The Independent MAY 10, 1998 - by Tim de Lisle


On Friday Brian Eno will be fifty. Singer, songwriter, professor, curator, artist, theorist, diarist and fund-raiser, he has had a singularly plural career. He has invented a major genre, belonged to a great band, and catalysed classic albums by Bowie, Talking Heads and U2. With a little help from Eno, Bono, Dave Stewart etc., Tim de Lisle finds fifty moments in the fifty years that have been decisive, influential... or just plain Eno-ish

1 Eno's christening, in a Catholic church in Suffolk. He was named Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno. The first of a million ironies: his name sounds like a stage name. In his twenties, he reacted against it by using only his surname.

He was the second of four children of William Eno, a Woodbridge postman, and Maria, a Belgian immigrant. His uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather were also postmen: "a long line of people in the communications field." But they had creative hobbies: the grandfather was the only bassoon player in Suffolk, the uncle mended porcelain, and Brian's father, who died in 1988, was passionate about repairing clocks and watches (see 39 & 48). Brian, too, was a postman, for two Christmases.

2 In 1955, aged seven, he fell in love with music.

Eno: "There was an American air-force base near us. My elder sister Rita had American boyfriends which was very frowned-upon of course. She used to bring home these incredible southern doo-wop records, R&B, stuff that you never heard on the radio. So she was a huge musical influence on me. What we were listening to in England at the time was so bloody pathetic - Craig Douglas, Cliff Richard. And when you heard the originals that they had copied from, it was so alive. I didn't realise for years it was done by black people."

3 His first recording, made in the early 1960s, was the sound of a pen striking a tin lampshade, which he taped and then slowed down. Twenty years later, he said: "The tape-recorder is still my principal instrument." Of all his lateral thoughts, this may be the most central.

4 At St Joseph's, a Catholic grammar school, he got four O-levels, including Maths. Hardly surprising given the extent to which numbers, shapes and patterns figure in his music - but Eno thinks it was a mistake. The boy sitting in front of him, who was good at Maths, failed. "I wasn't good at it. I think they mixed up the names."

5 In the mid-1960s, Eno became a Mod. But being (to this day) a non-driver, he didn't have a scooter. "So I was a rather conceptual Mod."

6 1965: aged seventeen, Eno buys the first in a series of black notebooks which has continued ever since. They sit in his jacket pocket and contain sketches, ideas, theories, speeches, lists, schemes and schemas. Each book offers a reward for its own return, in pounds, dollars and deutschmarks. The writing, small and neat, always runs across the lines. A photograph of the notebooks, taken for the IoS in August 1992, can be viewed here.

7 Also at seventeen, Eno was going out with a girl called Sarah Grenville. Eno: "Her mother, Joan, an extremely intelligent woman, said to me, 'I just don't understand why someone with a brain like yours wants to be an artist,' the implication being, what a pointless thing to do. And it set a question going in my mind that has always stayed with me, and motivated a lot of what I've done: what does art do for people, why do people do it, why don't we only do rational things, like design better engines? And because it came from someone I very much respected, that was the foundation of my intellectual life."

And didn't he resent her for asking the question? "Yes! It was cutting, but because it was cutting, I put time into thinking about it."

8 In March 1967, aged 18, Eno married Sarah Grenville. Their daughter Hannah, born in July 1967, is now thirty. So Eno could easily be a grandfather ("I wish I was").

When the marriage ended, the friendship with his forthright mother-in-law, Joan Harvey, survived. "She's actually my oldest friend."

9 In 1967, while at art school (his second) in Winchester, Eno bought the first Velvet Underground album. He thinks he may have been the first person in Britain to get it. "Only a few thousand people bought that record, but all of them formed a band of their own."

The Velvet Underground album he liked best was the third, The Velvet Underground (1969), the one with Pale Blue Eyes on it. Eno: "It's beautiful - strange and melancholy, with a slightly mad quality. I immediately gave it away to someone, and have never owned it since. I never wanted it to become commonplace. If it's great, don't do it too often."

10 In 1968 Eno's friend Peter Schmidt played him Steve Reich's It's Gonna Rain.

Eno: "It's a twenty-minute tape loop which most people find unlistenable. A street preacher saying 'It's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,' on two tapes that go in and out of synch, and as you hear it over and over something amazing happens - you start hearing the details more and more, a bird, a car horn, bells and trumpets and choirs.

"It taught me two things: that quantity is not the issue - it's not the number of instruments that makes the richness of the experience. But more importantly, the interesting composer is the listener, and one way of making things is to trigger the listener's mind, making a landscape rather than leading people."

11 Circa 1969, in Winchester, he joined his first band, The Maxwell Demon. "We rehearsed a great deal and recorded very little." Eno was on vocals and signals generator. "I used to just wave this thing around all the time that generated very pure, very loud soundwaves." He also got into cross-dressing (see 44) - velvet bodices, feather boas and make-up, though not skirts. His explanation was that he was dressing from jumble sales, "where they don't tend to sort clothes by gender."

12 In 1970, Eno joined The Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra that could do twenty-five symphonies in one concert: years before anyone dreamt up Classic FM, it only bothered with the famous bits. Eno was on clarinet: "No, I couldn't play it."

13 Around Christmas 1970, he was eking out a living in London as a secondhand-electronics dealer. Eno: "I was getting on a train, on the Northern Line, and there was a choice between one carriage and the next. I got in and bumped into Andy Mackay. If I'd got into the other one, I wouldn't have joined Roxy Music, and I probably would have had a completely different life."

They had met once before, when Eno had played his tapes in a concert at Reading University, where Mackay was studying, but had not kept in touch. "He said, 'Have you still got some tape-recorders? I'm in this band, we need to get some proper demos made.' So I went over, and set up to record, and he had a synthesizer, which he wasn't all that interested in using himself, so I played it. It was the first time I'd actually played a synthesizer."

Mackay was the saxophonist and oboe player. The singer was a ceramics teacher and van driver named Bryan Ferry. In January 1971 they invited Eno to join as technical adviser. He gradually became a full member of the band, credited with "synthesizer and tapes". By 1972 Roxy Music were not just winning rave reviews for their avant-garde pop, but were high in the charts. Their first hit, the retro-futuristic pop-art stomper Virginia Plain, is now in a TV commercial for Rover cars.

14 Richard Williams (the first critic to praise Roxy Music, later editor of The Sunday Review, now film critic of The Guardian) picks this moment.

"Roxy Music at the 100 Club, Oxford Street, in 1971; Eno standing against the back wall of the club, facing the rest of the band, modifying their sounds through a primitive synthesizer. Bryan Ferry chose to lead Roxy Music in another direction, but a large part of the rest of the world paid more attention to Eno's revolution. His ideas are fun, and they work."

15 When Roxy played live, Ferry sat at the piano, while Eno danced, leered and camped it up. With his androgyny and his long-back-and-sides (it was hard to see where his hair ended, and the feather boa began), he attracted a cult following and a lot of column inches. And fell out with Ferry: "We had a very big rift, a typical clash of young male egos. The press are always interested in people who make good photographs... but it was definitely Bryan's band." On June 21, 1973, Eno called a meeting at Roxy's management, EG, and said, "OK, fuck it, I'm leaving." Then he ran along the King's Road, singing and jumping for joy.

Roxy Music had just released their second LP, For Your Pleasure, often rated their best - though not by Eno, who preferred the third, Stranded.

16 The same day, Eno started his solo career by writing a song, Baby's On Fire. He resolved to try and avoid love songs, "because that's what ninety-six percent of pop songs are." To this day, he has written only three love songs (two just finished), and although he is genial in person, he seems to think his feelings are not distinctive enough to be worth writing about. His lyrics wryly explore the border between meaning and nonsense, and include a few one-liners: "I can't see the lines I used to think I could read between."

17 In 1974, Eno released a quirky pop album, Here Come The Warm Jets (one of the finest British albums in months - Record Mirror), and went out on tour, backed by a pub band, The Winkies. He suffered from acute stage fright. On the fifth night, his right lung collapsed, and with it the tour. "Those who don't have nervous breakdowns," he wrote later, "have physical ones."

18 On January 18, 1975, Eno was knocked down by a taxi in Maida Vale. His friend Judy Nylon visited him in hospital and, as she left, he asked her to put a record on for him. She put on some harp music, not very loud, and it was raining, and one of the speakers had failed. At first annoyed, Eno lay there and decided to try making music like this not as a focal event. "To create music in a way that you might use light or colour, or a painting on the wall." Thus was born one of the dominant genres of the 1990s: ambient.

19 On March 4, 1975, Eno gave his first public talk, at Trent Poly, at the invitation of the composer Michael Nyman: "I was dying of fright. As Michael did what seemed like a six-hour introduction, I was close to blacking out. I then realised I'd forgotten to bring my notes with me. I was too embarrassed to go back and get them, so I just started speaking." Finding that the two-hour talk came out in the right order, he resolved to do future lectures - there have been many - in the same way.

20 In 1975 Eno and Peter Schmidt published Oblique Strategies, a pack of cards designed to resolve creative blockages and other dilemmas. The first was "Honour thy error as a hidden intention." Revised and reissued several times, the cards now have their own website, with a button to click that produces a card at random.

21 In 1976 Eno went to Berlin to work with David Bowie, and helped reinvent him as an electronic semi-instrumentalist (though it might have been harder to prevent reinvention). Bowie was coming out of an addiction to cocaine. "I've been lucky in my salvationists," Bowie said twenty years later. "They say the right person will always come along at the right time. That's a Buddhist thing, isn't it?"

Eno is often referred to as the producer of Bowie's Berlin trilogy, Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. In fact Tony Visconti was the producer ("he never gets enough of the credit"), and Eno was listed only as a member of the band and occasional co-writer. But his influence shimmers through all three records, with their daring rhythms, their unobvious use of electronics, and their blend of alienation with intense feeling.

The first single, Sound And Vision, like most singles of the period, was three minutes long; unlike them, the first half was instrumental. Eno had the idea of creating suspense by holding back the vocal. Despite this, the song was a hit, reaching Number 3 in the British charts; because of it, it has been used as the backing for countless television trailers.

22 The same year, the same team recorded "Heroes". Eno: "I remember we needed a guitarist, so we rang up Robert Fripp, who was in New York, and he got on a plane and came over the same night, straight from the airport to the studio, and started playing. So you get this wonderful out-of-tune guitar, circling round the melody, matching the yearning of the words, and then he finally gets there, and there's this great sense of relief." The Eno moment here is the decision to keep the out-of-tune bit.

Never a big hit, "Heroes" was quickly recognised as a classic, and has been covered many times, notably by Oasis. It can now be heard on TV ads for Microsoft (see 38).

23 Eno moved on from Bowie to Talking Heads, the New York art-rock quartet, and helped reinvent them, too: over three albums, they grew from nervy new-wavers to an exuberant, and still nervy, funk band.

David Byrne, the singer, said: "Eno gave me confidence in the studio, with that method of not going in with anything prepared."

The woman in the band, Tina Weymouth, was struck by something else. "On the second day we recorded [Fear Of Music], Brian recognised that I wasn't feeling so great, and he did the dishes. He was working terribly hard and not feeling so well, but he helped me out. That really impressed me. Nobody in our band ever did the dishes."

24 Continuing with his own recording career, Eno wrote a song about Talking Heads, King's Lead Hat. He, too, attracts anagrams. His name converts easily into Brain One, and one of the websites devoted to him contains dozens of anagrams of Before And After Science (1977). He is also a keen Scrabble player, and argues that you should always go for the fifty-point bonus for using all seven letters, even if it means missing a go.

25 From 1978 to 1983 Eno lived in New York. Once, by accident, he left a video camera running on his window sill, pointing skywards. When he played back the images, he found that the TV had to be placed on its side. Honouring his error as a hidden intention, he decided to make video paintings. New York, he discovered, moves a lot slower at sky level. "The films arise from a mixture of nostalgia and hope," Eno told Sound On Sound magazine, "and from a desire to make a quiet place for myself. They evoke in me a sense of what could have been, and generate a nostalgia for the future."

He has had exhibitions of video art in dozens of cities. Demand is greater outside Britain - "Infinitely. Here, people don't like it if you do two things. They ask me what I do, and I say, 'I'm a musician - and artist,' and their faces fall, and I can see the word 'dilettante' crossing their minds."

"I am a dilettante," Eno has said. "It's only in England that dilettantism is considered a bad thing. In other countries it's called inter-disciplinary research."

26 In 1983, Eno started a company, Opal, to manage him and a like-minded gang of artists and musicians, publish music and release records (on the labels Land and All Saints - no relation to the group). He calls it "a small family business." The co-founder was Anthea Norman-Taylor, who had been royalties manager at EG. Opal also publishes a newsletter, for serious Enophiles, of whom, if Eno's record sales are a guide, there are about two hundred thousand around the world.

27 In 1984, Eno reluctantly agreed to produce U2, then only halfway to being huge. It was a departure for both parties.

Bono: "He'd just gone into retirement, but I sold him the idea of finding a room that has its own special feeling, and allowing that to be the basis of a recording. We'd found this ballroom at Slane Castle, and he wanted to record in the ultimate Irish ballroom. I don't think we used the ballroom that much, but it got him there.

"He arrived dressed like an architect, with that hip '80s briefcase that people used to carry, and a leather suit with a leather tie. And he used words like 'treatment' and 'procedure'."

28 In 1986, at Windmill Lane studios in Dublin, Eno and Daniel Lanois produced The Joshua Tree, one of the landmark records of the 1980s. The opening track was the scudding, soaring Where the Streets Have No Name. But only just.

Bono: "Brian tried to wipe the master of that song. I'm sure a lot of people would have been happier if he had. He loved the song, but he grew to hate it, 'cause we were taking so long over it. He is a grumbler - one of the grumbling people of Suffolk. Pat McCarthy, who was then a tape op, and has now gone on to engineer Madonna, physically tackled Brian, who was about to press red to wipe the tapes. So I owe Pat for stopping him. But I also owe Brian for the spirit of wanting to wipe it. We need that in the studio, us rock bands.

"We use him as a catalyst and an editor. He's less use in the middle of a project, but he's great at the start and the end. We didn't go to art school, like so many groups - we went to Brian.

"He was really interested in gospel in the '80s, and he saw us as making ecstatic music long before the chemical. He was interested in gospel and doo-wop and voices, and maybe he had just been art-schooled out, and wanted to come to a group that wasn't burdened with any of that - by which you can read 'uncool'. He was interested in us because there was [Bono laughs] not a trace of irony.

"It was nice to have some back-up, from somebody with the past that he had, to say 'trust your instinct, fuck your intellect'. It would be sad if we have in any way reversed that. We're very fond of him and every time I see him it reminds me why I am such a fan of The Egg."

29 In January 1988, Eno married Anthea Norman-Taylor. "One of the reasons I am capable of running three careers in parallel is because I married my manager." The relationship is a bit more romantic than that: these are clearly two people who love talking to each other. They have two girls, Irial and Darla, aged eight and six. Eno waited twenty-two years for a second daughter, and then a third came along in eighteen months.

Eno has written about the marriage: "We often refer to ourselves as Wide Angle and Zoom. I'm Zoom - good at intense concentration on something until I get somewhere with it. She's Wide Angle - able to keep a lot of different things in the picture and adjust the balance between them." Well, it beats Snuggles and Pooh.

30 In 1991, in a spasm of progressiveness, Desert Island Discs invited Eno to be their castaway. He was tempted to choose eight records that other people liked and he didn't, to make life on the island more interesting, but relented because it wouldn't have made good radio.

His choices were: Duke Of Earl by Gene Chandler, Alu Jon Jonki Jon by Fela Ransome Kuti and the Africa 70, Sunday Morning by The Velvet Underground, He Loved Him Madly by Miles Davis, Herouvimska Pessen by the Bulgarian State Choir, Too Much Time by Captain Beefheart, Ya Tayr by Fairuz, and, above all, Lord Don't Forget About Me by Dorothy Love Coates (probably the most liberated of all gospel singers). For the book, he rejected his favourite novel, Nabokov's Lolita, in favour of Contingency, Irony, And Solidarity by the post-modern philosopher Richard Rorty.

31 For decades Eno called himself a non-musician, but lately he has preferred "musician, record producer and artist."

"I shouldn't really use the word musician. I don't play things very well. I use them quite well."

