Skyscraper MAY 17, 2011 - by Doug Simpson


Who is Brian Eno? Is he a self-described non-musician or a composer, technological innovator, world-class hit producer, singer, multimedia artist, ambient pioneer, glam rocker, sound manipulator, theorist, music label executive? He has been or continues to be all of these and more. Since first coming to attention as the flamboyant synth player/sound exploiter for Roxy Music, Eno - given name Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno - has transformed how music is approached, composed, performed, and understood, and in the process he has influenced alt-rock, punk, techno, and myriad other musical genres.

This two-and-a-half hour long unauthorised documentary Brian Eno - 1971-1977: The Man Who Fell To Earth exhaustively traces Eno's beginnings, from Roxy Music member to record producer to collaborator with likeminded musicians. Oddly, Eno is conspicuously absent: he was not involved in the production and only a few, brief older Eno interview segments are seen. Instead, viewers get often dry interviews with fellow musicians, music critics, biographers, and the like. There are notable people missing: there are no former Roxy Music members, such as guitarist Phil Manzanera, who performed on various Eno projects, nor David Bowie or Robert Fripp, who both partnered with Eno during the 1970s.

This straight-to-video documentary begins when Eno joined glam/art rockers Roxy Music, which Eno was in from 1971 through 1973. Initially, Eno operated the mixing board at live shows, processing the band's stage sound with tape recorders and an early synthesizer. Soon, Eno came out from behind the boards, wearing flamboyant costumes with colourful makeup, feather boas, and other accoutrements - there is fleeting, vintage Roxy Music footage shown with Eno on stage - and he quickly garnered media and fan attention. Eno quit Roxy Music soon after completing Roxy Music's sophomore record, For Your Pleasure (1973), due to disagreements with lead singer Bryan Ferry and the ennui of life on and off the road. In the film, longtime friend Lloyd Watson provides insight into Eno's nascent rock star life, including Eno's sexual dalliances while on tour: while Ferry cavorted with models, Eno was more egalitarian regarding one-night stands. Unfortunately, no one in the Roxy Music camp was interviewed for this film, so the details regarding Eno's departure are somewhat shrouded.

Eno then embarked on a solo career which did not follow the norm. Eno's opening foray was a collaboration with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, No Pussyfooting (1973). Eno inaugurated the Frippertronics system, a tape-delay system which emulated minimalist composer Terry Riley's concepts but were based on experiments Eno did as an art student and during Roxy Music recording sessions. The guitar treatments and looped delays showcased how studio technology could be used as a resource for musical composition. As the film points out, No Pussyfooting was not successful but in hindsight Eno's undertaking - as well as Riley's ideas - can be seen as precursors for sampling. Eno's first solo project, the enthusiastically experimental Here Come The Warm Jets (1974), came out less than a year later. The collection of whimsically doctored pop songs proved avant-garde pop could be accessible, and employed ex-Roxy cohorts Manzanera and saxist Andy Mackay, as well as Fripp and others. The songs were quirky and catchy, with darkly comical subject matter (Baby's On Fire, Dead Finks Don't Talk). While snippets of these and other pieces are heard in the film, at no time do viewers get full songs, which is a loss. Eno also attempted a live tour with English pub rockers The Winkies, which was shelved due to Eno's poor health. The layover gave Eno time to rethink and he decided to concentrate on studio offerings only. Winkies' bassist Brian Turrington's entertaining anecdotes explain what it was like to work on Eno's second solo release, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), which uses dream associations, Communist revolution, and espionage to a weirdly compelling effect. In the film, rock music scribe Robert Christgau discloses his enthusiasm for Taking Tiger Mountain, which has an undeniable flow even though the parts careen from the proto-punk of Third Uncle, later covered by Bauhaus, to the fiendishly demented lullaby/fairy tale, Put A Straw Under Baby.

Accidents are often catalysts for Eno. A 1975 car crash laid Eno up and during his recovery he put a record on his turntable, hobbled back to bed, and discovered the volume was turned so low the music was barely audible. Unable to rise again to turn up the volume, Eno intuitively grasped that music might assume properties comparable to light or color and could be blended into an expressive atmosphere without upending the environmental equilibrium: thus, the idea for ambient was born. Eno's third release, the sumptuous Another Green World (1975), presented Eno's new direction. There are a few structured pop tunes (St. Elmo's Fire and I'll Come Running), but most of the melodic material is instrumental music which edges close to Eno's future ambient experiments. During this segment of the film, former Brand X bassist Percy Jones speaks about the improvisational nature which Eno nurtured in the studio. During the recording for Another Green World, Eno inaugurated the Oblique Strategies cards, and the documentary has an entire DVD chapter where Eno biographer Brian Tamm discusses how Eno used the one-line cards - with non-sequitors such as "Use an old idea" or "Honour thy error as a hidden intention" - to help push or prod when stuck in a rut while composing or in the studio.

Another DVD section centres on Eno's Obscure label, which ran from 1975 to 1978 to spotlight little-known twentieth century classical music and/or experimental material. Eno's Discreet Music (1975) - which focused more thoroughly on ambient textures - was the label's third release, while others offered first contact with up and comers such as Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, John Adams, and the Penguin Café Orchestra. However, composer David Toop is the only Obscure label artist interviewed: some insights from Budd or Nyman would have enhanced this part. One highlight is a slice from Gavin Bryar's sublime long-form composition The Sinking Of The Titanic.

Another chapter concentrates on ambient music, with historical information on antecedents like French composer Erik Satie and American avant-garde composer John Cage. During this portion, composer Jon Hassel is interviewed on what ambient means and how the music has progressed. The film wraps up with digressions regarding Eno's collaboration with German electronic ensemble Cluster; Eno's production work on Bowie's albums Low and "Heroes" (both 1977); and the DVD ends with a look at Eno's concluding pop LP of the 1970s, Before And After Science (also 1977).

Brian Eno - 1971-1977: The Man Who Fell To Earth covers a lot of ground. The film is packed with so much information it becomes a tiring marathon, partially since the DVD runs two-and-a-half hours and partially since many of the interviews are dull. Some of the chapters might have been trimmed or even included as part of the otherwise sparse bonus section, which has lengthy text biographies on the interviewees and a three-minute Watson discussion concerning the short-lived 801 semi-super group he, Eno, and others participated in. It would have been more meaningful if the producers (who remain anonymous, as does the director) had included video footage of the Roxy Music performances with Eno, longer portions of 801 on stage, or full-length Eno songs discussed during the DVD. Even a full discography and list of Eno's credits for the 1971-1977 timeframe would have been helpful.