Memories After the Heat

I’m listening to After the Heat this morning, the 1978 collaboration between Brian Eno and the German duo Cluster that I bought on CD yesterday. In some ways it is a transition between Eno’s more rock-oriented work of the early 1970s and his increasing focus on instrumental and ambient music later in his career. It is a beautiful and unique album, combining Eno’s quirkiness and humor with his abstract leanings, the instrumental talents of Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and the environment of producer Conny Plank’s famous studio. It’s all analog — digital synthesizers did not exist then, and many of the sounds are not produced by synthesizers at all, but by pianos and guitars and basses, treated and modified by Eno and Plank, sometimes “live,” meaning that they didn’t sit for hours adjusting effects units after the musicians had gone, but modified the music as the musicians were playing, using effects units as instruments.

This is an extension of the last post. I bought this LP at J&R Music, the same place I bought the CD reissue yesterday. I was a senior in high school, and discovered that yes, there was a store you could go to and find not only Brian Eno albums, but imported Brian Eno albums, with guys you’d never heard of, and liner notes in German you couldn’t read, and that were utterly magical. There was no way to look up who these folks were, or to track down other recordings, other than by following the names in the liner notes and searching through bins of LPs for albums you’d never seen before.

What this album recalls for me, especially playing it in the morning, is the RJE room at Brooklyn College. RJE stands for “Remote Job Entry.” It’s the room where first-year computer science students, who were required to submit their programs on punch cards (you didn’t get to use terminals until your second year) handed in their decks of cards and waited, sometimes more than an hour, to find out if their programs had run correctly.

I spent a lot of time in that room in the winter of 1983-84, me and my Sony TCS350 cassette Walkman. It surprises me that I can’t remember what album was on the flip side of the cassette After the Heat was on; it was probably the first Cluster&Eno album but I’m not sure I got them at the same time. (I bought LPs, but transferred them to cassette for listening in the car and on the Walkman; cassettes were interesting in that the pairing of albums was largely a function of what you had bought that day. The set of albums I bought yesterday would probably have resulted in a permanent mental pairing of the new U2 and Springsteen albums.)

That winter was the tail end of my fascination with electronic and experimental music; Talking Heads were in remission, Bowie was doing pop music, Eno was deep into ambience, synthesizers were suddenly all over pop radio, and I was in the process of rediscovering the harmonica, and within a few years would be completely immersed in blues, reggae and political hip-hop.

After the Heat is a real moment in time for me. I listened to it obsessively for a few years, and then it went largely unplayed for decades. But when I hear the gentle piano melody of “Lüftschloß,” or the strange phased percussion of “Broken Head,” or the brief snatch of lyrics in “The Belldog,” I am transported back to college, punchcards, and the smell of the computer room.

We were at the machinery
In the dark sheds
That the seasons ignore.
I held the levers
That guided the signals to the radio
But the words I received,
Random code, broken fragments from before.

–“The Belldog”

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