An hour long trip through the funked-up side of Brian Eno’s output since the 70’s. Expect David Bryne, nonsense verse, Talking Heads, The Grid and a whole lot of slap bass.
Brian Eno – I Fall Up (Virgin)
Brian Eno & Snatch – R.A.F. (Opal/Virgin)
Brian Eno & David Byrne – Regiment (Virgin)
The Grid – Heartbeat (Brian Eno Squelchy Mix) (Virgin)
Brian Eno – More Volts (Editions EG)
Brian Eno – Ali Click (Opal)
Brian Eno – Untitled (Opal/Virgin)
Brian Eno – No One Receiving (Virgin)
Brian Eno & David Byrne – America Is Waiting (Virgin)
Brian Eno & David Byrne – Defiant (Virgin)
Brian Eno – Strong Flashes (Virgin)
Brian Eno – What Actually Happened? (Opal)
Talking Heads – I, Zimbra (Sire / Warner Brothers)
Brian Eno & David Byrne – The Jezebel Spirit (Virgin)
Brian Eno – Fractal Zoom (Opal)
Talking Heads – Crosseyed and Painless (Sire/Warner Brothers)
Brian Eno – Kurt’s Rejoinder (Virgin)
Brian Eno & David Byrne – Help Me Somebody (Virgin)
Author: Simon Sellars • Jun 1st, 2010 •
Another Green World, by Geeta Dayal. New York and London: Continuum, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-8264-2786-1.
Among the more misleading clichés surrounding Ballard is this: for a writer who claimed never to listen to music, he has had an inordinate influence on an entire ecosystem of musicians. While this effect is often undeniable, in many cases the unblinking canonisation engendered by Ballard’s entombment in the Collins English dictionary forces commentators to wedge musicians into narrow ‘Ballardian’ parameters in the rush to explain the providence of a hint of car-crash sex in the lyrics or urban noir in the synthscape. But as with Ballardian film adaptations, sometimes the most fruitful connections for those looking to map a hypothetical Ballardosphere can be found in the slipstream, between categories, in the work of artists in different fields but working the same philosophical terrain. The thematic, aesthetic and conceptual affinities are neither implied nor explicit, but inherent in the cross-linkage between them.
Brian Eno is such a musician, and while as far as I am aware he has never drawn attention to Ballard’s work, Ballard has to Eno’s. This acknowledgment belies JGB’s public image (which he playfully encouraged) as some kind of mythical Man with the Tin Ear. Describing his Vermilion Sands stories in 2001, he said: ‘Vermilion Sands is a kind of cross between Palm Springs and Juan-les-Pins, a version of the leisure society we were about to enter, though for some reason we stopped and turned away at the door. Music by Brian Eno, metal foil architecture by Frank Gehry, dreams by Sigmund Freud, decor by Paul Delvaux’. There is the sense that Ballard recognises in Eno’s ambient music (I can’t imagine he’s responding to the pop albums) the peculiar sense of willed isolation it seems to induce, centrally represented by the dreamy illusionism of Music for Airports (1978) and its planned amniotic effect on travellers fearful of dying in an air crash. Eno’s vision of the modern airport, piped in with the kind of soundtrack he made to order, is of a facility that functions similarly to Ballard’s psychotropic resort, which responds to the fears and needs of its residents while adjusting itself accordingly with sentient architecture and ’singing statues’. As Owen Hatherley, a perceptive commentator on both Eno and Ballard, asks of Vermilion Sands: ‘could there be here a sort of affirmative retort to the insistence that all Modernist or utopian communities inevitably end up in dystopia?’
