Friday, February 17, 2017

INTERVIEW: The Real Story Behind Jethro Tull's 'Aqualung'

by Joe Bosso, Music Aficionado: https://web.musicaficionado.com/main.html?utm_source=email&utm_campaign=WeeklyRecommendations#!/article/the_real_story_behind_jethro_tull_aqualung_by_joebosso

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
Jethro Tull had already hit the top spot on the U.K. charts with their 1969 release, Stand Up, but success in America was a harder nut to crack.

Their third album, 1970's Benefit, came this-close to the U.S. Top 10, but stopped one mark short, landing at No. 11. It wasn't until the band issued their landmark album Aqualung in 1971 that the doors to mainstream acceptance flung open in a big way, with the record going all the way to No. 7.

The album, a deft mix of pastoral folk-rock, thundering proto-metal and nascent prog, is generally regarded as Jethro Tull's undisputed masterpiece. But as Ian Anderson tells Music Aficionado, he wasn't initially sure that the record's broad blend of styles was a slam-dunk.

"We were getting quite esoteric on the album, and I felt that we might have pushed things too far in that regard," he says.

"What gets you noticed in one territory might not have the same appeal elsewhere. The record had a lot of more acoustic singer-songwriter material on it, and Jethro Tull had become thought of as more of a rock band. The riffy rock material had a pretty immediate appeal to live audiences, so I felt reasonably confident and gratified. But you never know until you put it out, and then the record did very well, so it all worked."

Many fans have called 'Aqualung' a concept album, but you've always maintained that it isn't anything of the sort.

It was never a concept album in my eyes. Yes, it certainly set out with the idea that there would be a few songs that kind of hung together, but there were a whole bunch of songs that didn't have anything to do with the others. When it came to the artwork for the album cover, which I rather left in terms of the pictorial images to our then manager, Terry Ellis, I thought that that would be best illustrated in terms of text by trying to give it some sense of order, by making it hang together a little bit more as a package. I guess that's what made people think it was a concept album.

I've always felt it a little difficult to deal with in response to the allegations that it was a concept album. As I said, it wasn't. There were just a few songs as I say that were in a similar vein and on a general topic of, I suppose, religion and growing up, and I still to this day would not call it a concept album by any means. Of course, speaking to the concept album question, I said, "I'm going to get my comeuppance next time around," and we did with Thick as a Brick, something quite surreal and preposterous - and we got away with it [Laughs].

As you mentioned, 'Aqualung' has some incredible riffs, like the title track, Hymn 43, Cross-Eyed Mary and Locomotive Breath. What was your process for writing them?

Oh, just sitting with a guitar in a Holiday Inn or somewhere on tour, and hoping that I came up with something. I was probably sharing rooms with [bassist] Glenn Cornick at that point - we weren't able to afford separate rooms then. Luckily, Glenn was a party guy, so he liked to go out a lot and meet people and do things, and I could sit in the room if it was a day off and try to come up with some tunes. But they all began very much on the acoustic guitar, and then you try to imagine taking them into the world of large-scale rock rather than hearing them as singer-songwriter acoustic-y things.

You've talked about being influenced by people like Roy Harper and Bert Jansch. Were those guys in your mind when you wrote the acoustic-oriented tracks?

Yes, there was certainly an influence from both of those people. I knew Roy Harper a bit. We'd done some shows together and appeared, I think, at the very first concert in Hyde Park. It was Jethro Tull, T.Rex, and, I think, Pink Floyd and Roy Harper. The previous year I'd met Bert Jansch, and I think we saw Pentangle play somewhere in Boston when they were staying in the same Holiday Inn as we were. I was aware of those guys, and some of them I liked and some of them I didn't, but the other thing was that I was never at that point really into any of the equivalent singer/songwriter, acoustic guitar type act in the U.S.

Simon and Garfunkel just passed me by, and even when I first heard Bob Dylan, he rather grated on my ear. I found his very Americana-Midwest kind of lyric and singing style rather … it didn't appeal to me. Later on I appreciated what an important artist he is, of course. But the English artists who were in that vein, who drew upon some of the more original English kind of themes or traditional English and Scottish and Irish folk music, I don't think they were ever as successful as were those two or three American artists who did big things with an acoustic guitar and carefully thought-out voices.

This was the first album with keyboardist John Evan as a full-time member, the first with bassist Jeffrey Hammond, and it was the last album with drummer Clive Bunker. What was the general mood in the studio?

It was a rather dark mood, actually, and it was a bit frustrating for me because the recording was being done in the then new Basing Street Studios, which was a converted church that Island Records had bought and turned into a pair of studios. Led Zeppelin were working in the smaller studio downstairs, which is a much nicer acoustic room - much cozier and more like a proper recording studio. Upstairs it was the big, cavernous church hall, which had a rather spooky and threatening atmosphere. It was quite difficult acoustically and technically - there were problems and shakedown issues with the equipment and wiring. It was a real struggle.

