Ian Anderson on ‘Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera’

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In a four-decade-plus career Jethro Tull founder Ian Anderson has toured with everyone from Led Zeppelin to Jimi Hendrix, had the founder of heavy metal music briefly in his band, and sold a whopping sixty million albums. Now touring under his own name, this week the singer and flautist will revisit his past with a new show entitled ‘Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera’. We caught up with Ian for an exclusive chat about all of the above.

‘Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera’, how did that come about?

It came about roughly a year ago when I was wiling away the hours and thought I would check out the original Jethro Tull’s life. Like most people I knew the basics of his general position in history, which I sadly didn’t know back in 1968 when our manager named us after this dead guy.

How did you go about compiling his life story into a setlist?

There wasn’t a huge amount of detail known about him, but out of amusement I thought I’d write down all the songs from my repertoire that have a bearing on Jethro Tull’s life. I was surprised to find that there was a whole bunch of them. So I added a few more and thought it would be an excuse to play the best of Jethro Tull music linked in a thematic way with a timeline, and a narrative.

The show isn’t set in Jethro Tull’s lifetime in the 18th century but in the near future. Why did you decide to put that spin on it?

I didn’t want to do a period piece, like Downton Abbey with a flute, so I thought I could re-set Jethro Tull in the present day or the near future. What would an agricultural inventor be doing if he had been born in this era? I thought he’d probably be a biochemist working in genetic modification of crops and the cloning of animals, and all the fearsome things that people are often terrified of.

That’s more interesting because it touches upon all the issues of today’s world; population growth, climate change, various issues to do with strife and tension within society, which are the kind of things that I write songs about. So it became suddenly something that seemed much more relevant.

While you were working on the project, you must have thought: Why haven’t I thought of doing this before?

Well, I have rather consciously stayed away from the historical Jethro Tull character and what he did. I just didn’t want to get too close to someone that I’ve always felt rather embarrassed for; if he was alive today, someone has rather appropriated his name. It’s identity theft in pure and simple terms; it’s almost like I stole his credit cards and went to Selfridges.

Do you feel like you’re giving something back by telling his story?

I think in the last two or three years I probably have put something back because I have talked about Jethro Tull [the person] increasingly.

At one time, he didn’t figure in the top ten Google search on the name ‘Jethro Tull’. He is featured now, and I think that came about because people like me were curious about the name since I had been talking about ‘Jethro Tull’ versus the name ‘Ian Anderson’. Maybe that had some bearing on it.

Jethro Tull, the band, have had an incredible career selling over sixty million albums. Do those sorts of statistics amaze you?

We’ve had various estimates from the record company over the years, and if you extrapolate upon those based on actual income, you could guess that it’s probably between fifty and sixty million records. But for all I know it could be half that – you don’t really know.

The thing that I do know reasonably for sure is that we have played something like three thousand eight hundred concerts since 1968. That apparently puts us well ahead of the Grateful Dead, but not as far ahead as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who have played even more.

In the band’s early days, you supported Jimi Hendrix. What was it like opening for such an icon?

Jimi Hendrix was at the peak of his career when we opened for him, but you could see he was a troubled soul. Jimi always seemed to have good nights and bad nights, and he was never just even and reliable.

Things were pretty volatile, even just plugging in his guitar you never knew whether it was going to be in tune, feedback, or just not work at all. It was always a bit erratic, and he let it get to him. But Jimi was very pleasant, a nice guy and spoke kindly of us.

The band also opened for Led Zeppelin.

When we went to America, we played alongside them. They were well-established and confident about what they were doing. So you could really learn a lot from watching Zeppelin; their sense of dynamics, their sense of energy, and as a band how they coped with the presentation of music which was, like ours, derived from black American blues.

What did you personally learn from Zeppelin?

I learned a lot from standing on the side of the stage watching Zeppelin, not just in terms of the performance, but the way they arranged the songs and the way they performed the songs in a kind of ensemble way.

Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi was briefly a member of the band. What can you tell me about working with him?

Tony wasn’t really a member of the band; it was forty-eight hours where he stepped into the breach to do a recording of the Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus [film].

We didn’t have a guitar player at that time, and Tony was one of a few people that we talked to when Mick Abrahams left the band in November ’68. Tony wasn’t going to be the right guitar player for Jethro Tull for a number of reasons, but we did sit down and play together.

It’s like dogs sniffing each other’s bottoms really; you check each other out, but it doesn’t mean that you are about to mate for life. I think that’s a good summation though I’m not sure if Tony would agree with my analogy [Laughs].

More recently you’ve collaborated with Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, performing a fantastic version of ‘Jerusalem’ together in Canterbury Cathedral in 2011.

For a few years, I’ve been doing concerts for the benefit of churches and cathedrals. In Canterbury Bruce and Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues kindly came along and offered their services.

Bruce came out to my rehearsal studio in Wiltshire and spent an afternoon with us. Bruce is one of those guys who I think likes a challenge, and like me, he’s drawn to the tradition and the sense of community that you get doing a show anytime or anywhere.

It was a little bit nerve-wracking persuading the forces of good at the hierarchy of Canterbury Cathedral that Bruce Dickinson was not the beast incarnate! Luckily, they didn’t know their discography quite well enough to be truly alarmed. Getting the opportunity to play the flute solo in ‘Nights In White Satin’ too was something that for me, was too good to miss really.

Finally, getting back to your tour, which kicks off tonight, have you any closing thoughts on the ‘Rock Opera’?

The whole thing about ‘Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera!’ is, to most people – me included – the term ‘rock opera’ is owned by Pete Townsend and the 1969 ‘Tommy’ album. To the world at large ‘Tommy’ always was, and always will be the archetypal rock opera. But I just couldn’t think of any other way to describe it; if could have I would have clung to it. It is with a sense of shame and embarrassment that I use it, so I tend to say: “JETHRO TULL!” and then in hushed tones: “The rock opera”!

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Music Journalist and classic rock / metal enthusiast.