INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Musician NOVEMBER 1979 - by Lester Bangs
The other day I was lying on my bed listening to Brian Eno's Music For Airports. The album consists of a few simple piano or chordal figures put on tape loops which then run with variable delays for about ten minutes each, and is the first release on Eno's own Ambient label. Like a lot of Eno's "ambient" stuff, the music has a crystalline, sun-light-through-windowpane quality that makes it somewhat mesmerising even as you only half-listen to it.
I had been there for a while, half-listening and half-daydreaming, when something odd happened. I started thinking about something that didn't exist. I was recalling a conversation I'd had with Charles Mingus, the room we were in at the time and things he'd said to me quite clearly, except that in reality never been there and the conversation had never taken place. I realized immediately, yet calmly that I was dreaming, though I had no memory of even the preliminaries to sleep and had in fact passed over into the dream state as if it were an unrippled extension of conscious reality. So I just lay there for a while, watching myself listening to Mingus while one-handed keyboard bobbins pinged placidly in the background. This went on until I was jolted out of it by the ringing phone. I stumbled in disoriented to answer it, and hearing my voice the caller asked: "Lester, did I wake you?"
"I'm not sure," I said, and told her what I'd been listening to.
She just laughed.
Brian Eno, one of the true originals of contemporary music, is unique enough to be truly confounding. Everything about him is a contradiction. He's a Serious Composer who doesn't know how to read music. A rock star who doesn't have a band and never tours, also enjoying the feat of being allowed by his various record companies (mostly Island) to put out an average of two albums a year since 1973 when none of them has sold more than fifty-thousand copies. (In the midst of this prolific output, he was quoted in pop papers everywhere, insisting he was not a musician at all.) A man who (artistically speaking) goes to bed with machines and lets chance processes shape his creations, yet dismisses most other modern experimental composers as lacking heart, "dead from the neck down." Everybody's favorite synthesizer player, who says he hates the instrument. Listing all the projects he's been involved with in his career is a bit like trying to enumerate the variegate colors and patterns on a lizard's back. With Bryan Ferry, he was a founding member of Roxy Music, one of the watershed groups of the '70s. He's played clarinet in and produced The Scratch Orchestra and The Portsmouth Sinfonia, two famous experiments at mixing musicians from the entire spectrum of technical facility, from virtuosi to people who couldn't play at all, in the same performing situation. He's engaged in several ambient collaborations with Robert Fripp, co-piloted the last three David Bowie albums and guested on sessions all over the map, from Matching Mole to Robert Wyatt to a remake of Peter And The Wolf. He has produced Television, Ultravox, Devo and Talking Heads, and his standing with New Wave rockers in general is summed up by the graffiti which recently appeared all over the New York subway system: "Eno is God."
And yet, for all his support of musical primitivism (he produced Antilles' controversial No New York anthology of Lower Manhattan saw-off-the-branch bands), with his interest in the sociology of mechanical systems he's an avowed cybernetician, which he calls his "secret career." His compositional method is entirely dependent upon tape recorders, as he neither reads nor writes music, and has occasionally complained about getting an idea for something when he's out somewhere and being unable to write it down; except that, as he has also noted, some of his finest pieces (say, St. Elmo's Fire) are impossible to write out. He "writes" by picking little things out on various instruments, running them through electronics, bringing in other musicians who more often than not have nothing in common with each other, and suggesting the basic tracks to as many overdubs as they'll need to be finished to his satisfaction. If everything runs smoothly and the chemistry doesn't have to be reached for, or if he doesn't want anything very complicated in the first place, the results are things like the Fripp-collaboration The Heavenly Music Corporation one-take deals taped at home and obviously very cheap (he claims to have made the (No Pussyfooting) album with Fripp for the price of the tape: $14). More often, his methods make him one of the highest-priced talents around, with huge studio tabs when he went in to cut Before And After Science, he got spooked by favorable press response to Another Green World, the last album before it, and kept endlessly recording revising, editing, stripping tracks and overdubbing on them again and again, writing and recording endless new ones till he'd cut over a hundred and twenty individual tracks, out of which he finally released ten. And with some anguish: he ultimately realized that this one was not going to just resolve itself, that he'd have to stop and release it at some arbitrary point or he'd just go on laboring over it forever. When I said "resolve itself," I meant just that: Eno likes to believe that his music has a life of its own, and on the evidence, it probably does. He likes to bring the music to a point where he can sort of step aside and let it develop of its own accord, and he has all sorts of devices for making this happen. Some are mechanical, like the tape-delay system he uses with Fripp and in his other ambient sessions, wherein the soloist plays off echoes of lines just complete. Others are more tactical and organizational: one of the more recent in this vein involved getting the musicians on the session in a situation where they were playing simultaneously in separate circumscribed areas where they could just... barely... hear each other at all. He recognizes that leaving at least part of the creative input up to chance processes and machines is asking for a certain otherness in your music, as if an outside entity were co-defining it with you, and that one of the hazards of working this way is the loss of some of the more intensely passionate edges. "On the one hand the music sounds to me very emotional," he says, "but the emotions are confused, they're not straightforward: in things that are very up-tempo and frenzied there's nearly always a melancholy edge somehow. What people call unemotional just doesn't have a single overriding emotion to it. Certainly the things that I like best are the ones that are the most sort of ambiguous on the emotional level.
