Brian Eno reissues review – back to the future with his most beautiful music | Alexis Petridis' album of the week

After leaving Roxy Music, Eno created solo albums – Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Before and After Science and Another Green World – presaging everything from post-punk to My Bloody Valentine

Glam rock made stars of some unlikely people. From Sparks’ Hitler-moustachioed Ron Mael to Slade guitarist Dave Hill, it was an era packed with people who, at any other point in rock history, might have struggled to get any further than a record company’s reception area.

Among their number was Brian Eno. It wasn’t that he didn’t look the part – a man who can carry off blue eyeshadow, a diamante choker and a black cockerel-feather collar in broad daylight is clearly possessed of a je ne sais quoi that’s handy in the world of entertainment. It was more that no one seemed able to say what he actually did, including Eno himself: in interviews he would describe himself as “a non-musician”, and his role in Roxy Music as vaguely involving “treating” the other band members’ instruments with a synthesiser and “talking about the ideas behind the music”.

It didn’t bode terribly well for the solo career he was forced to embark on after his burgeoning celebrity began to irk Roxy frontman Bryan Ferry: a rowdy Yorkshire audience chanting “Eno! Eno!” over Ferry’s singing proved the final straw. Indeed, descriptions of the sessions for his 1973 solo debut Here Come the Warm Jets suggest a man struggling to work out what to do – Eno throwing disparate musicians together in the hope of creating “accidents” and directing them through the medium of interpretative dance – but the end results sound nothing like that.

Brian Eno in Copenhagen in 1974.
In a lineage of frazzled English eccentrics ... Brian Eno in Copenhagen in 1974. Photograph: Jorgen Angel/Redferns

For one thing, it turned out that Eno was a fantastic songwriter, in a lineage of frazzled English eccentrics: you could hear echoes of both Syd Barrett’s unsettling collision of childlike naivety and encroaching darkness and, even more distinctly, the languid, plummy whimsy peddled by former Soft Machine frontman Kevin Ayers. For another, all the experimentation and interpretative dancing paid off.

Here Come the Warm Jets occasionally feels very much a product of the glam era, littered with then-voguish ideas: the stompy drums of opener Needles in the Camel’s Eye; the arch, mannered vocals, some of which may be a parody of the array of tics and affectations adopted by Ferry; the knowing 1950s pastiche of Cindy Tells Me; and the homage to the still-recherché Velvet Underground that is Blank Frank’s roiling, Sister Ray-ish din of distorted guitar and organ.

But it more frequently sounds like nothing else, filled with leaps into unknown territory – the intriguingly out-of-focus ballad On Some Faraway Beach, The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch’s explosion of hysterically over-treated guitar – and scattered with moments of almost eerie prescience. Above the Slade-like drums of Needles in the Camel’s Eye there’s a wash of churning, bending guitar noise that may be the only thing in rock music that really sounds like My Bloody Valentine before My Bloody Valentine.

Indeed, Eno’s uncanny powers of prediction are the most striking thing about the four largely song-based 1970s albums re-released here, in sumptuous half-speed mastered, double 12in format. Of the quartet, 1974’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) is the least charming, with its preponderance of funny voices, impenetrable lyrics about Chinese espionage and wilfully off-key orchestrations; it occasionally sounds rather pleased with itself for being so clever, a perhaps inevitable pitfall of Eno’s playful, theory heavy approach, and one that the other albums here avoid. It nevertheless includes an embarrassment of lovely melodies, and the scratchy guitars and monotone vocals of Third Uncle, which doesn’t so much presage post-punk as sound exactly like a post-punk record, as if a track from 1980 fell through a time warp and ended up being released six years early.

On 1977’s Before and After Science, Eno was already impressed enough by Talking Heads to do impersonations of David Byrne’s vocals and to anagramise their name into the title of King’s Lead Hat, but the nervy art-funk sound the band and a host of others would soon adopt is here first, on Kurt’s Rejoinder and No One Receiving. Side two of the same album featured Eno allying the ambient experiments he’d begun a couple of years earlier with songs: on Julie With … and By This River, the results are not just the most beautiful music Eno ever made, but offer another weird presentiment, this time of the languid, sophisticated avant-pop pursued in the 80s by the Blue Nile and David Sylvian.

If you had to pick just one album of the four, it would probably be 1975’s Another Green World, on which most of Eno’s musical interests of the period – drifting ambience, off-kilter funk, guitars slathered in electronic effects, disturbing, blank-eyed Barrett-isms and Ayers-ish eccentricity – all co-existed perfectly. Nothing lasts longer than four minutes, several tracks are over in barely 90 seconds; even the most abstract moments feel concise. It sounds like a brilliantly succinct showcase of Eno’s talent, something that once seemed intangible, but turned out to instead be astonishingly diffuse.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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