How I wrote ‘Living In The Past’ by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson
On the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation, the enigmatic, flute-toting frontman talks about writing one of their best-known songs
Best known for his work as the lead vocalist, flautist and guitarist of British progressive folk-rock band Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson is celebrating 50 years as a recording and performing musician. It was on 2 February 1968 at London’s Marquee Club that his band first appeared on stage, before going on to become one of the most successful and enduring bands of their era. Jethro Tull racked up an estimated 60 million albums worldwide, with 11 gold and five platinum albums among them.
The group first achieved commercial success in 1969, with the folk-tinged blues album Stand Up, which reached No 1 in the UK. Although originally recorded before this album, Living In The Past was released later that year, as a stand-alone single in the UK, but became more popular after its 1972 release on a compilation album of the same name.
To celebrate the golden anniversary, Ian announced plans for a Jethro Tull world tour in 2018, giving us a perfect opportunity to reflect on the creation of one of the band’s best-known songs…
“It was the early part of 1969, we were on our first US tour and I think we were returning to Boston to perform, maybe for the second time, at the Boston Tea Party. I was staying in a hotel, it was a Holiday Inn on the banks of the Charles River, just to the west of downtown Boston, and staying at the same hotel were a band called Pentangle. It was the kind of hotel that, I suppose, lesser-known and not terribly successful British acts would stay, because we couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else!
“We were just checking into the hotel and our manager, Terry Ellis, said to me, ‘Listen, we’ve got a day off here before the show and I’ve been worried that our early glimmers of success in the UK might be lost because we’re going to be here for three months on tour, so by the time we get back to the UK, fickle audiences may have turned their attention elsewhere!’ I think his exact words were, ‘We want to keep the pot bowling, while we’re away.’ I said, ‘Right, er… What do you have in mind?’ So he said, ‘Could you come up with something catchy and radio-friendly, as a single we could release?’ Well, this was anathema to me, the idea of sitting down and trying to come up with something overtly commercial, and three minutes long, and whatever… But, to humour him, I just said, ‘Yeah sure, Terry, just give me an hour, I’ll meet you in the lobby and I’ll come back with a hit single!’
“IT’S NICE TO BE ABLE TO DO SOMETHING THAT DEFIES THE ODDS”
“I was completely just winding him up. But I dutifully went upstairs and fiddled around for an hour and came up with a song, and tried to make it as uncommercial as I could. I mean, the only way in which it followed an acceptable format was in its running time – it was just over three minutes long – but otherwise it flew in the face of everything that was commercial. First of all it was called Living In The Past, which was about as untrendy as you could get for a title. It also was in the 5/4 time signature, which meant you couldn’t really tap your feet to it or dance to it, so it was a no-no for Top Of The Pops. So I said, ‘I’ve got this song,’ and [Terry] said, ‘Wow! I’ll book a studio next week, when we we’re in the New York area.’ So he booked some cheap studio in New Jersey, where we went and recorded this, and overdubbed a small local ensemble of session musicians – the cheapest we could find. I think I did the vocals to it in San Francisco some weeks later, then mixed it and sent it back to the UK to be dutifully released.
“And against all the odds, it did become a hit! It was No 3 in the Singles Chart and it was only the second occasion, I think, that a piece of music in an uncommon time signature of 5/4 was ever in the charts. The other time had been Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. That was somewhere in the back of my mind, really, because I was quite an admired of his and the fact that he did these quite simple but elegant songs in an unlikely time signature – it impressed me as a young man, so maybe that was what drove me to try to do that.
“It’s nice to be able to do something that defies the odds and has a resonance to people even if, musically, it’s not just a thing you can tap your foot to and bop along with. Although, when we did do Living In The Past a couple of times on Top Of The Pops, I remember dear old Cliff Richard standing and warming up for his slot on the other stage in the studio, attempting to dance along! I remember watching him and thinking, ‘This is not going to be easy Cliff!’ It’s quite difficult to follow 5/4 unless you’ve got two and half legs!
“I think the lyrics to Living In The Past are probably amongst the all-time worst lyrics I’ve written, in terms of personal satisfaction! But, in their way, in the context of the song, they work – it’s okay. I’m not ashamed of them; I just don’t think they’re very good. At that stage, remember, I’d only just written and recorded the Stand Up album, before going to America, so it was pretty early days.”
Interview: Aaron Slater
Ian Anderson will present 50 years of Jethro Tull in eight UK concerts during April 2018 as part of the worldwide touring schedule. Find out more at jethrotull.com