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Rocking Our World

Reasons to know Brian Eno

By GINA VIVINETTO
Published July 1, 2004


photo
Brian Eno

Lots of music lovers know Brian Eno's name, but many don't know why they've heard of him.

Eno, 56, gets a lot of respect for his talents as a producer. Did you know the British-born multigenre artist is also credited with inventing ambient music in the 1970s?

Before that, Eno was a member of the influential Roxy Music with Bryan Ferry.

And though Eno describes himself as a "nonmusician," he released a series of stunningly original solo albums in the 1970s.

Several have been reissued by Astralwerks, a label known for its innovative electronica and cutting-edge music.

Before we discuss those reissues, let's touch on some highlights in restless Mr. Eno's career.

Eno the producer

Considering Eno is generally first recognized as a producer, it makes sense to start here. Eno became known for his studio work when he began collaborating in the mid 1970s on David Bowie's Berlin trilogy, Low, Heroes and Lodger.

Next, Eno went into the studio with an inventive new band, the Talking Heads, producing the group's groundbreaking albums More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979) and, most notably, Remain in Light (1980).

That last one featured unusual sounds for a band of white art geeks from New York's post-punk CBGB scene: African polyrhythms and "exotic" world music elements, an obsession for Eno and front Head David Byrne. (Eno shared co-writing credits on every song but one.)

The following year, the two collaborated on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a groundbreaking album that fused funk and electronica with world music, the sounds of Lebanese mountain singers, Muslim chanting and Egyptian pop singers. If that sounds like no big deal to you, imagine what it was like in 1981, when, hey, hardly anybody was doing stuff like this!

The album had massive impact on the kids with cutting-edge ears and is frequently cited by DJs, producers and electronica whiz kids as an influence.

Eno is also recognized for his finesse producing U2's landmark albums The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, as well as for his work with Devo and Television.

Eno in Roxy Music

Eno didn't last long in seminal glam band Roxy Music - and yes, Roxy was glam before Ferry and company began sporting those sophisticated tuxedos - but his contributions were significant. Hello! Eno's fashion sense alone left a lasting impression on rock music. Check out those old photos of Roxy: That's Eno in those feather boas, with the garish face makeup, the velvet corsets. Eno had just come out of an avant-garde performance troupe, and he liked to spice up Roxy's shows.

What instrument did Eno play, you ask?

Well, that's a toughie.

Back then - and still now, though the guy is certainly a better musician 30 years later - Eno's philosophy was more about concept than facility. Eno conveyed a headful of sonic ideas any way he could. Mostly Eno goofed around on synthesizers and did what the band called electronic "treatments."

Eno and Ferry feuded over who was getting all the attention onstage - granted, our boy used to incite the crowd to chant "Eno!" during concerts - and Eno, after two albums, Roxy Music (1972) and the brilliant For Your Pleasure (1973), split to begin his fabled solo career.

About that solo career

Eno's storied solo career consists of numerous original albums. In the mid 1970s, he released Discreet Music (1975) and Music For Airports (1978), on which Eno created ambient music, what the ravers and club kids now refer to as "chill out music."

Some folks just shrug off these sounds as New Age bunk, but if done well, as Eno does them, they're a gorgeous soundscape of gentle drones.

Look for Eno's influence all over the music of Moby, Aphex Twin, DJ Spooky, DJ Shadow and other contemporary sound collagists who combine electronic music with the "found" sound of bird wings flapping, water dropping into puddles, machinery and random industrial noise.

The story goes, Eno concocted the idea for ambient music while laid up in a hospital with a broken leg. He was going nutty listening to the repetitious sound of medical machinery and construction going on outside. Eventually, Eno gave in to the drones, learning to relax and relish predictable noise.

If you came into Eno knowing him for his ambient music, as I did, the four early albums reissued by Astralwerks will jar you. The first time I heard Eno's pop, I was shocked but thrilled. It's wildly imaginative, punky and original. It holds up well, too.

Like anything Eno touches, these first solo albums bristle with creativity. Here's a rundown:

* Here Come the Warm Jets (1974) is Eno's first foray on his own. Grab it. Or grab it if you dig wily pop music. Warm Jets is filled with catchy tunes such as the two-note Baby's On Fire and Needles in the Camel's Eye. They could be radio hits, but no, Eno has to get wonky on every one of them: bizarre lyrics that are too easy to sing along to, beats that grow manic, guitar that goes from pretty to pretty freaky. Guests include former Roxy mates Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay. Guitar genius Robert Fripp (of King Crimson) is also onboard.

* Next came Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), featuring the effervescent China My China, which had the sound of a typewriter looped into guitar swirls. Then we heard:

* Another Green World (1975). The third solo album finds Eno upping the synths with the gorgeous midtempo ballad I'll Come Running, with the sweetest melody you ever heard. Who's that drumming on this largely instrumental album? Phil Collins? Borrowed from Genesis, back when Genesis was weird, when Peter Gabriel was its singer and Collins wasn't boring and mainstream.

* Before and After Science (1977) could be considered a "studio composition" because Eno crafted the final product by grafting layers and layers of recordings together. It's an amazingly textural album, like the sonic equivalent of an Imagist painting. Eno ups the synthesizers on this one with the noteworthy, dissonant piece Backwater. The album, which came out around the punk explosion, sounds chaotic, filled with disco beats and guitar raunch. The spooky Julie With . . . captures this tone with its ambiguous account of a . . . murder? Or a pleasant afternoon rendezvous?

I could go on and on about Eno; he's one of my favorite people in pop.

I could tell you about his collaborative projects with fascinating musical characters such as Can's Holger Czukay, former Velvet Underground dude John Cale and avant-pop pioneer Laurie Anderson. Also, minimalist composer Harold Budd and modern jazz trumpeter Jon Hassell.

I could dish about Eno's erudite yet readable diary/memoir A Year With Swollen Appendices, in which he discusses his philosophies on art, music and life, as well as mundane things such as how he enjoys a good curry and his difficulty with quitting smoking.

Or I could gab about the interesting work he has done in art museums with sonic installations.

But I don't want to rob you of the fun of discovering Eno for yourself. His restless creativity inspires me, and so many others. It just may do the same for you.

- Gina Vivinetto can be reached at 727 893-8565 or gina@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 30, 2004, 08:56:40]


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