Hall of Records

Brian Eno: Here Come the Warm Jets

by Michael Tatum

Released: January 1974 (Island)

Brian Eno could be rock's greatest con artist. When his old friend Andy Mackay bumped into him in a subway car on the Bakerloo train line by complete chance, Mackay never asked Eno to join him and Bryan Ferry in the band that would eventually become the great Roxy Music. Rather, it was to borrow of one of Eno's tape recorders, of which the inveterate gadgeteer had an impressive collection, for a demo that Bryan Ferry, Roxy's songwriter and lead vocalist, could use to shop around for a prospective label. But when Eno arrived at Ferry's abode lugging around a massive reel-to-reel that Ferry would later bemuse dwarfed its elfin owner, he learned that Mackay owned what at that time was somewhat of a novelty: the third version of Electronic Music Studio's Voltage Controlled Studio, or VCS3, an early analog synthesizer that neither Mackay nor Ferry had any idea how to play, let alone operate -- though one could route a keyboard or guitar through it, the instrument by itself was essentially a suitcase boasting only a joystick and numerous buttons and knobs. For better and for worse, it would eventually define '70s rock, famously providing the memorable introduction to the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," but this early in the game, its potential hadn't been fully realized. Aware of his penchant for experimentation -- as a rogue student at Winchester Art School, inspired by similar endeavors from John Cage and Steve Reich, he gained notoriety making music via manipulating tape recorders -- Mackay encouraged Eno to take the unwieldy device home and tinker with it.

Eno set about the task with absolute relish, first taking delight in the manner the various ways he could massage the heady, futuristic sounds that emanated from the device's noise generator, eventually realizing he could "treat" any input fed into it, from Mackay's oboe to Ferry's crooning baritone. Impressed with Eno's progress with the machine, his role in the nascent aggregation was upgraded from "technical assistant" to "sound manipulator" to full-fledged member of the band, eventually commandeering such "instruments" on the band's excellent 1972 debut as two Revox reel-to-reel strung in sequence, the Ferrograph tape recorder that MacKay had requested initially, an Ampex cassette recorder, a customized delay echo unit, and the VCS3 itself. For a vaunted non-musician who couldn't play a note on a traditional instrument, not bad. But when the flamboyantly glamorous Eno began stealing the spotlight (and the girls) from the more conventionally handsome Bryan Ferry during his brief stay with Roxy, Ferry balked, and Eno, who would in the next four decades make a point of never repeating himself musically, cut his ties with the quintet, despite the fact that they were turning into a major British cultural phenomenon. Unfortunately, Eno was still contractually bound to Roxy's management, to whom he owed 15,000, roughly $260,000 in today's currency. Suddenly the boy who cried solo career was being called on his bluff.

But let's drive the narrative backwards a bit. I described Eno as a "non-musician" because that's what he prefers, but that's not to say he didn't come from a musical background. His grandfather dabbled on saxophone and bassoon, as well as building and repairing church organs, mechanical pianos, music boxes, and hurdy-gurdies, amassing miscellaneous components, broken and otherwise, in much the same way his grandson would collect tape recorders. Eno's father, before settling down and becoming a postman (as did many others in the family line), played drums at wedding receptions, though Brian apparently was unaware of this until his father was much older. An uncle mastered the clarinet, and another played marching drum in the Woodbridge Excelsior Brass Band. Brian himself was obsessed by music from an early age -- like many British schoolkids, one of his first seductions was Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel," but interestingly, not the performance so much as the the reverbed effect that producer Steve Sholes coaxed onto the recording, an attempt to re-create the sound on Presley's work for Sun (which Sam Phillips achieved via the tape delay between two Ampex 350 reel-to-reel machines). Crucially, he was also a fan of the nonsense syllables of doo-wop, a notable favorite being the Tokens' classic version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which Eno himself would cover in 1974 much to the bafflement of his glam rock fans, but would come as no surprise to those who knew his method of composing lyrics -- by singing gibberish until he heard something he liked. During his time in art school, fascinated by post-modernist approaches to composition, he would indulge his whimsy in projects like the Sinfonia Portsmouth, an orchestral aggregation which featured untutored musicians attempting (and failing) to play well-known pieces of classical music, and "Piano Tennis," a game he would play with his friend and mentor Tom Phillips, in which the pair would round up several pianos, strip them of their tops, align them in a hall, and strike the wires with tennis balls. Through all of these anecdotes, you can summarize Eno's interests: novelty, ambiance, random chance, technology, feeling over technique, and, most importantly, a creatively attuned sense of play.

