INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Phonograph Record NOVEMBER 1974 - by Richard Cromelin
ENO MUSIC: THE ROXY REBELLION
The reason I was attracted to the band in the first place was the contradiction of having someone like Eno and someone like Bryan in the same band - Chris Thomas, producer
The totality of Roxy Music today is something far more than the products issued by the five musicians called Roxy Music. When that contradiction finally erupted in the summer of '73, there occurred a big bang style creative episode in our pop music universe, an explosion that left one protagonist wandering with abandon in a random orbit and the other shooting straight toward what he hoped would be his inevitable destiny.
The process continues today with chaos, or at least uncertainty, still fending off an orderly Roxy Cosmos. Bryan Ferry tries to stabilise his flight, to focus and concentrate the zero hour impact. Eno revels in his absence of direction, in his meandering course. He's safe because he's not committed. Ferry has bet it all, and while the consensus is that he'll make it (often expressed as puzzlement that he hasn't made it already), it hasn't happened yet. And the tricky thing about rock and roll's beat the clock is that you never know how much time is left. And then there's this guitarist, Phil...
Since the Ferry-Eno split, the Roxy energy has poured directly into no less than nine albums, with more on the way. The broad diffusion is more the responsibility of Eno, the tireless dabbler, than Ferry on his unswerving path. It engulfs the wing of Island Records which includes John Cale, Nico and Kevin Ayers; the now defunct King Crimson's Robert Fripp (and with that defection, the possibility of Eno's achieving enough stability to establish a partnership distinctly rears its head); a bungling amateur orchestra called The Portsmouth Sinfonia, an endearing joke that works for about ten minutes (get the single, The William Tell Overture); Roxy's reed man Andy Mackay, searching for Eddie Riff; and Roxy Music's own albums and two solo shots by Ferry. If hydraulic principles hold any water, the race could be between Roxy Music proper and the potentially extraordinary range of projects powered by Eno. Implicit there is the need for new ways of perceiving rock 'n' roll, because it's still the blindingly bright light that we look for, not a dazzling array of lesser ones. But a true phenomenon doesn't meet or even exceed expectations. It demolishes them. Don't count anything out.
The contradiction: The avant gardist vs. The classicist, conceptualist vs. The practical, directed mind, anti-hero vs. hero. The hit and hit man on one side, on the other one a man who demands that it all work just like this. Eno's fingers stained from sticking into every pie, Ferry's as pure and pristine as his ivory keyboard. Ferry seeks the spotlight, and Eno seems to want to glow of his own light. When stars collide...
Chris Thomas' production credits include Procol Harum, John Cale, Pink Floyd, Christopher Milk, Badfinger, Japan's Sadistic Mika Band, and Roxy Music's second and third albums (For Your Pleasure and Stranded). His recollection of that crucial period is tempered with an understandable disclaimer: "I'm sitting here and I'm caught in the middle because I really admire Bryan and what he's doing and I really like Eno and I like what he's doing, and if I talk about them I'm going to slag one or the other or I'm going to point out criticisms of one or the other...I was always caught in the middle and it was driving me nuts. I just wanted to make a record. Everyone was taking sides."
Stuck in the middle like the time he was chatting with some friends on the staircase outside Elton John's Christmas party: "I saw Eno standing there (points down) and Bryan Ferry standing there (up). Eno was going to go in, and Bryan was going to go out, but they were sort of like you know (fists together, head on face off). I suddenly saw Eno, I suddenly saw Bryan, and I just went screaming up the stairs going 'hello, hello, hello, hello!' and rushed into the party. They would not pass. It was amazing! Hopefully, both of them will do what they want to do and get to a point where they can pass each other on the stairs."
Without question, a prime feud. A bit of perspective, please: "Obviously, these things happen. It's nothing rare. It happens in every band. The only reason it affects me is that I have to be sitting down there making a record, and these kind of things put so much pressure on you. Because you want to sit down and make the record. You don't want to read the paper, you can't even decide if you want to drink coffee or tea when it gets down to that point. You don't want to know any of the things that are going on. Andy was so upset when we did Stranded, about Eno leaving, that there was a tension there between Andy and Bryan. Andy was telling me this and Bryan was telling me that and I was always in the middle. But they're alright now. I think they are alright now. I hope they are alright now."
"When I was working on the second album I was not aware of the tensions that were going on. If Eno said something to Bryan or Bryan said something to Eno, I thought, 'Well that's a bit strange', I just thought one of them was probably moody. It was only when Eno was out of the band that it all came out. Andy phoned me up and told me, and I screamed and was pulling my hair out, I didn't know what to do. I mean it all settled down. It's just that obviously when something like that happens to a band, every member of the band is wondering what the hell's going on."
