Published Jul 01, 2005From his humble beginnings as an art student in the British countryside, Brian Eno walked into the public consciousness as the glamorous eccentric singing back-up vocals from the sound booth at Roxy Music gigs. What happened next is the stuff of which legends are made. As the austere, sexual deviant of the art rock crowd, he recorded a slew of albums that set the pace for the next ten years. As a restless intellectual, he cultivated the theories that evolved the way we think of music and changed the way we view recording studios. As a producer, he crystallised the most vital moments from pop behemoths like U2, David Bowie, and Talking Heads. He is a founding father of art rock, glam, ambient and no wave. Brian Eno took apart the 1970s, only to reshape the decade and many of its most exciting artists in his own image. The ripples of his accomplishments can be felt in every decade that followed. These days, the man - who spends much of his time as an installation artist and lecturer - is preparing for the release of his first solo pop album in more than two decades. Another Day On Earth comes at the crest of resurging interest in his music and ideas, as new generations look back and discover for the first time the curious jewels that defined one of the most influential cultural figures of the last 40 years.
1948 to 1970
On May 15, 1948, Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno is born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, an East Anglican riverside village dating back to the 10th century. He attends Catholic schools until age 16 then enrols in a two-year program at Suffolk's Ipswich Art School, one of the longest established art-societies in the country. There, Eno meets artist and staff member Tom Phillips, who becomes a major influence on his early development, introducing him to John Cage's Silence, a book of lectures and essays on the integration of Eastern philosophies into contemporary music. Occasional visits to the school by British avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew also leave an impression on the young Eno, imprinting ideas that would later develop his sense of music as an intellectual sounding board.
In 1964, while still a student, Brian takes part in his first band, the Black Aces. The only remaining artefact from the project is a photograph, in which he is holding a pair of drumsticks. Even before learning to play conventional musical instruments, he starts collecting and playing with tape recorders. By the time he leaves Ipswich in 1965, he owns over 30 machines, though only two actually work properly. Around the same time, the Who's debut, The Who Sings My Generation, emerges; Eno is greatly inspired by the amount of energy the Who bring to rock. He begins 1968 by writing a limited edition theoretical manifesto, Music For Non- Musicians, and forming a performance art collective called Merchant Taylor's Simultaneous Cabinet. They perform works by himself and contemporary composers like La Monte Young and Cornelius Cardew. Eno then starts his second band, the Maxwell Demon, with fellow student and guitarist Anthony Grafton. They record only once, on Christmas Day, 1968, a 4-track recording called "Ellis B. Compton Blues." Late in 1969, at age 21, Eno moves to London to join an artists' commune. Once there, he joins Cardew's Scratch Orchestra. His goal is to avoid regular work, but eventually he runs out of money and takes a job as a paste-up assistant in the advertising section of a local paper. Unhappy, he soon quits and makes a living through buying and selling used electronics. By the end of 1970 things are slowly falling into place. He runs into saxophonist Andy Mackay, whom he'd first met a few years earlier at an avant-garde performance. Though both men are steeped in intellectual music, both have developed a newfound fascination for all things rock. The pair keeps in touch; three months later Eno receives a call from Mackay asking if he's interested in joining a band.
1971 to 1973
That band is Roxy Music, an act that will go on to set the pace for the glam and art rock movements that follow in its footsteps. The original formation includes Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay, and Graham Simpson. Eno owns a Revox tape recorder and the band wants to make some demos, so he joins as technical assistant. Mackay brings a synthesiser to the recording sessions, and Eno ends up handling that as well. He joins the band for their initial live performances, but not on stage. Instead he works from the mixing desk in the middle of the audience, adding vocal harmonies when needed. Early audiences are bemused by the fact that a contributing member is stationed so far away from the band and stage.
