Publication date: March 2014
New Possibilities in Aural Pleasure: “Here Come The Warm Jets” & “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)”
Is there any other figure in modern rock music who’s had such an influence on its sound, its scope and its ambitions than Brian Eno? With a Zelig-like quality of being in the right place at the right time, he’s co-created some of the past 40 years’ landmark albums – David Bowie’s “Heroes”, Talking Heads’ “Remain In Light”, U2’s “The Joshua Tree” – while effectively inventing the genre of ambient music and in so doing becoming the godfather of electronica.
But how did Eno come to be in this position? Clearly, Eno had a genius for networking which saw him developing creative relationships with many of rock’s key players. But crucially, as an avowed ‘non-musician’, he wasn’t offering them virtuoso chops or killer song-writing abilities. Instead, he evangelised new ways of thinking about and making music, challenging all the accepted norms of blues-based rock’n’roll while still retaining a love for its ego-centric raw power and mystique.
Because to characterise Eno as merely a theory-bound boffin coldly conducting experiments in the studio is to glimpse just one side of his personality. Right from the start of his entry into the music world at the start of the 70s, Eno is a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, he’s an intellectual and aesthete with a fascination for recording technologies; on the other, he’s a joker, dandy, bullshitter and sexual hedonist.
This alchemical mixture of renegade scientist and louche peacock is never more apparent than on Eno’s first two solo albums, both released in 1974 – “Here Come The Warm Jets” and “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)”. Recorded in the wake of his split from Roxy Music, these two slabs of joyously eccentric but strangely accessible vinyl saw Eno take his first steps in bringing his avant garde-indebted philosophies and working methods into the rock mainstream.
In many ways, Eno’s attitude and approach on these albums is pure proto-punk. Fuelled by a dissatisfaction with the restrictions of his previous band and the music biz treadmill he found himself becoming tethered to (his mind was made up to leave Roxy Music once he caught himself thinking about his laundry while playing on stage), Eno was driven by the conviction that it was possible to make great music regardless of traditional notions of proficiency and skill – in other words, the punk mantra of ‘anyone can do it’.
But Eno didn’t want to smash the system so much as to create an entirely new one. Rather than strip rock down to its base elements, his vision was to cajole and manipulate it into different shapes, in the process pioneering the concept of the recording studio as an instrument and creating exotic hybrids by cross-breeding styles and genres. Of course, this isn’t to say he had it all worked out, particularly at this early stage of his sonic odyssey, and he would often assemble material from the sketchiest of ideas and simplest of musical motifs. But the results speak for themselves. By being unafraid of either dissonance or melody, Eno fashioned a pair of albums that still sound like nothing else in the rock canon.
“Here Come The Warm Jets” opens with ‘Needles In The Camel’s Eye’, which comes crashing through the speakers in a glorious, gleeful sugar rush of noise. But straight away, there’s something strange and new about but the sound, the thrashed guitars of ex-Roxy colleague Phil Manzanera flickering like a strobe light, the double-tracked drumming of Hawkwind’s Simon King like an elephantine version of the motorik beat. And then Eno’s voice comes soaring over the top, unselfconsciously atonal, but somehow perfectly in tune with everything around it. You can’t help hearing this track as a statement of intent: this isn’t just going to be some glam racket, but a record that’s looking to re-adjust your ears and open them to new possibilities in aural pleasure.
After that first flashbomb, ‘The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch’ is a breath-catching romp which highlights just how English Eno’s voice is, almost parodically so, with not a hint of trans-Atlantic inflection. An arch piece of art-school funk that recalls Roxy’s ‘Virginia Plain’, it features a particularly distressed and absurdist electronics solo. And if you’re wondering about that bizarre title, it refers to one A.W. Underwood, a young African American man from Paw Paw, Michigan who could allegedly breathe fire. Talking of which…
Next up is the taut surrealist nightmare of ‘Baby’s On Fire’. Here’s Eno as malevolent provocateur: “Baby's on fire, better throw her in the water. Look at her laughing like a heifer to the slaughter.” The violence of the language and Eno’s sinister delivery is matched by the bare, insistent undercarriage of the music, its pulsating bass and hissing hi-hats underpinned by what sounds like agitated computer chatter. Eno continues to intone the lyrics with disturbing relish – particularly the lines “Photographers snip snap - take your time she's only burning. This kind of experience is necessary for her learning” – before the party’s crashed by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, who whips up one of his wildest and most downright rocking solos. Eno clearly likes it so much that he lets it crackle and flare right through to the end of the song.
In contrast, the sci-fi doo-wop of “Cindy Tells Me” is like the soundtrack to some celestial soap advert from the 50s. With a clean and mellifluous vocal and a strong chorus, “Cindy…” is the most conventional track on the album by some way, but is no less appealing for that, especially as it allows Eno to indulge his love of reverb, the ghostly shimmer and echo of early rock’n’roll singles being what first ignited his fascination with music.
But the respite is only temporary, because here comes the album’s heaviest track, the deliciously dismal ‘Driving Me Backwards’. A bar room piano plays a gloomy downward spiral of a chord sequence over which Eno scat sings like a man being tortured on some existential rack. When he finds his words, his horribly stretched voice electronically processed and treated like the song’s other instruments, he recounts a descent into domestic alienation: “Now I've found a sweetheart. Treats me good, just like an armchair”. It gets heavier and more despairing, the piano doubled up by the fuzz bass of John Wetton as his captain in King Crimson Fripp returns to this time drip splashes of molten electric wax on the matt black laminate surfaces of this dream home gone wrong. Under the dense fug of guitars and hand claps that sound like marriage papers being ripped up, Eno’s vocals are all but submerged, while the words that escape – “And she responds as expected, to the only sound: hysterical voices” – could be Thom Yorke at his most angst-ridden. Finally, Eno shrieks, “Kids like me gotta be craaaAAAZZZeeeeeeee!” before this amazing song exhausts itself and fades away.
‘On Some Faraway Beach’ is the perfect title for the airy and romantic track that opens side 2. Carried along by a simple piano motif in the foreground, the rest of the instrumentation starts off in the distance, only slowly coming into focus as the song progresses. It’s an early example of Eno painting with sound, using the mix to conjure an image of, for instance, a fantastical caravan approaching through a shimmering heat-haze. The sound builds to a reverberant crescendo before Eno finally starts to sing at the three minute mark, unrestrained yet wistful. This is a beautiful and elemental song which anticipates Eno’s later ambient pieces with its reliance on the cumulative power of elegant repetitions.
‘Blank Frank’ quickly kills the feelgood vibe, part warzone beach party, part evil hippie shake. Eno switches his voice to snarling apocalyptic messenger – “Blank Frank is the siren, he's the air-raid, he's the crater” – and processes the hell out of Fripp’s guitar until it sounds like some diabolical reaping machine coming for all our souls. The incongruous ELP-esque fanfare that trills through the latter half of the song only adds to its grimy and unwholesome feel.
And then we hit a completely different dynamic again. ‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk’ opens with a rolling martial beat and a lovely but sombre series of piano vamps. There’s a sudden sense of space and clarity in the mix, and Eno’s vocal is serious and reflective, as though everything that’s gone before has just been play-acting (which of course it has). But what he’s singing is more nonsensical and freighted with violence than ever – “Oh, you headless chicken, can those poor teeth take so much kicking?” – and even includes an amusingly childish impersonation of Bryan Ferry. (Eno has claimed this song isn’t meant to be about Ferry, but acknowledges that this interpretation is pretty irresistible given its lyrics and general air of snarkiness). It’s structurally the most ambitious of the album’s songs, complete with skipping rhyme and heavenly choir sections, but in a gesture of artistic vandalism, Eno ends it by abruptly cutting to a hideously distorted death march which goes on just past the point of most listeners’ tolerance.
But then we’re back to Eno as dispenser of soothing aural balm with the cosmic barbershop quartet vocals of ‘Some Of Them Are Old’. The song glides gracefully through a series of undulating, elegiac verses, and there’s a devotional, almost hymnal quality to it, even if Eno’s tongue is never very far from his cheek. A drunken angel wanders into view playing a Hawaiian guitar in lieu of a harp before the track slowly fades out to the sound of Buddhist temple gongs.
And then we come full circle, with the giddy and slightly out of time surge of the title track recalling ‘Needles…’, its Fripp-esque guitar theme (though played by the Pink Fairies’ Paul Rudolph and Eno himself) buzzing harmoniously like a swarm of musical bees, as absurd and uplifting as the rest of the album. It’s basically the same thing throughout its four minute duration, with drums and vocals fading up and down, and with a mix that’s once again deliberately disorienting. But what shines through on this and every other track on the album is Eno’s belief in what he’s doing and the inherent appeal of the sounds he’s making – even at its harshest and weirdest, he trusts the listener to stick with it.
If the vibe of “Here Come The Warm Jets” is part end-of-the-pier burlesque, part “The Atrocity Exhibition” of JG Ballard, then “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” – named after a Maoist revolutionary opera – is like an imaginary concept album excerpting episodes from a fantastical trip through a comic-strip version of the Orient. Many critics regard Eno’s second album as merely a continuation of his debut, but in my opinion they can’t have listened very closely, as “Taking Tiger Mountain” represents a major progression in both his sound palette and production skills.
This increased sophistication and refinement of approach is immediately apparent on opener ‘Burning Airlines Give You So Much More’. The sound itself is a lot cleaner, there’s less obvious aural trickery, and the sometimes frantic rush of Eno’s debut has been replaced by a greater sense of confidence, particularly in his own voice, which is less affected than before. The song is driven along by a marvellously odd guitar line from Phil Manzanera that sounds like a Chinese dragon chasing its tail, while Eno sings about “sweet Regina’s” flight to the East. Eno has often stated that the phonetic timbre of his lyrics is more important to him than their meaning, and that most of his words are scribbled out 15 minutes before he sings them, but I can’t help wondering if he’s being disingenuous or just under-rates his ability as a writer. They might be cryptic and allusive, but lines such as, “I guess Regina's on the plane, a Newsweek on her knees, while miles below her the curlews call from strangely stunted trees” are among my favourites by any artist.
‘Back In Judy’s Jungle’ maintains the crisp, upbeat feel with a waltz-time drumbeat and spare instrumentation that recalls the previous album’s ‘Dead Finks…’ Like a piece of psychedelic Victoriana, it’s a Boys Own take on jungle warfare refracted through the dark glass of Eno’s imagination and even features some very fine whistling. It ends as a barrack room singalong while a squadron of guitars drones melodically overhead.
The atmosphere darkens with ‘The Fat Lady Of Limbourg’, a ludicrous yet sinister slow burner of a track that’s use of silence is as claustrophobic as the maximalist dirge of ‘Driving Me Backwards’. The first verse is particularly skin-crawling, with its promise of “if it all works out nicely, you'll get the bonus you deserve from doctors we trust.” As an early drum machine patters like a ticking time bomb and distant cymbals crash, a simple but strident sax motif builds on the sense of unease as Eno declares, “That’s what we’re paid for here.” The listener might have no idea what he’s talking about, but this track is another brilliant example of his gift for evoking emotion through both sound and words in unconventional ways.
In comparison, ‘Mother Whale Eyeless’ is like a breath of fresh air, its throbbing bass, colourful explosions of guitar and Eno’s exultant vocal creating a carnival-esque pop song in the Roxy mould. While making the album, Eno would actually map out his songs diagrammatically and on this track in particular, you can almost hear the plan being played out. The same is true for ‘The Great Pretender’, though the mechanical chug of the drum machine and mocking laughter of the chorused guitar takes us once more into the murkier recesses of Eno’s mind. Again, the effect is pre-meditated to creep the listener out, with Eno’s sneering enunciation of “I could make you weep more cheaply” being particularly disturbing.
Side 2 opens with ‘Third Uncle’, and wow… this is some track. Starting with the same heavily reverbed bass as Pink Floyd’s ‘One Of These Days’, a scratchy thrashed riff ignites the song with a manic energy, while clattering percussion and a tight, urgent beat channels Krautrock at its most propulsive. Trance-like and monotonal, Eno recites the nonsense lyrics like a psychiatric patient undergoing regression therapy. And when Manzanera’s careering and slightly crazed guitar line rides in over the top, it’s as though the song becomes possessed, an outpouring of pure avant rock id.
After that electric brainstorm, there’s the surreal aftermath of ‘Put A Straw Under Baby’. The nursery rhyme pipe organ and woozy strings of the Portsmouth Sinfonia (an anarchic untutored orchestra that Eno was an occasional member of) gives the song a dream-like quality, like a child remembering their nightmare at the breakfast table. Then ‘The True Wheel’ is almost a straight-ahead rocker, but the discordant female backing vocals throw the listener off-balance and the song soon transforms into a drum-heavy call to arms for freaks and contrarians everywhere. You can hear why Eno was such a big influence on groups at the artier end of post-punk such as Wire.
We’re back to Eno as systems-maker and tinkerer on ‘China My China’, its individual parts working together like a Heath Robinson mechanism. The bounce of a simple synth bass gives it buoyancy, but as if to expose the artifice of its construction, there’s a typewriter solo in the middle under which Manzanera does his best Fripp impersonation. And then the album reaches a serene conclusion with its title track, one of Eno’s most sublime compositions. With its simple, contemplative guitar melody, it’s almost a companion piece to ‘On Some Faraway Beach’, except here, less is more. Eno soothingly chants the words among the pilgrims winding their way up the titular peak towards paradise. As with many of the songs on these two albums, it’s imbued with a strange kind of secular mysticism which shows that for all the theory and role-playing, there’s a beating human heart at the core of this music.
1974 was a ridiculously fertile year for Eno, one which would see him collaborate and make albums with artists including John Cale, Kevin Ayers, Nico, Robert Calvert and Genesis, and lay the foundations of his future career as uber-producer and art rock catalyst. But it’s these first two solo albums that really show Eno’s creative talents at their exciting and disruptive best. His belief in the transformative power of sound and the recording process itself shines through, but so does his crazy logic and macabre humour. And it’s here that Eno establishes himself as a champion of the ‘non-musician’, striking a blow for all the dreamers and schemers out there who may have lacked virtuosity, but now had the example and inspiration to make new kinds of music on their own terms.