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

Gavin Esler
Tuesday 03 September 2013 02:02
Flute force: Ian Anderson
Flute force: 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."

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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

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