For decades Ian Anderson has been synonymous with the name of his band, Jethro Tull. But who was the original Jethro Tull? Anderson and his current band will answer that question beginning this fall in a big, celebratory way with “Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera,” a series of concert tours celebrating the life and times of the English agricultural inventor, Jethro Tull.
The show tells the story of the original Jethro Tull’s life, reimagined as if in the near future and illustrated with Anderson’s best-known songs from the Jethro Tull repertoire.
The quasi-operatic performance features a bevy of songs from the classic Jethro Tull songbook – sometimes with slightly rewritten lyrics or added verses – along with virtual guests on video and a handful of newly-written songs.
The playlist includes “Heavy Horses,” “Farm On The Freeway,” “Songs From The Wood,” “Aqualung,” “Living In The Past,” “Wind-Up,” “A New Day Yesterday,” “The Witch’s Promise,” “Locomotive Breath,” and other favorites. The band features David Goodier (bass), John O’Hara (keyboards), Florian Opahle (guitar), Scott Hammond (drums), and surprise virtual guests. The tour begins in the UK in September, with US shows to follow as well as dates in Russia, Europe, and South America.
Ian Anderson took a few minutes to speak with me about the upcoming tour, the original Jethro Tull, and for good measure, the state of the world.
The original Jethro Tull (1674-1741) was important to agricultural history, but it doesn’t seem that he led a very dramatic or exciting life. How are you approaching creating a rock opera that centers on him?
In fact there are only two or three reputable accounts of elements of his life, not really a huge amount of detail or storyline, and a couple of the accounts are slightly conflicting in terms of timeline. [But reading] up on the original Jethro Tull, I was struck by the fact that there were immediately two or three elements of the Jethro Tull life story which just sounded like: “Hey, I wrote that song!”
And then I thought: I wonder how many other songs I’ve written that tie in with elements of his story. And I started going through my entire catalog of over 300 songs, and time and time again [some] struck me as being very relevant to the story of the original Jethro Tull. So I immediately toyed with the idea: Well, maybe I can tell the story of Jethro Tull using my own songs.
But, and this is the big “but,” it would be a kind of a period piece with men in wigs and tights, and I think I’ve been there, done that, a bit too historical and a bit too twee for the present day, and kind of at odds with rock music.
So I thought: Well, hang on a minute, why don’t I just reposition Jethro Tull in the present day or the near future, where instead of inventing the seed drill and writing a book about basic agricultural improvement to the methodology of the 18th century, why don’t we position him in today’s world as a biochemist, researching genetically modified organisms, developing new technologies and patenting them, as you would in this world of agribusiness, and making a ton of money out of all these patented new developments in food production?
Which is very apt in today’s world, because we’re seven billion people on the planet, soon to be nine billion in 25 years’ time, according to most people’s estimates, and we haven’t got an earthly hope in hell of feeding nine billion people, especially in the context of climate change, which will bring huge stress and difficulty to many conventional historically productive crop-growing areas.
So it’s time to get real. If you don’t want to eat genetically modified foods, then my suggestion is, don’t have babies! Because, you know, if we increase our population at the current rate, we simply cannot manage to sustain [things]. There are two potentials. One: in the rich western industrialized world, we could all agree to eat half of what we eat now and therefore share out the amount of production amongst a lot of people who are unable to afford or unable to access it, including people yet to be born.
But I sure don’t think that folks are gonna go for that. We kind of like our triple burgers and our t-bone steaks and our lobster and all that we think is synonymous with an affluent lifestyle. So I don’t think we’re gonna share things out, somehow, and I don’t think either we’re going to find it possible to persuade people that the responsible thing is to limit family sizes to two or less children.
I mean, you might do it, I’ve done it, my children are on target for staying below [that] threshold, but you can’t tell people how many children they can have, they will become understandably very upset, even more so if they come from cultural and religious backgrounds where large family sizes are part of their tradition. And indeed for a lot of guys, it’s a mark of the man: Hey, I’ve got eight children, what a super-stud I am, look at the length of my penis!
Some folks…judge, or wish to be judged, on the number of children they have, or the capacity of their very large-size motorcycle. Then, you know, we can only really feel sorry for them, [they may] have a bit of a weird inferiority complex in the first place.
But you can’t tell people what to do, and I have to think that the only way we are going to cope with an enlarging world with more demands is through the necessity of agricultural developments and, indeed, increases in the population, particularly in our major cities, which are more easy to sustain and build upon than trying to get people to spread out into rural environments where building a school for 10 kids isn’t really cost-effective. Better to add another 10 children to a city school and increase the facilities and the infrastructure socially and politically for everyone to live in bigger urban developments.
