PopMatters FEBRUARY 26, 2024 - by David Pike


Brian Eno's approach captured the best of what we wanted from punk, new wave, prog, glam, and classic '60s pop and channeled their excesses by relying on chance.

One morning around 1982, I waited in line for the toaster at breakfast in the college dining hall. Flames were emerging from it. The person in front of me burst into song, sort of: "BAY-AAY-gull's on fy-yer," he crooned sardonically, to the tune of the Brian Eno track that you could hear that semester booming out of half the dorm rooms on campus. I barely knew him, but he knew anyone on campus would know he was riffing on the centerpiece of Eno's first album, Here Come The Warm Jets, half a century ago. Ours was an artsy little mid-Atlantic college, to be sure, but it's still worth asking what Baby's On Fire was doing being sung spontaneously in a college dining hall eight years after it had first been released. The album had been modestly successful in the UK, reaching Number 26 on the charts, but it had peaked at Number 92 in the US, and none of Eno's following three pop-adjacent albums had done any better. But we loved all four of them, and there was a smaller but still sizeable following for the more recent ambient recordings. It was Here Come The Warm Jets that we were most obsessed with.

Brian Eno had a lot to offer college kids of all genders in the early 1980s: goofy and absurdist British humor, campy snark, avant-garde snobbery, envelope-pushing lyrics, and gender fluidity that even when you couldn't dance to it, you at least could sing along with. Eno's approach to rock captured the best of what we wanted from punk, new wave, prog, glam, and classic 1960s pop while it eschewed or blew up their clichés and channeled their excesses into an unprecedented blend of musical virtuosity and intentional contingency. Here Come The Warm Jets was the first album Eno made after an ugly break with Roxy Music, effectively forced out by vocalist and songwriter Bryan Ferry. A self-taught, self-identified "non-musician", Eno played synthesizer and "tapes" on the band's first breakthrough albums and regularly upstaged ostensible frontman Ferry with his flamboyant, media-friendly persona, outfits, and antics. His immediate response to leaving the group was to write the bitterly cynical Baby's On Fire.

Like many future progressive, rock, and glam musicians in England, Eno went to art school. Unlike many of them, he actually studied art, as well as the musical theories and compositions of John Cage, Steve Reich, and others whose experiments with minimalism, aleatory performance, and conceptual music he would bring with him into the art-rock world along with his enormous collection of scavenged reel-to-reel and cassette tape machines and ambient, found, looped, and treated recordings. Counting on his commercial and artistic potential, Island Records offered Eno free studio time following the breakup.

After toying with hypothetical projects ranging from Luala And The Lizard Girls to Plastic Eno Band and the Magic Wurlitzer Synthesizer Of Brian Eno Plays 'Winchester Cathedral' And Fourteen Other Evergreens, he recorded the proto-krautrock, proto-ambient (depending on whom you ask) album No Pussyfooting with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. Eno then assembled Fripp and his treated guitar along with "a group of disparate musicians from diverse stylistic backgrounds, gave them the vaguest of instructions and then let the resulting music unfurl in a spirit of spontaneity and chance". The musicians included former Roxy Music bandmates Andy Mackay (reeds and keyboards) and Phil Manzanera (guitar), four members of rock band Sharks, former Pink Fairies bass player Paul Rudolph, Hawkwind drummer Simon King, rock and blues guitarist Lloyd Watson, and bassist John Wetton, who had joined Fripp's band the previous year. Eno was nothing if not well-connected.

Here Come The Warm Jets' credits suggest that the sessions were not quite so disparate as Brian Eno claimed. Only a few tracks list more than one guitarist, bassist, or drummer, and none more than one keyboard player. Still, the entire album has an undeniable air of unpredictability and variety, even as Eno's voice (often multiply overdubbed) and tape manipulation provide a certain kind of constancy. Except for Baby's On Fire and Blank Frank, written post-breakup, the rest of the lyrics were generated in direct response to the recorded instrumental tracks, with an emphasis on sound rather than meaning: "I sang whatever came into my mind as the song played through. Frequently, they're just nonsense words or syllables. First, I try for the correct phonetic sound rather than the verbal meaning." As stream-of-consciousness, all kinds of snippets of anecdotes, references, and events slip in. Although Eno resolutely refused to knit these fragments together into coherence and treasured the ambiguity they created, they're by no means meaningless, either in the particulars of his life or the cultural moment in late 1973. Rather, they wash over the listener in a hallucinatory, dream-doctored refraction of Eno's postwar British childhood and post-swinging London bohemia.

