No living in the past for the forward-looking Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull were not merely a bass, guitar drums rock band and Ian Anderson was no ordinary frontman.

This was a group, after all, that named itself after an 18th-century agriculturalist.

Musically, Tull presented an idiosyncratic take on rock and their flute-led signature style propelled them to rock superstardom - Tull shared the same ivory tower as The Rolling Stones, The Who, and even Led Zeppelin. And, as the first band to play at Shea Stadium since the Beatles, they ruled the US arena circuit.

Today, Tull's musical ambition is still driving them. Next week the group play at Sheffield's City Hall as part of a UK tour.

But Tull are well prepared: "In the run-up to the tour I take the time to get physically and mentally into shape to do a full concert. I practice on the flute and guitar and borrow my wife's running machine," says frontman and flautist Ian Anderson.

The preparation is understandable: Anderson is renowned for his lively performances - often playing flute while standing on one leg.

And after decades of arena tours, Jethro Tull are not unused to enormous crowds.

Anderson reflects on the group's first forays into big rock shows: "I remember us opening for Led Zeppelin on our second US tour. It was a very good lesson in performing to larger crowds and the intensity of it all and learning to cope with that attention.

"I think when you have those lessons you can learn them quickly, you can learn them begrudgingly or you can not learn them at all. I think I learnt them fairly quickly really because it just seemed like an act of self-preservation, to get past that point of becoming a little bit famous and not letting it change you too much.

"Sometimes the record company would send a limo for us, which is the easiest way to attract attention, so we used to send the limo on ahead to the venues and we would follow in a couple of yellow cabs. Of course, the limos would get mobbed by fans and we would just drive past and get to where we were going. We had an anti-star philosophy."

That was the late sixties but Anderson's anti-stardom philosophy is still evident today. He converses more like a university lecturer than a 63-year-old rock star.

Even in the midst of superstardom, Anderson was driven by his intellectual work ethic, as he told Melody Maker in 1975: "I've not yet written the songs that I want to write. It comes down to the songs. I'm a believer in absolute value with songs. I would like to write a really substantial love song... something that really paints a strong picture."

Today, 35 years since that interview, Tull's views on songwriting have not changed.

"We are blessed with a rich language, yet many musicians use buzz words and fun statements. One think I try and do is write some sort of expressive lyrics that have never appeared in a song."

Anderson certainly stretched the songwriting boundaries, addressing serious, universal social problems in addition to cryptic prog rock riddles, as in Tull's three-times platinum 1971 album Aqualung: "Aqualung addressed social issues that weren't going to go away - such as homelessness. Whether it's the street kids in Mumbai or the kids in Washington camped out a couple of miles down the road from the White House, it's still an issue."

There were other issues that struck the young Anderson while touring America with Tull. "It was a harsh awakening because of the degree of violence, including violence at rock concerts - there were a lot of bad things that happened with local police and sometimes even state police. In Denver, at Red Rocks in 1972 there was a huge riot, with tear gas and people burning police cars - it was all pretty horrific stuff."

And unlike other British rock bands who toured America leaving a trail of drugs, groupies and trashed hotel rooms, Anderson refrained from the sex and drugs: "I didn't like the idea of being chemically altered and I regarded my growing personality and psyche as something sacred and didn't want to fiddle around with it. I can only think of Frank Zappa and myself as the only people that are perhaps notoriously disconnected from the drugs culture."

Indeed, he asked an interviewer to wait 15 minutes while he finished his boiled egg - not the typical rock and roll delicacy.

But Anderson says: "I'm not morally opposed to drugs - but, given there is a 50 per cent chance that my last moments on earth will be spent while being shot up on morphine, I think I can wait until then.

"There are things that you can try or not but it doesn't mean to disapprove. I haven't tried gay sex but I don't disapprove of it - I haven't got round to trying it and frankly the chances now are pretty remote. My wife probably wouldn't be very happy about it but equally neither would a young bronze tanned hunk, I am just a wrinkled old prune so I'm not much of a catch," he says, with the same dry humour that reporters noted as early as 1969.

He sums up his rock and roll philosophy: "Get an early night with an Agatha Christie book."

Jethro Tull play Sheffield City Hall next Thursday, April 1.

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