Jethro Tull: how loneliness and cold war spy thrillers shaped Minstrel In The Gallery

Ian Anderson
(Image credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot / Getty Images)

The first thing Ian Anderson did when he woke up this morning was stand in the window completely naked – “there’s no one around at that time to see me” – and look out across the fields. 

“I saw the sheep gently moving a few hundred metres away, and got that wonderful feeling of, y’know, thanks for all the good fortune.” 

He’s thinking like this because he’s remembering Grace, the simple snippet which closes the far-from-simple album Minstrel In The Gallery, Jethro Tull’s 1975 near-classic. 

“That song was just paying homage to the world around,” he says. “It was a musical afterthought, a postscript, just thanking whatever power or spirit for the blessings that have been bestowed upon you that day. Then it asks: ‘May I buy you again tomorrow?’ Because in a way you pay through the nose for that good luck. So it’s just saying grace, although… I tend not to have these thoughts about me when I sit down to gorge myself on King Prawn vindaloo, a saag aloo, pilau rice and a plate full of poppadoms. I’m not that spiritually minded all the time. But there are moments.” 

There are moments of spoken-word theatre, acoustic folk, heavy electric rock, string quartets and (of course) flute on the busy, bustling, bursting-at-the-banks Minstrel In The Gallery, one of the peak Tull statements. 

Some go as far as to call it the quintessential Tull album, but Anderson himself reckons it’s not quite Premier League. “In terms of the Jethro Tull canon, Aqualung has to sit right at the top of the tree,” he says, “not only regarding the quality of songs but as being ‘iconic’ to an audience the world over. Well, particularly back in the seventies. 

"Then if you were to divide all the work including my solo stuff into three blocks of a) great, b) okay and c) perhaps not, then Minstrel In The Gallery would be in the second group and probably near the top of it. But, you know, it might be somebody else’s favourite. For some that’s even [the much-criticised] A Passion Play. Luckily everyone has different opinions, and that’s what makes us all more interesting than otherwise we might be."

Anderson is both interesting and opinionated. His articulate early morning monologues are delivered in warm, witty, stentorian tones, often impossible for the interviewer to break into with anything so distracting as questions. 

Today he digresses on to Brexit, Frank Zappa, Beefheart, Jimmy Page and David Bowie, but can at times be guided gently back on to the topic at hand: the Tull album which arrived in a year when the band had played five sold-out nights at the LA Forum and were described as “the world’s biggest band?” (albeit with a question mark) by Melody Maker

“I’d learned long before to recognise that you can have everybody reckoning you’re the Next Great Thing," he says. "Then within a year or two get some poisonously negative stuff. And this was in the days before social media! Imagine the vitriol and condemnation and abuse now if I’d come out with A Passion Play. But yes, it was up and down, up and down, all the time.” 

Even the lyrics (on Minstrel track Baker St. Muse) – ‘I have no time for Time Magazine or Rolling Stone’ – note the impact of the press in that era. 

“Having been on the cover of both, these were hugely important back then," says Anderson. "As was being fortunate enough to get the attention of John Peel. But of course they’d fall out of love with you as quickly as they’d fallen in. Rolling Stone swiftly decided we were the spawn of the devil because we weren’t Americana. And eventually John Peel decreed we were off his Christmas card list and never spoke to me again. I was mortified, really. It was painful to feel suddenly cut off."

Punk wasn’t quite gobbing at the rock gods just yet, but you were in the firing line when the new orthodoxy declared progressive rock to be out of fashion and infra dig. 

“And I’m well aware of the pomposity and arrogance that some see in a progressive approach, in a concept album”, says 71-year-old Anderson, still recording and touring (a new album is in the making) and now an MBE, erstwhile salmon farmer and director of four companies who hasn’t worn a codpiece or dirty raincoat in many years. 

“I fully understand all that, I get it," he says. "On the other hand, to constrain myself to only working within the bounds of obvious, conventional, catchy music would frustrate and thwart me. You have to let loose. For some that might be just turning it up to eleven, one louder. A bit more welly. 