I think these are the things that I’m touching upon in the lyrics, and the amendments to lyrics, in the proposed show that we start in September. They’re all rather weighty and serious and potentially doom-laden, but of course the darkest subjects can be brought to life by presenting them in an upbeat, humorous, entertaining way.
You draw people into these scenarios and subjects not by lecturing them and telling them the foreboding realities of today or the future, but by drawing them in to think about them, to not turn away from them, to consider them as discussion points among friends, family, or a wider public.
And that is I suppose what I’ve been doing all of my life. Writing songs that are sometimes touching upon issues that – if you go back to the Aqualung album – the issues of prostitution, religious powermongering in “My God,” population growth and expansion in “Locomotive Breath” – [and] songs from Warchild like “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day” about climate change, albeit back then of course we were more in fear of global cooling than global heating!
So I’ve been kind of doing this really all of my life, it’s my stock in trade. I’m not a politician, not a university lecturer; I am a songwriter, an entertainer, I dance around and play the fool for you on stage and you can kind of tap your feet and smile along with me.
You’ve always seemed to have an interest in the Earth and the natural world, back to Songs from the Wood, Heavy Horses, and up to the present day on Homo Erraticus where you kind of survey the history of mankind on Earth. Would you agree that’s been a theme in your creativity all this time?
It’s touched upon quite early on in my songwriting, but I don’t think it found a voice in terms of more sociological subject material until I’d been writing songs for three or four years. But in terms of a natural synergy with the natural world around us, the fields, the woods, stuff like that, it seems to crop up quite a bit, little references.
Going back to the the second album Stand Up, there are elements there that seem to me, looking back on it now when I read the lyrics, to show that my childhood growing up was one where I relished – living as I did on the edge of a big city [Edinburgh] – I relished the opportunity, when I was old enough to be allowed to wander at the age of 11 or 12, and I could go tramping through fields and woods and the open countryside. And that was a huge part of my childhood.
Even younger than that, I remember – as a seven-year-old? – being interested in farming, and reading about tractors and plows. Something that I suppose is amongst the many little influences that as a child you find will be the material you can draw on later in life if you’re a writer.
Here’s a question I didn’t think was related to the original Jethro Tull, but I guess it is: How do you stay creatively energetic as time goes on without just relying on your old, classic material, as some do? Does it have something to do with being open to and aware of the world around you, the natural world and the human?
Well I’m sure it does, because I’m a fairly voracious reader and watcher of news and current affairs and factual literature on various topics including scientific.
But I think it also has to do with – I mean, one of the things that drives creativity is anger. If it wasn’t for the bad stuff in the human arsenal of emotions, the anger, the jealousy, the rage, there would be no Shakespeare. We kind of need that stuff because it’s a huge driving force, a passion, if you like, that is demonstrable in the human spirit through making movies, writing books, and obviously music too. “Rage” is putting it a little on the extreme side, but anger and concern, those fairly dark emotions, often are great driving forces in creativity.
So, of course, is the number one topic of all song lyrics since time began, which is being in or out of love. [So many] song lyrics are driven by the lovey-dovey, being in a relationship, or being out of one, or having difficulty with a relationship. Most of the world of blues is driven by those simple emotions, which very often are quite sexual and quite graphic.
But that’s too easy, isn’t it, really? I mean, you know, we can’t go through life just writing love songs or being-out-of-love songs, we’ve got to go a little deeper and broader into the human story. So I let my humor, my anger, my rage even, come through in songs that are about topics that are less perhaps about human-relationship emotions and more about our relationship with the world around us.
You’ve done a lot of concept albums, and it seems that “Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera” will be almost a concept album for the stage.
Well, it’s actually really a rather weak and pathetic excuse for churning out yet another “Best of Jethro Tull.”
Well, that was my next question![We’re] giving it a narrative which ties into a historically different reality. In essence it’s just very much about celebrating my back catalog of songs, but [also] celebrating the life of the person who 47 years ago our agent gave us the name of.
When our agent suggested the name Jethro Tull in February 1968, I, sadly, did not know who Jethro Tull was, I thought it was a name he made up. I didn’t realize we were named after a historical character who invented the seed drill in the 18th century. I just fondly imagined it was some quirky name. I guess I thought of it more somehow as being an American name.
But both “Jethro” and “Tull,” as it turns out, are family names synonymous with the southwest of England not far from where I live. I didn’t, unfortunately, cover that little period of history when I was at school, because we only did a very limited amount of history since I was mostly studying science and maths. I missed out on Jethro Tull completely.
