‘Baby’s On Fire‘ (Eno)
Bass Guitar – John Wetton, Paul Rudolph
Guitar – Paul Rudolph, Robert Fripp
Percussion – Marty Simon, Simon King
Eno – vocals, synthesizers, guitar treatments, keyboards, instrumental arrangements
This guy is a real sickie, bubs … sicker by far than David Bowie’s most scabrous dreams.
Lester Bangs, Creem, 1974
Eno’s media image at the beginning of 1974 had been sensationalized as glamorous, cerebral, extravagant, decadent, and more than a little dangerous. These qualities may well have made the former Roxy Music band member “the major visual phenomenon of ’73” (The Guardian) but the problem at hand for both artist and management was how to translate this notoriety into sales. Wary of subscribing to the cheap but effective style of shock rock as manifested by contemporary Glam idol Alice Cooper (sorry, no dead chickens here) Eno nevertheless did his best to engage and tease the press with his post-Roxy bizarro persona.
Case in point was the time Eno volunteered to a set of nude test shots for the ‘ladies only’ magazine Viva (uh huh – brought to you from the makers of Penthouse). Eno’s management team (E.G. Records and Management, who also had Roxy on the roster), were playing scatter-gun with their new solo artist, hoping something would stick. Chaperoned by Roxy Music PR man Simon Puxley (and close friend of Bryan Ferry), the ensuing modelling session reads like an Austin Powers movie out-take – with the English Lit PhD Puxley nervously in attendance, trying desperately to keep Eno from going hardcore:
The session hit a crescendo of surrealistica as Eno began twisting like a pretzel, saying, straight-faced: “Get a bun shot.” After suggesting that he be photographed spread-eagle “with all my rudeness showing,” Simon reminded Eno, who seemed a trifle hurt, that Viva didn’t care about his genitalia, just his supple Grecian bod. He ran the gamut of tease poses: Eno teething fetchingly on a sheet, Eno fingering a glass of white wine “decadently,” Eno calling some girl on the phone whilst naked. After sprawling on his tummy, Eno was in a mild state of arousal. “Forgive me if I have a hard-on; it is certainly the way of nature. I can’t sit up…”
One can only imagine what Puxley reported back to his pal and close confidante Bryan Ferry …
This “is where the real twisto action comes in!” proclaimed revered American rock scribe Lester Bangs: “Eno is the real bizarro warp factor for 1974″! Bang’s review of Warm Jets appeared in Creem magazine ten months after the album’s January 1974 UK release. The lag, one suspects, was due to the strangeness and mischievousness of the package: just like the early Roxy Music records and tours, the Americans were slow to embrace the high-style version of British Glam – too many ideas, too gay, or – as one British journalist pointed out – “the Americans never experienced the true liberating glory of having the shit kicked out of you by Brut-reeking Neanderthals wearing eyeliner and rouge” (The Guardian). We might recall that Clockwork Orange got banned in the UK – not America – for 25 years (too close to the truth, Kubrick decided). And there was something distinctively subversive about Here Come the Warm Jets, with its scatological imagery, cheeky double entendre for peeing in public – and shock of shockers – throwing babies in the fire.
I. Pretty Vacant
There is quite a lot of aggression in what I’m interested in.
It’s worth noting that for the man credited with creating ‘ambient’ – the most un-aggressive form of music imaginable – it’s nice to know his idea of “aggression” is an aesthetic question, not necessarily a social one. We know that critics like to “crush” artists with their reviews. Modernist T.S Eliot, author of the society-toppling poem The Waste Land, was a bank clerk who fretted about arriving to work on time (ergo, 9am). Pink Floyd‘s Roger Waters wanted to destroy his audience by Stuka dive-bombing them during live performances of The Wall (“toughen ’em up” Waters later clarified, without irony). The point is I cannot detect a bad bone in Brian Eno‘s body (I should know – I’ve been following the man for near half a century). Vain, pedantic, egotistical – sure. But you simply cannot write Another Green World if you hate humanity. It just cannot be done.
