“Not my finest hour… but if you can forgive my codpiece and tights in the 70s you can forgive me getting out a coffin in a cloak and comedy fangs”: Ian Anderson on Jethro Tull’s 80s era

Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you had taken the media coverage of Jethro Tull in the 1980s at face value, you would have believed that these leading lights of British prog had begun the decade in turmoil and acrimony, and then ended it bathed in glory tainted by controversy. In between times, though, there was more good music than is often assumed.

When they moved on from the folk-rock triptych of Songs From The Wood, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch to forge a shiny, forward-looking new sound and ruthlessly overhauled line-up with 1980’s A, not all of their fanbase seemed inclined to join them. But by the time they won a Grammy in 1989 (for 1987 release Crest Of A Knave, confusingly) they seemed to have reinvented themselves as an enduringly relevant force in British rock, clad in more contemporary sonic clothing but still capable of making intelligent, idiosyncratic rock records that still sounded like no one else.

Some fans would continue to hanker after a return to the early 70s Tull sound, but since even that regularly changed shape, it should have been no surprise to see the band continue to reinvent themselves in the new decade. Still, it must have been a shock when pop pickers scanned their newsagents’ shelves in the summer of 1980 to find Melody Maker shouting from its cover: “Jethro Tull – Big Split”. The full story was rather more complicated. But the upshot would be that only Ian Anderson and Martin Barre would remain from the band that bore that name for most of the 1970s.

Changes had already been afoot in 1979 when Anderson fired bassist John Glascock before the end of making that year’s album Stormwatch, chiefly due to his unreliability related to “lifestyle” issues. These were having an adverse effect on his health, and later that year he died tragically early. His friend and Tull drummer Barriemore Barlow would later complain that he was forced to pay for the penniless bassist’s funeral, indicating that his late bandmate wasn’t paid enough for his services, and this discontent surely contributed to what would transpire after the Stormwatch tour.

Anderson has since said of that period that the band were suffering burnout after heavy touring, and Barlow wasn’t the only one considering their options – he points out that John Evan’s “heart wasn’t really in it any more”. “Everybody had interests outside the band, either musically or personally,” he says, “and I think we just desperately need a break.”

The band’s leader planned his own first excursion away from the group by writing a solo album, titled A after his surname. “It was not, as some German fans assumed, short for ‘anarchy,’” Anderson says, but its creation caused no shortage of chaos in the Tull camp. Initial plans saw Anderson enlist former Roxy Music keyboardist and violin player Eddie Jobson as a guest alongside former Fairport Convention bassist Dave Pegg, who’d toured with Tull in place of Glascock, plus prog-minded American drummer Mark Craney.

It might have continued as an Ian Anderson debut record, even after Barre was invited to join the party on guitar, had Tull’s label Chrysalis not persuaded him that its commercial prospects would be much greater under the band banner.

After the aforementioned ‘big split’ went public, erstwhile band members Dee Palmer and John Evan revealed that they had been informed that their services were no longer required by a photocopied letter from the singer. Anderson has expressed regret at how all this was handled, and indeed the decision to make A a Tull album rather than a solo release, but he’s been unrepentant regarding his apparently impersonal management style: “If you are offended by getting a letter from me, you would’ve been more offended if you had nothing at all,” he told Prog on the album’s reissue in 2020.

The resulting release is, however, still a relatively unloved set from the Tull back catalogue, despite containing some robustly proggy mid-period moments such as the paranoid, topically charged Crossfire, with its references to that year’s Iranian embassy siege, and Fylingdale Flyer, tapping into fears of nuclear annihilation. Closing track And Further On is a wistful ballad that would have been a fine sign-off to any of their albums.

Still, A’s preoccupation with contemporary issues, allied to the artwork depicting the band in white boiler suits as if preparing for alien invasion, only adds fuel to the general feeling that this was the band’s first major step towards a future the Tull massive weren’t too keen on.

