Perfect Sound Forever

Eno in the '70s

Jesse Steichen (March 1998)


Brian Eno was many wonderful things during the 1970's, an unusually awful decade: he was a prog-rock god, an in-demand producer, a classical composer, a forefather of punk/new wave, and the creator of ambient music. He was the critic's darling, a fine speaker, and one of the greatest thinkers ever to be called a "rock musician," a term which he detests. Since his departure from pop music, his ideas have lived on, but his name has virtually disappeared. Know mainly today as U2's producer, he hasn't gotten his due credit.

As a youth when rock was first gaining popularity, he was impressed by Elvis and the "magical" doo-wop sound. He was also a fan of avante guard classical music, especially the minimalist works of Terry Riley, John Cage, LaMonte Young, Stockhausen, Erik Satie, and Steven Reich. He joined the Portsmouth Sinfonia in the late 60's, performing clarinet with only a slim amount of experience. Then, at art school, Eno got his hands on a tape machine and figured out he liked it.

In 1971, Eno joined Roxy Music, a seminal 70's art-rock band; playing synths and manipulating the other's instruments, something he called "treatments." He would take the sounds of the instruments being played and feed them into his synth, where he would mess with the sound itself, changing the frequencies involved to create an altered sound. It still sounded like the instrument of its origin, but it was different all the same, like an alternate tuning of a guitar, yet more. On Roxy Music's self-titled first album (1972), Eno was used mostly to play stereotypical, novel synth lines and to add a weird bleep now and then. Nothing too impressive when you compare it to later accomplishments. By For Your Pleasure (1973), Eno was being performing at a peak. The first side contains some wonderful pop songs ("Do the Strand" and "Editions of You") and a spacey, evil song about a sex-toy ("In Every Dream Home a Heartache"). The second side is one of his greatest moments, culminating in the title track, which by the end is pure Eno, with voices, guitars, synths, and drums bubbling over each other in a mad, perfect cauldron.

Eno left Roxy Music in 1973 to start his solo career after some serious ego-led infighting with Bryan Ferry, Roxy's singer. His first work outside of Roxy Music was a collaboration with Robert Fripp, of another great British art-rock band, King Crimson. Fripp and Eno recorded a couple of fantastic albums together between 1972 and 1975. The first, (No Pussyfooting), was recorded in '72 and '73 for a grand total of $14 (the cost of the tape). Ambient in sound, even if it could never be used in that fashion, this was one of his most important works. Fripp played guitar while Eno messed with the sound on his tape machines, looping the sounds over each other, which, as time progressed, would slowly deteriorate into pure noise before being totally abandoned. The first track, "The Heavenly Music Corporation," is incredibly beautiful, yet slightly menacing at the same time. At over 20 minutes in length, it takes up all of side one, which leaves the second side to the 18 minute "Swastika Girls," a piece with a very annoying synth sound running through its entirety. "Swastika Girls" isn't nearly as successful as "Heavenly Music," because it is far too active to be fully comprehended, leaving it sounding like a mess; but it does add another dimension to the sound of the first song. This album represents Eno's first foray into what he would later term "ambient" music (background music that "doesn't demand attention, but rewards it,"), even if he wasn't aware of it yet.

The second Eno/Fripp collaboration was Evening Star (1975) which incorporated synths more fully into the mix. Even better than (No Pussyfooting), this album contains two absolute masterpieces of the ambient sound, and three lesser, still stunning songs. "Wind on Water," the opening track, is a murky live studio recording; the 5 minute, 30 second recording is probably only the middle part of an improvised track. Several guitar tracks are already going when the track opens, and when these tracks come together correctly, the resulting sound truly is like wind on water; the track seems to physically shimmer. The last track on the album, "An Index of Metals," is the best example of Eno's loop and decay tape system, soon to be called "Frippertronics." Nearly thirty minutes in length, this track takes up all of side two, and it uses those thirty minutes well. The song builds from near silence to a crescendo of noisy, droning guitars. If you love virtuoso guitar playing and electronic music, this is the album to get, if only for this track.

