An Arctic fogbow photographed by Sam Dobson.
October 1, 2011
One day a friend took me down to the basement and said "listen to this". I sat down on the coach and he put on a record that would change my life: Brian Eno's Before and After Science. As I listened to the first song, I started feeling as if some sort of weight was pushing me down. The ever-burgeoning layers of texture, the insistence of the repetition, Eno's smeared-out vocal lines floating over the thick percussion, and the enigmatic lyrics all combined to convey the sense of sailing in a small craft through seas alien and dense:
Most rock music I'd heard was full of teenage hormones and ego. While still kick-ass, this was different... somehow empty.
His voice was so smooth, I could never tell when he was saying "metal days", "metal waves", or "metal ways"... but what mattered most was not the lyrics but the timbre of the instruments: almost none were like anything I'd ever heard. What in the world are those pulses that come floating by like a flock of sea birds starting around 1:26? Or that hyperactive glassy percussion that kicks in at 2:06? (If you listen carefully, you'll hear that both these elements are foreshadowed, so they don't really appear 'out of nowhere' - everything flows.)
In the years to come, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out this album, and the work of Eno and his many collaborators. I think I'll go through a few of my favorites here.
By the way, please ignore the rather silly graphics in this video... and I'm sorry for how it ends abruptly slightly before the song is done! This alternative has great advantages, not least being those of nostalgia, but the sound quality isn't quite as good.
October 2, 2011
Around the era of Before and After Science and Low, and continuing on into Heroes, Eno liked to split albums into a frenetic first side and a much quieter second side. But on Before and After Science my favorite quiet track is on the first side.
It's full of subtle details, and the details are what matter. If you don't know by heart the little "pop" at 0:48 followed by the even littler, cuter "pop" at 0:50, the echoed flanged bass starting at 1:22, or the various sighing metallic sounds and lone piano notes, you haven't really learned this piece. It's like a small, enigmatic, carefully crafted world.
(The funny little guitar strum in the background at 2:02 foreshadows the _next_ piece, the manic "King's Lead Hat". At this stage in his career, Eno was very meticulous about how pieces ended, since he wanted each to lead naturally to the next.)
October 3, 2011
A while after listening to Before and After Science, I was in a record store and saw Bowie's Low for $4.99. It was a 'cutout' — a remaindered LP with a notch cut out of it. Since I was in high school, on a limited budget, that's all I could afford... and I saw Eno was listed as the producer.
Amazing! The first side was cold, alienated rock like this song here, with drums and bass pushed up to the front - revolutionary at the time. The second side, ambient. Bowie and Eno were holed up in Berlin at the time, going crazy, trying new things. The cover is from The Man Who Fell to Earth, a truly disturbing SF movie.
October 4, 2011
While the first side of Low is still recognizably rock, full of Bowie's dark despair, the second sails off into new waters, with brooding but delicate pieces graced now and then with vocals that are more like instrumentals. It starts with "Warszawa", which evokes the desolation which Bowie felt on a 1973 visit to that city. The mysterious lyrics and the piece of melody in the middle part of the song are based on a recording of a Polish folk choir. But the composition owes a lot to Eno: Bowie told him "'Look Brian, I want you to compose a really slow piece of music, but I want a very emotive, almost religious feel to it" — and Eno went to work.
According to Jonathan Greatorex:
In Eno's spontaneous, yet slow way, he began by preparing methodical 'accidents' to happen. Initially he suggested laying down a track of finger-clicks on a blank piece of tape. Each of these clicks, four hundred and thirty in all, was allocated a dot and a number on a piece of paper. The next step was to pick out selections of dots, completely at random, from the 430. Back in the studio, Eno played chords as he hit any of the selected numbers. Bowie did likewise with his areas. Once this had been done, the initial clicks were removed, and the segments between the bars were infilled... using conventional methods. Bowie's 'words' were finally added..."
Given this, it's amazing how organic and natural the piece sounds. But Eno likes to push great musicians off balance and then let them recover with all the skills they can muster. "Infilling using conventional methods" is a rather dry way of putting this. The result is often good music utterly unlike the musicians would have dreamt up on their own — music that seems to have fallen to Earth from another planet. That's certainly true here.
