INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Circus APRIL 1975 - by Stephen Demorest
ENO: THE MONKEY WRENCH OF ROCK CREATES HAPPY ACCIDENTS ON 'TIGER MT.'
One day Eno is going to formulate a theory that will make music melt out of the North Pole (maybe he'll do it with mirrors), but for now the puckish popstar is content to be the most imaginative rock thought-spinner in the western hemisphere.
The name is preposterous, a moniker longer than its owner is tall. Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno is an effete looking twenty-six year old with a pallid complexion, a body seemingly ripe for tuberculosis, and more ego than hair, thin blond wisps of which straggle out from under his jaunty beret. But young Eno is in reality a twenty-first century Superman, and is now developing one of the foremost avant-garde reputations in England. A man of many projects and curiosities, Eno is an ultra-progressive theoretician who revels in unusual juxtapositions and contrasts. When Eno throws himself into a project, it's usually just to see which way the pieces will fly: he's a human monkey wrench.
Eno's new album for Island Records, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), is based on just such a conflict. The record is centred around a Chinese theme because Eno identifies strongly with that mega-culture's historical position. "It's nothing to do with the Red revolution," Eno cautioned during his explanation of the project to Circus magazine. "It's just that I see China as a society which is simultaneously incredibly archaic and steeped in tradition, and at the same time making some of the most incredible social advances in the world. I identify with that position: linked with a powerful tradition, but at the same time playing with things very much to do with 1970, or 1980 really."
Twenty-seven years ago, the only member of the Eno family concerned with the interaction of international thought systems was Brian's father - he was a postman for Her Majesty, and made his rounds in a small Suffolk river town called Woodbridge. Eno Jr. was born on May 15, 1948, and his childhood was of the normal rustic sort, but marked by a particularly strong streak of independence and curiosity. At various times he inhabited a houseboat and an abandoned double-decker bus, and cultivated a taste for rare rhythm and blues records which he scrounged from two nearby U.S. air bases.
The holy mother who gave Brian all those saints' names saw that her son was educated properly in Ipswich, first at the Convent of Jesus and Mary and then at St. Joseph's College. About the age of sixteen, though, Eno's artistic tendencies began to rear their eccentric heads; he started to concentrate on painting, spent two years at Ipswich Art School, and then moved on to three years at the Winchester College of Art where he took his Fine Arts diploma. At Winchester, Eno displayed a remarkable interest in conceptual art and a fascination with machines: he did one painting on metal and placed it at the bottom of a river; he amplified the travel of earthworms; he constructed a musical machine which was driven by thew wind.
Becoming more and more interested in music at Winchester, Eno formed two musical groups, an avant-garde aggregation called Merchant Taylor's Simultaneous Cabinet and a rock group known as Maxwell's Demon in which he sang, often making up the lyrics as went along. Eno says his first instrument was a tape recorder, and it was during this period, in 1968, that he published the offspring of his initial great confrontation with the world of sounds, a "theoretical handbook" called Music For non-Musicians.
RAGS TO ROXY
And then suddenly those blessed school days were no more. Eno hoofed it down to London in 1969 to try his fortune, peddled his electrical/mechanical expertise here and there to support himself, and eventually ran into Andy Mackay, who was already a respected avant-garde musician. Mackay soon afterwards became involved with another art student, one Bryan ferry, who was formulating the master-plan for a smart experimental band that would soon become heralded far and wide as Roxy Music. In January, 1971, electronics specialist Eno was invited to join the proto-Roxy team as "sound mixer and technical expert" and they rehearsed privately for nearly a year. Then, after a harried winter in early '72 spent finalising a recording contract with Island records, Roxy burst upon the English music scene with their first LP, Roxy Music, in May, 1972.
Although he "treated" Roxy's sound rather than playing the instruments, Eno was no less vital a part of the group than any of the other musicians. When they cruised through Britain on tour behind their first hot single, Virginia Plain, Eno was the visual delight of the snappy gang with his peacock plumes and mascara.
But all was not well in the court of the young rock regents. Following the release of a second Roxy album, For Your Pleasure, in March, 1973, Eno began to feel cramped by the personality conflicts he was having with Music mastermind Bryan Ferry. Roxy had been conceived as definitively experimental, but as Britain's musical establishment began to fawn over them, their sound became increasingly more predictable. Bryan, it seemed, wanted to refine and polish his uniquely styled compositions; Eno, conversely, favoured maintaining a constant flux of ideas, hurling the band off-balance towards bolder, even more imaginative goals which, though perhaps less satisfactorily realisable, might cover a broader musical territory. There were also suggestions at the time that an introspective Bryan somewhat resented the generous press coverage accorded the very verbal and photogenic Eno, which might instead have concentrated on others in the band. Finally, discouraged but not particularly daunted, Eno resigned from Roxy Music on July 21, 1973.
Since then, the Woodbridge wizard's wonder-brain has been entertaining more exotic ideas than a Marseilles brothel does sailors; sometimes they come off and sometimes they don't. The first post-Roxy project was a band that never happened, Louana And The Lizard Girls (Beano copped the name from William Burroughs book, Naked Lunch). More successful were stints producing the PanAm Steel Band and The Portsmouth Sinfonia, an inept but earnest bunch who augment their brand of classical music with mistakes. Next, Brian collaborated with King Crimson guitar-master Robert Fripp on a brace of tracks released as No Pussyfooting in November.
