From the Independent on Sunday, 2nd August 1992, conducted by Tim de Lisle
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To start with he was just a studio hand for Roxy Music. Now he is a singer, songwriter, experimental composer, video painter, installation-maker, lecturer, park designer, and producer of great records. Is there anything Brian Eno doesn't do? As he releases his first solo album for seven years, Tim de Lisle pieces together the lives of Brian.
You don't often hear people talk about "art rock" these days. Still less do you hear the bands that were responsible for it. King Crimson, Focus, The Nice: where are they now? Emerson, Lake and Palmer have re-formed; but nobody much has noticed. Genesis have long since become just another pop group, albeit an elderly one. It is nearly 10 years since Bryan Ferry disbanded Roxy Music, and nearly five since he released a record. Talking Heads, the leading art-rockers of the generation after, have split up. Psychedelia has been round again, several times; even flared trousers have come back (and gone away again). Art rock seems destined never to return.
For one man, it never went away. Brian Eno may have been the first art-rocker, and he may be the last. Every art-rock career began with a spell at art school: Eno went to two (Ipswich and Winchester). He was a member of Roxy Music in their first flush of success: hired as a sound man, unable to play an instrument, he rapidly graduated to "synthesiser and tapes", put on make-up and a feather boa, and became such a cult figure that within a year the band wasn't big enough for both him and Ferry. Eno walked out, made a series of solo albums of varying degrees of experimentalism but remarkably uniform quality, invented ambient music long before anyone had heard of New Age, collaborated with David Bowie on his three Berlin records (one was good, two were outstanding), produced three albums for Talking Heads (one good, two outstanding), pioneered video painting, and produced three albums for U2 (one good, two outstanding).
This is the sort of pace that ought to be hard to keep up, but at 44, Eno is scarcely catching his breath. This month he releases an album, his first solo record since Thursday Afternoon in 1985. Last month he booked Sadler's Wells for an evening, sold it out, and gave an "illustrated lecture" which was more of a sophisticated son et lumière, comprising slides (semi-abstracts of quiet beauty) and music (two unreleased pieces in his ambient vein) as well as Eno's views on most of the subjects under the sun, including his definition of culture - "everything you don't have to do" - and his eyewitness account of the wedding of David Bowie and Iman: "You couldn't tell what was sincere and what was theatre. It was very touching."
The month before, U2 were on tour in Britain, with a show which proved that stadium rock and intelligent life were not mutually exclusive; Eno had played a central part in devising it. The month before that, he had a slide installation in Barcelona. The month before that, he had a sound installation in New York. In between times, he is helping design a park for Barcelona which will bridge the gap between traditional parks (urban space, greenery) and theme-parks (amusements, new experiences). If it had not become faintly ridiculous to talk about renaissance men, that is how Eno would be classified.
Last year, in a fit of broadmindedness, Radio 4 invited him on Desert Island Discs. Sue Lawley introduced him (it took several minutes), and then added that touch of velvet to her voice that spells trouble. "All this can make you sound a bit of a dabbler, can't it, a bit of a dilettante?" "Well," said Eno. "I am a dilettante. It's only in England that dilettantism is considered a bad thing. In other countries it's called 'inter-disciplinary research'."
There is one song which sticks in the mind when you hear Eno's new album. It is unlike anything he has done, and yet it is hard to think of anyone else who could have done it.
It's called "The Roil, The Choke" and it starts with a gentle ping, perhaps a tuning fork. Then the rhythm snaps in, low and slow, clearly electronic, but also human, as if someone's heartbeat had been fed to a drum machine. On top are some more pings and pops, not adding up to a tune. Soon they are joined by a synthesiser: a shimmering wash of sound which moves achingly slowly through a couple of chords.
Now there's a second shimmer, warmer and brighter, and you know you are about to get some vocals. When they come they are spoken, slowly, calmly, with authority; the speaker could be a Harley Street doctor. He says:
If you thought hard about these words, you might well decide they were gobbledegook and put something else on. But you don't; you hear them the way they were intended, as sounds first and signifiers second, so that you dwell not on what isn't there but on what is: the bright surprising pictures, the long Saxon monosyllables, the internal rhymes, the cool formality of the pattern, the way everything seems in place.
Straight after the verse comes the chorus, a sort of catchy plainsong:
That takes about 30 seconds. Then there is an instrumental break, which turns out to be the remainder of the piece. It builds slowly to a climax, with the shimmering synth joined first by an organ, which sounds squeezed, like something on a Parisian street-corner, and plays a one-finger tune, then a piano, sweeping and stately, then a third shimmer, a distant wave of wordless voices. As soon as all these elements are there, the music fades, swiftly, leaving an impression of elegiac beauty.
