Still Awesome: Brian Eno

Hey there, fellow Bombers! Your favorite renegade music journalist is back with the debut of a new column: Still Awesome, artists you may have forgotten who are probably better than a lot of the stuff you’re listening to. When I do a Still Awesome article, I’ll highlight a specific artist from the past who you may have overlooked, give you some background information, and drop my five essential tracks to get you started.

We debut this new feature with one of my favorite musicians:  A composer/artist/renegade who remains a huge influence to all modern musicians, but most heavily to indie rock and ambient music, even coining the term “ambient music.” A musician who has collaborated with, written for, and/or produced albums for David Bowie, David Byrne, Robert Fripp, U2, Genesis, John Cale, Philip Glass, Talking Heads, Devo, Depeche Mode, Massive Attack, and Can, among others. An innovator who co-produced The Joshua Tree, appeared on BBC series “Father Ted,” created the Microsoft bootup sound, and is the father of generative music (some of which was used in the game Spore). That man is Brian Eno.

I realize that some of our readers may not know much of anything about Brian Eno, and may be too lazy to look anything up, so here’s a brief overview:

Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno (seriously, that’s his full name) was born on May 15, 1948 in Suffolk, England. He attended St. Joseph’s College, where he tried one of his first sound experiments, “Piano Tennis,” which involved Eno and a friend stripping pianos, aligning them in a hall, and striking them with tennis balls.

Brian Eno first appeared on the musical radar as a founding member of Roxy Music. He started out mixing and contributing backing vocals, eventually appearing with the band onstage in great costumes. Back then, he was known only as “Eno.”

After leaving Roxy Music out of “boredom with the rock star life,” he went on to make some classic albums. His first three happen to be my favorites: Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), and Another Green World. (1977’s Before and After Science is also a classic.) He went on to leave pop behind, creating ambient masterpieces like Discreet Music, Music for Airports The Plateaux of Mirror, Day of Radiance and On Land. In the last few years, he’s revisited some of his earlier roots, combining pop and ambient in the more recent releases Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, and Drums Between The Bells.

As mentioned earlier, he was comissioned by Microsoft to create a unique boot-up sound for the company’s then-new OS, Windows 95. They wanted an “inspiring, futuristic, emotional” sound, and they wanted it to be a little over three seconds long. Of course, Eno was all over this, and came up with the sound many of us are very familiar with (which clocks in at a whopping five seconds.)

Eno released 77 Million Paintings in 2006, a program that does what it says, creating 77 Million combinations of art and music by layering 286 images (up to four layers at a time), then playing randomly generated music created by Eno’s Generative music program.

Brian Eno even released a set of cards back in 1975 called Oblique Strategies, which he described as “100 Worthwhile Dilemmas,” intended as guides to shaking up the mind in the process of producing works of art, specifically music. With messages on the cards like “Use an old idea,” “Only one element of each kind,” and “Try faking it!” the cards have been used by many creative folks looking for outside inspiration (including Coldplay and Phoenix). The first version of the cards were used to help make the David Bowie albums Low, Heroes and Lodger. The latest edition of the cards was issued by Eno in 2010, and online versions abound. There’s even an Oblique strategies app for your iPhone/Android.

Enough of the history lesson, hopefully you understand by now how much of a musical influence Eno has had on the music world. Let’s get to my five essential Eno tracks, which will hopefully jumpstart your own Eno explorations:

Track 1: “Needle In the Camel’s Eye”

The first track on Eno’s first solo album Here Comes The Warm Jets, this track is a great introduction to Eno. The jangly guitar, fuzzed out voice and psychadelic yet palatable lyrics are all staples of Eno’s early sound. The aggressive guitar is layered over traditional song structures, punctuated with breaks in the vamp at the end of the solo. This whole album is pure awesomesauce; every song is good, and many are great. “Baby’s On Fire” is a great song even if you don’t have kids, or a fire. On “Driving Me Backwards,” Eno makes gibberish sound cool. “Dead Finks Don’t Talk” has some of my favorite lyrics of any Eno song (Oh Cheeky cheeky, oh naughty sneaky / You’re so perceptive, and I wonder how you knew). My other favorite off this album is our next track…

Track 2: “Blank Frank”

Also off Eno’s classic Here Come The Warm Jets, this track would’ve fit in on Ty Segall’s newest release or as a 13th Floor Elevators b-side; the sound is so timeless. “Blank Frank” manages to sound heavy, folky and psychadelic all at the same time. There’s something that feels really universal about this track–it’s the kind of song a hundred different bands could cover. There’s something so urgent about the way he says “Blank Frank,” who is apparently the messenger of your doom, a doom that sounds both ominous and quite a lot of fun. This is a sound and feel many bands have tried to capture, with a few (Brian Jonestown Massacre, Ty Segall, and the Black Keys to a lesser extent) actually coming rather close. But you’ll never catch Blank Frank. He’s the knife and he’s the waiter.