By 1972, Roxy Music signs with E.G. Management, who convince Eno to move up from his outpost to the stage. After the release of Roxy Music's self-titled debut, the onslaught of critical and popular success kick-starts Eno's spiral into acrimonious relations with Bryan Ferry. In an interview with the New Musical Express, Eno states that, "even taking into account that Bryan deserved more than the rest of us, having written all the material, to me the revenue was unfairly divided. He took all the music and lyric royalties and a sixth share in the arrangements - which meant he ended up with over 70 percent of what we were collectively earning." The group wastes no time in issuing its second album, For Your Pleasure, which is uniformly considered to make good on all the potential witnessed on their debut. An arduous promotional circuit gets underway. Fuelling an uncomfortable situation, Ferry forbids the band to play material not composed solely by him. Ferry's controlling nature creates tensions within the band, which escalate even further when, by mid-1973 the press is paying more attention to Eno's outrageously glam appearance - and willingness to experiment (musically and otherwise) - than to Ferry.
"Some of the papers seemed to think that I was the leader of the group, which was very embarrassing and quite unjust to Bryan. But then he went and started doing interviews where he'd try to re-establish the real position and started saying completely over-the-top things like 'This band is my baby and I could have done the same thing with any other group of musicians,' which was blatantly untrue."
The day the group plays the York festival, Ferry arrives to find all the media carrying features on Eno and his experimental side-project with Robert Fripp of King Crimson. He then finds Eno already onstage, in advance of Roxy's appearance, playing with Portsmouth Sinfonia (who take pride in being the world's worst orchestra) to an adulating audience. Bryan Ferry is pissed. He informs his management that he will never appear on the same stage as Eno again. The departure from Roxy Music leaves Eno creatively restless and £15,000 in debt. A projected single with Andy Mackay is scrapped and, needing to release something quick, Eno goes against management advice and issues No Pussyfooting (with Robert Fripp) as his first post-Roxy statement. The curious ambient guitar album is not a financial success, but Eno still has more to come. He contributes clarinet to an album by Portsmouth Sinfonia and then in September enters the studio to cut what will be his first new post-Roxy recordings.
In January, EG issues Here Come The Warm Jets, arguably one of the greatest solo debuts of the '70s. Apart from writing and performing his own vocals - a first - Eno shapes the album's highly distinguished sound template. Roxy's Andy Mackay and guitarist Phil Manzanera, alongside Robert Fripp and a few others, handle the bulk of the instrumentation. The album title, made explicit by the erotic playing card on the cover (a feature on several of his early album covers), is a reference to golden showers, further developing Eno's public persona as a sexually deviant adventurer. "I was living in a real shithouse at the time. It was just so awful - cockroaches everywhere and so cold that I couldn't sleep at night. I had to walk around to keep warm, you know. And it was so weird to see myself on the covers of magazines and to be actually living in such dire poverty. I was in complete mental disarray, I can tell you." He embarks on his first-ever solo tour; his backing band consists of the underrated glam proto-punker Philip Rambow and his band the Winkies, with whom he has plans to record an album. The tour lasts five dates before Eno's lung collapses. Spending much of early 1974 in the hospital, he decides to never tour again. An album with the ill-fated Winkies never materialises. Upon recovering, he travels to San Francisco and begins making up for lost time. He spins off into two super-groups, ACNE and the 801, he collaborates with Velvet Underground alumni Nico and John Cale, Soft Machine's Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt, Genesis, and Phil Manzanera's prog-rocking Quiet Sun side project. In September he returns to the studio to start work on his second album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Tiger Mountain furthers the production-booth experimentation of its predecessor. Never one to put much stock in lyrics, he adopts an improvisational technique based on the desired phonetics of each song. The result is a looser and altogether more cutting-edge album, banking off the stranger moments of Warm Jets. Released in November of that year, just 11 months after Warm Jets, Tiger Mountain hits the streets to heaps of praise. It seems to many that Eno is riding the creative apex of his times.