October 7, 2011
After being blown away by Before and After Science, my friend David Michael and I got Eno's previous one, Another Green World. It's a calmer, more meditative affair - except for the first track, which is my favorite. "Sky Saw" is a blast of energy... but the lyrics show this isn't the energy that comes from teenage testosterone. Instead, self-referentially, they describe Eno's attitude to lyrics:
Lyrics, he has said, are just a trick to get people to pay more attention to music.
The electric guitar comes in two flavors, both unique: a bracingly metallic repeated 4-note theme, and a swirlingly hectic solo. Both, I believe, are examples of Eno's "snake guitar". The repeated upward-sliding sound starting at 2:02 is John Cale on viola. Cale also creates the cloud of high-pitched string sounds that kicks in at 2:53. The percussion by Phil Collins, the fretless bass by Percy Jones, and the electric piano (by Eno?) give the piece a bit of a cool jazz feel... but this ain't the cool jazz my daddy liked!
You'll note that the comprehensible lyrics sit atop a more impenetrable cloud of words, adding to the sense that too much information is streaming in. According to a source I don't trust, this word cloud says:
Whatever: it's not about meaning, it's about feeling.
October 8, 2011
Here's one of the most peppy songs on the second side of Another Green World. It's a journey, a long hike with a friend through moors and briars, leading up to a storm in the desert where
St. Elmo's fire, named after the patron saint of sailors, happens when a luminous plasma is created by a electrical discharge from a grounded object... for example a ship's mast. To depict this, Eno brought in the guitar virtuoso Robert Fripp. Before recording his solo, Eno asked Fripp to visualize a Wimshurst machine, which — according to Eno — is "a device for generating very high voltages which then leap between the two poles, very fast and unpredictable". And that's what the solo sounds like!
The only other musician on this piece is Eno, who played organ, piano, Yamaha bass pedal, the beautiful simple washes of "desert guitar," and synthetic percussion — most notably the clicking sounds like wood blocks.
October 31, 2011
In high school, after listening to Eno's Before and After Science and Another Green World, I had nowhere to go but back to his 1974 album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). This is altogether more goofy than those others — but in a sublime and profoundly inventive way. Each song is utterly different from the rest.
"Third Uncle" has often been called a predecessor to punk. In one way that doesn't make sense at all, because Phil Manzanera's guitar work and Robert Wyatt's drums are quite virtuosic... but there's something about its savage intensity that makes people say it: back in '74, there wasn't much music like this. The title makes some of the lyrics jump out at you, and they seem very nasty:
But if you listen to the lyrics as a whole, you'll see that surrealism is the order of the day here. Crucially, Eno doesn't sound angry: he's energetic but oddly detached.
By the way, at the very beginning, along with the pulsing bass, there's a faint high-pitched echo. If you can't hear it, you don't have your speakers turned up high enough!
If you like this song, but haven't heard the live version by Eno's band 801, you should also check out that.
October 31, 2011
Where are we here? Some sort of imaginary China? Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy), was, after all, the title of a Maoist revolutionary opera. Brian Eno blithely sings:
But it's a strange place: chattering guitars, a wailing solo by Ray Manzanera played over... yes, a mass of typewriters... and at the end, the song comes to a screeching halt, like a train that's put on the brakes. (Note how the final meltdown is subtly foreshadowed at 4:04). Somehow it all makes sense, but only if you leave the realm of ordinary logic.
Diehard Eno fans will want to see this little known video he made for this song:
It features himself, punk rocker Judy Nylon, and Polly Eltes, who was a guest vocalist on "Mother Whale Eyeless", another song on this album. The song "Back in Judy's Jungle" was indeed named after this Judy. She was also the one who led Eno to invent ambient music. On the back cover of his first ambient album, he wrote:
My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn't the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music — as part of the ambience of the environment just as the color of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience.
With a punky name like Judy Nylon I wouldn't have expected her to like 18th century harp music... but it goes to show, don't expect people to fit into little boxes!
© 2011 John Baez