Roxy Music was, and is, Ferry's band but all eyes, especially those of the Americans who saw Roxy on its late '72 US tour, were invariably fixed on the enticing, sinister, spangled and feathered vision at stage right that was Eno. The process of identification/association was obvious and immediate. The whole band looked spectacular, but even so Eno stood out. You can't tell the players without a program or the leader without a bio, and audiences simply assumed that Eno was Roxy Music while Bryan pumped away at the opposite side, singing and sweating and getting as much recognition as a ventriloquist's dummy. "After that," says Thomas, "Eno developed into more and more a star in England... it came out, and the end result you've seen."
Eno became a celebrity in England not because he released a record that everyone loved and bought, but because he was clever and glib and talkative and extremely photogenic and unafraid of mild controversy - good copy, or at least easy copy, as opposed to Ferry's forbidding, taciturn, aloof aura. It was as if Eno turned his records or concerts or even his ideas into stars, rather than have his output establish him as one.
Which is the way Eno, true dilettante that he is, would prefer it. He likes to call himself a non-musician, abhors specialisation, and says things like, "I'm not good at being a live performer. I'm not anywhere near as good at that as I am doing interviews." (A true virtuoso of the art, in fact: "One day I did thirty-two interviews. It was in Italy, and they couldn't speak English that well and I can speak French reasonably well, so sometimes I would answer in French. They thought I was so clever.")
Eno's musicianship, what he actually does, is always a nebulous matter. It's often something like treating tapes and it generally involves implementation of a theoretical framework. When he begins talking about systems and structures, one is tempted to picture him ensconced on a university campus or wherever it is that contemporary serious musicians (to whom he constantly makes reference) ply their trade these days. But Eno has long since flown that coop.
"I really think that rock 'n' roll is the most important art form full stop. You can tell by the amount of focus it gets. Anything that that many people are interested in is the place that's most important as far as I'm concerned. And though I am still very interested in avant-garde music, I find it an extremely atrophied art form."
"It suffers what every art form that has to defend itself suffers, I mean rock music doesn't have to defend itself basically, it's going to make money, people are going to live by it, and they don't have to encourage people to buy their records, or get research grants or whatever, and so they don't have to rationalise positions if they don't want to. It's been one of the great failings of modern jazz and avant garde music and avant garde painting and a lot of other things that they felt it necessary to justify their position, but in the most limited of terms, in kind of bankers' terms almost - what's rationally justifiable, and of course what's rationally justifiable is not what you are talking about. What's rationally justifiable you don't need to deal with. Because it's the things that for some reason are irrationally attractive that one is interested in."
So for all the homage he pays to Steve Reich, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Terry Riley, et al., Rock 'n' Roll is Eno's chosen arena. After the split with Roxy, he took to the road in England, backed by a pub band called The Winkies, with songs from his Here Come The Warm Jets album. The reviews were generally favourable and appreciative, but after five or six gigs, one of his lungs quite inconveniently collapsed (and some absolutely amazing things happened in the hospital, plastic tube protruding from his chest, but that's another story...). It was really an exchange of one art form of boredom for another.
"After about three gigs with the same band doing the same numbers, unless it's constructed around a different premise of playing - which is why I might do it in a while, when I work out what that premise might be - you learn to comfortably accommodate every dangerous situation. It's not really very interesting. It happened with Roxy. It took quite a long time to happen with Roxy. I mean there was a fair period of touring that was really good. I'd like working on a premise much more like Steve Reich's music is constructed, where the role of each performer is quite well determined, but the interactions are liable to generate accidents and differences that you can either respond to or not respond to. It isn't the situation of one performer stepping out and other laying back and then another one stepping out. It's a situation of always having an even line of equally rated performers who interact in a number of different ways... It's hard to do, because it takes a lot of courage not to provide a focus, for a start, because there are so many easy and obvious ways of getting an audience, and it's so tempting."
One of Eno's endeavours along those lines is the version of Baby's On Fire which he performed at the Rainbow in London during a concert that should achieve legendary status without too much trouble (it's partially preserved on the recently released June 1, 1974 album). Eno, Nico, Cale and Kevin Ayers, avid mutual admirers, had found themselves all on the Island label, and under the guidance of A&R head Richard Williams, organised the one-night grand stand.
"It was one of the rare London audiences that would let you make a few mistakes," says Eno. "In London they hardly ever do. You've got to be really top in London to play there, unless you're a crap band like ELP or something like that, where you can play anything you want for tedious hours - the tedium is the message...People are very, very demanding there, and they don't allow a single lapse. You can immediately see the yawns if something starts to go wrong. But the audience was very generous. I think generally in England everybody appreciated the idea of us doing the concert anyway... it was a nice concert. I mean it was very informal, but not sloppy at all, and it wasn't a jamming concert. And yet it didn't feel tense."