Late evening on January 18, while walking back from a studio session, Eno is run over by a speeding taxi. For the second consecutive time, he begins the year in the hospital. Not seriously hurt, he is nevertheless confined to a bed for an extended period of time as his legs heal. A friend brings a record of 18th century harp music as a gift. After much struggling to put the record on, he realises after lying down again that the amplifier is set at too low a volume. Unwilling to stand back up, he allows the record to play on almost inaudibly, fading in and out of the background. What Eno discovers in this strained process of listening forms the foundation for his ideas on an environmental music, or ambience, a form of music conducive to accentuating, as opposed to dominating, its surroundings. This revelation will change the way he makes music forever. Out of the hospital, he forms the mid-price label Obscure Records, devoted entirely to exploring the concept of ambient music. Although ambient music has precedence in avant-garde composition, Eno is in a position to coin the term "ambient" and present it to the music world at large. Over the course of its existence, Obscure will issue only ten works. In July, he returns to the studio to record his third rock album. Integrating his notion of ambient music into the rock mould, Another Green World is an altogether more spacious offering than Warm Jets and Tiger Mountain. Moving away from song structure, the album features a handful of vocal tracks, several of which exceed any he's recorded to date, interspersed between the gracefully paced melodic instrumentals that define Green World as moody work, the first genuine example of pop ambience. Relishing in creative momentum after finishing work on Green World in August, he quickly returns to the studio in September and spends two months cultivating the more experimental side of his ambient obsession. In six years, he has mastered the producer's studio to a degree only Brian Wilson before him had attained. The idea he has now is to create, through the studio, a self-regulating and self-generating system in which elements of music are entered like codes into the machinery, producing a spontaneous completed work. Using 17th century composer Johann Pachelbel's "The Canon in D Major" as his source, the result of his experiment is an album called Discreet Music. Another Green World sees release in November, and garners even more praise than its predecessors; it is unequivocally hailed as a masterpiece. Discreet Music follows one month later as the third release on Obscure. Although nowhere near as successful as Green World, it ranks among Eno's favourite albums, because it proves so easy to make once the mechanical equations are set into motion. In the light of the 30 years of music history that follow, the work produced in 1975 has proven to be Brian Eno's most lasting contribution to the musical canon. His development of ambient music introduces a new genre to the idiom, one that is still vitally productive to this day. Even more important is his creation of the self-regulating musical system, the ultimately utopian practice of allowing music to make itself, a device that cutting-edge artists have furthered in every generation since.
1976 to 1977
In the next two years Eno records over 200 tracks in preparation for his next album. His regular cast of musicians evolves to include Phil Collins, who handles much or the percussion work through the late '70s, and influential German space-rock duo Cluster. Having accomplished so much early on, he finds that he has arrived at an artistic crossroads. He travels to Berlin where he accompanies David Bowie in recording his seminal Low album. At the time, Bowie's studio techniques bear the influence of Kraftwerk and early incarnations of soon-to-be post-punk legends Wire. Eno helps Bowie channel his ideas in the studio, helping Low take much of its shape. The album's second half, made up completely of pop ambience, has his fingerprints all over it. Feeling creatively blocked, Eno sticks around and helps Bowie record the second album of his Berlin trilogy, the classic Heroes, for which he contributes all the backing arrangements. Early in 1977 he releases a collaborative space-guitar album with Cluster, but the majority of his attention now is leaning toward his imminent follow-up to Another Green World.
"I abandoned the album three times before I finished it," he tells NME. "I use processes to generate the structures of my music. With this new album, I found that I had to work very hard to get the results I wanted - the process didn't automatically generate them any more, whereas it used to." In the end he opts for the improvisational technique, filling the studio with unlikely combinations of musicians and seeing what results. The sessions that finally make up Before And After Science feature regulars Phil Collins, Cluster, and Robert Fripp, as well as jazz fusionist Percy Jones, Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, Hawkwind bassist Paul Rudolph, and improv guitarist Fred Frith (of Art Bears and Henry Cow). Although a very strong album in its own right, Before And After Science has the distinction of being the first Eno rock album to not surpass the expectations set up by its predecessors. Its major claim is the incorporation of Afro-beat rhythms and no-wave guitar arrangements on its first half, both of which anticipate the major influence Eno has on the first few Talking Heads albums. Otherwise, the records hints that his fascination with the art rock that fuelled his earlier work is receding. He will not record another song-based record for 12 years.
