1977 was a golden year for music. The landscape was dotted with records by David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Emmylou Harris, Fleetwood Mac, The Damned, Television and dozens of others that came to revolutionize their respective genres.
And among this glut of musical wonders, Brian Eno released “Before and After Science,” a record of experimental pop that continued the work he began on his previous albums. Eno was a musical chameleon, able to lose himself completely in whatever he was working on.
In fact, many people attribute Eno with coining the term “ambient music.” And while his early work was focused on experimental pop sounds and the songs he created with artists such as David Bowie and Roxy Music, the music he made in the mid- to late ’70s was more electronic in origin, more synthetic and malleable. But trying to accurately describe his work over the past four decades can be a very difficult thing to do, as he spent many years wading through different genres and through various projects within the same year.
Born in England in 1948, his first extensive musical experience came when he was attending the Winchester School of Art. He attended a lecture given by Pete Townshend of The Who that was concerned with the use of tape machines by nonmusicians. He later recalled that this was the moment he realized he could make music even though he wasn’t a musician at that point. He experimented with tape machines in school, recording various songs with various bands and touching on a handful of different aesthetics. And it was in these first few formative experiences that he cemented his love of and fascination with nontraditional strains of music.
He began his professional career as a member of the glam rock band Roxy Music; though not initially appearing with the band onstage, he instead worked the mixing desk and various other peripheral instruments. Before long, however, he had become part of the live band and was easy to spot because of his flamboyant dressing. He quit the band after a time due to conflicts with the lead singer and his expressed boredom with what he perceived as the rock star life.
His solo career began immediately following his departure from Roxy Music, and between 1973 and 1977, he created a series of records that still stand as the high watermark for electronically inclined art pop artists. But he was simultaneously working on the development of his ambient music, and these pop and electronic wavelengths were constantly vying for dominance. Eventually, the two sides of his music split and his subsequent records generally (although not completely) fell into one of the two genres, with each bearing the distinct influence of the other.
His quadrilogy of solo albums in the ’70s (“Here Come the Warm Jets,” “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy),” “Another Green World” and “Before and After Science”) were the pinnacle of his eclectic pop period-any period, really-and fans are usually split regarding their favorites.
But “Before and After Science,” possibly because of its chronology or the fact that so much time had been invested in developing this aesthetic, feels like such a complete statement of intent from Eno that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else making this record.
Released in December 1977, this album was the culmination of sound that Eno had been working on since the release of “Here Come the Warm Jets” in 1973. It has something of a split personality, with the front half being far rougher around the edges and the second half being pastoral. But it is this sort of split brain approach that makes the record so endlessly fascinating and incredibly effortless. By this point, Eno had become the undisputed go-to guy for glam rock production and electronic experimentation, and so “Before and After Science” is by its nature the definitive expression of Eno’s fractured musical viewpoint.
But he wasn’t alone-he brought along musicians from bands such as Roxy Music, Free, Fairport Convention, Can and Cluster to get just the right sound for these songs (even Phil Collins played drums on some of the tracks). It’s remarkable to think that he wrote over 100 songs during these sessions but whittled the collection down to just 10 tracks. This expansive electronic pop landscape was the perfect vehicle for his occasionally erratic compositions, although this is far from a difficult record in any sense of the word. Opening with the brash jazz-inspired rock of “No One Receiving,” the record shows its depth and immediacy directly.
Others such as “Backwater” and “King’s Lead Hat”-itself an anagram of Talking Heads-are aggressively disjointed, a fair complement to the avant strains of rock music with which Eno had come to be associated. But “Before and After Science” is a record full of surprises and false perceptions. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the inner workings of its music, the album flips and approaches the construction of these sounds from a completely new angle. Joining the unpredictable initial offerings, it suddenly becomes more languid and calming-that’s not to say that it loses any momentum, simply that it creates a melodic underpinning out of the rumbling rock tendencies that prefaced those later songs.
Eno’s music and the man himself became a legend to warped pop artists of the following generations and those who saw electronics as a new gateway to rhythmic freedom. His records are wonderfully realized bursts of noise and pop ecstasy. But more than that, they are a complete fulfillment of the sounds buzzing around in his head-a doorway to a world that had only been glimpsed in small doses through his and other artists’ works. “Before and After Science” is his most thought out and fully rendered record, a collection of influences and inspirations that has yet to be matched. Through these songs, he changed the face of pop and electronic music forever.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.