"We were always looking out for a producer, but the trouble was that most of them took a lot of drugs": Ian Anderson on the recording of Aqualung, and why it really isn't a concept album

Jethro Tull in 1971
Jethro Tull in 1971 (Image credit: Michael Putland)

“I think we all knew instinctively that Aqualung was going to be an important album. It would either be the next step up or it would be the beginning of a decline; I was sure that things were not just going to stay the same.” 

Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson’s prophecy was correct. Aqualung was the pivotal album in the career of the band. It was their breakthrough album in America, cracking the Top 10 in the summer of 1971 and spending the rest of that year in the chart. Even though Tull’s next two albums, Thick As A Brick and Passion Play, went to No.1 in the US (unlike in the UK, where Tull’s popularity was dipping), Aqualung remains the band’s biggest-selling album; the last time Anderson checked (and as a conscientious musician and businessman he does so fairly regularly) worldwide sales stood at 12 million. 

More significantly, Aqualung is the album that for most people defines the eccentric charms of Jethro Tull, from the opening heavy metal riff of the title track, to the final reflective notes of Wind-Up

“In some ways I think it does,” Anderson says, nodding in agreement. “It’s a good balance of some slightly furrowed-brow, self-absorbed songs about big topics, combined with some more personalised and humorous surreal scenarios. But I’m reluctant to say that it’s my favourite Jethro Tull album. There’s too many things I don’t like about it, particularly the quality of the sound, which I still hate to this day. But it’s an album of interesting rock songs that are not like everybody else’s rock songs.” 

That typically cool appraisal from Anderson perhaps masks a deeper affection for the album than he’s letting on. After all Locomotive Breath has been a permanent fixture in the band’s live set ever since, and the title track hasn’t missed many shows either. In 2005 Jethro Tull performed the entire album for a select gathering at XM Radio in Washington, DC, including three songs that hadn’t been played since they were recorded back in ’72. Anderson has donated all proceeds from the Aqualung Live album, released late the same year, to homeless charities.

Jethro Tull - Aqualung (Official Music Video) - YouTube Jethro Tull - Aqualung (Official Music Video) - YouTube
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What also rankles with Anderson is the ‘concept album’ tag that got slapped on the record by critics when it was released and which remains with it to this day. With the ‘rock opera’ Tommy album establishing The Who as superstars in America at the time, reviewers were quick to pick up on a series of songs on Aqualung that attacked organised religion and its hypocritical manipulation of those who believe in God. 

“It’s not the concept album that people have tried to make out,” Anderson insists. “There were maybe three or four songs – My God, Wind-Up, Hymn 43 - that were thematic, the other songs were markedly different; they were about people and landscapes, like Mother Goose. And there’s a couple that are a little more personal, like Cheap Day Return and Wond’Ring Aloud. They are one of the rare occasions when I’m really singing in the first person.” 

There was certainly no thought of a ‘concept album’ when the band arrived at Island Records’ Basing Street Studios in December 1970 to begin recording their fourth album. They’d spent most of the year on the road (apart from the first couple of months which they’d spent recording the Benefit album). 

That road work had included three tours of America where the band were starting to make headway after a support slot on a Led Zeppelin US tour the previous year had exposed them to the country’s hippest rock audiences. They’d even had an airplay hit with Teacher, a track that wasn’t included on the British version of Benefit (it turned up as a B-side instead) but which had appealed to American radio programmers.

But the Tull line-up still hadn’t gelled. Original guitarist Mick Abrahams had left almost as soon as their debut album This Was had come out in early 1969 and had been replaced by Martin Barre. And bassist Glenn Cornick was ousted just before work started on Aqualung. His rush-replacement was Jeffrey Hammond, a Blackpool school friend of Anderson’s who had played with him in local bands. Hammond had already become part of Tull folklore, having had his name used on song titles like A Song For Jeffrey and Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square

“I remember giving him an early Christmas present of a Framus bass – wrapped up very badly – and a Vox AC30 amplifier,” Anderson recalls. “He said: ‘What am I going to do with this?’ I said: ‘You’re going to turn up at Basing Street Studio the day after tomorrow.’” 

From which we might deduce that Hammond was perhaps not musically over-qualified for the role that Anderson had given him. That, however, is to slightly miss the point. “Jeffrey couldn’t really play, but he was a very hard worker and he rose to the task,” Anderson explains. “He was also quite shy. But it was that thing whereby if you take someone who’s introverted and put them on a stage, then something else happens.” In Hammond’s case this meant extrovert behaviour that helped to propagate Tull’s reputation as quirky. 

The arrival of Hammond (later Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond) brought the Blackpool contingent within Jethro Tull to three: pianist John Evans (he would later be persuaded to drop the ‘S’ from his surname), who was more than musically qualified, had joined full-time earlier that year after his session work on the Benefit album. 

