Ian Anderson can hardly believe it himself. It has been forty years since the release of Jethro Tull’s groundbreaking Aqualung album. With over 7 million copies sold, Aqualung remains the band’s highest selling, and perhaps most definitive outing. From the unforgettable opening riff of the album’s title track, to the dramatic, soul-searching climax of ‘Wind-Up’, the album is a wild ride from the gutter to the gates of Heaven, perhaps, earning accolades as one of the greatest ‘concept albums’ of all time.
While Anderson admits that the band never really set out to make a ‘concept album’, per se, Aqualung was embraced by the prog-rock community as a milestone in a genre rife with them. With its social commentaries on homelessness, mental illness, and the quest for divinity, Aqualung has retained its relevance to this day. That, perhaps, is why Anderson still holds the album so dear.
“The album still means the same to me,” says Anderson “There are some songs on the album that I don’t play very often, or hardly at all, although I will be playing them again during the next few months, because it’s the 40th anniversary of the album. They don’t necessarily all have the same resonance, perhaps, as songs like ‘Aqualung’ or ‘Locomotive Breath’, or maybe ‘My God’. Those are songs that are about something which is still very much a part of my life. So some of them, perhaps, have more contemporary meaning for me than the other songs. That’s the case with everything I’ve ever written.”
Anderson cites ‘Locomotive Breath’ as an example of the album’s timelessness. “Well, it’s a song very much about issues that concern me, and hopefully most of us these days,” he says. “Issues such as the globalization of the economy, population increase. The effect of that, directly or indirectly on climate change, although that wasn’t part of the mix back at the time I wrote it. It was a song essentially about runaway populations and runaway explosive economics, and civilization being on a crazy, out of control locomotive, unable to stop. With seven billion people soon to be officially on the planet and nine billion forecast for the year 2050, all the tandem problems of running out of water, running out of fossil fuels, the resources that we’ve taken for granted for decades, centuries, even, are soon going to be if not depleted, much more difficult to get at with all the attendant risk and problem. We are the species that ate ourselves. That’s the bottom line. That’s what ‘Locomotive Breath’ is about. Cheerful subject, isn’t it?”
While Anderson can still look fondly upon the album’s content, he doesn’t share the same nostalgia for the recording process. “It was a pretty miserable time,” he says bluntly, of the then-newly created Island Studios in London. “We were working in a brand new studio that was converted from an old disused church. Like all new studios, there are a number of shakedown problems to overcome. Technical problems, things not installed correctly or working properly, so we suffered from a lot of technical issues, as well as a pretty awful sound quality. The natural acoustics of the very large room we were working in, and also in the control room. Just the sound of the speakers and the monitoring wasn’t very conducive to having a good time, either. So it was technically speaking, quite a difficult, and not very happy album to make. It was cold. It was miserable. It was rather dank and weird, working in a disused church. It didn’t have a good feeling about it at all.”
Ironically, Led Zeppelin, who were recording their fourth album in the small studio in the basement of the studio were fine. “That room sounded pretty good,” Anderson says of Zeppelin’s studio. “But they had it locked out for their own use and we were relegated to working in the big room, which sounded horrible. So, it wasn’t a great time in terms of recording, but we struggled on with it, and we had an album that was not necessarily sounding that great, but we made of it what we could and worked a little bit harder in the mastering room to cut the record in the following week after finishing recording.”
The band’s efforts were soon rewarded, however, as Aqualung went global, launching the band into unexpected markets. “It didn’t actually sell big numbers very quickly,” Anderson recalls. “ But I think it marks the point where Jethro Tull was no longer just a British band. We had done, by that stage, probably six US tours. So we were getting quite well known, and perhaps more importantly than just the UK or USA, we were getting quite well known in all the countries of Europe. Within the next few years, Aqualung was beginning to find its way into territories that were not openly inviting, in terms of Western rock music. The album was getting noticed in Russia, India, and Latin America, which at the time, consisted of some fairly hostile regimes. It became kind of an underground culture success story, I suppose. It represented something that was a little contentious. It was questioning. A number of songs on it deal with subject matter that wasn’t typical proper rock music. Then, or indeed now, for that matter. There aren’t that many songs about population explosion, or songs that contentiously go into the issues of pomp and ceremony in organized religions.”
Although Aqualung’s liner notes and lyrics tackle the issue of God, the church and spirituality, Anderson openly proclaims that he is not a Christian. However, he still attends service and performs several benefit concerts every year to support the ongoing education of music in church.
“I am officially not a Christian,” he says. “However, I’m not a homosexual either, but I thoroughly support the gay community and I thoroughly support the Christian community. I feel no contradiction in supporting the people who derive warmth, satisfaction, spiritual uplift, whatever it might be, whether it’s from a homosexual relationship or following Christianity. It’s unlikely that I’m going to decide next week, or in ten years from now that I’m gay. It’s equally unlikely that I’m going to decide next week or in ten years’ time that I’m going to be a Christian. None of those two things are impossible, I just think they’re probably unlikely.”
With over 50 million album sales, Anderson has definitely earned the title of “rock star”, but he holds an extremely dim view of his musical peers who embrace the aloof rock star lifestyle. Anderson explains that he has been managing his own affairs since 1974, preferring to handle his own flight bookings, tax returns, and everyday business affairs of Jethro Tull. “The idea of stardom as evinced by those who adopt the rock and roll, or showbiz lifestyles as we tend to read about them in the newspaper, well, that’s something that’s just not for me,” he says bluntly. “The idea of having a private jet or bodyguards or factotums who follow me around and do everything for me is utterly repulsive. I hate people doing things for me that reduce my role in life to being an airhead.
“I would hate to think that I work with musicians who are incapable of accessing their airline booking online, printing out their boarding pass and showing up at the gate in time to catch their flight. Frankly, those that can’t do that aren’t in the band,” he laughs.
“We have changed things in recent years and said ‘If the average twelve-year-old can get on the internet and seek out the company of a pedophile then you must be able to print out your bloody boarding pass.’ What do you think?”