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"[A]ll artists . . . live off faith. You hear a note but have to have the faith that you will hear the next one. Or tell you where to find the next note."

-- Bono

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Brian Eno: U2 Connections

by Angela Pancella

I realized recently that about 1/5 of my tapes, CDs and records feature Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois or both of them. The scary part is that I acquired much of this music before realizing Eno or Lanois' involvement, or indeed before knowing they had any connection to U2. My tastes just seem to gravitate toward the sort of work they do.

The trouble with Brian Eno in particular is that he has done so much--solo albums, collaborations, musical guest appearances, production work, books, art installations--it can be overwhelming to delve into it all without guidance. That is what I intend to provide here--a rough guide to some works where Brian Eno is the main artist, a principal collaborator, or the producer. I'll list here only the albums I own myself as I am familiar with them and can talk about what attracts me to them.

U2 contacted Brian Eno--who had also recorded for Island Records--when they were beginning to think about the album that would become "The Unforgettable Fire." At first Island was not keen on the idea of Eno acting as U2's producer, and neither was Eno--he turned them down when they first approached him. Eno at the time had moved away from rock. He had last worked as a producer for a rock band in 1980, for the Talking Heads album "Remain in Light," and since then had concentrated on ambient recordings and atmospheric work--with Harold Budd, Laraaji, Jon Hassell, and a young Canadian musician/producer named Daniel Lanois.

"You should never work with people who are your fans, is my opinion," Bono said in an interview with Dave Fanning. "I knew he wasn't a fan of us, it was one of the reasons we got to work with him. I wanted to know the other side of the argument. I knew what was right about us...I wanted to find out what wasn't."

Carter Alan explains in "The Road to Pop" (also known as "Outside Is America") U2's interest in getting Eno involved in The Unforgettable Fire:

"...The band members knew they required a different sort of producer for the project they had in mind. Edge told International Musician and Recording World about the group's realization that Brian Eno might be able to help take U2 where it wanted to go. 'There's one particular track on [Eno's] Before and After Science which impressed me a lot. He had some echoed drums on it, so when we were putting together "I Threw a Brick Through a Window" for the October LP, I brought down the record and we stayed up very late one night with Steve Lillywhite and got out some rototoms and started working on that. When we were deciding on a producer for this record, [Eno's] name just kept coming up.'"

Eno's gift is an ability to make interesting music. His imitators often copy his penchant for inserting blips, boinks and squeaks in random places in a song. They pay less attention to his gift for melody, his belief in the basic structures of pop music and his desire to remain accessible to an audience. He may break the rules, but he is aware of their existence. This pioneer of ambient music (music that is unobtrusive yet also rewards close listening) is a big fan of Hank Williams and 50s doo-wop girl groups, which may come as some surprise.

I will list here only the albums that I own which involve Eno in some way. This barely scratches the surface of what he has done. In addition to the artists featured here, Eno has worked with Devo, Ultravox, Depeche Mode, Elvis Costello, the Neville Brothers, Genesis, EMF, INXS, Massive Attack, Robert Wyatt, and the Portsmouth Sinfonia ("the world's worst symphony"). Those hungering for more Eno should visit a discography compiled by the fan site Enoweb at music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/discog.html. It is not exhaustive, but it lists 277 works and takes up 25 pages when printed out.

My catalogue seems puny in comparison, but if it inspires someone to find these discs I will consider it successful. Where applicable, I will mention U2 songs that seem related in sound or atmosphere. I didn't know how these other songs Eno has worked on would relate to U2 when I went back and listened to them, if indeed they would at all. Confusing the question is that there is no obvious dividing line in a song between what was Eno's idea and what was contributed by the musicians he was working with. I might point to an atmospheric effect on, say, Unforgettable Fire, as being characteristic of Eno, but Edge has a similar love of atmospheric effects--it is one of the reasons U2 wanted to work with this particular producer. The same is true of other artists--they go to Eno because elements of his work resonate with them. So where does their artistic vision end and Eno's input begin?

Parsing this out is an inexact science, but I expected by listening closely to a range of projects Eno participated in, I'd see certain musical ideas coming up again and again, and I did. When the melody or the atmosphere or the rhythm or the boinks and squeaks reminded me of something I had heard in a U2 song, I listed the song. The connections are intuitive and often ambiguous. But if you search out these pieces, you might be surprised by how seamlessly U2's work with Eno fits in with the rest of his projects. I was.
 
Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure (1973)
Recommended Track: For Your Pleasure
Recommended If You Like (RIYL): New York

For its first two albums, Eno was a member of this progressive/art-rock English band fronted by Bryan Ferry (Eno played synthesizers and manipulated sound in the live performances). For Your Pleasure is the second album, worth picking up if only for the outrageous picture of Eno with long hair and a feather boa. The best track is an ode to an inflatable sex doll called "In Every Dream Home A Heartache," but one listen to the last cut and you may guess where Edge drew inspiration for the wobbling guitar at "In New York you can forget/Forget how to sit still."
 
Brian Eno, Here Come The Warm Jets (1973)
Recommended Track: Baby's On Fire
RIYL: I Will Follow

Shortly after leaving Roxy Music, Eno recorded his first solo album, the title of which referred obliquely to urination. He worked with sixteen other musicians and recorded the album in twelve days. In an interview later, he explained, "I'm only interested in working, really, with people I don't agree with or who have a different direction." (Bono has echoed this sentiment, particularly in reference to why U2 would work with Eno when Eno has said he doesn't like rock music much: "[never work with people who agree with you]) "I got them together merely because I wanted to see what happens when you combine different identities like that and you allow them to compete. My role is to coordinate them, synthesize them, furnish the central issue which they all will revolve around, producing a hybrid..."
His role was also spelled out on the sleeve, which say that "Eno sings...and (occasionally) plays simplistic keyboards, snake guitar, electric larynx and synthesizer, and treats the other instruments."

The Edge and Eno share a love for simplicity--finding the smallest number of notes necessary to get a point across. "Baby's On Fire" and "I Will Follow" both pack a maximum amount of punch using just two notes. "Baby's On Fire" has the added recommendation of employing disturbing imagery over a singsong melody. (If you saw the movie Velvet Goldmine you heard "Baby's On Fire" in a pivotal scene, sung by one of the movie's fictional bands; this cover version is available on the soundtrack.)

The track "Blank Frank" is another example of effective simplicity. Like "Desire," it is a recasting of a Bo Diddley beat.
 
David Bowie, Low (1976)
Recommended Track: This album is largely conventional songs on the first half and experimental pieces on the second. Of the first I recommend "Sound and Vision," of the second "Warszawa."
 
David Bowie, Heroes (1977)
Recommended Track: Heroes
RIYL: Ultraviolet
 
David Bowie, Lodger (1978)
Recommended Track: Look Back in Anger
RIYL: Lady With the Spinning Head

Low, Heroes, and Lodger are David Bowie's "Berlin trilogy," albums he made with Eno at Hansa Studios by the Berlin wall. It should come as no surprise, then, that the title track of Heroes would be echoed in drama and structure by a track on U2's "Berlin album." Compare the part of "Heroes" that begins "I remember standing by the wall" to "Ultraviolet"'s "I remember when we could sleep on stones." (The high wailing guitar on "Heroes" is by Robert Fripp of King Crimson, who collaborated with Eno on two minimalist albums: No Pussyfooting and Evening Star.)
 
Brian Eno, Music For Airports (1978)
Recommended Track: There are only 4 tracks! Listen to the whole thing!
(The version I have is by Bang on a Can. The original was created with tape loops and they've re-recorded it with live musicians, playing cello, bass, piano, clarinet, etc.)
RIYL: Bass Trap

When people refer to Brian Eno as the originator of "ambient music," they are referring to albums like this, "Discreet Music," and "Music For Films"--albums designed to play softly in the background without calling attention to themselves. ("New Age" music draws some inspiration from this, but careful listening to Eno's ambient pieces is generally more rewarding.) Eno was exploring the idea of "generative" music--music set in motion with a few simple rules. He set up repeating patterns and cycles of notes and listened to what happened when they interacted. In the piece "2/1" on Music for Airports, for instance, each note was recorded on a different bit of tape. He made each bit of tape into a loop of a different length, and recorded them playing simultaneously. The notes are long and the loops were longer, which makes for periods of silence as well as notes grouping together. All of this could have resulted in cacaphony had he not been judicious in choosing the notes to use. Instead, it is a gentle meditative piece with moments that hint at a melody which never quite appears. Because Eno cut the loops into random lengths, the piece could play for a long, long time before cycles repeat; this sense of flowing forever without any drastic change is a hallmark of many of Eno's pieces. The conventional idea of a "song" having a beginning, middle and end does not apply here. The lack of resolution may be frustrating to some, who will listen and think, "but it doesn't go anywhere!" It isn't designed to. This openended feeling combined with a steadily repeating pattern is echoed in "Bass Trap."
 
David Byrne/Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush With Ghosts (1979)
Recommended Track: The Regiment
RIYL: The Ground Beneath Her Feet

This collaboration came of Eno and Talking Heads singer David Byrne recording random things and setting them to music (and by random, I mean everything from Sufi songs to an exorcism). "The Regiment"'s combination of Mideastern vocals and Byrne and Eno's Western sensibility point towards U2's "Indo-Celtic" mix in "Mysterious Ways" and "The Ground Beneath Her Feet."
 
Talking Heads, Remain In Light (1980)
Recommended Track: Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) or Crosseyed and Painless
RIYL: Lemon

Eno's imprint is so unmistakable on the three Talking Heads albums he produced that he was nearly an additional member of the band. When Bill Flanagan describes the genesis of "Lemon" in U2 at the End of the World, he compares the "A man makes a picture/a moving picture" section to Talking Heads. This album may have been what he had in mind with the comparison. It makes much use of chanting call-and-response-style choruses. (Eno and Talking Heads singer David Byrne share a fascination with world music, as you've seen in their collaboration above. Byrne has taken his love of African call and response, South American rhythms, etc. and formed a world music record label, Luaka Bop.)
 
Eno/Cale, Wrong Way Up (1990)
Recommended Track: Spinning Away
RIYL: One Tree Hill (play them back to back!)

Brian Eno has guested on various albums by John Cale of the Velvet Underground; this almost-mainstream-pop album is a full partnership between them. The whole album is melodic, hooky, engaging, with Eno and Cale trading off on lead vocal duties. "Spinning Away" is a pretty meditation on drawing pictures during the approach of evening. The hook is stylistically similar to African highlife guitar, a characteristic it shares with "One Tree Hill"'s hook. The soaring synthesized violins and choral ending are also reminiscent of "One Tree Hill," although, since this is a Brian Eno song, there is less resolution.
 
Jane Siberry, When I Was A Boy (co-produced by Eno and Michael Brook) (1993)
Recommended Track: Calling All Angels (duet with k.d. lang)

Jane Siberry is one of a seemingingly endless stream of Canadian chanteuses with unique voices. Her delivery is wispy but not saccharine, and she makes frequent use of overdubs to create strange harmonies to match complex lyrics and unconventional melodies. This song was featured on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World, which also features tracks from U2, Talking Heads, REM, Depeche Mode, Can (a German experimental electronic group--Eno later was a remixer for them) and Daniel Lanois.
 
Laurie Anderson, Bright Red/Tightrope (1994)
Recommended Track: Tightrope
RIYL: MLK

Anderson is a New York based performance artist with many albums to her credit and one novelty hit, "O Superman." (Incidentally, last time I checked she's also Lou Reed's girlfriend.) Eno's atmospheric sound washes, conjuring ghostly church organs or underwater computer beeps, give this album a sense of Deep Meaning, not to mention menace, similar to the effect of David Bowie's Outside.
It's the ghostly church organ on this track that leads me to compare it to "MLK." This is only speculation, but perhaps Eno's love for the organ comes from his Catholic upbringing. (It does help explain the unusual length of his name--Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno).
 
David Bowie, 1.Outside (1995)
Recommended Track: Segue: Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette)/Hallo Spaceboy
RIYL: Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car

This album is part one of a planned trilogy and marks the first Bowie/Eno collaboration since their "Berlin trilogy." The other two albums have yet to surface. It's a concept album set in 1999 wherein the body of a homicide victim is made into an art installation. The liner notes are the diary of the detective investigating the case, who ponders, "It was definitely murder, but was it art?" Eno encouraged the musicians recording the album to stretch their creativity with role-playing games. As he discloses in his 1995 diary, "A Year with Swollen Appendices," he would assign them futuristic identities and ask them to perform as if they were that persona. (Their new names were anagrams of their old names; you can see similar wordplay in the Passengers liner notes, written by "Ben O'Rian" and "C.S.J. Bofop.")

Hallo Spaceboy and Daddy's Gonna Pay are not that similar sonically, but a certain manic creepiness runs through both of them.
 
James, Whiplash (1997)
Recommended Track: Play Dead
RIYL: Alex Descends Into Hell for a Bottle of Milk/Korova 1

The British alternative group James is perhaps the closest thing to a conventional rock band Eno has produced (besides U2), and as such these two albums aren't as "wacky" as certain other products bearing the Eno name. (Incredibly, as his diary relates, during a single year he was working with James, David Bowie, Passengers, and Elvis Costello.) The similarity of "Play Dead" to "Alex Descends..." is in a crunching mechanical drum sound appearing in both songs.
 
Russell Mills, Strange Familiar (Eno plays "Select-A-Bonk" percussion; others involved in this project include The Edge and Infinite Guitar inventor Michael Brook)
Recommended Track: Ice in the Sleeve
RIYL: United Colours (Passengers Original Soundtracks 1)

Russell Mills has designed covers for Nine Inch Nails, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, David Sylvian, and other luminaries; he works mostly in collage. For his ambient recordings (Undark, Pearl + Umbra, Strange Familiar) he has assembled all-star casts--Pearl + Umbra, for example, has Peter Gabriel, Thurston Moore and Bill Laswell (this latter, like Eno, has appeared on a mind-boggling number of albums).

This album is largely a collection of grooves, interesting musical ideas that repeat and fade. I only recommend it for the hardcore ambient fan.

 

@U2 Calendar

August 3 2014

06:00 PM - 08:00 PM - Hollywood U2 Tribute Band Performance

Tonight in Woodland Hills

August 8 2014

Edge's Birthday

Our favorite guitarist turns 53 today.

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