Brian Eno is perhaps a name you have heard before. He seems to hang above the edifice of popular culture; his ideas commonplace today even amongst the changing tides of once-again-in vogue elite cultural tastemakers of the 70s. Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy, Eno.
The question (who is Brian Eno, anyway?) is best understood through the lens of Eno as a solo artist. He is, of course, many other things. Producer, visual artist, theoretician, songwriter, song singer, synthesist and sometime-provocateur are but a few of the many guises of Mr. Eno (add to this list the following: mammal, uncle, wine-lover and masturbator, per Eno’s own book A Year With Swollen Appendices). To label the work put out under the name Brian Eno (or simply ENO) as that of a ‘solo artist’ is perhaps misleading, as Eno himself is rarely the sole artist or performer featured on the records bearing his name alone.
Instead, the role of ‘Eno the solo artist’ is most clearly understood when analysing his role as a collaborator – mixing the many technical disciplines of his host of collaborators as a kind of master alchemist in the recording studio, wielding many foreign elements as tools to forge crossover points between the experimental theorist John Cage and the blues rocker Bo Diddley, or the art rock sensibilities of The Velvet Underground and the cacophonous jazz fusion of Miles Davis.
The man himself posits the theory of collective ingenuity (or “scenius”) as the driving force behind many of the most crucial works in art history. Looking at the solo career of “the quietest revolutionary in rock”, it is hard to disagree with the idea, as Eno redefined the roles of musician and producer. He embraced experimentation and spontaneity, while injecting a distinctively flamboyant avant-garde approach to the cliché and overtly-macho world of 1970’s popular music. Here are 6 tracks to introduce a new listener to the works of glam-rocker/ambient-extraordinaire Brian Eno.
(Please note: this list features works put out under Eno’s own name in which he is the sole or main artist. Please stand by for a similar piece introducing listeners to his gargantuan back catalog of collaborative work as a producer and guest performer for the likes of Talking Heads, David Bowie, Nico, Roxy Music, John Cale, David Byrne and Cluster, to name but a tiny selection).
Track 1: Burning Airlines Give You So Much More from Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974)
The opening track to Eno’s second full-length solo LP, Burning Airlines Give You So Much More acts as a manifesto for the album and for this period as a whole for Eno. The scratchy guitar lead (most likely played by non-musician Eno himself on his Teisco Starway guitar) that waltzes through each refrain is distinctly wonky and chromatic even within the canon of an artist that doesn’t seem to care too much about traditional harmonic cohesion.
With lyrics hinting at espionage and long journeys to the far-east, the theme of this song seems to be more notional and off-the-cuff than allegorical or narrative; but each line does seem to evoke a deeper, more hidden meaning upon closer inspection. “Maybe she will do a bit of spying, with micro cameras hidden her hair” could be an improvised passage referring to generic Cold War clandestinity, but it could refer to something more personal. The digging for meaning is optional of course, as this art rock opener is fulfilling enough as an artistic statement without the interference of personal bias on the part of the over-curious listener.
Track 2: The Big Ship from Another Green World (1975)
The Big Ship is, in many ways, the fusion of Eno’s two somewhat opposing internal voices in the mid-70’s. The figure of Eno as a rockstar in the burgeoning art-rock movement has been made famous by his public persona as the spiritual totem of Roxy Music and synthesist of possible alien origin, but his tendency to craft oblique and evocative instrumental music was well-hidden until his break with Roxy Music in the early 1970’s.
This track combines these two personas seamlessly, as Eno uses drum machines, distorted guitars and synthesizers to craft a slowly-building instrumental that grabs hold of the listener and doesn’t let go. Seriously, this is one of his absolute best works.
Track 3: 2/2 from Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978)
Amongst the contributions made by Eno to the greater sphere of popular culture as a whole, none are more widely recognised and quantifiable than his coining of the term “Ambient” and his subsequent championing of this emergent sonic philosophy. It is said that ambient music is “as ignorable as it is interesting” by design, and no album better demonstrates this concept that the aptly named Ambient 1: Music For Airports, which was originally composed to fill the wide-open neutral spaces within Cologne Bonn airport.
2/2 is one of four tracks on the album, and each of the four could have been selected here. 2/2 has always seemed as though it were the most nostalgic of the four pieces on the LP, however, as the looped, wordless vocals and thinly-spread piano clusters of the other pieces can hint at a cold lack of attachment at times. The ARP 2600 synthesiser on 2/2 is warmer, more expansive and more easily evokes feelings of homeliness by comparison.
Track 4: Golden Hours from Another Green World (1975)
Another selection from Another Green World that draws from a similar sound-world to the rest of the album with sparse percussion, organ stabs and distant group backing vocals. This song, however, differs from many others from this period as it showcases Eno’s ability to pen exquisite lyrics that would be the envy of pop songwriters and folk singers alike. “I can’t see the lines I used to think I could read between” is as good a metaphor for the loss of one’s youth and changing perspective as has ever been penned by McCartney, Mitchell or Young.
The instrumentation here is similar to many other tracks on the album, with this track almost exclusively being performed by Eno himself, save for two noteworthy contributions by guitarist Robert Fripp (who performs a staccato, jig-like guitar solo) and Velvet Underground alumni John Cale on Viola.
Track 5: Discreet Music from Discreet Music (1975)
While it may be true that the term “ambient” only gained entry into the popular lexicon following the release of Eno’s 1978 album containing the word, the truth is that the theory was in development for some time preceding that. 1975’s Discreet Music (released on Eno’s own label Obscure Records) is a cornerstone of the emerging genre, and the liner notes of the record elucidate the way in which the record combines the tranquil and atmospheric feeling of Eno’s art music with the chance operations and sonic exploration of American avant-garde composers John Cage, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. The back cover of the LP gives a physical blueprint of the signal chain through which the piece was recorded, with a diagram displaying the complex studio arrangement required to give the ever-evolving generative tones heard on the record.
The length of the piece is also of note. The theoretically-endless, evolving piece has a duration of over 30 minutes, roughly one whole side of a vinyl record. With this, the piece distinguishes itself from the popular music of the time and stands alongside longer-form classical works. The length, limited by the physical restrictions of music consumption at the time it was recorded, asks the listener “did you know I could make this go on forever? if only I were allowed share this with you forever.”.
Track 6: Taking Tiger Mountain from Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974)
The finale of the album that bears the same name, this track is another Eno-ic exploration into the world that exists between the song form of popular music and the instrumental world of the classical avant-garde. Layers of guitar and piano subtly grow under synthesised white noise, imitating the howling alpine wind on a snowy mountainside.
Eno again summons lyrics heavy with symbolism and meaning; “we climbed and we climbed, forging lines through the snow”. One does feel as if a the summit is being reached, as the waves of motion slowly build underneath the chanted chorus and until we can all “take tiger mountain”. This one is a personal favourite, and an often-overlooked essential Eno cut.