It's always projects with Eno, with little distinction drawn between ones that are actualised and those that remain in the conceptual realm. There's a scenario called 'Luna and the Lizard Girls'; The Plastic Eno Band is about halfway there (he has over one-hundred-and-thirty plastic instruments in his collection, and will go on at length - "They're the nearest instruments to electronic instruments that you can find... the thing that interests me about them is that plastic is not a resonant material, and so they don't have harmonics..."): Over a million feet of tape lines his walls; he has invented and constructed an instrument called the electric larynx; the regular stream of interviews and photos in the British weeklies certainly qualify as pieces; he produced The Portsmouth Sinfonia's album and occasionally performs with the orchestra (on clarinet which he doesn't really play); he produced John Cale's new album. Eno has it set up so that normal patterns of evaluation don't apply. You must either ignore it all or review his clothes and everything else as you would a show or a record.
Among the more conventional efforts are two LPs - his solo album and his collaboration with Fripp, No Pussyfooting. The latter, recorded casually in Eno's home studio two years ago, features two tracks: The Heavenly Music Corporation is Fripp guitar and Eno treated tape, and Eno adds synthesizer to the tiny arsenal on side two's Swastika Girls. The marketing aspects are as interesting as the musical:
"In England," says Eno, "the Fripp-Eno record is on a cheap label, and it was important to us because it was a non-financial statement - this is something that we're putting out cheap because we want to be able to take a risk at it and not think that you've been burned when you buy it. It was about half the price of an ordinary record. I would have put it out cheaper if I could have done. But it was like saying 'well, we're not certain; we didn't put a lot of work into this, but we like it'. And we'd like to put it out on a level that an artist would put out a print or something... but it got reviewed just like any other album. There isn't any other category. The failure in the art field is that it's always such a minority market - a print is only going to be received by fifty people. And the great thing about rock music is that it has the possibility of being reviewed by a very, very large number of people. Somehow, I'd like to be able to tread the line between the two."
Eno concocted, rather than performed in the accepted sense, his solo album, Here Come The Warm Jets (the credit reads: Eno sings all other vocals and occasionally plays simplistic keyboards, snake guitar, electric larynx, and treats the other tapes). The materials he worked with were really people, like Fripp and Crimson's John Wetton, and Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera and Paul Thompson from Roxy, et al. His songs are in turn tender and intensely raucous, pastoral and chaotic, and the whole thing is marked by a light and engaging air which is fairly surprising in light of the ponderousness one might have expected from this highly theoretical and experimental performer.
"When I was working on my album," he says, 'I'd deliberately construct these situations where I would find somebody with one musical identity and put him together with someone with a completely different musical identity, because I wanted to see what friction would happen between them. The worst thing that could happen would be they'd simply go away and say, 'Well, Eno's a silly bugger, he should never have put us together.' But they wouldn't feel any animosity toward each other... But it would be a dangerous situation to perform in any context where there isn't the detachment you have when you're working on an external work."
Chris Thomas was involved with Jets, mixing and adding some bass and drum overdubs, and his attitude toward Eno is much less flippant than Eno's own self-appraisal: "I think when he insists he's a non-musician he's making an excuse for himself. This is really personal opinion, and he might laugh if I said it to him, but I think that that is an excuse. Because he is a musician, because you can't make a record like that... going back to For Your Pleasure, he wasn't working in an amateur way at all. He's the one that would sit there until four or five in the morning working on something. Eno's album, I think, is fantastic. He wrote those songs in about ten days. He just turns them out like that. When I was working on that album, I'd be mixing or something and he'd be down in the studio playing the piano with like three fingers or something, and he'd have this little tape recorder down there and he'd come up and say, 'I've written a song,' and he'd play it to me and it'd be great! He's phenomenal. It just pours out of him. I really think he needs to discipline himself and get it done right..."
"I think he could really, really do well. I mean I was astonished when I started working on the album, because I heard the tracks bit by bit, one by one. Every song he came up with was so fantastic and so completely different from the one before... You never know what he's going to do tomorrow, or in an hour's time. That's the great thing. Every now and again it came down to the point where we had to sort things out. If he'd organised it better, if the first things on the session had been organised - he needs to produce his own record, very definitely, because that's where it all comes from... He needs complete freedom to do whatever he needs, but there has to be somebody to say, 'No - but I understand what you are trying to do, and if you want to do it then the way to do it is to do it like this."
