Although best known for his groundbreaking work as the pioneering figure in ambient music, Brian Eno bridged the chasm between that later style and his early work as a member of the art/glam band Roxy Music by recording a series of experimental pop albums during the mid-'70s. His 1974 solo debut, Here Come the Warm Jets, contained what became one of his best-known pop compositions, "Baby's on Fire." A twisted yet tuneful bit of dark-humored weirdness, "Baby's on Fire" benefited from Eno's free-associative approach to lyric writing, which both built on and branched out from the basic scenario of a woman catching on fire. It isn't really set up as a metaphor, but Eno plays it for surrealist comedy. His nasal, slightly snotty vocals project an air of casual detachment, and none of the characters in the song seem to show all that much concern either. In fact, most are busy taking pictures, while Eno calls her an "object" in the non-sexual sense of the term, compares her to a "heifer to the slaughter," and says of the dehumanization that "this kind of experience is necessary for her learning." Yet with all the photographic attention and wisecracks, like "They said you were hot stuff/And that's what baby's been reduced to," it's also tempting -- and possible -- to read the lyrics as a surrealist indictment of the media's exploitation of its human subjects.
Structurally, the song is extremely simple, repeating the same melody line over and over, never once deviating from its scant two chords. It's not an easy task to keep that listenable over five-plus minutes, yet Eno is up to the challenge, not only with his bizarre humor but also by emphasizing the purely sonic qualities that flesh out the arrangement. The song begins with a tense high-hat and pulsating bass, as well as several different kinds of electronic squiggles. Following the first section of lyrics are three minutes of noisy guitar work by Paul Rudolph and King Crimson's Robert Fripp, which is sometimes melodic and sometimes mostly textural. Accompanied by shifting drum accents in the background, the soloing continues through the return of Eno's vocals without correlation to the beat. Eno even calls attention to them on the last line of the song: "But baby's on fire, and all the instruments agree that/The temperature's rising, and any idiot would know that." It's a suitable ending to a defiantly bizarre pop song.