Such fears among traditionalist fans were allayed considerably when The Broadsword And The Beast struck a more satisfying balance between electronic sounds and classic instrumentation and songcraft, but then Anderson’s debut solo LP, Walking Into Light (1983), and the next Tull album, 1984’s Under Wraps, saw the band fully embrace a very 80s, heavily produced sound, with the technophile co-writing contributions of new keyboard player Peter-John Vettese very noticeable.

Anderson is keen to point out, though, that no one should have been surprised that Tull were employing new technology and sounds, since they always had done. “I was always interested in new technology and what it could do for us. Back in 1972, there was one of the earliest synthesisers ever manufactured on Thick As A Brick. I was running an ANS synthesiser through a pitch-to-voltage converter from a microphone clip to my flute. It produced a horrible noise, but we would always look at what technology might offer up.

“But I think as Peter increasingly brought in synthesiser sounds, it was taking Jethro Tull into a bit of a Tinseltown area that was more to do with the 80s synthpop than the more gritty Hammond organ and traditional piano sounds that we had used prior to that period. That was the early days of the first LinnDrum machine, so it was the beginning of the dawn of a new era of digital technology. And that’s the trouble with trying something new: sometimes it dates very quickly, just as bubble cars did, or Crocs.”

Some fans still feel that way about Under Wraps, with the use of that drum machine often singled out as the chief villain of the piece. It does often jar when listening to the album now, but so does the overall production and penchant for touches such as synthetic, anaemic-sounding brass accompaniment and tinny Trevor Horn-style studio frills.

Nonetheless, Under Wraps is an underrated album in this writer’s opinion. At its core are songs of a calibre at least as high as those on the albums either side of it. The Cold War concerns that pervade the lyrics can sound anachronistic, but the recurring espionage theme works handsomely on smokily atmospheric songs such as Later, That Same Evening and the Latin-tinged European Legacy, while the single Lap Of Luxury will plant an earworm in any listener’s head.

“I do feel it had an originality about it in terms of musical creation,” says its chief author. “The thing that marred it ultimately was surrendering to the seductive qualities of drum machines.”

Doane Perry would join Tull for the subsequent live tour, the able American percussionist going on to become a long-serving full-time member, but the album and tour would cause potentially much more serious issues, as Anderson resisted specialist medical advice to step back from the mic. “I got into real trouble with my voice,” he admits. “On Under Wraps, I really had pushed my voice to the limits, which was very unwise.

”It’s what happens to some singers who just push it a little bit too far. Others have a more of a throwaway vocal style, like Mick Jagger. He can sing now what he could sing back in the 60s, because it’s not singing accurately, hitting long notes and phrases. Other people have made life more difficult for themselves, like Pavarotti, or for that matter, even Elton John or Paul McCartney – you can hear it’s a struggle for them to sing some of their music in this day and age. I couldn’t sing by the end of the Under Wraps tour, and we had to cancel the last three shows, I think. I then took a year off, but it was a hugely disappointing end to that tour.”

The enforced break from performing meant it would be three years until the next Jethro Tull album, and when they returned with 1987’s Crest Of A Knave, Anderson’s vocal style was noticeably more understated, as if adapting to its new limitations. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the gruffer style Anderson adopted, whether on punchy new FM rock compositions such as Steel Monkey or the more lascivious She Said She Was A Dancer, bore strong echoes of Mark Knopfler’s vocal style, who was at the peak of his success with Dire Straits at that time.

“I was trying to be a little looser about it, employ the slightly rougher quality of my voice to try and use it to my advantage rather than it being a limitation,” says Anderson. While not specifically acknowledging any Knopfler influence, he talks of many that have seeped in over the years.

“We obviously began being inspired by Black American folk music, the blues. And then we couldn’t help but be influenced by elements of early progressive rock. The early Pink Floyd of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, I think, lyrically speaking, threw me a few bones; musically and lyrically, Roy Harper, who I knew in the late 60s and early 70s. I would love to have been able to emulate other people – [Foreigner singer] Lou Gramm, for me, is the greatest rock tenor ever.