(And it would later rise to four when drummer Barriemore ‘Barrie’ Barlow replaced Clive Bunker soon after the release of Aqualung. This would remain the classic Tull line-up through their 70s heyday.)

Jethro Tull - My God (Nothing Is Easy - Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970) - YouTube Jethro Tull - My God (Nothing Is Easy - Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970) - YouTube
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Anderson remembers that some songs for Aqualung started coming together during Tull’s American tours. “After we’d opened for Led Zeppelin in 1969, we toured America again in early 1970 and had Yes open for us. And it was on that tour that we started playing My God. It had different lyrics and other bits in it, but we already had the song.” 

But the bulk of the album came together in the studio or shortly before they started recording: “Quite often I would go in early and bang some idea down on tape,” Anderson recalls. “Some of the little acoustic songs on the album were born out of that process. The others would arrive, and I would have recorded something that they could then add little bits to.” 

Not that Anderson felt particularly comfortable in the studio: “I found it difficult if I wanted to do something on my own. People would be hanging around, and I had these things that I had to put down in relative privacy. I wasn’t a very confident guitar player or singer, so I didn’t like people in the control room watching me. I even used to ask the engineer to go away and just leave me with a tape operator to press the red button.” 

It didn’t help that they had no producer working with then on the recording of the Aqualung album. Tull’s three previous albums had been produced by Anderson and the band’s manager Terry Ellis. “We were always looking out for a producer,” Anderson says, “but the trouble was that most of them took a lot of drugs and I can’t work with people who are doing drugs. I would feel uncomfortable around them, and then of course they felt uncomfortable around me. 

“I remember there was this one guy (a well-known name, withheld because he might just sue) who had a major cocaine thing going on. He was always going to the toilet and coming back fired up and shouting: ‘Let’s nail this thing!’ It was all so dreary. He had these heavy guys around doing these deals for him. And of course it was all going on our bill.” 

“I did actually go and see [famed Beatles producer] George Martin before we recorded Aqualung, and said I was wrestling with whether I should use a producer or just carry on doing what I thought ought to be done. There was also this thing about working with someone who would have authority and creative input, and whether I was the kind of guy who could deal with that. We talked about it, and then George said – probably in the hope that I wouldn’t ask him to produce us – that I should go for it and do it on my own. So I did.” 

As it turned out, however, production was not the main concern: “The real problem was the brand new – and not quite technically sorted out – main studio at Basing Street. It was actually a converted church,” says Anderson (which is ironic, in view of the conceptual – sorry, thematic - nature of some of the songs). 

“We were in this big, cavernous room that was horrible to work in. The acoustics were just horrendous. And the control room was simply dreadful. It was the worst album that we ever did in terms of sound.” (Just to prove that size isn’t everything, down below where Tull were recording, in a small, cramped studio, Led Zeppelin were beavering away, laying down tracks that would show up on Led Zeppelin IV.)

“So the recording was a bit nerve-racking. Because while I thought we had lots of good songs, I was worried about the quality of the recording,” Anderson explains. “There was this tension caused by the dissatisfaction with the studio, and I think we lost our nerve a bit. I don’t think we played at our best.” 

Perhaps not, but the six-note guitar riff (which sounded like something that could have seeped up through the floor from the studio below) that starts the album and the title track is an inspired beginning. 

“Well, like any good riff it’s all to do with little clusters of notes that are instantly recognisable, whether it’s Whole Lotta Love or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” Anderson offers. “And that was a thought out, contrived little cluster of notes. But the chords that follow it are quite unusual. They’re more classical than rock. 

"And beyond that, quite a lot of the song is me strumming an acoustic guitar and doing a laid-back, meandering bit of storytelling. People tend to think of the opening riff, but they’d be hard pushed to hum much of the rest of it. It’s also a rare Jethro Tull song that has no flute in it.” 

The song Aqualung was inspired by a photograph of a tramp taken by Anderson’s first wife. “Actually it’s not so much about the tramp but more about our reaction to him – a mixture of guilt, embarrassment, fear, sympathy, kindness, all these conflicting emotions.” 

The opening line of the song/album – ‘Sitting on a park bench/Eyeing little girls with bad intent’ – would fail the political correctness test if it was submitted today. And these days you couldn’t get away with the next song: Cross-Eyed Mary, the tale of a teenage prostitute and her older, leering customer. 

“The thing is, back then you could do that stuff,” Anderson explains, of some of the now risqué-sounding lyrics on the album . “I mean, look at Tommy. Everyone knew about dirty old men and what they got up to, but it was just ‘fiddling about’. So you could have a sly wink and a laugh about it. 

“The difference now is that we hear and read about so much more. I don’t think there’s any acceptable way you could introduce paedophilia into a rock song these days.”

More contentious back then were the songs that attacked organised religion. “That’s me when I was 14 and pissed off about having to do religious instruction at school,” Anderson explains. “It was something that had been buried since adolescence that was kind of itching away inside.” 