"Also, one or two of the pieces I've made have been attempts to trigger that sort of unnervous stillness where you don't feel that for the world to be interesting you have to be manipulating it all the time. The manipulative thing I think is the American ideal that here's nature, and you somehow subdue and control it and turn it to your own ends. I get steadily more interested in the idea that here's nature, the fabric of things or the ongoing current or whatever, and what you can do is just ride on that system, and the amount of interference you need to make can sometimes be very small."
Of course, this is the sort of thing that could lead someone like New Wave guitar virtuoso Lydia Lunch to say: "Eno's records are an expression of mediocrity, because all it is just something that flows and weaves, flows and weaves... it's kind of nauseating. It's like drinking a glass of water. It means nothing, but it's very smooth going down."
Eno himself not only recognizes such criticism but carries it further: "The corollary point is that if you're not in the manipulative mode anymore you're not quite sure actually how to measure your own contribution if you're not constructing things and pushing things in a certain direction and working towards goals, what is your function? In fact, one of the reasons cybernetics keep coming up is that it does talk about ways of working that are different than that. It does talk about systems that are self governing, so which may not need intervention. They look after themselves, and they go somewhere which you may not have predicted precisely but which is generally in the right direction. But the assessment of those things is, of course, very difficult."
It may be that Eno has created all his systems as a way of protecting himself against a larger one. If it seems like he's all over the map (he also dabbles in video and writes occasional prose pieces for English journals), he wouldn't have it any other way, and it's not just a matter of being intensely creative, but of knowing what identification in the rock marketplace can do to anybody's creative drives. "The best thing for me would be to release each album under a different name," he said in one interview, and like many (most?) real artists he treasures his privacy. The chameleon-like quality of his whole solo career could be seen as one huge defensive tactic against being backed into corners and turned into a cliche by stardom.
"I see myself often manoeuvring to maintain mobility," he says. "And I'm certain one of the reasons that my whole kind of selling thing is so uncoordinated and clumsy is that in fact it acts as a kind of non-constraint to have it be so. The way most bands work is that they release an album and then the next one, and then the next one, and there's this kind of linear thing, which tells them what the next album's got to be like. But what's happened with me is that since there's things coming out in all sorts of different ways, like there's Fripp and Eno and then there's Discreet Music and then there's collaborations of various kinds. Then there s the occasional solo album, there isn't that kind of linearity in the development. I still do retain the option of moving around and people are gonna say! 'Well, what can you expect? He's never been consistent.' And it strikes me as a better position to be in.
"It's something that started happening almost by accident, and then I decided it was worth carrying that on. I often work by avoidance rather than by having a sense of where I want to go, and what's often happened is that I've been faced with an option that career-wise looked tempting, and yet for some reason I didn't want to do it, so I'd just avoid it, and by avoiding I'd find that I'd gone somewhere else which can suddenly become interesting. One specific case of avoidance was the rock superstar thing, because when I first left Roxy Music the obvious future was a kind of solo career fronting a band, and I even started trying to do that. But as soon as I'd started I thought, 'I hate this. I really don't want to do this. It's really boring.' And so I started doing something else. But it wasn't what people think about artists, that you get these noble aspirations that 'I'm going to do this!' and soldier out like that. It was more a question of the other being dumb and boring and exactly the wrong role for me because I was the lead singer of this group, and I felt extremely uncomfortable as the focal point, in the spotlight. I really like the behind the scenes role, because all my freedom is there. The reason I don't still tour is not that I have some ethical objection to them, but that I don't know how to front a band. What would I do? I can't really play anything well enough to deal with that situation."
