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Ian Anderson: Jethro Tull's Famous Flute Man, Stories And Facts

Entertainment | August 10, 2020

Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull performs live on stage at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, London on November 14 1974 (Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns)

Few rock visuals are as weird and iconic as the sight of Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, in full medieval minstrel mode (codpiece and all), balanced on one foot and furiously working his flute through "Locomotive Breath" or "Cross-Eyed Mary." Anderson's story is an unusual one -- probably the only rock biography to begin with a guitarist who drops his axe and picks up a flute. For over 50 years, Anderson and Tull have taken fans on a unique journey that is the essence of classic rock: classic songs but no hit singles; albums that sold even when critics panned them; phases of prog-rock, folk-rock and hard rock. As the frontman, songwriter and lyricist, and the only remaining original member of the group, Anderson really is Jethro Tull, and the bands inherent strangeness flows from its mad, one-legged genius.

Why The Flute? Blame It On Eric Clapton

Different was Jethro Tull’s bag. (sandiegouniontribune)

In life, the decisions we make can create fork in the road moments, in which a single decision can change everything about your existence. For Ian Anderson, flute wizard and lead singer for the legendary Jethro Tull, his seemingly benign choices led him down a wild, insane joy ride of a life that even he never would have imagined possible. The most momentous and influential decision, dropping his guitar and picking up a flute, happened on a whim. “I’d been playing guitar and harmonica, but as a guitarist I was never going to be as good as Eric Clapton, simple as that. So I parted company with my Fender Strat and I bought a flute, for no good reason. It just looked nice and shiny.”

Ian Anderson Originally Wanted To Be A Cop

Jethro Tull saw many changes over the years but Anderson remained a constant.(npg.org.uk)

Unlike many musicians, Anderson didn’t start with dreams of stardom. In fact, he first tried his hand at a couple of normal professions. “I went to enroll in the Blackpool police cadet force and they wouldn’t let me because I had too many examination (dis)qualifications. So I went to the local Blackpool Evening Gazette to become a journalist. They didn’t even need a tea boy (gofer), so my third choice was to be an international rock star. That seemed to work out fine.”

Anderson Refused To Be Caned In School

His stubborn insistence of doing things his way, even at an early age, got him kicked out of school. Anderson drew the line at caning and his school expelled him. "I’ll accept another form of punishment, but I won’t allow you to get whatever mysterious satisfaction you get from an old man beating a young boy on the buttocks with a cane."

Musically, a few of the all-time greats helped influence the young Scot. “In the summer of ’67 when Pink Floyd had The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the Beatles had Sgt. Pepper. Those records energized me – you could step outside the comfort zone of 12-bar blues or pop music and you could do something different.” The King also played a role in Anderson’s musical development, “I heard big-band jazz, and after that the early Elvis – 'Heartbreak Hotel,' 'Jailhouse Rock' – when Elvis was dangerous, before he got sequinned.”

He Really Had No Idea How To Play The Flute At First

The infamous legged stance.(pressdemocrat)

Despite Anderson’s hope that the switch from guitar to flute would alter his career path, the change didn’t go smoothly at first. “At first I couldn’t get a note out of it. I put it back in its case and never touched it again for six months, until somebody said to me: ‘You don’t blow into the hole, you blow across it.’ Oh, okay. Suddenly I got a note, then another and another. Within a week I was playing blues solos, and it became part of our gig. That was the beginning of the Jethro Tull with the guy who stands in the middle playing the flute while standing on one leg.”

Anderson’s understanding of self and insistence of going his own continued serving the star well. He realized, “There’s no way I’m ever gonna do justice to being a blues singer. It’d be farcical for me to pretend to be something that I’m not. So I started trying to play and begin to write songs that were a little more eclectic.” 

Ian Anderson Plays The Flute On One Leg For No Apparent Reason

According to the Washington Post, his famous one-legged stance was all by happenstance. “His tendency to stand on one leg while playing the flute came about by accident, as he had been inclined to stand on one leg while playing the harmonica, holding the microphone stand for balance. Anderson was known for his famous one-legged flute stance, and was once referred to as a 'deranged flamingo.'"

