INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork JUNE 14, 2004 - by Chris Ott
Given that Roxy Music's self-titled debut and sophomore LP For Your Pleasure helped change the face of British pop music, and that their first two non-album singles (Virginia Plain and Pyjamarama) were Top 10 smashes in their home country, it's safe to say that nobody - neither the band, their audience, nor their record label, Island - would have embraced The Paw-Paw Negro Blowtorch, from Brian Eno's solo debut, as continuance of said legacy (note: for aesthetic rather than any racial reasons - "negro" was still in common use in Britain at the time). But it's also safe to say that only a bogus man could have recorded These Foolish Things and Another Time, Another Place, Bryan Ferry's whinnying 1973 and '74 covers albums, designed to position the careerist crooner for mainstream superstardom. Which isn't to suggest that there's something wrong with "mainstream superstardom," or that I'm buying into Lester Bangs' consideration of Bryan Ferry as an aloof prick, since, frankly, Eno's just as full of a different sort of shit.
And really, was he ever "in" Roxy Music, anyway? Dissatisfied with predictability, Eno distinguished Roxy's regal jamming, bridging prog and glam before either movement had even defined itself fully, but technically, he was no organ grinder, no backing-band member. A confessed and professed theorist, Eno lived for passing fancy, chasing the leading edge of pop culture with a relentless, often forced objectivity unsuitable for team sports. Bored by the chart-courting course Ferry plotted for Roxy Music (cue Street Life and Serenade), Eno's frustration came through in increasingly dandy, Dadaist behaviour, and an awful beret. His deft come-ons went down glass-smashingly in the glitter glam explosion of the early 1970s, drawing the drooling music press in droves; this naturally chapped Ferry's ass, and, lacking any stake in the Roxy royalties (thanks to Ferry), Eno joyously resigned from the group in June 1973 to pursue a solo career.
His timing was impeccable, riding a wave of unabashed worship from nearly every pop journalist in both England and America, all buying into Eno as glitter's Marquis de Sade, a salacious, gender-bending sex vampire out to taste all the fruit. To Eno's credit, his sensational behaviour was almost childlike in its libidinous male honesty; from his debut's scatological title to his porn collection and shaved pubic area - "It's a Japanese thing," he said to Chrissie Hynde after displaying said pink triangle during an infamously ribald NME interview - Eno was revelling in a healthy ego and new-found freedom on Here Come The Warm Jets.
The synth-pomp, glam-rock splendour of Cindy Tells Me and the Ferry-slam Dead Finks Don't Talk were the most relevant talking points under the shadow of Roxy Music, especially since Here Come The Warm Jets was, in point of fact, recorded by Roxy Music sans Ferry. A few critics suggested the backing band might be waiting to see where the chips would fall, but, with virtuoso Robert Fripp (King Crimson) on board, what rock musician could refuse? Still, there are inevitable similarities between much of Here Come The Warm Jets and the band Eno had left just three months earlier, if, as the title so overtly declares, he's pissing all over them: The Paw-Paw Negro Blowtorch, the earth-shattering Baby's On Fire and Blank Frank are all venom and biting sarcasm, each a decadent deconstruction of the sound Eno furthered with Roxy Music. At the outset of his solo career, Eno was unafraid to laugh at himself, which is a point of high praise for the kaleidoscopic Here Come The Warm Jets, and a quality that lamentably waned as time wore on.
The months between Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) were packed in a way most musicians today can't imagine; this is true of the months between all of Eno's '70s albums and the reason it's a mistake to view his four closest-to-pop albums as a continuum. Between these albums lay equally - and in some cases more - important works, including Eno's first ambient experiment Discreet Music (1975), two meditative collaborations with Robert Fripp (No Pussyfooting and Evening Star from 1973 and 1975), live sets as ACNE with Nico, John Cage and Kevin Ayers, work on Nico's The End, Robert Wyatt's signature Rock Bottom, and Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, early experiments with Cluster, and of course, three monumental albums with David Bowie recorded for the most part in Berlin (Low, "Heroes", and Lodger). Clearly, the anagram Brain One is no typo.
Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) - named for a Maoist opera - is, in contrast to Paul Morley's cloying, written-in-a-night liner notes for these reissues, not the best of Brian Eno's first four pop records. Make no mistake, it is a fine and significant record, but there's no doubt of Eno's fragmented creative drive given the plethora of projects he'd involved himself in, and press for the record was dominated by one of his famously slippery and in this case flimsy "theories" of creation, namely Panic. Yes, Eno brazenly declared, these lyrics were scribbled out in as little time as possible. While much of the music behind them is genius (as ever), and the album is much more a radical departure from the post-Roxy rockisms of Warm Jets, the topical lyrics, dream imagery and disinterested, phased-out delivery don't sell these relatively lazy drum machine pieces the way Eno's unhinged wailing did his schizoid debut.
