Rock's Backpages JUNE 2001 - by Djuna Parnes


Djuna Parnes: What does the phrase "Glam Rock" mean to you?

Brian Eno: Well, I have to say that the "Glam" part was the wrong idea to focus on, in a way. Because for me it wasn't about glamour so much as about the idea of changing identity or thinking up your own identity. Whether it was glamorous or not was actually accidental. In fact, I think it's called glamorous in retrospect. So Glam doesn't really mean much to me.

Was there any kind of unity to the phenomenon, or did you feel disconnected from the more teen-oriented acts like Sweet?

I didn't feel much connection with them, but I think all of those things were a sort of reaction against what had happened immediately before, which was an idea of musicianship where you turned your back on the audience and got into your guitar solos. So I think all of those bands - us and Bowie and so on - were suddenly turning round towards the audience and saying, 'We are doing a show'. And in that sense there was a unity. But it wasn't very obvious at the time.

Had you been interested in glamour in any way before Roxy - as a concept, as a mode of presenting oneself?

Well, I think I had for many years before - all my years at art school - been experimenting with androgynous clothing and makeup and wearing cross-gender clothes. For me there was no sexual aspect to it - I was not gay or anything, and never have been - but I just wanted to look great. And looking great meant dressing as a woman! Or at least as some kind of weird new hybrid.

Was Marc Bolan of any interest to you as a pop star?

Well, it's funny, because we always thought of him as pop music, and we thought that what we were doing wasn't pop music. Although, again in retrospect, they're not that different.

Part of Roxy's thing was that you stood out even within the group. How did you hit on that particularly startling image?

I was living with a woman at that time who was a sculptor and also a clothes-maker, and she was very important in that respect. I could sort of think up ideas for clothes, and she would improve on the ideas and then actually make them. I think we were really thinking in terms of sculpture rather than clothing. They were clothes that you could only really wear onstage. It was impossible to do anything normal, like making a cup of coffee, in them. Probably because of what I did, which was a very unphysical job, I was the only member of Roxy who could have worn those kind of clothes.

What were your first impressions of Bryan and his songs when you pitched up with Andy Mackay in 1971?

Oh, I was very impressed by the music. It sounded to me something quite new and different. And I was just happy to be involved. I'd never thought, actually, of joining a band. And I got involved in this in a rather funny way, because I was originally a sort of technical assistant. And I just thought, this is the most I've ever had. I think Bryan had written most of the first album, though not Virginia Plain. Most of the songs on Roxy Music we rehearsed for about a year or a year and a half before we ever played live, even. There was a long, long period of just rehearsing about twelve songs and going over them again and again. Which people don't do very often now.

How did you interpret Bryan's ideas about, say, glamour at that point?

Well, I saw them in the context of Pop Art. That was the period when pop music became slightly self-conscious, and started to look at its own history as material that could be used. And one of the things we didn't like about the bands who'd preceded us was that they were so un-ironic. They were so serious about what they were doing. We were serious, but in a different way. We wanted to say, we know we're working in pop music, we know there's a history to it, we know it's a kind of showbiz game... and knowing all that, we're still gonna do something!

How did you graduate from being Roxy's sound doctor, as it were, to being a proper member of the band and taking your place onstage?

I can't remember the exact day that that happened. I started off mixing the band at the back of the auditoriums. I would mix, and I had a synthesizer there. And then I started doing backing vocals as well, and it started getting a bit weird. The audience would wheel round to look at me. I don't remember it being a big decision, me joining the rest of the band onstage.

Did you consciously assume a kind of jester role in Roxy?

It was all so blurry to me at that time. The only decision I can consciously remember making was this: What I do involves standing still a lot of the time, because I'm adjusting tiny little knobs, so I thought it would make sense to wear garments that magnified my movements. Hence the feathers and so on. So I wasn't doing very much but it looked quite good.

The first Roxy album has a wonderfully fresh energy about it, where the second one is a much more considered kind of work. How do you look back on them?

Certainly one of the interesting things was that by the time we got to do the first record, to me it all sounded completely normal. And in fact I listened to that record recently and I thought, God, I can suddenly see why people thought this was weird! But to me it didn't sound at all weird. In fact, I was worried that it sounded too normal! And the second one sounded more surprising, because all of that material was new. I think only the song For Your Pleasure itself had survived from the earlier period.

Given that you later worked with David Bowie, what impact if any did Ziggy Stardust have on you?

