INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Rough Guides AUGUST 1996 - by Ian Stonehouse
THE ROUGH GUIDE TO ROCK: BRIAN ENO
Born: Woodbridge, England, 1948.
If people ask me what I do I always say I'm a chartered accountant, unless there's a lot of time to explain things.
Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno was - despite the fanciful name - descended from three generations of postmen. An erstwhile glam rock 'hero' and self-confessed non-musician, he has become known as the propagator of ambient and (most recently) computer-generated music, as an international video artist and latter-day futurist, and as producer for such acts as David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2. All the same, though, he did confess that his mother once asked him, 'Do you think you'll ever get a real job?'.
Growing up in rural Suffolk near a U.S. Air Force base, Eno's early influences included what he dubbed the 'Martian music' of doo-wop subculture broadcast on American armed services radio, as well as the first wave of rock'n'roll, and the lush tones of The Ray Conniff Singers. What all these influences shared was a lack of context - this 'mystery music' had seemingly arrived from 'outer-space' (i.e. America), and sounded decidedly exotic amidst the English countryside.
Between 1964 and 1969 Eno studied at art school, involved in conceptual paintings and sound sculptures, as well as early experiments with tape recorders ('my first instrument'). He liked The Who and The Velvet Underground, but also developed a keen interest in the experimental music of composers such as La Monte Young, Cornelius Cardew, Steve Reich and John Cage. Their use of written instructions, chance, repetition and error as methods of composition caught his imagination, particularly Steve Reich's proto-minimalist tape piece, It's Gonna Rain (1965). Eno formed an avant-garde performance group, Merchant Taylor's Simultaneous Cabinet, and sang and played the signals generator with improvising rock band Maxwell Demon. By 1969, he was to be found both in Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra (appearing on The Great Learning, 1971) and on clarinet amid the ranks of the infamous Portsmouth Sinfonia, who achieved notoriety by recruiting members of varying technical skills (often none at all) and offering concerts of the best bits of popular classics like The Blue Danube Waltz. Eno later produced their albums The Popular Classics (1973) and Hallelujah (1974).
Meantime Eno had joined glam-rockers Roxy Music, and appeared on their first two albums, Roxy Music (1972) and For Your Pleasure (1973). On stage, he manipulated the band's sound via his synthesizer gadgetry, looking like a crazed 'drag telephonist' resplendent in feather boas, velvet bodices and makeup. His stage presence rivalled that of Roxy Music's frontman Bryan Ferry, with a consequent clash of egos. After realizing in the middle of one gig that he was actually thinking more about his laundry, Eno quit, adding that Roxy Music had lost the important element of 'insanity'.
Eno's first release after leaving Roxy was a collaboration with with King Crimson supremo Robert Fripp, No Pussyfooting (1973), on which he treated Fripp's guitar via tape-loop delays, and created a layered sculptural ambience. The duo toured and went on to produce a second collaboration, Evening Star (1975), while Fripp has featured on several subsequent Eno albums. 1973 also saw Eno's first solo outing, the wonderful Here Come The Warm Jets, its title an apparent reference to urinating. An uneasy marriage of idiosyncratic rock/idiot-pop and skewed urban-fairytale lyrics, it featured a host of musicians, including all of Roxy Music (less Ferry), with Eno himself credited for 'simplistic keyboards, snake guitar, electric larynx and synthesizer'. It reached the UK Top 30, but polarized the critics, who didn't know how to respond also to the subsequent release of a proto-punk single, Seven Deadly Finns.