The best thing about Eno is that what constitutes play varies significantly from project to project: sometimes it's freeze tag, sometimes it's the Sunday crossword, and sometimes it's convincing musicians to swap instruments for ones they barely know how to play, as he famously did on the sessions for David Bowie's 1979 classic "Boys Keep Swinging." Other strategies of his were more cerebral, but no less eccentric. In September of 1972, Eno invited ex-King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp over to his flat at London's Leith Mansions and, after sharing a bottle of red wine, Eno selected a experimental piece he had taped several years prior and asked Fripp to improvise on top of it. As Fripp soloed on his Gibson Les Paul, carefully utilizing his various effects pedals, Eno fed his output through two modified Revox A7 reel-to-reel tape players, each spooling into and out of the other, resulting in the same musical signals to be bounced from one playback head to another. Beginning simply, as one lulling drone, over the course of twenty hypnotic minutes the finished product waxes, wanes, crescendos, ebbs, sees stars on the ceiling, and rubs its bleary eyes: one of the first pieces of "ambient" music, though its creator wouldn't invent that term for another three years. Nevertheless, "The Heavenly Music Corporation," titled as such because Eno thought Fripp's original designation "The Transcendental Music Corporation" would make people "think they were serious," represented a major breakthrough for both artists, eventually becoming the highlight of the entrancing (No Pussyfooting), released in late 1973. Were one to weld that track to the eerie "An Index of Metals," from the pair's 1975 Evening Star, you might have the British art-rock equivalent to, oh, Miles Davis' Jack Johnson.

Of course, Eno knew that level of pretension, regardless how accomplished or influential, wouldn't get him out of the red with his management ("Robert Fripp and I will be recording another LP very soon," he promised in a contemporaneous press release. "It should be even more monotonous than the first one!"). In other words, he would have to deliver a more conventional, song-oriented record. So, he rounded up several co-conspirators from mind-bogglingly disparate bands -- among them, King Crimson's Robert Fripp and John Wetton, Simon King of space rockers Hawkwind, Bill MacCormick of art-rockers Matching Mole, crack session guitarist Chris Spedding, as well as everyone from Roxy Music but Bryan Ferry -- and, well, threw them together to see what they would do. Working in the cheapest twenty-four track studio in London, and with very few songs or even ideas sketched out beforehand, Eno let the album that became Here Come the Warm Jets create itself out of jams, improvisations, and various odds and ends that he cobbled together, with invention key to the proceedings. For the gorgeous "On Some Faraway Beach," he plastered various overdubs on top of a one-finger piano piece, fading the band in and out at the beginning and end so you could hear the song's humble genesis. On the bracing "Needles in the Camel's Eye," he achieved the distinctive "wobbly" guitar sound by hitting the tremolo bar on Phil Manzanera's Fender Stratocaster as the latter furiously strummed. The vicious Bryan Ferry poison pen letter "Dead Finks Don't Talk," a sort of "How Do You Sleep?" for the glam rock set, features a yelping backing vocal that suggests a carnival goer bashing a Whac-a-Mole, while the sinister "Baby's on Fire," a ode to a fashion model so scorching she spontaneously combusts, cedes a jaw-dropping guitar solo to Robert Fripp. There's even some more or less straightforward pop: "Some of Them Are Old," a vocal showcase with faux Hawaiian slack-key guitar, as well as the astonishing neo-doo-wop feature "Cindy Tells Me," about how money makes feminism's purported freedom of choice easier for upper class women: "Some of them lose and some of them lose/But that's what they want and that's what they choose."

Though the beginning scene of Todd Haynes' 1998 Velvet Goldmine, in which an army of screaming teenagers makes a mad sprint down a London street like they're extras in A Hard Day's Night as "Needles in the Camel's Eye" plays in the background, is pure wishful thinking as historical revisionism -- this music didn't set babies on fire as did Bowie and T.Rex -- critics saw the worth of Eno's mercurial solo work almost immediately. A burbling Lester Bangs in Creem: "Don't tell me about the sleaze in your Silverhead -- Eno is the real bizarro warp factor for 1974 . . . the drums are pounding and the guitars are screaming every whichaway in a precisely orchestrated cauldron of terminal hysteria muchly influenced by though far more technologically advanced than early Velvet Underground. Don't miss it; it'll drive you crazy." Needless to say, Eno's "terminal hysteria" only lasted for one more album before taking a more or less permanent left turn into the ambient, predominantly instrumental music for which he is best known, the peak of which is unquestionably 1975's endlessly captivating Another Green World. So Here Come the Warm Jets is, in many ways, a British art-rock anomaly: a strange, brief moment when the professorial prog rockers could get in the sandbox with the rouged-up glamor boys and no one would blink -- and when an impish oddball armed with a tape recorder could make some seriously demented rock and roll.

August 1, 2014, Odyshape