Gavin Esler on meeting Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson: I'm a progressive-music fanatic - and proud of it

Newsnight's Gavin Esler has been a lifelong progressive-music fan. He reveals his passion for the unfashionable genre, and why he's thrilled to give an award to his hero, Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson

Don't meet your heroes. People say that in person they are never as impressive as you think. I never have met any heroes – except one. The exception is Ian Anderson, flute player extraordinaire, creative musical talent for more than 40 years, and the man most associated with the band Jethro Tull. As a teenager growing up in Edinburgh, my parents were suspicious of Cream and Led Zeppelin, and Tull was the first big band they allowed me to see live with my friends. I suspect that my father assumed a band named after an 18th-century agricultural reformer with a flute player who stood on one leg, was most definitely safer than Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and (especially) Ginger Baker.

A Jethro Tull album was – along with Cream and Led Zeppelin – one of the first I ever bought. We listened to them, Murray and Jack and I, in my friends' homes drinking terrible instant coffee and generally looking down on those lesser mortals who preferred Fleetwood Mac. Flared trousers and bad haircuts were also involved, but let's skip the details.

Many, many years later, I found myself on a plane bound for London from the Middle East. I struck up a conversation with the passenger sitting next to me, a woman violinist called Anna Phoebe who had been playing at a concert in the Arabian desert along with the likes of Placido Domingo. She mentioned that when she reached London, she was heading off on tour as a guest artist with Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull. I was impressed.

"Bringing down the average age of the band by a few decades," I thought. More politely I said, "So what's he like, Ian Anderson?"

I expected to hear – at the very least – that Ian was as crazy as a loon, perhaps that he practised standing on one leg playing the flute while howling at the moon at three o'clock in the morning.

"He's lovely," was the disappointing response. "A real inspiration." The hero of my teenage years was described as a great guy, an extraordinary musician, endlessly creative, professional, demanding, a perfectionist who got the best out of those around him, and yet who lived in the real world, whereas I was expecting a pastiche of "Je Suis un Rock-star". Damn. I liked the sound of Ian Anderson, although I liked the violinist even better, which is why I eventually married her. (Though that's another story.)

Today, I'm delighted to say, Ian Anderson's outstanding 40-year-plus career will be publicly recognised by his peers and fans. I will be hosting the Progressive Music Awards, and will be handing over to Ian the 2013 Prog God award for a lifetime achievement in the music industry. The creation of the awards last year is itself a miracle of survival. Progressive music was proclaimed dead in the 1970s and several times since, but – as anyone listening to the recent Pink Floyd tributes will have noticed – whatever the prejudices of the occasional critic, and the difficulties of radio producers playing six or 10-minute tracks, audiences love the music.

Even though I have known Ian for years now, and watched his sound-checks and shows in venues and festivals from Potsdam and Canterbury Cathedral to most recently the Royal Albert Hall, it's a bit odd to interrogate your friends. But one result of being asked to present the awards is that I have had the chance to ask one of the fathers of progressive music all the impertinent questions about prog. Wasn't it killed off by its own arrogance, not to mention the 10-minute drum solos?

"Pomp and arrogance went with the genre," Ian says. "But most of the musos engaged with prog did have a self-awareness and sense of humour, not always associated with the genre."

But those musicians took themselves so seriously that the term "Prog" was used only as abuse, yes?

"Prog didn't really go away," Ian replied. "Just took a catnap in the late Seventies. A new generation of fans discovered it and a whole new array of bands and solo artists took it on into the new millennium. The showing-off era has largely been replaced with careful, thoughtful, arranged playing and all drum solos consigned to the far horizons. Although their usefulness as a welcome pee-break for the proper musicians should never be entirely disregarded."

Ah, yes. The old rock riddle: What do you call a guy who hangs out with musicians? A drummer. But why the flute? In the Sixties and Seventies, everyone (including me) wanted to play the guitar. In my childhood, I heard the flute at Orange marches when I visited my grandmother in Glasgow or when the BBC televised the Proms and some lady in evening dress waggled it around to no particular effect. Ian admitted that he, too, wanted to be a guitar hero but he played the instrument badly as a teenager. When Eric Clapton appeared "as THE gunslinger guitar hero in 1967", Ian "part-exchanged my Sixties Fender Strat (worth a good £25,000 today) for a £30 student flute and a microphone. I played the flute but still thought guitar." He was self-taught on what has to be one of the least likely rock instruments, but adapted it for rock.

"I wasn't the best flute player in town, by a long way, but I was probably the loudest."

But what is it that after more than 40 years in the business that motivates Ian Anderson to be not just the creative centre of one of the world's longest-lasting rock bands but also artistic director, manager, and travel agent? I mention that Debbie Harry once admitted to me in an interview that she really had not a clue where the money came from for Blondie – or where it went. After a string of hits, she woke up one day and realised the money had gone, the five-star hotels and corporate jets did not pay for themselves, and she needed to start touring again. Ian Anderson is precisely the opposite. His self-management means he and his family know everything you can imagine about the profession of being a musician, including the 80-100 shows he plays on tour every year.

"Touring is what you make it. I like to organise as much as possible myself."

Control freak, I suggest.

"Not to be a control-freak. To take the stress out of the job."

It's less stressful booking your own tickets? Ian thinks so, compared to tours in the distant past when the band was herded like sheep, whereas nowadays "at least I hop on the plane knowing where I am going and when I am coming back. We all sit separately in aisle seats. Never together. Otherwise, it really would get too cosy for a long tour."

But why tour at all? I persist. You don't need to. Oh yes he does.

"Me caveman," Ian says. "Go hunt woolly mammoth. Bring meat for children....(It's) imprinted in the genes. Why stop when you're having fun?"

The schedule takes the latest Thick as a Brick tour to Belarus, Russia, Finland, Denmark, and the US. Then it's the release of a new album in 2014 plus a full 20-date UK tour. Are we talking prog here, I wonder. In 2014?

"A new concept album ... In the ... er ... folk-prog-metal genre. You know the one. The assault on the inner ear. The banshee wail of the rusty flute. But also with hopefully thought provoking lyrics on the subject of the itinerant, restless, migratory soul of our species. Which fits me perfectly."

I have watched Ian perform along with artists including Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, Deep Purple's Jon Lord, Soft Cell's Marc Almond and the Moody Blues' Justin Hayward. On the face of it, this peculiar eclectic tribe of musicians have nothing much in common, until confronted with a live audience, and then the "restless, migratory souls" are at home.

"I was always more interested in the ultimate live performance rather than the recording for its own sake," Ian says. "And, for the audience too, that thrill of – just being there."

As record sales collapse, and record shops close, live performance continues. All over the world, in the teeth of the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes, people still find money to go to hear the musicians they love.

"The concert hall, theatre and arena are the Sunday church of today," Ian says. "Not in the sense of idol-worship, but to meet in that cultural gathering point and to share social experience. It's the willingness to fall for a moment under the spell, not of the priest, but of the musician, actor, singer. Our politicians may fail us, but Status Quo always deliver on the promise."

And so does Ian Anderson, live, in the Sunday church of today. Not a bad place for the 2013 Prog God.

For UK tour dates, see jethrotull.com

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?