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Pitchfork OCTOBER 15, 2017 - by Chris O'Leary
BRIAN ENO/JOHN CALE: WRONG WAY UP
It was London, 1974, and Eno was serving as an "ideas consultancy" for John Cale, who was making his fourth solo album Fear . "I was a kind of consultant or advisor... John was using me to bounce ideas off of, and get reactions from," he said the following year. "It was a very intense month." A journalist visiting the Fear sessions found Cale constantly switching instruments and holding court with various visitors while Eno brewed tea and attempted to bring a bit of normalcy to the operation.
These roles - Cale as whirlwind; Eno as accountant - would define their working relationship. After a brief period of camaraderie in the early '70s (they once crossed into East Berlin together to be stared at by the East Berliners), their studio collaborations became sporadic courtesies. Eno treated Cale tracks like The Jeweller and Helen Of Troy; Cale played viola on Another Green World's Sky Saw and Golden Hours. "There was a lot of substance abuse going on," Cale recalled to Eno's biographer David Sheppard. "It was obvious to Brian at that point that I was pretty incorrigible..." Once while dining with Eno, Cale set fire to the check. Eno "was helpless with laughter, screaming, 'Oh horseplay!' while the bill was in flames in the ashtray."
Cale was unlike many of Eno's other collaborators. Six years Eno's elder, he'd worked with La Monte Young and had recorded The Velvet Underground and Nico when Eno was still in art school. A skilled violist and pianist, he couldn't be intimidated in the studio by a self-confessed "non-musician." Recording with Cale meant raucous musical debate with no moderator. Cale seemed to live by an internal set of Eno's Oblique Strategies cards. "Bursts of genius interspersed with oceans of inattention," as Eno described Cale's working methods.
In October 1990, they finally released a full collaboration: Wrong Way Up. Though it marks Eno's first "song" album since 1977's Before And After Science, and despite being among Eno and Cale's loveliest, most accessible records, Wrong Way Up has faded from view - out of print on CD and vinyl (despite having been reissued in 2005), not streaming on Spotify.
Its credits read as if dictated by negotiation - most songs were "written and composed" by Eno and Cale, with care taken to note who wrote which lyrics. Eno was producer, Cale "co-producer." In promo interviews, both admitted they hadn't gotten on at times, or apparently much of the time. Eno reportedly called Cale irrational. Cale said Eno "would listen to what you said, but he really didn't have much patience with it... I haven't figured out yet what Brian's notion of cooperation, or collaboration, is."
Yet Wrong Way Up would be far more euphoric than either expected. Eno said, "We both started out thinking it would be quite stark and sort of, industrial... perhaps slightly Eraserhead in feeling." In the first post-Cold War spring, with the Berlin Wall down and Nelson Mandela freed, "the feelings were hopeful. It was 'Hey, the future looks good.'" Eno was enjoying the World Cup that year and his wife, Anthea Norman-Taylor, recently had given birth to a daughter. "All those elements, those loops, combined in that particular way," he said. "The World Cup, my daughter, and me singing again. And John, of course. He's another loop, combining."
It began the year before. Cale, having set four Dylan Thomas poems to music, sent a tape of a live performance to Eno. As his label had developed contacts in the Soviet Union, Eno told Cale he could get the pieces recorded by a top-rank orchestra in Moscow for a fraction of what it would cost in the West. And he agreed to produce.
A video documentary was made of the Words For The Dying sessions, in April 1989. Throughout, Eno seems irked, flipping off the cameraman, holding a clipboard in front of his face. (Cale has no qualms about being filmed, even when caught screaming "fuck!" in frustration while recording a boys' choir.) Then, in a sequence caught via monitor camera, Eno and Cale whisk a song together.
A double bassist, the late Rodion Azarkhin, has come in for an orchestral session. Spurred to write a new piece for Azarkhin, Cale sits at the piano, Eno hovering over his shoulder. "This beat doesn't have to have blue notes like jazz does, but that sort of... smoky pace," Eno says. He keeps time by waving a pen, Cale drums out chords. They move to the control room, giving instructions like "play simple harmonics in between the verses" (Cale) and "get him loosened up, not stuck onto one idea - find something he likes to play" (Eno). Eno mimes playing the double bass; Cale yawns and does a crossword puzzle. It's like watching two lobes of the same brain interact.