There comes a point in every conversation with Brian Eno when he reaches for pen and paper. This time the point came when I asked him about "The Roil, The Choke". I wondered if the words were a play on rap, a sly attempt to take something aggressive and Afro-American and make it sound as if it was invented in an English drawing-room. It wasn't.
"The sequence of the phonemes [the four sounds, -oke, -ake , -aze and -oil] is from bell-ringing. It's quite a simple permutation actually, it only uses four bells. I think it's called Bob Doubles. It goes ABCD, ACBD..." - and he writes A B C D, spaced out on one line, and draws lines down, to show how it goes on. And the words? "I just thought 'the cakes of praise' was a great idea, and took it from there. I like to write words that are on the border between meaning and nonsense, so you're not quite sure whether they mean anything or not."
The new album is entitled Nerve Net. If the other tracks are not quite as beautiful as "The Roil, the Choke", they are no less interesting. The record has the same effect as most of Eno's work: it is both relaxing and stimulating, both alcohol and caffeine.
The difference is that it doesn't slip down easily. You expect musicians to go soft as time goes by, but I found parts of this album harsher than anything Eno has done. "Oh good," Eno says. "There's a list of words that we're putting on the cover - 'This record is: like paella, a self-contradictory mess, technically naive, clearly the work of a distressed mind' - a whole lot of negative comments. And in a way there's something deliberate about breaking the listener's expectations. It's left slightly dirty. It's an anti-Hollywood record."
This is a favourite theme. "Hollywoodisation," Eno wrote recently, "is the process where things are evened out, rationalised, nicely lit from all sides, carefully balanced, studiously tested against all known formulas, referred to several committees, and finally made triumphantly noticeable... It's where deficits of nerve, verve and imagination meet surfeits of glitz and gloss." This was in an article about the making of U2's Achtung Baby which appeared recently in Rolling Stone - the magazine to which every Hollywoodiser in the music business automatically subscribes.
After half an hour in Eno's company, your faith in contemporary rock is restored. After an hour, you are beginning to think that contemporary art is not heading down a cul-de-sac. After an hour and a half, you are planning a record yourself, and wondering if he will agree to produce it.
He has an odd charisma. On stage at Sadler's Wells, he was palpably nervous, though none the less compelling for that. His performing career, which flourished under the make-up and the feathers in Roxy Music, petered out when the name in lights was his own: he made one solo tour and lasted five nights before going to hospital with a collapsed lung. But in conversation he glows. Small, slim, elegant and polite, he sits at a table in his big bare studio in Kilburn, thinking aloud, an unashamed analyser in an unanalytical field.
He is a compulsive theorist. He has a theory on the contemporary wasp (it's mutating, turning nasty; he saw one the other day which slowly tore the wings off a butterfly). He has a theory on how to win at Scrabble (go to any length, including missing your turn, to use all your letters at once, and get the 50-point bonus). He has a theory on how he passed maths, one of his four O-levels: "It was an error. The boy before me in the alphabet was brilliant at maths, and he failed." He has a theory (of course) about the shooting of President Kennedy: "It's the Officer Tippett theory. Officer Tippett was the man Oswald shot and killed when he was running away. At the height of conspiracy theory, I wrote a proposal for a story claiming that Tippett was the real target that day and Kennedy was just the decoy."
The theories go down in the little black book in his jacket pocket, the latest in a series that stretches back to his foundation course in 1965. On the first page of each book, he offers a reward for its return, in pounds, dollars and deutschmarks. On the other pages, in a small neat hand, he jots theories and ideas, diagrams and games, schemes and schemas. The books ought to be in a museum, filed under Mental History of a Lateral-Thinking Autodidact.
[Click here for a JPEG (64,944) of Eno's notebooks - details and caption below; picture by Peter Macdiarmid. Using sophisticated computer technology, we can simulate the look-and-feel of a scan from an actual newspaper article, complete with crease down the middle and newsprint show-through!]
Eye for a tune: Eno has kept notebooks since 1965, always writing across the lines. Right: a sketch of the mix for U2's 'Unforgettable Fire' (1984) - 'Cold at the centre, warm round the edge, and a sort of landscape at the back, to flatten the picture surface and avoid the telescoped effect of most records.' Left: a repetition schema for Thursday Afternoon, worked out in 1982. 'This is how a lot of my music was made. All the elements in the piece are heard in the first few seconds. Then you put them in different clusters.'
