Melody Maker NOVEMBER 10, 1973 - by Geoff Brown


Brian Eno is an incompetent musician with a love of the absurd and ridiculous - according to Eno. His next project: Percy Edwards and Winifred Atwell rocking out. He talks to Geoff Brown

"I'll make a prediction here," said Brian Eno, stretched out on a sofa and looking as wan and wasted as a consumptive nineteenth-century poet.

"I think, in fact, I shall be seen as a rock revivalist in a funny way, because the thing that people miss when they do their rock revival rubbish is the fact that early rock music was, in a lot of cases, the product of incompetence, not competence."

And if there's one thing that Eno is, it's an incompetent musician. That's what he thinks anyway.

"There's a misconception," he continued, "that these people were brilliant musicians and they weren't. They were brilliant musicians in the spiritual sense. They had terrific ideas and a lot of ball or whatever. They knew what the physical function of music was but they weren't virtuosi."

Just like Eno, see?

The reaction he's predicted should follow the release on January 11 of his solo album. He's finished it. He played me the tapes. It's great stuff, marvellous fun.

There's a track with out-of-tune piano, there's a track that's just two notes, there's a track with a frantic Fripp scrubbing a violent solo, there's a track with great and witty lyrics, which sounds as though it just might be a dig at Ferry.

Lovely titles, too - Blank Frank, Dead Finks Don't Talk, Driving Me Backwards.

Brian Eno is a complete contradiction. His glamorous stage appearance presupposed a cultured speech, a distant coolness. In private his accent is softened cockney; his manner is open and friendly.

His face is like one of Tolstoy's starving artists. Gaunt, aquiline, sensitive nose, high cheekbones topped with thinning white hair which is streaked with reddish rust colouring over the right ear.

The surroundings in this Ladbroke Grove living room match the image perfectly. Faded elegance. A fox fur hanging over a cane room divider, a broken rocking horse in one corner, shelves of books, records and tapes in another.

Since leaving Roxy, Eno's been working prolifically. He's recorded an album with Bob Fripp, he's recorded his own solo material for future solo albums and he's heavily involved in the formation of an avant-garde music label. All this and he's bringing fun back into rock, too.

It has made him ill. He can't swallow, yet he's often very, very hungry. The night before, he'd bought a three-course meal and, he says, had just about managed to eat the soup. His weight is down to 8st 1lb and, dressed in black shirt and trousers, he looks like a pencil.

But though he's not physically fit, his eyes have a bright sparkle. They laugh.

Brian Eno left Roxy Music because he got bored.

"First of all, let me say that I think Roxy is a great band and I think their new album is terrific."


"But what it lacks for me is one oft he most important elements of my musical life, which is insanity. I'm interested in things being absurd and there was something really exciting in Roxy at the time. We were juxtaposing things that didn't naturally sit together."

Brian liked the awkwardness of the early band - "things were just being collaged together.

"The element of clumsiness and grotesqueness that arose from that early thing ceased to be there."

Everyone in Roxy had completely different talents and interests and "there was a terrific tension at one stage in the music, which I really enjoyed."

You get one person playing simple rhythms (himself, for instance, stabbing chords on piano, playing simply through sheer necessity) and another would play complex patterns over the top.

There's a lot of that contrast in ability on his solo album because he used musicians from totally different areas in the sessions. There was, for instance, Fripp and John Wetton on bass and Simon King on drums "and me on piano, and I can't play piano to save my life."

"I think it's successful because the piano and drums are so restricted in what they do that it gives those other instruments a terrific amount of freedom."

There's an impression that Eno is trying to recreate the early spirit of Roxy Music and move it in a direction that he would've preferred. There is, however, no great evidence of any personal friction between Eno and Ferry.

"The problem in the last year of being in Roxy was that I didn't feel that there was any time to experiment."

Eno could get an idea he'd want to try, but he'd need time to set it up, say, in an hour.

"Since we were paying equally for the studio time, it's quite expensive... It works out at about £10 each for me to do an experiment, and it's in the nature of an experiment that it might fail."

He laughs. The fallacy of rock music, says Eno, is that experimental music is successful. That, he says, is obvious but not true. It wouldn't be an experiment if there wasn't a chance of failure. He's spent a whole day in the studio just trying for a sound and he never reached it. That's experimenting.

"The worst thing about feeling that constraint of time is you feel you must make safe experiments, so you don't actually move very far because you do things that you know have a very good chance of succeeding."

Eno first got into music through poetry. He used to sing along to records a lot, of course, and by the time he was ten could do a very fair Buddy Holly imitation. He never thought he'd be in a group, though. He couldn't play an instrument, which doesn't really help, and he had no inclination to learn, which also doesn't help.

His first real instrument was a tape recorder.

"It was the first thing I learnt to use in a creative way. I think the only way one can define a musical instrument is a piece of equipment, be it a piece of wood with metal on or a couple of engines with tape on them, that one uses to create or transform sounds."