The violence then, is in the music. Previous track ‘Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch‘ provides the lead-up to ‘Baby’s on Fire‘ as ‘Paw’ abandons its camp comedy routine and turns up the aesthetic heat. The ‘Baby on Fire‘ riff appears @ 2:55 (just after “Now you’ll have to make the choice between the Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch and meeee…”) and it’s thing of beauty: two chords pound relentlessly over an agitated voltage-charged EMS synthesizer while Eno’s sneering vocal introduces the song. We’ve had Happy Eno (‘Camel’), Weird Eno (‘Paw Paw’), and now for our listening pleasure we are presented with Dangerous Eno:
Better throw her in the water
Look at her laughing
Like a heifer to the slaughter
Baby’s on fire
And all the laughing boys are bitching
Waiting for photos
Oh the plot is so bewitching
Eno learned how to shift atmosphere and mood from the lessons learned on Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure, which Roxy Music in turn had absorbed from The Beatles White Album and The Velvet Underground. This was the first real test for the ‘inspired amateur’: with no band to share the burden, and with no writing credits to show for the previous two years’ work, Eno (in spite of his reputation) – was no experienced producer. “Still a relative greenhorn” notes Eno biographer David Sheppard, citing the observations of Warm Jets engineer and technical support staffer Paul Hardiman: “Brian didn’t know what he was doing – didn’t have a clue” (Sheppard, 150).
Fortunately the quickly recorded and cheaply made Warm Jets enabled Eno to start his new career as record producer by giving him the time to learn the technical skills and requirements of 24-track recording, arrangement, and editing. What he lacked in technical experience, the young apprentice made up for with his creative talents – first off, assembling an incredible team of musicians with a deep pedigree of art-rock recordings. In addition to the Roxy Music team of Mackay, Manzanera, Thompson, Wetton, Spedding, et al, Eno brought in Simon King (Hawkwind), Paul Rudolf (Pink Fairies/Hawkwind), Bill MacCormick (later heard on early/late Phil Manzanera classics Quiet Sun and Listen Now), Busta Jones (collaborator on Eno/Talking Heads classic Remain in Light), and of course Robert Fripp, label mate, collaborator, and King Crimson band lead.
Below: ‘Warm Jets’ brought together the band that would later play in Phil Manzanera‘s 801 project; in addition to (on the left) bassist Busta Jones and Chris Spedding circa ’76.
Do you know what the difference is between pop and rock? The difference is, with rock, you might get fucked.
Fripp’s maxim describes ‘Baby’s on Fire’ to a tee: compare the version recorded for the Velvet Goldmine movie by Venus in Furs (Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, David Gray Band’s Clune, Suede’s Bernard Butler, and even Andy Mackay). The Furs rendition is all soft guitars, glitter and blonde peroxide hairdos. It’s like the Bay City Rollers recorded a version intended for a B-side that was quietly shelved in the morning. In contrast, Eno decided to cut the track with maximum heat, obeying Fripp’s assertion that “with rock, you might get fucked.”
Coming off the final moments of ‘Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch‘ ‘Baby’ begins with a tense high-hat and bass line – courtesy of the late great John Wetton (Roxy, Crimson) – the hammer of notes pressing down like steady weight on your chest. (Turn it up loud – you’ll see what I mean). Eno’s vocal is strangled, snide:
Babeez on fih-ah
Better throw her in the wat-ah
Look at her laugh-ing
Like a heifer at the slaugh-ta
John Lydon may have discovered his famous Sex Pistols snarl here – ‘Anarchy in the UK‘ (righh–ta nowww) and ‘Pretty Vacant‘ (va-cunt–ta) – the stressed T’s bearing down on you like a fist or a messy spit bath.