More overtly, the music critic Simon Reynolds has judged Ballard and Eno to be ‘the two greatest British thinkers of the second half of the 20th Century’. He even nurtured a ‘fantasy project’ about them, admiring how both ‘take ideas from science and set them loose in culture, find applications. Ballard is like a British McLuhan, except better because he’s a far better writer and thinker – more original, more convincing… Eno is almost like a British Barthes’. However, the project foundered because, for Reynolds, ‘in some ways the affinity seems as much temperamental as anything conceptual’. In addition, he felt that because ‘they are so eloquent about what they do and such brilliant writers, that there’d be zero role for any critic or commentator. There’d be very little to mediate or interpret, as they’ve said it all, so much better’. That seems an appropriate note to end this introduction on, which has attempted to outline a tenuous, hidden logic of shared working methods and thought processes between these two cultural figures. It was meant as a sop to those wondering why I am reviewing a book about Brian Eno on a site about J.G. Ballard, and having delivered it, I shall now commence the review, leaving any further Ballard/Eno connections to be made by the reader herself.
An oblique strategy.
In the introduction to her book on Eno’s Another Green World (1975), Geeta Dayal explained that the manuscript was a long time coming as she struggled to come to terms with one of the most storied productions in art-rock history. There has been so much said, hypothesised and guessed about the album (amplified by Eno’s refusal to analyse the relics of his past) that one wonders: what more can be added? Dayal’s solution is to delve into the process behind the album’s making, not so much the actual mechanics of the music making but more the conceptual and theoretical alignments Eno brought to the studio. These include his abiding interest in cybernetic systems and the element of chance in the recording process, famously represented by his Oblique Strategies cards developed with the painter Peter Schmidt. The cards contained sets of non-specific instructions that, when picked at random, were designed to break creative deadlocks by forcing the artist into counter-intuitive intellectual space. Dayal, at an impasse herself, allowed the cards to guide the writing of every page and the results are somewhat mixed but rewarding.
The book is part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, which produces short texts about influential albums in rock history. I’ve never been wholly convinced by the series, due to its canon (Celine Dion, but not The Stooges) and the patchy, hipsterish quality of much of the writing. But who can argue against Another Green World as an ‘influential’ album? It is a sound choice, and with it comes the attendant pressure to satisfy not only the hardcore Eno nerds (of which, sad to say, I’m one) but also the Nick Hornby-style 33 1/3 fanboy audiophiles. Dayal has come in for a deal of criticism, as she admits on her blog, for recycling old Eno interviews. But it’s hard to include new interviews with Eno about his 33-year-old album when, as she explains elsewhere, he is only interested in talking about his latest art installation these days. To compensate, she knows her way around the Eno interview archive, skilfully weaving together a selection of quotes from the past that place the album’s creation in a tangible historical context. In addition, she has interviewed a small but quality roster of Eno collaborators and associates including Robert Fripp, David Toop and Harold Budd. Their brief but incisive insights add weight to the text.
But not all the research is solid. Dayal asserts that Another Green World is the first record to be credited to ‘Brian Eno’, rather than the pop-flash of his first two albums, which simply announced ‘Eno’. Yet the cover of Another Green World (and the centre label of the original vinyl pressings) clearly reads ‘Eno’ – it’s even emblazoned on the reproduction on the cover of her book. Dayal’s implication is that the switch from ‘Eno’ to ‘Brian Eno’ meant a shift in perspective and approach from the earlier pop records, whereas the reality suggests that Eno saw Another Green World as a continuation of early experiments, perhaps even early personas. This could have engendered fruitful analysis, given that Dayal does not spend much time discussing the creative leap between Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) from 1974 and Another Green World, released less than a year later.
However, the omission is pretty small beer and does not undermine the experience. Instead, much of the criticism levelled Dayal’s way has come from people who admit that they have read ‘everything’ on Eno but that the book fails to tell them anything new about the music. But, as she takes care to outline in the introduction, the book is all about ‘process’ and context, and she displays courage for refusing to offer yet another meaningless subjective interpretation about one of the most mysterious and ambiguous of pop albums. Dayal does not pore over the actual music so much as the context of the record in time and intellectual space (although there is the occasional lapse: the end of a track is described as sounding ‘like a UFO landing’, a strained attempt to interpret the ‘otherworldliness’ of Eno’s work). She examines the popular music scene of 1975, as well as Discreet Music, also released that year. In fact, she spends two chapters on Discreet Music, attracting further criticism from Eno fans, mainly because she does not explicitly state the connection between it and Another Green World, although it seems clear to me that, for her, both albums are two sides of the template for future Eno music. This is an interesting tactic, as the two are not usually discussed in this way, Discreet Music bracketed off into Eno’s parallel ambient body of work and Another Green World in the pop stream, despite the fact that just 5 of its 14 tracks contain words.
