Ian Anderson: “Christmas is not exclusive, it embraces all”
Every year, just before Christmas, Ian Anderson – driving force behind progressive rock legends Jethro Tull, who celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2018 – takes his band on a most unusual tour. They perform Christmas-themed music at cathedrals and churches up and down the country, and donate all the proceeds to the upkeep of the building in which they are playing. This year, he will be bringing the show to Peterborough Cathedral for the first time. Toby Venables talked to the man about his music, what Christmas means to him and the show’s surprise guests...
Christmas is all about tradition, but these concerts have become a particular a tradition for you in the past ten years…
Yes, and for a lot of people it seems a little contradictory that I should be doing this, because I don’t call myself a Christian. I mean, not a Christian with a capital ‘C’, in the sense that I have faith and I believe in the power of prayer. What I think I am is someone of spiritual concern and awareness. I don’t have any negative attitude towards the Church of England – on the contrary, it’s one of our institutions, it’s part of our culture, part of our background and it’s open for business. Which means it’s open to people of all faiths to walk through the door and to just sit there and soak in the experience of being in these buildings – particularly our medieval cathedrals which of course are as magnificent as anywhere in the world. That, I think, is part of what attracts me to performing here – to bring people through the door, to join in, even if they’re not regular worshippers.
I would say that, probably, most of the time our audiences that come to the cathedral shows are substantially not regular attendees of church or cathedrals. Indeed, many of them who live in the town may walk past their cathedral every day without giving it a second glance. My role is to try and get them through the door, and should they emerge born again, renewed with spiritual vigour, then that’s fine, that’s good. I have no problem with that but that’s not what I’m there to do. I’m not there to be an evangelist, I’m there to be a pragmatist and try and make people aware of the community asset, which is their church or cathedral – because they won’t be making any more of them! And that’s why I’m playing at Peterborough.
Obviously you’ve always had an interest in Christmas music – there’s even been a Jethro Tull Christmas album – but how did this idea of performing in places of worship first come about?
Well, it began with a challenge because usually, acoustically speaking, cathedrals are not the easiest places to work. Churches that were given cathedral status, like Newcastle and Manchester, have an easier footprint and usually are acoustically a little tamer. But when you’re playing somewhere like Ely for example, with the longest nave of any cathedral, it is challenging. And so in order to try and focus the sound a little better we, there for example, employed three tiers of delay systems so the sound gets to the people at the back at the same time. We don’t play loudly, we play quite quietly. We try and make sure the sound is as clean and clear as we possibly can, using the technical experience that we have, but it’s always a challenge. So it’s all about taking each one and looking at the best way of doing it, and trying to make sure that we tame the beast of reverberation as best we can.
But also, what made me want to do it in the first place was the fact that I’ve spent the best part of my life being terrified of churches and cathedrals, just going in and getting the willies because it all seemed ritualised in a way that I felt remote from! Of course, I went to church as part of my school days. It was obligatory, being at a Christian grammar school. Our headmaster was a bit of a strict man with regard to inflicting his version of Christianity upon a bunch of small pubescent boys, most of whom had little interest and were merely terror struck by this man because he was actually rather cold and heartless. Wrong man, wrong job! So, because of that aversion to the church it took quite a while before I started to listen at the door and stick my nose in and sniff the air. Now, being in churches and cathedrals to perform, I feel quite at home. It’s another day at the office – another extension of my stage – and in that unlikely scenario, maybe to some people I’m just a brief laundry stop away from a white dog collar!
What can people expect of one of these Christmas concerts?
My perspective is to try and find this very delicate balance between the traditions of Christian musical liturgy and musical entertainment in the context of being a rock musician. I tread that tightrope with great care and, I hope, sensitivity. We try and stick essentially to the outlines of a concert which, whilst being secular, is not without its religious references. We’ll include the Cathedral choir and hopefully the organ – because that to me, is an important and obviously very expensive part in terms of maintenance and upkeep. And also we have a prayer, and we have a blessing. I don’t do that – we have a tame priest who travels with us, a ‘field chaplain’, the Reverend George Pitcher. And of course we try to embrace the resources of Dean, Canon or whoever amongst the frocked clerics of the church or cathedral in question, is prepared to get up and join in. Again it’s about being inclusive.
