Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson on his weirdest ever heckle


13th Feb 2024 Celebrities

7 min read

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson on his weirdest ever heckle
Jethro Tull founder and frontman Ian Anderson looks back on skipping Sunday school, swapping guitar for his first flute and a very strange projectile onstage

School days in Scotland and playing truant

Ian Anderson as baby with father by Firth of the Forth between Fife and Edinburgh
My earliest memories are of having two very old parents. My mother was 42 when I was born, which back then was seriously old to have a baby, and a little risky too.
My oldest brother was 14 years older than me and the middle brother ten years older. When I was quite small they had both left home. I grew up almost like an only child. I tended to amuse myself and play in the garden and draw and paint and shoot.
I suppose you do learn as an only child that you're going to have to get on with life and find your own physical and intellectual titillation. You're going to have to find things that excite and move you. 
I was shipped off to Sunday school in Edinburgh when I was seven years old. I felt a proper Charlie, because I was the only little boy among the Sunday school children who was wearing a kilt. On the two occasions I actually did go into the Sunday school, I was teased and felt embarrassed.
I also felt rather threatened by the stories we were taught. Old-school Christianity was filled with retribution and anger that I didn't really enjoy.
For the rest of my attendance at Sunday school, I didn't get closer than climbing a tree outside the church and hiding in the branches, waiting until the children came out, then dropping down to join the school crocodile and walking out of the church to be met by my parents, who were then reassured that I'd been to Sunday school as I was supposed to.
"He got out his cane and was flexing it in preparation for giving me six of the worst"
I didn't want to be beaten by an older man with a cane [at school]. I felt there was something a bit weird about it. I couldn't help but think, Why does he seem to enjoy doing this?
He got out his cane and was flexing it in preparation for giving me six of the worst, and I said, “I would really prefer, sir, if you didn't do that. I'm happy to submit to some other punishment, whether it's detention or lines, but I'm afraid I can't let you cane me, sir.”
He said, “What do you mean? That's the punishment you're getting. Bend over.”
I said, “I'm sorry, sir, I'm unable to do that. I can't help you out there.”
He said, “Well, it's simple. Either you submit to a caning, or you leave school right now and don't come back.”
I said, “That's your decision, not mine. If that's the way you feel, thank you and the school for blessing me with a secondary education. Sadly, I must wave you goodbye.”
And I went onto the street, walked past the headmaster’s study and paused to look through the window, only to take my school cap and throw it into the air as high as I could and walk away, not seeing where it landed. It was a dramatic gesture, but I rather feel it made my point.

Fender Stratocasters, flutes and being a big fish

ian anderson holding flute
When my parents moved us to Blackpool, my paternal aunt, who came to live with us, took me to two or three concerts.
I got to see Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and the early Rolling Stones performing at Blackpool’s ABC Theatre—which, when I was 12 years old, was a profound moment of recognising that that isn't what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, because the music they played was not what I was enjoying.
I was drawn to the blues and Black American folk music. It felt very real and human.
When we moved down south, I did manage to acquire a simple electric guitar. I wanted to twang like Hank Marvin of The Shadows, who I thought was one of the great guitar players of all time for his absolute precision in which he makes the instrument sing. It's a human voice sound. Then along came Muddy Waters and the blues guys.
I started to pick out simple solos I could play and improvise upon. But this was a time when the guitar-playing world was becoming very crowded.
A lot of hotshot guitarists down in London, like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore, were doing sessions for various pop releases and then went on to form their own bands.
I decided it would be better to find something other than the guitar to play. 
"That guitar today would probably fetch 50,000 US dollars on the market, but I will say it is the best deal I ever made"
In 1967 I exchanged my Fender Stratocaster—previously owned by Lemmy Kilmister from Reverend Black, The Rocking Vicars and then Motörhead— for a Shure Unidyne-3 microphone and a £30 basic model student flute.
That guitar today would probably fetch 50,000 US dollars on the market, but I will say it is the best deal I ever made. I got something that allowed me to become visible in a very large world.
Being a large fish in a very small pool, playing the flute in a rock band, was infinitely preferable to being a very small minnow in a large pool of great guitar players.
I used to take my guitar into art school every day, so I could go missing for a lesson or two and practise playing. I got discovered by the principal of the finance department who asked, “Why have you got a guitar here?”.
I said, “I'm practising to play guitar.”
He said, “Well, you should do that at home. You’ve really got to make a decision. Do you want to be a painter? Or do you want to be a musician?”.
I said, “I'm honestly not sure yet.”
And he said, “I'll tell you what, I'll keep you on the roll of students, but my suggestion is, don't show up and don't bring your guitar. Have a bit of time to think about what you want to do.”
Which was great advice. I'm sure he hoped I would, after a week or two, come back and say, “Oh yeah, that was pointless. I’ve given up my idea to play guitar and I’m going to commit myself to working hard.” But I didn't go back.

