In 1976, at the zenith of the group’s popularity, Jethro Tull released Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! — a concept album about an aging rocker who discovers that music is cyclical, and those who stick around long enough inevitably come back into fashion. More than four decades later, the theme has proved both prophetic and more than a bit ironic.

At 71, Ian Anderson — the group’s main songwriter, bandleader and frontman — is touring in celebration of Jethro Tull’s 50th anniversary. The U.S. leg of the six-month jaunt kicks off Friday, July 5th at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino. Calling from a production office somewhere in the U.K., rock’s most famous lead flutist talked about the band’s bluesy early days, Grammy backlash and why what is old is indeed new again.

Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your original vision for the group and how it evolved into Jethro Tull.

ANDERSON: In the early days we were essentially a blues band, but we quickly — within a year or so — had become known for being termed a “progressive rock band.” That was a term that was coined in the U.K. back in 1969 in the music press for the first time. And I was very pleased to be thought of as a progressive rock musician along with Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and King Crimson, who started in that year. And so there were some pretty illustrious peer group characters. You know, we were in some pretty good company, and that continues to the present day. Sometimes we’re referred to as a folk rock band, but I don’t mind whatever they want to call us as long as they have a valid ticket and they keep their cell phones in their pocket when we’re trying to perform for them.        

What do you recall about your participation in the Rolling Stones’ Rock ’N’ Roll Circus, which is now being released on Blu-ray for the first time?

ANDERSON: Well, it was recorded at the end of 1968, the Rolling Stones had a new album out, or about to come out, an album called Beggars Banquet. Which was a return to a kind of bluesier, rougher-edge Rolling Stones after their experiments with pop and psychedelia, and imitations of perhaps the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. So the Rolling Stones were back on form and they were doing this TV show, which we were asked to participate in, along with the Who, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, and a few other worthies. It took a long time for it to materialize as a commercially available product because poor Brian Jones died shortly afterwards, and the Rolling Stones shelved the whole idea. It was only much later that they discovered that Allen Klein had got the rights to the project and had sought the permission of the other artists to release it before going to the Rolling Stones and putting a bit of pressure on them. Saying well, “Eric wants to do it, John wants to do it. Jethro Tull wants to do it.” Finally they caved in and released it. But it wasn’t a great homage to Brian Jones, who by that time was not doing terribly well, medically speaking. You know, he was a nice enough guy but he didn’t seem to be on the same planet as the rest of us. It was rather sad to see him marginalized within the band that he had been a founding member of.  

You performed “A Song for Jeffrey” with a then-unknown Tony Iommi on guitar. How did that come to be?

Tony and I got together a few weeks before to rehearse and try things out with a view to him possibly joining Jethro Tull. But for a number of reasons that was never going to be satisfactory for him or us. He went back to Birmingham and we asked would he come back just to do this one-off show, the Rolling Stones’ TV show. And we reassured him that he wouldn’t actually have to play live because he didn’t do that kind of playing, it wasn’t his thing, bottleneck guitar. So he came down and mimed to the track and I was live — the rest was a backing track. So Tony just did that one-off performance with Jethro Tull, which is encapsulated in one, maybe two photographs that show him performing with us. He had a white hat on that he pulled down over his eyes. I don’t think he wanted his bandmates to know what he was doing, because of course they were at the time known as Earth. A few weeks later changed their name to Black Sabbath. So I think he was trying to be incognito.  

Aqualung was the album that really broke you in the United States. Why do you think it resonated with American audiences?

The Aqualung album was a bit of a sleeper. It wasn’t huge right out of the box. It took a while to catch on with people all over the world. But over the next year or two, or 10 or 20, it penetrated really many, many countries in the world and became the best-selling Jethro Tull album. Aside from the obvious two or three songs like “Aqualung,” “Locomotive Breath” and “Cross-eyed Mary,” which I think was always popular in the USA, there are quite a few singer-songwriter acoustic pieces, which I recorded on my own in the studio, and then we overdubbed judiciously some little elements from the other guys. Or perhaps a string quartet or whatever it might be. But it was something that we did with not huge expectations. I do remember talking to John Evans, the keyboard player at the time, thinking, wow, we’re finished — but what are people going to make of this? Are they going to like it or not like it? Is this the beginning of a new era of Jethro Tull? Or is it the end of our brief bit of popularity that we enjoyed for the first three albums? Was it downhill from here? I wasn’t really sure, I wasn’t confident in the audio quality on the album. Because we had considerable problems trying to record it in a brand new studio, you know, not really sounding that great. But it turned out OK, and obviously people rather took to it, although it took several months before it really caught on I think.          

“Locomotive Breath” has been your encore since 1972. Thematically it’s a very heavy song.

Some songs are bit darker, more foreboding, like “Locomotive Breath.” Which is really talking about population growth, a runaway train of globalization and at that time that was not really a topic that people touched upon really. It was a dark song. It remains a dark song, even more so since the population of planet earth as doubled since I wrote it. In fact, we have three times as many people on the earth than we did the day I was born. That can certainly give pause for thought that we have population growth that is really not that sustainable. And although we have a population growth that has largely been arrested in Europe, it’s still increasing in the USA, and dramatically increasing in particularly the African continent. So we can see trouble on the horizon. Immigration, that Donald Trump is desperately afraid of, has become a world condition for our children and grandchildren, who will grow up with enormous pressures to accept the huge numbers of people from far away, who combined with climate change and the inevitable difficulty of food production, it’s going to get pretty scary out there. All the Trumpian walls will not prevent people from finding their way in desperation to try to seek some kind of ne life or survival in countries that are those that they were born in. So when I play “Locomotive Breath” on stage every night, these thoughts go through my head. I am a performer, I take on characters, the subject material, I take on the nature of the lyrics. These are the dark and foreboding thoughts that I am harboring every time I perform it. Albeit 48 years later, or whatever it is.          

It’s been 30 years since Jethro Tull received the first-ever Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal album, beating out Metallica an dothers. What do you remember of the ensuing controversy?

We knew we’d been nominated, and it was nice to have been nominated for a Grammy. The record company said, “the chances of you winning this category are virtually nonexistent and we have other artists that are up for a Grammy, and we want to spend the money for hotels and transport for people who have more of a shot at winning. So we don’t want to pay for you to come to Los Angeles and sit in the audience just on the off chance that somehow you might win.” So that was fine, I was in the middle of recording album at that point. We were busy in the studio when I got a phone call in the middle of the night saying, “congratulations you won the Grammy.” So I turned to the other guys and said, “we’ve won the Grammy — isn’t that nice.” And we carried on working on what we were doing. But the controversy really erupted with the media the following day, and quite clearly it was a very unpopular win. Poor Alice Cooper had to go up and accept it in our place to a torrent of boos and catcalls. But these are the things that happen. As you can understand, hard rock/metal was the new category that year and Metallica were the hot favorites to win with a couple of others. I think Iggy Pop was in it, Jane’s Addiction is a band that comes to mind. Jethro Tull was never really considered hard rock or a heavy metal band. And that’s why it was unpopular. But on the other hand, if it was a Grammy for a bunch of nice guys who never won a Grammy before, we would have been very happy with that. Or for best one-legged flute player, we’d pick that up every year.

Tell us about the 50th anniversary tour and what your fans can expect July 5th at Fantasy Springs.

Well, it’s retrospective that focuses strongly on the first 15 years of Jethro Tull. It starts off with the very earliest days of our beginnings as a blues band. We feature a number of songs that we played at the Marquee Club, early 1968, and moving on through the years, highlighting, I suppose, some of the key tracks — the iconic tracks that Jethro Tull fans would, in most cases, know. But even younger fans, who perhaps weren’t alive then, have always tended to gravitate back to those years when things were shiny and new. With the benefit of the Internet and easy research, you can quickly find the origin of the band, how they started, what their first album and so on. That obviously intrigues people who were never alive then, who are going back to discover and hear an era of music that perhaps attracts them, even if maybe they don’t know why. But it clearly does, so a lot of classic rock bands like Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, the Who, and so on, the bands that continue to endure with two generations further on who simply never knew them. Maybe their parents or their grandparents listen to it and they rediscover it as if it was something brand new. Which it is, of course, for them.    

Tickets for Ian Anderson Presents: Jethro Tull — 50th Anniversary Tour are $129, $99, $79, and $59, on sale at the Fantasy Springs Box Office, via phone (800) 827-2946 and online by clicking here. 

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