Their ambiguous profundity made them easily transferrable to related situations. While I was in college, a friend of mine titled a paper on contemporary art, "Blank Frank: The Messenger of Your Doom And Your Destruction." It was an analysis of minimalist abstract artist Frank Stella, whose 1960s paintings of geometrical strips of dayglo color the well-read Eno was most likely familiar. The song's lyrics and mood fit Stella perfectly; however, it was putatively "based on a notorious Ipswich criminal called Blank Frank, a psychopath who talked in impenetrable proverbs and placed Molotov cocktails in suburban driveways". Certainly, the lyrics fit that Frank even more closely than the celebrated minimalist. We had no idea about the psychopath; we just loved to repeat the dicta. They were catchy, clever, spooky, subversive, and evocative of pretty much everything wrong, marginal, and interesting in our society.

As Colin Newman, lead singer of postpunk band Wire and longtime Brian Eno acquaintance, put it, "He's a bunch of things, one of which - and I say this in the most friendly and supportive way - is an incredibly adept bullshitter. He's a brilliant opportunist." It's very clear listening to Eno that nothing can be pinned down to a single meaning. But it's equally clear that it's never meaningless, even if it's always also put on. He's never just posing, and he's never just pontificating; the intermixing is what has kept this music compelling to this day. "Warm Jets" can mean many things, but certainly, one of them is the oxymoron of sleekly powerful modern technology simultaneously cozily embracing.

Eno was an early devotee of The Velvet Underground, and there are a lot of The Velvets on Here Come The Warm Jets. But Eno had no particular interest in drugs or marginalized sexual identities. What he took from Lou Reed was a lyrical attitude. What he took from The Velvets was a revolutionary approach to pop music. Interviewed at the time of the post-Warm Jets tour with Kevin Ayers and former Velvets John Cale and Nico, Eno confessed that he "had worn out all the records". He shared Cale's love of dissonance (listen to the viola on their live version of Driving Me Backwards), Lou Reed's love of doo-wop and pop ditties as also of transgressive content mixed with yearning lyricism, and The Velvets' unprecedented mix of virtuoso musicianship with the willful rejection of said virtuosity. But Eno's love of music hall, vaudeville, and roleplaying and his refusal to tell coherent stories the way Reed did enabled his songs to flirt with the mainstream in ways The Velvets never did.

You heard Brian Eno in the hallways of my college a lot more than The Velvet Underground. The Velvets' fans, for the most part, didn't go to college; they just formed bands. Eno, despite being the actual source of that infinitely repeated aphorism that "Only a few thousand people bought that record, but all of them formed a band of their own", had done both. He certainly knew the lure of transgressive lyrics, but he was also careful to maintain plausible deniability in the same top-of-the-pops world in which Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds might somehow not be about dropping acid. Sure, we college kids thought it was cool Here Come the Warm Jets might be about ejaculation or golden showers or that the Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch could be about a dildo or interracial oral sex. But they may just as well have been about warmongering fighter planes or "from the guitar sound on the track of that name, which I described on the track sheet as 'warm jet guitar', because it sounded like a tuned jet". "I just liked having fun with those things," Eno confessed of the indeterminately connected multiple meanings of the album's title (and the pornographic playing card hidden in plain sight in the cover photo), as of so much else on the album.

There was more to Here Come The Warm Jets' appeal than its allusive, enigmatic, and often just plain weird lyrics. It has endured because of the entrancing and unpredictable music the lyrics underpin and foreground. Brian Eno had no formal musical training, but he had a fantastic ear for melody, and he had spent years tinkering and experimenting with tape machines and the cutting-edge portable EMS VCS3 synthesizer he had inherited from his friend and former bandmate Andy Mackay. Pretty much everything you hear on Here Come The Warm Jets was fed through that synthesizer. Sometimes it comes out sounding like punk or post-punk (proto-speedcore in Needles In The Camel's Eye or Blank Frank and proto-slowcore in Driving Me Backward), sometimes like proto-disco (Baby's On Fire), sometimes like doo-wop (Cindy Tells Me), sometimes like fractured pop-punk (The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch, Dead Finks Don't Talk), and sometimes like achingly beautiful proto-synthpop (On Some Faraway Beach, Some Of Them Are Old, Here Come the Warm Jets) - but that's usually only the beginning. Each song is quite literally a roller coaster ride, as is the album's gleefully jarring and unexpectedly sublime sequencing. It demands to be listened straight through, the only break to flip the record after Driving Me Backwards fades into the side A runout groove.

