I was shopping for used vinyl a couple years ago, scoring a copy of Gary Numan’s Replicas. It wasn’t in perfect condition, but it didn’t look bad enough that it would skip. And it certainly looked like it was worth the four-dollar asking price. So I picked it up and took it up to the counter to pay for it. But just as I was about to make my transaction, the clerks behind the counter were sifting through a stack of recent acquisitions. One looks to the other as he lifts a copy of Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).
“You know what?” he says. “I hate this fuckin’ record.”
Myself and another shopper standing nearby turn our heads and promptly gasp in disbelief. The other clerk turns to his co-worker with an odd look on his face.
“Yeah,” he says. “I do too.”
I took the high road, choosing to ignore the two obviously misguided record salesmen. But my partner in shock did no such thing. He took it upon himself to fight these opinionated vinyl vendors with his words in defense of Eno. Though I didn’t join in the battle, I admired my fellow shopper. He was bold enough to take on people who dare speak ill of one of the greatest musicians and songwriters of our time.
But I still don’t understand what turns some off about Eno, especially Taking Tiger Mountain. By Eno’s standards, it’s one of his most accessible albums, second only to Here Come the Warm Jets. Though the songs on Tiger are less noisy than those of its groundbreaking predecessor, they are more structurally complex and experimental in terms of technique.
The opening track, “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More,” is one of Eno’s all-time catchiest songs, built around a series of simple piano chords and chorus-heavy guitar hooks. As the opening of the “story” told on this loose concept album, the song revolves around a character named “Regina,” who happens to be a spy sent to Communist China, a country that coincidentally rhymes with her name. It should also be noted that this song lent its name to J. Robbins’ post-Jawbox project, Burning Airlines.
“The Fat Lady of Limbourg” is where Eno’s experimental side truly begins. A whimsical, but somewhat frightening, nursery rhyme, it’s a simple, eerie track built on a lone keyboard melody. But during the chorus, a pair of sickly saxophones adds to the eeriness.
Eno’s electronic side begins to show up in “The Great Pretender,” not to be confused with the Platters hit of the fifties. Tweaked out guitars creep over a harsh, brooding keyboard melody. It bears a strong similarity to Another Green World‘s “St. Elmo’s Fire,” but ultimately the song is far more menacing.
And though many credit The Stooges or MC5 as being the first true “punk” bands, the furious-paced thrash of “Third Uncle” makes a strong case for Eno to be added to that list. “Uncle” charges forward with razor sharp guitar riffs and unintelligible, but nonetheless cool-sounding, lyrics. Nearly a decade later, Bauhaus covered the track on The Sky’s Gone Out, playing it faithfully to the point of mimicry, proving how perfect it is in its original form.
But after the electronic mechanism in “The Great Pretender” and the manic energy of “Third Uncle,” Eno throws the listener for a loop with the whimsical pop of “Put a Straw Under Baby.” It’s one of the most fun tracks on the album, accompanied by horns-a-plenty. Its arrangement is the sort of Tin Pan Alley composition that laid the foundation for the styles of many an Elephant Six band, most notably Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control.
From beginning to end, Taking Tiger Mountain is a collection of remarkable pop songcraft, one of Eno’s finest hours for sure. Though the concept of espionage in Red China isn’t totally consistent, Eno’s attempt is nonetheless admirable. Even the cover art is classic, a clear response to that of Bowie’s Hunky Dory.
I don’t know how somebody couldn’t love this album. And I certainly can’t understand how somebody could “fuckin’ hate” it. It’s just too perfect to find any fault with. But there are still some out there who don’t “get” Brian Eno. And for those unfortunate souls, I feel sorry.
Similar Albums/ Albums Influenced:
Olivia Tremor Control – Black Foliage
Magazine – Real Life
John Cale – Fear