Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull's imposing frontman, has wild eyes. Anyone who has seen the band's artistically bizarre videos knows this for a fact. But when he's merely relaxing with a cup of coffee, as he happens to be doing on this particular Sunday morning in San Francisco, those eyes generally remain coiled in some semblance of repose. That's the way he's been for most of his brief stay in the Bay Area--one of the group's many stops on its tour behind its latest album, Rock Island. There are some subjects you can touch on, however, that will bring the fire to the surface, causing his pupils to dilate, his irises to darken, and his simmering sarcasm to boil over. One such matter, as you might guess, is the 1989 Grammys.
"The Grammy Awards ceremony is a piece of pure Hollywood show business," he emphasizes, pointedly arching his eyebrows. "What the hell is rock music doing in the context of people who actually come all dressed up to the nines to be seen there? It's just like the Academy Awards-it's complete bullshit! And guys like Metallica even want to go there and play!" He shakes his head in disgust at the whole scene. "A group like Metallica needs a Grammy on the wall like a hole in the head, because that should be the antithesis of what groups like that are about."
Harsh words from a man whose group snatched up one of those little statuettes last year, for the first time in its two-decade-plus history. And let's face it: When you listen to classic Tull LPs like Aqualung or Thick as a Brick, you know this bunch of oldsters should have latched onto a Grammy way back in their youth. Ian agrees that 1989's award for Crest of a Knave was due, in part, to a sympathy vote--or perhaps we should call that "empathy," considering that the voters in the Grammy Awards are comprised of other musicians, songwriters and producers. "There might be a lot of people out there saying, 'Well, good old Jethro Tull, they weren't such bad lads after all. Let's give them a Grammy,' " Ian reasons.
But for hard rock/heavy metal? Ah, there's the rub! "Everybody thought we were a bunch of bastards 'cause we won,'' grouses Ian, although he does recognize the absurdity of being pitted against the likes of Metallica. "I was a little surprised when I heard the name of the category," he reveals, "because it seemed to me that my perception of Jethro Tull was not as a hard-rock, and certainly not as a 'metal' band. But then, having considered the other categories in the awards, I couldn't really think that we would fit into any of those, either. The nomination did seem a little strange, but where else are we going to be? There should just be a category called 'Others.' "
The problem with Jethro Tull--if you want to call it that--is that its music is so incredibly diverse, it has consistently defied categorization. "We're obviously a band," asserts Ian, "that uses mandolins and acoustic guitars, and scales of intensity within our music go from whisper-quiet to, I suppose, as loud as anybody else." Tull has elements of British folk, blues and just plain rock 'n' roll in its songs--not to mention the trill of Ian's ever-present flute. Where could a band like this be placed within the context of an awards show such as the Grammys? Nowhere, really. "in a strictly musical sense," sighs Ian, "I don't think there's much hope for groups like us to win Grammys unless we are in that mainstream pop-music category as a result of, should I say, major and repeated Top-Forty success, which we do not enjoy and"-here, a hint of irony twists his next words-"wouldn't enjoy, even if we had it."
So we all know what Jethro Tull isn't, but there has to be some way to pinpoint them. Where, exactly, did these "old men:' as I'm sure you're probably calling them, come from? Well, listen up, dudes and dudesses: Jethro Tull came out of the very same British scene that gave birth to some of your more favored historic bands--Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, not to mention another highly influential group that seems to get scant mention these days, Cream. Most Brits in the mid-to-late '60s, says Ian, "were listening to a considerable array of artists, such as Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Boy Williamson. By and large, they were unknown over here [in America]. But those guys got to put on their suits and come out, en great masse, to Europe, where they became stars for a month--went around concert halls, playing the blues to completely white audiences." The worldly strains of black blues were eagerly absorbed by the impressionable young British players. "That's what we all listened to,'' recalls Ian, "and when we heard other people playing their attempt to emulate that kind of music, that intrigued us.'' A wicked smile sneaks across his face as he continues. "There was the excitement of a white blues scene in the U.K., although it was based on imitation and complete lack of understanding of what it would be like to be A) black, B) extremely poor, and C) to have had the genetic weight of 150 years of slavery behind you. We hadn't got a clue what the hell it was about.
Naturally, none of this stopped any of them from persevering. "We all did it in our slightly different, rather idiosyncratic ways, relates Ian. "Jethro Tull was a little more tongue-in-cheek and less purist than a lot of the other groups around." The British scene back then was teeming with aspiring musicians--not unlike L.A. or New York today. Ian still recalls those days--not necessarily warmly: "All these bands would meet together, but seldom speak to each other, at a motorway cafe called the Blue Boar on the M1. If you were to inhabit the Blue Boar briefly at three o'clock in the morning, you'd find this succession of pop and rock bands all coming in and sitting at different tables, having their greasy eggs and chips, but never speaking to each other because of the intense rivalry between all of them. Intense rivalry. You'd go, like, 'Hmmmm, there's Eric Clapton over there....' And his voice dissolves into ominous muttering.