In 1973, Eno released his debut solo album, Here Come the Warm Jets (a reference to the act of pissing,) within months of (No Pussyfooting). While his Fripp collaboration was almost completely ignored, Warm Jets actually charted in both the U.K. and the U.S. Warm Jets was definitely a pop album, with actual songs, played with an actual band (which included members of Roxy Music and the Winkies, an ill-fated attempt by Eno to lead a rock group). Several of the songs were in a style Eno called "idiot energy," an almost proto-punk sound. The album was covered in strange synth sounds and loud, screeching guitars, and Eno's reverse lyrical style. Eno would write the lyrics after he wrote the music, coming up with vocal sounds to compliment the instrumental sounds, caring very little for meaning. Even a song so intriguingly titled "The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch" has no meaning. None of the songs could have been top-40 material, but only because Eno didn't work that way. Critical reviews at the time were mostly positive, Rolling Stone calling it "a very compelling experiment in controlled chaos." The songs themselves come off as fun, annoying, menacing, punkish, beautiful, and always interesting. It was quite a debut, by any standards.

Eno's next solo release was Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), which was another critical favorite at the time. Based on postcards of China in some way or another, it comes off as a pseudo-concept album. The songs, for the most part, aren't quite as energetic as those found on Here Come the Warm Jets, and are more conventional, in a screwy sort of way. New developments do occur, however. "The Fat Lady of Limbourg" is a bit jazzy (if only for its horn-like sounds), "The Great Pretender" pre-figures the industrial sounds of Cabaret Voltaire, and "Third Uncle" sounds like a proto-punk Frank Zappa at his most pop conscious. Overall, this release refines Warm Jets ideas without really going too far beyond them. The production is more innovative (a major plus), the backing group is more stable and tight, and the pop is better. Eno also released a single in 1974, titled "Seven Deadly Finns," an important proto-punk single. But, the single and Tiger Mountain would pale in comparison to Eno's releases of the following year.

Eno released three albums in 1975: Evening Star (with Robert Fripp, see above), Another Green World and Discreet Music. Another Green World is considered his third prog-rock album, (following Warm Jets and Tiger Mountain) but, in reality, it is far different from his earlier efforts in most areas. Critics were apprehensive of Eno's new style at first, claiming it didn't sound like him ("It doesn't even get on my nerves" claimed one critic). Another Green World was more ambient (and ambitious) in nature than his first two albums, yet it still contained plenty of pop (possibly his greatest pop song is contained on the album, "St. Elmo's Fire.") The backup band changes with nearly every song, lyrics are rare, and for nearly half the album, Eno plays all the instruments. Keyboards and synths dominate the soundscapes, but this isn't new age music, it's all too quirky for that. The album holds together better than the concept album before it, and works just like Dark Side of the Moon does- it has to be taken in as a whole or else it sounds incomplete and meaningless. Coming across more like a painting than music, Eno challenges the audience's method of listening, which is something he would attempt to do on most of his subsequent work.

Eno's last album of 1975, Discreet Music, was possibly his greatest accomplishment. A piece of minimalism like those of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, it consisted of two melodic flute-like lines of differing duration being played over each other for half an hour. This may sound boring, but once you figure out what's going on, it opens up to you like a rose. The sounds start and end and repeat without any regard for the other, and it all comes off as some kind of a high. More of an experience than anything else, this is what makes Eno so wonderful (and if you are bored by it, you aren't really listening). The second side contained three variations of Pachabel's Canon in D major, each with a different arrangement. The finest of these, "Fullness of Wind," is especially interesting for the strange effects of harmony that Eno produces. Discreet Music was released on Eno's own Obscure label, which he created to release a series of avant guard classical recordings. From 1975 to 1978, ten albums were released on Obscure, from such sources as Gavin Bryars, David Toop, Harold Budd (with whom Eno would work with during the '80's) and the Penguin Café Orchestra, with Eno producing most of these efforts.