“I would have loved to have had Robert Plant’s voice, as long as I didn’t have to exchange it for him being able to play the flute. Even unlikely sources such as Gary Numan provided food for thought, as to how the brutal simplicity of monophonic synthesisers could work for us. So it’s not just having one influence or two, it’s one or two hundred.”

The impression that Tull were drawing on the sounds around them to shape the direction of Crest Of A Knave was intensified by Martin Barre’s guitar playing, which echoed Knopfler’s fingerstyle at some points, and the MTV-friendly modern blues-rock licks of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons elsewhere. His long-time colleague is still effusive about Barre’s talents despite their less-than-amicable parting a decade ago.

“Through the 80s, Martin’s playing got better and more inventive. Martin became a world-class guitar player and that was, I think, part of what made some of those records really enjoyable to work on. He played great lines and came out with great ideas in his solos; to have somebody who could bring so much in terms of ornamentation, decoration was of great benefit.”

The album spawned lasting live favourites, including the 10-minute Budapest, a wistful recollection of a fleeting tour encounter (‘like staring up at infinity’) – one of several tracks from around this time that saw Anderson seemingly drawing on romantic liaisons (whether real or imaginary) for inspiration.

The new Tull sound was reaching new audiences, too – among them, in due course, the judges of the 31st Annual Grammy Awards. The prestigious US industry gongs for records released in late 1987 and 1988 included, for the first time, a new Hard Rock/Metal Performance category, and hot favourites to pick up the prize were Metallica for ...And Justice For All. They performed on the night, for a start. Despite their nomination, Jethro Tull were advised by their label and management that they need not attend the awards ceremony since there was such a slim chance of them winning.

“We were actually in the studio recording that night,” says Anderson. “The label said, ‘It’s pointless wasting money sending you over to Los Angeles to sit there and go through all that ceremony for nothing.’ So they didn’t want to fork out for plane tickets or hotels or anything. Which suited me fine because we were in the process of making a record.”

Win they did, though, to a chorus of boos and whistles from the auditorium. “I got a phone call, probably about midnight or something, saying congratulations,” Anderson recalls. “I think I said, ‘Oh, that’s nice, thank you. Anyway, must get back to work.’ It didn’t really impact us until a day or two later when we heard the enormity of the bad publicity that had arisen.

“Apparently there were even thousands of T-shirts that Metallica had printed, saying ‘Metallica – Grammy winners’, which had to be put back in their boxes. But as I said at the time, ‘Don’t throw away the T-shirts, guys, you’ll get it next year!’ And sure enough, they did [for their single One in 1990, and then again in 1992 for The Black Album, after which they famously thanked Jethro Tull at the ceremony for ‘not releasing an album this year’].”

The source of much of the anger surrounding this decision was undoubtedly the fact that the new Grammy category had been introduced to acknowledge the increasing inroads hard rock and metal were making into the mainstream and the millions of records such acts were now selling. So to give the award to a bunch of old stagers who’d always been more likely to grace the cover of Prog magazine than, say, Metal Hammer, seemed to defeat the object of the award.

Yet it also reflects the regard in which Tull have always been held by generations of hard rock fans, despite rarely doing much foot-on-monitor headbanging over the years. Could it be because their best-known album, Aqualung, contains heavy highlights such as the title track and Cross-Eyed Mary, and by the 1980s, it was among the rock fraternity that prog acts still found a welcoming audience?

“There certainly were quite a few songs like that on Aqualung, as well as songs with powerful elements like My God,” Anderson says. “But we’ve always had those different sides of our fanbase. Some people like the full English breakfast, the heavy rock stuff, and the rest they put up with. Other folk, they like the more acoustic, singer-songwriter side of Jethro Tull and put up with the extra noise at other times.

