The Wire SEPTEMBER 2008 - by Mike Barnes


Back in Spring 1996, I bumped into a musician and journalist on his way to the hyperbolically titled Hypersymposium at the Purcell Room, on London's South Bank, where Brian Eno was one of the panellists. He told me that he had interviewed Eno a few months back and although he had been fascinated at the time, when he transcribed th tape he realised that the loquacious interviewee hadn't actually said anything particularly substantial about anything.

Which begged the question: Eno had always provided interesting copy, but were his endless pontifications in effect smokescreening, playing to type, or maybe even a cerebral precursor to the rent-a-gob pundits habitually dragged out for TV music documentaries?

In On Some Faraway Beach, David Sheppard objectively examines what he describes as Eno's "after the event theorising", his nonpareil facility for articulating persuasively plausible retrospective concepts for what had been simply intuitive or happenstance creativity." Written with Eno's co-operation and drawing on interviews with a number of principals, Sheppard's diligently researched, flamboyant and fascinating book provides a long overdue critical perspective on Eno, the man and his work - by someone other than Eno.

Eno's tendency to define his music through intellectual constructs has also helped dress up a body of work that can be unabashedly romantic. Ambient pieces like Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960 and songs like By This River are imbued with a nostalgic sense of time and place that puts them closer in spirit to Delius than John Cage. In this respect, Sheppard's account of his subject's childhood is particularly illuminating. Eno was brought up in the small town of Woodbridge on the River Deben and as a boy he loved to cycle off for the day to collect fossils, relishing the solitude and melancholic feelings evoked by its estuarine landscape and nearby desolate coastline. His surname (which, used as his sole appellation in Roxy Music, made him seem even more exotic) might appear to be unusual but in fact Eno is an Anglicisation of the French Huguenot surname Hennot, and long established in Suffolk.

Eno's father William, like his father before, was a postman and his long, poorly paid working hours prompted Brian to swear never to have to get a regular job. Situated near a populous US airbase, Woodbridge was surprisingly cosmopolitan for its size and location, and numerous milk bars sprung up in the town, playing American records. The young Eno loved doo-wop and was entranced by the sound-world created by the exaggerated studio reverb on Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel.

Concurrent with his love of pop music - he had a short spell as drummer in a teenage rock'n'roll group, The Black Aces - was an early interest in systems. He was fascinated by uncle Carl Otto Eno's collection of player pianos, whose rolls he would modify. He was intrigued by the fact that you could play them without any musical skill. As Sheppard notes, this informed Eno's modus operandi of the non-musician setting up conceptual parameters, ten "start it up, set it off, see where it goes", one of the prime examples being his double tape recorder sound layering system, with which he made No Pussyfooting (1973) with Robert Fripp and his solo composition Discreet Music (1975).

Sheppard admits that Eno hasn't broken new ground for a good while, but reminds us just how much he has achieved. It's easy to forget the early exposure he gave to Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars on his Obscure label in the '70s (see Epiphanies) and his spell as clarinettist in Bryar's own 'scratch' orchestra, The Portsmouth Sinfonia. Bryars himself opines that as an artist, Eno "hardly begins to get through the door", which seems unduly harsh given his involvement with such landmark releases as Roxy Music, Music For Airports and his futuristic funk collaboration with David Byrne, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.

What comes across strongly is Eno's knack of appropriating existing ideas, expanding on them and making them accessible, such as his reframing of background or incidental music into the more conceptual notion of Ambient. He has particularly excelled in the role of producer and catalyst, who can "sprinkle some magic", as former Roxy Music band mate Bryan Ferry puts it. U2 have had so much Eno magic sprinkled on them that their Eno-less albums have been far less successful.

According to Jon Cale, "Brian has never confronted his weaknesses. He's so cautious, he doesn't allow it to happen. You don't allow the natural element of life to creep into your personality, therefore it's all construct." Even so, Eno comes across as charismatic, witty and well-liked, but he has had his moments. He had to be physically restrained from erasing U2's Where The Streets Have No Name in a fit of frustration. And allegedly, he came at Cale brandishing chopsticks during the fractious sessions of Wrong Way Up in 1990. "Imagine if it had been a knife?" mused Cale.

On Some Faraway Beach successfully balances serious analysis with such anecdotal colour. On a lighter note, the accounts of Eno as Roxy Music's preening glam figurehead holding court to journalists, while an overlooked Bryan Ferry became increasingly sulky and tetchy, are particularly delicious.