Is it true there may be a couple of other surprise guests?
I can, I hope, safely announce that I have two friends coming: Marc Almond, he of 80s ill repute who is, like me, a great supporter of the church and the traditions; and Lloyd Grossman, who is the outgoing chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust. He is also, unknown to most people, actually an aspiring punk musician… All of us share this passion for trying to do our bit for the churches and cathedrals which are part of our past, part of our culture – but again, I stress, not to exclude those of other faiths or those who simply have no faith at all. But bringing together of people of all backgrounds, cultures and faiths in this way is possible, perhaps, only under the auspices of modern Christianity, especially the Anglican Church. I think Christmas can achieve that rather well – it is not exclusive, it embraces all. Can you imagine an office party where you said, ‘Well I’m sorry but Muslims aren’t allowed in, and the chap in the turban, that Sikh over there, don’t get under the mistletoe, not allowed!’ No one would say we can’t join together in the celebration of Christmas. It’s open to everybody and, goodness me, that’s probably the essence of the New Testament. The word of the Church of England should always be, ‘we’re open for business’, and happily, most of the time, it is. It’s really about community and it’s not necessarily, even at Christmas, about having to embrace the Christian Christmas because the Winter Solstice being that turning point of the year is something that is fundamentally in all of us.
So, it’s about putting differences and distractions aside and saying: ‘Slow down, take things in, talk, listen…’
I hope people do manage to do that. Christmas is a time for reflection, a time for family – but also a time for charity and for all those people for whom Christmas is actually a misery because they’re having a pretty wretched time while everybody else is stuffing themselves. There are an awful lot of people for whom Christmas is a terribly lonely time of their lives, simply because they feel excluded – that little old lady living down the road in your street, who would desperately love to have your company, the homeless people on the streets or sometimes sleeping in the back pews of churches who have nowhere to go at Christmas and depend entirely on the generosity of charity organisations or the Salvation Army. I think we have to try and play our part in all of that, especially at Christmas. So, yes, a time for reflection, time to switch off the phone, time to turn off the TV rather than watch endless repeats of Love Actually, with my son-in-law waving the cards at Keira Knightley…
That’s your son-in-law Andrew Lincoln..?
Yes. Andrew actually performed with us – for the first and probably the last time – at Worcester Cathedral last year, and sang a duet with Marc Almond. He hadn’t sung in public since he was at RADA, so it was a first for him, but I knew he had a good voice, so we recorded a backing track of the song he wanted to do, the beautiful Fairytale of New York, which was done by the late Kirsty McColl and Shane MacGowan from the Pogues, who played the part of a drunken addled couple in New York who obviously have a love-hate relationship in extremis. But of course it begged an obvious question, because it is really a duet. Marc is an uber-fan of The Walking Dead, so I said: ‘Marc, I wonder if you might help us out? Andy wants to do Fairytale of New York as a duet…’ And Marc just squealed with delight; ‘Ooh, can I be Kirsty?’ I said, ‘Of course you can Marc!’ That was a moment of slight edginess I think, to have, within the orbit of the Church of England, that song being acted out by two grown men.
You spoke about this concert striking a delicate balance between tradition and something new and and it seems, in a way that that is what you have always done with Jethro Tull – absorbing folk influences but never simply reiterating things from the folk tradition. Is that fair to say?
Yes, it’s fair to say. Fairer still to point out that it really began in 1969 when, as far as I am aware, the first use of the term ‘progressive rock’ was made in the British musical press and was with regard to Jethro Tull. So, I rather like the term ‘progressive rock’. I suppose it began with Sergeant Pepper, in a progressive pop context. And Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd in the same year, in 1967 – and of course this was an era where Cream, in a kind of progressive blues context, were taking these essentially established music forms and embracing other elements, other influences, and it became so much more eclectic. Those bands in a way, were very inspiring – not musically influential to me, particularly, except in some small degree perhaps, but more in the sense that they showed we don’t have to stick with the genres being as tightly defined as they had tended to be. We can afford to be a little more eclectic and draw upon influences from different parts of the world, different periods of history, and bring all of that broadly into a rock music context.