So it’s kind of a way to celebrate his life and his story, albeit turning it into something [about] what Jethro Tull would have been to agriculture if he’d been born some time in the late 1950s, early 1960s, and that’s probably where we would have seen him direct himself.
I try to stick very closely to the original sequence of events of his story, as much as we know of it, but try to give it a little bit more imagined depth through the introduction of five new songs to supplement the 80% of the show which is the “Best of Jethro Tull,” for want of a better term.
Would it be giving too much away to ask you for an example of how you’re adapting a classic Jethro Tull song for the story of the original Jethro Tull?
One of the strange ones was: I thought, how can I possibly tie [in] a song like “Aqualung?” “Locomotive Breath” is easy because it’s about being on the out-of-control locomotive to an ever-expanding and increasing and furious world, not being able to get off this crazy trip to somewhere. But “Aqualung” – I thought, how do I cover that?
Then to my amazement I read that the original Jethro Tull had suffered in childhood and as a young adult from a pulmonary disorder, which was the reason that he took a kind of a health-cure trip in the summer on two occasions to Italy, to get away to a warmer, drier climate where he could try to improve his health and learn a bit about foreign agriculture in the process.
So immediately I had it. “Aqualung” was the name of the guy in my song because he had that rattling breath through bronchitis and sleeping rough on the streets. And so I was suddenly able to fashion the narrative so [that] when a young, modern Jethro Tull goes off to study law in Oxford, and he finds himself, as you do in many university towns, in the streets alongside homeless people, he has this guy kind of shadowing him, following him around, who is Aqualung. It required a tiny bit of rewriting to make it fit.
Some songs, like “Heavy Horses,” are a natural fit. But I wrote a new verse for “Heavy Horses” which talks about [tractor brands] Massey, New Holland, “Nothing runs like a Deere,” referring to modern technology in tractor design and full-suspension cabs and air conditioning and all the things in the modern world of agriculture.
It’s kind of interesting to take things you’ve written before and either modify them a tiny bit, or in some cases not at all, and in some cases write a new verse. And [that’s] part of what I think has been for me amusing in getting to this point. We start[ed] recording [on May 1] all the detail, and video, and our virtual guests on video singing bits and playing bits and so on. It’s taken the last six or eight weeks preparing all the music, all the rehearsal, and to build the detailed arrangements of the entire show. So it’s been quite a bit of work already, and we’ll continue on and off between my tours during May, June, July, and August until our dress rehearsals just before we start touring in September.
Do you feel the effects of the digital age, the age when individual songs are more important than albums and certainly concept albums?
Well, individual songs are the highest form of the art of songwriting, because they’re the hardest. If you can write a three-minute song and get to the heart of a big subject, that’s a very very appealing and very laudable achievement to arrive to as a songwriter.
They are the hardest songs to write, mainly because what you can say in three minutes has got to be very poignant and be very articulate, and the words that you can use, the emotions that you can use, the musical notes and the arrangements you can use, you know, are likely to have been done before.
So when it comes to writing a three-minute pop song that everyone’s going to love, it’s getting increasingly difficult to do in a fashion that is original. The best of what’s been done in the last 50-60 years is a huge and heady mountain to have to climb before you can get to any peak. As a young songwriter you’re going to find yourself inevitably straying into ground that’s been well-trodden before.
It’s very very hard to do that. Writing short, punchy, to-the-point songs is a very good discipline to which to aspire as a songwriter. And the digital age can make it easier, but it can also draw you into endless imitation and repetition, because the buttons you press and the software you work with, you remember: Hey, everybody’s got that [laughs]. Whether they have any musical training or otherwise, they all have access to the same software, the same samples, the endless loops of a rhythmic and melodic nature which are even bundled with a lot of recording software, so everybody’s working with the same tools.
It’s hard therefore to build a different house. You’re working with the same tools as every other house builder and can all too easily follow the natural line, which in some ways is dictated by the tool that you have to hand.
In some ways it’s got easier for folks to be involved in music, but you could say, perhaps ironically, harder to be original. It’s just all too easy to find yourself doing the same stuff as other people. Even though it may be very attractive and very professional and neat and tidy at the end of it, the bottom line is, it’s so hard to find a melody line or string a few words together that haven’t been done to death, particularly over the last five or six decades of contemporary music-making.
But cheer up, everybody has an equal chance to write a new masterpiece, and a few people are going to achieve it. I, like others, have that innate optimism that somebody’s gonna send me a demo, or some music file via the internet, and I’m gonna go, “Wow! That is absolutely brilliant, I’ve never heard anything like that before.” I believe it’s gonna happen.
Another thing that’s gonna happen: Ian Anderson’s “Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera” concerts beginning this fall. Check the schedule online.