I think we saw David as our closest peer, if you like. T.Rex and people like that, we didn't think they were doing anything similar. When Bowie came up with his stuff, we thought: alright, this is the competition. And of course there was that show we did with him at the Rainbow, which must have been a great show for the audience. Being the support band, we were determined to do a great show, and I think we did.

Was there any communication between the two camps at that show?

None that I recall. The only communication I remember was that we said we wanted longer for our soundcheck! In fact, there was a bit of an argument between our road crew and his.

One of the great things about Glam seemed to be that the more androgynous you were as a boy, the more girls fancied you. Any theories about that?

I think, first of all, that women always seemed to get on with gays. And I think it's slightly like that. It's the feeling of: here is someone who is other, but who is not threatening, who has surrendered their authority and their ability to command by strength. If you're androgynous or gay, you're not playing that usual male role of: I'm the tough one here.

You were interested in androgyny in and of itself?

I was, yes, because I thought and still think that anything that erodes that easy distinction between male and female is a very good thing. There was a whole kind of negative movement at the time, saying either men are terrible or women are pathetic, and I thought, Why not just be neither of them? Why not sidestep the argument by becoming something else, something in between. And I still think that's a strong position, actually. And of course it's a position that people have quite generally adopted - the New Man is a slightly feminised man, basically. That's what New Man meant. It's someone who doesn't think that looking after the children is humiliating, who doesn't feel that showing emotion is un-masculine.

Did you share Bowie's fascination with the New York - with Andy Warhol and Lou Reed?

I was very impressed by The Velvet Underground. And if I made any musical contribution to Roxy, it was importing that idea. I was the Velvet Underground fan, and I was very keen to bring that consciousness into the band.

And did that have anything to do with the comparative darkness of For Your Pleasure?

Yeah, I think so. It's not only a mood thing, it's that rock music can be about complicated and ambiguous and mixed-up moods. Which I think was already the strongest part of Bryan's writing. But it was also the idea that rock music could be something to do with the cutting edge of culture as we knew it. Because that was the other message of The Velvet Underground. That's also why I liked The Who, who were a similar band in England.

Did you find the New York scene more consciously decadent than the London scene?

My feeling is that Americans have never been great on irony. For us, we were playing this decadent role, but there was also a certain amount of humour and detachment in it. None of us actually planned to get strung out on heroin or to jump out of hotel room windows. Whereas when it got translated into American, it became decadent with a capital D. So you had to be on heroin, and you had to go the whole way. And I think the same thing happened with punk. The Sex Pistols were very humorous and were conscious of their slightly sarcastic role in society, but when you saw the American version of that, it was undiluted nihilism. So I think we felt distinct from the American thing, because we thought they didn't get the joke.

What led to your departure from Roxy?

I think quite a few things. First of all, there was definitely an ego clash, and this was sort of agitated by what happened around Bryan and I rather than what happened between us. Because I was photogenic and wore clothes that were very demonstrative and looked good in magazines, I got a lot more attention than I deserved... in the sense that I wasn't the writer in the band, that I hadn't been there at the beginning. So there was a definite feeling on his part, and that was partly out of our control. I didn't pander to that very much, and it took me a while to realise what was going on. And I started feeling a bit bad about it. So there was that aspect of typical young male competitiveness about it. But there was another thing as well, which was that I really wanted to do something else. And I think the band wanted to do something else, too, and I think they did it really well. My favourite Roxy album, actually, is the third one. I love that record, and it might also be because, since I wasn't involved in making it, it just comes to as a single finished thing. Pop music is a little bit like sausages and politics: you don't want to know how it's made!

A track like Needle In The Camel's Eye [on Here Come The Warm Jets] is a blast of glam energy, if you like, which is doubtless why Todd Haynes used it for the intro to The Velvet Goldmine. Would you say your first two solo albums navigated a sort of middle way between glam rock and the music that you went on to make from Another Green World onwards?

When I made those first two records, I was living on pure energy. I felt so thrilled to be out of Roxy; I never regretted it for one moment. I never thought, God, I'm leaving this band at the height of their success... I remember, the day I left, sort of skipping down the Kings Road and thinking, God, now I can do anything! I guess I had this complete optimism that, somehow or other, I'd survive.

How do you remember the Glam era coming to an end?

Well, it sort of faded out, didn't it? I can't really remember a time when I thought, OK, that's not what's happening anymore. I can remember getting my hair cut, and it was quite a big moment. In 1975 I released Another Green World and I've got short hair on it. Long hair had been a big sign for me that I wasn't part of whatever that other stuff was. I'd had long hair since I was about fourteen and had nearly got chucked out of school for it. But of course by late 1974 it didn't have those connotations anymore!