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Music

The reason why Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson ignored the chance to speak to Frank Zappa

Ian Anderson’s place in the pantheon of rock is well deserved. The frontman, flautist, and guitarist of British outfit Jethro Tull is one of the most unique figures in rock, and he has carved out a space all of his own in the vast landscape of music, creating sounds that have been influential to say the very least. His back catalogue is as varied as they come, and his dexterity as a musician has been key to him retaining relevance all these years. 

From courting Tony Iommi for a place as Jethro Tull’s guitarist to rubbing shoulders with The Rolling Stones, Anderson has lived a life of epic proportions and has many a tale to tell regarding some of his most eminent peers. 

When he sat down with Far Out in January 2022, Anderson offered up an account of his experiences at The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968, which featured performances from The Rolling Stones, The Who, and the one-time supergroup, The Dirty Mac, which was comprised of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Mitch Mitchell. 

He said with relative insouciance: “The Stones hadn’t played live for quite a while. They’d made a great album called Beggar’s Banquet, which was the focus of the songs they were playing, and this was their sort of ‘tryout’ to perform those live. Mick Jagger had great energy and commitment but maybe slightly burned himself out during the rehearsal period. Brian Jones was so marginalised within the group and wasn’t contributing very much at all. Yoko Ono was a sort of unwelcome intrusion to the proceedings, screeching, screaming and generally being quite dotty. John Lennon was good, and to be there and to watch him live doing ‘Yer Blues’ with Eric Clapton and Keith Richards was one of those memorable little moments.”

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Whilst that short anecdote is enough to astonish any fan of music, in a radio interview back in 2016, Anderson provided yet another account from his past, and it featured none other than the colourful Mothers of Invention mastermind, Frank Zappa. 

Anderson revealed that in the early ’90s, when Zappa was battling cancer that would eventually kill him, out of the blue, the ‘Cosmic Debris’ songwriter attempted to get in contact with him, but that he never returned the call, something that he regrets to this day. However, he had his reasons, and you have to say fair enough. 

He recalled: “Sadly, I never got to meet Frank Zappa; we nearly did. And I actually read that he didn’t like Jethro Tull at all back then in the 70s. He rather resented the fact that us British bands Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple and so on. We were going over there (United States) and making tons of money. Seemingly while he was struggling to run his band.”

Anderson asserted that Zappa’s resentment for Jethro Tull and their British peers made him fearful of taking up the invitation, as he was unsure of what it would bring, citing that Zappa had been “rather unkind” to them in the press. Added to this apprehension was the fact that Zappa was dying, and Anderson wondered how he would speak to a dying man that he didn’t know.

He explained: “So he was rather unkind to some of us in the press, which was a shame because I was a big Frank Zappa fan at that point. I was in fear of taking up the invitation to call him shortly before he died. I’ve got a message from one of his musicians that I knew, that said ‘Frank wants to speak to you, he wants you to call him.’ I thought ‘How do you speak to a dying man? You know, picking up the phone talking to someone for the very first time in what turned out to be the last weeks of his life.”

The Jethro Tull man maintained: “It was something that I couldn’t really do. So I called three times and each time I hung up before the phone answered, in fear of just not knowing what to say and I feel so bad about that today. I really, really would love to have spoken to Frank, Even if it was to only hear his abuse (laughs), raging down the telephone, whatever he might have said”.

Anderson then proceeded to shower praise on Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention‘s 1973 album Over-Nite Sensation, and in particular the track ‘Camarillo Brillo’, which he labelled as “great”.

He concluded by saying: “His singing, which is kind of throwaway gravelly thing is just perfect for the unique delivery that he had. I for one remember him very, very fondly, indeed and sorry Frank, I didn’t hang on until you picked up the phone.”

Listen to Ian Anderson discuss his chance to speak to Frank Zappa below. 

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