Brian Eno - Biography
For an artist who has continually referred to himself as a non-musician, Brian Eno has cast a long shadow, not only in the art world, but as a musician and musicologist of considerable repute. His nearly 40-year career has included work as a musician, a producer, an engineer, a philosopher, and more. Having the name Brian Eno attached to any project usually ensures that the results will include something surprising or unexpected. Throughout his career he has searched relentlessly for new systems of creativity and his influence seems to grow almost exponentially over time.
Brian Peter George St. Baptiste de la Salle Eno was born in Woodbridge, England on May 15, 1948 and was raised in the rural Suffolk countryside near the US Air Force base. The young Eno was captivated by American Armed Forces radio, and later described the post-war American rhythm & blues and doo wop he heard on the radio waves as sounding like “Martian music.” Eno continued his interest in music during his tenures at St. Joseph's College, Ipswich Art School and the Winchester School of Art which he graduated from in 1969. During his time at Winchester he became interested in the work of new, contemporary composers such as Cornelius Cardew, John Cage, LaMonte Young, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Using these artists as inspiration and utilizing his background in studies of conceptual painting and sound sculpture, Eno began experiments with reel-to-reel tape recorders as instruments. This led him to join both the avant-garde performance troupe Merchant Taylor's Simultaneous Cabinet and the improvisational rock band Maxwell Demon, where he was a vocalist and “signals generator”. Soon after, in 1969, he joined Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra as well as the Portsmouth Sinfonia. The Portsmouth Sinfonia was an orchestra put together by its founder, composer Gavin Bryars, as an experiment to see if non-musicians and musicians playing unfamiliar instruments could produce something approaching “standard” classical fare. Eno, not having played clarinet before, took on the instrument and remained in the orchestra for a time, even producing their first two albums.
Brian Eno had met a young woodwind player while at university named Andy MacKay, and by 1971 MacKay had joined an “avant-garde pop” band being put together by a singer and keyboardist named Bryan Ferry. The band was called Roxy Music and was looking for someone who could operate the VCS3 synthesizer that MacKay owned. Not only could Eno do that, but he could also include some of the effects he had been working on with his Revox tape machine. At first Eno performed behind the mixing desk, running the band's mix through the synthesizers and tape machines to produce other-worldly effects, but before long he was also contributing backing vocals.
Roxy Music gigged around Britain to great reviews, and released their first self-titled album Roxy Music (Reprise) in early 1972. The band released a single, “Virginia Plain,” before the album's release which reached #4 on the British charts, resulting in a performance on Top Of The Pops. The whole of Britain got to see Roxy Music in all their garish glory and the band's place among the likes of David Bowie, T. Rex and The Sweet as predominant examples of the emerging “Glam Rock” trend was cemented. The band continued gigging heavily and released a second album in March 1973, entitled For Your Pleasure (Reprise). Lead singer and songwriter Bryan Ferry had cultivated an image as the cool, suave sophisticate fronting a science fiction rock band, and it was becoming more and more evident that he viewed Roxy Music as primarily a vehicle for his own ideas, sometimes at the expense of the other members. This, in addition to simple boredom, contributed to Brian Eno's decision to leave Roxy Music at the end of the tour supporting the second album. The band continued on successfully without Eno, releasing albums all the way into the ‘80s and touring even into the 2000s. Eno himself has credited his time with Roxy Music as launching his wider career in music and seems to not harbor any bitterness toward the band and Ferry.
Eno spent the remainder of the 70s recording solo albums and collaborative projects that would be influential for decades to come. With Robert Fripp from King Crimson, Eno developed a tape-delay system they coined “Frippertronics” and released two albums of hovering, meditative instrumentals, 1973’s No Pussyfooting (Island) and 1975’s Evening Star (Island). Eno also set up the Obscure Records label in 1975 to release his own compositions as well as those of other 20th century composers, notably Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, John Adams and John Cage. Through the label and his own works during this period, Brian Eno is widely seen as the originator of “ambient music,” a type of unobtrusive music meant to be played at low volumes as enhancement for one's daily environment. Beginning with 1975's Discreet Music (Obscure), Eno created several more albums of desolate, quiet beauty including his influential and successful Ambient series (Ambient 1: Music For Airports, Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror, Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance, and Ambient 4: On Land—all released on EG).
Concurrent with his instrumental work, Eno also produced a series of four solo rock albums that would prove to be a crucial bridge between glam rock and the later strains of punk and post-punk. Using his admittedly modest musical chops as an advantage rather than as a hindrance, Eno gathered various musician friends around him to produce four albums of electronically-influenced skeletal pop using what he called his “idiot energy.” The first was Here Come The Warm Jets (Island) released in 1974. Using members of Hawkwind, Roxy Music, Matching Mole and the Pink Fairies for backing, the album was a glorious racket of crazy, insistent rhythms and weird sounds not easily traced back to recognizable instruments. A second album followed later that same year, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) also released on Island. By 1975's Another Green World (Island), the energy had shifter somewhat. The music was still boldly experimental but had lost the conventional pop song structure and had veered more toward open-ended compositions. Before And After Science (Polydor) in 1977 fell somewhere between the first two album's energy and Another Green World's austerity.