Other than Clapton, Ian expresses little respect for many of his contemporaries. In fact, the only other performer he mentions favorably happens to be an American: Jimi Hendrix. "Hendrix came along and blew everyone away by coming at it from a slightly sideways direction." He nods approvingly. "He probably had more claim than anybody else around to really wear the mantle of the blues guitar player/singer. Everyone else gets the pinprick of his sharp wit: "Zeppelin was born out of the old Yardbirds, which was not really a purist blues group of any sort. It was kind of a strange, poppy kind of mixed-up hippie sort of band who knew a little about R&B-but who weren't quite sure."
And then there was the rise of true heavy metal, inspired by none other than the mighty Sab. "it probably was Black Sabbath, really, when all is said and done, who were the ones who most obviously did that," Ian muses. "They weren't called Black Sabbath at the time, when we were literally just about three or four months into our lives. It was Led Zeppelin at half speed, wasn't it? Sort of dark, satanic, evil kind of riffs, with less pretension towards musical ability and more emphasis on there being something dark and occultish about it all.
So, finally, we're back on more familiar terrain--heavy music. Since we already know that Ian doesn't consider Tull to be a metal band--although he admits, "Something moderately hard rock does issue from our musical efforts"-just what, exactly, does he think of the types of bands we at RIP normally write about? With a smile, he replies, "it is unabashed musical fornication and, as such, it's a terrific load of fun for me, anyway--for about 15 or 20 minutes." Occasionally, back home in Britain, he'll even tune into a metal-video program. "I find myself rocking in my chair, laughing, having a glorious time,'' he chuckles.
"Now, some of the time I'm laughing at these guys, and some of the time I'm hopefully laughing with them, because they, too, know what prats they are, but they're just having a good time. And I have a self mocking attitude towards what I do onstage. I can see that there are some absurdities and aspects of the thing that do have to be laughed at, and I hope that is the case with most of those bands."
What he doesn't find amusing is the unrelenting nature of metal. "The whole thing is about slam-bam," he complains. "I think it's sad that audiences allow themselves to be seduced by all of this, and allow the whole thing to keep building towards this sort of search for the two-hour orgasm. It doesn't exist. The orgasmic gratification isn't worth a damn unless you have a reasonable amount of foreplay. And foreplay is nine-tenths of what happens musically at a concert or on a record It's all got to be in context.
Well, then, are there any metal bands to which Ian is willing to lend his vote of approval? "I like Motorhead," he responds-and for good reason, apparently. "Lemmy owes me a pound. I lent it to him in 1965, and he's not yet paid me back, nor have I actually seen Lemmy since 1965--I think he played rhythm guitar in a group called Reverend Black and the Rocking Vicars. This will serve as a warning to Lemmy that there's still a pound floating about. I haven't forgotten it. Lemmy, on the other hand, obviously has."
Although it's clear that Ian is not a huge metal fan, he does admit, "People always thought it would just kind of burn out, but it hasn't. It's there, and it's particularly there in Europe." And he does feel that the music has a purpose: "We've got the sports audience going to those sort of things. It's an outlet for that similar kind of aggression. And maybe, rather like football matches, it's better to have those people have those outlets than ask them to listen to Bruce Hornsby and the Range, which would presumably cause some degree of terrible inner frustration that would result in a matter of going and having to kill people on the streets in order to vent their spleen.
Now, before you get your dander up over Ian's huge dose of sarcasm, perhaps you should keep something in mind: He points out that winning the hard-rock/heavy-metaI category "certainly has done us absolutely no good whatsoever in terms of selling records or putting more people on chairs at concerts or whatever.
It doesn't mean a thing." As for Metallica, he claims, "They certainly came out of it way ahead of us." Nevertheless, he does have something to say to the members of Metallica itself. Leaning over the tape recorder, he begins his statement regarding the 1989 Grammys: "I just want them to know that, 5,000 miles away, back in England, we were feeling very sympathetic towards them. We could imagine the intense disappointment they must have suffered at that moment as, backstage in the privacy of their dressing room, they wept silently into their Spandex handkerchiefs."
Well! For once Ian's
usually sharp wit falls way short. Doesn't he know that James Hetfield
would sooner swallow a lighted stick of dynamite than so much as look at
a shred of Spandex? Man! Will these old dudes ever learn?
Written by: Janiss Garza