You don’t think you’ve heard him but you have. If not his own recordings, certainly his collaborations with Talking Heads, David Bowie, Devo, U2 and a slew of other artists. He even tried to make Coldplay sound interesting again and almost succeeded.
I have a number of his records but I hadn’t gotten anything by him in years.
And yet, he ended up being my Artist of the Year for 2015.
Let me explain.
While carefully studying the latest issue of National Lampoon, I came across an ad for Roxy Music’s second album, where I first saw Eno. My reaction was one of utter revulsion.
If I thought at the time that David Bowie must have sucked because he was acting gay (what can I say?, I was 15), or that the New York Dolls couldn’t have any talent because they dressed like women, then the made up, strutting, boa-wearing, aggressively androgynous (and on top of all that, balding!) Eno seemed like the worst of the worst.
Here he is at the time:
As you can see, he dressed on the extreme end of the glitter rock spectrum and, like Bowie, was a prime target for anyone with an ax to grind about spectacle as a distraction from music (a legitimate concern), or effeminate guys in general (not so much).
Mind you, I hadn’t yet heard any of the music made by him, Bowie or the Dolls. It wasn’t my finest hour.
Now at college, prowling the music library I dug up some old issues Stereo Review, and came across a review of one of Eno’s early solo records. The review used the term “rip off rock”. And not in a nice way.
Now it could have been written by someone who genuinely didn’t like the record (I forget which one it was), but it sure had the stench of someone who’d made up his mind before putting it on. And it had the effect of reinforcing my prejudices, and boy did I cling to them.
It’s pretty clear by this time that Brian Eno was the kind of guy you were less likely to be into if you were into Classic Rock a la Bruce Springsteen, Boston or Led Zeppelin. You’d have had to stray to where, say, the Velvet Underground broke off in their own direction in the late 60s.
And I stayed on the main path, until I finally got curious enough to try Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings and Food - a life changing record (all time top 25) that I don’t enthusiastically recommend to people just because I love it. It’s just a bit too weird, but exactly the amount of weird I needed at the time.
And who’s name did I find on the back? Eno, of course.
By this time, I was having trouble separating him from Bryan Ferry (his old Roxy Music bandmate), and Peter Gabriel from Genesis. (All of them weird Brits.) But his name just kept popping up all over the damn place, and always with the coolest bands.
There was even some graffiti spotted in the Village that said “Eno is God”. Move over, Eric Clapton!
It’s June and I’m supposed to be studying for a final but am instead at J&R Music World, in what would become one of the great record store trips of my life, picking up a sh*tload of records that would push me further down that alternat(iv)e path.
Earlier that year, there was an extensive overview of the music of 1970s in the Village Voice. It piqued my curiosity, and I made some mental notes, but like a good schoolboy, committed to doing nothing about it until finals were over.
I almost made it, too. I told myself I’d be in the store for only an hour or so. Plenty of time to study, I said. I ended up spending half the day there, and only managed about an hour of half-hearted studying in the school library. Got an A, though!
One of the records mentioned a few times in that article was Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). It was cited by at least two critics, who put it in their list of top ten records of the decade. So I decided that was a good place to start.
Ah kids, watch out for those gateway drugs!
I listened to this record for months - not always in complete ecstasy, mind you. There was a lot of exasperation, too, as I tried to understand some of the weird things going on. Friend, and then Roommate, Mike looked back on that time and said “Man, that was a terrible album.”
And I can understand his reaction. Mine was more mixed. There were several great pop moments mixed in with a lot of oddity and experimentation. I couldn’t quite love it because of this seeming inconsistency.
I may have related playing it while getting ready to go to the beach, and was pointedly told it was not “getting ready to go to the beach music”. My first lesson in context.
But it persisted over the years. becoming a sort of go-to record. And Mrs. Jaybee would tell me she knew I was feeling a little down when I’d put it on.
If I was smarter, I’d give up on things when they first perplexed me. But instead, later that summer I’d double down on Eno and get Another Green World. This turned out to be one of my rare good decisions because it became one of my top five all time favorite albums.
During that same record trip, I’d finally broken down and gotten David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spider’s From Mars. (What, no New York Dolls, you ask? That's another post.) And now having had David break my cherry, I remembered how Childhood Friend Doreen told me how great Low
was way back in 1977, so at the end of 1980, while trying to repeat the great June record store trip and coming pretty close, I picked it up, along with “Heroes”.
And I turn the record over, and who’s name do I find? Eno, again.
It turned out that Eno collaborated with Bowie on both records, with Bowie dedicating most of side two (remember side two?) of each record to the tracks that were very Eno-ish. They would turn out to be a among my very favorite records. Definitely top 100.
Over the next few years, I’d move on to his other 70s records and some ambient stuff, but as time passed I heard Eno the same way you did - as a producer.
Oh, there were the occasional knockout pull-the-car-over-and-just-listen moments, like “Ms. Sarajevo” with U2 and Luciano f*cking Pavarotti. in 1995, but otherwise I decided there were other artists who deserved my attention more, and stopped buying his records.
So he starts throwing spitballs at me via Shutter Island and Ocean of Sound, with “Lizard Point”, which I still can’t hear. But you now know how I react to exasperation.
So I thought, okay dude, let’s see what you (still) got, and got Wrong Way Up, which turned out to be one of the musical highlights of the year.
And then I read the liner notes to Yellow Moon and there he is again.
So in the fall, I’m in a record store - I don’t have enough records, you see - and spot a leaflet for a show called “Music for Enophiles” which turned out to be a tribute band doing covers of Eno’s solo work from 1974-1979 - his prime pop period.
Now, one of the things I love about Mrs. Jaybee how she always surprises me. I thought I’d have to drag her to this show, but she reminded me that she liked Brian Eno, too. He was, after all, the soundtrack to our lives when we first started dating.
The band came on and reminded us how powerful these forty year old songs were. We had a great time but I didn’t recognize the last song. So I asked one of the singers, and it turned out to be the title song of his first record Here Come the Warm Jets. How did I not recognize this song? I’d clearly been away too long.
So I decided to give him another try and got The Pearl.
And another, and got Apollo.
And finally, decided to pick up Taking Tiger Mountain on CD.
Oh, and I also got Roxy Music’s second album - For Your Pleasure - on CD because he’s on that too.
To the point that I came to realize that it’s Brian world and I’m just living in it. Or may he’s still God, and when he loses a sandal, half of his fans get rid of one of their’s, too.
And in case the earlier picture has frightened you off, here’s a picture of him now:
See? He turned out just like you and me.
Next, I’ll give a quick roundup of his music - limited by what I know, which is at most 30% of his overall output - and make some recommendations.
See you then.