This brings up the famous "I'm not a musician" quote from early in his career, which confounds fans and critics alike to this day. It seems like a conceit turned inside out, inasmuch as I've got almost a dozen albums of his music sitting here. "Again," he almost sighs, "it was a case of taking a position deliberately in opposition to another one. I don't say it much anymore, but I said it when I said it because there was such an implicit and tacit belief that virtuosity was the sine qua non of music and there was no other way of approaching it. And that seemed to be so transparently false in terms of rock music in particular. I thought that it was well worth saying, 'Whatever I'm doing, it's not that,' and I thought the best way to say that was to say, Look, I'm a non-musician. If you like what I do, it stands in defiance to that.'
"When I say 'musician,' I wouldn't apply it to myself as a synthesizer player, or 'player' of tape recorders, because I usually mean someone with a digital skill that they then apply to an instrument. I don't really have that, so strictly speaking I'm a non-musician. None of my skills are manual, they're not to do with manipulation in that sense, they're more to do with ingenuity, I suppose."
And yet one wonders still how disingenuous all this might be. So I asked him point blank: "Have you ever had any formal music or theory training at all?"
"Have you ever felt the pressure that you should get some?"
"No, I haven't, really. I can't think of a time that I ever thought that, though I must have at one time. The only thing I wanted to find out, which I did find out, was what 'modal' meant; that was I thought, a very interesting concept."
Remembering how amazed I'd been to discover that I (who play harmonica and zilch else) could play prime Eno compositions like The Fat Lady Of Limbourg on piano, I asked him, "How well can you play, say, guitar?"
"Well, I always use the same guitar; I got this guitar years and years ago for nine pounds called a Starway, which I never changed the strings, it's still got the same strings on it. Fripp knows and loves this guitar actually, it's got a tiny little body, really small, and the reason I never changed the strings was that I found that the older they were the better they sounded when they went into fuzzbox and things like that. I never used it except through electronics, and the duller the strings were the more that meant they got to sound just like a sine wave, so the more I could do with the sound afterwards. It's only got five strings 'cause the top one broke and I decided not to put it back on: when I play chords I only play bar chords, and the top one always used to cut me there.
"One of the interesting things about having little musical knowledge is that you generate surprising results sometimes; you move to places which you wouldn't do if you knew better, and sometimes that's just what you need. Most of those melodies are me trying to find out what notes fit, and then hitting ones that don't fit in a very interesting way. This happened the other day in this session, when we were working on a piece and I had this idea for the two guitars to play a very quick question and answer, threenotes-threenotes, just like that, and Fripp said, 'That won't fit over these chords.' He played it slowly, what that meant, and it made this terrible crashing discord. So I said, 'You play it, I bet it'll fit,' and it did, and it sounded really nice, too. But you see I think if you have a grasp of theory you tend to cut out certain possibilities like that. 'Cause when he explained it to me I could see quite plainly that technically it didn't fit at all. Each note was a discord with the chord that was there, not one note fitted in almost all the six notes.
"For me it's always contingent on getting a sound, the sound always suggests what kind of melody it should be. So it's always sound first and then the line afterwards. That's why I enjoy working with complicated equipment, because I can just set up a chain of things, like a lot of my things are started just with a rhythm box, but I feed it through so many things that what comes out often sounds very complex and rich, and as soon as I hear a sound it always suggests a mood to me. Now, most sounds that you get easily suggest moods that aren't very interesting; or have already been well-explored. But working this way, I often find that I'll get pictures. I'll say, 'This reminds me of...'; like In Dark Trees on Another Green World: I can remember how that started and I can remember very clearly the image that I had which was this image of a dark, inky blue forest with moss hanging off and you could hear horses off in the distance all the time, these horses kind of neighing, whinnying..."
"Was this an image from your personal experience?"
"No, it was just what the rhythm box suggested. You know, if you're in a forest the quality of the echo is very strange because echoes back off so many surfaces of all those trees that you get this strange itchy ricochet effect."
Since he was on the subject of Another Green World, I decided to ask him about some of the instruments listed on the album's liner, with such exotic appellations as "snake guitar," "digital guitar," and "desert guitars." In the case of the first, for instance, I had often thought that given Eno's reputation it would not be out of the question for him to lay a guitar down in the middle of the recording studio and tape the sound of a reptile belly crawling slowly across the strings.
