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The Wire JUNE 2004 - by Ken Hollings
Ken Hollings recalls the glory of Eno's non-musicianly early albums before he outgrew the song
Carefully transferred from the original masters by Simon Heyworth, Brian Eno's first four solo albums may still have much to say for themselves, but there's considerably more to the story than that. Things get left out. Perceptions become partial. Assumptions prevail. These, when all is said and done, are the records that Eno sang on.
So adept has he been over the years in establishing a critical context within which to approach these early works that Eno now appears to have merged with it, disappearing into the background of a debate he helped initiate. Consequently, it sometimes feels as if he has always been there, flashy yet safe, operating with all the clever predictability of a TV commercial. However, the work he released in the mid-1970s went a long way towards altering how music would come to be described and discussed. Creating pop art in the shadow of pop as art - who, aside from The Velvet Underground, has ever managed to get away with that one?
Between 1973 and 1977 Eno released four albums predominantly composed of songs that were distractingly open about how irrelevant lyrical content was to the understanding of pop aesthetics. Lyrics merely constituted the carrier signal. The actual recorded content of any song was the sound it made, not the sense.
If the smoke-blackened glam rock fantasies of 1973's Here Come The Warm Jets seem more pronounced thirty-one years on from its original release, so too does its sense of depth and compression. Every track feels scoured over and reworked, as if it were a failed sketch that Eno could never quite bring himself to discard. Digital remastering only serves to enhance that effect, unscrambling some of the more densely striated moments. Suddenly it's the womping reverb, melodic bass and separated drum fills that hold the attention on the opener Needles In A Camel's Eye. And it's the treatment of the guitars after Robert Fripp's coruscating solo on Baby's On Fire that keep you listening. What also becomes plain from the sensitive balancing of Andy Mackay's saxophone septet with Lloyd Watson's overdubbed slide guitars on Some Of Them Are Old and the neatly episodic development of Dead Finks Don't Talk is that Eno's attempts to define himself at the time as a 'non-musician' were little more than a pose.
If it was a pose, however, it nevertheless freed him to behave increasingly as a singer without a song. Just as Here Come The Warm Jets had been preceded by the layered permutations of No Pussyfooting, a collaborative project under taken with Robert Fripp, so the ground for Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) was partially cleared by June 1, 1974, a recording of a concert performance where Eno appeared alongside John Cale, Kevin Ayers and Nico at London's Rainbow Theatre. Joining forces with a prescribed set of performers had a notable influence on the selection of personnel Eno utilised for his second solo album. There is a core group of musicians working around including Phil Manzanera on guitar, Brian Turrington on bass, Freddie Smith on drums and Robert Wyatt alternating between percussion and backing vocals.
The compositions on Taking Tiger Mountain resemble musical transcriptions of non-musical events rather than songs in their own right. Containing hidden shallows, each track resolves itself into a series of structural sleights and feints. Some proceed along deceptively simple lines, constructed out of strictly regimented superimpositions, an effect achieved most successfully on The Great Pretender and The Fat Lady Of Limbourg. Others go out of their way to defy both logic and gravity. Mother Whale Eyeless is a sequence of carefully balanced asymmetries in which foreground and background become interchangeable. Similarly A True Wheel sounds determined to work itself out as a foursquare rocker but then changes its mind at the last moment. Even if A Certain Ratio hadn't named themselves after one of the lines from this last number, Taking Tiger Mountain could still provide a blueprint for new wave groups artfully picking up and rearranging the pieces after punk. It was all there, the selective use of prepared piano merely conspiring with the staccato clatter of typewriters on China My China to footnote Cage and Satie respectively for future experimenters. Eno may not have been a real non-musician but by claiming that title for himself he ended up giving permission to a lot of genuine non-musicians to try their hand.
1975's Another Green World found Eno back at his sketchbook again, refusing to finish anything this time, leaving lines and forms incomplete. There were others who would do that for him. Try listening to In Dark Trees without also hearing Throbbing Gristle's sparse Industrial beats in its "electric percussion", or The Big Ship without picking up some of Suicide's romantic white noise in its "treated rhythm generator". Whether anyone else ever used the Oblique Strategies method devised by Eno and artist Peter Schmidt to creatively resolve creative dilemmas in the wake of Another Green World, there were plenty of others who saw the possibilities this album represented. Derek Jarman heard it and invited Eno to contribute soundtrack material to his first feature films, Sebastiane and Jubilee. Bowie also heard it and brought Eno onboard to work on Low, "Heroes" (1977) and Lodger.
Hereafter, Eno found the content he was looking for in the work of others. This is apparent from his last collection of songs. Probably the most alarming thing about 1977's Before And After Science is its title: a tough premise to live with. The material itself comes across as studied and too well mannered. The collaboration with Cluster on By This River fails to convince and the continual celebration of failure, collapse and escape expressed throughout slowly dampens expectations. But before any of this had time to sink in, Eno was heading for New York to record with Talking Heads (whom he homaged on Science's anagrammatic King's Lead Hat). And that's a whole other story.