INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
BBC SEPTEMBER 20, 2003 - by Chris Jones
He succeeded because he knew nothing about how to make pop records. And he failed...
Brian Eno - domed doyen of ambient music and professorial producer who pushed mainstream bands into interesting new avenues with his oblique strategising - once made pop records. Sure, the man used to be a preening pop peacock when he performed his bizarre face-off with Bryan Ferry in Roxy Music, but following his departure he really tried to do the stuff properly. He did have a working knowledge of systems music and experience with avant oddities like Cornelius Cardew, but he decided that exploring the possibilities of the three minute song without any recognizable technical skills was going to be a good thing. These four albums will show you why he simultaneously succeeded and failed to pull it off. He succeeded because he knew nothing about how to make pop records. And he failed because he knew nothing about how to make pop records...
They are, of course, brilliant failures. To understand how the mind of one ex-art student turned 'non-musician' can arrive at such brilliance, seek out two records not actually included in these remasters. The first is his debut single entitled The Seven Deadly Finns: a skewed, headlong rush through verbal sub-Lear surrealism with a coda that involved a lot of yodelling. The other is his 1975 single: a cover version of Wimoweh (or The Lion Sleeps Tonight). Its cod-African hokiness perfectly suited Brian's vision of 'fourth world' music: all ethno-forgery filtered through his parents' Bert Kaempfert records. Both sounded like pop music, but made by someone who had only been on the planet for a week. They were actually the sound of the future.
The first single featured his temporary backing band, The Winkies (which goes some way in explaining its pre-punk rush), but on his albums he was using an incredible cast of players to turn his quirky visions into reality. No one had told him that you couldn't put rockers like the Pink Fairies' Paul Rudolph or Roxy's Paul Thompson in the same studio as out-and-out fusionists such as Percy Jones or avant gardists like Holger Czukay. The methodology (or lack thereof) also resulted in some of greatest work from the real musicians who helped him out. To this date no one has managed to get a better solo out of Robert Fripp than on Another Green World's St. Elmo's Fire. The same goes for Phil Collins' work on this and its follow-up.
Another Green World was, actually, Brian's big turning point. The first two albums often seem by another artist. Warm Jets was a work of genius because it didn't know the meaning of restraint. For instance, Some Of Them Are Old travels from doo wop, through gospel to Hawaiian idyll without once stopping to ask for permission. It contains humour (Dead Finks Don't Talk), pornography (Baby's On Fire), great tunes (Cindy Tells Me) and some fabulously mannered singing. Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) was a work of genius because it didn't know the meaning of repetition. It merely took Warm Jets and refined it into a smoother lump of oddness.
Then, as legend now has it, Brian got hit by a taxi and while listening to a recording of harp music on a broken stereo he discovered ambient music. But he wasn't finished with pop quite yet. The man had tunes aplenty rattling round that dome, so Another Green World was an amalgamation of beautiful music and just plain beauty. The lines were getting blurred and suddenly as words gave way to tides of synth strings or Percy Jones' bubbling bass you realised that Eno had left the city far behind and had left you standing on some faraway beach. This was tastefulness without a hint of bourgeois conceit.
By Before And After Science, the methodology had hardened and it was almost too easy for the brainy one. He gave us more great songs. King's Lead Hat arrives as if it's always been playing somewhere, while songs such as By This River and Spider And I are almost too lovely to be contained by the cliché 'art rock'.
And that was it. Brian went on to rule the world and left us, like a true showman, always wanting more. He didn't return to songs until the '90s, but by then it was pointless. He'd been there, done that and gone on to the next planet. Folks round here still remember his name though...