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Off the Beaten Tracks: Eno’s, you know

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HARDLY a week goes by without my mentioning Brian Eno, so a look at his solo career must be long overdue. In getting on for half a century, Brian has provided quirky art-pop, soothing ambient sounds and some electronic works of real beauty while, as a producer, transforming the work of acts including Bowie, Genesis, Talking Heads and U2 (OK, nobody’s perfect). He also appeared as a priest in the final episode of Father Ted. Not bad for a self-described non-musician who got his first job, with Roxy Music, because he owned lots of tape recorders.

Brian Peter George Eno was born on May 15, 1948 in Melton, Suffolk. His father William, last in a long line of postmen, had met Brian’s Belgian mother Maria Alphonsine during the war. The name Eno, long established in Suffolk, is thought to have developed from the Huguenot Hainault and for many years was associated with a brand of liver salts.

Brought up in the Catholic faith, Brian attended St Joseph’s College, Ipswich, which was founded by the de la Salle order of brothers. He  took on at his confirmation the additional Christian names St John le Baptiste de la Salle. He became interested in experimental music, using a reel-to-reel tape machine as an instrument, and collaborated with teacher Tom Phillips on ‘piano tennis’, in which the pair hurled tennis balls at stripped-down joannas.

Moving on to Winchester School of Art, Eno heard a lecture by the Who’s Pete Townshend which, he says, convinced him he could be a musician despite his lack of prowess. 

Between 1971 and 1973 he was in Roxy Music, initially operating the mixing desk but eventually appearing on stage in outrageous costumes. I chronicled his Roxy years in a previous column. 

Out on his own after clashing with Bryan Ferry, Eno recorded No Pussyfooting, an early experiment in ambient music, with Robert Fripp. Released in 1973, this comprised two lengthy tracks which involved Eno looping reel-to-reel tape recorders together to create a delayed echo, over which Fripp played guitar.

In January 1974 came Eno’s first solo album, Here Come the Warm Jets, a more accessible kettle of fish. His guest musicians included Fripp and King Crimson colleague John Wetton, members of Hawkwind, Matching Mole and Pink Fairies, plus all of Roxy Music except Ferry, of course. Brian told biographer Eric Tamm that he chose them because he thought they were musically incompatible and he wanted to see what would happen. ‘There might be accidents, more interesting than what I had intended.’

Many the musicians could not recognise their work in the final mix because Eno had messed about with it so much. However, it is a funny and very interesting album, combining elements of glam rock with fifties music and the avant garde. It kicks off with the raucous Needles in the Camel’s Eye,  which Eno claimed was written ‘in less time than it takes to sing’.

My favourite cuts are Cindy Tells MeOn Some Faraway Beach and the title track. The Roxy Music connection guaranteed a fair number of album sales and it reached No 26 in the UK charts. A British tour was arranged to promote it, with Brian backed by a band called the Winkies, but he had to pull out after suffering a collapsed lung, leaving me to demand a refund on my 40p ticket for his concert at Newcastle City Hall. Forty pence was worth having in them days – you could get two pint bottles o’ broon at the Penny Wet in Wallsend and still have enough left for a bag of nuts. Forgive me for digressing, but that same year I visited student friends in Cardiff and was taken to a music bar called the Moon. Copious alcohol had already been taken so it was all a bit of a haze but so far as I can remember the only drink available was Newcastle Brown, which you swigged from the bottle. Empties were, I think, rolled into a trough in front of the stage.  

Where was I? Oh yes. By June 1, 1974, Brian had recovered enough to take part in the live album of that name along with Kevin Ayers, John Cale and Nico at the Rainbow Theatre in London, performing Baby’s On Fire. And before the year was out he had released another LP, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). While recording it, he and his friend Peter Schmidt developed Oblique Strategies, a pack of more than 100 cards each containing a musical instruction. Whenever Brian was unsure what course to take he would shuffle the deck, take a card and do whatever it said. This technique would be used in almost all his future projects, including the Low and Heroes albums with David Bowie. 

