An enduring legend of music speaks ahead of his upcoming tour.
Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson is one of rock music’s great eccentric figures. Playing flute on one leg while dressed as a medieval jester or Scottish laird may have been fiercely unfashionable for most of his career, but his band are now into their sixth decade and Anderson is a successful businessman away from music, so he’s certainly enjoying more than the last laugh.
Tull’s Thick As A Brick album came out in 1972. Originally intended as a satire on the pompously overblown prog rock world of that era, it told the story of an eight year old schoolboy, Gerald Blackstock, disqualified from a local poetry competition after his work was judged unsuitable. To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the album’s release, Anderson will be touring in the spring, playing the album, as well as the soon-to-be-released Thick as a Brick 2, which details Gerald’s life since he first came to fame.
We asked what the show, which comes to Symphony Hall on 30th April, will entail. “There will be both albums performed, so you’ll be able to see what happened to Gerald. It will be a more theatrical experience than the original with video and an extra performer. Ryan O’Donnell, a young, well youngish, actor who will be adding his own take on the album.
“Gerald is 50 now – his parents lied about his age in the beginning – and the album tells how he has reacted to the chance happenings in his life, looking both backwards and to the future. There are many parallel strands, reflecting what might have happened to us all had things worked out differently. Gerald becomes an Iraqi war veteran, a retired politician, a homeless rent boy living on the streets of Camden, a fat cat investment banker, a corrupted TV evangelist and the proprietor of a corner shop, living quietly with a train set and a wife who cooks for him. It looks at all of our lives and how they can change. It’s a darker album than the original – there are some upbeat moments in there but it’s more of an observation of life.”
It’s been forty years since the album was played live. Have the subsequent changes in technology meant it will sound differently now?
“In some ways, but the basics are the same. We still use speakers in venues that are often ill-suited for amplified music, we still play with Gibson Les Pauls, Fender guitars, instruments that basically date back sometimes to the forties. We still use the kind of Hammond organs that were around when I was first listening to the Small Faces in the early sixties.”
And the original musicians from the album. Will they be performing?
“They don’t play anymore, with the exception of (guitarist) Martin Barre, who is off doing other work. This is my baby, but all the band are either current or ex-members of Jethro Tull. They know the ropes.”
A lot of new prog bands are now playing music which dates from before they were born.
“There’s a huge prog revival and an interest in more detailed and complex ideas free of the taint of what came before. A lot of what was happening originally was hugely overblown and that was what we were lampooning on the album. People are brighter than they are given credit for. They want something of substance, which is why classical music and good movies are popular now. I’m appalled at how awful much of modern entertainment can be. If you want X Factor, fine, but don’t be ashamed of wanting something with more substance. I expect to be abused and showered with disdain on stage – that’s half the fun.”
Thick as a Brick was written as a satire. Forty years on, do people still get the joke?
“They still get it and they still go along with it. It’s like the Rocky Horror Show, they want to believe in the fantasy. That eight year old who wrote the pompous, disturbing lyrics is something we can all go along with. People will buy into the illusion as long as you accept that’s all it is and you don’t wear the Rocky Horror fishnets and suspenders to work – or if you do, make sure they’re under your ordinary clothes.
“All of us wear some sort of disguise. I certainly used to dress up on stage, because it was all part of the show. I recently played on a track with the Darkness and looking them up beforehand, I thought how great it was that they were into all the catsuits, the OTT contemporary glam. It’s refreshing to imagine someone spending half an hour getting into character to go on stage. It’s entertaining in a world full of drab people. I enjoy Coldplay buy they’re only one step up from Marks & Spencer.”
Ian Anderson’s Thick as a Brick tour plays Symphony Hall on 30th April.