All of which makes it more difficult when you're trying to convey to other musicians what you're driving at. We had stepped away from the early Jethro Tull sort of music, and Clive Bunker found it sometimes beyond his points of reference. For Jeffrey Hammond, it was his very first album, so he was kind of just being given a list of notes and told how to play them. I was confident he would get it, but it was a little nerve-racking for him. Here, too, it was a little frustrating for me, trying to convey things to the other guys, which is why I just recorded some things on my own and then they came and overdubbed their bits afterwards.

"Locomotive Breath" was a particularly hard song to record because we just couldn't get a metronomic, solid feel. It just kept being kind of a bit scrappy and whatever, so I went out and played tambourine or something, or maybe I clicked two drumsticks together or something. I played bass drum and hi-hat all the way through the song, and everybody overdubbed their parts to that. I think I played one of the electric guitar parts as well, just to try and get something that would convey the feel of the song to the other guys. Then John went out and recorded the introduction part, which we edited onto the body of the song. But yeah, it wasn't a great atmosphere. By the end of it, I was quite relieved to get out of there.

You mentioned the religious theme to some of the songs. Did you ever get any flack from the Bible Belt in the States?

Yes, but that was the only place. It just happened a little bit in America where we got some fairly negative stuff and people were burning the album. But I also got from the U.S.A., as I did elsewhere, a lot of very positive and supportive comments from members of the clergy, from priests who understood what I was saying and why I was saying it, and who felt some empathy for the essential criticism of organized religion and the essence of not turning religion into a sort of power game for those in charge.

When writing lyrics, did you ever edit yourself at all? I remember the line in "Hymn 43" - "Jesus saves, well, He'd better save Himself." That's a strong line.

Yes, there were strong lines in "Hymn 43" and My God, some fairly strong sentiments, and I can understand people getting a bit bent out of shape. But back then we were all empowered with a kind of rather mouthy, Trumpish tone, and it was expected that you could get away with it, whereas I think today in a more politically correct world, while Mr. Trump himself would appear to get away with it at least half of the American public, most other people are absolutely appalled by it.

Sometimes to shock is a valid approach in the arts. I'm much more nervous about causing offense today than I was back then. Strangely, the place where I never really got any flack was in Italy, in the heart of Catholicism. The Italians loved those songs. I think in Spain we had a little bit of an issue for one particular line - "Got him by the balls," in "Locomotive Breath." They weren't too comfortable with that one.

When you were working on the record, did members of Zeppelin ever drop by? Did you pop into their sessions at all?

I think I might have popped my head downstairs. Some people quite like it when they get visitors, and they rather enjoy the camaraderie, but I felt like it would be very intrusive to go in while somebody else is doing a session, whether they're working on a backing track or doing overdubs or whatever.

Once or twice we did manage to get some work done in the studio downstairs when Zeppelin weren't in. The only time I remember seeing anybody from that band is when Jimmy Page came in when Martin Barre was recording the guitar solo for "Aqualung," and Jimmy sort of was standing behind me in the control room and waving some support to Martin. Maybe that enthusiasm imparted itself to Martin's playing on that recorded take.

What did you think of Iron Maiden's cover of "Cross-Eyed Mary"?

Oh, it was a very spirited rendition. I didn't hear it until much later on - I think they did it early on in their career, when Bruce Dickinson was probably quite new in the band. He, like some of the other guys, grew up in their early performing years listening to Jethro Tull, so I guess it was one of those cover pieces they might have played on stage. They did a high-energy version of it, and Bruce, as he does, went for the full-on high notes and big vocals and that I can't do. It was entertaining hearing them do a high-octane version of it.

'Aqualung' has gone on to be the band's biggest seller. Are you OK with that, or do you wish that distinction were for a different record?

Well, I'm glad it was that album and not some other ones. It was at a time when there was kind of a maturity coming about in terms of my writing and my understanding of music, so for me it was a very important album. It marked my move towards a more dynamic range in music, my understanding of creating more tension between loud and quiet passages, between simple and more complex pieces.

Indeed, those are things I probably learned the year before from being on tour and playing a number of shows with Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page got all that figured out, so there were good lessons to learn from him as a writer, arranger and record producer, how the dynamics of rock music could be so exciting.

But yeah, I'm very happy how successful 'Aqualung' has been. It wasn't a huge hit out of the box, but it was a steady seller over the years, and that continues to this day. It's clocked up a lot of mileage, which has put it in that sort of top echelon of rock albums from that era. I'm quite happy with how it's regarded.