From 1978 to 1984, Brian Eno lived and worked in NYC. As celebrated music journalist Simon Reynolds writes, the music he helped create there has influenced generations.
It could be argued that Brian Eno is the most consistently creative figure in rock history, someone whose innovation rate over the decades eclipses even that of his shape-shifting collaborators David Bowie and David Byrne. From his disruptive presence in Roxy Music to his alternately quirky and contemplative solo albums, from inventing ambient music to his recent explorations in “generative music,” it’s a career that has, well, careered, zigzagging from extreme to extreme between pop and antipop, between febrile rhythm and near-immobile tranquility.
Then consider his panoply of partnerships with other artists – Devo, Talking Heads, U2 and John Cale, to name just a few – as producer or collaborator/catalyst. Eno is also a musical philosopher, someone whose interviews, critical writings and sundry musings about sound, art and culture deserve to be compiled into a book. (His published diary, A Year With Swollen Appendices, was hugely entertaining but didn’t capture the full scope and provocative richness of his thoughts.)
“I moved to New York City because there are so many beautiful girls here.” - Brian Eno
If there’s a golden period for Eno, though, it would have to be between 1978 and 1984, a period when he lived in New York. Those years represented a surge of music-making, collaboration and conceptualizing, with Eno burning through ideas at staggering speed. All through the late ’70s and early ’80s, New York’s art scene and music culture were the climate that stoked his ferment.
“I’ve got this feeling that I really know New York very well and will be at home there,” he told Disc magazine in October 1972, on the eve of his first visit to the city. “I feel there are two places I’m emotionally based in... One is the English countryside, where I was born and bred, and the other is the heart of New York City.” There are perfectly logical reasons why Eno would feel a profound attraction to New York. After all, the two biggest influences on his approach to music, The Velvet Underground and Steve Reich, came from here. Eno also intuited that London, pop culture’s energy center during the ’60s, had ceded that power-spot status to New York by the ’70s.
Within a few years of the Disc interview, he was spending extended periods of time in Manhattan. Then he moved wholesale and made New York his base for over half a decade. The ensuing period is without doubt the most fertile and impressive stretch of his life’s work, which included not just music but video art as well. Eno fed off New York’s border-crossing artistic energy, while catalyzing and contributing to it. There were also more playful “lifestyle” reasons why Eno settled in Manhattan. “I moved to New York City because there are so many beautiful girls here,” he told Lester Bangs in 1979. “More than anywhere else in the world.”
His first visit in late ’72 was with Roxy Music on their debut US tour. The next couple of trips he came as a solo artist; the second of these, in 1975, was to promote his second solo album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Eno was accompanied by Richard Williams, a former Melody Maker writer (and the first journalist to rave about Roxy) who had become an A&R man at Island Records. Williams had heard the buzz about Television, so the two Britons headed down to CBGB to see them perform. Although Eno at this point had zero pedigree as a producer, he and Williams ended up working with Television on demo recordings that could easily have turned into a debut album for Island. But the results failed to capture the fierce majesty of Television’s live shows. “I didn’t care for the sound he got on tape or the performance much either,” Tom Verlaine once recalled. “The rest of the band felt the same way. So we didn’t finish the ‘album’ they wanted those demos to be.” It was an inauspicious start to Eno’s New York period.
Ultimately, it would be not Television but a different CBGB band (also with a TV-oriented name) who cemented Eno’s connection to the city. Talking Heads first met up with Eno in London in May 1977. During this hangout session they discovered many common interests, both musically and intellectually. Eno played them an album by Fela Kuti and declared that Afrobeat was the future of music. He suggested that this was a direction he and Talking Heads could jointly pursue. Later that month, Eno was back in New York, where he accompanied his friends and intermittent collaborators David Bowie and Robert Fripp to a Max’s Kansas City gig by Devo, the hot hype of the season. So captivated was Bowie by their robotic theatrics and angular sound, he took to the stage to announce Devo’s second set of the night. Hailing the Akron, Ohio, band as rock’s future, Bowie vowed to produce their debut album in Tokyo later that summer. (Ultimately it was Eno, not Bowie, who would produce Are We Not Men? in Cologne the following year.) As for Talking Heads, the first album Eno made with the group, More Songs About Buildings and Food, was recorded in Nassau, Bahamas. But the mastering was done in New York and Eno flew in on April 23, 1978 to oversee the process.