Songs transform midway through; lyrics shift registers, and clever segueing leads to abrupt shifts in mood from the elegiac solo piano fade of Faraway Beach to the sudden dissonance of Blank Frank. Paw Paw shifts into high gear out of its opening verses devoted to complaints about a distant girlfriend, linked by a whimsically squealing synth solo, riding a reverb-heavy Manzanera bridge into an urgent capsule biography of a young man in Paw Paw, Michigan, named Wm. Underwood able "to generate fire through the medium of his breath". A fading synthesizer outro echoes directly into the bass-heavy opening of Baby's On Fire.

Baby's On Fire soon enough breaks down into an incendiary three-minute Eno-treated Fripp-guitar freakout. Baby's On Fire's abruptly dismissive ending ("Her temperature's rising / But any idiot would know that") segues into the equally dismissive lyrics of Cindy Tells Me and its callow coterie of upper-middle-class pseudo-feminists. Eerie drumbeat and tinkling keyboards open Dead Finks before a fuzz-laden guitar solo leads into a handclapping bridge, a TV-announcer-voiced verse, and a brief but operatic burst of multi-tracked chorusing Enos that breaks down into treated guitar like an amplified telephone busy signal, cut-off mid-beat by the soaring organ riff that opens Some of Them Are Old.

Even when we may feel we've made it to steady ground in the long peaceful fade-out of the last two tracks, Some dissolves into a tom-tom-driven, nerve-tingling slide-guitar solo by Lloyd Watson that gives way to an operatic nursery-rhyme-based final verse and resolves after a long "doo-doo-doo" chorus into stuttering and fading bells that sound like the leftover dregs from the opening chimes of Pink Floyd's Time. But rather than portentous intimations of mortality, they give way delightfully to the humming synth hook of Warm Jets. It comes on in retrospect like quintessential 1980s pop, except that it delays the vocals until two and a half minutes into the song and then buries them so deeply in the mix that it sounds like they've been redubbed on tape so many times it's almost worn out. It's the most literal fade-out I've ever heard at the close of an album. It makes the muffled chorus - "Nowhere to be... Nothing to be... Nothing these days... Nothing to say" - somehow soothingly elegiac rather than damningly nihilistic.

Lyrically as musically, it's nearly impossible to tell when Brian Eno is taking the piss and when he's serious. Themes surface and fade throughout the record, whether unconventional sexualities, eccentric histories, or the ongoing reckoning with his bitterness over his treatment by Bryan Ferry. There are certainly moments that seem to poke directly at Ferry's burgeoning glam rock star power: "And all the laughing boys are bitching / Waiting for photos / Oh the plot is so bewitching" (Baby's On Fire) and especially the mocking imagery and vocal stylings of Dead Finks. But the refusal of cohesive storytelling or even a consistent mood or style works against any consistent sense of the kind of bitterness or loss that characterized, say, the breakup songs of the ex-Beatles. Whether he's working through things or throwing them at the wall to see what sticks, there's an infectious enthusiasm throughout the album. Eno and his mates are having a brilliant time, and the overriding sense of vast potential outweighs any moments of unease or discomfort.

The stream-of-consciousness lyrics may sometimes be disturbing, but the arrangements mean they're also always absurd, if not outright fun. The effect can be surrealist ("Baby's on fire / Better throw her in the water"), Dadaist ("Birds of prey / With too much to say"), or psychedelic ("Blank Frank is the siren, he's the air-raid, he's the crater / He's on the menu, on the table, he's the knife and he's the waiter") imagery. It means children's rhymes ("To earn a crooked sixpence you'll walk many crooked miles") and pseudo-profundities ("It's not so much a living hell / It's just a dying fiction"). It even means phrases that sounded great at the time but would only reveal their retrospective genius decades into the future: "To be a zombie all the time / Requires such dedication"). What is conspicuously absent throughout is anything resembling conventional love songs, blues-rock tropes, or prog-rock philosophical wisdom. There's something of Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles in the sonic and lyrical evocation of music-hall, except that songs like Paw Paw and Dead Finks have entirely left behind any remnant of earnestness or nostalgia - it's just one more color on the palette Eno has mixed as we'd never heard it before.

