Brian Eno: Perfect Masters Thrive On Disasters Part 1

He didn't play an instrument and he didn't sing, but Brian Eno was in the band, and the band was Roxy Music. So what exactly did Eno (full name Brian Peter George St. John de Baptiste de la Salle Eno-wouldn't you shorten it?) do for Roxy Music, which he co-founded in London with Bryan Ferry back in 1972? Listen to Stranded the first Eno-free Roxy album and you'll hear something missing. Or, listen to pre-Eno U2 albums, and then to The Unforgettable Fire the first Eno produced U2 album, and you'll hear something added.

Whether wearing eyeshadow, sequins and feathered boa or looking more like your mild mannered Uncle Fred (unless your uncle is a transvestite), first and foremost this former art student functions as a collaborator, a background manipulator, a theoretician, and a co-conspirator.

Snipping and pasting tape, looping circuitry, and prodding others, Eno has probably had a greater influence on the popular (and unpopular) music of the 1970's and beyond, than many better known big name string benders, keyboard plunkers and loud mouthpieces. While the combined sales of the four "rock" albums Eno created between 1973 and 1978 probably totalled under 100,000 copies, the musical paths he cleared set wheels into motion that are still spinning.

How did this self proclaimed "non-musician" so profoundly affect three decades of music? As a British art student in the '60s, Eno became aware of the power of imagery and image manipulation. At the same time he was introduced to the works of minimalist and avant-garde composers like John Cage.

At a time when the image of the rock musician was straight-jacketed in the uniform of the long haired, bearded, flannel shirted, introspective intellectual- a creation, it could be argued, of John Lennon, another, older art student, Eno and Ferry were conspiring to turn the whole thing on it's head.

In America, the war in Vietnam was raging, Nixon was President, and much of rock music had gotten serious and it might be argued, self absorbed on both sides of the Atlantic. Even though the spirit of the late '60s "hippie" subculture had pretty much died out after Woodstock, the image lingered on, on the faces and bodies of a generation.

In those pre-MTV days, image was album art frozen in time and space. When Roxy Music appeared on the scene, it was an outrage, a sacrilege. These guys, with their makeup, slicked back fifties hair, and their halloween costumes were Sha Na Na, not serious musicians. Of course, in mocking the establishment, they knew just what they were doing.

Frontman Bryan Ferry, looked like Conrad Birdie, Eno, Carmen Miranda, saxophonist Andy Mackay some kind of jazz hipster, guitarist Phil Manzanera- a cross between a rock musician and Vincent Price in “The Fly.” Only the rhythm section looked conventional, but the rhythm section was never at the heart of Roxy Music. It was mutable and disposable- so much so that the original British and American LPs of Roxy Music's debut pictured different bass players.

Roxy Music was the first "art-rock" band (or the second if you count Roxy's inspiration, The Velvet Underground), whatever that meant, with retro-fifties looks, and send-up messages about obscure dances ("The Strand"), love songs to blow-up dolls ("In Every Dream Home a Heartache") and a return to an old-fashioned romanticism all but abandoned by the counterculture. Though much of the imagery and some of the music were rooted in nostalgia, the band, helped to a great degree by Eno's experimental synth and tape recorder treatments, pointed toward the future-taking much of popular music there, even though Roxy's own popularity was fleeting.

After the release of For Your Pleasure, Roxy's second album, Eno and Ferry had a falling out. What had started out as art school humor turned too serious for Eno as Ferry got rock stardom of the brain (who can blame him?). Eno wanted no part of it, but he still wanted to experiment with music and with the electronic canvas technology was rapidly making available. Not being a musician, he sought the help of others on his first solo venture, including former band mates Manzanera, Mackay and drummer Paul Thompson as well as King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp.

A month before beginning Here Come The Warm Jets, Eno and Fripp collaborated on No Pussyfooting( British Island HELP16/ British Polydor Special 2343 095) an album of tape loop manipulations fed by a Gibson Les Paul, Fripp-designed effects pedals, Eno's VCS 3 synthesizer which he'd used on the Roxy albums, a digital sequencer (remember this is 1973), and modified Revox A-77 reel to reel tape recorders. That album is best discussed in context of Eno's other instrumental and "ambient" recordings.

