There are plenty of album anniversaries in 2014 that will no doubt reward diligent bloggers with the opportunities for many, many thinkpieces. But really, there’s only one that I’m excited about, and it comes sometime this month. No one seems to be sure exactly when, but at some point in January 1974, Brian Eno released his solo debut, Here Come the Warm Jets. Forty years later, it remains one of the most remarkable records you’ll ever hear, a triumph of ambition and experimentalism.
One of the many fascinations of Here Come the Warm Jets is that the songs themselves are reasonably simple, and deliberately so. In describing “Driving Me Backwards,” a song with “only three chords, each different from the other by only one note,” Eno explained that “I enjoy working with simple structures such as these, for they are transparent — comparable to a piece of graph paper and its grids. The grid serves as the reference point for the important information — the graph line itself.”
Quite what that line is, though… well, that’s the interesting bit. The album’s lyrics are deliberately obtuse, and Eno certainly seemed keen to promote the idea of the songs as being about nothing at all. He described opening track “Needle In the Camel’s Eye” as “an instrumental with singing on it,” and spoke several times about the words being nonsense, nothing more than sounds to fit around the music (more on this shortly).
And the music! Sonically, Here Come the Warm Jets seemed to set out to break as many rules as possible — while the songs’ structures are relatively straightforward, the arrangements are endlessly counter-intuitive and fascinating. Every time you listen, you hear something new: the weird, high-pitched, Cicada-esque drone that buzzes its way into the mix about halfway through the first chorus of “Cindy Tells Me,” the fact that the piano on “Driving Me Backwards” is out of tune, the out-of-time drumming on the title track. This stuff shouldn’t work, but it does — which is something that you can say about the album as a whole, and indeed gets to the heart of what makes Here Come the Warm Jets so compelling.
In keeping with the spirit of serendipity emerging from chaos, Eno assembled a diverse group of musicians to contribute: Robert Fripp (with whom he’d already collaborated on the excellent No Pussyfooting), all of Roxy Music save Bryan Ferry, Hawkwind’s Simon King, and various others. It was a group of people who were apparently chosen because of their dissimilarities and the potential for conflict: “I’m only interested in working, really, with people I don’t agree with or have a different direction,” Eno explained. “[I] got [those musicians] together merely because I wanted to see what happens when you combine different identities like that and allow them to compete…. [The situation] is organized with the knowledge that there might be accidents, accidents which will be more interesting than what I had intended.”
There’s also the fact that record doesn’t appear to take itself especially seriously; there’s the title, for a start, which alludes as much to, y’know, watersports as it does to the sound of the guitars that dominate the album’s final, eponymous track. Then there’s the aforementioned “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch,” a questionably titled song about marrying a famous 19th-century pyrokinetic, and Eno’s hyper-exaggerated vocal stylings throughout. In the hands of someone else, it’d risk coming off as insufferably self-aware and self-indulgent.
And yet, and yet. Underneath it all, there is a real heart to Here Come the Warm Jets, a feeling that it ended up being rather more than the sum of its parts. After all, there have been many records made over the years (some by Eno himself) that are as sonically intriguing as this album, and yet comparatively few with its enduring power. There’s a sense of some underlying meaning emerging from the chaos, ideas that perhaps even Eno wasn’t aware of.
This is an idea that Eno himself acknowledged after the album’s release — in relation to “Dead Finks Don’t Talk,” specifically, which was widely interpreted as a send-up of his old bandmate Bryan Ferry. Eno insisted it was no such thing — or not consciously, anyway:
“Dead Finks Don’t Talk” is the most randomly generated of my songs. I wrote the lyrics at home with my girl-friend with a cassette of the backing track from the studio. 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. Off the top I was singing ‘oh-dee-dow-gubba-ring-ge-dow.’ So I recorded these rubbish words and then I turned them back into words. It’s the exact opposite of the technique used in phonetic poetry where words are changed into pure sounds. I take sounds and change them into words. “Dead Finks” is not about Bryan Ferry. After all the music was recorded and the words written, Chris Thomas (my producer and Roxy’s as well) said, ‘You’ll get me shot for that track. It’s obviously about Bryan.’ So I listened back to it and it obviously was. It was certainly something I hadn’t realized. Essentially all these songs have no meaning that I invested in them. Meanings can be generated within their own frame-work. It may be a very esoteric thing to talk about but I don’t think it’s entirely out of the question.
This concept — of some deeper meaning emerging from unconstrained experimentation — recalls William Burroughs’ cut-up methods, and recurs throughout Here Come the Warm Jets. Aside from “Dead Finks,” there’s “Baby’s On Fire,” where the nonsense lyrics coalesce into something genuinely sinister and menacing, with Eno sneering lines like, “Photographers snip-snap/ Take your time, she’s only burning/ This kind of experience is necessary for her learning.” There’s the unsettling “Driving Me Backwards,” which evokes a relationship descending into mutual antipathy (“Now I found a sweetheart/ She treats me good/ Just like an armchair”).
Perhaps the best example of the way meaning can come from unexpected places, though, is the song that starts Side 2, “On Some Faraway Beach.” Its piano figure is so simple that even a dilettante like me can play it, but as Eno builds layers upon layers upon layers (according to his notorious 1974 interview with Chrissie Hynde, there are 27 piano tracks on the song), it takes on a grandeur all its own. The lyrics, which apparently came to Eno in a dream, seem both sad and somehow transcendent: “Given the chance/ I’ll die like a baby/ On some faraway beach/ When the season’s over…” It’s as deeply moving a piece of music as you’ll ever hear, and if you believe its creator, it occurred entirely by happenstance.
In this respect, Here Come the Warm Jets is genuinely experimental music, a term that gets tossed around all too often these days in regard to music that’s mildly strange or in a wacky time signature. And, even more unusually, it’s an experiment that’s pretty much an entirely unqualified success. It could well be the most interesting record of Eno’s long career — and since we’re talking about a gentleman who’s, y’know, invented entire genres, that’s high praise indeed.