Eno thrives because he defines his own environment, increasing the variables at his disposal and so insuring almost complete adaptability. But there are always the uncontrollable things to be dealt with; while Ferry challenges them head on, testing the premise that it can be planned and calculated, Eno accepts and incorporates them, as much as possible, into his system.
"There is quite a lot of aggression in what I'm interested in," he says.
"There's an undertone of aggression in it. But it's not - what I've the decided the final term to describe it might be is bewildered aggression. Like when a bull has been struck a few times and it's just crazy, but not crazy in any direction - it's just running around, shaking its horns and running at anything. It's a completely unfocused sort of aggression. It's bewildered aggression. Like," Eno laughs, "'Why am I here and why am I so angry?'"
And if Eno becomes a full-fledged star and is faced with all the rank's internal pressures and external responsibilities? No, he'll have to alter those expectations too, because he already has some problems, even at his present level. Like after the Rainbow concert: "It was the most terrifying experience of my life, I think, because it was like - well shit, I couldn't believe it. There were people, just millions of them, coming up and saying, 'How are you doing? Great gig!' and I literally ran away. That's the only time that I've run out of a place, because I was scared of being stopped on the way out by more people saying the same thing."
And if he is a star, then he's a hero, and that may not fit too comfortably: "The reason I'm sceptical of the idea of heroes is that I know the utter fallibility and idiocy of most of the people who are heroes currently. I don't mean they're idiots, but I mean they're very screwed-up people really. Everybody I can think of who's a star, with the exception of Gary Glitter, is screwy."
Ferry wants to be a hero, and is fixated on making it. While Eno affects a futuristic aura, Ferry reaches back to synthesise all the heroic elements he can grab, from Lord Byron to Errol Flynn to Billy Fury. He's adopted the elegant look having moved quickly and wisely away from the more outrageous image that would have sunk with the glitter ship. He once flanked the band at stage left now he's out front. Roxy Music is his band now, without any question, the outcome remains undecided at the moment, despite Roxy's continuing popularity in the homeland, because Ferry, unlike someone like Sparks, cannot be content with limited, basic and merely comfortable sphere of influence. Sooner or later he's going to have to give America another try.
"That one tour a long time ago didn't do it, essentially because they didn't sound very good. This is where failure in one field can alter your ideas," says Chris Thomas. "Because when Bryan came back from America he was talking about the fact that he didn't want to go back there and tour again. He wasn't really interested in it. Because it was their first thing that ever failed, whereas in England, right from the beginning, they'd done very, very well. And now that they're beginning to pick up, he's getting enthusiastic about America." (At present, though, no tour of the States has been arranged.)
Roxy's fourth album is all wrapped up along with Ferry's two solo albums. Andy Mackay has one out in England, a light charming instrumental brew called In Search Of Eddie Riff. And there's this guitarist, Phil Manzanera...
"On Stranded," says Thomas, "the way we did that was we recorded all the backing tracks, which was basically piano, bass and drums. And Phil would listen, take the tape home and work out his guitar part, and he would transform those tracks so much, it was totally amazing... I don't think he's got a particular style, which is probably a good thing in that people aren't going to say, 'oh he did that on that.' But he's going to emerge. People are going to realise how much he's given the records. I really think Phil's given an awful lot to both the Roxy albums that I've worked on...I'm sure he is going to go 'bang' one day or another, it doesn't matter if it's five year's time."
Stranded finally brought Roxy's concept and execution into proper relationship, and its blend of wryness and true romantic anguish, of searing rock and haunting atmospheres, substantiate the entire Ferry mystique and make his program something other than the hollow desperate hype it sometimes seems to be. Chris Thomas on Ferry: "He's very much like me... I'm always very paranoid about my position. I think everything is going to sort of collapse and I'd better do it now. So you end up just working yourself into the grave. I said to him, 'Look, don't make that mistake. Just take it easy and do it right. Do it till you do it right.' I mean he was working too fast, that was the thing. He'd just finished his solo album, and a week later he was in there doing Stranded. And that's why I was saying to him, 'Take your time.' Because I think he is one of the most important artists to come out of England in the last six years. He and Bowie. And he just needs to settle down a little bit. He's calculating every move, but he could make all those things better...He's still got a lot of time to develop. I think it's a question of channelling those things two things, experimentation and discipline, and using the right one at the right time..."
"A lot of people are just interested in doing it and if it's going to sell - you know, once they get it to the point where they know it's alright, then it's alright. I think it's much more important to take it as far as you can possibly go. It doesn't matter if you're out at the studio for two months and you're a wreck and you're a vegetable and you can't talk to anybody, if you've achieved something. I think it's really necessary to push yourself that far. And that's why it's important for Bryan to take rests."