Eno took a small break after the exertions of 1975, recording some for his 1978 release Music for Films and working with David Bowie in Berlin. His work with Bowie resulted in three albums, released in 1977 and 1979, titled Low, "Heroes" and Lodger (this last one recorded in Switzerland but is still considered part of the 'Berlin Trilogy.' On Low (1977), Eno only writes one song (which turns out to be a rather dull spot on the album) but his imprint is unmistakable. The first side of the album contains several concise pop songs with electronic qualities, while the second side is ambient. Overall, it is a step back in terms of sound for Eno, with harsh sounding Moog synthesizers carrying the most weight. Then again, it was Bowie's album, not his. And it is a great album at that.

"Heroes" (1977) is an absolute classic. Eno co-authors several tracks and plays instruments on most tracks. The formula of pop on the first side, ambient on the second is kept, but the pop is more skewed and the ambient is different than that which proceeded it (even in Eno's own catalog). The finest song on the album is the title track (written by Bowie and Eno), which is the best song that either Eno or Bowie ever had a part in. The elliptical melody (played by Fripp) contains very few notes while the backing sounds like one large, extremely busy, drone. Bowie adds sparkle to his finest lyrics with his finest vocal performance and the production by Tony Visconti compliments it all perfectly. Even if the rest of the album had been crap, the album would still be worth owning for this track alone. A masterful job by all involved.

Lodger (1979) was a bit of a disappointment after "Heroes", but how could it not be? It was certainly the most conventional of the Berlin albums, but that is only relative: all of the tracks have lyrics and drums. The styles on the album cover all sorts of ground, from ballads to industrial, rockers to new wave, drones to pop, guitar rave-ups to bass workouts, and protest songs to Iggy Pop songs. Literally. Flawless songwriting, tight musicianship, and superb production equal another fine album. Eno is less in his own here, and although some of his ideas do surface now and then, this is truly a solo Bowie album, unlike the last two albums.

In 1976 and 1977, Eno also worked with a legendary German band Cluster. Two albums were released, titled Cluster & Eno (1977) and After the Heat (1979). Both of these albums were rather dull, almost new age, slight pieces. Why Eno and Cluster, two great innovators of electronic music, decided to create albums like these is beyond me. Both contain some good moments, but neither adds much of anything to the past triumphs of either artist involved and are best left forgotten. If adding programmed keyboards and backward lyrics is your idea of innovation, please, enjoy.

In 1977, Eno also released his final solo album in the rock idiom. Before and After Science is one of his finest efforts, just as varied as Lodger, but constructed like "Heroes". The first side contains several pop masterpieces, this time with decided industrial and new wave leanings. The Talking Heads anagram, "King's Lead Hat," takes part of the Heads' style and adds to it, creating the sound that the Heads themselves would use in the next few years. The second side is ambient with lyrics, and features a pop/ambient classic, "Here He Comes," within which nothing much seems to happen (it sounds like an unmoving, yet not static by any means, drone), and is extremely satisfying anyway. A collaboration with Cluster, "By This River," is much better than anything else that came from this pairing, and is actually another highlight. Before and After Science was the last piece of pop that Eno would contribute under his name to the culture until 1990, and it was another critical favorite. One critic claimed that it was "the record that Pink Floyd could make if they set their collective mind to it" (referring to Science).

In 1978, Eno released two albums, both in the ambient idiom. Music for Films had been created over the past three years and was completely instrumental, with Eno playing all instruments on most tracks. The music is a departure from both the ambient sound portrayed on Another Green World and Discreet Music, sounding like neither, yet clearly in debt to both. The tracks are short and theoretically simple, like those on World, but they are about as pop as Music. Over the course of the 18 tracks, a logic fails to appear, as should be expected- Eno claims it is a compilation of his works from 75-78. As this is the case, it is hard to take some of the lesser tracks on faith, as they are not meant to be part of any album. The album comes off as relatively weak, in comparison to his other ambient works, but the remarkable tracks more than pick up the slack.

