The Tech OCTOBER 23, 1990 - by Bill Coderre


Brian Eno is an invisible giant of rock music. An alumnus of Roxy Music, who has worked with many of rock's legends - Talking Heads, U2, Devo, and David Bowie - both as producer and musician, Eno has influenced rock in a much more visceral way than many of the other "influential" artists critics might cite.

But Eno also has produced a substantial and diverse body of solo and collaborative work. With David Byrne of Talking Heads, he produced My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, a collection of what would later be called "dance mixes," both years before the trend, and even long before sampling synthesizers. Its twisty, stuttery vocalizations were created entirely with tape splices.

Eno's Ambient Music series pre-saged New Age music, and many critics find his work among the best of the genre.

Eno's fans, though, seem to revere his peculiar brand of progressive rock music the most. The fact that Eno got Robert Fripp, zen guitar master, and Phil Collins, Michelob commercial and drum master, to work on one of his songs together, is unusual enough. The fact that his song is called The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch, and concerns itself with a love triangle involving a man from New Jersey whose breath ignites whatever it touches, makes it downright peculiar.

Eno gave up rock music, seemingly with disgust, shortly after his fourth solo rock effort, Before And After Science, and devoted himself to his Ambient work, later expanding its vocabulary into gallery installations featuring audio produced by tape loops and video monitors used both as picture displays and light sources. Last week, he released a new album - a rock album - with former Velvet Underground founder John Cale, also an artist-musician.

Brian Eno is also peculiar in that he is not only willing but eager to talk about his work, not in the typical clichés of rock music, nor in the defensive jargon of art-speak, but in terms more like, well, an engineer might use. Sunday evening he spoke to a crowded lecture hall at the Museum of Fine Arts Museum School, returning to a tradition of lecturing about his work rather than performing it.

Eno: "I like to talk about my work so that my fans don't revere me so much. It proves that I can talk, and also helps remove some of the mystery surrounding the way I work."

In the course of the evening, Eno delighted the audience with a bevy of shrewd observations about music, politics, high art and deceptive behavior patterns in chimpanzees. (Attention Enophiles: Although every pain has been taken to report Eno's words as spoken, we were prevented from recording the talk. We were informed that NPR intends to broadcast the talks in the future, though.)


Eno creates his rock music in a decidedly peculiar way. An art school graduate who cannot read music and has little skill playing it, he relies on a deck of oracle cards he developed with painter Peter Schmidt, his "Oblique Strategies," for advice to get him out of situations, although he decided that they more often got him into trouble.

He recalled an incident using them during the creation of "Moscow," an instrumental break on David Bowie's "Heroes": "We each drew a card and agreed to keep it secret, yet follow its advice. I drew a card that said, 'Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency.' His said, 'Fill every beat with something.' The tension created by these hidden agendas produced a song that is practically motionless, yet filled with shimmering light."

His music relies on contradictions, experimentation, constructive and destructive building techniques, and unlikely methodologies. He is equally likely to run tracks through his ancient synthesizers (which he never has repaired, allowing them to develop individual personalities), instruct his guitarists to play "like a swarm of needles," or record album-length pieces based on four tape loops allowed to go in and out of phase.

Eno's music, therefore, is fundamentally based on process. Unlike the '60s' experimental music trend of Process Music, though, Eno's music - both Ambient and pop - succeeds as entertainment as well as art. Eno: "Process Music had a fundamental disregard for its inputs, as if the process were more interesting than the product. My first experiments were feeding different inputs into existing processes; different styles of music 'reconfigured' by the process, to see if the musical energy will survive this 'mincing.'"

To prove the point, he played a selection of Pachelbel's Canon in D Major from his solo album, Discreet Music, where each part slows down during the piece at a different rate. An idea much too simple for many Processists, it yields a piece that "the listener hears in three stages: first, as the Canon; second, as almost a 'theme and variations' on the work; and third, as something entirely different." Like Steve Reich's It's Gonna Rain, it soon becomes entirely unlike the original work, yet both entertaining and aesthetically pleasing.

Eno: "The difference between high art and low art is that low art is unafraid to appeal to the senses, and high art is suspicious of the delicious, as if one were being seduced for impure reasons."

He went on to analyze recent art criticism as "an attempt to defend the boundaries of high art, to enshroud in mystery, and to define, for example, Keith Haring's graffiti as worth eighty-thousand pounds when other people get thrown in jail for the same thing."