While filling out the album back in the UK, Cale sensed that Eno was growing comfortable with vocal songs again and proposed a full collaboration. It would be a pop album; Eno would sing on it; he would tour with Cale for it. Eno tacitly accepted the terms. Getting Eno to sing again on record was a coup. He spent the '80s making ambient instrumental albums, mulling ideas like "quiet clubs" and "research gardening," working on video sculptures and projects like a Tropical Rainforest Sound Installation for the World Financial Center, and being half of the production team that delivered U2's The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. As late as September 1989, he told a radio interviewer, "I'm sure I could, if someone held a gun to my head, crank out a record of songs, but at this point in time I know it wouldn't be any good, because there's no conviction to carry it forward."
Yet nine months later, Eno was in his home studio - in his grand Victorian house in Woodbridge, Suffolk - working on a record of songs with Cale. He'd missed singing, it turned out. Visitors often found Eno humming or singing while in the kitchen. He'd been listening to gospel and Arabic music, and had never lost his love for doo-wop. He and Daniel Lanois had even recently recorded a version of You Don't Miss Your Water for the Married To the Mob soundtrack (it would be a bonus track on Wrong Way Up's reissue).
If he would return to singing, however, he'd "mass the voices so that the 'individuality' of a single voice is lost in the crowd." Eno's voice was wonderfully described by Geeta Dayal as "paper-thin like a piece of phyllo dough: it stacks well on itself, giving way to a layered, golden richness." It was made for harmonies. He'd improved as a singer - where he'd sung nasally in the '70s, he now favored his chest voice, lower in pitch and rounder in tone, with more ornamentation.
Eno would sing nonsense words to create cadences, then develop syllabic rhythms, then move to full phrases (some of his notes are found on the inner sleeve: phrases depicted as em-dashes). "He works out his melodies and lyrics by locking himself up and just starting to sing," Cale recalled in 1990. "He starts with vowels and works his way into consonants. He'd be in the studio late at night doing that while I would be able to get out and go play squash." Wrong Way Up is compellingly singable, laced through with melodies - lines like "I am the termite of temptation!" are phrased like hymns.
Under Eno and Cale's vocals were loops and circles - Wrong Way Up as a collection of orbits. "I am the wheel," as Eno sings in "Lay My Love," a track that spins like an orrery - snare fills, sixteenth-notes on synthesized cymbal, rhythm guitar, a two-phrase violin loop, "cowbell" fills, all circling a central sequencer pulse. The album's title comes from Empty Frame, a sea shanty about a cursed ship going around in circles, never returning to port. The rhythm section, Daniel Lanois' touring group of Ronald Jones and Daryl Johnson, was broken into shards - a kick drum loop, a sinking root note, an isolated snare hit - and shuffled through tracks. For Crime In The Desert, a Cale Western with drive-in gambling and a body left on a racetrack, Cale played a circling boogie-woogie piano riff into a sequencer, which Eno edited into a loop, against which Cale played another piano riff.
There's also a homemade quality to Wrong Way Up, a sense of being scrapped together from whatever was lying around Eno's "state-of-the-art 1979" studio (as he called it in the '90s). He mainly used his storied, "unsophisticated" Yamaha DX7 synth. See the various bottle-clinks and UFO probe whirrs, or the cicada percussion on Cordoba. Beats came from the DX7 or a Linn M1, the latter's beats "severely treated so that they become more industrial sounding than the M1 would normally allow." Cale and Eno sang into an "old beaten up Shure SM58 microphone... the cheapest basic rock 'n' roll mike you can get," their vocals run through an equally old Neve limiter/compressor.
After three weeks' work, a few other musicians came in, cutting their parts in a few days. Robert Ahwai, the album's quiet hero, played rhythm guitar that makes tracks like Spinning Away and One Word sing. Nell Catchpole was the guest star, her soaring violin heard on the opener Lay My Love and closer The River.
Eno's studio was bright and airy, with windows that let onto the garden. "Birds would come and sing at the window, for god's sake!" Cale recalled. He was Eno's houseguest. When he arrived, Eno had some rhythm tracks done, but Cale's work habits hadn't changed. Eno would find Cale reading newspapers and making business calls while listening to playback. And Cale considered Eno to be a control freak, often bristling at his suggestions. It being his studio, Eno had the home-field advantage.
