Ian Anderson – that’s “Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson”, according to the flyers – hit the road in Brighton this week and is heading our way to whip up a storm of music and words at Sage Gateshead.
I say ‘words’ because this is one musician who doesn’t stint on them.
Not for him the minimalist approach to a lyric, pop’s mumbled repetition. No, Ian Anderson is a prog rock icon which means his music comes with ideas and with the ideas come words.
“Our footsteps o’er the Doggerland, chased retreating ice and snow,/ left us breathing high and dry, Land’s End to Scapa Flow,” begins Doggerland, opening track on new album Homo Erraticus (which means ‘wandering man’, I’m told).
Or how about this in Enter The Uninvited: “Angles, Saxons, Danes and Normans, on the whole, a curve of learning. Alfie, great in spirit, battle, on Somerset Levels left cakes a-burning. Willy Conker, work cut out, in Domesday pages, marks our number. Sheep and pigs amongst the hundreds, fat tithes and taxes to encumber.”
It’s breathless, unrelenting. If you think this is a man who swallows history books for breakfast, you might not be far wrong.
We’ll come to this. First, though, a little about the motivation for touring when you’re 66 and the bank manager, one assumes, isn’t hassling.
“If you’re my age and you’ve got a little bit of something left that you want to give, then you’d better get on with it, especially if you’re in good enough shape to perform,” says Anderson.
In 2012 he performed in St Nicholas’ Cathedral in Newcastle. Once, I recall, he and ‘Tull’ nearly raised the roof of the City Hall in one of the loudest gigs I’ve ever heard – for which he apologises unnecessarily, saying he always prided himself on fronting one of the less noisy prog rock bands on the circuit.
Anderson formed his first band over 50 years ago when still at school and Jethro Tull came along three years later. In 1972 the fifth studio album, Thick as a Brick, came out with a single song masquerading as an epic poem by a boy called Gerald Bostock (many people thought he was real).
It proved as successful as it was audacious.
Two years ago came a follow-up, Thick as Brick 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock, billed as an Ian Anderson solo album and imagining what might have happened to Gerald with various hypotheses explored. Did Gerald become an investment banker or a soldier, a preacher or a down-and-out?
Probably none of these. In Homo Erraticus, the fictional Bostock’s back as songwriter and co-tour manager.
As Anderson explains on his website, the new album “chronicles the weird imaginings of one Ernest T Parritt, as recaptured by the now middle-aged Gerald Bostock after a trip to Mathew Bunter’s Old Library Bookshop in Linwell village.
“Bostock and Bunter (sounds like a firm of dodgy solicitors) came across this dusty, unpublished manuscript, written by local amateur historian Ernest T Parritt (1873-1929) and entitled Homo Britanicus Erraticus.”
Homo Erraticus, then, is a jocular, wordy, ideas-laden feast of an album spanning the whole of human history with enough to fuel a couple of dozen PhDs – spoof ones, at least. It will fill one half of Anderson’s concert in Gateshead with the other devoted to Jethro Tull hits.
The real identity of Gerald Bostock is quickly revealed. “He’s an alter ego who can say things and have views that I don’t necessarily have,” explains Anderson.
“I’m merely the conduit for his views, the man who brings them to the stage.”
Not that Anderson is a man without views. Far from it.
Prog rock, he says, “is known for its self-indulgent and expansive performance values where showing off is part of it”.
It was in the mid-Seventies, he reckons, that instrumental excesses started to give it a bad name but Jethro Tull survived punk and Anderson is happy to keep on touring under whatever label, provided he can fill halls.
He says it was The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967, that set him on his musical course.
He was still cleaning the toilets at the Ritz Cinema in Luton at the time. “But The Beatles, and that album, impacted on me very heavily and I was ready to follow in their footsteps, begging and borrowing in order to do it.”
His aim in music thereafter was “to do something enchanting and adventurous”.
It wasn’t really rock at first, though: “It was was really jazz or folk with some elements of World Music that came to me along the way. In 1969 I was being described as being in a progressive rock band and that was good until people started to call it ‘prog’ and it went down hill from there.”
Progressive or prog, Ian Anderson has enough fans and admirers to keep him going in the 21st Century.
Some remember him as the hirsute flute player who stood on one leg and others have been picked up since along the way.
He can do his own thing with impunity, especially since ‘prog’ is more likely to be used these days with retro-tinged affection than disdain. Of his particular calling, he says: “I think it’s still very much keeping alive the spirit of restless souls”. There’s got to be an album in that.
Anderson talks about his songwriting, saying that whereas in the early days he’d come up with the music and then have to find the lyrics to fit, he progressed to a point where the lyrcis were coming, “if not first, then almost at the same time as the music.
“I felt once I had a key it was much easier to write the music but I’m very wary of writing lyrics without some musical input.”
He surprises me by saying he needs privacy when he’s composing. See Ian Anderson on stage and ‘shrinking violet’ is not what springs to mind but this is all part of the act, it seems.
“I can’t be in a room with somebody else because I’m totally self-conscious when I’m working,” he says.
“I’ve always hated to have anyone else there. I can’t abide being watched. It’s so intimate and private and you’ve got to be able to make mistakes. You’re going to have to experiment and some crazy noises are going to come out of it.”
We talk a little bit about the Scottish independence debate. “My feeling has something to do with the fact I have an English mother and a Scottish father,” he says, agonising.
“I don’t think independence is good for Scotland or for England but I can understand the passion that exists in Scottish nationalism.”
We touch on his health and the regular checks he undergoes because of a certain family disposition. His brother died of colon cancer and, he reasons, “I’m an old guy.
“I’m really genuinely in a tizz if I have to go into a medical place. I have to really fight it. But when it comes to my own health, I do take myself off every year for my regular tests.”
The great and charismatic frontman talks about the shortcomings of his education, about the history teachers who were “absolutely appalling at communicating with small boys, just dreadful”.
Which is why, perhaps, he thought Jethro Tull was a made-up name when his agent suggested it as a replacement for Ian Anderson’s Bag of Blues.
He has squirmed with embarrassment ever since, he says, at appearing to have pinched the name of a notable real-life character, an 18th Century agricultural reformer. “It was an act of theft but I didn’t know I had been named after a dead guy.”
Arguably it could have been worse. He recalls as a young teenager scoffing at the “ridiculous” given names of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll – Marty Wilde, Billy Fury... Vince Eager.
“Vince Eager!” guffaws the man who now tours as plain Ian Anderson. “He wasn’t called Vince Ambivalent, was he?”
There’s probably an album in that too – a very funny one.
Ian Anderson and band will perform Homo Erraticus at Sage Gateshead on May 16. For tickets call 0191 443 4661 or book via www.sagegateshead.com