“I happened to be in New York during one of the most exciting months of the decade... It seemed like there were 500 new bands who all started that month.” - Brian Eno
He planned to stay a few weeks, taking care of some other pending projects away from UK distractions before heading home in time for his 30th birthday. But New York provided plenty of distractions of its own, and it would be seven months before he returned to Britain. Recalling his first substantial sojourn in New York, Eno admitted to enjoying the attention he received as a cult figure operating on the cutting edge of rock. “Everywhere I go, people are running up with cassettes,” he told Melody Maker in 1980. “The first five weeks I was in New York this time I had 180 cassettes given to me.” But he spoke also of the stimulating conversations he was enjoying thanks to the crosstown traffic between different fields of art – music, painting, theater, modern dance. A common syndrome experienced by first-time UK visitors to New York is that they’re electrified by the city’s kinetic (and cinematic) energy, then immediately crash into a depressive slump upon arrival back in humdrum England. Eno refused to unplug.
By the middle of May 1978, he was ensconced in an apartment in Greenwich Village subletted from Steve Maas who owned and lived in the apartment upstairs and was in the process of launching the soon-to-be-legendary Mudd Club. “The first time I heard of the Mudd Club somebody said, Eno’s got a new bar below Canal Street, let’s go,’” recalls Glenn O’Brien, once the music columnist for Interview magazine and host of the New York cable music show TV Party. “Actually, Eno had nothing to do with it, except I think he consulted with Maas on the sound system.”
Through Maas, Eno met Anya Phillips, who was involved in the initial conception of the Mudd Club. She hipped him to “no wave”: a cluster of harsh, dissonant, uncompromisingly experimental groups (among them The Contortions, whom Phillips man aged, and with whose frontman James Chance she would later become romantically involved). No wave had emerged with the express intent of making the first-wave CBGB punk bands seem passé and mired in rock ’n’ roll tradition. “I happened to be in New York during one of the most exciting months of the decade... in terms of music,” Eno recalled. “It seemed like there were 500 new bands who all started that month.” In the first week of May, Eno attended a five-day festival of no wave bands at Artists Space, a gallery in Tribeca. Impressed by the music’s extremism, he proposed the idea of a compilation to Island Records focused on the four key groups in the scene: Mars, DNA, The Contortions and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Intuitively he grasped that no wave was destined to be a brief spasm of unsustainable intensity that needed to be documented before it passed.
Eno had plenty in common with the no wavers. Most came from art-school backgrounds similar to his own. Like him, they approached music-making with a conceptual mindset and a dilettante’s disregard for craft. “The New York bands proceed from a ‘what would happen if’ orientation,” Eno informed New York Times critic John Rockwell in July 1978, contrasting their approach with that of expressionistic, emotion-driven new wave songsmiths like Elvis Costello. In another 1978 interview with Creem, he praised no wave using terms and concepts that he clearly would like to have seen applied to himself. These “research bands” take “deliberately extreme stances that are very interesting because they define the edges of a piece of territory,” he said. “They say, ‘This is as far as you can go in this direction.’” No wave pioneers (and even earlier, the Velvet Underground) generated “a vocabulary” of ideas that later artists could use in more palatable ways and that could ultimately become the basis of mainstream pop in the future. “Having that territory staked out is very important,” Eno said. “You achieve a synthesis by determining your stance in relation to these signposts.”
But although there was a mutual admiration pact between Eno and the no wavers (who revered their patron for his work in Roxy Music and his solo output), there were big differences too. No wave was based around an aesthetic of assault and confrontation. Lyrically, it stretched from deadpan nihilism (James Chance) and tortured expressionism (Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus) to explorations of psychotic states (Mars). There was a huge gulf between no wave and Eno’s alternately quirky and placid music, especially the proto-ambient directions he pursued on Another Green World and Discreet Music. Lunch speaks warmly of Eno today but at the time she made a number of public jibes, describing Eno’s music as “something that flows and weaves... It’s kind of nauseating,” she said. “It’s like drinking a glass of water. It means nothing, but it’s very smooth going down.”
Yet Eno-fication is strikingly absent from the compilation No New York. There’s nothing of the blurry, aqueous sound applied to certain songs on Are We Not Men or More Songs About Buildings and Food, which clearly bore Eno’s production fingerprints. “[No New York] was done totally live in the studio, just like a document,” says Chance. Mars, the most forbiddingly abstract of the no wave outfits, benefited from a smidgeon of Eno’s studio sorcery: for “Helen Forsdale,” Eno recalled that he put an echo “on the guitar part’s click and used that to trigger the compression on the whole track, so it sounds like helicopter blades.” DNA’s Arto Lindsay was actually infuriated by Eno’s hands-off approach: “He was reading some studio instrument magazine while we were recording and I wanted to throttle him!” Lindsay hastens to add that “Eno is a fabulous man. He was generous. I was dead broke, and he was such a gentleman he would call me up and say ‘I’ll buy you lunch.’” As a relative veteran of the music industry, Eno also dispensed advice: Lindsay recalls Chance showing Eno a contract that he’d been offered by Michael Zilkha of ZE Records. “Brian said, ‘Nobody would sign that but a desperate man.’ James immediately signed it!”
“Brian said, ‘Nobody would sign that but a desperate man.’ James [Chance] immediately signed it!” - Arto Lindsay
At the end of 1978, No New York slipped out into the world via Island’s jazz subsidiary Antilles to meager fanfare. No wave had already splintered, with most of the groups heading toward more accessible music. But the record would gradually accrue cult status, as much for the challenge of getting hold of a copy as for the challenging music on it. The legend of no wave has swollen over the decades, in part because of intermediaries like Sonic Youth (as Eno predicted, sort of) applying its innovations to pop and rock music; the movement has also come to represent a musical moment of uncompromising purity. No wave – which lasted barely two years and whose bands didn’t make many records or find many listeners in their own time – has been the subject of no less than three lavishly illustrated books in recent years.
In the winter of 1978–79, Eno went peripatetic, spending time in San Francisco, London, Montreux and Bangkok. When he returned to New York in the spring to work on Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, he had the germ of a new approach in his head: the merger of hypnotic dance rhythms and found voices. Through immersion in Fela and P-Funk, he had turned on to the idea of densely layered, ethnofunkadelic polyrhythms. On his Thailand vacation, he had taken with him a recording of British dialects and become fascinated by the “redundant” information in these heavily accented utterances. Regional cadences meant that the speech contained its own musicality, something that he thought could be combined excitingly with dance grooves. This merger of found voices and trance rhythms would become the governing concept for much of the music he made in the next few years, both solo and in his increasingly collaborative partnership with Talking Heads.
The first manifestation of his new obsession was “ I Zimbra,” the opening track on Fear of Music. It bore Eno’s clear imprint, from the Afrobeat-style percussion to the use of sound poetry (originally written by the Dadaist Hugo Ball but here incanted by David Byrne). “I Zimbra” was pretty much the reprise of what Eno had done on “Kurt’s Rejoinder” from his 1977 solo album Before and After Science, albeit using a different Dadaist (Kurt Schwitters). But it was Fear’s closing track, “Drugs,” that proved to be most prophetic. Talking Heads tried recording the song, originally titled “Electricity,” in the conventional way but couldn’t get it to work. So Eno and Byrne took the accumulated takes and effectively remixed the song into existence. “We kind of deconstructed it, tore it down to its basic elements, then built it up again with new stuff,” recalls Byrne. “We took instruments out, replayed bits, added other sounds. It became a mixture of a live band and sound collage, which was what ended up happening with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Remain in Light.”
Bassist Tina Weymouth acidly claimed Eno and Byrne had merged into a symbiotic unit, even wearing similar clothes like some post-punk Gilbert & George.
But there was a problem with the “studio as compositional tool” concept, at least when applied to a rock band: it empowered the composer (the producer/arranger) at the expense of the musicians. Eno and Byrne’s expanded authorial role on “Drugs” effectively relegated the other members of Talking Heads to session-musician status, something that caused enormous friction on the next album, Remain in Light. The burgeoning friendship between Eno and Byrne didn’t just unsettle the balance of creative power within the band, it frayed emotional ties. Bassist Tina Weymouth acidly claimed the pair had merged into a symbiotic unit, even wearing similar clothes like some post-punk Gilbert & George. Byrne himself talks about the relationship as “mutually beneficial and codependent in a way. We had musical things to gain from one another – each one could offer something slightly different to the other.”
Eno expounded on his new theories in July 1979 when he gave a lecture entitled “The Studio As Compositional Tool” at the New Music New York festival. Hosted by The Kitchen, this ten-day event was a triumphant end-of-decade celebration of a varied yet cohesive movement of downtown Manhattan composers defining themselves against the uptown classical music establishment (where European-style dissonance still held sway). Reporting on New Music New York, Village Voice’s Tom Johnson identified two distinct waves of downtown music: the founding minimalist elders (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Robert Ashley) and a new generation forging connections between composition and popular music (like Laurie Anderson, who used elements of performance art, video, and electronics; or Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, who deployed amplified electric guitars). Eno fit perfectly smack in the middle of all this. He was profoundly influenced by Reich’s repetition and use of tape-delay loops, but also embraced dance rhythms, electric noise, and the sound-sculpting possibilities of the recording studio, just like emerging downtown composers Arthur Russell, Peter Gordon and David Van Tieghem.
