and certainly no longer a middle distance runner, which is what she was, so I was told. I like the idea of a song where you're actually talking about something very physical and slightly romanticized terms, but it is clearly just something from across a crowded room, and that's it, that's all there is. It's just a little moment, a little fleeting moment, and then you gather some of the thoughts around her and other people's thoughts and you make something of it. But it's very much sort of a role-playing fantasy, but it also involves singing a song and playing real instruments. It's a role-playing fantasy of a video games. That's why I always come back to this thought that if you're going to be person who indulges in fantasy and the "what if?" scenarios and has something developed and how you impact things, it's so much better to pick up a real instrument and write a song. Or pick up a pen and paper and write a book.

BM: One of the thoughts is that hopefully what we do with the game will encourage people to do just that, if they get a bit of vicarious taste of it and they say, "Okay, I want to do this for real now."

IA: Hmm.

BM: That's the hope, anyway.

IA: Well one would have thought they would have got that vicarious thrill through actually being at a concert and watching musicians play live, from smelling the audience and smelling the fear and from musicians walking onto a stage and taking their lives in their hands in front of baying crowds. That would have been - one would have thought - would have turned the vicarious thrill into firing you up to do that, or not. Somehow I find it difficult to imagine how anybody gets a real kick out of sitting in front of a computer screen and pressing buttons. Or the kind of - I think it's coming back, I think I've seen it on the television screen about gadgets and computer things that people playing these plasticy-looking guitars and it's just, well, I just can't really find any...it's a bit like, why? Who's inventing something the world actually doesn't need? But people will gravitate to it because it's there. Because it seems fun, because it's loud and aggressive. It's simple as a fantasy, but I must say from the point of view of pretty much all gameplay, I'm just one of those people who's just never found games particularly enjoyable. Even if it's a game of cards or dominoes or Monopoly or whatever. I mean, I've played these things, I've played video games when video games were first invented back in the '70s when the first primitive tennis game called Pong, I think, unleashed itself in the pubs and bars and maybe recording studios in the UK. It was something that [the people] said, "Well, wow this is great," but we used to laugh at it and joke about it as being quite infantile and when things became more sophisticated and when my children were beginning to grow up with games like Frogger and Ski Slalom and Pac-Man and all that sort of stuff, and I thought, "Well this is okay if you're five or six-years-old," [laughs]. Frankly I would rather go fishing than play Pac-Man, or I'd rather go play golf with Alice Cooper than play Pac-Man. And I hate golf and everything to do with it. I hate golfers. [laughs] I'm just not a game kind of guy. I'd rather go for a walk. If I want a game, I'll invent a game. That's what I used to do when I was a young dad. I used to invent games to play with my children. And they would say, "Come on daddy, make up a game!" And I'd make up a game with rules and whatever was to hand, and we'd make up a game. And we'd play that for a couple of hours until everyone was completely exhausted, and then we wouldn't play it again because the children were so excited by the prospect of, "Make up another game daddy!" Very rarely did they say, "Oh, let's play that game again," because they always were much more interested in the more sort of creative thing of a new game which we would invent. And it would be something that none of us had ever done before. I think that was part of the fun.That was a game-playing and role-playing as you went along.

Click here for part one if you missed it, and stay tuned for part three!


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