Eno, meanwhile, was suffering from ill-health and a brief spell as frontman for The Winkies, in early 1974, ended five days into a British tour, when he was rushed to hospital with a collapsed lung. Recovered, he found himself in San Francisco on a promotional tour, where the discovery of some picture postcards of a Chinese revolutionary opera inspired Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), his next LP, released at the end of 1974. Eno extended his stream-of-consciousness approach to writing lyrics on tracks like The Great Pretender and Third Uncle, while Put A Straw Under Baby featured The Portsmouth Sinfonia. The following year, the LP's cover designer Peter Schmidt joined Eno to produce 'Oblique Strategies', a set of cards bearing instructions, phrases and advice to solve dilemmas - akin to a latter-day I Ching. 1975 saw the accidental birth of ambient music when Eno was convalescing in bed after being hit by a car. Unable to move, he couldn't turn up the volume on his amplifier after one visitor had put on an album of 'Virtuoso Harp Music'. The rain outside drowned out all but the loudest notes, and Eno, ever the opportunist, realized that music could be used as one could use lighting or colour in a room. Discreet Music (1975) was in a sense his first ambient work, though primarily an extension of his interest in self-regulating systems. On the title track, Eno fed synthesizer phrases into a system involving two looped tape recorders, limiting his involvement to that of planner and programmer. Side two, meanwhile, employed instructions for a group of performers playing fragments of Johann Pachabel's Canon In D Major, resulting in a blurred slow-motion opulence. Discreet Music was part of a ten-LP series that Eno produced on his Obscure Records label (the Obscure series), a showcase for other experimental musicians like John Cage, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra (genuinely experimental on their first album), Michael Nyman and Harold Budd. Another Green World (1975) is arguably the most subtle and successful realization of Eno's experimental approach. It was widely perceived as his third 'song album' of the '70s, although only five of fourteen tracks had lyrics. Its title track became the long-running theme music to BBC TV's arts programme Arena, while Becalmed and Spirits Drifting marked his shift towards purely instrumental (ambient) concerns. Where lyrics were used (as on Sky Saw and Golden Hours) they were more a part of this musical landscape, away from the convention of narrative song 'portraits'.
The slightly self-conscious and studied Before And After Science (1977) was a wonderful summation of Eno's off-centre talents, with an energized first side and calmer second half, featuring By This River, on which Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius of Cluster appeared. The duo joined Eno for the 1978 album Cluster & Eno - which included little to match the Science outings - followed by After The Heat (1978), notable mainly for its uneasy futuristic lyrics sung by Eno on Broken Head, The Belldog and Tzima N'arki. A band that caught Eno's attention at this point was American quartet Talking Heads, then part of the New York punk-art scene. He met them and went on to produce a trio of albums - More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978), Fear Of Music (1979), and most notably Remain In Light (1980), where he and David Byrne were credited with writing all but one of the tracks. Eno's involvement, as virtually an extra band member, became increasingly irksome to the other band members, especially Tina Weymouth; however, the collaboration with Byrne was a fruitful one, and resulted in a joint album, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981). A blend of 'found sounds', fractured melodies and the African-inspired dance rhythms developed on Remain In Light, it presaged the world music-dance fusions made popular a decade later by the likes of Loop Guru.
Eno's solo work had continued with Music For Films (1978), with eighteen snippets of ambient experimentation, some of which had been heard to powerful effect in Derek Jarman's films Sebastiane (1976) and Jubilee (1978). Indeed, by the '80s, Eno's music was cropping up everywhere, from TV documentaries and commercials to films like David Lynch's Dune (1984). Music from Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks (1983), made with Daniel Lanois and Eno's brother Roger, appeared in Al Reinert's 1989 documentary For All Mankind. This C&W-meets-ambient hybrid added a nostalgic 'frontier' edge to the evocative NASA moon-landing footage.
Eno's ambient music lends itself to visual analogies: he once referred to it as 'holographic' - where any given moment reflected the greater musical whole. His first excursions in the field, Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978) and Ambient 4: On Land (1982), could be listened to in the same way as one might occasionally look at a picture, without loss of continuity, and with details revealing themselves over time. The back cover of On Land had instructions for making an 'ambient' (third) speaker system, whilst the music had a decidedly environmental feel - Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960, Lantern Marsh - places recalled from Eno's childhood. One inspiration for this album was Federico Fellini's film Amarcord (1974), which as Eno noted, was 'a presumably unfaithful reconstruction of childhood memories'.
Alongside these two releases in the 'ambient series' came Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980), with Eno's sonic treatment of Harold Budd's sparse piano playing, and Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance (1980), containing Laraaji's meditative zither music. Eno and Budd went on to record The Pearl in 1984, produced by Eno with Canadian musician and producer Daniel Lanois, while a collaboration with Jon Hassell on Possible Musics (1980) developed Hassell's theoretical genre of 'fourth world' music - a blend of 'first/third world' skills and instrumentation, overlaid with his breathy and haunting trumpet lines.
The late '70s had seen Eno working on three celebrated David Bowie albums - Low (1977), "Heroes" (1977) and Lodger (1979) - all of which bore Eno's imprint as much as Bowie's. Other Eno productions in the rock world included LPs for Ultravox (Ultravox! ), Devo's Are We Not Men? (1978), Michael Brook's Hybrid (1985), and U2's albums The Unforgettable Fire (1984), The Joshua Tree (1987) and Achtung Baby (1991). The latter jointly earned Eno and Daniel Lanois a 1992 Grammy Producer of the Year Award.
