Zebra MAY 23, 2001 - by Glenn Peters


In our first excursion into Zebra's Museum Of Modern Music, we take a look at one of the fathers of electronic music, inventor of the ambient genre and all-round urine-drinking, pubic-hair-shaving, cross-dressing freak and super thinker, Brian Eno.

Eno's trouble started in 1948 when he was born when his parents gave him the impressive name, Brian Peter George St. Baptists de la Salle Eno. How would you be if you were given such a wacky arse name? School would have been a nightmare but probably like Johnny Cash's Boy Named Sue, such a shithouse name would have given the young Eno strength and a sense of being different from the rest of the little bastards in the yard.

Coming from a long line of tinkerers, most notably his grandfather who's hobby was to mend old mechanical musical instruments, it seemed natural for Eno to take interest in deconstructing sound and musical instruments. In 1990 Eno told journalist Michael Engelbrecht that his grandfather's house was a chapel full of mechanical organs, that type with fountains and with huge brass sheets that turn round, and mechanical pianos with piano rolls. And that the first musical instruments he saw or touched were early versions of the synthesizer: That's what they were, they were synthesizers, really. Or sequencers, should I say, something like that.

Living his childhood near a US Air Force Base in Suffolk, Eno was introduced to a crazy mix of early doo wop and rock 'n' roll broadcast on Arm Forces Radio. This opened him up to the mad world of pop which he describes as Martian Music. He was hooked.

Eno went to art school where he was introduced to the avant garde minimalist composers of the day, John Cage, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Steve Reich. Reich's and Stockhausen's early reel-to-reel tape-recorder compositions especially excited the young frustrated clarinetist, Eno, who has made his ever since for his disregard to learning how to play instruments as such and concentrate on using the actual recording studio as the musical instrument. Does this ring a bell, dance/electronic music fans? Can't be arsed learning to play the boring piano or guitar, instead opting to buy yourself a 303 and make a lot of convenient noise? Eno was on to this too.

After some time in an avant garde art troupe, strangely named Merchant Taylor's Simultaneous Cabinet, Eno joined an art rock band. His role? Vocals and signals generator. The band's name was Maxwell Demon. Another weird arse named band he was in was Cardew's Scratch Orchestra. Then, in 1971, he joined a band with a dishy looking lead singer called Roxy Music as synth player and band producer. You can catch the great band late at night on Rage in the early Roxy Music clips wearing the craziest of glam costumes ever to grace a rock 'n' roll stage. His clothing sense alone is legendary. Who could forget the transvestite eyes, the slicked back hair and blank stare?

Like all great rock 'n' roll stories, Eno left Roxy Music in 1973 to embark on a solo career. His solo albums of the early to mid 1970s are of the greatest mixes of experimental electronic music and pop ever put to tape. 1973's Here Come The Warm Jets is off the planet pop with oddly named songs, Needles In The Camel's Eye, The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch and Baby's On Fire mixed with the rare electronic beauty of the final, title track four minutes of tenderly layered synths and guitars.

When it comes to beauty, you can't go past Eno's 1975 masterpiece, Another Green World. This was the stirring album where Eno finally proved to the world that you could make electronic music with soul, heart and feeling, starting with a few poppy teasers and then slipping into a languid, almost erotic world of Farfisa, Hammond, guitar, bass and subtle vocal treatments, Another Green World set Eno on a course which changed recorded music ever since. At last feeling, tone and timbre dominated recorded music's sound, going beyond theory, song structure and actually giving the listener a sense of being swept somewhere else. A soundscape, if you will. In fact, the BBC were so impressed with Eno's sound structures, the album's title track was and still is, used for their weekly, aptly named in Eno's case, current affairs radio show, Panorama.

Following his next year's pop exorcism album, Before And After Science, Eno, in 1978 released the album where in its title, he coined a phrase to set off a popular musical movement called ambient music. Ambient 1: Music For Airports is a very slow moving piece of music intended to, as he described it once, induce calm and a space to think. As opposed to elevator music, which is intended to numb the tedium of the surroundings, ambient music is set to enhance and challenge the surroundings around the listener with a mixture of synthetic and organic sounds. It was also intended not to be music of the foreground or background, just weird stuff that occupies and entertains the void. Weird arse, arty and preposterous, perhaps, but nonetheless Eno's famous ambient works were immensely worthy and spawn off disciples of early trance, techno, drum 'n' bass and (unfortunately) crystal shop music.

Eno wasn't satisfied with totally reconstructing the way we thought about music when he invented the term ambient music. Sure, he wasn't the only one to concentrate on repetition and tape loops (just check out Kraut rockers like Can and Neu!), but his later collaborations with Harold Budd, John Cale, Daniel Lanois, David Byrne and especially ex-King Crimson guitarist, Robert Fripp, Eno took the ideas of tape looping, sampling and using the recording studio as a primary musical instrument really took modern music by the throat and gave it a real shaking.

Oh yes, and Brian Eno not only is famous for his challenge to modern music. He is also known for being a bloke who challenges the normal in every way. He predicted the fall of multimedia for being too boring and wacky while experimenting with drinking his own urine. He's a fascinating guy, full of ideas and perspectives. Check out this from an article written by Chrissie Hynde, it was with a certain apprehensive curiosity that I first noticed the brown lace-up shoes. He displayed a normalcy that I just couldn't trust. After all, I'd seen his photos and I knew I was dealing with no ordinary deviant. Yet the toned-down reserve, the limp handshake [handshake?] and the nice-guy inoffensiveness had me baffled. He just didn't come on like someone who keeps an extensive collection of breast bondage literature in the bathroom. Yep, he's a live wire.

Eno is also known as personal producer and mate to the likes of the disturbing David Bowie and the even more disturbing U2. The most ridiculous story of his producing days would have to be the time when U2 hit a writer's block recording the Achtung Baby album. What do we do Uncle Brian? We are running out of time to record this one, they ask. The genius of modern pop suggested they vacate the studio for a week for a holiday at the Bahamas. They did just that while Eno was getting paid by the hour waiting for them to come back to the studio. When they did return, the Irish band were replenished and quickly finished what became one of recording history's greatest ever selling albums. Excellent work Brian. Very excellent work, indeed.

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