PLAYLIST #1 ~ TRACK 43
Brian Eno, electric piano, synthesizer
Dick by name …
Born three years after the end of World War II in the small Suffolk town of Woodbridge, Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno (1948–) is not the scion of an aristocratic old family, as the outlandish name might suggest, but the son of a postman. His grandfather William followed the same calling, more to the point influencing him as young boy by being an inveterate tinkerer with mechanical devices, musical and other – “a man for whom nothing was beyond repair,” to quote Eno’s biographer David Sheppard. The town’s proximity to a couple of American airbases was another factor in his later musical development, accounting for his otherwise surprising love of 1950s doo-wop (gospel is frequently cited by him as another inspiration). More influential still was going off to study painting at the Ipswich School of Art at a time it had fallen into good radical hands. Here it was, for example, that he first encountered John Cage’s remarkable book Silence (1961), then very new, to be suitably bowled over by it. His next move was to Winchester Art School, where he seems to have crammed a lot in, including marriage and a child as well as no end of extra-curricular experimentation involving tape recorders. He became an outwardly flamboyant, somewhat androgynous-looking young man, given to wearing make-up and generally displaying a cavalier attitude to gender boundaries when it came to his wardrobe. By 1969 he was ready for London where, whether or not it was quite ready for him, such behaviour would be less conspicuous.
There he remained in close touch with his like-minded former tutor at Ipswich, Tom Phillips, later to become well known as a visual artist; the cover art of Another Green World, from which this track comes, is his. Phillips quickly introduced him to his acquaintance Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, of which he was a member and whose rank and file Eno now proceeded to join for a spell, even making his recording debut in the choir on a DGG record of Paragraphs from Cardew’s The Great Learning. Around the same time, he heard Steve Reich’s astonishing tape piece It’s gonna rain (1965), which joined the first Velvet Underground records in the stew of influences he was bringing to the boil. Not that he harboured hopes at this time of parlaying his musical passions into a career. By his own reckoning he would have become an art teacher himself had a casual encounter with their saxophonist Andy Mackay not led to his joining, at the end of 1970, Bryan Ferry’s nascent Roxy Music, the ultimate British artrock band, to which he brought keyboard weirdness and a corresponding provocative visual dimension. A couple of fine, assured albums in, Roxy proved too small to hold two such forceful creative personalities, and since this was Ferry’s gig Eno jumped ship, though not into the lifeboat of academe. He’d got the bit between his teeth, and what might have been the end turned out to be the beginning for Eno the idiosyncratic musical sorcerer. He soon produced two bizarrely brilliant albums of his own songs (Here come the warm jets, 1973; Taking Tiger Mountain (by strategy), 1974), not commercial like Roxy’s could be, and like nothing before them: the sound of a genuinely new voice making itself heard. By 1975 and the time of his third LP, Another green world, with which we are concerned, he was becoming more and more smitten with some unusual, at heart instrumental rock-related music coming out of Germany – what it seems we have to call krautrock, whether we like it or not – by bands such as Can, Harmonia, Cluster and Kraftwerk. Its influence was probably the last piece in the jigsaw of his mature style, and possibly the most crucial of all.
