Golden Hours: Brian Eno at 75

Looking back on the career of rock’s avant-garde icon

Brian Eno (Image: Verve Records)

What do songs mean? We ask that eternal question all the time, sometimes crafting our own interpretations, sometimes drawing out an answer from the artist, sometimes punting, saying, “I have no idea, but I’ll try and puzzle out bits of it.”

Brian Eno, who turns 75 on May 15th, doesn’t mind at all if the answer is the latter. 

He spoke at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in October of 1990 and expounded upon songwriting: “Writing lyrics was to set in action the game of interpretation for the listener. It’s making a kind of detective story with the lyrics.” He also stressed the importance of lyrics being “phonetically active.”

Consider one my favorite stanzas. It’s from 1975’s “Miss Shapiro” a co-write with Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and appearing first on Manzanera’s Diamond Head album: “Dalai Lama llama puss puss/ Stella maris missa nobis/ Miss a dinner Miss Shapiro/ Shampoos pot-pot pinkies pampered/ Movement hampered like at Christmas/ Ha-ha isn’t life a circus/ Round in circles like the Archers/ Always stiff or always starchy/ Yes it’s happening and it’s fattening/ And it’s all that we can get into the show.”

“There’s nothing worse,” said Eno, when I spoke with him later, “than this sort of simple sense that you get so much in songs. The stupid same old story as being told with no humor and no sense of subterfuge or mischief.”


AUDIO: Phil Manzanera “Miss Shapiro”

Humor, subterfuge and mischief have long been Eno’s calling cards as a songwriter. As a sound manipulator with Roxy Music in 1972 and 1973, he helped give the band its startling stylistic juxtapositions and its retro/futurist image. Shortly, with his genre-jumping solo album collages, Eno set the course for much of what would become post-punk and post-modernist music: The first rule is there are no rules. Anything goes: whimsy, dissonance, horror, sarcasm, haunting subtexts. Snakelike guitars, clacking typewriter rhythms, gliding soundscapes. Gleeful, engaging, kitchen-sink stuff — done way ahead of its time.

“I knew nobody was doing anything quite like it,” Eno said, “but it all seemed terribly obvious to me.”

It’s a phase Eno pretty much let go in 1977 following Before and After Science, but it’s one he has, surprisingly, picked up on once again with Wrong Way Up, a collaboration with Cale, a founding member of the Velvet Underground. That album found Eno once again swimming in the pop waters. It has songs, melodies, words — not just soundscapes.

The wordplay is classic Eno. He starts it, in “Lay My Love,” by singing “I am the crow of desperation/ I scramble in the dust of a failing nation . . . I am the sea of permutation/ I live beyond interpretation/ I scramble all the names and the combinations.” Later (sung proudly) in “Empty Frame”: “We’re going ’round in circles/ We have no single point of view.” And, then, in “Been There, Done That,” the lilting chorus goes, “Been there/ Done that/ Been there, don’t wanna go back.”

It’s a flowing, layered, engaging collection — witty and sly, but thoroughly accessible: melodies you can hum. In Eno’s earlier work, there were more dislocating sonic elements; here, the tension comes mainly from the way the lyrics subvert the very melodic melodies, alter the context. “Lay My Love,” for instance, has a romantic, embracing feel to it even while Eno is casting himself in a somewhat unflattering light (as, for example, “the termite of temptation”).

Wrong Way Up was, in short, Eno’s reentry into the pop world. What brought him back to pop?

Eno paused. And then let it fly.

“One of the things that’s awful when you start to become well known,” he explained in a phone interview from the West Coast, “is there is a weight of expectation that builds up behind you, and it’s like momentum that keeps pushing you in the same direction. And that momentum crystallizes around people’s theories of what you’re doing — ‘He stands for this.’ That sort of fossilizes into evolving from something that was probably soft-shelled and whimsical and exploratory into an ideological position about who you are and what you do. It forces you to take harder positions than you want. . .. I’ve tried to avoid that trap of feeling what people expect of me. ‘Oh God, I’m supposed to be so innovative’ is the most paralyzing feeling of all, to think you should do important things.

“What I think,” he continued of the move back to pop, “is I’m equally pleased by whether it succeeds or whether it fails. If it really fails, it’s almost a better outcome because then I have carte blanche. It will have diffused all those expectations: Nobody’s interested anymore and I can do what I want.”

There’s another, less cantankerous and less philosophical answer, too, and Eno gets to that later in the interview. Cale helped him feel more comfortable with his singing. But the real kick in the creative pants came from working with U2, observing a band making creative rock ‘n’ roll. 

“The payoff for me,” he said, “has been starting to enjoy again something I hadn’t been able to enjoy in years: watching music evolve from a group of people. It really started me thinking about starting to work that way and working like that. And, of course, with them I also occasionally helped out a bit on writing songs. So, I think that was starting to ease me back into songwriting and singing, as well.”



To the general public, Eno’s is hardly a household name. Eno is probably recognized not so much as a musician but as a producer. Eno performed that task most notably on U2’s 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire and again on the band’s 1987 Grammy-winner, The Joshua Tree. While the association with U2 gained him renewed attention in critical circles — they were his most public forays of the decade — Eno doesn’t believe his work with the superstar band raised his public profile much, if any, which is to say made people dive into his own deep catalog.

“I thoroughly enjoyed doing it, and I got paid very well for it,” said Eno, “but I don’t think it changed my record sales or anything like that. Probably because the audiences don’t overlap at all.” Eno passed on the opportunity to produce U2’s next album. He was busy with the making and promoting of Wrong Way Up.  

But if Eno’s name is semi-obscure to some, it’s very prominent among rock ‘n’ roll’s avant-garde and among its more outward-looking mainstream artists. As a solo artist, collaborator, sideman, theoretician and producer, Eno has had a hand in pop music’s progressive rock pie ever since he co-founded Roxy Music. 

Scan Eno’s resume. His list of respected co-conspirators reads something like this: Roxy Music, Robert Fripp, David Bowie, John Cale, Nico, John Cage, Cluster, Phil Manzanera, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, Ultravox, Devo, Talking Heads, David Byrne, U2.

Little of Eno’s work was done under a spotlight. Even less of it was intended for commercial success. But his music has lasted, not least because of the musicians who have listened to it. Prince cited Eno’s Another Green World as an influence; Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee praised Eno’s sonic strategies. Alternative rockers such as XTC and the Feelies have paid attention to Eno’s sense of rhythm and juxtaposition. As the ’70s turned into the ’80s, he and David Byrne helped spearhead Western interest in world music. 

He’s a self-proclaimed non-musician whom other musicians value: Once, when the Kinks’ Ray Davies was bemoaning many sorry covers of “You Really Got Me,” I told him that Eno (on the 801 Live album) had done a version of his brash rocker that transformed it into a brooding song of obsession. “What?!” he exclaimed. “Eno’s done that song? I must hear it!”

Eno has some pretty strong ideas about what pop should be. For one thing, he thinks lyrical linearity, or the meaning of songs, is vastly overrated. Byrne, he noted, “said it nicely — ‘Stop making sense.’ That’s my advice to anyone, really. If it’s common sense, it’s probably wrong, anyway.”

When Eno broke onto the scene with Roxy Music, he was a flamboyant, self-proclaimed nonmusician — a thinker, tinkerer and synthesist who manipulated Roxy’s live sound and often took it deliriously over the edge. The nonmusician claim was an inverse boast. 

“This was at the time of the great guitar solos, Eric Clapton, for instance,” says Eno. (English kids used to graffiti scrawl “Clapton is God” on walls and then Eno took his place.) “It wasn’t an attack on those people; it was an attack on the idea that that’s the only thing rock music is about. . .. You can make music without being competent on an instrument. It can be made lots of different ways. It was a very tape-related music. Well, if you’re working on tape, you’ve got to know how to use scissors rather than guitars. It didn’t intend to imply that all those talents were redundant. But you could operate with a whole new set of talents relating to processing and electronics and construction of what had become a plastic medium.”

Roxy Music blazed a trail back in the early-mid ’70s: semi-serious, semi-sendup; a pastiche of passion and fakery, of low-tech electronics and aching romanticism. 

“I guess Roxy could be described as the first art-rock band,” Eno said. “I never knew quite what that meant, but I assumed it meant we were people who were self-conscious in a certain way about what we were doing. It wasn’t the kind of naked passion of the Rolling Stones or the illusion of my-work-is-my-life thing that you had with the Beatles. These were people who were quite consciously, quite self-consciously, manipulating the signs, symbols and emblems of popular culture. So, we were quite aware — well, that’s a bit arrogant — we were somewhat aware of what we were doing when we were putting together a basic rock ‘n’ roll riff with a lyric that had more to do with visiting art galleries with an electronic overlay. There was quite a conscious idea of sitting outside of music and taking an idea from here and an idea from there and pasting them together and seeing what would happen.”

Eno left Roxy Music after two albums, following a rift with singer-coleader Bryan Ferry. Roxy was headed toward the center, and Eno toward the edge.

His first two solo albums, 1973’s Here Come the Warm Jets and 1974’s Taking Tiger Mountain, established him as a solo artist. Each record was done in a month.

“I didn’t sit and scratch my head about it,” said Eno, “or anything else I’ve done. At the time, I wondered why nobody thought of doing it before — it’s so obvious. I’ve nearly always had that feeling. But generally, it hasn’t happened.”

When Eno replaced Clapton in graffiti/God land, he said, “Of course, one can’t deny being flattered, but it’s slightly dangerous, this feeling you don’t want to be attached to. I’ve seen people who’ve had a bit of that adulation, and they’ve really taken to heart and believed it, and it’s really paralyzing. . .. You just have to remind yourself that, for someone of 17 or 19, at this moment in time you fill a space in their life: This is what they would like to imagine artists are like.”

Eno moved on to work with King Crimson leader Robert Fripp and the increasingly experimental David Bowie. He sent RCA, Bowie’s record company, into a panic, with his decidedly outre synthesized rock.

By 1980, Eno’s interest in world music was apparent, evident on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light LP as well as the Eno/Byrne My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Found sounds, exotic, ecstatic rhythms with roots in Africa and South America — all brought to you by two art-school grads.

“It was quite controversial at the time,” mused Eno. “I remember the Village Voice accusing us of being cultural imperialists for using other people’s work within our own. As if we had stolen from these poor natives and were going to make a bundle out of it. Funny enough, they did that on the same page where they reviewed a black punk rock group from the South Bronx who they were complimenting for having stolen the currency of white punk. I thought, ‘This is real inverted snobbery.'”

But Eno was shedding the burden of being this top avant-pop innovator. Beginning in 1975 with Discreet Music, he started developing a series of ambient music projects. In projects such as Music for Airports, On Land and Apollo, Eno presented both challenge and depth, however sparse and unobtrusive, that far surpasses the norm. 

Back in 1983, in Boston for an installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art with sculptor Michael Chandler, Eno said, “The stuff I do now comes from the subtractive spirit more than the additive one.” His last effort before Wrong Way Up was in that vein: the 1987 longform video/CD Thursday Afternoon, a languid, sensual work.

Eno film poster (Image: Idmb)

Much of his work has come to be filed in the “new age” section of record stores, which is not Eno’s choice. “The reason most new-age music is hard to listen to,” he said, “is that it’s extremely cheerful, pleasant. The things I like always have more complex emotions that that; there’s always undertones, hints of bitterness.”

Eno extended that theory to the pop world. “Any pop song that keeps engaging you does so because there’s almost a mismatch between the emotions,” he says. “Sometimes, you’ll have a very happy feeling over a very aggressive beat. For example, Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love.’ I’ve always loved that song because of the beautiful, sweet, gliding quality of the voice and the absolutely manic, robotic beat underneath. They’re so incongruous. And I’m sure it’s incongruity that thrills everyone. I think what’s disappointing in music is when no new impressions arise on future listenings. The other thing I find disappointing is when the emotion is simple or singular.”

At that Museum School talk, Eno — prompted by engaging questions and comments from National Public Radio’s David Hockenberry — held court for two hours, mixing pre-recorded music and chat. He discussed high art vs. low art (“High art is so medieval; it has so much to do with relics.” In the high arts, he said, there’s a lot of suspicion about low art — “that it’s seducing you for impure reasons”), the downside of semi-fame (“an assumption that’s romantic,” that he is “bound to be a fantastic person”) and the message of his oft-ambiguous songs (“I don’t really have anything to say”).

He also mused about the sign on the Anderson Auditorium door. It read “Brian Eno Sold Out.”

Which produced a good laugh across the packed house. He’s shifted directions a number of times, one of music’s sureties is the impossibility of Brian Eno selling out.



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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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