Mojo JULY 2008 - by Mark Paytress


On Some Faraway Beach: The Life And Times Of Brian Eno

The extraordinary tale of how rock's most infamous non-musician became pop's most articulate spokesman and in-demand producer.

Neatly nailed here as "rock's premier lab technician", Brian Eno is that rare thing in popular music: a thinker. For the past thirty years, this man with the abstemious demeanour who arrives at recording studios briefcase in hand has re-thought a small handful of A-list careers - Bowie and U2 for starters - by playing what producer Tony Visconti calls "the Zen master".

David Sheppard's near magisterial biography, written with Eno's co-operation though largely unsanitised, meticulously unpicks the thinking that motivates a genuine modern musical original. Along the way, the pop polymath is unmasked as being as passionate about sex as he is the studio, and as skilled at making his own luck as he is devoted to his beloved, chance-filled Oblique Strategies. It's a magnificent tale superbly told - and judicious, too. By 1995, when Eno admits that he is "completely bereft of ideas", Sheppard has already upped the pace. The main focus of this book is the era that truly counts.

Given that Eno emerged as the most outré peacock of the glam rock era, a proud non-musician who twiddled a VCS3 synth with Roxy Music between 1971 and '73, his subsequent status as the egghead architect of ambient music and all-round cultural theorist takes some explaining. Sheppard is absolutely brilliant on the genesis of Eno's musical iconoclasm, and a picture soon emerges of a young man lost in the grip of his obsessions.

He developed a passion for perfume as a sixteen-year-old. An epiphany at eighteen - an early "mid-life crisis" Eno called it - lodged the question, "Is what I'm doing worth doing at all?" firmly in his head. At twenty, he owned a collection of thirty tape recorders. And during the mid-'70s, partaking eagerly in what Sheppard neatly terms "the aphrodisiac of fame', he collected Polaroids of his countless sexual conquests.

"The only things I'm really interested in are sex and music," Eno admitted in 1973. And, indeed, the '70s were very good indeed for the bonking boffin. After being booted out of Roxy by a jealous Bryan Ferry, Eno could have faded into obscurity just like any feather-wearing glam oddity. Instead, he composed using flow charts, developed the idea of the studio as a compositional tool, "weirded up" conventional instruments and virtually birthed modern pop on his first two or three solo records.

He was being talked up as a "surrealist rock superstar". Yet though he relished interviews, Eno chose instead to undertake bespoke projects such as developing his ambient idea and releasing a string of experimental records on his own Obscure label. Which, give or take the odd commission for U2 or Selfridges (for whom he mounted a mixed media installation in 2007), is what he's been doing ever since. Meanwhile, the music world - well, Aphex Twin at least - has caught up with him, prompting Eno to concentrate more on his role as a roving rock professor.

As Mojo contributor Sheppard makes clear in this superbly researched and written book, Eno earned his right to popular music sainthood three decades ago.