Tracing the spiritual thread through Jethro Tull’s catalogue is a puzzling job. On Aqualung – the album that catapulted them up the ranks of classic rock bands – singer Ian Anderson was clearly angry with the Church, which could explain the somewhat pagan stance that he seemed to take on later, more rural albums like Songs from the Wood.
When it came to his solo records, one instrumental commission called Divinities had a distinctly multi-faith cover.
All of this made it surprising that Tull then released a proper Christmas album that included some pro-Jesus songs among the traditional carols. Anderson has also been performing regular charity concerts to support church buildings. His new release, The String Quartets, was recorded in Worcester Cathedral and sports the logo of The Churches Conservation Trust in its liner notes.
So does this constitute a coming to faith or a maturing of his world view? And what caused that early vitriol?
Ringing from Melbourne, where he was touring, Anderson described one of the most formative influences against faith in his own life: an early, “authoritarian, very conservative” headmaster, Revd. Dr. Luft, “who scared us. As a person, he was a very uncompromising man, never smiled, was basically not a very good advertisement for the warm and invitational nature of the C. of E. [Church of England]; he was a rather brutal man, who wielded a cane.”
The cane is what drove Anderson away from school when Luft’s replacement was in charge. “I had committed some infringement, which was definitely worthy of punishment,” Anderson admitted, “but I refused to be caned. A middle-aged or even elderly man whacking young boys didn’t seem right – there was something weird about it, so I refused. I was handed an ultimatum: ‘Go home and come back ready to face your punishment, or don’t come back at all’. I was willing to accept another form of punishment, but not to be caned. Whereupon, I turned out and never went back.”
Anderson was also affronted that “we were not invited, but told to participate” in religious activities – such as the time when he tried to be excused from reading in a carol service, because when he suffered a migraine attack, he couldn’t see anything, so public reading meant the risk of humiliating himself. Again, he felt he had to refuse, leading to “another of those little reinforcing moments about how uncompromising and uncaring certain individuals in the Church could be – and of course still are.
“Not everyone who takes holy orders is necessarily a nice, kind, warm and giving sort of person,” he explained. Laughing wryly, he added, “There are nasty folks out there in every walk of life, people who take up jobs for which they are uniquely unqualified. You think, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re really not very good. You can’t be enjoying it. Wouldn’t it be nice to find something else to do?
“But I’m not really singling out members of the establishment of the Church; I say the same thing about musicians and politicians. It happens in life that people chose things for which they are really not naturally gifted.”
As he became more inquisitive about the world around him, he grew frustrated that his school avoided comparative religion, settling for a “painful… desperately awful” coverage of the Old Testament that struck him as “what seemed to be a rambling, bad piece of history; a lot of nasty, really unpleasant stuff, and it didn’t seem to be very relevant.”
All of this left a very negative impression of Christianity. So when he began songwriting, and drawing on his personal experience, what went in is what came out.
But careful reading of Aqualung’s lyric sheet shows that Anderson has no gripes with God, but rather “the authoritarian and the rather unpleasant, power-wielding side of the Church establishment.”
In “Hymn 43”, he had the American right in his targets for appropriating God:
“Our father high in heaven, smile down upon your son
Who’s busy with his money games, his women and his gun “
”My God” was closer to home, having a go at Catholics and the Church of England:
“People, what have you done / Locked Him in His golden cage
Made Him bend to your religion / Him resurrected from the grave”
The title track –written by his ex-wife – gave the Salvation Army a good plug by inference, and “Wind Up” was saying how much greater God is than the flawed institutions that represent him.
Not everyone got the distinction. “There were some who got their knickers in a twist and there were burnings of the album in some Southern states of America, where the Baptist Church and the evangelicals really took issue with my criticism. But elsewhere, I got a lot of supportive letters from people and clergy, who said, ‘We know what you’re on about; we think it’s right that these things should be questioned.’
“We all go through the elements of questioning and doubt. As one priest once said to me, ‘Faith and doubt are joined at the hip.’ Any priest who tells you that he never suffers any moments of concerns and doubts and loss of faith is not to be trusted. Of course you’ve got to question, ’Is it all worth it? Is it real? Is it just some supernatural compulsion that we as a species seem to have?’
“I think it’s right that at this moment within the C. of E. there are sharp divisions. That doesn’t mean the end of Christianity as we know it; it just means that you have a healthy and vigorous religion that is in its place in the modern world and facing up to the dilemmas and the contradictions of life.”
It was at this point that Anderson showed that he has investigated the bible, if not quite got a handle on how it came about. He knows enough to understand that much of the Old Testament was edited, but has been left with the opinion that it was largely edited by one person.
