Spin DECEMBER 1990 - by Mark Sinker


Brian Eno, pop's most uncompromising egghead, is back with two new albums. And he's still talking all that jazz.

I didn't expect Brian Eno to surprise me. But he did. I knew he'd be courtly and thoughtful; I knew he looked unremarkable now, Martian no longer (as pop caught up with his ideas, his age caught up with his appearance); I knew that his new LP releases (Wrong Way Up, a collaboration with John Cale featuring Eno's first songs in thirteen years, and The Shutov Assembly, his soon-to-come solo instrumental collection) don't break ground the way his albums once did, it seemed, almost daily.

But as I enter the interview room, he sprints to put on some Siberian multiphonic singing (translation: an Asiatic folkie's voice split into two quite distinct notes, high whistle and low drone). Then he comes and stands behind me, and does a passable imitation of the same, singing two notes at once into my ear.

Before the original alien egghead rode in on Roxy Music's novelty glam-wave, pop was still simple. It was innocently '60s, an unreflective force of nature. Its potential was entirely latent. Eno talked about it in a new, baffling language, threaded with words like cybernetics, behaviourism, process, and systems. And he insisted that he did what he did because he was a non-musician, after which pop has never stopped being flooded with his ideas.

"I'm reasonably pro pop," he says. "I'm trying to redress a balance, in terms of public respect for things. I think high-art music gets a huge amount of respect, in pop's disfavour. It's respected by making pop lower, by creating a hierarchy which it can sit on top of. The whole picture is that the great innovations are made in high-art music and they sort of trickle down and come out in some pathetic weak form in pop. This is not a picture I can tolerate. It drives me crazy!"

On any morning after the mid-'70s you could wake up and find Eno brandishing some new project, and even if you didn't like it that much, a series of unexpected conceptual shifts were likely to chase down even the most reluctant listener.

Hear released work that neatly framed the idea of ambience and its inverse (Music For Airports versus No New York). Sound-as-pleasured-complicity and sound-as-violent-refusal became the poles of the universe he birthed; the universe that all of us live in, from Bono victims to world-beat converts - Eno invented U2 and Africa, of course.

Eno sets it up differently. He makes a distinction between "sounding" music (in which deep truth is purely sound - the fact of all pop, kind of) and "conceptual" music (which always has other agendas).

To remind us why he can get away with such talk when others flounder, he uses Judas Priest, no less, to prove his point; and goes on to map heavy metal onto new age - conceptually despised genres which exhibit hitherto unheard-of sounding qualities. "You don't go to listen to melody or rhythm," he says. "The thrill is being immersed in detailed sound, loud or ambient."

What we're getting to, though I didn't think of it till later, is Virtual Reality, and the fact that it's actually been available, on Walkmans, for ten years now. As all culture turns into pop and/or democratically accesible/manipulable simulations of same, Eno becomes the nearly unacknowledged legislator of everything.

"It feels good to know one's finger was on at least one pulse, now and again," he says. "The negative side is that it creates a kind of expectation among other people and you end up being frightened of yourself. Like, you start to find yourself thinking, God, is this important enough for me to do?"