1978 to 1980
Early in 1978, Eno attends a series of benefit shows at the Artist's Space in Soho and discovers the brewing no-wave scene beginning to take shape. Many of the artists present share an equal affection for the intellectualisms of free jazz as they do the anything-goes ethos of punk. Eno convinces Island Records to release an anthology documenting the scene. In the end, his curation showcases four bands (James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Mars, and DNA) all of whom go one to become no-wave figureheads. No New York becomes an epoch-defining compilation. As a result, New York's infatuation with Eno takes an immense leap; at this time, it is not uncommon to see "Eno Is God" spray-painted on city walls. Otherwise, he stays away from rock, focusing on developing the ambient side of his persona. No less than three recordings emerge during 1978. The first becomes one his most renowned albums to date. In both name and aural designation, Ambient 1: Music For Airports captures the mystique and allure of accentuating environments with musical details, an album that actually gets played in airports in New York and Minneapolis. Although not the finest of the Ambient series, Music For Airports will become his biggest-selling album. Two other ambient albums follow: After the Heat, a collaboration with Cluster, and Music For Films, which compiles moody pieces composed between 1975 and 1978.
He finds time to produce the second Talking Heads album, More Songs about Buildings and Food, bringing cohesion to the group's sound by mining the polyrhythmic dance-ability of the bass and drums behind David Byrne's eccentric vocal persona. Overall, the attraction Eno once had for rock now shifts steadily to dance music and Eastern rhythmic templates. A natural and complementary pairing, he develops a very close relationship with the Talking Heads and collaborates with the group on their next two albums, Fear of Music and Remain In Light, often acting as and being treated like a fifth member. Eno also produces another seminal no-wave group's debut album, Devo's Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, one of the first pop albums to make considerable use of synthesisers. In 1979, he returns to Berlin to work with Bowie on the third and least adventurous of the Berlin trilogy, composing the accessible but still left-of-centre avant-pop album The Lodger.
Otherwise, the end of the decade has Eno setting up his first video installation works at the Kitchen gallery in New York. He begins the next decade rather quietly, releasing three minor but hypnotic ambient works in 1980: Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, with ambient cohort Harold Budd (before he goes new age); and the brooding Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics, with Jon Hassell. Although the latter claims to be a series, no other volumes appear. The third release is Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, with Laraaji, the least successful of the Ambient series. After an unparalleled decade that no one can reasonably expect him to surpass, Brian Eno is faced with a new decade full of technological breakthroughs that finally catch up with his ideas.
Having cultivated his tastes for third world music, Eno issues his collaboration with David Byrne, a frenzied, heavily percussive album entitled My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, his first major work of the new decade. One of the first albums - outside of the burgeoning rap movement - to make extensive use of samples, the songs here feature sound bites from radio shows, Middle Eastern traditional songs, prayers, exorcism ceremonies, and many other disparate sources. In many ways, Bush of Ghosts is the rightful successor to the transitional Before and After Science, in that it capitalises on an emphasis on rhythm sections and fuses the ambient strains overtop, rather than relegating the two to different songs. The album features Material bassist Bill Laswell, Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz, and Pere Ubu and DNA collaborator Tim Wright, among others. Increasingly he travels to the world's art galleries, focusing his energies on the audio/visual installations that form the perfect accompaniment to his ambient recordings.
1982 to 1985
Eno's repertoire slows down; instead of averaging two or more recordings a year as he's done for the past decade, he limits his output to just one per year. Although, this has more to do with his decision to stop making rock albums and focus more extensively on the ambient work that currently drives his creativity. In 1982, he finally completes the Ambient series with Ambient 4: On Land. This closing contribution is arguably the most accomplished and arousing of the four, and in its austerity has more in common with the dark textures of his collaboration with Jon Hassell. Unlike its three predecessors, On Land has Eno trying out field recordings alongside collaborators, a new twist to the production design. Compositions feature the sounds of frogs croaking, stones being rubbed against metal and hoses twirling. Reports from the studio indicate that he brought in slides from the Museum of Natural History to accentuate the environment for his players. The visual feature will become an integral part of his recording process.