The lyrics on Tiger Mountain contain many dark and surreal themes. For starters, the opening track Burning Airlines Give You So Much More refers to an air crash that year near Paris in which 346 died, the worst disaster in aviation history until Tenerife in 1977.

The album was inspired by a Chinese revolutionary opera and China features in several songs although Eno insisted he was no Maoist – ‘if anything I’m anti-Maoist’.

Back in Judy’s Jungle concerns a group of soldiers about to go on a guerrilla raid and begins:

These are your orders, seems like it’s do it or die
So please read them closely
When you’ve learnt them be sure that you eat them up.
They’re specially flavoured with Burgundy, Tizer and rye
Twelve sheets of foolscap, don’t ask me why.

Can anyone think of another reference to Tizer in popular music?

The Fat Lady of Limbourg concerns a woman whose sense of taste is such that

She’ll distinguish with her tongue
The subtleties a spectrograph would miss,
And announce her decision,
While demanding her reward:
The jellyfish kiss.

All of this sung, of course, in a cut-glass English accent.

Third Uncle has been seen as a precursor of punk rock while Put a Straw under Baby features Robert Wyatt on backing vocals and the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra which demanded that members be untrained on their chosen instrument. Eno made several appearances with them on clarinet and produced their album Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics. They eventually gave up when they decided they were getting too good. The True Wheel is remarkable in that its lyrics inspired the names of not one but two British bands, 801 and A Certain Ratio. It also refers to the Modern Lovers, Jonathan Richman’s band.

The final track, Taking Tiger Mountain, suggests the direction his work would take; a gentle near-instrumental leaning towards ambient minimalism.

For the next LP, Another Green World, he arrived at Island Studios with no songs prepared and for the first few days he achieved zilch. Out came the Oblique Strategies and he was off. The structure of the opening track, Sky Saw, is a prime example of Eno’s constantly changing direction and features him on ‘snake guitar and digital guitar’, Phil Collins on drums, John Cale on violas and bassists Percy Jones and Paul Rudolph. This is one of only five songs on the album to include lyrics.

Another is St Elmo’s Fire, featuring blazing guitar from Bob Fripp, as does I’ll Come Running, the nearest thing to a pop song on the record.

Three instrumentals on side one involve only Eno, In Dark TreesThe Big Ship and the brief, beautiful title track, which will be familiar to many readers as the theme music for the BBC arts show Arena.

Another Green World, released in September 1975, failed to chart in either the UK or US. However its brilliance has since been widely acknowledged and it features in several lists of ‘All-Time Greatest Rock Albums’, justifiably so.

By November, Brian had another album out. Discreet Music was inspired by a spell at home bedridden after he was hit by a taxi. A friend brought an album of 18th century harp music which she left playing very quietly at his bedside. Eno wanted to turn it up but could not reach so he listened, just able to hear the notes above the sound of the rain beating against his window. ‘This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music—as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience.’

The half-hour-long first side of the album is the title track, which was generated automatically by passing two melodies through various synthesisers and tape machines. Strangely haunting, it became a favourite of David Bowie and led to the pair’s collaborations on Low and Heroes. By the way, Discreet Music is the first album attributed to Brian Eno – the others had just Eno on the sleeve.

In the next couple of years Brian collaborated interestingly with the German groups Harmonia and Cluster.

At the same time he wrote more than 100 songs which were whittled down to ten for his next solo effort, Before and After Science, released in late 1977. Having described Another Green World as ‘sky music’, he labelled his latest release ‘ocean music’. He returned to the art-pop genre on side one, which begins with the upbeat No One Receiving and ends with King’s Lead Hat, an anagram of Talking Heads, with whom he would shortly be working. Side two, which I much prefer, is a dreamier affair. I like all the tracks, Here He ComesJulie With . . . , By This River, Through Hollow Lands and Spider and I

Personnel on the album include three top drummers, Phil Collins, Dave Mattacks and Jaki Liebezeit from the krautrockers Can. Robert Wyatt is credited as Shirley Williams and his contribution as ‘brush timbales and time’.

This would prove to be Eno’s last rock album of the seventies but much more was to come, including the wonderful Apollo, as we shall find in a future column.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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