Ambient 1: Music for Airports, on the other hand, is a meisterwerk. The first album to be released under the "ambient" moniker (three further albums would be released under the name Ambient, culminating in the 1982 release Ambient 4: On Land), this is where Aphex Twin, Autechre, and all of the other 90's true ambient (those without suffixes like "ambient-house" or "ambient-techno") bands got (and built) their ideas from. Made up of four tracks, each song works from the ideas first used on Discreet Music (multiple sounds of differing durations running over each other) but they are more complex. More sounds are used to create each track, creating a more interesting soundscape than that which was found on Discreet Music, but it is less pure. Another triumph for Eno, and one of his last moments in the critical spotlight, these albums would prove to be a turning point in Eno's career. From this point on, nearly all of his work is within the ambient or minimalist idioms.

Also in 1978, Eno began his long collaboration with the Talking Heads and David Byrne. In '78 and '79, Eno was part of two albums with the Heads, More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music, as well as two albums in part recorded in late '79, but released later, Remain In Light and a collaboration with Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Eno also helped in the writing and recording of The Catherine Wheel (1981), a solo project by Byrne. More Songs (1978) was produced by Eno and the Heads and stands as their best album together. Flawless songwriting and performances which always seem to find the groove which every songwriter strives for, but rarely finds, as well as unusual instrument combinations, make this a stunning album. Eno played synths and keyboards with the group during the improvisations that backed Byrne's melodies and lyrics, becoming a de facto fifth Head. Fear of Music (1979) is less of a masterpiece than the former, but that is not to say that it is less than rewarding. The production and lyrics are eerie in sound and meaning, the instrumentation is more stark, but it does have one outstanding single, "Life During Wartime," one of the best singles of the decade.

Recorded in 1979 and 1980, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (released 1981) stands as Eno's most active ambient music outside of that found on his solo rock albums. Again, this music is ambient in sound, even if it could never be used that way; it is drum based, but I could never see myself dancing to it. Ambient-techno/house can find some roots with this album, with sampled lyrics, funky drum patterns, and a loose, dubbish sound. Music to chill out to, if nothing else. Recorded very soon after the sessions that produced My Life, Remain in Light (1980) was recorded by the Heads, this time with Eno playing instruments, producing, and co-authoring all of the songs. This album sounds like a pop version of My Life and it sold accordingly. Critics loved it, but I find it a bit too repetitive while not containing enough ambient credibility to make the repetition worthwhile. A few tracks overcome this, whether it is by an outstanding melody or a strong arrangement. The opening track, "Born Under Punches," is one of Eno's finest productions to date, and also reminds the listener of earlier solo Eno tracks like material from Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain. "Idiot energy" has returned, at least for this track.

Eno had produced several other albums during the 70's for other artists, most notably Fear (1974) by John Cale, late of the Velvet Underground (arguably the most important group of the '60's) with whom Eno would work with again in 1990, producing a charming pop album called Wrong Way Up. He also worked with several new wave groups, including Devo (Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo! (1978)) and Ultravox on their eponymous debut from 1977. In 1978, he produced the seminal "no wave" compilation album, No New York, to which his production did nothing in particular of merit, except to add his name to another classic (whether this was coincidence or trend is unknown) though he did help get these bands recogition through a major label.

In the '80's and '90's, Eno would continue to record, sticking within the ambient style with only a few deviations. He went deeper into the minimalism of ambient, eventually removing melody completely along with certain structures, and he branched out into longer forms of the medium (sometimes creating single songs over an hour in length). Fresh ideas were a little more rare, but when you consider his accomplishments of the 1970's, it is hard to imagine anyone keeping up that pace. One of the greatest artists of our time, and he's still mostly known as the producer of The Joshua Tree.


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