The Telegraph JULY 5, 2008 - by Andy Miller


Andy Miller reviews On Some Faraway Beach by David Sheppard.

Seek out your copy of the second Roxy Music LP, For Your Pleasure, and turn to Karl Stoecker's portrait of the group. You see the man on the far left posing with a mean guitar, in platform boots, peek-a-boo feather blouson and glamour-model pout? That man is Brian Eno. Last month, he turned sixty.

Eno's journey from pop-star androgyne to Liberal Democrat youth affairs adviser has no precedent in modern politics. Vince Cable may have dallied with ballroom dancing, but has he also collaborated with David Bowie, invented several musical genres, synthesised new perfumes, or appeared as himself in Father Ted? Not that we know of.

As David Sheppard notes, "One drawback for the biographer is the sheer volume of 'stuff' that Brian has accomplished... Writing about Eno can sometimes feel like folding down a skyscraper into a suitcase..."

He marks the presence of a garden shed inside the walls of Eno's West London studio, a very English think-tank for a man who has taken "pottering about" to a whole other level.

Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, the son of a postman. He grew up in the golden age of art schools and popular music.

First, he made pop records that recalled such counter-culture luminaries as Kevin Ayers and Syd Barrett. Then he launched an experimental record label, issuing LPs by Michael Nyman, and The Penguin Café Orchestra among others.

He was in the vanguard of new sounds - ambient music, world music, electronic manipulation and sampling. And in true swinging '60s style, he was hustler and shagger par excellence; as Sheppard makes clear, it wasn't just Eno's thinking that was promiscuous.

"Whichever woman he was with," notes one interviewee, "he'd take a Polaroid as a souvenir... He would lay them all out on the floor at the end of the tour." (First Nick "30 Notches" Clegg, now this; these Lib Dems are insatiable!)

During the '80s, Eno relaxed into his role as rock's most employable boffin, a producer who used his belief in process and Oblique Strategies to enliven albums by Talking Heads, U2 and so on.

He became synonymous with a kind of safe avant-gardism, bestowing credibility without scaring away a mass audience, a function he performs to this day - Coldplay's new album was co-produced by Eno and marketed accordingly.

These commissions allowed Eno to pursue his many interests outside music; notably art and technology. Which brings us back to the problem of the skyscraper and the suitcase.

Sheppard's account of Eno's prodigious first creative decade is very good. Unfortunately, Eno's subsequent career - twenty-five years of installations, lectures, charity work and political activism - proves too diffuse to handle, partly because Sheppard's interests lie elsewhere and partly, perhaps, because only Eno himself would be able to give a full, informed account of it.

But until such time as the world's leading "failed musician" (his description) produces a sequel to his 1994 diary A Year (With Swollen Appendices), On Some Faraway Beach provides an extensive introduction to a lifetime of constructive, and very English, pottering.