INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
New Musical Express AUGUST 22, 1992 - by Stuart Maconie
A HUGE EVER GROWING PULSATING BRIAN THAT RULES FROM THE CENTRE OF THE ULTRAWORLD
Freelance theorist, random ideas generator, agent provocateur and gentleman musician, Brian Eno may well be the most important man in pop, for without his off-kilter imagination and theories about biscuits, U2 would not have been re-invented and The Orb would never have existed. Stuart Maconie quickly removes his studded black leather jacket and cruises the farthest frontiers of sound with the man who invented ambient music.
The more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes. Brian Eno is the most important man in pop.
If pop is a cultural space where (we hope) exciting things happen, then that space is defined by the events going on at its borders. Look. One the one hand, U2's Achtung Baby and its companion Zoo TV tour, the rock statement of recent years, the apotheosis of the rock band argument. Expansive, sexy, dark, dangerous, ultra-modern, yet somehow uplifting. Perhaps the first stadium rock event with a discernible IQ.
And look. Right down there by the opposite goalposts. UFOrb by The Orb. This, the sound of another culture entirely. The soundtrack to the post-rave dissolution of convention, anti-rock, anti-the established structures, a non-band with a Number One album that subverts as it succeeds and a free music that works as atmosphere rather than narrative.
Brian Eno is behind all this. He was one of the chief architects behind Achtung Baby and Zoo TV. Also, Alex Patterson of The Orb recognizes him as a mentor. Without Eno's off-kilter imagination, it's possible that Achtung Baby would never have existed.
But it's only when you realise that most hip-hop, most modern dance collages take their cues from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, his 1981 venture with David Byrne, that you reach the inescapable conclusion: Brian Eno invented '90s pop.
• • •
I'm in a pleasant, slightly austere room in Kilburn having tea and biscuits with Brian Eno. On the table is a copy of Modern Fighting Helicopters. Eno, by the way, has a theory about the biscuits, which are oaty with bits of fruit in (Possible Ostlers? - Ambient Biscuit Ed). he thinks that they, like many foods today, are packaged in fives since five is na stiffly indivisible number. "If it's you and a friend, or two friends or three, the onus is on you to buy two packets," he muses, crunching thoughtfully. By his own demure standards, Eno's profile is rather high at the moment; earlier this month he gave a strange talk at Sadler's Wells. His recent work with U2 has drawn plaudits from all directions. Ambient music, his difficult baby of the '70s, is one of the most vibrant areas of today's pop. And he has a new LP of his own, Nerve Net, his first solo record in seven years, a heterodox collection of ad hoc space instrumentals and obscure pop. But product promotion Eno-style is more sober than you may be used to.
"Well, I like it (the record). That's one of the only ways I have to judge. 'Does it get to me?' I'm not a hack, you see. I don't have the skill. I can't think 'Diminished ninth to major seventh - this always gets 'em'. But I do like it. Although I don't want to listen to it now. It doesn't have a function. I don't casually listen to music. it's there when I want something quite specific to happen. On a daily basis, I don't listen to anything. I've never had a very big record collection, about two hundred and fifty at the most, and out of those at any one time I'm probably listening to about three or four.
"For instance, one of the pieces of music that has most affected me I've only heard once. It was It's Gonna Rain by Steve Reich. I've never listened to it since but I've internalised it and I've been living on the possibilities ever since. It's an obsession. And the pieces on Nerve Net come from that kind of obsession."
Eno devotees will be keen to know what became of My Squelchy Life, the excellent, lost album of last year which vanished from the release schedules despite being notoriously reviewed in advance by one monthly magazine. He looks slightly pained.
"To understand what happened you have to understand how I make records. The release is the final part of the creation. I say, give me a release date and I work bloody hard to meet that deadline. I did this last year and My Squelchy Life was all ready to go when Warners in America said there are too many records coming out in September, yours will get completely lost, why not wait until February? And I suppose they were right but I knew in February the record would be obsolete, at least for me.
"So I said I'll abandon it. And they said, wait, don't you believe in it? But it wasn't a question of not believing in it. There's not a record of mine that I'd release now. They'd all be different. I don't make definitive statements. Four weeks later, they'd all be different. So I used My Squelchy Life as the seed of some of the music on Nerve Net."