“As striking and intense as anything by Joy Division or Wire” we are told by Retrospective magazine. Indeed, the considerable anxiety and teeth-barring presented by ‘Baby’s on Fire’ is accentuated by a gnawing calamity placed way back in the mix, like teeth gnawing on bone. The effect is subliminal, like you absorb the grievance more than actually hear it. The only relief comes from the jabbing, punchy synth, adding emphasis during key moments – “photographers snip snap” – as the drama unfolds before us. Nothing settles or is settled – the argument continues unabated, remaining front and centre while the hi-hat continues to hammer out its compulsive drive towards – remedy? release? The tension finally breaks @ 1:25, spilling into one of the greatest guitar solos of Robert Fripp’s career.
They say you were hot stuff
And that’s what baby’s been reduced to…
II. Bewildered Aggression
According to postpunkmonk, ‘Baby’s On Fire’ Robert Fripp provides “the only guitar solo you’ll ever need…” This critical overstatement feels comically accurate, like Warm Jets is the desert-island disk most people have never heard (but still want to take with them anyway). According to postpunk, Fripp’s sonic attack ranges from “face-melting” to “devastating” to “pulverising” re-creating in sound Eno’s aesthetic maxim that there’s “quite a lot of aggression in what I’m interested in”:
There’s an undertone of aggression in it. But it’s not – what I’ve the decided the final term to describe it might be is bewildered aggression. Like when a bull has been struck a few times and it’s just crazy, but not crazy in any direction – it’s just running around, shaking its horns and running at anything. It’s a completely unfocused sort of aggression. It’s bewildered aggression. Like [Eno laughs]…Why am I here and why am I so angry?
Brian Eno, 1974.
For lovers of Fripp’s work with King Crimson, the musical violence contained in recordings such as Starless and Bible Black and Vroom is made all the more immediate and strange by the image of Fripp looking like a Jesuit Monk playing the the most “face-melting” guitar solo ever committed to wax (as Hoeffner put it). And so too with ‘Baby’ as Fripp plays from 1:25 in the key of D#/Eb. In Christian Schubart’s influential text on music theory Towards An Aesthetic Of Music, the German author describes the emotional affect of D Sharp minor as “feelings of the soul’s deepest distress” (musicadvisor.com). This certainly plays into Eno’s idea of bewildered aggression as an expression of aesthetic intent: where will this lead me? is this where I am meant to go?
In due course Fripp takes a breather @ 2:20 before launching into his best Jimi Hendrix impression @ 2:27 – an excellent demonstration of machine gun trill power that lasts a full twenty seconds (to 2:45), before finally shuffling out of the bar having drunk too much and a bit shagged from all the exertion. The track enters a particularly foul mood between 2:50 – 3:21: the noise is atrocious as Eno dirties the soundscape by throwing everything he can at it – multiple-tracked guitars and all manner of keyboards square off while Fripp man-handles the light saber. This thrilling, hard-won result is the sonic “third eye” that is Eno’s core genius, showing itself here early in his solo career yet not necessarily celebrated on Here Come the Warm Jets due to the speed and cheapness of the album’s recording (Jets suffers from the same problem as Bowie’s Lodger: brittle and thin, requiring several beefed up digital remasters to address the problem).
III. Fairies Wear Boots
While the solo ripped from Fripp’s Gibson Black Beauty Les Paul is clearly the most famous and memorable musical aspect of ‘Baby’s on Fire’, Eno fattened the musical spectrum by adding additional guitar work by Pink Fairies and Hawkwind guitarist Paul Rudolph. Eno liked Rudolph‘s playing so much the Canadian guitarist was invited back to play guitar and bass on the majority of tracks on Here Come the Warm Jets, Another Green World, Before and After Science and Music for Films. (Rudolph even plays the rhythm guitar on the fantastic ‘No One Receiving‘, a personal all-time fave Eno funk-rock triumph).
Paul Rudolph, 1970s
Interviewer: Was it an interesting experience to play on four Brian Eno albums?
Rudolph: That was an incredible experience and an honour to work on that, the four Brian Eno albums. That was the most creative fun I ever had in the music business.