The Fab Four

Recorded in a month at Majestic Studios, London, September of 1973 by Derek Chandler and mixed at Air and Olympic by Eno and Chris Thomas, Here Come The Warm Jets startled the lucky few who heard it. With it's throbbing, jangling, post modern Velvet Underground/surf guitars courtesy Phil Manzanera, and Robert Fripp's slashing, switchbacking, feedback slewed guitar solos arching over odd, insistent rhythms- everything from American Indian wardances ("Baby's On Fire") to, modified Bo Diddley ("Blank Frank"), to upside down, backwards loops (“Driving Me Backwards"), the record leaned more heavily toward "art" than "rock".

There are songs of grand, sweeping drama ("On Some Faraway Shore") and dissonant banks of repetitive noise ("Blank Frank"), there's a VU tribute ("Cindy Tells Me") and even a devasting Bryan Ferry kiss-off ("Dead Finks Can't Talk") in which Eno breaks into a mocking parody of the crooning baritone. And there's something heartbreaking and inevitable about the title tune, "Here Come the Warm Jets" which is reputed to be about urine shower fetishists. "On Some Faraway Beach" has Eno imagining his own demise.

Sung in an arch, semi-precious, intellectual "proper" whine, Eno's lyrics are dryly drawn, witty, and sometimes macabre. They can be simultaneously abstruse, and brutally direct. What kind of rival does Eno face in the "paw paw Negro blowtorch"? I couldn't tell you.

Here Come The Warm Jets sounds as musically and sonically audacious today as it did twenty three years ago. Eno's studio manipulations, the electronic atmospheres he created, the distortions, the vocal filtering and reverberant doubling, while technologically primitive by today's standards, yield a tightly meshed sonic esthetic only a visual artist could paint. Songs like "Baby's On Fire" remain comfortably ahead of their time.

The mutating, alien electronic landscape is grounded in strong, though sometimes oddly syncopated rhythms and a lyrical thread, which while seemingly specific, never locks fully into place. These are, after all, songs but contained within are musical cross breedings which yield bizarre and unexpected results (ie.: the pschedelic/Indian/Rolling Stones mix on "Blank Frank"). You're left chasing the same mysterious sensation with each listen.

The best way to experience Here Come The Warm Jets—and it ain't even close—is on an original British Island "sunray" pressing (ILPS 9268). Next best would be the red label Polydor second press (2302 063), followed by the Japanese Polydor reissue (MPF 1168) and then the Caroline distributed EG Records CD (EGCD 11). Bringing up the rear is the original American Island LP (ILPS 9268)- not Sterling Sound's most sterling analog moment.

On the original British Island, the Polydor second and the CD, the sound is remarkably wide band and dynamic, with crisp clean high frequencies, fast transients, and outstanding deep bass. The CD sometimes reveals heretofore hidden little details and instrumental lines, but at the expense of complex sonic and harmonic textures (compare Fripp's monumental solo on "Baby's On Fire"), image focus, soundstage depth and the overall musical drama. The Japanese pressing is of course impeccable, with a frequency balance and dynamic personality close to the British original, but somewhat more closed in and not quite as "fast" sounding at the very top.

The Japanese edition includes a hilariously incorrect lyric sheet (as many Japanese pressings do). On "Dead Finks Don't Talk", Eno addresses Bryan Ferry: "Oh headless chicken/Can these poor teeth take so much kicking?", which the Japanese translator Mieco Makino takes as "I was a headless chicken/Can this poultry take So Much Kicking?".

I suspect Eno thinks the CDs are the way to go, but I could be pleasantly surprised. The American original is bloated in the midbass, lacking in deep bass and soft on top. Though I did not have an American pressed Editions EG vinyl copy (distributed by the late lamented JEM Records) to compare with the others, it is very common in used record stores.

In 1974 Eno recorded and released his second solo album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) inspired by a set of postcards he came upon in San Francisco, which pictured scenes from a Chinese revolutionary propaganda opera by the same name, but without the parentheses.

