There are three kinds of albums (or LP’s, or discs, or whatever you want to call them) worth remembering. The first are ‘desert island records,’ ones you would pick if you were stranded. The second are ‘puce moments’: times when music and friends combine to imbed themselves in your memory. The third are transformational, music that teaches you something new about yourself and the so-called ‘meaning of life’.
I’ve experienced all of these kinds of albums in my life, but rarely does one album fit all three categories. For me, the prime example is Brian Eno’s 1974 masterpiece, ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’.
I was a sophomore at Rutgers College that year, nineteen years old and just learning how wide the world can be. I was playing in a rock band called ‘The Crabs’ (full name: Bad Taste and the Crabs, featuring Olga Loomis and the Fabulous Crabettes). Our bass guitarist, Howard Wuelfling, threw this strange record on the turntable one night after rehearsal. (Yes, the only way to listen to music in those days was on the radio, on tape in the car or home, or a turntable with a needle).
The Crabs were big fans of Roxy Music, and ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ was the first solo album by Eno, a former member of that band (he didn’t use his first name, Brian, until the next decade). Eno’s idea was that the best music came from what he called ‘organized accidents’. He recruited musicians especially for their incompatibility: some played rock, some were electronic whizzes, and others liked folk music or jazz. Eno wrote the songs during rehearsal while the musicians improvised, and then he produced the whole thing by mixing it in his studio, manipulating it electronically until he had blocks of sound as laden as anything by Phil Spector, but in an entirely alien key.
I was fascinated by the nonsensical lyrics of ‘The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch’ and the pop-like ‘Cindy Tells Me’ (where Eno sounds like The Turtles on acid). Robert Fripp (from King Crimson) co-wrote ‘Baby’s On Fire’ and ‘Blank Frank’ and helped to turn both tracks into jazzy sonar landscapes, the latter anticipating by half a decade the experiments John Lennon and Yoko Ono were working on just before John’s death.
I loved how Brian Eno, who did not play any musical instrument, managed yet to entice so much interesting and beautiful music from his crew, and how he used so many different singing voices on the songs (although he was also not a singer). Since I also never really mastered any instrument (I was competent as a drummer) and couldn’t really sing (although this never stopped me from trying), Eno inspired me.
Across the years (over forty of them now), the song that lingers the most in my memory is the title track, the closing number (and the only one on the album with a fade): ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’. Although it starts out as an instrumental, the song builds in intensity until the vocals, heavily mixed down, emerge from the noise near the mid-point:
We're down on our knees and we've nothing to say
Nothing to say
Nothing to say...
This sort of stuff might have sounded irresistibly profound to this vulnerable teenager, but it still manages to hold its own so many decades later. The hum of the synthesizers is mesmeric, almost prayerful, and as the drums and vocals fill in, the music turns literally dramatic. I always thought this song would make a fantastic soundtrack to a play-out or credit sequence in a spy movie.
Other albums from my youth have lingered in my memory in the same way as ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ – Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin,’ The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main Street – but Brian Eno’s work stands out. It is sui generis, a singular example of how great pop music and avant-garde art can infuse each other and inspire originality.
It’s easy enough to find these days; go and listen.