INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Blender AUGUST 12, 2009 - by Douglas Wolk
HOW U2'S FAVOURITE PRODUCER INVENTED PERVY ART-POP
For someone who calls himself a "non-musician," Brian Eno sure has an impressive discography. Eno created the term ambient music, and he made the first recordings of it (notably 1975's Discreet Music and 1978's Music For Airports). He produced the breakthrough albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and Devo. He's a godfather of sampling and of the No Wave movement, and a hero to punk-rockers and chill-out DJs alike.
Eno is renowned as a pundit on futurism, an expert on perfume and a world-class horndog. The original wellsprings of his reputation, though, are these four astonishing albums of gorgeous, wiry songs he made in the '70s. He approached the recording studio with the tools of a visual artist - formalism, theoretical grounding, conceptual density - and ended up with experimental music that doubled as gale-force rock & roll and Edenic, serene pop. These new reissues aren't expanded, remixed or appreciably altered, just freshly transferred from Eno's un-fuck-with-able masters.
When Eno recorded Here Come The Warm Jets in 1973 (note the pissing woman on the CD cover's smutty playing card), he was best known as the befeathered, omnisexual synth player who had gotten himself booted from Roxy Music for inciting mass shouts of "Eno!" during concerts. That changed in a hurry. Needles In The Camel's Eye is bonehead glam-rock as reinvented by an art-school brainiac - one mammoth, thunderous, wailing riff run through a series of ingenious variations - and the much-covered Baby's On Fire is a two-note wonder built around an all-hell-breaks-loose guitar meltdown by King Crimson's Robert Fripp. Here Come The Warm Jets is an uptight album, arch and abrasive, even creepy in places, but there's definitely a genius at work here.
Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution and released the next year, is more immediately likeable. Playful and catchy, it foregrounds Eno's dirty-minded wit and tone-mangling electronic treatments, along with Phil Manzanera's sideways-logic guitar. The firestorm on this one is the frenetic, headlong chant Third Uncle, but Eno was already figuring out how to get his avantgarde ideas across by making them sound perversely pretty - the chorus of crickets that ushers out The Great Pretender and the amateur string section that saws beneath the chimes of Put A Straw Under Baby are still hair-raising.
By 1975, Eno had become fascinated by deliberate randomness, and developed the "oblique strategies" that he later used on Bowie's "Berlin trilogy" and U2's best records. The first recorded result was Another Green World, a set of songs, patterns and textures (about two-thirds of them instrumental) that built up the kind of alien pastoralism the title suggested: very calm, very beautiful, very weird. (Aphex Twin apparently learned a lot from it). It includes a couple of Eno's most ravishing melodies in Golden Hours and I'll Come Running, but most of it colours the atmosphere delicately - and the clarity of the new edition makes it easier to pay attention to every one of its subtle complexities.
When punk rock hit, Eno responded with 1977's Before And After Science, an explosively confusing, half-discofied album about the breakdown of meaning. King's Lead Hat (an anagram of Talking Heads, whose art and funk tendencies subsequently bloomed under his tutelage) is his craziest, messiest, horniest rocker ever, and Phil Collins, of all people, powers the inside-out groove of No One Receiving. The lyrics are dense with ambiguity - the exquisite Julie With... might either be about a murder or about a sunlit afternoon. The album is thickly layered and is very obviously the product of endless recording and stripping away. (Elvis Costello said of his later collaboration with Eno: "I admired his creative use of the erase button." Eno on collective musicianship: "An arrangement is when someone stops playing.")
After Before And After Science, Eno focused on production and instrumental music, abandoning songwriting for more than a decade, but these remarkable, baffling records left their scent on all young punks and glam reptiles who wanted music for both their brains and their loins.