Today Brian Eno is best known as a visionary, founding theorist of ambient music, and the wildly successful producer of David Bowie, Devo, Talking Heads, and U2. But first as a founding member of Roxy Music, and then on four pioneering albums in the ’70s, Eno directly shaped the direction of rock music as well.
Astralwerks has beautifully reissued Eno’s classic rock-oriented early albums, Here Come the Warm Jets (’73), Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy (’74), Another Green World (’75), and Before and After Science (’77), wherein the Great Pate consumed whole the barriers of rock ‘n’ roll sonics, song structure and sensibility accompanied by a who’s who of British art-rock notables including Robert Fripp, Phil Manzanera, Chris Spedding, John Wetton, Robert Wyatt, Phil Collins (how soon they forget), John Cale, and Fred Frith.
Born in the English village of Woodbridge, Suffolk on the 15th of May, 1948, he was educated by the De La Salle order. Then, disdaining conventional employment, Eno enrolled in a two-year course at the Ipswich Art School. While he was at Ipswich he began to experiment with tape machines and by the time he left for the Winchester Art School in 1965, he had accumulated 30 recorders, although only two were in full working order.
While his ear bowed towards avant-garde music, including the music he composed with his band, Merchant Taylor’s Simultaneous Cabinet, Eno also had a budding taste for rock ’n’ roll, spurred by the release of The Who’s “My Generation.”
“I thought ‘Oh-oh – rock music is going to do something’ and realized that this area – which I’d previously imagined to be rather unserious – might actually turn out to be interesting after all,” he said.
Soon thereafter Eno had a random encounter with a saxophone player whom he had met at an avant-garde concert in Reading. That player, Andy MacKay, had joined a band called Roxy Music. At the end of 1971 Eno received a phone call from the band, asking him if he would consider helping them out, mostly because he owned a Revox and they wanted to make a demo tape.
Shortly thereafter he was introduced to the synthesizer and a man with no formal musical training found himself in one of the most influential bands in the history of rock. Eno contributed mightily to the first two classic Roxy albums: Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure. Always more of a sound sculptor than a musician, Eno bent a weird band in even weirder directions by creating atmospheres with tape loops and his new toy, the synth.
Here Come the Warm Jets (the title of which I recall Eno discussing with Kid Leo on WMMS shortly after the album’s release: “There comes a time in male/female relationships when the man might be inclined to say ‘Look out Martha, here come the warm jets.'”) is one of the great rock records of the ’70s and one of the strangest.
Beginning prodigiously, guitarists Manzanera (of Roxy Music) and Spedding provide a clanging, charging, off-kilter foundation for Eno’s peculiar, addictive, vertiginous, rambunctious melodic sense and “unique” vocal style on “Needles In the Camel’s Eye.” “Baby’s On Fire” is ominous and oblique as Eno sneers rather thinly over Fripp’s quietly distorted chording and what sounds like a chorus of chirping insects (Eno once recording the movement of earthworms), before the vocals give way to a Frippian eruption of wails, squeals and structural demolition.
Then, dashing to the other end of the auditory rainbow, “Cindy Tells Me” is a gentle pop song of near-girl group sincerity and loveliness (well, there ARE Manzanera’s hovercraft guitar swoops). “On Some Faraway Beach” is a seaside reverie fashioned from a simple piano line that builds to something approaching majesty.
“Blank Frank” returns the mood to menace with a twisted Bob Diddley beat, Eno’s gnarled rhythmic chanting and more Frippy cacophony. “Dead Finks Don’t Talk” somehow blends a martial drum beat, portentous background vocal drones and chants, calmly spoken macabre monologue (“oh you headless chicken/can those poor teeth take so much kicking?” and “to be a zombie all the time/requires such dedication”), and a brief vocal nod to former bandmate Bryan Ferry.
“Some Of Them Are Old” is a choral pastoral of breathtaking beauty with Eno’s own “snake guitar,” and the title track takes us out on a hypnotic repeated melody figure with a sperm’s-eye view – I feel strangely calm, hungry and ready for a nap. A truly spectacular, paradigm-shifting (this term used to mean something) debut.
Engineer Rhett Davies told me about his work with Eno, which began with Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. “We would do things like take distortion and re-distort it to create new sounds. Eno would come in and say ‘Roll the tape,’ and he’d go in the studio and count from 1 to 100 onto the tape. Then he would plug in his Moog synthesizer and at 15 he would plug in a little instrumental passage. He’d say ‘Roll on to 37,’ and he would put in something else. We got seriously into tape loops and things I hadn’t seen anyone else do before.”
Tiger Mountain is the least consistent of the reissued foursome, though buoyed by the laconic, jangly “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More,” the quivery, reverberant “The Great Pretender,” fusiony “Third Uncle,” and the iconic Eno microcosm “The True Wheel.” But the price of experimentalism is failed experiments, and the misses outweigh the (quite resounding) hits, dragged down by a lack of melodic distinction and Eno’s increasinlgy evident vocal limitations.
Another Green World is more interesting, an ambient-rock hybrid prefiguring his work with Bowie (Low, Lodger, Heroes), with standout songs “I’ll Come Running” (a tango (!) with Robert Fripp on “restrained lead” guitar) and “Golden Hours,” along with quirky mood pieces like the title track and “Somber Reptiles.”
Before and After Science is better still, finding Eno incorporating the syncopated, AfroCaribbean-based percussion that would come to dominate the Eno/David Byrne album My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, and the Talking Heads of Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues. Greats songs on Science include “No One Receiving,” “Backwater,” “King’s Lead Hat,” as well as the lovely moodies “Through Hollow Lands” and “Spider and I.”
Now is the perfect time to discover, or rediscover, the actual music of a legend.