When you discuss “Aqualung” with Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson, you quickly realize that the 63-year-old Scot is still miffed about the way the iconic 1971 album turned out.
The London recording studio the band used was a converted church that was “big, echoey, daunting and rather dark,” according to Anderson.
“It had all the ghosts of its past, and plenty of technical problems,” says the singer/flutist. “At the end of the sessions, I wasn’t sure what we’d got. It’s a bit like an old photograph; you know it’s in the camera, but you don’t know what the picture is until it’s developed. There’s the feeling you might just have a bit of black film.”
Despite Anderson’s reservations, “Aqualung” went on to become the group’s signature work, selling more than 7 million copies worldwide. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it 337th on its list of the best 500 albums of all time, ahead of the Doors’s “L.A. Woman” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Greetings From Asbury Park.”
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of ``Aqualung,'' the band is launching a 15-city North American tour tomorrow at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. Longtime members Anderson and Martin Barre, the lead guitarist who joined in 1969, will be accompanied by more recent members Doane Perry (drums), David Goodier (bass) and John O’Hara (keyboards). The entire album will be played at each venue.
An “Aqualung” collectors CD is also being released, in remixed form.
“It wasn’t a great sounding album,” Anderson told me recently by phone from his home in England. “A few weeks ago, I heard some of the tracks digitally remixed from the original masters by somebody with a fresh pair of ears. He kept the feeling of the original, but gave it a lot more weight, made it sound more solid and clear.”
In 1971, “Aqualung” was a big departure from mainstream pop -- and from Jethro Tull’s previous blues-oriented releases such as “Stand Up” and “Benefit.”
“Aqualung” combined elements of jazz, classical, hard rock and blues. Critics dubbed it a concept album because many songs were related thematically and musically, as in The Who’s rock opera “Tommy.” The plight of the underprivileged was explored in the songs “Aqualung,” “Cross-Eyed Mary” and “Up To Me,” while “Hymn 43” and “My God” were critical of organized religion.
Anderson, who had scraggly shoulder-length hair in his heyday, is now bald with a neatly trimmed goatee. But he’s still very opinionated. For instance, he rejects the “concept” label for “Aqualung.”
“It’s an album of contrast, full of brave dynamic variations across the board -- from big electric guitar riffs to sensitive little acoustic guitar and vocal passages with a string quartet,” he says. “Lyrically it varies from being angry socially to whimsical, slightly surreal moments like in ‘Mother Goose.’”
Anderson has little patience with critics or rowdy fans.
“It’s particularly disheartening when I’m trying to play the intro to ‘My God’ and someone is hooting over something that is, to me, a very important part of the song,” he says. “It’s not a football match. And if that sounds a bit snobbish, then tough.”
Though Jethro Tull has sold over 50 million albums since 1968 and still performs more than 100 concerts a year, the band isn’t in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“I’ve always thought it is primarily to celebrate American music,” Anderson says of the Hall. “There are a lot more deserving American artists who should be in before British bands. I want to see Captain Beefheart there before Jethro Tull.”
The band may not be in the Hall of Fame, but one of Anderson’s outfits is.
“A mannequin with my stage clothes is standing next to one of Rod Stewart,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Either we had a very bad dry cleaner or the Hall of Fame has a bad one, because the stuff looks impossibly small.’”
(James M. Clash writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.