We tend to take Brian Eno pretty seriously these days. After all, he did invent entire genres of music and merge the rock and avant garde worlds forever. From Robert Fripp to Roxy Music, David Byrne to David Bowie, Eno’s collaborations have yielded some of the most impressive albums of the past 50 years. Hell, he even made U2 sound kind of interesting.
But it wasn’t always that way. Back in 1974, upon the release of Eno’s second solo album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), he was best known as a debauched rock star with a knack for salacious sound bites. It must have been that reputation that prompted Pete Erskine, of the publication Long Acre, to write that the album “smacked of the bogus.”
Almost 35 years later, it’s clear that Taking Tiger Mountain was no joke. Rather, history has revealed it to be a transition point between the more conventional rock of Roxy Music and Eno’s first solo release, Here Come the Warm Jets, and more experimental albums like 1975’s Another Green World and the ambient records of the late ’70s and beyond.
Although the album was inspired by a set of eight postcards depicting the Maoist opera Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Eno never saw the theatrical production and was uninterested in doing so. His primary fascination was with the title, which he split into two parts. Taking Tiger Mountain seemed ancient and fantastical, while By Strategy was modern and technological.1 Throughout the album, this duality is striking, as Eno juxtaposes bizarre, noisy, futuristic sounds with impressionistic but often narrative lyrics full of Brechtian military scenes and references to the Far East.
Although we still get 10 songs with lyrics, verses, and even choruses of a sort, things aren’t quite the same as they were on Warms Jets. It would be a stretch to say the album contains a story arc, but the first song, “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More,” recounts a departure to China, and beyond that point, the music and lyrics become increasingly foreign and abstract. We’re left with the spare, haiku-like images, far-away chanting, and sweeping, epic-film instrumentals of “Taking Tiger Mountain.” The idea of opera, if not the Maoist piece itself, makes an appearance, as Eno delivers many of the lyrics in a stagey, declamatory style. Popular genres like the lullaby (“Put a Straw Under Baby”) and the soldier’s drinking song (“Back in Judy’s Jungle”) are taken up, twisted, and discarded within single tracks. At first listen, “Burning Airlines” sounds like a sweet, wistful pop ballad a la “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” but then you realize it’s about a guy whose girlfriend dies in a plane crash on the way to China.
No wonder Eno abandoned rock after Taking Tiger Mountain — he’d simply exhausted the form. And if he sounded a bit cheeky as he did so, I don’t think we can begrudge him that.
1 During the record’s production, Eno and artist Peter Schmidt, who created the cover art, took the idea of strategy literally, creating a deck of “Oblique Strategy” cards. Intended as guidance for artistic dilemmas and including such advice as, “Do nothing for as long as possible” and “Short circuit (example: a man eating peas with the idea that they will improve his virility shovels them straight into his lap),” the deck is now in its fifth edition. If you don’t want to spend all your pocket money on a set, try Eno Web’s [random oblique strategy generator->http://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/oblique/oblique.html].