Tull Became Tull With 1969's 'Stand Up'

Ian Anderson, not your average musician. (newtownbee)

Through the years, Jethro Tull saw a revolving door of band members. Players moved in and out due to illnesses and fallouts. Nevertheless, Anderson kept pushing the envelope and creating his own sound. "Stand Up (1969) was the first really important album," Anderson says. "It was the one where it was now a band that wasn’t the same as everybody else. It was becoming something much more individualistic. We’d left the blues behind. That album was melodically and rhythmically more adventurous." Stand Up contains the instrumental "Bouree," an arrangement of a J.S. Bach piece that is a concert favorite.

The frontman enjoyed the ever-evolving nature of Jethro Tull. “To some people, Jethro Tull is a prog band. To others it’s a folk rock band or even a hard rock band. It’s a lot of little delicate shifts from one thing to another. With Jethro Tull you can’t wrap it up in the way you can wrap up Status Quo.”

Ian Anderson Hates That People Think He's Aqualung

The 'Aqualung' cover features a painting of a London vagrant that Anderson insists isn't supposed to resemble him. Source: Amazon.com

For Anderson, Aqualung (1971) represented all of his far-ranging interests and personality. The cover, a painting based on a photograph of a homeless man, never sat well with Anderson. "Aqualung is an album of contrasts. It had some big, bombastic rock songs – Locomotive Breath and Aqualung," he says. "The only rubbish thing about that album was the bloody awful painting on the cover, which I never liked. I’d been really emphatic about it: I’m not this character. I’m not a homeless person. I’m a spotty middle-class English kid. But our manager, Terry Ellis, had obviously had a quiet word with [painter Burton] Silverman: 'Make it look like Ian, we’ll sell more records.'"

Anderson Wanted To Lampoon Concept Albums, But Ended Up Creating A Great Concept Album

The packaging of 'Thick As A Brick' was made to resemble a newspaper, with some articles that developed the album's concept. Others were simply bawdy jokes dressed up as small-town news. Source: Amazon.com

That simple choice, along with a few others, helped create Jethro Tull. The eclectic band defied classification while garnering 15 gold or platinum records during their historic run. Their most popular album, Aqualung, is one of the perennial strong-sellers of classic rock. Although, to Anderson, it was no big deal, “That album wasn’t a huge hit out of the box. It did okay at the time, a bit better than the previous ones, but it just kept on selling over a long period of time. The last time I looked, a few years ago, it had clocked up twelve million sales. Pretty big.”

(The actual number, given by Anderson in other interviews and backed by references, is more like 7 million copies.)

Aqualung was received by listeners as a concept album, which surprised Anderson, who merely thought of it as a collection of songs. But all the "concept album" chatter got Anderson thinking, and when it came time to record the follow-up, he decided to deliver not just a concept album but a parody of a prog-rock concept album. On Thick As A Brick (1972), he combined Monty Python-style humor with the ridiculous premise that the lyrics were an epic poem written by an eight-year-old schoolboy named Gerald "Little Milton" Bostock. Looking back, Anderson has said that "the album was a spoof to the albums of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, much like what the movie Airplane! had been to Airport." 

Despite its parodic intent, Thick As A Brick is today considered one of the great concept albums in rock history.

Jethro Tull: Hard To Categorize, Underappreciated, and Snubbed -- And Ian Anderson Doesn't Care

Anderson enjoys playing even in his golden years. (timesofsandiego)

Even though Jethro Tull toured the world over and seared their way into the souls of millions, the larger music industry never fully embraced them. Their only Grammy win strangely came in the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental in 1989 for Crest of a Knave (1987). Unfortunately, most people only remember the fact that they beat Metallica and their iconic ...And Justice for All album. Anderson’s producers even told them, “Don’t bother coming to the Grammys. Metallica will win it for sure,” so he didn’t attend.

Naturally, he took it all with level headed coolness. “My view is that we weren’t given the Grammy for being the best hard rock or metal act, we were given it for being a bunch of nice guys who’d never won a Grammy before. And there wasn’t an award for the world’s best one-legged flute player, otherwise I’d have to buy several more fireplaces to have enough mantelpiece space for all the trophies.” 

Tull is always at or near the top of "snub lists" for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame; in fact, Jethro Tull has never even made the shortlist, despite being eligible since 1993. Anderson doesn't fret. “I mean, I find these (events) really rather tedious," he said in 2017. "It’s America, I don’t come from America, I don’t play American music, I don’t belong in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame

Tags: 1970s Rock History | Ian Anderson | Jethro Tull | Prog-rock | Rare Facts And Stories About History | What Did He Do?...

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!