The first things Eno did were connected with phonetic poetry rather than music and singing. He'd build up tracks with spoken words and then he'd talk spoken words and then he'd talk over the top of them. He did this at Ipswich Art College, where he was studying art.

"I was a painter... not a very good one incidentally."

He leans over the side of the sofa and produces a plastic bag. It's full of notebooks. In them are descriptions of his paintings. "They're far better than the paintings, they really are" (that eye-sparking laugh again). "Someone's making a film about the notebooks at the moment."

He opens one. It's full of minute writing and diagrams. They go back to when he was about sixteen and look like Leonardo da Vinci's earliest doodlings.

"Then I gradually found myself becoming more and more interested in avant-garde music."

He found that music was a much quicker medium than painting and therefore more satisfying to him. There wasn't such a gap between the formation of an idea and its execution. That's why his paintings are unfinished or completed in "a very unconvincing way. They looked as if I'd got bored halfway through, which in fact is what had happened."

Music was that much more immediate. As soon as you start you're making sounds. "It's an activity that has a more direct emotional appeal."

That's why most of the art forms revolve around music, says Eno. He shifts his light bulk in the sofa. His empty stomach is causing some aggravation.

He got into rock music in 1969. He was a singer for a short while before returning to the avant-garde fold. But it was an important few months. The group was Maxwell Demon.

Their music, says Eno, was "not unlike some of the stuff on my album, actually. It was very advanced in some ways but backward in others. We didn't rehearse very much and I never used to write lyrics, or not very much. I used to improvise them, which is, in fact, how most of the lyrics in this [solo album] are done."

Eno improvises and then writes the lyrics down: "The way I write lyrics is very interesting... I don't know if I should reveal it before I patent it."

Maxwell Demon was an ambitious project. It took a lot of confidence to get on stage with ten minutes' rehearsed music and play for an hour. By definition, improvisatory bands like that often do things which don't work out. Eno found it "quite nerve-racking."

"I thought it craved the indulgence of the audience a bit too much really, but it was a very useful experience because it indicated that I did have a feeling for rock music that I wasn't aware of before, and also that I really loved singing. I really loved it, very, very much. And I never forgot that."

After Maxwell Demon broke up, Eno thought that this flirtation with rock had come to an end. The fact that he couldn't play an instrument was the problem once again; he'd be a luxury in any group.

Then in early 1971 a group was formed that needed a luxury addition. Eno joined Roxy. He'd known Andy Mackay from some work they'd done on one or two avant-garde electronic music things.

One of the reasons Eno thinks he was asked to join is because he wouldn't play the instrument in an ordinary way, "which is the most pedestrian and boring way imaginable, where they treated it as an extended Farfisa organ".

It's not as good as a Farfisa for that type of work, says Eno, and anyway he thinks that the term "synthesizers" should be extended to include the more general term "electronics". The people he likes for electronics are Phil Spector and Jimi Hendrix. People who realise that "what they're doing is a whole extended process right up to the loudspeakers."

"I don't like synthesizers I must confess at this stage. They've got so many bad associations."

He's always asked about people like Walter Carlos and so on but says, "I'm totally bored by them, I really am."

In electronics and avant-garde music, John Cage has most influenced him as a theorist; Morton Feldman has been most important as a composer. "The idea of music as being just a chunk out of a longer continuum has always appealed to me. That's why I like The Velvet Underground. You get the feeling with a lot of their tracks that they started many years later and all you're hearing is just a chunk taken out somewhere and put on to the record."

Much of Eno's solo album has that same feeling; quite a lot of the Fripp/Eno has it too.

The collaboration happened quite by accident when Eno mentioned to Fripp that he'd invented something that treated guitar sounds in an unusual way. Bob popped in one night, tried out the device, immediately realised what was happening to the sounds and adapted to it, played on it as though it was the most natural thing to do.

"The first side of that album took literally forty-five minutes to make. Nobody believes that, because there were about fifty guitars on it and it wasn't doctored or anything."

Eno had "invented" a whole mess of things that relate to the use of tape recorders. Once you accept, he says, that all you're dealing with is time and the ability to hold things from the past it's quite simple.

"Nothing I've ever done with a tape recorder is brilliant... It's just obvious if you think of what the true function of a tape recorder is - if you think of it as an automatic musical collage device."

Brian Eno reckons he'd perform on stage again at some time, but not heavy touring. "I think what I'm doing at the moment is much more important to me than performing anyway."

He prefers the studio. It's become his natural environment. He doesn't feel it necessary to direct musicians. He just listens to what they're playing and "then I'd take what they're doing and say, 'What position does this put me in?' and 'How can I justify the musical idea to suit?'

"I just find myself so happy in studios... (that laugh again) - so happy, I just spend my life in them and feel very tired and very ill as a result."

The musicians on the solo album, says Eno, don't mind his manipulation of their sound. They know what to expect when they play on his sessions... "If nothing else I'm known as being a mutator of sound.

"I learnt very much doing this album. I did this very quickly. I recorded it in twelve days, so it's quite a cheap album."

