Warm Jets, Burning Airlines, & Other Amazing Stories: A Guide to Brian Eno
By Dominic Jordan 09/02/2021
Image Courtesy of Michael Putland
Although not as immediately recognisable as many of his contemporaries, Brian (deep breath!) Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, is undoubtedly one of the most influential makers of music to have emerged in the last half century. His influence is as far-reaching and twisty-turny as a far-reaching, twisty-turny thing; U2, Trainspotting, Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, Bowie, and Father Ted, all contain traces of Eno! This article is by no means a complete guide, and is more a selection of my personal favourites, as his discography is massive and almost infinitely diverse.
Eno’s career began in 1971, with the formation of the campy art-rock group Roxy Music. He played a spacey synthesiser, and was known for his androgynous stage persona – feather boas, leopard print, and lots of smoky blue eyeshadow. As he put it, “I wanted to look sensational…and most of the science of looking sensational had been pursued by women”. After laying down some truly unhinged synth parts (listen to 'Editions of You') and (probably) looking sensational, Eno took off from Roxy Music, supposedly after catching himself daydreaming about doing the laundry during live shows
Starting with 1974’s 'Here Come the Warm Jets', Eno produced a run of solo albums, each one very different to the last, and prone to careening off in unexpected directions. He never aimed for the commercial success of contemporaries such as David Bowie, but nonetheless his records are armed to the teeth with some of music’s most towering figures of the period. 'Here Come the Warm Jets' (a reference to urination, not aviation, by the way), is an astonishingly strange yet brilliant album right out of the gate – opener 'Needles in the Camel’s Eye', with its roar of distorted guitars and almost indecipherable vocals, seems to anticipate shoegaze like My Bloody Valentine almost twenty years early. The album is undoubtedly an acquired taste, and I suspect his nasal, nutty professor-like vocal delivery proved to be a barrier from mainstream success. Nonetheless, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief, it is a truly unique work of art, zipping manically between genre and mood, creating a strange, parallel universe-like glimpse into the world of pop and rock as it was in 1974.
'Baby’s on Fire' is macabre and evil, featuring an absolute monster of a guitar solo from Robert Fripp of King Crimson that seems to open a portal to another dimension within the song. 'Cindy Tells Me' feels like a light-hearted 1950s pop song but for the space age, with abstract lyrics that seem to be saying something or other about feminism. 'On Some Faraway Beach', starts with a simple piano phrase, gradually building up and getting bigger like a single-cell organism evolving. The track expands into a dazzling cacophony, with what sounds like hundreds of pianos and synthesisers cascading like a multicoloured tidal wave of sound. To me, it has the same cathartic sense of release or triumph that we hear in Bowie’s 'Heroes', which he co-wrote and contributed a lot of synth to. A move away from the bizarre and the campy, it sounds almost like church music (for aliens). The breath-taking title track, with layers and layers of distorted guitars playing a simple phrase over and over again but with progressive variations and additions, is similar.
The sequel, which, as per my research, didn’t chart, was 'Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)'. This one is little less abrasive overall, and continues Eno’s niche of producing geeky, unconventional pop. The melodies and instrumentation are fun and almost Beatles-like, but with lyricism and singing that is supremely imaginative, or just too weird, depending on your point-of-view. The opener 'Burning Airlines Give You So Much More', has a lush, mellow sound, with some lovely keyboards and bright guitar riffs, and tells a dreamlike story of a Sweet Regina travelling to China. I love the lyrics on this one because they are just so utterly one-off – it is a pure word salad, with no real message or theme, just strange yet evocative images:
I guess Regina's on the plane, a Newsweek on her knees
While miles below her the curlews call from strangely stunted trees
The painted sage sits just as though he's flying;
Regina's jet disturbs his wispy beard
Call me pretentious, but I love it. Eno’s lyricism is surreal and creative, reminiscent of Syd Barrett and other psychedelics of that ilk, and yet it is a criminally overlooked aspect of his art. This nonsensical lyricism continues, especially on 'Back in Judy’s Jungle' (super weird, apparently about MK-ULTRA), 'Mother Whale Eyeless' (title says it all), and the superb Third Uncle', an early punk song, aggressive and energised. 'Backwater' has similarly amusing and unpredictable imagery that could only be logical in the world of dreams:
Black water There were six of us but now we are five
We're all talking To keep the conversation alive There was a senator from Ecuador Who talked about a meteor That crashed on a hill in the south of Peru
And was found by a conquistador Who took it to the emperor And he passed it on to a Turkish guru His daughter Was slated for becoming divine He taught her He taught her how to split and define But if you study the logistics And heuristics of the mystics You will find that their minds rarely move in a line So it's much more realistic To abandon such ballistics And resign to be trapped on a leaf in the vine
Is it just random nonsense that anyone could come up with? I’m not so sure – although it appears to be incoherent, I think there’s a lot of great imagery that somehow feels divinely inspired. The album finishes with the lowkey, dreamy 'Taking Tiger Mountain', the first example of the “ambient” music, “as ignorable as it is interesting”, that would come to define much of Eno’s later career.