“We live in a different world. The function of the bible as a holy book back then and its function today are nonetheless still valid and joined together. But I think you have to interpret things very much in the light of knowledge, experience, awareness changing, cultures changing and above all, the generosity of spirit that I think lies at the heart of Christianity, or at least the Anglican tea-and-buns version of it – something that I think has a very vital place in modern society, even if you are not necessarily a worshipper.”
Although I consider it to be the highlight of Jethro Tull’s catalogue, I had planned to skip quickly through the subsequent album A Passion Play, which was based – with very British surreal humour – loosely on a man watching his own funeral and then becoming equally disenchanted with stereotypical versions of both heaven and hell (“I’d give up my halo for a horn and my horn for the hat I once had”).
But Anderson was keen to talk about the aborted film that was based on the album, for which he had approached such luminaries as Dame Margot Fonteyn to dance and John Cleese to do the comedic scriptwriting.
Revealing that he was one of the investors in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Anderson said, “I felt confident in John Cleese having a rather objective and surreal look at some of these traditional notions.
“I approached Leonard Rossiter, and Donald Pleasance, another actor I really liked, who was known for playing evil roles. I rather saw Donald Pleasance as playing that personification of the devil that was going to be in the movie, and Leonard Rossiter being a rather manic, crazed kind of Old Testament God, but a bit fluffy at the same time, a bit ruffled around the edges.
“I went for meetings with these guys separately and at the end of both meetings, Donald Pleasance said, ‘Count me in, but just one thing – any chance I could be God?’ and Leonard Rossiter separately said, ‘Yes, sounds good, but any chance I could play the devil?’“
The project never got off the ground, as the intrinsically British show needed American money and the backers wanted “American performers and Hollywood tinsel.”
Anderson seems to like treading a fine line of offence and support. Had the Passion Play movie happened, he thought, “It would have been fun to make, because it wasn’t quite as scurrilous as The Life of Brian turned out to be, but it certainly would have worried some people, because I was taking stereotypical ideas about the Church and the idea of salvation, some kind of spiritual life after death, and fooling around with it. It doubtless would have resulted in a little more disagreeable reaction from the Southern Bible Belt. You’ve got to be very careful these days, whatever you do.”
He then dropped in the news that, “I start work on a project next week, not a million miles away from some elements of biblical quotations and so on. I have to be really careful about how I do this, because it’s not something…”
And at his point, he trailed off and revealed his concern about the reaction he gets to his supportive Christmas shows for cathedrals, explaining that “A few people think that maybe I shouldn’t be doing [them], because they are anti-religion, or maybe anti-Christian.
“There are Christian believers who feel that it’s inappropriate that someone like me – who readily acknowledges I do not want to be called a Christian in the paid-up sense, so I am perhaps an unwelcome intruder into the traditions of the Church – to be performing what is essentially a secular concert.”
It is sad enough that, after his impressions of the Church in his schooldays, that he should feel like an “unwelcome intruder” when he is trying to help fund the buildings, especially as he tries to incorporate elements of liturgy into the shows.
“I like to include a prayer and a reading or two, and some elements that are common in Christian worship,” he explained. “I feel that it is appropriate that we bring those into the context of the secular concert from the point of view of making the audience take seriously that they are in a special place.”
My overriding impression is that he feels very comfortable with the effects of faith – the grandeur of cathedrals and the spiritual effect on people of being in that space, as well as the socially cohesive effect of the Church of England – but not with the reality of God, who causes these things.
He admits, “I’m a fudger. I occupy that rather woolly middle ground. I meet priests and deans and canons and the odd archbishop and I will take my position. It’s not that I am unwilling to come out of the closet, as one or two priests that I know hope that I am still going to do. I say, ‘Forget it – I am not and never will be what you would call a Christian,’ but I am really a 100% supporter of the Christian Church. It’s been incredibly supportive and I think is a thing that we don’t want to lose from society, so I am a big supporter of the Christian Church in the UK. I just do it my way.
“People like me bring a little income into the pot. Realistically, all I do is going to pay for two or three days tops of the running costs of a cathedral, but every little bit helps. That’s why I do it.”
Anderson has another cathedral link now that Jethro Tull – The String Quartets is out.
“For me these days, working in the grand medieval cathedrals is another day in the office. The string quartets album was recorded in the crypt of Worcester Cathedral and in one of the historic churches, which the Historic Churches Preservation Body look after. They’re people that I work with.
My view is that the Church of England needs all the help it can get and those of us who pile in and do our bit should be, at the very least, tolerated for our efforts. Maybe you can’t quite count upon us for 100% fitting neatly into the ranks. Better having us on your side than not at all.
This is the Director’s Cut of my March 2017 interview with Ian Anderson, versions of which appeared in The Church of England Newspaper and the Phantom Tollbooth e-zine in April 2017