In between solo works, Eno found time to collaborate with several other artists including a project with his old Roxy bandmate, Phil Manzanera, resulting in 1977’s 801 Live (Island). Other collaborative releases include, June 1, 1974 (1974 Island), Cluster & Eno (1977 Sky), and After The Heat (1978 Sky). During this period he also developed a box set of flash cards with artist Peter Schmidt called “Oblique Strategies” to be utilized by artists of any persuasion when finding themselves blocked towards further progress. The cards used phrases like “use your limitations as an advantage” to spark different ways of approaching artistic projects. These cards were often employed during various Eno projects over the years.
Using his strength as more an instigator than a musician, Eno has been in demand as a producer all through his solo career. Some of the more notable artists with whom he has collaborated as a producer include Talking Heads, Robert Calvert, James, Devo, Genesis, Jane Siberry, Ultravox and U2. His production collaborations with Daniel Lanois on several U2 albums is especially noteworthy, as the duo arguably contributed to the sound of the band as much as the band members themselves, going so far as to produce an album credited to all six of them as the Passengers with Original Soundtracks 1 (1995 Island). His relationship with Talking Heads on three of their albums was similar, and led to his collaboration with David Byrne on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981 EG), a pioneering synthesis of world music, sound collage and electronic music.
No mention of Brian Eno's collaborations in the late 70s and early 80s would be complete without noting his involvement with three of David Bowie's most striking and influential albums, Low (1977 RCA), Heroes (1977 RCA), and Lodger (1979 RCA). Often called Bowie's “Berlin Trilogy,” the three albums highlighted the collaboration between Eno's more abstract tendencies with Bowie's rock background. The result was three albums that would prove to be extremely influential. During the late 70s, Eno also released an album of short song sketches called Music For Films (1978 Polydor), the material falling somewhere between his ambient work and the instrumental passages on Another Green World.
Eno continued with both his production work and ambient collaborations. His release with American trumpeter Jon Hassell, Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics (1980 EG), was a mixture of ethnic percussion, eerie sound-beds and Hassell's ghostly trumpet floating over the mix. Eno also continued to collaborate with Daniel Lanois and Eno's brother Roger, releasing the ambient album, Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks (1983 EG). Another ambient project with artist Christine Alicino was released in 1985 and entitled, Thursday Afternoon (EG). The album was a soundtrack for a slow-moving “video painting” and marked one of Eno's first forays into music combined with visual art. Eno made many more ventures into other forms of media besides album-based music, including a vertical-format video Mistaken Memories Of Medieval Manhattan, a multi-media collaboration with Laurie Anderson in 1995 called Self-Storage, an art installation at a Shinto shrine in Japan, and a diary entitled A Year With Swollen Appendices released in 1996.
In 1992, Eno returned to solo work and released two albums. The first, Nerve Net (Opal), consisted of shifting, syncopated rhythms made in collaboration with musicians such as Robert Fripp and John Paul Jones. The second was the almost atonal ambient piece, The Shutov Assembly (Warner). Two retrospective box sets were released in 1993 and 1994, Box II- Vocals (1993 Virgin) and Box 1-Instrumental (1994 Virgin). Eno also collaborated on two other albums during this period, one a song and vocal-oriented album with John Cale called Wrong Way Up (1990 Opal), and the other a bass and rhythm-based album with Jah Wobble called Spinner (1995 All Saints).
In the late 90s, Eno became interested in a concept called Generative Music which used a home computer to run a program of music which would constantly shift and change itself. Using this concept, he released a floppy disc in 1996 called Generative Music 1. His work and interest in personal computers attracted Microsoft's attention, and they asked him to compose a six-second piece of music which would signal the start-up of their new Windows 95 operating system. It's interesting to note that something as innocuous as the sound of millions of PCs starting up would be composed by Brian Eno. In some ways it can be said that he has composed one of the most popular pieces of music ever.
After collaborating again with Robert Fripp on the 2004 ambient album, The Equatorial Stars (Opal), Eno surprised many by releasing a vocal album in 2005, Another Day On Earth (Hannibal). Eno also continued working with Generative Music and expanded its scope to include constantly morphing visual images as well as music in his program 77 Million Paintings (DVD 2006 Rykodisc). He maintains his role as elder statesman/shaman/renaissance man of modern media by writing a column for the British paper, The Observer, as well as continuing his production work with such artists as Slowdive, Paul Simon, U2 and Coldplay, and even playing keyboards on a French language album by Go-Go's lead singer Belinda Carlisle.
Much of what we consider to be modern music and media and our attitudes and reactions to them can be traced back to the work Brian Eno has done over the years. In his own way, he is every bit a father of late 20th and early 21st century music as figures like James Brown, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis or Lee “Scratch” Perry.