INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Street Life DECEMBER 27, 1975-JANUARY 9, 1976 - by Steve Peacock
BRIAN ENO TAKES THE PUDDING BY THE HORNS
Somewhere in the Earl's Court/South Kensington area of London is what looks like a large family house but is a branch of an American college. Teenage American girls spend time in London studying here, and on a wet afternoon about fifteen of them gathered in the front room, armed with notebooks, cans of Diet Pepsi and (here and there) balls of wool.
Quite what Brian Eno is doing here, even he is not quite sure.
He sits at a table at the top of the room and faces several rows of puddings. This has been scheduled as part of his lecture tour (mostly colleges and universities). He had decided not to give his dull two-hour lecture. Instead he will answer questions.
Ok. The college office has prepared a list of questions, the answers to which they think the girls might find interesting. "The first one on this list," says Eno quietly, "is 'How old are you?' I'm twenty-seven." Not a sound. It gets a bit better than that. In around an hour and a half he gets a few questions from the girls, a few more from a knot of English (male) interlopers with beards and fur coats. He questions himself a bit and answers himself well. Occasionally he returns to the list. "The next question on the list says: 'You used to be an artist before you were a musician. Why did you stop?'" The answer was that he hoped he hadn't stopped.
He was questioned about his politics, to which he replied that it seemed to him that politics in this age was a matter of sharing out what is left after the major decisions had been made. Major decisions arc technological rather than political. This drew little response. He also talked about the role of the artist, saying that the stance of the artist as a romantic or rebellious figure is obsolete. "Industrial society doesn't need rebels," he said at one point. At another: "The function of art is not to do with mystique; it is to do with de-mystification."
A row or two in front of me there is a girl who keeps half-raising her hand. Could it be that Eno doesn't notice a questioner? You'd think he'd leap at even a tentative move from the floor.
What he can see more clearly that I can is that the girl is in fact pulling thread through a stencilled tapestry cloth.
At last, Eno calls a halt. He has to go to design an album cover. The tension breaks as fifteen or so well-trained American teenage puddings chorus their thanks. It is the first sign of concerted animation since we got there. Eno confesses afterwards that it was one of the most difficult things he'd ever done.
The next night the lecture tour proper resumes at Hatfield Polytechnic. "Art As A Means Of Survival - A lecture by Eno (ex Roxy Music)" is how the posters advertise the event. Something like that. He explains to the audience (around a hundred and fifty of them this time) that this doesn't mean he's going to give them tips on how to keep the kitchen cupboard full while being an artist; more that he's trying to explain how he sees the arts as an important, functional part of society.
Or, as his programme note puts it: "I hope to be able to show that art is not goal-less titillation and neither is it the quasi-religious experience that most art historians would have us believe. But it is an important mechanism that supports and rehearses our ability to innovate, which in turn is our ability to adapt, and finally our ability to survive."
The main hall has been booked for the event. It is the place where they usually have concerts - huge, fluorescent-lit with a basketball court marked out on the floor and a big proscenium-arch stage. Ever the realist, Eno suggests they set up the chairs on the stage, facing away from the hall. He sits at a table against the back wall, on which slides of different sunsets are projected as he talks. He talks very quietly and illustrates the lecture with pieces of music ranging from La Monte Young to Velvet Underground and reggae.
Using his career so far as a skeleton, he traces the development of his ideas of the function of an artist - from his early experiences at art school (he arrived with half-formed notions of romantic heroes in berets and paint-splashed denims) through Roxy Music to his work now and the formation of Obscure Records. A major part of the talk is his evolving theory that in cybernetics he has found a scientific language with which he can relate and in which he can express the kind of ideas that he and many other artists are using. Before and after the lecture he pays his respects to the Polytechnic's giant computer.
Crucial to his evolution as an artist, he says, was his first term at Ipswich art school, and particularly what he terms 'The Quadrangle Dilemma'. Ipswich was one of a few art schools at the time to have been taken over by a group of teachers with ideas radically different from the traditional approach. The students hadn't even opened their paint boxes all term. Towards the end they came back from lunch to find a notice asking them to assemble in the Quadrangle. As the last student filed through the door it was locked behind him: there was not other way out.
After a while, the staff appeared on the flat roofs surrounding the Quadrangle, got out their deck chairs, and observed the students and their reactions. Some tried to escape. No chance. Some wept. Some shouted... for some of them it was the last straw and they quit the college. For others - including Eno - it was a turning point.
Questions after the lecture mainly concerned Eno's current activities - Obscure Records, the studio he is setting up with Phil Manzanera and Robert Wyatt (a place where they can work without feeling they're spending £40 an hour on experiments), Another Green World... and his time and split with Roxy. Someone said that it was all very well for him to talk about innovation and experiments, but hadn't Roxy got stuck with their formula as much as anyone else? "Exactly," replied Eno, "that's why I left."
After more than two hours (lecture and questions) there was a timid "Excuse me" from the front row. Eno turned. "Could I have your autograph please?" He obliged.
Brian Eno is an obliging man, and a brave one.