He laughed. "Well, I certainly wish I could live up to some of these fantasies! All those words are my descriptions of either way of playing or a sound; in that case it was because the kind of lines I was playing reminded me of the way a snake moves through the brush, a sort of speedy, forceful, liquid quality. Digital guitar is a guitar threaded through a digital delay but fed back on itself a lot so it makes this cardboard tube type sound. Wimshurst guitar: on St. Elmo's Fire I had this idea and said to Fripp, 'Do you know what a Wimshurst machine is?' It's a device for generating very high voltages which then leap between the two poles, and it has a certain erratic contour, and I said, 'You have to imagine a guitar line that has that, very fast and unpredictable.' And he played that part which to me was very Wimshurst indeed."
"Do you find," I wondered, because I really didn't know it could be done this way, "that with musicians you open can give them verbal instructions like that, just sort of paint a picture and they'll be able to do it?"
"That's normally how I do it. And I describe things in terms of body movements quite a lot. Particularly with the people I've been working with lately, I say, 'I don't want something that makes you do this, I want something that makes you do that!' Or I dance a bit, to describe what sort of movement it ought to make in you, and I've found that's a very good way of talking to musicians. Particularly bass players, because they tend to be into the swirling hips. I'm more into the sort of puppet thing, as if you're strung up somehow."
Only when he's completed the instrumental tracks does he go to work on the lyrics, and his method of arriving at them is as unique, even controversial, as everything else about how he works. What he does is sort of deduce them, in a way that can be infuriating to us word jockeys. As with most of his music, Eno "finds" his lyrics by setting up a situation in which the words are produced through an interaction between his subconscious and colorations suggested by the music itself. I asked him if, working this way, he sometimes discovered a year or so later that something he hadn't even realized before was what he was getting at. "That's nearly always what happens, because the lyrics are constructed as empirically as the music I don't set out to say anything very important. It's like a painter friend of mine says about when he starts working, it nearly always starts off with me just wanting to play paints.' It's getting excited about a sound or a rhythm or something very straightforward, and pushing it along and saying 'Well, what would happen if I did this or tried that and then that and that, and at some point this set of ingredients that you've combined in a fairly dabbling fashion suddenly produce an interaction that wasn't predicted. That's the point at which it starts to take off, because as soon as that point happens it starts to dictate its own terms. With the lyrics I have all these tricks and techniques which were first conceived as a way of defeating self-consciousness about writing lyrics, and because I don't have anything to say in the usual sense. I prefer to let the music prompt something from me. See what that prompts and then examine it after the event. So what I do first is work on the track till its identity is fairly well established, I already know how its gonna sound in terms of textures and time and speed and all that, then I take all that home, a rough mix version of it and I just keep playing it very loud and just singing along with them just singing anything really, and sometimes that anything is just right for it. It s the only thing I do, I guess, that approaches improvising, because everything else is very pedestrian in the way it's made. What often happens is that I get an idea of how the words will fall and what their function be rhythmically, so I start singing or placing the syllables in a certain way, and they're just nonsense at the beginning. Then certain types of sounds will emerge, like a particular vowel sound will suit a particular song. Like, for some reason, the vowel sound 'i' suited Baby's On Fire, it's a sharp kind of thin sound; so then I'm working around two things, which is this vowel sound and this syllable construction, and quite soon words arise from that, and you only need to get about six words out of that for you then to have a good clue of what the song is going to be about. And I know it sounds extremely perverse whenever I explain it, to finally at the end of it all sit down and read it and say, 'Ah, so that's what it's about.' But what strikes me is that following this process, the preoccupations that manifest are not ones that you're necessarily conscious of at any earlier point."
"But isn't it difficult and mysterious enough to try to understand why you love a certain person?" asked another there present. "Isn't that feeling worth writing about?"
"No, not for me. I'm not interested in it. I mean, I'm not interested in writing about it. It's certainly not something that I would ever use music to discuss, at least not in clear terms like that. You see, the problem is that people, particularly people who write, assume that the meaning of a song is vested in the lyrics. To me, that has never been the case. There are very few songs that I can think of where I even remember the words, actually, let alone think that those are the center of the meaning. For me, music in itself carries a whole set of messages which are very, very rich and complex, and the words either serve to exclude certain ones of those, or point up certain others that aren't really in there, or aren't worth saying, or something. It's like David Byrne said to me the other day: 'Sometimes I write something that I really can't understand, and that's what excites me.' I felt such a sympathy with that position."
