Tuesday, July 28, 2015

It’s Elemental: King’s Lead Hat

Brian Eno: King’s Lead Hat

If you only think of Brian Eno as the guy who does those long, ambient pieces, let me introduce you to the rocking “King’s Lead Hat.” During the mid-1970s, Eno first entered the world of popular music as the synthesizer player for Roxy Music, quit the band, and then released four remarkable solo albums that mixed rock, electronic music, jazz and experimental sounds in a way that was, if not groundbreaking, was pretty damn cool. At the same time, he began to experiment with various techniques that led to the release of his ambient music, and released a series of such albums, including the legendary Music For Airports.

Before and After Science was the last of the rock-oriented albums from this period, released in 1977, and it includes ambient pieces, silly ditties, and a few rockers, none more aggressively so than “King’s Lead Hat.” Reportedly recorded, but lacking lyrics and a title, before Eno and John Cale saw an up and coming band, Talking Heads, at CBGB in New York, Eno gave the song a title that was an anagram for Talking Heads and wrote a bunch of lyrics around the title which either make no sense or are brilliant. Or both. Many Eno lyrics seem to use words more for their sound than as a vehicle for imparting meaning (like, say, this one), or to create vivid imagery. There may well be some sexual references in the lyrics of “King’s Lead Hat.” Or not.

What is clear, though, is that the music was way ahead of its time. You can certainly hear some Talking Heads in the jittery, New-Wavy sound, but you can also hear precursors of what the Talking Heads would sound like a few years later, when Eno began to produce them. And you can hear the roots of the synthesizer based pop music, that would become popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, starting with Gary Numan and exploding from there.

Not surprisingly, I had never heard Eno on the radio before working at WPRB starting in 1979, and his music was treated there with incredible reverence. We even had a show one evening, named in honor of his earlier, somewhat more experimental album, Another Green World, for music that fit into that genre of experimental, electronic, OK, I’ll say it—weird--music. One night, my friend Bill and I took over the show for a “performance” that you can read about in more detail here, along with a bunch more of my college radio reminiscences. Considering Eno’s involvement with the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra that admitted only players who were either non-musicians, or were playing an unfamiliar instrument (Eno played clarinet), I suspect he would have been fine with my “performance.”

With the perspective of years, there are times that I think that some of the Eno worship is a bit over the top, but you can’t deny that he has produced some of the best and most popular albums ever, has made music that has influenced generations of musicians in numerous genres. And, I still enjoy his music.

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