While he’s not often thought of in terms of social activism, the flute-playing rock legend has been addressing contemporary issues in his songs for almost a half a century
Ian Anderson certainly deserves to proclaim, “I told you so.”
After all, the 72-year-old singer-composer who made the flute a rock music lead instrument more than 50 years ago has been sounding alarums about such things as climate change and over-population for almost that long. But when given the opportunity to brag about being way ahead of his time on such matters, the co-founder and guiding light of Jethro Tull co-founder demurred, suggesting it wasn’t necessary.
Nonetheless, during a recent phone call occasioned by his bringing the Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour to Parx Casino in Bensalem, Pa. for a sold-out performance, Anderson, who seems to always have plenty to say regardless of the topic, did acknowledge that he’s no Ian-come-lately to such issues.
“You know, my first climate-change song was [written in] 1973,” he said, referring to the Tull classic, “Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of A New Day”). “It was about climate change. However, it was reflecting popular scientific opinion back then that we might be heading towards a new Ice Age cooling.”
“I was concerned about population growth and globalization as we learned to describe it,” he offered, explaining the meaning of “Locomotive Breath.” “And I was concerned about the plight of homeless people and their impact upon society and our inability to deal with those issues when I co-wrote ‘Aqualung.’”
One of the reasons why Anderson likely isn’t thought of as a social commentator may be his penchant for addressing topics in metaphorical ways (e.g. “Locomotive Breath,” which depicts unchecked population growth as a runaway train hurtling down the tracks). That, he insisted, is by design.
“I think you can do so in very obvious ways, as John Lennon and Yoko Ono did most famously when they recorded the song ‘Imagine.’ It's a fine song that a huge number of people have an enormous amount of love for, but it's a naive and optimistic song in very simple language.
“However, it is not a favorite song of mine. I much prefer the angry John Lennon and the more-surreal John Lennon [‘Strawberry Fields Forever’] and ‘I Am the Walrus,’ where his passion for an artistic and less-literal form of music and lyrics is easier on my ear than the creamy, sweet, syrupy notions of ‘Imagine.’”
Not that he believes “Imagine” had any real impact on society beyond its status as a beloved piece of music.
“I think that people sometimes think that he was part of something that changed the world. But I don’t think it made a…bit of difference. You know, you can write Utopian songs like that and people smile and groove along with it. But I don't think it made any difference.”
That, he suggested, is how his songs are different.
“I was always much more interested in reflecting the world around me, the good and the bad, and never thought of myself as having a career path that would be trying to change things. I felt that I was more a reflector of change and trying to put it in succinct terms that were applicable to the lyrics of rock music.”
Although Jethro Tull was founded (in 1968) as a pretty straightforward blues-rock band, Anderson subsequently incorporated various modes--among them British folk, jazz, classical and Middle Eastern—into his composing. That, he reasoned, is how the band became known as a “progressive rock” act.
“Blues and early jazz are part of my DNA,” he said. “And they were, even in my late teenage years, [incorporated] into my way of thinking about stuff.
“But I try to avoid sounding as if I'm a somehow trying to purvey the black- American experience, which, obviously, is not something I can do. Other bands didn't, worry about copying B.B. King or Muddy Waters or whoever. So there are a bunch of British blues bands who were perfectly happy to imitate black American music.
“But I felt embarrassed about it and I couldn't escape the reality of walking past a shop window and seeing my reflection. I was…pale, white, skinny, middle-class. And to try to play [what is] essentially black American folk music, which is what blues is, felt to me a dreadful sham. So I looked to influences that were closer to home, which, of course, was some British folk music along with folk music from Europe, as well as classical music, which, more than anything else, you would think of as being European.
“That's what I suppose we were able to evolve into in those early years. And not just us, but King Crimson and a whole bunch of other bands that, perhaps, had a low boredom threshold. We weren't content just to sort of be playing convenient pop music with very organized, simplistic ideas musically and lyrically.
Anderson added that in 1969, this approach to rock was dubbed “progressive rock” in the British music media. To this day, it’s a banner he proudly carries.
“It has its place, and I'm happy it's a sub-genre that, I think, is still undeniably welcomed music at its core; music that's never gone away. And music that continues to inspire young musicians today.”
Parx Casino, 2999 Street Rd., Bensalem, Pa.; 8 p.m. Friday. Sold out.