Music For Films III (1988) was a compilation of work by both Eno brothers, Lanois, Budd, Laraaji, Brook and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones - all at the time connected to Eno's production company, Opal. One highlight, For Her Atoms, was a haunting piece recorded in Moscow, played by Misha Mahlin and Lydia Theremin (granddaughter of the Theremin instrument's inventor Leon). Fostering such East-West creative links, Eno visited Moscow in 1988, producing an eponymous 1989 album by underground Soviet band Zvuki Mu. In 1990, Eno's voice made a long overdue return on an album of songs with John Cale, Wrong Way Up, although its sleeve illustrated the creative tension of their relationship. Musically, it was perhaps closest to Before And After Science - clever and quite poppy. After the aborted release of Eno's solo album My Squelchy Life in 1991, the contents were rejigged and duly delivered as Nerve Net the following year. On the cover Eno outlined the contents as 'like paella, crunchy, godless, clockless...'. The CD maxi-single Ali Click included remixes by The Grid and Markus Dravs. There followed more serious instrumental experiments: The Shutov Assembly (1992), a compilation of ambient and installation music recorded between 1985 and 1990, and Neroli (1993), an hour of modal mystery akin to Discreet Music. They were counterpoints, perhaps, to Eno's rock work, which in 1996 saw a Brit Award for his production on Bowie's 1995 comeback album Outside. Eno also found time to create a perfect soundtrack for old associate Derek Jarman's memorial-like collection of home movies, Glitterbug (1994), which, worked over by Jah Wobble, emerged as Spinner (1995). Alongside his musical career Eno has, since 1979, developed an international reputation as a video and installation artist, with countless exhibitions of his work. His success in this field has gone largely uncredited by the British media, seeing such diversity as 'dilettantism' - Eno terms it interdisciplinary research. For instance, Mistaken Memories Of Mediaeval Manhattan was a vertical-format video (i.e. turn your TV sideways) that Eno made in New York in 1980-81, while other projects have included video-paintings of Christine Alcino (he released the gorgeous soundtrack to these, Thursday Afternoon, in 1985); a Shinto shrine inauguration at Tenkawa, Japan (1989); and most recently, Self Storage (1995), created with Laurie Anderson and a group of college students.
In the early months of 1996, Eno returned to media attention with projects in two new fields. The first was publication of his 1995 diary, A Year (With Swollen Appendices) (Faber), a splendidly quirky flow of thoughts and observations ('Pissed into an empty bottle so I could continue watching Monty Python and suddenly thought I've never tasted my own piss, so I drank a little...'). The second was a piece of software, Generative Music 1 (released as a PC floppy-disc by Sseyo/Opal). This developed the idea of screensavers (ever changing patterns on a computer screen) - for sound, allowing the 'player' to feed in musical 'seeds' for a computer to 'grow'. The Drop (All Saints 1997) - his most recent recognisably musical output - continues his exploration of the ambient side of things - all wordless atmospherics and creation of moods - gripping stuff!
Interviewed on these ventures, rock's Mr Cerebral expressed customary amazement at how unusual it was to have broad artistic and cultural horizons, theories and areas of interest. 'I don't think most people think about most things,' he mused, 'but I do. I think thinking is a bloody good idea.'
Here Come The Warm Jets (1973; EG). Glammed-up art-pop brimming with crude energy (Needles In The Camel's Eye), smarmy anxiety (Dead Finks Don't Talk) and fanciful tales (The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch).
Another Green World (1975; EG). A gem of accessible experimentation. Eno at his understated best, on this predominantly instrumental album of 'songs', just before he discovered the recipes he was using.
Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978; EG). 1/1, 2/1, 1/2, 2/2 - no, not dance steps, but the titles off this seminal ambient album, which apparently became popular with airport employees. So perfect that you needn't listen to hear it.
Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks (1983; EG). The Eno brothers and Lanois present a glittering album of country/ambient moon-landing music. Deep Blue Day steals the show.
Nerve Net (1992; Opal Records/Warner Brothers). Eno rematerialized in fine form with this 'Bleep & Booster' song assemblage. Robert Fripp (guitar) rips through the excellent Distributed Being into a labyrinthine Web.
BRIAN ENO AND DAVID BYRNE
My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981; Virgin/Sire). An agitated 'popular mechanics' futurism, trading obsolete lyrics for 'real life' - middle eastern singers, exorcists, radio phone-ins, gospel choirs. Plunderous and unmissable.