"For others it might be a change of direction. Or it could be an escape into the destructive world of alcohol and drugs. For me I suppose it’s an unapologetic and occasionally slightly intellectual urge to push beyond the accepted norms of rock music. I’m well aware how it might come over, the reputation you might get, but you just have to bear that particular cross."

Tull’s eighth album, Minstrel was recorded in Monte Carlo in the Maison Rouge studio, not long after Anderson’s divorce from his first wife, photographer and actress Jennie Franks, who’d written half the lyrics for Aqualung

While some of the songs on this album reference break-ups and lost love, more of them catalogue the observations of an outsider, holding up an unreliable mirror to society’s freaks and misfits. The minstrel, Anderson sings, ‘brewed a song of love and hatred’.

“I suppose I was feeling a little isolated,” he says. “I felt you were in the public domain, but cut off, like entertainers, minstrels, in the gallery. Separated from the people you were performing to. You were of a different caste. You were travelling salesmen, carnival people. 

"So they found you seductive and interesting, and wanted to receive your entertainment, but you didn’t belong with them. Some enjoyed living in the rock’n’roll world, whatever that meant, having their own separate identity. But for me it was…not lonely, exactly, but… I belonged nowhere. 

"You had Mick Jagger trying to move among the good and the great back then, liking being fêted by royalty and the intelligentsia of the time. He flirted with that world, wanted to be accepted as an equal. I think his bandmates found it quite absurd and laughed and joked about it. The rest of us just thought he was a bit of a ponce for trying to rise above his social station. And that had an impact on me. I didn’t want to mix in circles like that. 

"At the same time, I wasn’t particularly drawn to the circles of my musical peers; I didn’t do the clubs and the drugs and the booze, that just wasn’t in me. I had great respect for fellow musicians, I just wasn’t into the social side. So I felt dislocated.” 

The themes of Minstrel whirl around an almost Dickensian or Hogarthian depiction of city life and the Halloween parade of its inhabitants; the ne’er-do-wells and wannabes, including sleazy office workers, dodgy coppers, homeless strugglers, prostitutes and randy pygmies. 

Somehow the music, while occasionally getting too frantic, full, overambitious and overlapping for its own good, evokes these mean streets of seventies London, as perceived through the eyes of a young man who may have been pissed-off but wasn’t too jaded to see the jewels therein. 

“Feeling cut off isn’t necessarily a bad thing," says Anderson. "Because it makes you resilient. It gives you a point of difference. Your goods, on the shelf, are not the same as everybody else’s. And in terms of both material and musical styles, we dipped our toes in folk, classical, jazz etcetera. 

“It’s an unholy mess of clashes if you get it wrong, but if you get it right it’s a delicate broth, a heady brew of flavours and tastes. You’ve got to believe you’re getting it right. Because when you think you’ve got it right, you probably have”. 

Jethro Tull in late 1974

Jethro Tull in late 1974 (Image credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot / Getty Images)

It’s on the second side’s ‘prog suite’ Baker St. Muse that the singer casts his coldest eye over the urban sprawl, leaping between misanthropy and a sense of wonder at all the colourful characters he witnesses. Anderson was at the time staying in a rented mews (geddit?) cottage just off Baker Street in central London.

“Oh, look, sometimes you look back over your old lyrics and some of it is just toe-curlingly awful!” Anderson says. “But there are other little moments where you think: ‘Oh wow. Did I write that? It’s quite simple, but … perceptive. For a twenty-something!’ I never feel smug satisfaction, I just go: ‘Phew, that was a lucky idea that came to me!’ Sometimes you sit there scratching your head and not a lot comes."

It comes in floods on Baker St. Muse, of which Anderson admits he is fond. On many days at that time, he’d walk down the famed thoroughfare to Oxford Street where the record companies were at the time, and at night stroll in the opposite direction to the Indian restaurant. 