Eno has never left the music scene he broke into and transformed during the early 1970s. He would soon produce David Bowie's Berlin trilogy, three masterpieces by Talking Heads, a string of hits by U2, and records by Devo, Ultravox, Paul Simon, and Coldplay, and more. He would collaborate with Robert Fripp, David Byrne, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, and many others. He would more or less invent ambient music. That's only scratching the surface. Just last year, he released his first vocal-based album in nearly two decades (it charted at Number 32 in the UK), a "voiceless" remix, a collaboration with DJ and multi-instrumentalist Fred Again, and an EP.

Still, there's nothing like that initial run of solo pop-rock albums between 1974 and 1977: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), which feels like a harsher mellow after the speeding highs of Here Come The Warm Jets; the gorgeous ambient electronic pop of Another Green World; and the brilliant motley of Before And After Science. Their songs have not been covered as often as others from the era. However, there are compelling performances from Warm Jets by Elf Power, Of Montreal, Superpitcher, St. Vincent, Volcano Suns, Queens of the Stone Age, Manta Ray, Outrageous Cherry, and Bardo Pond, among others. But the more you listen to Here Come The Warm Jets, the more you hear it everywhere. That influence was especially clear when an all-star line-up of local musicians assembled at Joe's Pub in New York City in January 2014 to play the album through on the fortieth anniversary of its release.

Here Come The Warm Jets is also a touchstone of Todd Haynes's star-studded 1997 glam-rock docudrama Velvet Goldmine. Haynes took the queerness that circulated the corridors of glam even as most of its practitioners publicly asserted what we would now term their cis-het bona fides and brought it dramatically centerstage. Goldmine takes place in an alternate 1970s where the 'Brian Slade' stage persona Maxwell Demon (named after an early Eno art-school band) filters David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust through a bit of openly gay cult-American artist Jobriath. Drugged-out American expat 'Kurt Wild' scatters bits of Lou Reed glitter over a dollop of Iggy Pop, and Jack Fairy inherits a pendant from proto-pop-star Oscar Wilde. Haynes described Jack as "the Little Richard of glam rock... He's the 'real' thing, which, of course, isn't real". Like all the film's characters, Jack is an amalgam of influences, but no one seeing the film or reading that description would have any doubt that Brian Eno dwelt at the core of the creation. "I met a man who wasn't there," goes the old poem quoted in the film. "He wasn't there again today." That's the spirit of Brian Eno through and through, perfectly rendered in Jack's character.

The film's soundtrack mixes bang-on pastiche originals with a generous selection from Roxy Music's Eno-infused first album, one track from Taking Tiger, and several key moments from Here Come The Warm Jets, including Needles, Dead Finks, and a scorching cover of Baby's On Fire by house band Venus In Furs, featuring Radiohead's and the Smile's Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood along with Roxy Music lifer (and Warm Jets participant) Andy Mackay. Needles frames the movie, bursting out of the screen over the opening credits of glammed-up young dudes and dudettes flying exuberantly through the streets of London, a color-saturated homage to the nubile fans in The Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night. Haynes breaks Dead Finks into two parts; they play near the end, when the film's narrator, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a young fan who penetrates the inner circle and later becomes a reporter, realizes the vanished Slade has resurfaced with a new identity.

Baby's On Fire plays in full over a key scene in the middle of the film in which Slade and Wild hook up for the first time in a relationship that will destroy them both. This scene is paired through the music by another in which the traumatically outed teenager Arthur is forced to leave home. According to Sheppard, Bryan Ferry accompanied Eno to the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival: "I had never closely followed Eno's solo career, though I always loved it when I did hear his stuff... We were watching this film and halfway through, this song Baby's On Fire came on and I remarked to Brian how great it sounded. Brian said that was actually him. I hadn't recognized it!"

That's the feeling one gets throughout Velvet Goldmine, of watching music history unfold through a funhouse mirror. As one of the many Wilde aphorisms sprinkled unattributed throughout the film has it, "Man [sic] is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth". It's hardly surprising that more than David Bowie, Iggy Pop, or Lou Reed, it is Wilde and Brian Eno who are the presiding spirits of the movie and of Haynes's revisionary queering of the era, rendered with the full benefit of hindsight. Both figures are protean and ungraspable, refusing to settle either in meaning or in unmeaning. Both figures have more and more come to define their epoch precisely for these reasons. Although I doubt Here Come The Warm Jets is still echoing through college dorms or being sung at dining hall breakfasts, one could say, as Haynes's film would argue, that it's all the more present for not being there in any obvious way.