From rock n' roll arenas to the Scottish ballet

ian anderson mimicking ballet pose with flute while playing with jethro tull
[Jethro Tull’s first American tour] was a long tour. It was 13 weeks away. We landed in Boston and our equipment didn't. We had to borrow equipment to play the famous Tea Party and then a couple of nights later at the Beacon Theatre. These were probably the two most important venues in the eastern half of the USA and luckily we did OK in both.
The thing I remember about it was an awful lot of nights of not working, staying in the most appalling cheap hotel, sharing a room with another band member and being hungry, because we were trying to struggle on a few dollars a day and earning almost nothing from the few showcase gigs we did. It was a rough ride.
But gradually we were building up interest in the media. We continued with two other tours of the US in 1969, and by the end of that period we were headlining shows. 
Once I was hit by something onstage, and I assumed I'd been shot in the chest, because there was blood. I felt the impact but I didn't feel pain. My instinct was to carry on playing. Adrenaline had kicked in and was covering up the pain.
I felt something sort of wriggling inside my shirt, so I reached and pulled out what I thought was a dead rat, but I realised it was a string attached to a used tampon that had been hurled at me. I don't believe any of the Beatles ever got hit by a used tampon.
I'm not sure whether to take it as the ultimate insult or some embedded form of endearment. Whoever did it, though, they should take up darts. They could win the World Championships with an unerring accuracy of aim. 
"I assumed I'd been shot in the chest, because there was blood"
I got to know [my brother] in his late thirties when he transitioned from being a pharmaceutical chemist to following his hidden dream as a theatre manager. He ended up working for 15 years at the Scottish Ballet and booked illustrious guest artists like Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.
My days prancing around in tights and a codpiece go back to 1972, when the costumier at the Royal Ballet designed my stage clothes. I was just hoofing around onstage. I suppose that gave the impression of my having some background in dance, which I didn't at all, but led to my brother asking if I would write some music for the Scottish Ballet.
Along with a couple of other members of Jethro Tull and John Anderson from the band Yes, we wrote some stuff which was choreographed and performed by the Scottish ballet a year or two later. That's my brief relationship with the real world of dance.

Raising fish farms and rescuing wildcats

ian anderson as a child digging on the beach
When I bought property in the west coast of Scotland, I looked at aquaculture as one of the things I might invest in to cover the running costs of a bigger estate. Three years later, we had our first commercial (very small) harvest.
By the year 2000, we had seven fish farm sites and three factories, and were suppliers to a number of outlets in the supermarket world.
It is very risky in that game, being a food supplier. Anything can happen that could result in a disastrous harvest. I would be sunk. I didn't have the backing of a multinational company behind me. I was a lone gun.
I decided that music was probably a safer option, so I sold off the different wings of the company and left it all behind in 2002. 
"What Winston Churchill was to the Second World War, David Attenborough is to British television"
As a child, I used to collect beetles and pond life and watch it grow. I was very interested in the natural world. In terms of conservation, at least the small wildcat species, that’s something that developed mostly in the Nineties and beyond.
I tend to be more supportive of the small cats—lions and anything that’s going to bite my head off, frankly, I'm less inclined to get excited about. It's the little guys, anything like a Sereval or a Caracal—I have a deep love for those creatures in the wild.
Unfortunately, my personal interaction has been in zoos where they've been repossessed from illegal zoos or private ownership. There are some wildlife sanctuaries where I've met these animals, but they belong in their natural environment.
I would encourage people to enjoy the plethora of brilliantly made wildlife programmes, many of them at the behest of the BBC and, of course, David Attenborough. What Winston Churchill was to the Second World War, David Attenborough is to British television.
He saved the day in terms of bringing this huge awareness to millions of people of the fragility of the planet that we live on and the effect that we've had upon it, particularly during his lifetime—and indeed mine.
Banner credit: Andrea Ripamonti / Alamy Stock Photo
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