“I’d go and pick up a takeaway while reading some Cold War spy thriller," he says. "This was a little ritual I had after returning from a long tour to London, then writing songs for a new album. Much of it was written in that little rented cottage and on my meanderings and wanderings. Again I suppose some of the characters are not unlike some of those on Aqualung

"You have to remember that I, like many of my peers, went to art school. So my background was in the painterly arts more than the musical ones. And the way I enjoyed pictorial art was not portraiture, and not landscapes, but people in a landscape. Almost like the cast of a play on a stage. And here the stage is a cityscape; think of LS Lowry, or the underrated, misunderstood Sir William Russell Flint. 

"I’d have these characters where you leave a slight sense of incompleteness so that the audience can use their own creative powers to elaborate on your sketch. They can join the dots, put the colours in. That’s what I find attractive about music: people can listen and introduce their own exploration or amplification."

The album is a classic of Anderson’s people-watching period. As a morning person, he felt equally detached, at times, within the band set-up. 

“[Guitarist] Martin Barre and I were the loners, really, within the social infrastructure," says Anderson. "He liked to get up early and go for a run; I liked to get up early and strum my guitar and watch the news. After a show, both of us would be tucked up and fast asleep within forty-five minutes of coming off stage! 

"The world would be boring if everybody lived in the stereotypical rock’n’roll way we’re encouraged to believe they do. I’m sure even Jimmy Page woke up early sometimes and had a creative moment. Or it could have been a procreative moment, remembering the Polaroid photos that Jimmy used to show us the morning after the night before." 

Didn’t you upset Led Zeppelin by saying words to the effect that your song Black Satin Dancer was like Zeppelin but with better lyrics? 

“Ah. That was the kind of thing I unfortunately used to say," says Anderson. "Opening my mouth without stopping to think. Of course it was offensive. In that moment I forgot that Robert [Plant] wrote the lyrics. He was probably hurt. It sounded like I was claiming some kind of superiority. I was probably trying to pay a compliment to Zeppelin but it ended up not as I intended.” 

What part was played by the location for the recording? The luxuriance of Monte Carlo seems not to have filtered into this album one iota. And is it true that the other band members mostly lazed around while you did the work?

“Oh, it wasn’t a bad atmosphere,” he replies, “it was just odd being away from the UK, where we’d made previous records. The idea was to cut ourselves off from the distractions of home and family and friends, of day-today life. Being in a residential context it would be more of a dedicated, concentrated effort. 

"But in some ways the reverse occurred. I’d written much of the material beforehand, so many sessions didn’t require the others’ input, at least in the early stages. 

"So they ended up with time on their hands, doing day trips into Switzerland or Italy. John Evan and Martin had cars and would visit ski resorts. They were the playboys of Monaco. It was okay, but Monte Carlo is a soulless, meaningless place. We were resident while we were there, for tax purposes, but what had seemed like a good idea wasn’t a great one. 

"In fact our first time there coincided with the Monaco Grand Prix, so that was tortuous – all the roads were closed off, which meant getting to the studio was tricky. I’m a fast worker, I like to get things done while I’m consumed by the energy and emotion. I don’t want to hang about, I like to crack on. 

"So while I wouldn’t over-egg it, because it is still a band record, this one has a bit more of me being private, reflective, whimsical."

And so he raced on to the next project, an idea for a musical, but he couldn’t hang around waiting for the practicalities of the theatre world to catch up with his imagination, and remodelled Too Old To Rock’n’Roll: Too Young To Die as a Jethro Tull album. 

Today Anderson is flush with tangential anecdotes, spinning off on to his admiration for Peter Green, his enjoyment of ZZ Top and Motörhead “in small doses” (“though I’m probably more likely to find solace in Handel”), his touring days with Captain Beefheart, and his regret at not phoning the terminally ill Frank Zappa, who he’d never met, when told Zappa would like him to. 

“Three times I dialled the number then hung up before he answered…” he says. “I didn’t know what to say to a dying man. I didn’t have the balls. What a shit story. Who knows what he wanted to say to me? Perhaps he wanted to say: ‘I just wanted you to know I hated all your albums – especially Minstrel In The Gallery!’ Ha ha ha…” 

With all due respect to the late American avant-gardist, he would have been wrong on that one.

Ian Anderson’s autobiography, The Ballad Of Jethro Tull, is available to order now

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.