A seriously front-loaded record, Tiger Mountain gets your hopes up with its phenomenal first track, Burning Airlines Give You So Much More, a half-time anthem alternating clean electric guitar with a fluid low-octave lead and that "warm jet" guitar sound Eno had appropriately introduced during Warm Jets' conclusive title track. This whirring, breathing fuzz, care of Robert Fripp, was explored exhaustively during the duo's gentler Evening Star sessions, and came to dominate Another Green World; for many, it is the signature element of Eno's pop material, first perfected in Tiger Mountain's second track, the evil, doppelganger-Beatles march Back In Judy's Jungle. After the desolate Fat Lady Of Limbourg, one begins to notice the drum machines carrying too much weight, and for an artist so concerned with the future commonality of today's novelties, it's hard to reconcile Eno's reliance on these sounds. It certainly doesn't help that they've been abused to caricature since, but even excusing age from the equation, Eno's compositional spirit is only restrained by these unchanging loops.
And then, Eno is struck by a taxi in 1975, left holding his brains in his hands, and bedridden for almost two months. From his sterile and structured prison comes a patience that will inform two of the most important albums of the decade: Discreet Music (recorded May 9th, 1975) and Another Green World.
If Discreet Music is Eno's thirty-minute dream of a dream, Another Green World is the resolution of his conflict of purpose: Positioning a lecherous love of glam-pop against a growing desire to destroy music in order to recreate it, Eno ripped rock and roll apart, never losing sight of its precepts. No one could mistake Another Green World for anything other than a pop album, but at the same time, it is unrecognisable as such.
The literally titled Sky Saw rends all prior sonic limitations with its luminescence, shredding speakers the world over and certainly providing the template for the harder material on Bowie's landmark Low (thanks in no small part to the airtight drumming of one Phil Collins). Flourishes of virtuosic jazz overplaying dot Over Fire Island, a very early intermission of sorts, before the record dives headlong into a sonorous continuum interrupted by only a few recognisable pop numbers.
Nothing in Eno's pre-ambient catalogue speaks to the power of tone and timbre as astutely as the diminutive, one-minute, thirty-second title track from Another Green World. The warm jets rise in solar fashion, peaking over horizons Eno would chart with Cluster for years to come, the beams punctuated by percussive synthesizer melodies overtly informed by said German musik masterminds (sadly, the track was somewhat tainted by a decade-plus run as the opening music for the BBC's arts program Arena).
The frenetic Fripp guitar loops and theatrical vocals of St. Elmo's Fire were a popular favourite upon release, and, like the somewhat overreaching piano and synth ballad I'll Come Running, are often covered, but in total, it's the raw atmospheres of Another Green World that win out. The album's most powerful moment comes as Eno contrasts a near horror-film tempo with those omnipresent Fripp waves for In Dark Trees, then counters with the mounting compositional eloquence and simultaneously retiring guitar drama of The Big Ship, arguably the most accomplished instrumental rock piece Eno has recorded. The transitions from such bliss to I'll Come Running and the flat chants of Golden Hours are failings we can't blame on the death of vinyl, and as such, the record-as-long-player suffers a bit for its mixed aims, indicative of Eno's broadened scope but not yet a resolution of his ambient aims (Eno wouldn't get to the heart of the anti-matter until 1985's breathless glass cathedral, Thursday Afternoon).
While one can reconcile Eno's first three pop albums as evolution, making all manner of laughably obvious observations - how he laboured to distance himself from Roxy Music, how unserious his work was before his accident (a personal favourite) - it's far harder, and, I'd argue, impossible, to force 1977's Before And After Science into such a linear construct. Recorded after Eno's immersion in David Bowie's world, Before And After Science is a slick, somehow flat album that, in damning retrospect, resonates as a precursor to what Eno would try to shape the Talking Heads into: white people playing African pop music.
While it's ludicrous to liken, and inexcusable to condemn a record for its similarities to music it predates, it's nonetheless impossible given his famous strong-arming of the Talking Heads to extricate Eno's vocal similarity to David Byrne in many of these tracks. While that's a prejudice to be disregarded, even without the benefit of hindsight, it's clear Eno has retreated into some Roxy retreads here (Backwater, Here He Comes), and slid into side-two amorphousness in exactly the same way his collaborations with Bowie had. Spider And I may be the most beautiful (platonic) love song written from one man to another, harking back to Another Green World with its lush synthesised waves, and the sparse chants of Julie With... shoulder its more dated keys, but the rest of the album's last movement is twinkling inconsequence. Before And After Science is the neutered star in search of fuel, boasting only King's Lead Hat for the pop world, and the luminous pure prog-jazz of Energy Fools The Magician for the out-rock contingent (Cluster contributed synths and pianos to much of the record; Eno would release stronger material with the group soon after).
Remastering for the 2004 editions of these four albums has drastically improved instrumental separation, a rare feat, and, given the sonic complexity of these recordings, something of a miracle. For example, Roxy Music producer Phil Manzanera, and later Eno, sometimes recorded tracks out of phase; if mixed incorrectly, the stereo tracks would cancel each other out, vanishing into thin air. Such an attentive restaging of Brian Eno's most daring and daunting recordings is long overdue, a late but cherished justice given that Virgin's absurdly re-sequenced mid-'90s box sets were the only digitally remastered versions of these masterpieces to date.