The Real Jethro Tull

The flute is not thought of as a polemical instrument—no one has ever gotten into a fight in a bar over a flute. Yet one of the most controversial Grammy wins in history went to Jethro Tull, who also amassed 11 gold and 5 platinum albums in their more than 40 year career. Their record Aqualung, which charted at number 7 in 1971, has sold over 7 million copies to date and contains hits like “Cross-Eyed Mary,” “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath,” all featuring the signature trill of frontman Ian Anderson’s flute. The record turned the progressive rockers into arena stars, headlining such hallowed halls like Madison Square Garden and Shea Stadium.

Jethro Tull also gave the nascent prog rock genre credence and a much wider audience than ever before. Still, their 1989 Grammy win for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance is decried as a travesty (Metallica was the odds-on favorite to win) and only one contributor to the band’s perceived identity crisis. The other mainly concerns their name: the uninitiated think Jethro Tull is the name of the lead singer. This fact has not been lost on Anderson. In his latest project, a rock opera he’s performing this month in Brooklyn, Anderson hopes to clear up any misconceptions about himself and the real Jethro Tull—both
of them.

Long Island Pulse: Have people finally stopped thinking you are a chap named Jethro Tull?
Ian Anderson: It still happens to this day. It’s the name of the band, but more importantly it’s the name of the person who inspired the presentation of music that I’m playing from September onwards [he was an 18th century British agrarian instrumental in the British Agricultural Revolution]. That’s the real Jethro Tull.

Pulse: How did you come up with the idea for Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera?
I was reading the story of the original Jethro Tull and I was struck by a few remarkable similarities to the titles and lyrics of some songs that I’ve written over the years. I started looking into it in a bit more detail and opened my document of my 47 years of making records, song titles and lyrics and thought there’s lots of things here that either directly fit his story, or can be easily bent into shape to fit it. And then I thought, “Why do I want to be thinking about making a musical presentation of the life of somebody 250 years ago?” Let me reposition Jethro Tull in the 21st century where he’s not designing seed drills for a living. He’s a trained biochemist working in the field of cloning and genetically modified organisms, spearheading the future of big agriculture.

Pulse: Do you have any plans beyond The Rock Opera?
Certain death. I’m 67 and each passing year that I’m able to go and do what I do is a gift. It’s something I’m very happy to continue to do as long as health and good fortune is on my side. But we can definitely think in terms of being on the home run—the horizon is finite…A certain sense of the sand trickling through the hourglass. In a way, it’s not a time to just coast gently downhill, it’s a time to really try to enjoy what you’re doing.

Pulse: Is there any chance of a Tull reunion?
Absolutely not. There are 26 other members of Jethro Tull and the chances of getting us on a stage are absolutely zero. Some of them are no longer with us and there are two or three more who are definitely not feeling too well right now. And the relatively few still actually playing music are people who perhaps for whatever reason—stylistically or preferences or other things they’re doing in their lives—it’s just not something that’s likely to connect. But is [guitarist] Martin Barre going to somehow pop up on a stage playing alongside me again? That’s something I really can’t answer. It’s not something that’s ever been ruled out by me, at any rate.

Ian Anderson will be performing Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera on Nov 6. at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn.

greg prato

greg prato

Greg Prato has lived almost his entire life on Long Island. He has written for Rolling Stone, and has penned many a book on either rock n’ roll or sports. See what he’s up to on Twitter @gregpratowriter.