The vast career of electronic innovator and ambient godfather BRIAN ENO has crossed genres, styles and instrumentation.
Ranging from his solo work with his use of simplistic keyboards and snake guitar to major rock productions and motivational techniques such as his famous ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards, Eno’s theories and thought processes have shaped the pop, rock and avant garde worlds.
“Anything that’s strong enough will stand up to any amount of analysis” Eno said profoundly.
While starting out in art rock with ROXY MUSIC as an EMS VCS3 wielding non-musician, a car accident in early 1975 left him temporarily immobile in a hospital bed. Ever the thinker, it allowed him to explore the possibilities of environmental music.
Inadvertently, he had discovered the sub-genre of ambient. One of his best known early compositions of this type was the short instrumental title track of his 1975 opus ‘Another Green World’ which combined voxless and vocalled tracks in equal measures; the track later became the opening title theme to the BBC2 arts programme ‘Arena’. He focussed on this wordless aesthetic, producing acknowledged ambient classics such as ‘Music for Airports’, ‘Thursday Afternoon’ and ‘Neroli’. His recent album ‘Lux’ on Warp Records continued this quality tradition.
Following his acclaimed solo album ‘Before & After Science’ in 1977, he largely steered clear of conventional vocal led material until 2005’s excellent ‘Another Day On Earth’. However, he maintained a presence within the pop and rock sphere as a producer with ULTRAVOX! and later acts such as DEVO, TALKING HEADS, U2 and JAMES.
“Being a record producer is the best form of cowardice. Producers often get praised but they have to do a really bad job for anyone to criticise them” he said of his occasionally hands-off approach, “The way I work is to try to find out what isn’t being done that ought to be done. Sometimes that means somebody ought to make the tea. Sometimes it means somebody ought to re-write the whole bloody song”. Such is Eno’s magic, he even managed to steer COLDPLAY into making their most bearable track ‘Viva La Vida’!
Eno’s influence in the studio has been significant, even when not actually behind the desk.
While often miscredited as the producer of DAVID BOWIE’s Berlin trilogy ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’, he was paramount in directing Bowie’s train of thought towards a new school of pretension beyond conventional rock ’n’ roll.
The result was half instrumental tracks such as ‘Sound & Vision’ and doomy neo-classical electronic pieces such as ‘Sense Of Doubt’, while both the ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ albums were conceptualised into vocal and instrumental sides.
Other Eno collaborators have included HARMONIA, LARAAJI, ICEHOUSE, JOHN CALE, JAH WOBBLE, SUEDE, LEO ABRAHAMS, JON HOPKINS and KARL HYDE among many. Scouse pranksters HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT even sent up this artistic rite of passage in a song called ‘Eno Collaboration’. Eno’s catalogue is far too extensive to summarise in a short synopsis.
So what material would serve as an introduction to his varied career as a recording artist, producer, remixer and collaborative muse? Here are eighteen affectionately chosen examples from The Electricity Club.
As with all of TEC’s previous Beginner’s Guides, the list is not definitive, presented in chronological order and limited to one track per moniker, project or artist. The intention is to act as an oblique strategy to inspire further investigation…
ROXY MUSIC Ladytron (1972)
‘Ladytron’ was a gloriously arty adventure; the inclusion of otherworldly sonic manipulations on Andy MacKay’s oboe and sax alongside Eno’s striking VCS3 sourced electronics signalled a futuristic vision that was later to reveal itself in the New Romantic scene. But Eno’s tenure in ROXY MUSIC wasn’t to last; tensions had been running high at Roxy gigs. Following Roxy’s second album ‘For Your Pleasure’, Eno was gone!
Available on the ROXY MUSIC album ‘The Early Years’ via Virgin Records
ENO Back In Judy’s Jungle (1974)
While Eno’s solo debut ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ followed a trashy, energetic guitar led style inspired by THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, his sophomore offering took in more esoteric approaches and an interest in Chinese Communism. The skippy waltz of ‘Back In Judy’s Jungle’ with percussion played by Phil Collins headed towards the 38th Parallel as a wonderfully infectious guitar melody (borrowed from a Korean folk tune) took hold alongside various whistles and electronic effects.
Available on the ENO album ‘Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)’ via Virgin Records
FRIPP & ENO Evening Star (1975)
Prog rockers KING CRIMSON shared management with Roxy and Eno; their guitarist Robert Fripp made his first collaboration with Eno in 1973 on ‘(No Pussyfooting)’. Comprising of two long spiky improvisations, it used a live tape loop technique christened Frippertronics which allowed Mr Toyah Wilcox to layer guitar sounds. This was put to good use on ‘Evening Star’ which had more accessible melodic components compared with ‘(No Pussyfooting)’ and gentle harmonics.
Available on the FRIPP & ENO album ‘Evening Star’ via Opal Records
DAVID BOWIE Warszawa (1977)
‘Warszawa’ was named after the Polish capital city but accurately captured the post-war tensions in West Berlin without the need for lyricism. At Hansa Studios where the sessions were being mixed, the soldiers in the East Berlin watch towers could look into the windows of the building! Tony Visconti’s production only enhanced the collaborative drama between Bowie’s enigmatic wailing over Eno’s Minimoog and Chamberlain keys. This formed part of an all instrumental suite on the ‘Low’ album’s second side.
Available on the DAVID BOWIE album ‘Low’ via EMI Records
ULTRAVOX! My Sex (1977)
Using Eno’s Minimoog with a knob marked with a sheep sticker to indicate it made woolly sounds, Billy Currie’s classical sensibilities combined with John Foxx’s detached dissatisfaction to effectively invent Gary Numan on ‘My Sex’. Despite being accorded joint billing with Steve Lillywhite and the band in the ‘Ultravox!’ album’s production credits, drummer Warren Cann later revealed that Eno had only worked on four tracks and had not been quite the accomplished studio technician the band hoped he would be!
Available on the ULTRAVOX! album ‘Ultravox!’ via Universal Music
ENO, MOEBIUS & ROEDELIUS The Belldog (1978)
While the 1976 sessions with cult German band HARMONIA featuring Michael Rother of NEU! remained unreleased until 1997, collaborations with two of the collective Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius aka CLUSTER proved to be more successful. With a wonderful ambient collection ‘Cluster & Eno’to their name, their second album ‘After The Heat’added Eno’s contemplative voice to the experimentation, the best of which was the gentle sequencer led beauty of ‘The Belldog’.
Available on the ENO, MOEBIUS & ROEDELIUS album ‘After The Heat’ via Bureau B
BRIAN ENO 1/1 (1978)
With ‘Music for Airports’, No1 in his Ambient series, the concept had been to create soothing pieces for inducing calm in those who had a fear of flying. Unlike ‘Music For Films’ which consisted of short musical fragments, ‘Music For Airports’ comprised of four extended sketches utilising piano, synths and vocal tape loops. Very much a product of the studio and the possibilities opened up due to quality improvements of public address systems, ‘1/1’ was a magnificent 17 minute calling card that was “ignorable as it is interesting”.
Available on the BRIAN ENO album ‘Music for Airports’ via Virgin Records
JON HASSELL & BRIAN ENO Delta Rain Dream (1979)
Strangely enigmatic, Hassell’s muted avant garde trumpet playing and use of Prophet 5 processing in partnership with Eno on ‘Delta Rain Dream’ from ‘Fourth World Vol 1 Possible Musics’ provided a backdrop for a type of percussive primitive futurism where it was envisaged what indigenous tribes would have done if a solar powered synthesizer had been dropped in at the beginning of time and become their instrument of choice. ‘Dream Theory in Malaya: Fourth World Vol 2’ was recorded by Hassell solo in 1981.
Available on the JON HASSELL & BRIAN ENO album ‘Fourth World Vol 1 Possible Musics’ via Virgin Records
HAROLD BUDD & BRIAN ENO First Light (1980)
Eno had produced and issued Budd’s ‘Pavilion Of Dreams’ on Obscure, but didn’t directly collaborate on a full album project with the American self-taught pianist until ‘The Plateaux Of Mirror’; ‘First Light’ was typical of an Eno collaboration where the musician of the partnership was allowed to breathe and build tension before Eno’s magical layers of synthesizer appeared in the final quarter. The approach could be compared to Eno choosing a tie for Budd’s shirt and suit…
Available on the HAROLD BUDD & BRIAN ENO album ‘The Plateaux Of Mirror’ via Virgin Records
TALKING HEADS Crossed Eyed & Painless (1980)
‘Once In A Lifetime’ may have been the hit but ‘Crosseyed & Painless’ was the key track from ‘Remain In Light’, TALKING HEADS’ third album with Eno. Incorporating funk rhythms alongside assorted instrumentation modulating around a very basic repetitive chord structure, there was tension within the dance as David Byrne preached like an inebriate evangelist. The credit “All songs written by David Byrne, Brian Eno and Talking Heads” said it all as Eno tried to turn TALKING HEADS into his backing group.
Available on the TALKING HEADS album ‘Remain In Light’ via WEA Records
BRIAN ENO & DAVID BYRNE Regiment (1981)
Recorded simultaneously during the ‘Remain In Light’ sessions, ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’ was the playroom that nearly drove TALKING HEADS apart. This influential album used taped speeches by personalities of assorted faiths effectively as lead vocals. Featuring the found voice of Lebanese mountain singer Dunya Yusin, ‘Regiment’ was mildly funky and its assortment of rhythmical clarity, synthetic atmospheres and sustained guitar textures proved to be a forerunner of JAPAN’s ‘Tin Drum’.
Available on the BRIAN ENO & DAVID BYRNE album ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’ via Nonesuch Records
BRIAN ENO, DANIEL LANOIS & ROGER ENO Deep Blue Day (1983)
The ‘Apollo’ album was recorded as a soundtrack to a documentary film about the mission to the moon. Its intention was to react against the newsy manner of space travel presented by most TV programmes of the day with its fast cuts and speeded up images. Feelings of weightlessness were captured among the collection’s aural clusters and atmospheres. ‘Deep Blue Day’ with its accessible countrified twang from Lanois was used in the infamous ‘toilet’ scene of the film ‘Trainspotting’.
Available on the BRIAN ENO album ‘Apollo’ via Virgin Records
U2 The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
It seemed a most ludicrous union at the time… the flag waving over earnest rock group teaming up with the thoughtful, ambient egghead! With Bono and Co doing their best ‘New Gold Dream’ period SIMPLE MINDS impression, ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ captured the harrowing trauma of Hiroshima in layers of Yamaha DX7 and Fairlight as Eno pushed the Irish quartet into a more esoteric mind process to counter their naturally bombastic tendencies. He continues to work with them today.
Available on the U2 album ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ via Island Records
MICHAEL BROOK Hybrid (1985)
Brook was a studio engineer who could see the possibilities of stretching out the timbres and textures of the electric guitar. His experiments led to his development of the Infinite Guitar. Co-produced by Eno, ‘Hybrid’ was the first album to fully exploit this instrument and the title track very much followed the percussive possible musics of Eno’s ‘Fourth World Vol 1 Possible Musics’ collaboration with Jon Hassell. This wasn’t entirely surprising as Brook had played live with the duo in 1981.
Available on the MICHAEL BROOK album ‘Hybrid’ via Virgin Records
JAMES Sometimes (1993)
After their ‘Seven’ album, JAMES were accused of heading down the U2 route so in a replicant move, Booth and Co secured the services of Eno for ‘Laid’, which was released in Autumn 1993. While driven by frantic acoustic guitar, the lead single ‘Sometimes’ benefitted from Eno’s input by steadily building and adding glistening ambient synths. A most gloriously harmonic vocal section towards the conclusion appeared for yet another lift when it was least expected… pure Eno!
Available on the JAMES album ‘Laid’ via Mercury Records
DEPECHE MODE In Your Room – Apex Mix (1994)
Using the percolating bass sequence and chilling stabs from the original album version plus slices of Martin Gore’s backing vocal, Eno’s Apex Mix of this highlight from ‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’ was almost Zen-like in its meditative qualities. Legend has it that while Martin Gore was playing this version in his car, he had to turn it off as it was sending him to sleep! In true Eno style, the backing built slowly and made the most of the song’s inherent tension, something which Butch Vig’s rocked up single mix failed to do.
Available on the DEPECHE MODE CD single ‘In Your Room’ via Mute Records
BRYAN FERRY Wildcat Days (1994)
The first co-write between the two former sparring partners with perhaps some nostalgic lyrical reference to the fledgling days of ROXY MUSIC, ‘Wildcat Days’ was the best track from Ferry’s arduous ‘Mamouna’ project, the original sessions of which had started as far back as 1989 under the working title of ‘Horoscope’. Lots of weird noises, detuned swoops and a seasoned supporting cast including Andy MacKay, Chester Kamen and Steve Ferrone combined for this marvellous slice of electronic art funk.
Available on the BRYAN FERRY album ‘Mamouna’ via Virgin Records
BRIAN ENO & J PETER SCHWALM From This Moment (2001)
For his project with German DJ and percussionist Schwalm, Eno took a more rhythmically colourful approach to his ambient philosophies that coincided with the emergence of chill-out rooms within the club scene. Certainly, ‘Drawn From Life’ possessed more accessible entry points for those who maybe found works such as ‘Music For Airports’ too sedate. The album’s opener ‘From This Moment’ was great soundtrack music, bolstered by live percussion and strings.
Available on the BRIAN ENO & J PETER SCHWALM album ‘Drawn from Life’ via Virgin Records
Text by Chi Ming Lai
24th July 2014, updated 30th January 2018