“I remember going to an Anglican Sunday School as a small child when we lived in Edinburgh. I was sent in my kilt and I was terrified, fearful of what I might find. I used to join the end of this crocodile of kids going in, and as soon as my parents had turned away I’d break off from the line and shin up a tree and sit there for an hour. 

“The idea of being told what to believe, and then believing it, is anathema to me,” he adds, getting to the real substance in the songs. “I immediately distrust anyone who thinks they have the whole message and have a total belief that they will be saved. Because I simply don’t believe that is right. And I’m horrified by the ultra-conservative bible bashers who are every bit as terrifying as the extreme elements in Islam. 

“I was railing against the dogma of organised religion. There’s nothing wrong with pointing a sharp stick at things. Pub comedians do it, so do playwrights and novelists. But sometimes when musicians do it it’s seen to be overstepping the mark. Maybe that’s because we’re considered to be mere entertainers and buffoons in a codpiece and tights, who should simply dance for the king,” smirks the man who spent most of the 70s dancing around on stage in a codpiece and tights. 

But Anderson still maintains there was nothing calculated about the way those songs were grouped on the second side of the Aqualung album (in fact only My God and Hymn 43 run consecutively; Wind-up appears later, as the last track). “They were just songs, he says, “written and recorded around the same time along with a bunch of other songs.” 

In fact he remains slightly peeved that some of those other songs have been overlooked in the rush to turn Aqualung into a concept album. Like the brief but poignant song Cheap Day Return that he wrote about catching to train to London to visit his ill father. 

“It was one of the songs I did on my own in the studio, basically playing live and singing. And they were mostly first or second takes. I was quite fired up by that, because I’d always admired people like Dylan, Bert Jansch and Roy Harper who could just take out their guitar, vaguely tune it and then suddenly make miracles happen. And I wanted to be able to do that.”

Jethro Tull - Locomotive Breath (Rockpop In Concert 10.7.1982) - YouTube Jethro Tull - Locomotive Breath (Rockpop In Concert 10.7.1982) - YouTube
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The track on Aqualung that was the most difficult one to nail was Locomotive Breath, which is strange because Anderson calls it “a classic, straight-ahead Jethro Tull song. I wanted a very metric, relentless beat. We tried playing it in rehearsals and in the studio but we couldn’t get that machine-like quality. 

“In the end I went out and laid down a bass drum and hi-hat beat for four minutes 30 second or whatever, and then we started laying things down on top of that. This was in the days before click tracks, you understand. I played some guitar breaks on Martin’s Les Paul, then Clive put some tom toms on and Jeffrey made his fingers bleed by going ‘wooh, wooh’ on his bass guitar. We ended up with kind of what I was after, but really it was a completely artificial recording.” 

The recording and mixing sessions for the album spread into 1971, and Anderson remembers the final sessions being “absolutely freezing”. But even then the problems weren’t over: there was the vexed issue of the cover to deal with. Which is another aspect of Aqualung that still rankles with him. 

“Our manager Terry Ellis wanted to use this New York artist Burton Silverman. That was okay, because I didn’t want to use the photograph of the tramp my wife had taken because it was too real, and I wanted more of a representation. 

“So I explained the character and what the song was about to this guy. But I have to say I never liked him. And from the sketches he did it was obvious that Terry wanted him to represent this character as me. I said: ‘I am not this character Aqualung and I think that’s a dangerous way to go.’ And they would say: ‘Well, how about if he has long hair and an overcoat but he doesn’t look like you?’ This all dragged on, to the point where it became a done deal with all the deadlines looming and everything. I never liked the cover and I still don’t like it.” 

Anderson admits that it was “a nerve-racking process” waiting to see how the album would be received: “I remember we had a little launch for the press, nothing very grand. We had some people in to listen to the album, and I did some interviews. There was definitely this feeling of whether the album would pass muster – whether people were going to like it. 

“And I don’t remember feeling any the wiser immediately afterwards. There was no sudden: ‘Phew, they liked it’, the feeling was more: ‘Okay’. But nobody was jumping up and down about it. Which was probably a good thing, because that meant it didn’t have that instant mega-hit thing about it. 

“For an album that turned out to be our biggest seller, it didn’t start out by being a monster hit,” Anderson recalls. “It was fairly well-received, but what worked for it was that it was a steady, progressive seller for two or three years and has sold consistently ever since. If it was the only album I’d made, I wouldn’t die an unhappy man."

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 91, in April 2006. 

Hugh Fielder

Hugh Fielder has been writing about music for 47 years. Actually 58 if you include the essay he wrote about the Rolling Stones in exchange for taking time off school to see them at the Ipswich Gaumont in 1964. He was news editor of Sounds magazine from 1975 to 1992 and editor of Tower Records Top magazine from 1992 to 2001. Since then he has been freelance. He has interviewed the great, the good and the not so good and written books about some of them. His favourite possession is a piece of columnar basalt he brought back from Iceland.