Two of his theories seem more important than the rest. One is that value is not absolute. Eno is a fervent cultural relativist; he says the only political party he would consider joining would be an anti-fundamentalist party.
The other is that what matters in modern music is not the part you can write down, the words and the tune, but the rest - the texture, the atmosphere, the references and associations. If anyone could find a way of notating all this, it would be Eno, but he thinks it can't be done. "The reason traditional notation works is because classical music is so simple. The notes are discrete, and there's not much elision. You tend to go [he sings, like a choirboy] ah ah ah ah ah. You don't go neuurrureeurreeuruhh like they do in blues or in Arab music. That kind of thing is almost unnotatable.
"And everything else in classical music is discontinuous: a clarinet is a clarinet, a trombone is a trombone. This isn't the case in modern music. There's everything in between as well. You can have a claribone if you want. You can't notate continuous fields. This is why you only ever get prodigies in music, maths and chess. You never find prodigies in painting." So this is why you don't find them in pop music. "You don't, do you? It's too mature a music."
The album 'Nerve Net' comes out on 31 August (Opal/WEA 936245 0332/4). 'The Roil, the Choke' is also available on the single 'Fractal Zoom' (Opal/WEA W0116, out now).
Opera producers direct. Film producers hire and fire. But what do record producers do? As recording has become more complex, so the role of the producer has become more central, yet no less nebulous. And as producers go, Eno is one of the more elusive. He is often only one of two producers, and has no trademark sound. His productions have little in common but their excellence: some of the greatest names in rock have made some of their best work with Eno in the control room. He brings them his decisiveness. "It's disgraceful how long records take to make nowadays. But I'm Mr Stingy, Mr Cut Through Options. That's one reason people like working with me I think, 'cause I say 'Do this, this is fine, we'll make it work'. Exploring all the options is not the issue. It's making one of them work." To find out more, I played him some of his surrogate hits.
SOUND AND VISION (David Bowie, 1977). The highlight of Low, the first of Bowie's Berlin trilogy. "That's a beautiful song. I heard the whole album again the other day and it stood up really well. A lot of it was down to the rhythm section, Dennis Davis, George Murray and Carlos Alomar; they were like an arrangement machine. I remember I had the idea of making the intro very long so that you wait and wait for the vocal to come in. That's me on synthesiser [playing the bit of percussion that goes tshhhhhhh]. The backing vocals are me and Mary Hopkin, the wife of the producer Tony Visconti, who never gets enough of the credit. The beat is from Bo Diddley. The drum sound is interesting. Corgghh! Corgghh! Very boxy. The snare drum is being sent to a treatment that pitches it down, then fed back again, so it goes beuggh! beuggh!, like it's talking. Boy. We used to make these records so fast. That's a couple of days' work."
"HEROES" (Bowie, 1978). Title track of the second Berlin album. "That's another great song. It's the same rhythm section. Bowie has this ability to write songs that are full of yearning, and the music really echoes that. I remember we needed a guitarist, so we rang up Robert Fripp, who was in New York, and he got on a plane and came over the same night I think, came straight from the airport to the studio, and started playing as soon as he heard the song. So you get this wonderful out-of-tune guitar, circling round the melody, matching the yearning of the words, and then he finally gets there, and there's this great sense of relief."
ONCE IN A LIFETIME (Talking Heads, 1980). From Remain in Light, the most African and experimental of the three albums they made with Eno. "That's an interesting one. It's got a strange rhythm. I always heard it differently from the Talking Heads. I was hearing the 'one' on the first beat, which is empty. They were hearing it on the third beat, like a normal pop song. So there was this tension between my picture of the song and theirs. Impossible for classical people to understand." It wasn't the only tension. The bass player, Tina Weymouth,was irritated by Eno's friendship with the singer, David Byrne, saying they were like "two 14-year olds making an impression on each other". Eno did not work with Talking Heads again.
THE FLY (U2, 1991). Eno's own records sell about 200,000. Through U2, he reaches an audience a hundred times that. On Achtung Baby, his third U2 album, Eno only had time to act as a consultant, flying in, playing the tapes back and making comments. His influence is still detectable, especially in the shift from sincerity to irony. "The Fly" was the first British No 1 of his career. "Everything in that song is distorted in some way, fuzzed or compressed. So it sounds weird and murky and dangerous. Listen to those drums - like someone bashing on the bars of a prison. There's a mix of the song that's so hard and violent, it's really very unfriendly. I hope they release it some time."