Few albums could lay claim to covering 8,000 years of history, as seen through the eyes of a former child prodigy – a character who was himself created 42 years ago by rock group Jethro Tull as the fictional author of their Thick As A Brick album.
But then we are dealing here with the keen and, some might say, eccentric mind of Tull’s former frontman, Ian Anderson.
Now performing solo, Ian has just released his latest prog-folk-metal magnum opus, Homo Erraticus, (Latin for the wandering man’ – pictured far right) which comes with its own detailed back story. And this week it entered the UK charts at number 14 – his highest placing in decades.
That former child genius, Gerald Bostock, is now middle-aged and according to Ian, based this album’s lyrics on an unpublished manuscript written by a local historian in the 1920s that he found tucked away in his local second-hand bookshop.
Ian spoke with The Guide about the project.
‘Gerald’s a writer’s tool, he’s a device to create a little familiarity,’ he says.
‘He’s an old friend dropping by for a spot of tea, but by the same token we hope he’s not going to stay for lunch because he’s an insufferable bore, very opinionated, and he’s attempted to renew his songwriting prowess, 42 years after he did Thick As A Brick. But he’s as real as Harry Potter, Peter Pan and Bill Nighy playing a squid.’
Thick As A Brick was originally released by Tull in 1972 as a satire of overblown prog rock concept albums. But it became a huge hit, with the satirical element being somewhat overlooked.
Ian first returned to the character of Bostock with 2012’s Thick As A Brick 2, where he imagined a number of possible scenarios for the child poet as he grew up.
‘We all love fantasies,’ Ian explains, ‘we all buy into them, we accept the improbable, which is why I think with the original Thick As A Brick, slightly spoof-like as it was, people bought into the ridiculous notion of an eight-year-old writing a rock album.
‘That sort of thing was par for the course then, and it seems if you want to cram 8,040 years of history into 52-and-a-half minutes of music, only prog rock can do that.’
And he hopes that people will look beyond the surface story into some of the themes he’s addressing, including some political hot potatoes. He says: ‘It’s a story of migration, the story of all of us. We’re all from somewhere else, in my case probably Danish Vikings, around the 12th century on my father’s side; on my mother’s side, she being from Manchester, probably folks from Brittany.
‘They’re multi-generational ancestral Brits, but we’re all from somewhere else originally, and we have to think through that morally and ethically, especially on the subject of immigration.
‘I think you’ve got to make things invitational, and it’s much easier to tackle big and difficult subjects with a bit of a smile on your face and with a bit of wit about your writing.
‘If you’re going to talk about sustainable populations, a topic which no politician will want to go anywhere near, but is ultimately the biggest issue facing our country in the next 40-50 years, it’s not necessarily about immigration, it’s about what is the optimum population for our country long-term. This is bearing in mind long-term sustainability of energy sources, climate change, etc, etc, Politicians who only want to think about the next couple of years or the next election, they tiptoe around it, one and all.
‘It’s not as simple as having draconian immigration laws, we have to find a balanced view.
‘Looking beyond just the UK to planet Earth, we’re struggling with the 7bn we have now.
‘The divergence of super-rich and super-poor is going to continue, whereas I think we would all rather live in a world where more people could share in the wealth and share in the productivity.
‘OK, so I’ll slip all this into the context of a rock album, and if people want to think about it’s up to them, it’s buried into the layers of the onion, and if you just want to tap your foot with your little white box, that’s up to you.’
This tour will see Ian and his band performing the new album in its entirety before delving into his back catalogue.
‘It’s easier to do that now than it was 40 years ago,’ he thinks. ‘The reality is that people do read the ticket and see what they’re getting into.
‘And if you work hard to make the unfamiliar material interesting and entertaining then all you’re doing is what any director is doing when they make a new movie. You go to see a movie, not because you’ve seen it before, you go to see it because it’s a new movie.’
‘Why should it be any different in music, that you only go because you’re going to see Status Quo play their greatest hits? It shouldn’t be that way, but of course it is and we can understand the blue blanket comfort zone of a geriatric population going off to see dear old Cliff Richard yet again before they die.
‘Unfortunately for Cliff many of them already have because they’re not in as good shape as him.
‘Hopefully people will see new material and say: “That wasn’t too bad at all”. And then you give them the second half of the show where it’s mostly things they will have seen before and perhaps a few old things they’re less familiar with that we haven’t performed before, or for a long time.
‘You mix it up. It’s about a balance and I hope that’s what people appreciate.’
Ian Anderson is playing at the O2 Guildhall Southampton on Tuesday, April 29. Doors at 7pm. Tickets cost £30.50 to £34.50 and are available from o2guildhallsouthampton.co.uk or by calling (023) 8063 2601.