Paul Rudolph himself is such a dedicated and major contributor to the Eno lexicon, the authorship of the ‘Baby’s on Fire’ solo has come into question over the years, as some listeners mischievously go out of their way to credit the entire solo to Rudolph (see: bcb-board.co.uk). Indeed, Rudolph himself describes the recording and mixing of the solo as an equal partnership with Fripp:
Playing with Fripp was fine. We got along well. It was complementary and creative. It was very interesting that on one of the tracks that we both played lead guitar on –I guess we have slightly different styles- in the final production Eno was sitting at the mixer and just pressing the channel on and off above Fripp’s guitar, so when you listen to it, it sounds almost like one player except the octaves and everything of the style that we all kind of envy each other’s. Rather done by a slicing tape, it was done by pressing the channel up and down in the mixer and I thought it worked really well.
Fripp himself even stirred the rumor mill by joking that he did not author the solo (“It is April the First, after all“). But any fan of King Crimson or David Bowie – or even Nick Cave’s Grinderman – know Fripp’s distinct tag-line when they hear it, and the guitarist was clear about his role on the session:
Some of the work I did with Bowie was in the same kind of category of immediacy and honesty for me as a player. Eno, again, the solo on ‘Baby’s on Fire’ was there. I’d just gotten off a plane from America. I had the flu. I was exhausted. I was wretched, and yet the solo was burning. It doesn’t matter how you feel.
Neverthess, it’s fun to identify the two guitar leads. Try it for yourself (don’t do this without adult supervision, kids): starting at the 2:56 mark, you can hear Fripp’s belligerent drunk now picking fights with someone off-screen, possibly the second lead guitarist, as the mixing levels rise and fall, thickening both lead lines with different phrasing and feedback. It’s an incredible performance from Eno, Fripp and Rudolph all contributing, serving the form and function of the music, this “bewildered aggression” that is so loved by many, and obviously still mysterious and cryptic after all these years.
Postscript: Super Heathen Child
Fripp was invited to re-visit the ‘Baby’s on Fire‘ solo for Nick Cave’s Grinderman 2 project in 2010: “We are huge fans of a song from Brian Eno’s first album, ‘Baby’s on Fire’ where Fripp plays a crazy solo section and we wanted to have something similar. Fripp did so much and he was out of that phase at the time, but Nick encouraged him and persuaded him to do something in that kind of mood.” (Cave’s bassist Martyn Casey).
The remix of ‘Heathen Child’ (‘Super Heathen Child’ Feat. Robert Fripp) confirms the tone, phrasing and angle of attack of ‘Baby’s on Fire’ guitar mayhem in a contemporary setting (Fripp mailed Cave the solo, deeming it “the best take” of several passes). For those interested in the full story of Nick’s engagement with Fripp you might like to go to the always interesting – always emotionally honest – account of the remix in Cave’s Red Hand Files (Issue # 53).
Final words then, are appropriate from Cave himself, who surely speaks for all of us when considering the impact of this Eno classic nearly fifty years on, evaluating his own recordings while reaching into the past to speak to the teenager in his – and possibly your own – life.
‘Super Heathen Child’ continues to have an extraordinary hold over me, and contains within it a deep emotional pull because it is attached directly to my adolescence. Listening to it, I have that strange dizzying feeling a dream has when it suddenly becomes a reality; all that deep concentrated listening I did when I was a teenager manifesting itself over forty years later in a Fripp solo that just blows the mind. Recording with Robert Fripp remains one of the seismic events of my life.
Nick Cave, 2019
Next Month: We leave the mad world of Brian Eno temporarily and travel with Andy Mackay In Search of Eddie Riff. The Roxy Music camp were all involved in solo and session work in early 1974 and we are covering the bases before hitting Roxy’s Country Life, that major hit for the band in late 1974.
Additional credits: thanks to dangerousminds.net for the Eno photo-shoot material, here; The art of Robert Fripp courtesy emusician; Nick Cave talksmore Grinderman here; more Paul Rudolph essential reading here
Brian Eno at Majestic Studio Fall 73, working on those Warm Jets.