Chilled as the record turned out, the sessions for Another green world were by all accounts hard going, for Eno more than anyone. Making it, he recalled, “was almost unmitigated hell. It was terrible … I used to come home and cry.” You could say it served him right for pursuing such a high-risk strategy. He’d assembled an unlikely but crack assortment of players, drummer Phil Collins (Genesis), violist John Cale (ex-Velvet Underground) and guitarist Robert Fripp (late of King Crimson) among them. The problem was that little or nothing was given these fine players to play. This move seems to have been stimulated by the creation of Miles Davis’s hallowed 1959 album Kind of blue out of the sketchiest material (scribbled-down scales and the odd verbal indication), but just as much by Eno’s disenchantment with standard rock practice, his own included. “I found that if you went into a studio with demos, you spent all your time trying to recreate the demos – which was not only extremely time-consuming, but always prevented you from seeing what was actually happening. (…) So I decided to risk going into the studio with no written material.” The avowed Kind of Blue comparison may not actually be all that illuminating except in a general way. Miles’s consummate players were well used to improvising – they were jazzmen – but this wasn’t the plan here. Eno’s method called for spontaneity, certainly, but mainly from himself as he played his musicians like instruments, rather than their functioning as a band in the normal way. At times, to give an idea of this, he would have them play in isolation from each other, to his fairly minimal, often off-the-wall instructions, without explaining how their contributions would fit into the pattern he had in mind. Gradually he felt his way towards the results he wanted, building up tracks in layers like a painter, to use his own favoured comparison. It couldn’t have worked as well as it did without such brilliant, properly inventive players, to be sure, but the impetus came from Eno’s flowering genius for using the recording studio as a canvas for creating haunting sound pictures. Significantly, perhaps, this was the first time (though far from the last) that he would rely on the cards he calls Oblique Strategies, self-devised provocations to think outside the creative box (“Honour thy error as a hidden intention” and the like) when things get sticky.
Containing just five songs among its 14 tracks, Another green world was an important step in Eno’s forging of an uncannily atmospheric, Krautrock-influenced but still new instrumental style. Nowadays it’s routinely considered to have been also an early contribution to the ambient genre with which his name has come to be been associated above all else. This isn’t without justification, though I think we need to distinguish quite carefully between those two things – the style and the genre – if we want to grasp the essence of the ‘ambient’ idea. Whether spacey and uninterested in dynamism, or more rhythmic in a jazzily-rocky way, AGW‘s instrumentals are vividly suggestive little tableaux conjured up by Eno’s painterly musical ear. But their sum total, all the more so when taken together with the songs, is not really Ambient music as defined by Eno’s 1996 article of that title. So what is? Speaking of a change he had noticed in listening habits among his peers as the 1970s wore on, and the great novelty of rock and roll began to wear off, Eno observes: “The manifestation of this shift was a movement away from the assumptions that still dominated record-making at the time – that people had short attention spans and wanted a lot of action and variety, clear rhythms and song structures and, most of all, voices. To the contrary, I was noticing that my friends and I were making and exchanging long cassettes of music chosen for its stillness, homogeneity, lack of surprises, and most of all, lack of variety. We wanted to use music in a different way – as part of the ambience of our lives – and we wanted it to be continuous, a surrounding.” In this article and elsewhere he invokes a whole host of other criteria to round out his conception. Ambient music, to paraphrase various of these statements, concentrates on the texture of sound itself more than on melody or rhythm; uses electronics to create artificial virtual acoustic spaces; is intended to induce calm and provide spaces to think; exists in a steady state like a painting or sculpture, instead of telling some kind of story. Most crucially – this being what defines the genre in its quintessential form: “Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” (Emphasis mine.)
Although the term itself seems to have been coined in 1978 in connection with that year’s Music for airports, it had been three years earlier, immediately before beginning Another Green World in fact, while creating the two differently ambient sides of the other-worldly Discreet music LP, that Eno “realized that this was what I wanted music to be – a place, a feeling, an all-around tint to my sonic environment”. The purest expressions of this wish, at least on CD, are probably Thursday afternoon (1985), a continuous hour-long piece originally written to complement his video art, Neroli (1993), a similarly lengthy unbroken span of ambience (subtitle: ‘Thinking music part IV’) named at a time when he had started to interest himself in the complex mysteries of perfume, and more the recent Lux (2012). Not far behind – we’re judging on purity, not quality – are albums such as On land (1982), Apollo (1983) and The Shutov assembly (1985–90), consisting of shorter slices of true ambience; the two excellent ones from sessions with aforementioned German duo Cluster (Cluster and Eno, 1977; After the heat, 1978); and the slightly better known, equally successful Music for films (1978), whose slow-motion fragments compensate in ambient atmosphere for what they lack in duration, the tracks being so uniform in sound and mood (downbeat) that short as each is they do add up to an ambient whole. Only on the next shelf down, the one containing those albums combining songs and instrumentals frequently ambient in spirit, such as the brilliant Before and after science (1977), must we file Another green world.
It could easily be argued that what (more pejoratively, ‘all’) Brian Eno has done is seize an opportunity by applying the ideas of the twentieth-century avant-garde to the more unlettered field of rock (or whatever we call it), staking out a career in the debatable lands between the two. Very few of his main ideas – including ambient music itself, which goes back at least to 1917 and Satie’s musique d’ameublement – cannot be traced to those of earlier musical thinkers. The stress he lays on the importance of timbre, to cite another example, and his recognition that in certain new music, electronic especially, this parameter can sustain the listener’s interest as melody / harmony / rhythm did in the past, is something Stockhausen had been talking about for years, and Varèse for years before him. The same point might be made about the music itself, up to a point. For instance, would My life in the bush of ghosts (1981), his and David Byrne’s spellbinding transformations of found recordings (samples, we would learn to call them), have been possible without the impact on him of Reich’s It’s gonna rain (whose origin in a self-generating system involving tape recorders probably also affected Discreet Music)? Even his recourse to the Oblique Strategies cards surely owes something to Cage’s use of the I Ching in the making of his chance pieces.
Which is fair enough as long as we recognize how masterfully he has used his talent for assimilation and re-combination to do what he’s done, and acknowledge what a marvellous – and, after all, original and personal – body of music he’s created. As it happens there’s no need to demean Eno’s achievement. He’s perfectly capable of doing that for us, being a man who (though not without ego) talks perfect sense about everything bar his own abilities. We need to take a pinch of salt with his claims that he isn’t a musician at all and that his lyrics are meaningless rubbish. Point one: leaving aside his bass playing and unique way with a synth, he’s the perfect singer for his own music, as surely as Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Mark E Smith for theirs. Point two: as Eno well knows, rock lyrics don’t actually need to mean anything very much and are often better when they don’t (three words here: Strawberry fields forever). What they need to be above all is (a) sonically fitting and (b) compelling as word patterns, tests Eno’s pass with exceptionally high marks. Neither should his merits as a more or less traditional songwriter be underestimated, as Another day on earth (2005) most recently confirmed. Things like ‘St Elmo’s Fire‘, ‘Everything merges with the night’, ‘By this river’ and ‘And then so clear’ are just beautiful songs period, which in a more discerning world would be standards.
Rather than the dilettante he has sometimes been portrayed as by inverted musical snobs, Brian Eno is surely some kind of genius. The charge doubtless derives from the eclecticism of his interests – an intellectual rock musician must ipso facto be pretentious. Famously sought after as a producer (most famously of U2), Eno has developed still another career in visual media, undertaken political activism, contributed a monthly column to the up-market magazine Prospect, even as mentioned turned his attention to the olfactory sense, and so on. He remains full of surprises, one recent departure (though humour has always been in his makeup, and his records) being self-deprecating comedy in this video publicizing a 2010 CD. (SPOILER ALERT!!! Yes, they are of course both him.) This isn’t the first time, incidentally, that Eno has enlisted an alter ego to help convey his ideas, a certain ‘CSJ Bofop’ – shift the letters back one, see what you get – being the author of more than one of his liner notes.
There’s no shortage of Eno on Spotify, and almost too much information available to anyone coming fresh to him. Even, brilliantly, a whole day devoted to him on Internet Archive: 12 February 1988, as it happens. David Sheppard’s enography On some faraway beach does a good job. There’s an entire little volume devoted to Another Green World in Continuum’s variably valuable 33⅓ series, though it doesn’t focus narrowly enough on the album itself for my liking and has to go down as an opportunity missed. Eno’s 1995 diary, published as A year with swollen appendices, looks intriguing to the fan, though I confess I’ve never had it in my hands. His Desert island discs shows him to be an amazingly normal bloke given the critical and fan adulation he’s had. There’s a goodly amount on YouTube, including this playlist of some Small craft on a milk sea (that 2010 album) performances. ‘Play all’ when you get there for a rare little concert with a very groovy climax, the great man enjoying himself no end. This may be the closest thing to Eno live since 1976 and the not especially halcyon days of the 801. The enoweb fansite is informative and well-organized – anything less would be both surprising and inappropriate.