32 In August 1992, Eno drew a crowd of 1,500 to Sadler's Wells for a lecture, washed down with music and slides, entitled Perfume, Defence And David Bowie's Wedding. The first part was about smells and how to mix them, a longstanding interest; the second was about the defence industry ("this is increasingly the way that governments explore new technologies"); the third was a firsthand account of the blessing of David Bowie's second marriage, to Iman, in a church in Florence. "You couldn't tell what was sincere and what was theatre," Eno reported. "It was very touching."

33 In that lecture, Eno gave his definition of culture: "everything you don't have to do." Thus cuisine is culture, but eating is not; fashion is, but clothing isn't. The great thing about the definition is that it covers both the common senses of the word - culture meaning art, and culture as in the ways that a group of people have in common.

34 At the Brits in 1994, Eno was named as Best Producer, for his work with U2 on Zooropa. It had taken twenty-two years for the music industry to give him an award. In 1988, he had been nominated as Best Producer, for The Joshua Tree, but lost out to Stock, Aitken & Waterman, of all people.

35 In 1994 the Enos went for a Chinese in Westboume Park with Bill Leeson, who had started the charity War Child to help children in Bosnia. Bill Leeson: "Anthea had done some work with us, but Brian just wanted to know what life in Sarajevo was like. He was one of these semi-mythical figures - I didn't even know what he looked like."

Eno, previously sceptical about pop-for-charity, became a patron of War Child, and was soon joined by Bowie, and then Luciano Pavarotti. Eno produced the all-star album Help (recorded in a day, raised £1,500,000), formed the group Passengers with U2 and Pavarotti, released the beautiful folk-song/aria Miss Sarajevo, helped build a music centre at Mostar, and eventually played live to an audience of two hundred thousand in Sarajevo. "Brian has been pivotal," Leeson says. "He has an extraordinary reputation, spanning a lot of areas, which has lent us a kudos that very few people could have done."

36 In 1995 Eno kept a diary. It was published as A Year (With Swollen Appendices), a bulging, four-hundred-and-twenty-four-page paperback. More thought-provoking than Alan Clark, more surprising than Alan Bennett, it achieved rather fewer sales.

37 In 1995, for War Child, Eno put on two shows in London of work by rock stars: one of art, the other a catwalk fashion show. He also played Wembley, putting on an installation of music and other things at Acorn Self-Storage, next to the stadium. He was helped by students from the Royal College of Art, where he had just become Visiting Professor.

38 When Microsoft released Windows 95, Eno, to the consternation of certain Enophiles, provided some of the theme music.

39 Stewart Brand, architect, thinker and close friend: "Two words are all it took for Brian Eno to crystallise the thinking, name, and direction of an organisation. He and I are on a board of a non-profit foundation aiming to 'foster long-term responsibility' by building a very large, very slow clock designed by computer scientist Danny Hillis. Four years ago the board was debating tediously online how to refer to the clock and even how to think about it. Brian wrote, 'How about calling it "The Clock of the Long Now" - since the idea is that of extending our concept of the present - making it longer. Civilisations with long nows look after things better.'" (Details at

40 Jah Wobble, musician, built on Eno's music for a Derek Jarman film to make the album, Spinner (1995): "We had a meeting and I was impressed that a star like him was willing to take a chance on someone left-field like me - and that he had the bottle to go through with it. He wasn't afraid to show that he didn't know everything, unlike a lot of people in the music business. He trusted me to do it, and let go. All the time you hear this egghead Eno thing, and he kind of plays up to that, but I think it's bollocks. What I saw was this geezer who's a very nice, typically English person. There's a character in Blake called Eno, whose name is an anagram of eon. She's one of the main entities, and not of the intellect - I think she's the aged mother who opens the Book of Loss. You could say Brian Eno is an aged mother."

41 "Starting to think," Eno wrote in the diary, "that all the world's problems can be solved with either oyster sauce or backing vocals." He describes his own singing voice as "thin and weedy," but feels it lends itself to backing vocals because it "stacks up well." Sometimes he does backing vocals anonymously - he says.

42 At the Brits in 1996, Michael Jackson gave a live performance of Earth Song which was unmistakably messianic. In mid-hubris, he was ambushed by Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, then a cult figure, who bared his bottom for the cameras. Jarvis was briefly arrested, because Jackson's act involved children; the tabloids, without thinking, backed Jackson. That they later backtracked was partly due to Eno, who took out a press ad to express support for Cocker and revulsion for Jackson's act.

