BRIAN ENO AND THE STAR OF THE NON-MUSICIAN*
by Gary Gomes
*(Apologies to Franz Werfel's The Star of the Unborn)
Brian Eno is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of the "idea person" in rock. Precedents exist in other musics of course: the person who comes from outside the system, or who works from a conceptual rather than a virtuosic mode. They are actually fairly common. In classical music, there is Stockhausen, Cage and their indirectly inspired children, the minimalists (La Monte Young; Riley, Reich, and Glass). This led to the Ambient or systems school to which Eno seemed most attuned along with Cornelius Cardew and a noisier but no less a systems person, Iannis Xenakis. In rock, outsider-conceptualists included Captain Beefheart, and Jon Anderson of Yes, both of whom lacked extraordinary 'technical' skill themselves but who managed to make the musicians they worked with produce extraordinary things. Frank Zappa, Soft Machine, Velvet Underground, Hendrix, the Beatles and Can had greater instrumental control, but still had conceptual works that employed a process that would be seen through to the end. And in jazz, conceptualists (who could also play) included Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, and notably Miles Davis, the latter sharing Eno's talent for cutting and pasting pieces. The Residents lacked musical proficiency but made really interesting music through synthesizers or other instruments. Their album Eskimo, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and Frank Zappa's Jazz from Hell were major conceptual works in the world of rock. Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz are outstanding masterpieces of conceptual jazz.
Eno is an interesting individual, but his background was as a would-be musician who used the tape recorder as a musical instrument, doing improvisational pieces with Tom Phillips and working with Cornelius Cardew's (a student of Stockhausen) Scratch Orchestra. Stockhausen, like Cage in the U.S., was interested in spontaneous composition (or improvisation, to be candid). Eno's tape experiments sound similar to the Fluxus movement and much earlier works of Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Daevid Allen, Hugh Hopper (1964) and John Cale and Lou Reed (1966). He met Andy MacKay, saxophonist of Roxy Music, and worked on MacKay's VCS3 synthesizer. A documentary movie on Eno, 2012's The Man Who Fell To Earth, which makes many errors of omission, indicates that VCS3's were rare, when in fact they were the most common commercially available synthesizers in the UK-very cheap at about $1,000 compared very favorably with the $15,000 or more modular Moog. Eno's contributions to Roxy Music were to process the instruments through tapes and the VCS3, but in all candor, the first two Roxy Music albums were not sonically very revolutionary. Many of the effects, save for the odd synth solo, could have been done on Les Paul's equipment upon which he double tracked guitars. The guitar effects (from the excellent Phil Manzanera) sounded like souped-up phasers, which were starting to come into use in the late 1960's.
One notable thing though: Roxy Music were interesting dressers and Eno would often come on stage in full eye makeup and lipstick, wearing heels and feather boas. Was this the origin of Lady Gaga? Or was it the Mothers wearing women's dresses (but far less glamorous than Eno) a few years earlier?
Much of the strength of Eno's work comes from its willingness to take chances and try different approaches to composition. However, many of his songs come out sounding pretty much like regular songs (unlike Jethro Tull, who Roxy opened for) or like drones or repetition. Sometimes this is used to good effect--"Baby's on Fire" is a great piece with some incredible Robert Fripp guitar and John Wetton bass, but other songs come across as childish or loose jams-"Put a Straw Under Baby", "Julie With..." and most of Another Green World come off this way.
In the Eno documentary, Christgau praises Another Green World, especially its personal importance to him because it helped put his baby to sleep. This is really extraordinary, not because it's a bad thing, but because I had thought one of the points of music, especially rock, was to excite people. Christgau also notes that Fripp and Eno was successful artistically because Fripp showed restraint--well, he always did, even in Crimson's most raucous moments. I have seen Fripp live in person several times and he is an especially restrained individual. Side one of Fripp and Eno's (No Pussyfooting) (1973), "The Heavenly Music Corporation", belongs to Fripp and is far less busy than the other song/side "Swastika Girls," which belongs to Eno. As a point in fact, Fripp had done something very similar at the end of Lizard by King Crimson, an album which also featured the supposed extremely rare VCS3 synthesizer.
This is not an attack on Christgau, it should be clear; it is an attack on the rainbow effect that encompasses certain artists. The film is fair in mentioning that Pauline Oliveros pioneered the use of this technique--it is unfair in implying that Eno picked it up and it applied without any intercessionary uses. One commenter mentions that Eno had just left Roxy Music and Robert Fripp had just lost Greg Lake (who actually left in 1970) and King Crimson disbanded when (No Pussyfooting) was produced. It was a refuge for both artists. The album was made when Fripp was in the process of forming his fourth and most successful incarnation of King Crimson with John Wetton, Bill Bruford, Jamie Muir and David Cross and when Eno was still in Roxy Music. So we have a false history being made to dramatize an artistic event.
Eno's work in his rock era was very good. I was a fan and liked a good deal of his output in this period. I just find that his influence is grossly overstated. He guest starred on Matching Mole's Little Red Record (1972) and made a great contribution to "Gloria Gloom". His work on Genesis' Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is not particularly interesting and does not add that much to the album; nor does his impact on Quiet Sun's album or Robert Wyatt's Ruth is Stranger than Richard (1975). The contribution is limited to what sounds like phasing instruments through an effects pedal to distort the sound. Which is cool, but really does not add to the overall impact of the album, and is probably something Phil Manzanera or Nick Mason could have conceived. At the time, it was interesting; over time, it transmogrified into an effect.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that Eno did was Discreet Music (1975), which was essentially a recording played at very low volume. I had the opportunity to play one of La Monte Young's records at the music store of a friend. One of my acquaintances (who was with NRBQ at the time) told me it evoked the same reaction as Discreet Music. For those of you who don't know him, La Monte Young is the grandfather of just intonated drone music, a significant technological and creative development. The Eno piece is found art; it's an interesting conceptual concept, but let's be truthful, did not require much creativity or effort. He also started a record label, Obscure, which put out similar records, from great artists like Gavin Bryars and David Toop (the latter a personal favorite), but sadly, after buying several of them, I had to stop. I personally found the entire ambient music school (with some exceptions) just as boring as minimalism (which I have discussed previously) and I don't want to be lulled to sleep by the music I hear; I want to be stimulated or excited.
The main idea here is that legends are dangerous; despite producing some tremendous work which really did expand rock's horizons (Talking Heads Remain in Light, for example), much of Eno's work relies on concepts that either replicate other people's work: the Doors' Strange Days and the Lothar and the Hand People's first album are more sonically experimental than the first two Roxy Music albums. One particularly annoying review of Soft Machine criticized their work for failing to interest, but praised Eno because "Eno is a genius!" Why is Eno a genius and these guys are dopes? But the legend must be made that this was something astonishing no one had heard previously. It is the canonization of the rock musician as a seer (as is happening with Hendrix) without a real critical assessment of the musician's work--or of any trailblazing work that may have occurred earlier.
I stress again; music criticism is a journalistic tradition. It has a responsibility to tell the truth, the whole story, not just pick and choose the heroes it wants (pun intended). This is not truth; this is propaganda.
It's important to remember that every artist has strengths and weaknesses. Eno has many strengths, but, like any human being, he has flaws and faults. To ignore the contributions of his predecessors and contemporaries is borders on myth building, and to be truthful, dishonest and misleading to the viewer, who, in an ideal journalistic world, should have the greatest possible exposure to chronicled, verified events. In a world that harbors so much misinformation, the music fan deserves as much accuracy as we can muster.
Also see Lester Bangs on Brian Eno
"Eno in the '70's"
Brian Eno on Robert Quine
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