“But there have always been heavier rock artists – I’m sure you know who they are – who have expressed a fascination for Jethro Tull, as have some of the younger progressive rock bands today. Happily there’s no one that really sounds like us, though.”

Either way, the hard rock cap fit 1989’s Rock Island, one of the band’s feistiest sets, with tracks such as Rattlesnake Trail, Ears Of Tin and Big Riff And Mando successfully blending muscular, blues-infused AOR (and more ebullient guitar work from Barre) with Anderson’s growling vocals and lively flute decorations.

This was also the era when promo videos were obligatory. Any student of Tull’s 80s output should trawl for clips – or seek out Slipstream, the early 80s video compilation, which featured promos for Fylingdale Flyer and Dun Ringill, as well as new visual accompaniments for Too Old To Rock’N’Roll... (featuring the band on a giant pinball machine) and Sweet Dream, the latter of which saw our flamboyant hero dressed as Dracula, rising from the dead. That clip was recently, erm, resurrected to accompany performances of the same track on the recent tour.

Anderson never felt at ease in videos. “In those early days, MTV were so desperate for programming material they would even play Jethro Tull videos. So it was something that we had to do, but I’ve always felt uncomfortable about doing them – it’s like lip-syncing on a TV programme, it just feels a bit daft.”

And some clips are perhaps best left in the vaults, such as the one for the US single from the album Kissing Willie, which cast the band as 18th-century minstrels, not so much in the gallery this time but in an alehouse surrounded by busty serving wenches and phallic symbols. It was a Benny Hill-style approach to visualising a song which, to be fair, was also from a time when Anderson the lyricist was fond of a rather clunking double-entendre or two.

“The record company suggested Storm Thorgerson, the sleeve designer who became a video-maker. I wasn’t sure he was right, but he was so over the moon to do this, saying, ‘I’ve always wanted to make a kind of period comedy, with an over-the-top Benny Hill approach.’ But frankly, it was way over the top. And more than a little embarrassing. Vulgar to the point of childish and a little bit misogynistic. The video for Sweet Dream was the same. I think it was David Mallet directing, and I just had to do what he asked: ‘Just push this pram over the edge of Beachy Head [cliffs], and try not to fall off with it!’

“Not my finest hour, either of them,” he says. “But if you can forgive my codpiece and tights in the 70s you can probably forgive me getting out of a coffin in a cloak and comedy fangs. It’s there and it’s done. Picasso can’t go back and undo his ‘Blue’ period. It’s encapsulated in museums and reference books everywhere. It’s the same thing with records and videos. They’re there to haunt you forever!”

And yet... could there be a way of at least tentatively exploring what might have been? With A and The Broadsword And The Beast having undergone deluxe reissue treatment, we’re bound to wonder if their successors might also be reissued in the coming years, starting with the ever-divisive Under Wraps, whose 40th birthday will be celebrated next year. The answer Anderson gives is an intriguing one.

“We were hoping to do a re-recording of all the drum parts, this time with a real drummer, which I think would be a huge benefit. I have someone in mind to do it, and someone else has provisionally agreed to do a new stereo and surround sound mix, so we’d be ready to roll if we were given the go-ahead. But I haven’t heard back from the record company – it’s up to them to decide if it would make financial sense. So we shall see...”

Whatever becomes of that plan, though, Anderson generally looks back proudly on Jethro Tull’s 1980s output. “Much of it I still have fond feelings about,” he says. “And other moments you think, well... it’s just another chapter in the universe of silliness that is Jethro Tull.”

Johnny Sharp

Johnny is a regular contributor to Prog and Classic Rock magazines, both online and in print. Johnny is a highly experienced and versatile music writer whose tastes range from prog and hard rock to R’n’B, funk, folk and blues. He has written about music professionally for 30 years, surviving the Britpop wars at the NME in the 90s (under the hard-to-shake teenage nickname Johnny Cigarettes) before branching out to newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent and magazines such as Uncut, Record Collector and, of course, Prog and Classic Rock