Unsurprisingly, given that he produces stadium rock bands, develops perfumes, makes films and music and lectures businessmen on the future of Europe, Eno has often been attacked as a dilletante by those with smaller horizons. he defends himself with relish.
"Dilletante only has a bad meaning in English. In French and Italian, it just means a non-specialist, someone who finds the connection between things. There is so much specialist knowledge generated in the world. We need more people to create usable packages of concepts.
"Like the lay scientists in England have been philosophers in recent years. Like, who fucking reads Jacques Derrida? Nobody sensible reads the French arsehole. Or any of those obscure, old-fashioned people. But lots of people read Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Stafford Beer. And dilletantes don't depend on it for their job. The great gentlemen scientists of the past owed no allegiance to anyone and they produced great stuff. Whereas most scientists are rewarded for their caution."
So is that how you see yourself, as a gentleman musician?
"I think that's fair, I don't have to do it. There's plenty else I can do. I love it but it's not the only way I've got of working things out. Fortunately, I'm in the great position of being expected to do unpredictable, off-beat things. And that position has been resisted by music critics in Britain more than anyone else. Despite their black leather jackets and studs, they're total reactionaries. The biggest sin in their eyes is to get ideas above your station. (Adopts sneering voice) 'Pretentious!' It's a warped class thing and so English, it's unbearable. And these are supposed radicals. They're about as radical as Garry Bushell. It's an envy of what they fear might be better than them.
"And the opposite is sincerity which they love, the leather jacket crew. They love Keith Richards because he looks like he might die and Lou Reed because he looks like acadaver already, people who'll die on the cross for them."
But who are/were the sincerest rock band in the world? U2?
"Yes, and it's a dilemma that they have been through. With U2 a picture of them involved With u2 a picture of them evolved when they were in their late teens and early twenties. And I remember what I was like at that age, this terrible sense of justice. Being cool is easier. But even though the world is ironic and contingent and non-absolute, sometimes you have to take decisions. And at least U2 pitch themselves in with enthusiasm. the cool school will die being cool. I feel for U2 'cos they made all their mistakes in public. But they've had all their success in public too. They were not hiding. They were prepared to look stupid, in a way that no Southern English band would do."
• • •
Eno's role in the musical world is a shadowy but vital one. He's somewhere between freelance theorist, random ideas generator, agent provocateur and research scientist. In this way, he's been involved in some of the landmark records of recent years. While the bulk of pop wallows in nostalgia for a mythical golden age, records like Low, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Achtung Baby and Music For Airports embrace the future, cultivate the shock of the new.
But wouldn't he rather wear the leather trousers and get the birds? He laughs.
"I like being a boffin! I like not being a frontman. I like navigating situations. I encourage people to dabble. The market doesn't encourage experimentation, the fans don't encourage experimentation. So it's useful to have someone like me who will nurture the fumbling new idea. I don't have to encourage U2 to have hits. They don't need that. What they need is someone who'll encourage them at the frontiers of what they do.
"Critics will always hear the minuses, like they did when I was making lots of records - 'Oh, he's not singing, it hasn't got a beat.' My role is to be the person who says, 'I love the fact that it's got no beat'. And I have another function.
"On Achtung Baby there was one track and I argued so much about it. I said this is crap, this is a trivial, meaningless musical joke. In a year, you'll hate it. And I argued so much that it changed, into Real Thing that's on the album."
But I was also thinking directly of your own work. For instance, when you 'invented' ambient music in 1978, it was a very left-field notion. Now it's passed into the musical language...
A palpable anger rises to the surface of Eno's calm exterior.
"Yes, I'd like you to put that on your fucking paper. For four years, the NME were so obscenely rude about it. Just because it wasn't some fucking ballsy, flesh and blood testosterone rocker thing. Eno-esque was a term of abuse. And I'll never forgive those arseholes. There were five of them and I will never forget them. two of them, I'm delighted to say, are dead and I look forward to the day when I read the obituaries of the other three."
His severity dissolves into a faintly embarrassed chuckle. "I'm sorry, but I really did face this wall of hostility. It wasn't as if I was forcing stuff on anyone. They could all have fucking ignored it as far as I was concerned and carried on listening to The Rolling Stones and The Clash. But I thought it was irresponsible for them to say 'This is not something you should listen to'. I'm very pleased that Michael Jackson is sueing the Daily Mirror. I hope he bankrupts the lot of them. There's a total lack of courage. They're spineless, conformist rags. And the music press, sadly, was like that. They were very funny though. They did a lot for English humour if not for English culture."