The strongest sign of Eno continued musical fertility, though, was his debut solo album, Here Come The Warm Jets, which Island released February 4, 1974. Associating himself with a band called The Winkies, the rock waif then readied a brief tour of England to display his wares. unfortunately, the roadshow was aborted by chest pains the first week of March which were soon diagnosed as severely collapsed right lung. Rumour had it that Eno, always admired for his impressive sexual capabilities, was done in when he over-extended himself with six fun-loving female fans. The rumour was probably even better for his career than the whole tour would have been.
After a season of recuperation, Eno's post-Roxy period entered its second phase. Long an admirer of the legendary Velvet Underground (he lists What Goes On as his all-time favourite song), Eno had the good fortune to meet charter member John Cale who was pursuing a solo career he put in a solid month advising Cale on the recording of Fear. Through Cale he then met the awesome Nico and cult figure Kevin Ayers when all of them gathered for an underground all-star concert, since released by Island as June 1, 1974. After the concert, Eno stuck with Cale when the Welshman moved on to producing Nico's album.
In July, Eno was distracted from his creative endeavours temporarily, as the release of Here Come The Warm Jets in the U.S. necessitated a cross-country press tour there for interviews. Only as the summer began to fade into autumn did Eno finally get around to recording the tracks he'd been writing all summer for his second solo album.
"I think this album explores a lot of ideas more thoroughly than Warm Jets did," Eno says of his latest effort. "Whereas on the first album I took it for granted that the set of instruments one normally has in a rock band were what I needed, this time I tried to suit the instruments to the song."
Tiger Mountain opens with a thematic statement, Burning Airlines Give you So Much More, which is about going to China. It's a jaunty piece, with ringing guitars behind the melody, courtesy of Roxy's Phil Manzanera who also helped Eno with the production chores. It started off as a kind of a Los Paraguayos sound," Eno offered. "They're a group who had a hit record in England about twelve years ago, with a rather strange kind of Paraguayan harp music. When I first started writing, it came out roughly like that, but when you take it into the studio it becomes something else."
Back In Judy's Jungle amplifies the Southeast Asia atmosphere. "I started it off as a reggae/waltz," Eno explained. "I was interested in making a weird mixture of styles I'd never heard before: a guitar sounding like a tribal bagpipe from ancient Scotland against lyrics about a jungle in Borneo. There was a whole period of war films in this country about English prisoners-of-war building the Burma railroad. Although things were incredibly hellish there, in another way the people seemed to enjoy it. They never stopped talking about it. So the whistling part of the song is the tune from Bridge Over The River Kwai, only slowed down.
About the lazy, elephantine Fat Lady Of Limbourg, the composer said, "Limbourg is a town in Northwest Belgium. It has a lunatic asylum, and they're doing very progressive experiments in lunacy where they let the village to the lunatics so they can walk about all they want. I got a very bleak landscape which I don't usually get in my songs. Usually my things are thick and dense, but this one's like a Beckett landscape with only one or two figures on it.
I like quite a lot. It has a prepared piano, a grand piano with somebody sitting on the bass strings to drop the resonance; I also put on some synthesised crickets. It's a strange configuration of instruments, and I get a lot of buzz from that. I keep trying to get away from my own tradition. Sometimes I worry that it won't sound like anything I've done before, but then I say 'So what?'
"My favourite tracks are China My China and the title cut. I got the name from a set of postcards of a Red Chinese ballet. There's such a paradox in that title, and it typifies the dichotomy between the archaic and the progressive. Half Taking Tiger Mountain - that Middle Ages physical feel of storming a military position - and half (By Strategy) - that very, very twentieth century mental concept of a tactical interaction of systems."
PANOPLY OF PROJECTS
Since the conclusion of the Tiger Mountain sessions in September, Eno has not been idle. "I've been writing a lot on what kind of decisions can be made in the recording process," the theoretician said. "I got a lot of ideas from John, and I'm publishing some in the form of so-called fan club letters. I'm also publishing a set of playing cards for use while you're recording. Each has an instruction, like 'Amplify the most embarrassing detail' or 'Subtract the most important part'. It's to inject restrictions into the recording situation so you can kick yourself up the arse to get out of whatever rut you're stuck in. I'm also working with Phil Manzanera on his solo album, and I'll help John on his next one too. There's also a possibility of doing something with Fripp, but that's unplanned."
One of the most challenging requirements of Eno's freewheeling mode of creation is that one must be comfortable with the distinct possibility of failure. "The best way for me to work with someone like Fripp is to not make a formal organisation. The situation is nicer if it just happens that we're at the same place at the same time. Things get difficult when there's a level of expectation that you must do something good. It's when it doesn't matter that interesting things happen."