His next album, 1983's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, marks Eno's first foray into full-length soundtrack work. Apollo is an accompanying piece to Al Reinhart's film of the Apollo missions. Working with French-Canadian producer Daniel Lanois (here playing pedal steel guitar), and his younger brother, Roger Eno, the album continues his exploration of darker, moody atmospherics that pull away from his more classically inclined work. Apollo also marks the beginning of a productive working relationship with Lanois. The following year, the pair joins Irish rockers U2 to produce the band's fourth album, The Unforgettable Fire. Eno will continue to work with the band throughout their career. 1985's Thursday Afternoon constitutes the final album of Eno's light-and-sound phase. Made especially for the then-new compact disc format, which for the first time allows him to create a work that is over 60 minutes long. The single hour-long piece, recorded in Canada, is the soundtrack to an art installation of the same name. Eno becomes one of the first artists to make expressive use of the new CD format. The album also constitutes Eno's last major musical work.
1986 to 1989
The late '80s bring about reclusiveness in Eno; his art rock has been lumped in with the excesses of prog rock, his ambient genre has been watered down to limpid new age, and no-wave has fettered down to a series of bad albums by Big Audio Dynamite and Was (Not Was). A new generation of listeners comes to know him primarily through his work with U2, whose album The Joshua Tree is the biggest success story of 1987. Otherwise he turns almost all his attention to video installation work. Magazine features from this period begin to view his body of musical work as retrospective. The few Brian Eno albums to emerge consolidate older material. In 1987, he issues a video called Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan, a video project he's been evolving since 1980. Music for Film 3 is a lacklustre collection of ambient outtakes from previous years. 1989's Textures is a collection of tracks for use by TV and film production companies. He also produces albums by Daniel Lanois and the Neville Brothers. By the end of the decade the retrospective is in full swing, with a box set of Eno classics to commemorate EG's 20th anniversary, and a single disc 20th anniversary greatest hits package.
1990 to 1999
Although he releases six albums in the '90s, attention for his music is short-lived, and many of these albums fall out of the public consciousness within a few months of release. He kick-starts the decade with his first song-based album in 12 years, a collaboration with John Cale called Wrong Way Up. In 1992, he tries his hand at club music with an album called Nerve Net, but that effort is also quickly forgotten. But Eno has re-entered the public sphere; his production talents now garner big paycheques. In 1994 and again in 1996, he is awarded the Brit Award for best producer. Given that none of his solo albums have ever sold more than 50,000 copies, producing major artists and major hit albums finally awards him the financial security to match his reputation. He helms U2's Achtung Baby, INXS's Full Moon, Dirty Hearts, and Peter Gabriel's Us. In between, he still takes time out to work with several promising acts from the alternative boom of the early and mid-'90s. Among them are shoegazers Slowdive, who approach Eno in 1992 with the prospect of producing their sophomore album Souvlaki. He initially turns them down, but subsequently offers to play on two songs, and ends up co-writing one more. That same year, Eno spends more time producing Manchester folk-pop sextet James, who are saddled with high crossover potential, a sort of U2 for the '90s. The result is an album called Laid. During the recording sessions, he convinces the band to explore the looser aspects of their sound. The pairing of band and producer is more fruitful than anyone expects, and although James do not ascend to the superstardom of U2, they certainly do turn out one of Eno's more inspired collaborations in nearly a decade. At times during the recording of Laid, Eno convinces the band to allow him to record their rehearsals, where he encourages them to improvise for at least part of the time. Later he collects and reshapes the improvisations; the finished product is issued as Wah Wah in 1994, a surprisingly experimental release by a mainstream band on a major label. Wah Wah demonstrates that, behind the top-dollar producer's guise, Eno still has a zest for obscure sonic exploration.
Microsoft approaches him with an offer to create a start-up sound for Windows 95. "The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas" he recalls. "I'd been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, 'Here's a specific problem - solve it.' The thing from the agency said, 'We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,' this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said 'and it must be 3.25 seconds long.' I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music." The strict limitations spur his creative outlook; in total, he delivers 84 sound bites.