Track 3:  “King’s Lead Hat”

Did you know the title of this song is an anagram for Talking Heads? It’s true. No coincidence then that this track sounds like the Talking Heads put through the Brian Eno blender. The vocals even sound like David Byrne, don’t they? Eno met the Talking Heads while they were touring in Europe with the Ramones. He would later work with the Talking Heads to produce their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food. The album this track is off of, Before And After Science, was his last “rock” album before he went more deeply into electronic/ambient music. Described by Eno as “ocean music,” the album is full of great tracks. “Julie with…” is haunting and beautifully ambiguous. “No One Receiving” has a funky beat reminiscent of Can (which makes sense, since Jaki Liebezeit of Can played drums on the album, as did Phil Collins. Yes, that Phil Collins). “Kurt’s Rejonder” is a collection of samples, cacophny and rhythm with so much going on, you’ll have to listen a few times to hear it all. “Backwater,” the second best song on the album, features the lyric “Oooh what to do, not a sausage to do,” in a song about shipwreck survivors on a small boat. Essentially, you should go out and listen to this whole album, but “King’s Lead Hat” is the best song off an album of great songs.

Track 4:  “Third Uncle”

Speaking of Phil Collins, he plays the drums on this track off Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). It’s a hard driving track with tight instrumentation, catchy structure and enough energy to power a city the size of St. Louis. It’s hard to get the strange image of a young Phil Collins ferociously banging the skins (which he never played before being asked by Eno). Bauhaus covered this song, which has made it one of Eno’s more recognizable tunes. They do a great job covering it, but without the sheer genius of Phil Collin’s inspired drumming, their version can only ever be a pale imitation of this classic. Honorable mentions off this great album include “The True Wheel” (“row row row” and “ding ding” are lyrics in this song), “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More,” “Back In Judy’s Jungle,” “The Great Pretender” (which starts off with a crazy wobbly sound that remains one of the oddest things I’ve ever heard in a song), and “Put A Straw Under Baby.” Much like Before And After Science, the whole album is a great, timeless listen.

Track 5:  “In Dark Trees”

Our final Eno track is also the creepiest. It chugs along like a cursed train full of zombies and demons traveling on bone tracks through a dark, dead forest full of shadows and red eyes. This song, along with a few other Eno tracks, is used as the soundtrack to the powerful and depressing BBC Documentary “The Power Of Nightmares,” a film by Adam Curtis about how the U.S. and British governments essentially manufactured the modern War on Terror scare as a newer version of the “red scare” against Communism. The subject matter, when combined with this song, created a frightening, ominous feeling. Thinking it might not sound as creepy without the documentary, I gave this track, (and the whole album it comes from, Another Green World) a listen. Turns out “In Dark Trees” is just as creepy no matter what you’re looking at. Try listening to this track in a dark room and tell me it doesn’t make you want to turn on the lights. I included this track to show Eno’s range as a musician, and his ability to shift gears from new wave to prog to psychadelic, or from cheerful and silly to ominous and oppressive, and show great skill in each style. Recommendd tracks from Another Green World include “Sky Saw,” “I’ll Come Running,” “Another Green World,” and “St.Elmo’s Fire.”

These songs provide insight into one of the most influential and original musicians alive today. Eno remains active, producing new music and working with the Long Now Foundation to get people thinking about time and world problems in a more long-term way (according to the Long Now Foundation, this is year 02012).

I heartily recommend buying or at least thoroughly listening to all Brian Eno‘s early rock albums (Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before And After Science). Each of these albums is a classic and remains very listenable, even after almost 40 years. If you’re into ambient music at all, you need to check out Eno’s ambient series, starting with Music For Airports. David Byrne fans will want to find a copy of the Byrne/Eno collabs “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” and “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.” And if you want to know even more about Eno, you could watch a documentary or two.

Brain Eno. Still Awesome. The modern music fan can get a lot out of these “anchient” Eno recordings. I know I did.



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