"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Word JULY 2004 - by Jude Rogers
AMBIENT MUSIC: WHOSE BRIGHT IDEA WAS THAT?
Back before the dawn of personal computers, Brian Eno was sending messages to the future. They sound so radiant we could almost forgive him for inventing chill out...
Vividly I remember the first time I slotted Kraftwerk's Radioactivity LP into my cassette player, watching the reels turn through the brown plastic, waiting for a sound. I heard a tick. The another. A sharp, defined clack. I pressed stop and rewind and played it again. The same thing happened. When I realised the clicks were a track, Geiger Counter, a sinister procession of beats leading into the title theme, I was awestruck. At seventeen I realised that the smallest sound could creep under the skin and capture a feeling. It was a revelation, opening up a world of funny noises that was supposedly the preserve of technology geeks and chin-stroking male intellectuals. This young girl didn't care - she wanted to hear more.
Soon after, I bought my first Eno records. Given that I was partial to loud eyeliner and feather boas at the time, it's surprising we didn't meet sooner. The first Eno I knew, though, wasn't the gaudily-attired Roxy Music showman, dancing in the sidelines while Bryan Ferry melted girls' hearts like butter. My Eno was the architect of Music For Airports and Music For Films, conceptual soundtracks that were like modern classical compositions, far removed from the excesses of glam. Slowly repeated five-note piano figures and sounds altering in tiny gradations didn't sound cerebral and lifeless. They sounded delicious, testimonies to the power of a few gentle tones.
These "Early Works" reissues bridge the gap between Eno's last Roxy get-together in 1973 - a meeting that ended with Eno crying "Oh fuck it, I'm leaving" then skipping merrily down the King's Road - and those minimalist releases. His productivity in the '70s, and since, is impressive. More than a mere musician, he's had irons in many a bright fire. "I am a dilettante," he once asserted, "and it's only in England that dilettantism is considered a bad thing. In other countries it's called interdisciplinary research". As well as being a lecturer, curator, artist, theorist, diarist, fund-raiser and self-proclaimed "Mammal, celebrity and masturbator", he also claims to have invented ambient music. You certainly track his influence right through to the '90s sound collages of The Orb and The Future Sound Of London. However, you can also blame him for chill out music, churning its tedious cream from the corporate barrel. How would those starch-shirted professionals in their chrome-decked, candle-lit penthouses have managed without him?
Still, Eno's work as arranger and producer remains credible. He was Bowie's "salvationist" when they collaborated in Berlin, Eno shimmering his electronic influence through credits on Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. His production work with Devo, Talking Heads and U2 also stretches the listener. It's not bad for a career that began when Eno bumped into Roxy Music's saxophonist Andy Mackay on the London Underground. Helping the band make a demo, it wasn't long until he took over their synthesizers.
Eno's first solo record was Here Come The Warm Jets. It nevertheless sounds very Roxy - fittingly, as all the band members, apart from Ferry, take part. It's very much a product of 1973, camping it up like Aladdin Sane, rolling in glitter and flailing its boots. Needle In The Camel's Eye jolts the album into life with a wall of Phil Manzanera guitar, and vocals that smack of David Jones. Baby's On Fire, the first song Eno wrote, is sung with a sneer that sounds like The Sweet's Brian Connolly after a peculiar concoction of opiates. The lyrics, an aspect of Eno's work that are always neglected, are peppered with suburban aspirations that Jarvis Cocker would be proud of: "she tells me they're selling up their maisonettes, left the Hotpoints to rust in their kitchenettes" (Cindy Tells Me). Avant-garde leanings creep out, though, not only when Eno utters "oh, cheeky cheeky, oh, naughty sneaky" at the start of Dead Finks Don't Talk, but with On Some Faraway Beach's primal screams - prefiguring the cries on Bowie's Warszawa - and the shock of Blank Frank. It's a track that echoes Beefheart at his most menacing.
Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) emerged a year later. Taking its title from a Chinese opera, a Maoist propaganda piece, Eno took it upon himself to invent contemporary myths and legends. The results are funny and engaging. Burning Airlines Give You So Much More - a song you can't see catching on at the BA Departure Lounge - has Eno speculating upon Regina's trip Far East: "I somehow can't imagine her just planting rice all day - maybe she will do a bit of spying". Old sayings are mixed up with nursery rhyme vocabulary in Mother Whale Eyeless - "take me my little pastry mother, take me, there's a pie shop in the sky" - and Put A Straw Under Baby, which tips its hat to the Nativity, has hay helping "keep the splinters away". This should sound pompous, but it doesn't. The tunes - and there are plenty of them here, alongside chiming smacks of guitar, brass, The Portsmouth Symphonia for which Eno was once a bassoonist, for heaven's sake - make this storytelling hugely accessible.
Another Green World came next, marking the start of Eno's ambient adventures. Like a mascara-ridden Archimedes, Eno's discovery of music's simpler possibilities happened by accidents. Knocked down by a taxi in Maida Vale, he was visited in hospital by a friend who, unwittingly, played him some music through broken speakers. The background sounds struck a chord, and Eno's music followed suit.
The album starts with Sky Saw, the sound of metal teeth being musically mangled. It's not jarring but stirring, created by putting a guitar and viola (played by John Cale) through a bank of effects. Other curious instruments join in - "castanet guitars", Peruvian percussion, Farfisa organs. You sense Eno using the studio to study and invent sound. Still, songs are scattered around the instrumentals. St. Elmo's Fire is glorious, a paean to the "blue August moon", spiked by electronic keys and Robert Fripp's loose riffs. Golden Hours sounds like a journey through space, about "the passage of time... flicking dimly up on the screen" accompanied by spasmodic percussion" and uncertain piano". It's a gorgeous futuristic ode from the time when personal computers seemed an outrageous fantasy.
Before And After Science takes more of a departure. It's funky, for one thing. It also makes use of 'world music' instruments - the agong-gong and brush timbales alongside moogs and bells - prefiguring Eno and David Byrne's explorations on 1981's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Talking Heads genesis runs through this, especially in King's Lead Hat, which you'd expect from its anagrammatic title. The roots of post-punk are writ large.
The tempo changes, though, when Julie With... begins. Reacquainting myself with this song recently, on a mix CD made for me, it sounded as fresh as the modern songs it adjoined. This holds true for the whole 'second side' of this album, an intoxicating collection of tracks that slink by suggestively, like nothing you've ever heard elsewhere.
As the last track, Spider And I, fades to silence, you think of how this potent mixture of classic status and contemporary zeal is the key to both Eno and Bowie. They each seized the possibilities of the '70s - the opportunities music gave them, the advances of technology, the effects they could create - and ran with them. Replaying these four albums, and reassessing their radiance, it's only fair that Eno gets just as much of the credit.
WORD'S VERDICT: Timely reissues tracking Eno's development from glam-rocking experimentalist to ambient forefather. Lap up the inventive, rich sounds that he conjures.
KEY TRACKS: Burning Airlines Give You So Much More from Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy); Julie With... from Before And After Science; On Some Faraway Beach from Here Come The Warm Jets; St. Elmo's Fire from Another Green World.