The Odd Couple

From an unknown publication in 1990, by Johnny Black

Brian Eno and John Cale make music and mayhem together. Johnny Black reports.

Earlier this year, in a remote Suffolk country house, two of the world’s most enigmatic musicians locked themselves firmly away. Brian Eno and John Cale, both cult heroes for over 20 years, decided to make a record together. Since each s as stubborn and uncompromising as the other, it was perhaps not surprising that what Cale calls a ‘misunderstanding’ resulted in his abrupt departure: he went back to New York. What was surprising, however, was that he returned.

‘Brian wants to be a hero,’ says Cale. ‘He wants to be the host, the artist and the engineer, but you can’t keep all of those balls in the air at the same time. It was an emotional see-saw.’

Brian Eno first caught the public’s attention as the flamboyant keyboard player in Roxy Music’s Seventies’ hit ‘Virginia Plain’. Cale, a key member of the outrageous Velvet Underground, was the embodiment of the cult Sixties band adopted by Andy Warhol. After its dissolution, Cale embarked on a consistently idiosyncratic solo career. Typically depicted as a maniacal Welshman – in 1977 he decapitated a live chicken on stage – he was also acclaimed, and his reputation grew with the Velvet Underground myth. His most recent collaboration was with Lou Reed, also ex-Velvet Underground, on a record about the life of Warhol, Songs for ‘Drella’.

Eno is even more idiosyncratic. For the past five years he has released no music at all. After abandoning the peacock feathers and satins of the Roxy Music era, he experimented with electronic pieces on his solo albums. They led to totally instrumental compositions, with titles like Music For Airports and Discreet Music. These abandoned traditional rock structures in favour of constantly shifting soundscapes, often devoid of any melody.

He called it ambient music. The critics were at best bemused, at worst scathing. Eno persisted. Fifteen years on, the influence of Eno’s electronic textures is discernible in the music of Simple Minds, David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2.

Bowie went as far to say, ‘Eno is a man with peculiar notions, some of which I can come to terms with and some of which are way above my head. Every album I do with him I’m still learning.’ U2’s lead singer, Bono, is even more reverential when talking of the albums they did with Eno. ‘With him, we rediscovered the spirit of our music and a confidence in ourselves.’

These collaborations only strengthened Eno’s cult status. In July 1989, he returned to music by performing live for the first time in over a decade. The venue was Tenkawa, southern Japan, the occasion was the inauguration of a new Shinto shrine in the mountains, the combined effect pure Eno. The three-hour long electronic concert was described by one Japanese newspaper as ‘supernatural’: it ‘made us feel the spirits of water, wind and earth’.

Soon after, Eno worked as producer on John Cale’s 1989 solo album, Words for the Dying. A collaboration on one single track, ‘The Soul Of Carmen Miranda’, was the impetus for the perhaps naïve assumption that they could work together on a larger project.

They set to work in the rambling seclusion of The Wilderness, Eno’s 100-year-old house in Suffolk. The project went sour. ‘The trouble was,’ says Cale, ‘we had some misunderstandings.’ Although these led to Cale’s exit, he did eventually return and the album, Wrong Way Up, was made.

‘I like to sing in the first person,’ explains Cale, ‘but Brian doesn’t. I think it draws people in, helps them to identify, but Brian doesn’t consider that to be important, so he won’t use words like “I” or “you”.’

Eno’s attitude to lyrics is best exemplified by his decision to use arbitrary phrases from the Hugo Spanish in Three Months guide for one of his tracks. ‘I like using techniques that catapult me into a strange landscape. I was studying Spanish recently, so I started reading lines like “This house is where my grandfather lived… He owed £80,000… Dinner doesn’t start until nine”, and so on. They were written disconnectedly, but when listeners hear them in a song, they seem to resonate with each other so you start to imagine a narrative linking them together.’

Not surprisingly, Brian Eno has been accused of being cold and unemotional. His brother, composer Roger Eno, attempts a defence.

‘We come from a very emotional family. Our father used to cry at Lassie films.’

‘Wrong Way Up’ by Brian Eno and John Cale is available on Land Records from 15 October.