At the next big awards show, the Mercury Music Prize, Cocker returned the compliment. Pulp won the prize and Cocker gave his £20,000 to War Child. Among those on Eno's table was Bryan Ferry, with whom he had recently made up.

43 Eno makes no bones about being a bottoms man. In his diary, he describes spending time in Photoshop on his computer, "modifying back views of women to expand their bottoms to cosmic proportions. Strange that one remains gripped by the same fantasies throughout life."

John Brown, a neighbour in London, and publisher of Viz magazine (world-famous for its bottoms), says: "What I really like about him is that if we're in a restaurant and he's in the middle of a discourse on modernist art in St Petersburg, he'll suddenly say 'look at the arse on that waitress'."

44 In 1996, swallowing twenty years' reluctance, Eno appeared on stage with Passengers in Pavarotti's annual charity concert at Modena, northern Italy. Bono: "Brian went shopping for a pair of slingbacks. Occasionally Brian does turn up in eyeliner and he is a foot fetishist, no question. It is important to have a man as serious as Brian, in his forties, checking out a pair of ladies' high heels. Maybe it was a flashback to Roxy Music. Not slingbacks, flashbacks."

45 In 1996, Eno's music reached a new generation, when Deep Blue Day, an instrumental from Apollo that sounds like country & western done in space, was used in the film Trainspotting. The soundtrack has sold four million copies and earned Eno, at a guess, £100,000.

46 Anton Corbijn, friend and photographer: "Brian was recording in Amsterdam earlier this year. We had a meal one night and I promised to visit him in the studio next day and take a photo. I couldn't believe where I found him. It was like the film Delicatessen - some derelict basement, in an abandoned part of the harbour, in a soon-to-be-demolished house. The most basic 'studio' I had ever been in. And he was all by himself!

"He was as happy as Larry - had a few instruments lying around and was singing over the sounds he had just created, then proudly played me some results. And it was so typical of Brian wherever he is, he just makes it work for himself. That is the thing I learned from him over the years, that often in life you are confronted by a fair amount of possibilities and the best thing you can do is just go for one with a pretty quick decision and then make that particular choice work for you. It takes you to interesting places with surprising results and I try to practise it daily."

47 For years Eno had no religious belief except that fundamentalism is a bad thing. Lately he finds himself turning from a lapsed Catholic to a lapsed atheist. "I've started to realise that I like people who are in some sense religious."

48 Dave Stewart, musician, producer, former Eurythmic: "Last month I visited Brian in France. He was doing his soup ritual when I arrived (expert soup chef). After I had double helpings he invited me into the little studio next to the house. He was very excited as he had been recording on his own for a week and wanted to play me what he was up to. Eyes sparkling, he nervously reeled through the multitrack - I had no idea what to expect as always with Brian, then I heard a clock ticking. I waited and the clock kept ticking.

"After about two minutes I said, 'Nice clock'. He said, 'Yeah, it's my portable alarm clock.' We listened for another three minutes until it stopped, then I said 'It's a bit minimal.' He burst out laughing and told me he couldn't find a drum machine or anything to keep time all week so he recorded his clock like a metronome. We recorded five or six tracks in two days with this clock until I found a plastic toy guitar with a built-in drumbeat stuck on waltz time, which we used for another two songs.

"Brian is now a virtuoso alarm-clock player, available for weddings, barmitzvahs, funerals, etc."

49 28 April, 1998. While Eno was at his office being photographed for this feature, Howie B, fellow Passenger and U2 producer, interrupted a holiday to respond to our fax. Instead of a moment, he came up with a poem:

In my pocket
I just can't get enough.

50 April 28. Professor Dan Fern, Head of the School of Communications at the Royal College of Art, sends a fax from Kyoto, Japan:

"I couldn't think of an Eno moment, so I treated myself to one. At sunset this evening I was on top of a mountain to the east of Kyoto, near a wonderful temple called Kami-Daigo. I brought some Eno tapes with me, knowing that one would fit the moment perfectly. It turned out to be a track called Spider And I [from Before And After Science]. On the way back I sat opposite a girl wearing a T-shirt that said 'Let's Communicate Under The Sky'."