Updated: Nov 8, 2018
On November 16, veteran composer, artist, libre-penseur and proselytiser for all things generative and futurological, Brian Eno will receive another indication of incipient National Treasure status as four of his seminal albums – Discreet Music, Music for Films, Music for Airports and On Land – are re-released by Virgin in limited edition, 2LP heavyweight vinyl, remastered at 45rpm and sheathed in deluxe gatefold sleeves. Prompted by this, his biographer, David Sheppard, reflects on the significance of Eno’s most innovative ‘golden decade’ and how the unique appeal of this particular quartet of wordless ambient albums, spanning the years 1975 to 1982, remains undimmed, even after pathological over-exposure to them.
A decade ago, Orion, the Chicago Review Press and Arcana, Italy, published my biography of Brian Eno, On Some Faraway Beach. It’s a pretty big book, and it took me almost three years to research and write. I am happy to say it remains in print, perhaps ironically continuing to earn me enough shekels to pay for a short annual holiday, albeit on some not particularly faraway beach. All of which is just as well, as while I consider writing this book to have been partially a labour of love, it also constitutes by some distance the most demanding sustained undertaking of my three-decade working life in and around music. Tellingly, while I have subsequently edited and contributed to other people’s manuscripts, I have simply not found sufficient impulse, energy or cause to author another book of my own.
Frankly, ‘doing Eno’ exhausted me. Indeed, such were the demands of wrestling his prodigiously eclectic, polymath career (akin to “folding down a skyscraper into a suitcase”, if I may be allowed the indulgence of quoting myself) that for several years after the book was published, hearing any of Brian Eno’s music provoked in me nothing less than mild, occasionally extreme, nausea. Not that this was in any way Brian’s fault I hasten to add. Rather, this was an inevitable Pavlovian consequence of having listened so repeatedly and intensely to his recorded canon in order to understand its inner workings, most especially the albums he made during ten crucially fecund and unremittingly ingenious years, beginning in 1973. This golden decade proffered Eno’s decisive ‘reverse evolution’, the emphasis of his music inexorably receding from roistering front-and-centre to atmosphere-tinting ambient background – in the process, his persona transmuting from that of satyric glam-rocker-with-a-synthesiser to cerebral sonic-artist-with-a-synthesiser – from boffing to boffin, as it were.
In the process, Eno would chart a catalytic alternative course for post-Beatles popular music, positing a glimmering ascent for rock’s more cerebral outliers, loosely in the direction of a ‘high culture’ plateau, while barely ‘charting’, in the hit parade sense, at all. Initial ambivalence from mainstream audiences notwithstanding, this was all pretty good going for a libertine, ’60s art school-educated autodidact composer, proud to refer to himself as a ‘non-musician’ in an era that lionised ostentatious instrumental virtuosity (at least until punk’s new broom swept in). While British railway arches of the mid-1970s were regularly daubed with unambiguous graffiti asserting that Clapton is God, it would take the best part of a decade, and relocation to a city on another continent, New York, before Brian would attract similar spray-can-on-urban-facade veneration.
Eno adoration was contrastingly low on the agenda for this burned-out biographer, a decade ago. Indeed, having been invited to contribute to several radio (and one film) documentaries about the man in the wake of the book, I eventually reached a point of overload. Abstention was the only sensible subsequent course, and it would take a few post-publication years before I could even begin to think rationally and objectively about the phenomenon of Brian Eno. Eventually, the aforementioned weariness receded and I found myself able to listen to, and on occasion even write reviews of, the man’s increasingly erratic new releases, even if the dust continued to pile up on the ‘E’ section of my vinyl racks. Finally, having turned down at least two opportunities to write major magazine articles about Brian (a disinclination I put down partly to general Eno fatigue and partly to mild paranoia about the potential awkwardness of another interview encounter with the man, having previously been so comprehensively through his entrails, so to speak), I found myself returning to his old albums for pleasure again, and with no ill effects. Indeed, I am happy to say that, ten years later, my love affair with Eno’s mid-’70s benchmark albums, especially Another Green World and Before and After Science, is fully rekindled.
All of which brings me to the clutch of albums that hit my doormat this week – four key instrumental Eno vinyl reissues from the aforesaid golden decade that taken individually or together (along with the two above-mentioned yardstick longplayers and, arguably, Evening Star, Eno’s evanescent 1975 collaboration with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp) stand as validation for his enduring status as the godhead of ambient music. From this distance, it’s difficult to envision quite how much of a furore Eno caused by his adoption of the ambient rubric in the late 1970s. Suffice to say, releasing music that dispensed with drums, guitars, lead vocals and, indeed, any of the traditional ‘foreground’ elements of rock’n’roll, into the bow wave of noisily belligerent punk-rock was always likely to be contentious. Eno was duly vilified by a leather-jacketed music press for which ambient was blithely equated with all things unfashionably introspective and passive, inherently suggestive of an inert, self-satisfied status quo. It was Muzak for the art crowd – ambient’s characteristic tranquillity and satiating qualities being perceived as effectively anti-revolutionary by many of the gatekeepers at the influential inky music papers, for whom The Clash’s clamorous, rebel-rock posturing was the very quintessence of the post-1977 musical Zeitgeist.
