Irish Examiner MAY 6, 2015 - by Joe Dermody


Fans of U2 will probably know the story of how Larry Mullen and later Bono had to repeatedly court Brian Eno to convince him to work with them on changing their sound.

David Sheppard recounts how Eno did his best to put them off. This was 1984. Eno had enjoyed success in the 1970s developing new ambient sounds, working with David Byrne of Talking Heads and David Bowie, plus any number of lesser luminaries in artistic waters determinedly far from the commercial mainstream.

Eno had long since left Roxy Music due to in-fighting with Bryan Ferry as each sought to drag the band in polar opposite directions: Ferry towards the top of the charts, Eno down a more esoteric avenue.

Eno had gained a lot of acclaim for the inventive synth sounds and fresh, unusual recording techniques he was bringing to Roxy.

Sheppard recounts the tale of the last time Eno made a reappearance with Roxy, having sought to mend bridges. The fans kept hollering his name to the point where it made continuing the gig near impossible. Eno stepped off stage, but that just made it worse.

In brief, never again.

But back to U2. Eno would say things like: "I'm more interested in painting pictures, creating a landscape within which music happens."

Bono would reply: "Exactly, that's what we want too."

After a protracted wooing, Eno eventually agreed. The result saw U2 go from stadium rock gods to the heavily synth-driven The Unforgettable Fire.

Eno was also central to U2's musical choices on their epochal The Joshua Tree album. However, his single-mindedness very nearly saw him wipe Edge's home-cooked guitar intro to Where The Streets Have No Name.

Edge had carefully and lovingly developed the song's ground-breaking guitar lines on a four-track 'portastudio' at home, and Eno was having great difficulty transferring this work into the studio's twenty-four-track context.

"It was a nightmare of screwdriver work," said Eno, who decided he would simply delete Edge's original work and simply start over.

When studio colleague Pat McCarthy had left to make tea, Eno made his move.

Luckily, McCarthy came back in time to stop him. Otherwise, would Edge & Co have forgiven Eno? Would he still have been around for Achtung Baby, etc?

This is just one of countless anecdotes that illustrate why Eno is so dearly cherished by his fellow musicians, albeit with creative tension always on a knife edge.

In audio terms, Eno is a maverick whose off-piste approach has added great colour to some hugely successful rock acts, while his own solo works have a deservedly devoted following in their own right.

And Sheppard's biography is rightly being hailed as a masterpiece in this genre.

However, for those less moved by Eno's huge esoteric output, the book might be a bit unsatisfying. Eno turns sixty-seven on May 15. Sheppard fairly races through the last twenty-five years of Eno's life.

The U2 stories arrive at some three hundred and sixty pages into this four-hundred-and-fifty-page tome, and the chapters on the evolution of Eno's ambient sound and the art scenes in which he liked to work, may be too esoteric for some.

That said, Sheppard does a great job in depicting Eno's early years in Suffolk, from his easy high achieving in Catholic school to his teenage marriage to Sarah, quickly followed by the birth of their daughter Hannah.

In real terms, waif-like and effete Eno was still an evolving teen at the time: "I thought I was terribly ugly and that I would never be able to get any girls. I began cultivating certain eccentricities, figuring that perhaps the girls would like me... I guess it worked."

Like Eno himself, an odd mix of brilliance and pretension, this book is certainly not for everyone. Some will dislike it, others will love it, but very few will be indifferent, which is reason enough to recommend it wholeheartedly.