New Statesman JULY 10, 2008 - by Owen Hatherley


David Sheppard: On Some Faraway Beach: The Life And Times Of Brian Eno

One of the most famous of the Oblique Strategies - the set of cards developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt for use "when a dilemma occurs in a working situation" - states "Honour thy error as a hidden intention". This principle can be applied to one of the more amusing errors in David Sheppard's new biography of Eno. Twice, Sheppard renders La Monte Young's X For Henry Flynt, a minimalist piece much beloved of Eno, as "X For Larry Flynt".

This slippage between the names of an avant-garde composer and the famed pornographer and publisher of Hustler does, in fact, point to one of the more interesting elements of this biography. While Eno is today seen largely as a boffinish, Apollonian presence, this biography reminds us that at one time he was better known for more Dionysian interests. Apparently, before joining Roxy Music, Eno had acted in what is quaintly described as a "blue movie", and in the early 1970s his priapism was so pronounced that he was nicknamed "The Refreshing Experience". The error also suggests that Sheppard does not have quite so much affinity with the experimentalist side of Eno's work.

This is a standard rock biography, and in that it is poorly fitted to the subject: in an interview with the author, Eno stated that "I can only deal with a certain amount of history. If it isn't leavened with enough theory then I get very bored." Theory is wholly absent from this book, but the fact that it doesn't quite get boring, at least until the later chapters, can be put down to the sheer richness of the subject matter.

It is a great injustice that Eno tends to be best known for either the "invention" of ambient music or for putting a slightly avant-garde gloss on sundry rock superstars. His records, and attendant theories, in the decade from 1972 to 1982 exhibit an astonishing range of modes and ideas, from the preening glam rock of Here Come The Warm Jets to the opiated drift of Discreet Music, the apocalyptic My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts to the deliberate blankness of Music For Airports. Without Eno as catalyst and protagonist, the landscape of popular music would be a far less interesting place: he popularised, through his own records and work with Bowie, Talking Heads and others, noise, sampling, studio-as-instrument, surface over "depth" and manifold other strategies against what was, by the early 1970s, a form in danger of becoming a hidebound arena of proper songs played on real instruments.

There has long been a niche for a book that would encompass all this in one narrative, and this fills it. Anyone looking for something that offers an insight into the theories and practices behind Eno's work would be far better off with A Year (With Swollen Appendices), a frequently hilarious 1995 diary bolstered with various of Eno's essays and lectures.

What makes On Some Faraway Beach worthwhile, prosaic and leaden as it might be, is the detail, and the gossip, and its reminders that ideas emerge not from some sort of conceptual ether, but from specific places and times. Born Brian Peter George Eno (the baroque full middle name of "St John Baptiste de la Salle" was added at Catholic school), he was, like his Roxy Music bandmate Bryan Ferry, from a working-class - albeit rural and sleepy - background, growing up in a council house in Woodbridge, Suffolk. But while Tyneside leaves few obvious traces on Ferry's work, the Suffolk landscape of flatlands and military bases would have an obvious influence on Eno's music, both as a musical tendency to serene, static placidity and in a contrasting love of the doo-wop and rock'n'roll brought by US soldiers stationed nearby.

The pivotal event is the experience of art school, that catalyst for a generation of feckless working-class and lower-middle-class youth in the 1960s and 1970s. Here Eno threw himself into conceptualising and promoting all manner of marginal activity, and this would provide a template for his future endeavours in pop. Unsurprisingly, the chapters on the 1970s are the most intriguing, with much about Eno's perversity in matters musical and non-musical, and enough dissenting quotations from more hostile interlocutors, such as Gavin Bryars, to keep it interesting. In particular, the period at the turn of the 1980s when Eno was working with Talking Heads seems a mine of extraordinary music and ideas, with a wildly incongruent collision of orientalism, idealised "Africa", urban paranoia and electronic chaos going into records such as Remain In Light. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, a collaboration with David Byrne, appears especially prophetic today, with its probing of the libidinal energies of American evangelism and Islamic militancy overlaid on to dense, clattering soundscapes.

In the end, Sheppard offers no explanation of how someone once so adroit at picking collaborators ended up spending the 1980s and 1990s working with such vainglorious bores as U2, James and Coldplay (one can't help wishing he had listened to his collaborator Conny Plank, who said of U2, "I cannot work with this singer"). It is slightly sad that someone who was once so recherché in his enthusiasms should end up in the company of such titans of ineffectuality as the Liberal Democrats and Chris Martin. For all that, Eno's passionate advocacy of the anti-war movement and his continued experiments in peripheral areas such as "generative music" would suggest he hasn't quite succumbed to blandness.