"Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them." If the Beatles are commonly accepted as the artists who turned rock and roll into the most comprehensive music form, then Brian Eno should be considered the one who maximized it, used it up, and abandoned it, nearly pronouncing it dead as early as 1974. He spent the four previous years, primarily as a member of Roxy Music, infusing as much of his avant-garde art school background as possible into the popular music of the time -- glam rock, which was enjoying its British peak -- but had already mastered the form on his first solo record, 1973's Here Come the Warm Jets.
“How would you have done it?” Inspired by a book of postcards depicting scenes from a Chinese communist opera known as Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, and taking the “strategy” element literally, Eno set out to make his follow-up utilizing a variety of new intellectual approaches. He and an artist friend, Peter Schmidt (whose artwork is featured on a handful of Eno’s album covers, including Taking Tiger Mountain), developed a set of lateral thinking ideas meant to motivate an artist who was blocked creatively, or, in Eno’s case, panicked by studio time constraints. These ideas, dubbed “Oblique Strategies” and represented on a deck of cards made commercially available as early as January 1975, help illustrate why Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) is such a masterful work; they indicate that Eno is simply a great thinker who thrives by analyzing the methods involved in the creation process, which is as important to him as the final product. The entire first edition set of Oblique Strategies is available for viewing at http://www.rtqe.net/ObliqueStrategies/Ed1.html; a few of them are featured here, including possible ways in which they may have been applied toward Taking Tiger Mountain.
“Define an area as ‘safe’ and use it as an anchor.” Certainly, in 1974, building a rock record around guitars was the safe method, especially for a studio wizard/synthesist like Brian Eno. Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera makes an encore performance as Eno’s primary guitarist, and the sound of the album is defined by Manzanera’s razor-sharp rhythm guitar, which dominates such tracks as “Third Uncle” and “China My China”. Lead guitar, on the other hand, is always treated to sound like something alien or unusual, like a chorus of frantic dogs in the mid-section of “The True Wheel”. The two styles converge shortly thereafter in the same song to a truly mesmerizing effect. In addition to Manzanera, Eno himself is credited with “snake guitar” on multiple tracks, referring to one of his particular treatments. Clearly, though, Eno wanted to move past the guitars, and Taking Tiger Mountain would prove to be his last record that relied on them; the record is full of telling stylistic diversions and flourishes of less conventional instrumentation, in addition to Eno’s usual buzzing and chirping synth sounds.
”(Organic) machinery” and “Abandon normal instruments.” Eno’s burgeoning role as an architect of sound, who could shape any multi-layered cacophony into something beautiful and memorable, led to his employment of found-sound and percussion from non-traditional sources throughout the record. For example, typewriters are used for additional percussion in “China My China” (accompanying lyric: “They know what God gave them their fingers for / To make percussion over solos”). Other rhythmic, metallic sounds enhance “The Great Pretender” and help develop its mechanical edge. The song may have taken its lyrical inspiration from the strategy of “(Organic) machinery” as well: it appears to be about a woman who submits to the sexual advances of a machine. The electronic cricket sounds into which the song fades as it ends may actually be the machine’s incessantly squeaky gears.
“Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame.” Another defining aspect of the record, Eno’s lyrics are remarkably literate and often humorous, but he has frequently admitted to being more interested in the sounds of his lyrics than the meanings behind the words. Each song tells a specific, sometimes macabre, story in a surreal environment that may not actually be metaphorical. “Put a Straw Under Baby” tells of a nun burying her baby in a box to avoid shaming the convent, accompanied by a deliberately awkward lullaby melody, complete with strings treated to sound like kazoos. “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More” demonstrates a man pondering the departure of his girlfriend on a plane to China, not knowing that the plane will explode before it gets there. “Back in Judy’s Jungle” is a Beatlesque sing-along from the perspective of a British strike team member during an imaginary war; the background whistling even quotes The Bridge on the River Kwai. The chorus sung by the soldiers manages an air of longing without definitive meaning: “Back in Blighty, there was you / There were milkmen every morning / But these endless shiny trees / Never used to be that way”. Taking Tiger Mountain ultimately marks the creative pinnacle of Eno’s lyricism; he would never again concentrate on this wordy, bizarre, and often nonsensical side of his music.
“Mute and continue.” The record’s creative success assured that Eno had taken rock and roll to its outer limits; although he followed Taking Tiger Mountain with two more pop/rock records, approximately half of each concentrates on his forays into ethnic textures and atmospheric mood pieces. His subsequent “invention” of the ambient genre and a staggeringly successful career as a studio producer for other artists have assumed the bulk of his acclaim over the past 30 years, as they almost should have; still, his firsthand contributions to rock, as achievements that cannot be overstated, have been undervalued for too long. The remastered reissues of Taking Tiger Mountain and Eno’s other early records will hopefully remedy this for a new generation of rock enthusiasts.
“Is it finished?” Yes.