Aside from producing, maturity gravitates him toward more intellectual endeavours. In 1995 he publishes his diaries, a collection entitled A Year With Swollen Appendices. In 1996 he joins several others in founding the Long Now Foundation to encourage the public to start thinking about the long-term future of society. That same year, he creates Generative Music 1, self-generating music software based on the pioneering studio techniques he began in the '70s. He also takes up journalism, writing a column for The Observer.
The '90s also witness a resurgence in the number of underground artists producing ambient music, with acts like Aphex Twin, the Orb, Future Sound of London and many others producing albums that openly cite Eno as an integral influence. As the decade winds down, a more experimental and progressive strain of electronic music emerges, with minimalists like Oval, Kim Cascone, Taylor Deupree and a host of pre-eminent German techno labels all rediscovering and advancing Eno's groundbreaking work with self-regulating systems in the studio.
2000 to 2005
So far, the 21st century has been kind to Brian Eno. He has overcome his creative block, producing albums at a rate reminiscent of his '70s heyday. Since 2001, he has issued nine ambient records, many of them inspired by his installation work, which still takes up most of his time. A renewed interest in glam, coupled with the current musical climate's interest in revisionism, has seen his seminal rock albums reissued over the past two years. Many of his ambient works are finding new fans also. New and old releases combined, it's safe to assume an Eno or Eno-related item is hitting record shelves every few months. He has even finished work on his first song-based album in 15 years, his first solo avant-pop work since Before and After Science. Given the mass rediscovery of his rock albums by a whole new generation of music listeners, a lot of people are curious to hear what he's come up with for the just-released Another Day on Earth. He has even finished work on his first song-based album in fifteen years, his first solo avant-pop work since Before and After Science. Given the mass rediscovery of his rock albums by a whole new generation of music listeners, a lot of people are curious to hear what he's come up with for the just-released Another Day on Earth. The eleven new songs on Another Day, all lushly produced, present a picture of Eno intent on forging new directions for himself and not revisiting the high watermarks of his mid-70's creations, as many had hoped he would. The album is the rightful continuation to 1990's Wrong Way Up, though its strong allegiance to ambience belies its maker's current preoccupations. It may not be at the forefront of today's music, but compared to his contemporaries - David Bowie, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, John Cale - Eno is still on par, if not ahead of the pack.
The Essential Brian Eno
Here Come the Warm Jets (1974)
Arguably one of the greatest solo debuts of the 1970s. Eno matches adventurous studio trickery with Beatlesque melodies and a nuanced sense of the macabre. Songs such as "Baby's On Fire," "Driving Me Backwards," and "Needles In The Camel's Eye" capture the lush and sleazy underpinning narratives of the British Invasion in arrangements that sound quintessentially timeless.
Another Green World (1975)
Eno's third solo pop album, and the first to follow his discovery of ambient music. Another Green World effaces the sense of focus that characterises pop records, and so the songs here careen from wistful instrumentals to dashes of brilliant songwriting. Includes "St. Elmo's Fire," one the best songs he would ever write. Overall, a gem.
Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978)
A revelation more so for the manner in which it fuses genre and environment, Music For Airports still stands today as one of the most apt descriptions of the utility of ambient music. The album actually found airplay over the PA systems of numerous airports. His most popular ambient effort.
Ambient 4: On Land (1982)
The underrated highlight of his ambient career. On Land has Eno cultivating the ambient genre to, for the first time, include field recordings. It also garners another first by using thematic slide projections as a motivational studio tool for session players. The result is a dark, brooding, and ultimately mesmerising sonic portrait of soil, minerals, plants, and rocks.
Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983)
The soundtrack to footage of the Apollo space shuttle landing on the moon, and one of the strongest examples of Eno's third strain of albums: the ambient guitar recordings. Here, a young Daniel Lanois manoeuvres his pedal steel guitar through the spatial anxiety of absent gravity, dead moons, and never-ending night.