It’s worth noting here, by way of underscoring his biographer-befuddling polymorphic tendencies, that during this same period, as a producer-cum collaborator, Eno was simultaneously tracking what at times seems an almost opposite course. When not lending David Bowie’s pivotal, so-called ‘Berlin trilogy’ of albums their patina of wintry Mitteleuropa grandeur, he was steering Talking Heads towards their Afrobeat and Funkadelic-infused apogee, for example, and while the pursuit of ambient remained Eno’s creative focus, there were some occasional diversions back toward a frenetic musical foreground, like the anagrammatic, fidgety post-punk 1978 single ‘King’s Lead Hat’, with its differently frenzied B-side, ‘R.A.F’., an agitprop-funk collage collaboration with Judy Nylon and Patti Palladin, aka Snatch.
Ambient was, as it were, in the air, all the same, and there were several fellow travellers sniffing the same musical troposphere. In Germany, the groups Can, Harmonia and Cluster – with whom Eno would collaborate, to sublime effect – were already exploring miscellaneous stripes of pastoral, immersive electronica, while another sometime Eno collaborator, Californian pianist-composer Harold Budd, was building a comparable aesthetic based on spatial minimalism and unabashed melodic prettiness. Ambient music had plenty of antecedents, too – everything from Pierre Schaeffer’s mid-20th century experiments in musique concrète and de facto sampling to Raymond Scott’s self-explanatory Soothing Sounds for Baby albums from the early ’60s. A precursor case could also be made for John Cage’s infamous, ‘silent’ ‘4’33”’, Cornelius Cardew’s numinous ‘Paragraph 7’, from his Confucian epic The Great Learning, predicated on chance processes (the 1971 studio recording of which gave minor contributor Eno his first exposure to a professional recording studio) and the enveloping synth and tape compositions of Californian proto-minimalist Terry Riley.
Eno’s own compositional journey to ambient had begun by slowing down tape recordings as a teenage Ipswich art student, and evolved through his three-year tenure as electronic ‘meddler’ in art-glam montage-rockers Roxy Music, most overtly in the live, between song ‘space music’ atmospheres he created using the VCS3 synthesiser bequeathed to him by Roxy’s reed player, Andy Mackay. The same tool was deployed on No Pussyfooting, Eno’s autumn 1973 collaboration with Robert Fripp, its pair of lengthy, wordless tracks never quite achieving the sfumato environment-shading of the ‘purer’ later ambient works, but unmistakably signposting Eno’s horizontally drifting direction of travel more assuredly than his solo debut-proper, January 1974’s amped-up, glam-rock-via-the-Velvet Underground preen-athon, Here Come The Warm Jets.
Things took a more significant evolutionary step forward (or perhaps that should be positively backward) with Discreet Music. Originally released in 1975 on Obscure, Eno’s own, then new, boutique label, which Island Records had funded on the understanding that its recording budgets would be minimal, Discreet Music’s lengthy title track is widely regarded as ground zero for Eno’s ambient work. Its creation was partly a compositional response to a developing interest in cybernetics and self-regulating systems, wherein simple elements are made to combine in order to build complexity, and to a famously damascene moment. Earlier in 1975, Eno, supine while recovering from a serious altercation with a London black cab, found himself, thanks to his damaged back, unable to get up and adjust the Renaissance harp music playing almost inaudibly on his faulty hi fi, its seductive, woozy opacity further blurred by the plash of rain against the windows. The combined effect provoked a soft focus sonic epiphany, no doubt abetted by the analgesics Eno was ingesting for his injuries. Thus were ambient’s first conceptual seeds sown.
Released into a musical environment circumscribed by Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and with Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ about to take up its nine-week residency at the top of the UK singles chart, Discreet Music was certainly an odd fish of a mid-‘70s longplayer, but it was also a beautiful one. The languorous, lugubrious, slowly unfolding synthesiser tones of its 20 minute-long title piece were the expressive product of technological determinism – specifically, Eno, with his cybernetic thinking cap on, attempting to set up a kind of musical perpetuum mobile, with simple one or two-note figures from his VCS3 played into a pair of reel-to-reel tape recorders chained together to form a kind of infinitely looping aural Mobius Strip or sonic ouroboros, the haunting baritone and bass synth tonalities achieved by slowing the machines to half speed (a simple but effective trick Eno would consistently redeploy in the coming years).