Dayal rightly undercuts the cliché that Eno is a ‘painterly’ musician in favour of the more useful metaphor of filmmaking, which she identifies ‘as a better model for how Eno works with other people in practice. He has knack for indentifying and assembling the right mix of people to serve a larger vision, and the ability to coax unexpected performances out of these collaborations … And like any great director of the cinema, everything Eno touches bears his subtle but unmistakeable fingerprints, regardless of who the stars in the foreground might be’. This is a perceptive point, especially applied to Eno’s production career, in which he marshals casts of musicians like ’stars’ and ‘directs’ them (literally, using hand gestures and even hip gyrations) to evoke the mood he wants. In some tracks on Eno’s early productions for Robert Calvert and Phil Manzanera, where his vocals are so distinctive and his synth sheens and production touches so identifiable, you would swear they were Eno solo records if you knew no different. This is the mark of the musical ‘auteur’ who directs other people’s work, yet bears a singular imprimatur. It is disappointing that Dayal therefore fails to record the links between Eno’s Music for Films (1978), among the more under-analysed entries in his back catalogue, and Another Green World. Eno recycled tracks from Another Green World into a pre-release, promo version of Music for Films that also contained tracks recorded at the same time as the former, presumably with the same theoretical framework (cybernetics; chance) in place. Eno designed the Music for Films concept as a collection of imaginary soundtracks for films that did not exist, but which nonetheless could be licensed by directors for films to come. It is a compelling case of the irreal creating the conditions for the real, and at one with Dayal’s observations about Eno’s working practice: ‘He approaches music the way a director might approach a soundtrack – as a means of establishing a mood, a sense of time and place’.
Elsewhere, Dayal’s curiosity allows her to follow many tangents in pursuit of what she describes as the ‘connective tissue’ linking the album with other ‘people and ideas bubbling under the surface of popular culture’. These are attractive digressions, although she is finally defeated by the 33 1/3 format, which does not allow the scope to flesh out multiple, big ideas. I get the sense she has only begun to scratch the surface, and that a larger work of this sort could easily have been written by her. Despite Reynolds’ reservations, there is much potential for a volume on Enoesque philosophy, and Dayal would be ideally placed to write it, as her various extraneous articles on aspects of Eno’s career testify (and which, in some cases, best the writing on display here).
In the end, though, such a feeling of incompleteness is easy to reconcile with the record, which, after all, comprises a series of musical fragments that fade in and out seemingly at random, as if you are coming into and out of ’scenes’ that have already started and that will continue on after you leave. This book will bring open-minded Eno fans back to the ideas and theories that permeate his work, and, ultimately, back to the music with renewed vigour. For novices, it will lead to many fascinating discoveries. In that, Dayal has exceeded the expectations of the 33 1/3 design.
Here’s hoping she’s not so sick of the process that she does not want to continue to explore the crucial enigma of her subject matter in future works.
..::: PREVIOUSLY ON BALLARDIAN:
+ Tribute to J.G. Ballard & Brian Eno
“‘It’s not individuals who create things, it’s scenes – a community of people.’ Eno has a word for this: scenius. What does it mean? ‘Genius is individual, scenius is communal.’”
Cluster & Eno: ‘Ho Renomo’ (1977)
With stock footage of Anna Pavlova (1881 - 1931).
“On gospel, Abba and the death of the record: an audience with Brian Eno”: