The current lineup of Jethro Tull
The scruffy, long-haired man in jeans and an Aqualung T-shirt looked like one of Jethro Tull’s crew. Except for the one with a loaded gun strapped surreptitiously to his ankle?
“I got a few death threats, so we had a couple of undercover cops from the Denver Vice Squad dressed as road crew during a show in Border, Colorado,” singer Ian Anderson calmly explains. It was the early 1970s and the person who made the threats was known to the police. They were watching his house but he escaped through a window and got away in a car, so there was real concern. And fortunately they didn’t have to pull their service pistols out of their socks.”
He smiles wearily and adds, “Another day in the life of Jethro Tull…”
Ian, 75—who is fondly remembered for wearing a code piece on stage and playing the flute while standing on one leg—is one of rock’s most thoughtful and original stars, known for incorporating elements of English folk, prog, and classical music into Tull’s eclectic sound.
So why does the ensemble pull off such killer headpieces? Did some madman have a grudge against unusual time signatures and traditional harmonies?
“A lot of people got threats from weird fans who turned obsessive-hate at that time,” Ian told me. “We were lucky. Others like John Lennon didn’t.”
“I have spent my life looking over my shoulder and being careful in crowds of people.
“I had a bodyguard, hired by the record company, around this time. He came armed with a cane—a sword hidden in a cane. He lasted two days. He was more of a hindrance than a help.”
Another Tull concert, at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheater in 1972, erupted into a full-blown riot. “The police overreacted when fans showed up without tickets and used tear gas against people inside and outside the stadium,” he says. “It was before we played and there were ugly scenes.
“We managed to get it on stage and perform but unfortunately the police wanted to take it out on someone and the band was fair game. We had to escape by hiding in the backs of cars covered in a pile of blankets.”
By chance, Ian attempts to sign up as a police cadet in Blackpool as a teenager. “They were interested until I told them I had O levels,” he says.
Ian donned his signature stage clothes in the early 1970s;
Jethro Tull, who takes his name from a radical agricultural pioneer from the 17th century, is about to release RökFlöte – the 23rd album of their 56-year career.
The band had a big hit in 1971 with the multi-platinum Aqualung. The follow-up, 1972’s Thick As A Brick, comically spoofed prog rock concept albums – though most reviewers missed the joke.
Always a free thinker, Anderson’s work ranges from the Renaissance-inspired folk rock of Songs From The Wood to recording Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square on a three-string Russian balalaika.
Tull has sold over 60 million albums, five platinum sellers, and won a Grammy Award in 1989.
Although never a ‘single band’, Living In The Past and The Witch’s Promise climbed into the top five.
Ian estimates he’s performed the same fan-favorite Locomotive – about catastrophic population growth – over 3,800 times live.
In recent years he has played fundraising Christmas shows at churches and cathedrals to help with restoration work – he gives them all the ticket money, and covers the musicians, sound and lights out of his own pocket.
“Wherever we play, I budget for two hours.”
He praises Bradford Cathedral’s acoustics but says St Paul’s and Liverpool are not practical, joking that “the architect should have been shot”.
Although he does not call himself a Christian, he is a grammar school-
He describes himself as an “observer”, with a keen interest in science, nature, and politics.
At Christmas he played Bath Abbey, Exeter Cathedral a second time, and Gloucester Cathedral, but said: “The night before the old heating system broke, and it was 3 degrees and dropping. I got ready with the audience in place.”
Ian cites Beethoven and Muddy Waters as his biggest musical influences. “Bach resumed when I was in my twenties, but I’ve only recently grown fond of Handel.”
He toured with an orchestra but, as Ian told me, “I don’t think I’ll do it again – logistics, hassle, cost, theaters of disappointing standards…”.
He’s gearing up for a summer of shows around RökFlöte, but only three in Britain; Two of them are festivals.
The title started out as “Rock Flute” but along the way, I toyed with the idea of changing to the old Icelandic Rök and Flöte which is German for flute, both have alternating marks.
The umlaut has been taken over by Motörhead and Mötley Crüe, and now far-right gangs are writing about Norse Gods, but that shouldn’t be a hindrance. It’s more like saying because there are so many love songs I can’t compose a love song.
“The challenge is to approach the subject in a more gentle way.”
He also dispatched himself, claiming that in pomp he looked like “a crazy Nureyev with a flute”.
Jethro Tull retired in 2012, but Anderson revived the band five years later. The return of The Zealot Gene’s critically acclaimed album last year saw him once again hit the top ten.
Dunfermline-born Ian, who moved to Blackpool at the age of 11, now resides with his second wife, Shona, cousin of the Duchess of Rutland, at the age of 18y The Century property is set in 500 rolling acres of Wiltshire woodland. They have two adult children, musician James, and actress daughter Gayle, who is married to Andrew Lincoln from the famous The Walking Dead.
It’s a very long way from their beginnings in London’s Marquee Club in 1968 where Anderson’s “wonderful-eyed” stage persona quickly gained attention. Playing the flute was unplanned. “I used to play the harmonica on one leg and the flute on two legs, but after a reviewer wrote that I play the flute on one leg, I started doing it and playing the flute,” he laughs.
“I play naked under the piece of code… I’ve had to replace it several times. I had a set but they’re all gone. They were in a drawer until about ten years ago and mysteriously disappeared. My wife denies any involvement…
“Gone, too, are the somewhat sexy theatrical tights the Royal Ballet costume designer had designed for me.
“I check the boxes to this day to make sure my favorite hole-in-the-dark shirt wasn’t gone either. I’ve seen Benjamins with stylish jackets. For all I know they’re now wearing one of my coding…”
Jethro Tull in 1972 John Evan, Ian Anderson, Barry Barlow, Martin Parr and Geoffrey Hammond
Anderson feels lucky to be in a profession where you don’t have to retire.
“We waited for Covid, and after a year and a half the show is back on the road,” he says. “It was a lot easier than I thought it would be.
“You keep working as long as you are productive and capable. Poor Pavarotti, even before his final diagnosis, it was clear he could no longer perform to that level.
“It was the same with Sinatra. I saw him live and he only did 45 minutes, short change for 12,000 people.
I think, ‘I can still manage two hours, I’ll give it another year! “
He says Ian’s health has been “very good for the last five years”. “In 2021 I had a bad couple of weeks with a viral infection but it passed, and the COPD diagnosis was canceled in favor of more controllable asthma.
“I have the confidence to keep doing what I do. I get general health checkups every year to see if anything is waiting for me. I go looking for trouble.
“I’m willing to take bad news on the chin and fight through it if I can. And if not, I can just walk around and say goodbye to people.”