[sic] Magazine

Rediscovering Brian Eno, Vocal.

Brian Eno is a legend. The man may not quite have invented the Ambient genre but he gave the fledgling scene both its identity and a home. Eno coined the term ‘ambient’ after a stay in hospital, stuck listening to something at such low volume that it blended in with everyday field noise. He then founded the Obscure Records music label in 1975, giving an early platform to the likes of Harold Budd and Michael Nyman.

I feel as though I’m overlooking something.

Oh yeah, as a member, some may say the member, of Roxy Music back when they were edgy, arty and quintessential it was Eno the ideas man, the “non-musician” (his words) who moved out of the background, into center stage and then out of the band altogether following conflict with Brian Ferry. For most of us it was Eno who had made Roxy interesting to begin with.

That’s not all.

As we all know, Eno also moved into the Producers chair. Bands as diverse as Talking Heads and James have been enhanced by the man. Most famously he produced David Bowies ‘Berlin’ trilogy, including Heroes and to many, Bowies greatest ever album, Low. He even managed to make U2 sound interesting. (I’m joking, folks. Love me some Unforgettable Fire.)

Yet Brian wasn’t finished there.

Eno became a pioneering figure in the field of creativity giving lectures on art, philosophy and humanity. His Oblique Strategy cards are a renowned tool for unblocking creative inertia. He considers Bloom, the musical app that he co-created with Peter Chilvers to be more therapeutic than anything entertaining. The man is a legend… cubed. Philosopher, producer, ambient master and Roxy alumni – a decent c.v. by any measure. I’m sure you’re aware of the man’s work in several of the aforementioned fields.

We’re not here to talk about any of that.

Maybe someday. Today however is the day to remember Eno’s vocal albums. ‘His what?’ I hear you say. Between 1974 and 1977 Eno released four pop albums. His only ambient output in that period was Discreet Music. While Discreet Music certainly signaled the eventual direction Eno’s own music would take I honestly feel as though the vocal albums are downplayed. And when I say downplayed what I really mean is criminally overlooked.

Essentially, what I’m saying here is that Brian Eno invented pretty much everything you know!

Here Come The Warm Jets was a staggering solo debut. Ideas run riot. Eno affects a nasal croon every bit as arch as former Roxy bandmate Ferry. What strikes my mind more than anything is how ahead of his time Eno was. And just how colossally influential these records became. Much like a Britpop fan spinning Revolver for the first time, you’ll hear stuff by Eno and go, ‘oh, so that’s where x comes from’. Listening to opening track ‘Needles In The Camels Eye’ it feels like the missing link between the Velvet Underground and House Of Love.

Waiting for the man… to destroy the heart.

You will undoubtedly have heard ‘Baby’s On Fire’ a hundred times, pre-gig. Some of you would have asked your companion what it was. They didn’t know either. (The guitar havoc is by Robert Fripp by the way.) The title track of the album also foreshadows shoegazing and you can feel its fingerprints all over something like Isn’t Anything.

Remember, this was before punk music.

Follow up Taking Tiger Mountain was the proverbial mixed bag but I’ll sell it to you with a mere two words.

‘Third Uncle’.

Need I say more? ‘Third Uncle’! I rest my case your honour. Yes Bauhaus covered it and yes that’s great but have you heard Eno’s original? This was 1974! Glam and progressive rock ruled the airwaves. Eno was seen as part of that but here he threw off his fur coat to reveal a sinewy future. ‘Third Uncle’ was the sound of that future.

Essentially Eno invented post-punk before we’d even had punk.

‘The True Wheel’ contains the line “looking for a certain ratio”. One wonders if a certain Factory band found their name from an Eno song? They wouldn’t be the last. Let us not forget that Joy Division took their first name from Bowie’s ‘Warszawa’. Eno produced it, we know. He also co-wrote.

Another Green World features Percy Jones on fretless bass and, as a result, recalls the band Japan. This was 1975. Safe to say Messer’s Karn and Sylvian were Roxy/Eno fans. Take a listen to ‘Sky Saw’ and tell me I’m wrong. (I’m not). The album is still diverse but less impenetrable than Taking Tiger Mountain. Many critics say it is the best of the four. I can’t split them. They’re one thing in my eyes, one thing in four brilliant parts. There are even ambient leanings here. You will remember the title track from BBC’s art program Arena. (Upon which Brian Eno has been featured) ‘The Big Ship’ and ‘In Dark Trees’ are other examples.

Before and After Science completes the quartet, another genre-hopper in the vein of Tiger Mountain. Its stark cover art was surely admired by a young Gary Numan. On ‘Backwater’ witness Eno invent XTC in less than four minutes. ‘No One Receiving’ foresees Talking Heads landmark Remain In Light, which Eno himself produced. (He would work a lot with Talking Heads and David Byrne in particular. ‘Kings Lead Hat’ is an anagram.) ‘By This River’ even brings to mind Mogwai, albeit late period Mogwai in ‘understated majesty’ mode.

I myself am a massive fan of Colin Newman‘s (Wire) solo work. His three albums for Beggars/4AD are essential listens in themselves. Commercial Suicide for Crammed Discs also saw a move into electronica and is really quite beautiful. I half wondered at times whether the Eno ‘Vocal’ records had ever been an influence on Newman. Later I discovered that Eno used to lecture at the same art school where Newman studied.

He used to give him a lift in his car. (facepalm)

You almost find yourself ‘influence spotting’ instead of simply enjoying a damn good record. Yet in a way that’s the point. Yes, these are great records. Hopefully most of your collection are great listens. The point of difference here, the thing to really admire is just how much Eno DNA you notice across future output. I picked out four songs and embedded them below. There are no videos. It doesn’t matter. The comments section will entertain you while you listen. It is littered with ‘Wow’s, ‘Huh?’s and ‘How can this be 1974?’ etc. You may participate yourself. I will wager that you notice other influences too. With your own spectrum of music, your own history and favourites, you’ll hear things that I didn’t spot. And you’ll do what I’ve been doing all day.

‘Ah….that!

But…. how in the heck………?’

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