NICO'S 'THE END' - THE VALKYRIE ROCKS RHEIMS
When Kevin Ayers decided to make one of his rare public appearances by playing a concert at London's Rainbow Theatre, the first person he called on to join him was his friend Nico, about whom he'd written much of his Bananamour album. Nico, materialising from her Parisian and Moroccan retreats, invited her ex-Velvet Underground comrade and long time producer John Cale, and Cale in turn brought along Eno.
Soon after the Ayers concert, Nico and Cale went into the studios together to record Nico's fourth post-Velvets solo album, The End, and the electrical jack-of-all-trades got into the act too. As Eno explains it, "John was producing Nico's album, so when I played on that it was by his invitation." Nico must have approved, because when she performed in Berlin last October 5, the synthesizer whizz kid was again invited along. With Eno whistling bomb noises through her proud treatment of Das Lied Der Deutschen, an ancient religious hymn which became the nazi anthem during World War II, the results were literally smashing - half the emotionally confused crowd cheered and the other half riotously pelted the stage with debris.
On December 13, Nico performed another of her always strikingly original concert venues, this time in Rheims Cathedral, where France had traditionally crowned her kings for centuries. Following the event, outraged Catholics throughout the country claimed the church was desecrated, and cried out for a special purification ceremony for the monument.
It was in the mid-'60s that Nico, already a top fashion model in Paris, entered the world of rock 'n roll through a relationship with Rolling Stone Brian Jones. In 1967 she met Andy Warhol, who introduced her to the recently formed Velvet Underground who were then his protégés. Her solo singing debut was the album Chelsea Girl, named after one of Andy's most famous films. It was her second LP though, The Marble Index, which premiered the Indian harmonium that now makes her music immediately identifiable. All the other instruments on that record were played by John Cale, as were those on her third LP, Desertshore, which he also arranged and produced.
Nico's iron-willed music on The End may be the most vehemently self-possessed in rock today. From the discordant churchliness and unearthly chorus of It Has Not Taken Long to the stern Secret Side to the bleakness of You Forget To Answer, with Eno's soaring wintery synthesizer whooshing through quiet piano, she creates unshakeable dramas of the soul. She seems austerely proud and moral in the mediaeval sense, communicating not with Christ's heaven, but with the Norse gods of Asgard.
CALE CONQUERS 'FEAR'
"Eno, I've had an idea!" Again and again throughout the early weeks of spring last year, the familiar voice of John Cale would break Eno's slumber with 5:30AM phone-calls to discuss some fine point of musical theory. Cale was making his debut record for Eno's island label, and Eno had enthusiastically agreed to offer whatever assistance he could to the master composer.
"I didn't play that much," Eno pointed out concerning his involvement with the Fear project. "I shared John's ideas and helped him develop them. It was so rewarding! I had a chance to study somebody I admire and work with him."
Eno's admiration for the work of John Cale was no passing fancy. A charter member of one of Eno's favourite groups, the legendary Velvet Underground, Cale is respected by many connoisseurs as the most successful talent to emerge from the group which also included Nico and Lou Reed among others.
John was born in Wales, about which he has since spoken with a singular lack of affection. Moving into the larger world as soon as he could, he studied classical composition at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and then moved to New York City. It was there in the grimy streets of Manhattan that he met Reed, with whom he formed The Velvet Underground in 1966. Subsequently the group became associated with Andy Warhol, and further classed up its avant-garde image by adding the German-born actress/model/singer Nico on vocals. In 1968, John left the group to strike out on his own.
John's initial solo venture was Vintage Violence, followed by a mad collaboration with Terry Riley called Church Of Anthrax and then the elegantly symphonic The Academy In Peril in 1972, one track of which became the title tune of Warhol's film Heat. Then, in an uncharacteristic stab at normalcy, Cale moved to California to work for Warner Brothers in Artists & Repertoire. While in the earthquake state, he married his lovely wife Cindy, formerly Miss Cinderella of the Zappa-influenced GTOs. But even as John explored the novelty of going on to an office every morning, he continued writing music. This time the result was Paris 1919, one of the great undiscovered song efforts of all time.
Sometime in the early fall of 1973, Island records' new-wave A&R sultan, Richard Williams, heard that Cale was no longer committed to Warner Brothers. One of the handful of musical gourmets whose admiration for Cale's work is intense, Williams drooled at the prospect of signing John and the deal was finally completed in spring, 1974. Then the repatriated Briton went to work on Fear, with Eno as chief counselor and a further assist from Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera.
From the pretty, lazy pastoral melodies of Buffalo Ballet which describes the invasion of the virgin prairie, to the insistent pounding of Gun, probably the most Velvety song on the LP, Fear is a potpourri of musical craftsmanship. The Man Who Couldn't Afford To Orgy is an argumentative human comedy dialogue between a poor hesitant schmuck and a cooing woman's breathy come-ons. The most affecting song on the album though, is the softly and sadly resigned You Know More Than I Know, about a dead relationship and "the gaps we set like traps, and there's nothing left to catch".
John's favourite songs are those of The Beach Boys and The Bee Gees, and he's fashioned some of the most accessible melodies in vinyl. But when avant-guardists mourn the passing of The Velvets and heap sarcasm on the current product of Lou Reed, Cale is the musical Mecca they gaze toward with admiration and hope.