Progressive rock, for a couple of years, was a grand term – a great new tradition almost of its own. But it quickly became known, thanks to perhaps the early Genesis and Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, as ‘prog’, which had a rather disdainful and slightly mocking context attached to it, particularly as that went into the early days of what became punk, when prog became a dinosaur term. It was something you referred to in a very disparaging way about the pomp and general self-indulgence of many, particularly British musicians of that era, and which I lampooned to some extent on Thick as a Brick in 1972.
But I think in a way that’s always been important for me, to try and draw upon different ideas and different elements of musicality – and not just in terms of the music, but lyrically to draw upon ideas and thoughts and expressions from many different sources and many different times. But I’m not a folk musician. I find it fun to listen to and to some extent to join in with, but I deliberately chose not to go down that path. I keep some of those elements, but always try to think of it in terms of how it works in today’s music.
One of the quirkier elements is the use of the flute, and particularly the fact that you play it standing on one leg. Do you ever get through an interview without someone asking you about that?
Only if I rattle on long enough to bore them into submission and they’re so desperate for it to end they forget to ask. I began doing it when I played harmonica, just because I was holding the microphone stand and had something else to support me. But I also played the flute, and so the first people who ever wrote about Jethro Tull said: ‘Plays the harmonica and the flute and stands on one leg…’ So we kind of put the three things together and I also played the flute standing on one leg – which is a lot harder! It’s like a trademark, a brand identity. I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that it’s better to have some kind of a logo, some kind of little identifying feature, than to have nothing at all. Where would the dear captain in Peter Pan be without his hook?
That said, it got me into trouble when I first went to India – back in ’91 I think it was. At the press conference in Mumbai local press said, ‘Why are you mocking one of our most important Gods?’ and I said, ‘Sorry, I don’t quite understand what you mean…’ And they said: ‘Well, Krishna you know, he plays the flute standing on one leg and it seems like you’re making a bit of a joke…’ That had totally passed me by. But when I began to look into it I realised that Krishna was often depicted with one leg slightly crossed over the other in an act of flute-playing to seduce female goat herders. That may have worked for Krishna; it didn’t work for me.
Then of course, you’ve got the Pied Piper who is also usually depicted dancing around on one leg, playing a longitudinal flute – though probably more of a reed instrument. And in both North and South America there are ethnic Indian guards who are also flute players, who are depicted standing on one leg. This is something that is curiously scattered across the globe, and in the history of mankind has this weird significance. That was a rather sobering thought – that the only thing that makes me a little different to the other guys, apart from the Pied Piper, was the others are all Gods. I’m just a grammar school boy, who just sort of did it.
But I think in music, we have this childlike curiosity, this naïve, childlike ability to learn to play instruments that we can’t play, and to get up on stage and do it, even though we’re not very good at it, and somehow pull people along with us. That is the essence of punk – it’s the essence of what made The Who stand out from the crowd when they were called The High Numbers back in the mid sixties. It’s what made the Beatles emerge from The Cavern and The Star Club in Hamburg, because they had this seemingly naïve disregard for convention and they just took a generation of people with them through this magical musical adventure. It didn’t last very long of course, but for as long as it did it was something that was very captivating. We do that in music and I think, just to bring it full circle, also in religion, which always needs to renew its engagement with people by taking us back to the elements of the story and making it rich and interesting again. That’s perhaps what I tend to embrace: the idea of there being a very useful, pragmatic fable that is there to tell us something about the human condition – something that we’re in danger of forgetting in a cell phone and Twitter world.
Ian Anderson with The Christmas Jethro Tull
Saturday 16 December 2017, 7.30pm
Tickets available from: Oundle Box Office, 4 New Street, Oundle
For further information on the concert and ticket bookings, please visit: www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk