"[I]n the early '80s . . . there was this rather ridiculous idea . . . that if it was big, it was bad. Which of course rules out Elvis."
Brian Eno: U2 Connections
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
"...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
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.
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."
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..."
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.
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.)
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."
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."
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.