The mood in the studio became that of two only children made to play together by their parents. Eno described it as being like "cabin fever." Cale missed his wife and young daughter. Tensions culminated when, after one sharp argument, Cale turned to see an angry Eno coming towards him, a chopstick clenched in his hand. "Imagine, being frightened by Brian Eno! ...The whole idea is ridiculous," Cale said. In his autobiography, he said Eno had rattled him. "What if it had been a knife? On his private property, I was an interloper." Cale called his manager in a panic, saying he needed to check into a hotel. (For his part, Eno said he had no memory of the chopstick attack. He felt Cale's book "gave an unfavorable and sometimes downright untrue version of what had happened during the making of [Wrong Way Up]").
There's something performative in these antics - as if they subconsciously knew they worked best when they dreamed of garroting each other. Eno once compared their relationship to what "may have existed between two neighboring principalities in pre-Bismarck Germany: constant sorties across the frontier and occasional truces and treaties and occasional coincidences of purpose." Cale's most essential complaints about Wrong Way Up were that Eno kept monkeying with the mix after he left and, most of all, that he'd reneged on his promise to tour the album. The album's grotesque cover came from the set design of the Eno/Cale tour that never was - giant playing cards, with their heads at dagger points from the other.
On one spin of Wrong Way Up, Eno seems to dominate. He gets the spotlight numbers and the opening and closing songs. Another listen finds Cale holding his own territory. His songs have his usual mercenaries, drug-runners and itinerants, but he also gets the big pop moment, Been There Done That, his and Eno's high-water mark on the U.S. charts (peaking at Number 11 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart). Seemingly mixed for transistor radio, it has Cale heartily singing over what sounds like repurposed video game soundtrack chips.
While Eno said that "nothing about this record was particularly democratic," they influenced each other in subtle ways. Eno recalled In The Backroom as being "entirely" Cale's, but it's the production touches that linger in the memory - the ominous fade-in, like a noir opening credits sequence; swirls of guitar and synthesizer that move in strange dances through the mix; how Cale's voice grows so distorted at times that it seems to be breaking apart, a blocked transmission.
One Word, however, was an eye-to-eye collaboration - Cale offering a line, Eno volleying one back. In refrains, Cale soars over a company of Enos. Each sings a separate refrain but also answers each other:
You say - One word
The same - One sound
Thing - It makes the world
Again - Go 'round...
At its best, Wrong Way Up is as sublime as anything Eno and Cale ever did. Cordoba came from Eno reading Hugo's Latin-American Spanish In Three Months. The book had short, declarative English sentences, the bones of the Spanish phrases the learner was meant to recite: The man was sleeping under the tree. He wrote to me from Cordoba. He put the suitcase under the bed. The elevator stopped between the two floors. The sentences, just by being arranged in sets, became a mystery novel, Eno thought. Who is the Cordoban? Why does the elevator stop between floors? What's under the bed? It suggested a scenario to him, of terrorist lovers who don't know each other's real identities, plotting to plant a bomb on a bus. Cale gave the lines a slow, haunted phrasing - "the way he sings it is this strange combination - sinister and tender at the same time." Cale seems startled by details as he sings them, like he's suddenly recalling pieces of a dream.
Then there's Spinning Away, a song so lovely that even a cover by Sugar Ray couldn't ruin it. Eno built it as collisions of speed, with a rolling, off-balance rhythmic base over which Eno's vocals and Catchpole's violin (the latter playing in a different time signature) bob like boats.
"Spinning away, like the night sky at Arles." It's Eno as Van Gogh painting The Starry Night, but not the hippie saint of Don McLean's Vincent or a century's worth of tormented artist biopics. It's Van Gogh as an Eno, as a craftsman: working up sketches, drafting in pencil, moving to oils, bringing the night sky down into the frame of his canvas, making threads from loops and dots. He steps back to see the whole. "I have no idea exactly what I've drawn," he sings. "Some kind of change." The hub of the album's circles, Spinning Away sings the making of itself. Along with The River, it's the most beautiful vocal that Eno ever sang.
The fruit of a sunnier time, Wrong Way Up, made by two quarrelsome fathers who would never collaborate in this capacity again, is a set of miniatures, full of spies and sailors, turncoats and magicians, Cordobans and the Mona Lisa's eyes. It's the closest that a pop record has come to a Joseph Cornell box. Songs are played on "Scarlatti piano," "dark guitar" and "fairground organ," are garnished with Shinto bell, dumbek, "little Nigerian organ," and tabla. The joy of finding the right accumulations. It's an album of movement, even if moving in a loop. As Cale and Eno sing in One Word, "If it all fades away, let it all fade dancing away."