The two-tape processing system may have been transparently purloined (as a diagram on the original album back sleeve made manifest) from Terry Riley, but its outputs were something else altogether. Almost without trying, Eno had minted a subtly exquisite, liminal mood music, ineffably redolent of immersive meteorology, eerie geodesy and emotionally charged topography. This was a musical analogue of dawn’s first light diffusing over a Cycladic caldera, or a warm sirocco caressing a becalmed tropical ocean, the woodwind-like synths entwining, separating and recombining as if conjured from the swirling miasma in ‘Wander Above the Sea of Fog’, painter Caspar David Friedrich’s infamous landscape of the existential sublime.
Listening to the remastered album version of (the piece) ‘Discreet Music’ serves to underscore the relatively lo fi quality of the original recording, captured, as it was, in Eno’s Maida Vale flat in May 1975, rather than in a bona fide studio. Yet not even forensically upgraded vinyl fidelity can dent its seductive, melancholy suffusions and while the remainder of the album, a somewhat over-egged and overlong deconstruction of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major, largely undertaken by composer-arranger Gavin Bryars (who remains peevish about his meagre credit for the work, as he does about Eno’s arrivisme, as he perceives it, more generally), has been polished to an almost startling sheen, it’s the title track, for all its cloudiness, tape hiss and analogue warp and weft, that impresses most enduringly. It remains one of the essential highlights of the entire Eno canon.
1978’s Music for Films swaps elongation for brevity, its 18 minimal, vignette-like tracks composed either for ‘imaginary’ films (a novel idea at the time, if not so much today) or for actual movies or TV shows by directors such as Derek Jarman and Christopher Miles. Originally compiled and privately distributed in 1976 as an income stream-baiting ‘library’ record, featuring a further nine tracks, regrettably not featured on this sonically washed and brushed up reissue, Music for Films offered another variant on Eno’s by now signature minimalistic, instrumental scene-painting. In the tissue-soft electronics and lambent acoustic guitar runs of ‘From the Same Hill’, the concise smudge of synths that constitutes ‘Inland Sea’, the orotund ground bass, whale song cries, metallic background scree and regally mellifluous synth ornamentation of ‘Two Rapid Formations’, and Slow Water’s divinely aquatic synth drifts and sudden, sublime semitone bass-note drops, Eno fashioned some of the leanest, loveliest music he has ever put his name to. Much of the raw material for these tracks was harvested from the multiple, summer 1975 sessions that produced the mighty Another Green World, which means that discreet, fragmentary cameos from many of that album’s stellar dramatis personae – Robert Fripp, John Cale, Percy Jones, Dave Mattacks, Paul Rudolph et al – are dotted throughout this album, and much the same atmosphere of strange, ethereal wistfulness pervades. In fact, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to consider Music for Films as a companion album to the enduring chef d’oeuvre that is AGW.
That the commercial album version of Music for Airports, also released in 1978, bears the subtitle Ambient 1, obviously suggests a concrete formalising of Eno’s by then well-established sonic environment-tinting concept (music that is “as ignorable as it is interesting”, as one of his contemporary mission statement definitions had it). But there’s more to it than that. The ‘series’, such is it is, would ultimately amount to just four longplayers (with one more solo effort from Eno, a collaboration with Harold Budd and the Eno-produced debut of zither player Edward Larry Gordon – aka Laraaji), but in 1978 this felt like basecamp for an entirely new genre, an ultra-modern recasting of music as utile resource. Certainly, Music for Airports remains Eno’s best-known solo album, something which, I suspect, is less to do with its musical merits, substantial though they are, and more to do with the universal accessibility of its airtight guiding concept.
A nervous flyer, Eno had noted that the jarring ‘canned’ pop music piped into Cologne-Bonn airport (whose elegant modernist architecture happened to be the work of the architect father of another forward-thinking electronic musician, Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider), only increased his anxiety about imminent aviation, and so he imagined a soothing, ambient alternative. Constructed, at least in part, in the studio of legendary krautrock producer Conny Plank (the facility where Eno had been stationed in order to produce the debut album by US art provocateur-rockers, Devo), using vast, elongated tape loops that were so unwieldy they had to be spooled around a network of strategically placed studio chairs with rounded metal legs, Music for Airport’s four protracted pieces are, by comparison with its ambient-in-all-but-name forebears, actually decidedly non-electronic in feel. Mostly contingent upon minimal, raindrop analogue piano figures (played, on ‘1/1’ and ‘1/2’ by Robert Wyatt) and massed celestial female vocals (‘2/1’, ‘1/2’), the latter’s wordless, interlocking ululations achieved by the random permutations of those furniture-enabled tape loops, only the closing 2/2 draws on rich, cors anglais-like daubs of synth – seemingly magnified on the reissue to a new cathedral grandeur – to generate its stately drift, forever redolent of hovering cloud packs glimpsed from, yes, a cruising aircraft.
Music for Airports would be subsequently installed, at least temporarily, in a number of real air terminals, including the departure lounge at New York’s Laguardia, although not, sadly, at Cologne-Bonn. Last time I was transiting through Chicago’s O’Hare’s terminal I noticed that a sort of cheesy Music for Airports simulacrum had been deployed, it’s gently lapping synthetic cadences tipping repeatedly into anodyne banality, with the presumably undesired effect of making me suddenly extremely irritable.
Subtitled Ambient 4, 1982’s On Land is an animal of a quite different stripe, and indicative of how ambient music might have developed into a more personal, even autobiographical medium. Partly inspired by director Federico Fellini’s 1973 movie Amarcord, itself based on memories of childhood, rather than subtly altering the general mood of the listening environment, or being vaguely suggestive of a more reflective, imaginary one, this is impressionistic music as memory trigger. Composed while Eno was living in Manhattan, its almost Proustian compositional premise was that of reminiscence, specifically of the topography and atmospheric specifics of the glinting, salt-encrusted estuarine Suffolk landscapes that Brian had roamed as a solitary youth – and of the emotional poignancy summoned by their memory. “I wanted to make music which attempted to be figurative,” is how Eno described the impetus behind On Land. To do this, he, again, largely turned his back on electronic source instruments, instead deploying a kind of subtle concrète palette comprising pieces of chain, sticks and stones, intermingled with field recordings of birds, frogs and insects. These Eno merged with random, processed tape fragments lifted from his own extant recordings in a process that sounds closer to horticulture than musical composition: “a constant feeding, remixing, subtracting and composting.”
The results are often austere yet sporadically luminous, sometimes bleak, but often compellingly teeming – with Eno’s instinctual melodist proclivities dialled down in favour of a multi-sensory, multi-textured vocabulary of inchoate drones, buzzes, chirrups, scrapes and thrums. In On Some Faraway Beach I questioned whether appreciating On Land was contingent on knowing its autobiographical foundations, describing the album as being “less one of sentimental yearning and more one of introverted sensual intoxication.” In his fascinating treatise on the uncanny in literature, film and music, The Weird and the Eerie, the late critic and commentator Mark Fisher wondered about my use of the adjective ‘introverted’ to describe the feelings summoned by On Land. For him the album made a more outward-facing offer, representing a “heightened encounter with the Real”. I stand by my description, because the album chimes so readily with the conversations and correspondence I had with Eno about his often eremitic, daydreaming childhood, characterised by lengthy seclusion among the reed beds and fossil-strewn tracts of the River Deben estuary and along various wind-whipped East Anglian beaches (as specifically referenced in On Land’s aching ‘Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960’). He was keen to emphasise to me the crucial difference between positive solitude and negative loneliness; always erring as a youth, he maintained, towards the former. Perhaps Mark and I are both right.
On Land signals the close of the Ambient series, per se, although Eno would go on to pursue music with a similarly reflective, ‘aural perfume’ quality on ’90s albums such as Thursday Afternoon and Neroli, not to mention several of his 21st century works, which sometimes seem to want to recreate the effect of the early ambient albums’ marriage of analogue, electronic and intermediate technologies, only using state-of-the-art 21st century recording platforms, often predicated on generative algorithms. While these processes can be regarded as an updated, digital refinement of the ‘guided chance’ imperatives that governed the creation of the likes of of Discreet Music and Music for Airports back in the ’70s, the works they produce, while undoubtedly agreeable, seem to be missing some of the magic of yore. Could this simply be down to a natural draining of the composer’s muse? Eno turned 70 this year, after all. Perhaps, but, just as likely, the unpredictable interventions of the human hand, the plastic qualities of tape, the wow and flutter of valve equipment and the imponderable serendipities of physical signal chains played a more important role in defining the character of his pioneering ambient work than either Brian or the music’s turn-of-the-’80s critics – some of whom dismissed the ambient albums for being too ‘synthetic’ – actually realised.
For me, listening afresh to these records, in all their deluxe, re-polished glory, is a particular pleasure, knowing how weary of them I had once become. More importantly, I come away from the experience with the undeniable impression that for a while – the best part of a decade, in fact – Brain Eno’s ability to paint place, space and ineffable emotionality with the minimal of sonic tools was pretty much without equal