Brian Eno was never destined to spend much time with glam pioneers Roxy Music.
Brian Eno was never destined to spend much time with glam pioneers Roxy Music; at first occupying the mixing desk, he eventually played on stage with his bandmates but did so in such outlandish dress that he overrode the innate irony of glam with garish extremity. Eno’s peevish sense of humor deeply informs his debut solo LP, such a frequent piss-take that even its title, Here Come the Warm Jets, glibly euphemized urophagia. If glam was one of the foundational pillars of punk rock in its intellectualized garage stomp and rejection of norms, Eno’s first album looks so far ahead that it sees the explosion of angular, avant-pop post-punk that would come even further down the road.
Newly re-released from intricately remastered tapes alongside Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World and Before and After Science, Here Come the Warm Jets marks the start of a remarkably fast evolution in musical principles that echo throughout the future albums. “The Paw-Paw Negro Blowtorch,” which wraps a cryptic reference to reported 19th-century pyrokinetic around suggestive lyrics, rides a funky but skeletal riff that forecasts early Talking Heads, a prophecy fulfilled by the time of Before and After Science’s “King’s Lead Hat,” now not a precursor but a cheeky rip-off (the title an anagram of the band’s name). Much of the album’s pleasures come from hearing how Eno, armed with a battalion of collaborators ranging from old bandmates to prog luminaries, takes the basic formula of glam and disrupts it with strange time signatures or odd instrumentation. Take a track like “Blank Frank,” which constantly falls back into a lurching bass refrain before Fripp’s multi-tracked guitar slices through the mix with cascades of noise.
It is that sense of experimentation, more so than the idiosyncratic humor, that informs Taking Tiger Mountain, which strips away most of the guest musicians but leaves Eno with a room full of synthesizers. Eno’s lyrics are still a combination of arch goofs and base lustfulness, but the music heads out into strange new directions. Thus a song with a title like “Back in Judy’s Jungle” can surprise with an arrangement that mixes Kinks-esque pastoral pop with the dubby guitar scratch of reggae. Hissing electronic patterns underscore the wobbling analog tones of “The Great Pretender,” while “Third Uncle” is art school punk before the fact. The wry aspects of Eno’s intelligence have been fully sublimated into the compositions, utilizing the possibilities of synthesized sound to explore uncharted spaces in otherwise simple foundations.
The experimentation of Taking Tiger Mountain peaks with Another Green World, a record planned around an explicit lack of planning, with Eno surrendering his tinkering perfectionism to total unpredictability. He nearly drove himself mad from the effort, though the finished result gives no indication of struggle. Indeed, in its floating, elegant, abstract sound, the album is perhaps the most selfless pop album of the Me Generation, stressing pulses of texture and feeling over concrete expression and showmanship. Even a deft display of chops, like Fripp’s tangled guitar solo at the end of “St. Elmo’s Fire,” enhances the overall mood of the track instead of breaking the flow to show off. For the most part, however, the album rides on gentle air currents, producing not so much ballads as elegies. On songs like “Golden Hours” and “The Big Ship,” Eno fully synthesizes the pastoral pop of The Kinks, setting aside the satire and enhancing the sense of a futuristic folk music. More than any of his song-oriented solo work, this points the way toward the ambient music that Eno would pioneer, as well as the beat-driven but loose textures that he would supply to David Bowie for the latter’s Berlin trilogy.
The half-speed remastering performed on these albums is especially noticeable on Another Green World, calling attention to the depth of the production and how subtly Eno weaves each element into every available space while leaving ample room for each sound to reverberate and stretch. One can also hear the careful tuning of Before and After Science, a consolidation of sorts of Eno’s career to that point into one sharply angled piece of post-punk. “No One Receiving” highlights the dizzying polyrhythms of Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, loping in and out of danceable beats with controlled disorder. Elsewhere, avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith takes the treble lines into even further reaches than Eno did, managing to add off-tune wanderings to even light sonic explorations like “Through Hollow Lands.” The gossamer delicacy of Another Green World is still here, but it is folded back into a clearer rock template, nominally recalling Eno’s first two solo LPs while heading off into new terrains. It’s the perfect stopping point for the first phase of Eno’s career, the first time in which his constantly forward-thinking music seemed completely of its moment.
Of course, just as soon as others caught up to him, Eno would spiral off into even stranger, less concrete territory, setting up the ambient genre by stripping everything from his sound except the bare minimum to create noise. Those records may have made Eno’s name, but these four perfect works of strange, evolutionary music would have cemented him as the boldest pop craftsman of the 1970s, the precursor to singular pop composers like Prince, Björk and Kate Bush. And that’s not even counting the endless groups and artists who ripped him off.