INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Herald JULY 9, 2008 - by Colin Waters
ON SOME FARAWAY BEACH: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BRIAN ENO
Two years ago during a radio interview, Brian Eno criticised the inspiration-deficient fashion amongst Brit bands for trebly funk and new-wave stylings, a sound first defined two decades earlier by the group Eno produced, Talking Heads. Eno followed his remarks by announcing he'd been hired to produce a new album by Coldplay, a group even their fans would admit haven't been wedded to ear-whipping originality. Which raised the question: how serious is Eno?
Ever since this now donnish, once flamboyant character made his mark in the 1970s as a "non-musician" and founder member of Roxy Music, Eno has attracted suspicion, not least from fellow band members.
Eno's fame, such as it is, currently stands upon twin pillars. First, as the father of modern ambient mood music. Genealogists will point to Satie and Terry Riley as forebears, but it was Eno who first gave the genre its name and conceptualised it as music that can be "actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener". Anyone who has heard ambient's beatless, washy, almost entirely textural sound may not be surprised to learn in David Sheppard's biography that Eno first came upon the idea while recovering from a serious head trauma.
Eno began working on ambient "treatments" in the mid-1970s, the results neither prog fish nor punk flesh. The music, variously described as "for airports" or "for films" (imaginary ones, unmade), found devotees but in the main was seen, or rather heard, as esoterica. Worse, as punk took hold, Eno's experiments were seen as hippyish, and during Thatcher's reign, as uncommitted in an era of agit-pop engagement. Eno eloquently, effortlessly defended himself. One of his many careers - alongside parfumier, conceptual artist, and more recently, youth spokesman for the Lib Dems - is lecturer. But as erstwhile collaborator Gavin Bryars told Sheppard: "He has theories on everything. I'm always suspicious of people who have theories on everything."
Eno would have to wait until the end of the 1980s and the drug Ecstasy for ambient's mild colours to find purchase amongst clubbers seeking non-abrasive comedown environments. Thus the chill-out room. Eno's brain-music eventually soundtracked classy eateries and boutique changing rooms, becoming in Pat Kane's words, quoted in Sheppard's book, "the elevator music of late capitalism". Eno's work composing Microsoft's start-up jingle and ringtones for pricey mobiles doesn't derail Kane's criticism. Bear in mind though that this is a guy who asks not to know how much he's paid for a job in case it affects his work.
The second pillar is as a "name" producer. Bands that have reached a certain point in their career, that are successful but are unsure where to go next, feel experimental, or desire an infusion of critical kudos, call Eno. The reputation dates back to the work he performed on David Bowie's celebrated 1970s "Berlin trilogy", and was cemented by his more subtle work on U2's planet-swallowing mid-1980s albums. Sometimes his work involves no more than appending low-volume synthy swirls to meat and veg rock. More ambitiously, he can bring into play his Oblique Strategies, a series of cards whose gnomic suggestions - "honour the mistake as a hidden intention", "listen to the quiet voice", "do the washing up" - are employed during moments of creative clog.
In the studio however Eno can divide as much as they can invigorate if his musical vision requires it. His intense alliance with David Byrne during Eno's Talking Heads residency almost ground intra-band relations into dust; the other band members felt relegated to session musicians. Additionally, the Coldplay assignment suggests "doing an Eno" has become a rock cliché.
Sheppard's biography is strong on Eno's musical adventures, chronicling his subject's evolving methodology and his "rock midwifery". Eno collaborated with Sheppard, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the book goes a little out of focus on Eno's home life. Not that it veers away from Eno's prodigious reputation; he reprints the story about the cancellation of Eno's only solo tour after shagging until his lung collapsed. Much isn't made of his abandonment of the child he fathered as a teenager, or his fondness for young women. "I would like to take this opportunity," Eno said at the dawn of his fame, "to exhort, through the auspices of New Musical Express, all those young girls who have a definite sexual interest in me to enclose photographs of themselves".
Interesting to note in that light, as Sheppard doesn't, Eno's oft-invoked love for Nabokov's Lolita. Nothing more sinister here than good taste, which if you, dear reader, are in the possession of, you won't find travestied by a read of Sheppard's comprehensive biography.