As on the first album, Eno's musical and sonic palette covers a wide range of expression, though the album features an overall "concept"—a meandering spy drama filled with double dealing, microfilm, cryptic messages, a mysterious fat lady who could taste ingredients a spectrograph would miss, a duck that lays a gold egg which turns out to be wax, a strange group called the 801, a reference to Jonathan Richman's Boston band The Modern Lovers, a whale with no eyes, an area in an orchard where people turn into crows, a picture postcard song about China and a denouement called "Taking Tiger Mountain" which ends with a long climb.

What does it all mean? It doesn't matter and that's the genius of it. Though lines connect, forming very specific pictures, they evaporate in a rush of new scenarios, all of which seems to add up to a coherent narrative, but doesn't. Your mind's eye inhabits a world of specific pictures just out of reach. That's one reason this album also does not date, or become stale. Listening twenty years later continues to be a vital, fluid experience. Though I've combed the lyrics and dissected the sound, how Eno achieves that sense of continuous renewal remains difficult to analyze.

Eno again calls on Phil Manzanera's guitar, adding Brian Turrington on bass, Freddie Smith on drums and Soft Machine's Robert Wyatt on percussion and backing vocals. Guests like Andy MacKay, Phil Collins and others join the small combo on selected cuts, but despite the stability of the core unit from song to song, Eno's sonic manipulations, keep Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) from sounding like an ensemble album, though the core combo is evident throughout.

Eno sprinkles weird tape loops and processed sounds throughout the tracks, plus electronic drums (in 1974), fuzz bass, calliope, and synth distortions. There are repetitive, pulsating backdrops which subtly modulate ala Philip Glass and even a typewriter chorus on one track.

None of these additives are gratuitous. All have been splashed on the canvas with either meticulous care or deliberate chance. Eno is/was into process, experimentation, and letting tangents blossom. In the liner notes to Discreet Music (Special OBS 3), Eno's first "ambient" experiment released in 1975, he writes: "I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated toward situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part."

While Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) consists of songs, not situations, it is clear that elements within the electronic orchestrations are the results of experiments and process strategies. The genius here is not that Eno was willing to experiment, but rather the way in which he's incorporated the results into the finished product.

Some songs lurk, others rock, some are in your face, others in the mist. When you listen to "The Great Pretender," note the way it builds: the treated piano (sounds like an old Ferrante and Teicher album Sound Proof which was WAY ahead of it's time) which calls out the rhythm, the ethereal, mysterious sounding treated guitars, the monolithic synth horns, the electronic crickets which eventually take over the mix, and consider that nothing on this track sounds recognizable as an instrument. Then consider the year: 1974.

Two standouts on Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) are rockers: "Third Uncle" and "The True Wheel". You can still hear the light going on in David Byrne's head when he heard "Third Uncle"-probably while an art student in Rhode Island, and you can hear the direct connection between it and the Talking Heads' sound.

As with Hear Come The Warm Jets , the sonic hierarchy is original British "sunray" Island vinyl (ILPS 9309), the British Polydor reissue (2302 068), the Japanese Polydor reissue (MPF 1157), the Caroline/EG CD (EGCD 17) and finally the original American Island vinyl (ILPS 9309). And for the same reasons.

The sound, recorded by Rhett Davies at Island studios is even better than the first album, with wider frequency extension from top to bottom, a broad, nicely layered soundstage, and outstanding dynamic range. The drum sound is particularly well rendered, especially the snare. Much of the sonic goings on are artificial, electronic or processed, but the overall sound is warm, relaxed and tubey. While you'll get good clarity from the CD, don't expect the big warm, easy sound the vinyl provides. What you'll get is thinner and somewhat opaque, but it'll do in a pinch.

Side one of both British pressings ends with a locked groove, which will play electronic cricket chirping until you get up and lift the stylus. The CD lets it go for a very short time and then fades it out. To keep in the spirit of the original it should have been left going. I guess Eno didn't supervise the transfer. The original gatefold packaging consisting of four prints from a limited edition lithograph by artist Peter Schmidt is another reason to get the LP. Again the Japanese pressing, also gatefold, has some funny mis-translations including turning "We saw the lovers, The Modern Lovers, and they look very good, they looked as if they could" into "We saw the bottles, the modern mamas....... ."

theboogeydown's picture

I have a few US original pressings of theirs as well as MOFI's "The Unforgettable Fire." Is it just me, or does all of their recording all lack bottom end and range in general?