He had a good relationship with the engineer, which was important for his type of work. "Empirically, I know what sounds I want, though in technical terms I might not be able to express them as well."

In many ways he sounded like Willie Mitchell describing the development of the "Al Green" sound.

Eno has already started on his second solo album. It sounds, judging by the tapes he played me, an extension of the first album. No new directions, just working the same field a bit more.

He shifts in the sofa again and looks uncomfortable, pained. A bit more talk about Roxy, perhaps.

He enjoyed America when they were there. Not the playing but the stimulating tension of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

"I get the feeling that I enjoyed America more than anyone else in Roxy. It was disappointing in terms of playing, because it was a very badly structured tour."

Eno hates touring. So much time is wasted in travelling, so little is spent on music. On that US tour he worked out that they were in America for four or five weeks. In all they played ten hours' music. Such a waste.

Now he's left Roxy the group has, apparently, eased off the glamour. "I assume they'll have replaced it with some other kind of image. I don't know, but Roxy is in a position now where it doesn't have to push itself in. People are going to come to the concerts however the band looks or however they play," he laughs that twinkling laugh.

"It's true, it's evidently true." That accent. The 'tees' and 'aitches' are beginning to fall away like autumn leaves. "After awhile, so many assumptions are made about your music, the audience is actually hearing assumptions rather than sounds. It really is irrelevant how Roxy play - for awhile anyway."

Eno, by the way, thinks they play very well but were under-rehearsed for the start of their tour. He'll probably go see them at the Rainbow.

Had Eno developed his 'glamorous' image deliberately? Was this a slight blush?

"I don't think one ever does consciously plan out a campaign that way. What tends to happen is that you do something, it gets responded to well, so you do it a bit more and you keep doing it more until the response starts falling off."

He's always been doing things like the glam bit, though. "It wasn't a difficult thing to do. I didn't suddenly think 'I'm gonna change my life and do this,' it just seemed like a natural thing for me to do."

He shifts once more. Lights a cigarette. The pause lengthens. That smile erupts. "It's connected with sexual affairs quite strongly, I should imagine. In a way that I can't amplify on either."

Then let us talk, I suggested, about the avant-garde label he's trying to set up.

At present there's Gavin Bryars and there's the Portsmouth Sinfonia.

Bryars. it seems, happened to be walking underWaterloo Arches in 1968 with a portable tape recorder in hand. He recorded a tramp singing a hymn - Jesus' Blood. He made a tape loop of it, wrote a score for it, hired a small orchestra and recorded each instrument coming in one at a time. First strings, then bass, then tuba, then organ, etc. So that over this "very sad, broken old voice" a beautiful orchestra builds up.

Sounds a bit like Amazing Grace to me, but Eno reckons it'll get compared to Terry Riley. Everything avant-garde gets compared to Terry Riley, he says, and cites a review of the Fripp/Eno album as evidence.

The Sinfonia are, says Eno, "A group of musicians of varying degrees of competence". Some can play, some can't; some can read music; some can't. There seem to be more can'ts than cans.

They try to play the popular classics seriously, but their untutored personnel ensure it comes out sounding very funny. The violin section, for instance, has a good lead violinist whose fingering is copied by the man sitting next to him, who is copied by the one next to him and so on.

"So there's a delay in terms of time and a decay in terms of accuracy.... you get this very lush feeling to the thing."

It may sound pretty appalling, but Eno's enthusiastic about it. "The vast majority of these people can't play their instruments and yet they are definitely producing music."

Brian Eno is the clarinettist in the Portsmouth Sinfonia: "and if you think I'm bad at guitar"... the smile glows again.

There's also another project he's toying with. "I actually thought of writing a piece of music and not using rock musicians at all for it and yet try to make it sound like rock music. People like Winifred Atwell and Larry Adler and Percy Edwards. It would be just amazing to get them into a studio to try to make rock music with them."

Though he maybe feeling physically drained at the moment, Eno's been talking for almost two hours with infectious enthusiasm. If he sells enough solo albums, he may get on the road but it'll have to be a short tour.

Travelling is, he reiterates, an unproductive chore and his health deteriorates and he needs a long time after to get creatively thinking again. He's unsure whether the usefulness of playing live is worth the aggravation, though it does feed a certain side of his ego.

Eno on stage getting the buzz from the crowds, roaring through the encore ("Roxy always played best on encores"), then slumping like a zombie in the dressing room. Is that all there is?

"Inevitably you want something more to happen to carry the feeling on." A recording studio back at the hotel would get some great music taped, he says. The release, of course, would usually come in wenching and clubbing. Apparently, unlike the rest of Roxy (see last week's MM), Eno has little trouble in this direction. Did he miss that aspect of the road, that type of release?

He got up from the sofa and disappeared into the kitchen. He returned with a plate. On it rested half a pineapple. He bit squelchily into its flesh just as a tall, somewhat gorgeous female creature walked into the living room. A Lizard Girl?

Brian Eno munches at the pineapple. It looked like he was starting to eat again, anyway.