It appears that the great and true love of his creative life is the tape recorder, and all of the things it can do. When he joined Roxy Music, he didn't even, strictly speaking, audition: they asked him to come and make some demos of the band, and while he was there he started fooling around with a synthesizer that was in the room; when they heard what he was getting out of it, they asked him to join. "I'd never touched one before, but Andy [Mackay, sax player] knew that I had been doing things with electronics for a long time, five or six years, particularly using tape. Since I was about fifteen, really. I had wanted a tape recorder since I was tiny. I thought it was just like a magic thing, and I always used to ask my parents if I could have one but I never got one, until just before I went to art school I got access to one and started playing with it, and then when I went to art school they had them there. I thought it was magic to be able to catch something identically on tape and then be able to play around with it, run it backwards; I thought that was great for years," he laughs.
"I can remember the first piece I did at art school; the sound source was this big metal lampshade, like they have in institutions, and it was like a very deep bell, and I did a piece where I just used that sound but at different speeds so it sounded like a lot of different bells. They were very close in pitch and they just beat together. It's not unlike many of the things I do now, I suppose.
"I'm very good with technology, I always have been, and with machines in general. They seem to me not threatening like other people find them, but a source of great fun and amusement, like grown up toys really. You can either take the attitude that it has a function and you can learn how to do it, or you can take an attitude that it's just a black box that you can manipulate any way you want. And that's always been the attitude I've taken, which is why I had a lot of trouble with engineers, because their whole background is learning it from a functional point of view, and then learning how to perform that function. So I made a rule very early on, which I've kept to, which was that I would never write down any setting that I got on the synthesizer, no matter how fabulous a sound I got. And the reason for that is that I know myself well enough to know that if I had a stock of fabulous sounds I would just always use them. I wouldn't bother to find new ones. So it was a way of trying to keep the instrument fresh. Also I let it decay, it keeps breaking down and changes all the time. There are a lot of things I've done before that I couldn't even do again if I wanted to."
In fact, though, if there has been one criticism of Eno's music over the past few years, it's Lydia Lunch's: that all his music does is "flow and weave," over and over again. That his quiescent, anti-emotional or emotionally ambiguous mode seems to dominate; that what we have in all these ambient recordings and scores for unmade films and endless overdubs might just be still waters that don't necessarily run deep, a placidity so resolute as to be almost oppressive, fascist. Everybody who felt that way should be excited to hear that in the album he's working on now he's returned to what he calls the "idiot energy" of his first album and the dancehall classic Baby's On Fire.
"I found a new streak of idiocy! I'd lost confidence in the old one. To write those types of songs requires a really peculiar type of energy. The other thing is to set up a situation that presents you with something slightly beyond your reach. I did these backing tracks with a group of musicians who had never worked with each other before. In fact, some of them didn't even know each other and they're from very different disciplines. David Van Tieghem (an extreme conceptual avant-gardist whose A Man And His Toys was one of the highlights of the recent New Music, New York festival at Lower Manhattan's Kitchen Center for Video, Music and Dance) was one of them, and Bill Laswell, who's a bass player in a band called Zu, and then Tim Wright from DNA who used to be in Pere Ubu, David Byrne (of Talking Heads) on guitar. Then a percussion player I discovered in Washington Square Park, Edward Larry Gordon. And myself.
"So it's quite a large group. What was so weird was that at first I thought I'd wasted my money. I just couldn't understand it at all. I kept listening to it, and did some rough mixes where I was kind of sculpting the track, because there was just this barrage of instruments playing all the time I just chopped it about so there was more space in it and I'd have instruments coming in little sections. So it's just starting to have a shape now and I've been writing some of the songs which at this moment are taking very interesting form. The tracks kind of have a foot in three camps: one is sort of disco-funk. Another is Arabic/North African music, another is black African music. And there's a very interesting tension between those three types of black music, and then the vocals which are extremely European, like the vocals on Talking Heads' I Zimbra, deliberately choral and cut off; it'll be me and some other people singing. I don't want it to be just one voice in most cases, I want it to be a group of synchronized voices.