Deep breath. "Anyway, like you say. Ambient music. Top of the charts. What can I say? I told you so."
Of course, Eno's most recent and striking public venture was his illustrated lecture at Sadler's Wells. It was called Perfume, Defence And David Bowie's Wedding, though you didn't find this out until the end. It was a weird and diverting way to spend an evening, though I was alarmed to hear a comment from Eno to the effect that he would never do anything like it again.
He hesitates and cites the fact that he couldn't see the audience for one thing, but there's clearly more. "I knew I was walking into a minefield, a minefield of 'who the fuck does he think he is?' which is of course always said by those who don't have to buy their own tickets. London is the least sympathetic place to 'pretentious' people like me. In New York or Berlin or LA, they say 'Here's someone who's done interesting work. Let's hear what he's got to say.' Here, it's 'Go on, show us!'"
He pauses. "I think the audience was sympathetic but... you see what i was talking about wasn't easy. It was an attempt to address the same idea through three different subjects, one personal, one impersonal and one a very celebrated, trivial event that in the end moved me. At David Bowie's wedding I began by thinking 'Is this real life or is it theatre?' and I realised that I was being exactly the kind of person I hate. All that sincerity crap which assumes that some people mean it and some people are just pretending. Let me tell you," he leans closer, "everyone is just pretending."
• • •
Brian Eno left Roxy Music in 1973. I wonder aloud whether a different course of events would have been possible: a Rolling Stones scenario with Eno, Ferry et al still playing their quirky, sophisticated art rock to the stadia of the world. Eno visibly pales.
"Oh God, no, I don't think so. I never enjoyed touring then. For a little while it was great. Straight out of art school and staying in hotels in all these weird places. For a week or two it was thrilling. But to have stayed... I'd have to have been a different person."
He smiles. "It was twenty years ago, half a life. But later today I'm doing one of those 'Room Of My Own' features and you know how that will begin? 'Brian Eno... ex-Roxy Music!' Have a biscuit."
BRIAN ENO: A SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
Eno's first solo record, Here Come The Warm Jets, was released nearly twenty years ago and yet still sounds fresh and striking today with its brazen combination of glamour camp, Velvet Underground gothic drama, classic AM pop and nascent weirdness. Strange, anthemic little songs illuminated by flashes of the demented.
Taking Tiger Mountain, inspired by the Chinese revolutionary opera of the same name, goes further and more mysteriously in the same direction.
By Another Green World, Eno was shaking off the conventions of pop and paddling in the shallows of 'ambient' music. A static and luminous song cycle famously containing, in the title track, the Arena theme. By 1977 and Before And After Science, the fruitful sense of flux in Eno music created a classic album where bright, unusual pop (Backwater, King's Lead Hat) stands side by side with the stately melancholy of Julie With... and Spider And I.
Laid up in bed after being knocked down by a taxi, Eno found that one channel of his stereo had packed up rendering the harp music he was listening to barely audible above the rain. So the seed of ambient music was sown with Discreet Music, a lengthy title piece, and three variants on Pachebel's famous canon. Music For Films is an attractive package of short instrumental fragments running the gamut from ambient washes to oblique funk. Apollo was produced for Al Reinert's moon landings movie and is a brilliant evocation of the grandeur of it all which utilises techniques as diverse as burbling fretless basses, tractor noises and glittering Dobro guitars.
With hindsight Music For Airports is one of the most influential records of the last twenty years, if not ever. A clear aim at creating a new music which would seek to produce atmospheres and textures, if you will, 'ambiences' rather than tunes you could whistle. it still sounds oddly moving. Ambient 4: On Land relies even less on conventional tools, conjuring up specific senses of place with an array of textures including frogs croaking!
Eno's collaborative acumen is legendary and here are three albums that are more relevant today. The two albums with Fripp were way in advance of the times - lengthy instrumental explorations that were distinct from the gloopy prog rock of the day by their sense of risk and of existing at the frontiers of the known. Also you never got titles like Swastika Girls from Yes.
Like Music For Airports, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts can justly claim to be a musical touchstone; the first time that 'found voices', samples and speech loops had been used on record outside of the esoteric world of Steve reich, et al. Not only was it seminal, it was pretty funky too.