Eno also offered an unusually detailed description of his method of writing lyrics. In the past, critics have argued that he didn't intend his lyrics as meaningful. Not so, said Eno: "I like to set in motion a game of interpretation, as if to create a detective story about the lyrics. I'm neither interested in declarative lyrics that leave no room for interpretation, nor in meaninglessness, but something in the middle, which some people call poetry."

About his composition process: "I will play back the rhythm mix, and start by singing nonsense along with it, to determine the cadence of the lyric. This bit is a machine-gun spray of words, for example, and over here is a long, drawn out word. Then I begin to fit words to it, like a jigsaw puzzle. I want to make lyrics more in the way that people make music: by making something and then seeing what it means and how it affects people."

About his abandonment of lyrics in songs: "People seem to ignore every other part of the song. I tried to get them not to pay attention to the lyrics, by singing them very fast, and later by changing them into just raw sounds, but people still wouldn't pay attention to the music."

Later in the talk, he defended dance mixes and rap music. "After all, I invented dance mixes," he says, referring to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. "I really like Public Enemy, and I think that Donna Summer's I Feel Love is one of the best songs of the last ten years. It has a mechanical, Teutonic beat with that luxurious voice. Other people wouldn't think of putting such opposites together. They'd make something that sounds like Depeche Mode."

He claims he himself has been sampled: "The clubs in London are very advanced. There are now clubs called 'Ambient House' clubs, which take chunks of Music For Airports and Discreet Music and add a beat to it, at sort of a 'smooch' tempo."

Asked about the lyric-writing styles of artists he's worked with, he reported, "Bono [of U2] will show up at the studio with literally thousands of sheets of lyrics, and sort of graze around them. David Byrne will try to decipher all the nonsense I sang before."

He also lauded deejays: "Deejays are the art curators of the music world. They've invented a sophisticated way of dealing with given packets of sound. They understand which songs can be segued together, what keys they are in, how many beats per minute they have. Records are their instruments."

Eno shared the stage with NPR host John Hockenberry, who acted as "professional questioner" and audience coordinator. Eno and Hockenberry will travel to several more cities on this lecture tour. Peculiar, perhaps, for a rock star, but right in line with the Eno manifesto.


Wrong Way Up is something of a landmark album for Brian Eno. It is, after all, his first rock album since 1977's Before And After Science. A collaboration with Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale, the album is very definitely their personal ideas woven together into ten songs. Although the album sounds quite a bit like both Eno's and Cale's earlier work, it also has a surprisingly coherent sound and consistent feel all the way through. Eno and Cale alternate vocal duties, and all but one track are billed as jointly written and co-produced. It features no instrumentals and a handful of ballads, but is largely medium-tempo rock with a surprisingly rich sonority and a world-conscious, lush rhythmic mix featuring such instruments as Indian drums, Shinto bell, dumbek, and tabla. And although various studio musicians are used throughout the record, including some Eno friends from earlier albums, the compositions are most definitely Eno/Cale compositions, not collaborations among the performers.

Although no single has been announced for the album, it is appropriate to consider Lay My Love for these purposes. Like the remainder of the album, it features a complex, worldly "rhythm bed" (according to the liner notes) and lush sound treatment from Eno, and a melodic viola riff from Cale. Eno's lyrics are hard to ignore as meaningful, and although open to interpretation, they clearly point to a tale of love and seduction:

I am the sea of permutation
I am beyond interpretation
I scramble all the names and combinations
I penetrate the walls of explanations
I am the Wheel
I am the Burning
And I will lay my love around you

Well, maybe not. Perhaps he's making a meta-comment about his lyrical style. Or maybe it's something else. And, as a matter of fact, there seems to be a second vocal track, submerged under the first and barely audible.

Cale's shining moment is perhaps the ballad Cordoba which features a lyrical viola, and a sad, minor key lyric about the death of a generous man. The sound is richly beautiful, complementing the ambiguity of the narrator's relationship with the dying man.

Eno albums usually require a "getting-acquainted period," so my comments are necessarily tentative, but already this album is one of my top five fave picks for 1990, and will appeal to Eno fans, Cale fans, and those who appreciate lighter, lusher rock music. One might argue that some of the arrangements are trite, but as the Oblique Strategies point out, "Don't be afraid of clichés." Even if they have been done before, the album glows with a luster that is rare in the rock firmament. It is undoubtedly low art, absolutely unafraid of the sensuous seduction of the listener for all the wrong ideological and aesthetic reasons, and at this goal succeeds wildly.