"There's one of the songs that at the moment - all of these things will change - a discussion that starts off with a group of women singing, and then it alternates with a group of men/women, men/women, like that, and each party goes through subtle changes on each verse until the Voice of Reason enters. The Voice of Reason is another voice of indeterminate quality, indeterminate humanity ready, a highly rational, cold, precise type of voice, which throws the thing into confusion, after which the men's syllables start becoming scrambled. I've discovered this new electronic technique that creates new speech out of stuff that's already there."
I wondered aloud if this stuff had been influenced by The Contortions, DNA and other bands like those on the No New York album.
"Yes. As you'll see, there's a certain quality of sound that's common to those people. For a start, things sound really messy, and it's a kind of mess that I've never had on anything before. I like it a lot, it's a sort of jungle sound, really. And there's a peculiar perspective to it, so that everything's upfront but there's this very wide space behind it: it's a new production technique I've discovered."
He puts on a tape of the backing tracks. It sounds like nothing we've ever heard from Brian Eno before; like nothing ever heard before, period. The influence of the move to New York is unmistakable: a polyglot freneticism, a sense of real itching rage and desperation. The stylistic mix is just as he described, with some of the roiling collective blast reminiscent of free jazz, funk sproinging everywhere and unmistakable Arabic strains, which he says he got from listening to and recording North African pop stations on shortwave. It gives intimations of a new kind of international multi-idiomatic music that would cross all commercial lines, uniting different cultures, the past and the future, European experimentalism and gut-bucket funk. Not the first step in such a direction of course, but likely one of the firmest yet.
Walking home, we wished we'd had the nerve to ask him if we could tape a copy of it, because knowing the way Eno works, what finally appears on the record will probably bear as little resemblance to this particular mutant spew as this bears to his past recorded output. As for Brian Eno himself, he is one of those of whom it might truly be said that his real estate is the future. But he is too self-effacing a genius to ever make such extravagant claims for himself. What he will say instead is "Nearly all the things I do that are of any merit at all start off all just being good fun, and, I think, um, I'm sort of building up to doing something else quite soon."
SELECTED BRIAN ENO DISCOGRAPHY
With Roxy Music
Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure (both Warner Brothers released 1972 and '73 respectively): Eno himself feels that Stranded, the first Roxy record without him, is really their masterpiece. Maybe, but in that album Roxy stopped being a vessel strong enough to hold both sonic experimentalism and Bryan Ferry's fashion flash, and settled instead for being the most lapidarily aristocratic pop group of the '70s. For Your Pleasure's The Bogus Man may be a failed experiment, but it at least points the way for others. This atmosphere of risk made the first album a bit cluttered yet diffuse - too many people trying to do too many things all at the same time - but the first side of For Your Pleasure is the pinnacle of the Ferry-Eno marriage, great songs in a luxurious setting.
Here Come The Warm Jets (Island, 1974): Today some of this solo debut sounds inconclusive, the over-reachings of a whiz kid. But the predominant feel is a strange mating of edgy dread (Driving Me Backwards) with wild first-time-out exuberance. "I was just in a mad mood, really, when I did it", says Eno today, "and also had this feeling of incredible freedom." There's a Beatlesy pop sentimentality (and Sgt. Pepperishly cinematic sound) to things like Cindy Tells Me, Needles In The Camel's Eye still sounds to me like some previously unimaginable mix of Buddy Holly and The Velvet Underground and the underground standard (?) Baby's On Fire features perhaps the greatest guitar solo Robert Fripp will ever play in his life.
Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (Island, 1975): This is the absolute incontestable Eno masterpiece to date. Probably still a decade ahead of its time, this record's rich textures, rhythms dancing against each other, and exotic synthesizer treatments of standard rock instrumentation revealed that Eno had already mastered his ultimate instrument: the recording studio. As the overdubs pile up in Byzantine splendor, it's easy to forget that he made this awesome tapestry with a lineup of guitar, bass, drums and percussion. Guests from Roxy Music, Portsmouth Sinfonia and other sources provide seasoning and, perhaps more than his ambient efforts, Tiger Mountain demonstrates what riches may be mined from the simplest musical materials. Eno says, "For me Tiger Mountain is a kind of magic album; there's so much in there that I just wasn't conscious of putting in at all."
Another Green World (Island, 1976): First application of his ambient experiments to actual (and often quite pop-oriented) songs, while the instrumental etudes between them have more content than their ambient cousins. Where Tiger Mountain had the density and lushness of a thousand-hued tropical forest, Another Green World investigates various possibilities for small ensembles; it's chamber music reconciling the pastoral dells of Eno's geographic origins with the technological Alphaville that's his workshop.