1975 saw two great releases from Eno – 'Another Green World', and 'Evening Star', a collaboration with Robert Fripp. 'Another Green World' is the first album of Eno’s to really break away from conventional song structures – while there are still Syd Barrett-esque oddities, there is also an increase in purely electronic, ambient pieces. These tracks are enchanting and blissful, and (to me at least) transport the listener elsewhere, whether it be a meadow abuzz with insects, trees and flowers, or a botanical garden on some space station hundreds of years in the future. 'Evening Star' in particular was a favourite of mine during the first national lockdown last Spring – I found genuine tranquillity listening to it as I took my daily walks, and it seemed to elicit a heightened awareness and appreciation of my surroundings, maybe even comparable to meditation. I suppose it’s because of the emphasis on the production rather than the musical content itself – it is slow-moving, expansive, and relatively simple, like the flow of a river, with the focus more on atmospherics and futuristic sound engineering than lyrics or instrumental prowess. Rather than dominating the airwaves, it adds a subliminal flavour, like a gentle breeze, birdsong in the morning, or warm rays of evening sunlight in the park.
Both of these albums, and 1983’s 'Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks', have been immensely calming for me in times of stress and trepidation about the future, the past, and everything else. In this era we live in of lockdowns, political unrest, conspiracy theories and extremism of all kinds, Eno’s ambient albums for me create a space to slow down, reflect, and perhaps most crucially, see beauty in the mundane. 'Apollo' was originally recorded as a soundtrack for a documentary film about the moon landings called 'For All Mankind', and the tracks are truly awe-inspiring. When I was in a Zoom call with Eno last October, so many of the audience left comments in the chat box describing 'An Ending (Ascent)' as the most transcendent piece of music they’d ever heard. It feels like a hymn for the space age, and every time, without fail, it sends shivers down my spine. It evokes the feeling of the sublime that you’d probably get from watching our blue marble in all its majesty from the observation deck of a space station.
Several of the tracks, such as 'Weightless' and 'Silver Morning', feature country-flavoured guitar playing from Daniel Lanois with a “spacey” twist, to reflect the uniquely American “frontier spirit” of the Apollo programme. The oceanic 'Deep Blue Day' was famously used in the toilet-diving scene in 'Trainspotting', while 'An Ending (Ascent)' can be heard in the apocalyptic '28 Days Later'. These tracks seem to mirror the mood of the listener, with the potential to sound either hopeful or defeated…or maybe both; “magnificent desolation”, in the words of Buzz Aldrin. All in all, it is a beautiful album, and served as my introduction to Eno’s music.
No article about Brian Eno would be complete without mention of his production work, which is surprising and far-reaching. He has brought his unique vision to many of the most acclaimed and best-selling pop-rock acts of all time, from U2, to Talking Heads, to Coldplay, to David Bowie. His contributions to Bowie’s 'Berlin' trilogy in particular are beloved, culminating in the iconic 'Heroes', which sees the re-emergence of ideas, such as an exponential increase and “surrender” that can be traced right back to 'Here Come the Warm Jets'. To “surrender” to the cosmos itself, and the potential chaos therein, as Eno puts it, is “a very liberating idea”, because “…everything else in a consumer society is essentially trying to say "you’re in control, you can design your life just as you want it to be…you can have everything you want". “Freedom”, therefore, becomes linked to “your ability to take control (with your wallet, mostly)”. Contrastingly, spiritual rites, such as the singing of gospel music, have a basic message “surrender- everything’s gonna be alright”. Particularly at earlier stages in the development of our species, we “were at the mercy of forces that were completely beyond our control – the elements, wild animals, plagues, floods and so forth. Life was unpredictable, basically. In that sort of environment, control was useless as a response. So, for a lot of human history, there’s an acknowledgement that you have to go with the flow, not fight it. The best strategy is to navigate and position yourself within the flux of circumstances”.
In an age of constant electric shocks of hyperstimulation from unlimited internet access, perhaps we would all benefit from experiencing the feeling of “surrender” a little more. It’s a very abstract concept that I don’t fully understand, but I think it more or less translates to “follow your bliss”, and remember the unassuming beauty that surrounds us and is available to all. Trees and rivers, rays of sunlight, McDonald’s breakfast, Attenborough documentaries, friendship, the stars, whatever.
Eno as 'Father Brian Eno' in 'Father Ted'.