Before And After Science (Island, 1978): Career neurosis time: the weakest of his four "song" albums, as he admits, this lacks the peaks of its predecessors, and (on the first side, anyway) sounds a mite disjunct. But still a fine, fine record. Foretells his current return to 'idiot energy', with unmistakable (and previously undisplayed) funk influence in places. The second side is classic autumnal fairy tale music, and Fripp tears out another coruscating solo in King's Lead Hat.
Fripp & Eno: (No Pussyfooting) (Island, 1974) and Evening Star (Island import, 1975): (No Pussyfooting) may have had as much to do with Eno's departure from Roxy Music as Ferry's paranoia. It's comprised of two long jams, the first of which took place when Eno invited Fripp over to fool around in his home studio late in 1972. What they got was so interesting and they had such an obvious chemistry that they cut another a few months later and put this album out concurrent with Stranded, over the vigorous objections of Eno's management, who thought it would damage his "image and/or chances for solo pop stardom. Fripp was one of the few instrumentalists Eno had ever met who understood in front the sensibility of sparse playing when it was going to be channeled through all the echoing corridors of Eno's tape-delay system. Evening Star contains a retort to those who'd accuse Eno's ambient phase of being pleasantly placid to the point of the insipid: An Index Of Metals, has a quiet malevolence that's chilling.
Discreet Music (Obscure, 1975): Depending on your point of view, Eno's most passive piece is either the definitive unobtrusively lustrous statement on ambient musics or a wispy treacly bore that defies you to actually pay attention to it. Perhaps the garden without the sombre reptile that is Fripp. Also Eno's very favorite of all his recorded works (perhaps because this assiduously disciplined artist had to put the least effort into it). "In a way, I think my most successful record was Discreet Music, in a sort of economist's terms of success because that was done very, very easily, very quickly, very cheaply, with no pain or anguish over anything, and I still like it."
Music For Films (Antilles, 1978); 18 short pieces written either for films he was hired to score or films unmade yet outside of his mind. Each of these little vignettes paints a palpable mood, conjuring mental images that vary from listener to listener, but seem to run to the sylvan, pastoral or aquatic. Good drug album, needless to say. Also features more players than any of his other ambient albums.
Music For Airports (Ambient, 1979): His biggest seller and the album that is beginning to try some people's patience in that there are now more ambient albums out under his name than "regular" ones, and this one doesn't add a whole lot to what he's already said in the genre. Still, it's very pleasant, as any album explicitly designed to "get them prepared for death" well ought to be. Eno says "I wasn't joking about that. I meant that one of the things music can do is change your sense of time so you don't really mind if things slip away or alter in some way. It's about getting rid of people's nervousness."
David Bowie. Low, "Heroes" and Lodger (all RCA, 1977, 1978 and 1979 respectively): The trilogy co-written and performed with the famous dilettante remains controversial even among Bowie and Eno fans - many in each camp feel that the other guy should never have entered the picture. The first side of Low is really interesting and some people consider Lodger a masterpiece, but in general these sound like half-baked imitations of the Real Stuff as in Tiger Mountain, Green World etc. They sound half-baked probably because, unlike Eno, Bowie's not real big on the long, arduous hours of disciplined craftsmanship; like Bob Dylan, he likes to just hit the studio, let the music appear magically in his head, cut it and run off to the next party.
Talking Heads, Devo, Ultravox. No New York (various labels): In the past few years Eno has been much in demand as producer, various (mostly New Wave) groups counting on his touch to highlight their own strengths. Ultravox is a band too fundamentally uninteresting for anybody to save, Devo are there if you want 'em (sounds like tinkertoy music to me), and the second and third Talking Heads albums are so far the pinnacles of his production career. He says Talking Heads are "the best working relationship I've ever had within rock music," and it definitely shows: he sounds like a fifth (and crucial, on the evidence) member of the band. As for Antilles' No New York compendium (The Contortions, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Mars, DNA), these are some of the most interesting - though brutally inaccessible - new groups around. They've pushed rock experimentalism to a number of its absolute extremes, which Eno calls doing research that will be helpful for everybody else. I listen to them for fun, too, but must say that they've been produced far better elsewhere: he deliberately mixed them muddy, hoping to reproduce the hazy kineticism of The Velvet Underground.