Alongside the polyrhythmic groove music he made with Talking Heads and David Byrne, the other major strand of Eno’s musical output during the New York years consisted of idyllic-yet-eerie ambient soundscapes. The Plateaux of Mirror, his collaboration with Harold Budd, began with the LA-based pianist sending his compositions to Eno in New York, but the actual recording was done in late 1979 in a studio in Daniel Lanois’ studio in Hamilton, Ontario. Around that time Eno also produced Day of Radiance by Laraaji, a zither player he discovered in Washington Square Park. A spiritual seeker exploring yoga, t’ai chi, and Eastern philosophy (he currently holds workshops in laughter therapy), Laraaji’s quest for “cosmic music” had taken a decisive turn in the mid-’70s when he traded his guitar for an autoharp, which he then adapted and electrified. He came to believe that metallic chimes – bells, gongs, cymbals, gamelan ensembles, and his beloved zither and hammered dulcimer – put the listener “in touch with the higher presences.” “In Tibet they are used to break up concentration, get you outside linear time, into a trance state,” he explains. Laraaji had been playing in the same spot in Washington Square Park for a few years, sitting always in the lotus position with his eyes shut, when one day he opened them to see that someone had left a message in his busker’s hat. “It was from Brian Eno and it said ‘Would you like to meet to consider a recording project?’” he recalls.
“We would hole up and make fake ethnographic records, with the sleeve notes and everything, We’d invent a whole culture to go with it.” - David Byrne
In their post-Eno careers Budd and Laraaji would both go on to make music so tranquil and gently rhapsodic it verged on New Age. But Plateaux and Radiance – Ambient 2 and Ambient 3 in the series of releases launched by Eno’s Music for Airports – have a certain uncanny edge. In both cases Eno’s role largely consisted of creating the ambience in which the compositions were situated, using reverb, harmonizer and other studio techniques to smudge the edges of the sound into oneiric soft-focus. Both projects prefigure the preoccupations that would lead to Eno’s other supreme masterpiece of the New York era: 1982’s On Land. Plateaux’s track titles – “Above Chiangmai,” “Among Fields of Crystal,” “Wind in Lonely Fences” – speak of Eno’s mounting interest in creating the musical equivalent of landscape painting, while “Meditation #2,” the final track on Radiance, is based on Laraaji’s mental image of New York’s Central Park Reservoir on a moody winter day.
Another inspirational collaborator Eno hooked up with in 1979 was Jon Hassell, whose post-Miles, raga-influenced music Eno had encountered when the trumpeter/composer performed at The Kitchen that summer. Hassell’s knowledge of exotic ethnic sounds and his concept of “fourth world music” (hi-tech modernity meets pre-industrial tribalism) would be massively influential on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Indeed, the album was conceived as a three-way collaboration. Byrne recalls “all hanging out together, talking and exchanging records.” At his Tribeca loft, Hassell played Eno and Byrne field recordings on ethnomusicological labels like Ocora. The idea emerged that “we would hole up and make fake ethnographic records, with the sleeve notes and everything,” says Byrne. “We’d invent a whole culture to go with it.”
In August 1979, Hassell and Laraaji were both present at the first sessions for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Also contributing to the dense mix of sound was Van Tieghem – whom Eno had seen doing a gizmo-based piece called “A Man and His Toys” at New Music New York – and two bassists: Tim Wright from DNA and Bill Laswell, then in playing Zu Band (later to mutate into Material). “What was so weird was that at first I thought I’d wasted my money,” Eno would wryly comment of these early sessions. “I just couldn’t understand it at all.” But gradually, sculpting down “this barrage of instruments playing all the time,” an audio concept emerged of a “jungle music” sound, embedded in a spacious widescreen production he’d never achieved before. Profiling Eno for Musician toward the end of 1979, Lester Bangs got advance glimpses of the work-in-progress: “It sounds like nothing we’ve ever heard from Brian Eno before; like nothing ever heard before, period. The influence of the move to New York is unmistakable: a polyglot freneticism, a sense of real itching rage and desperation... It gives intimations of a new kind of international multi-idiomatic music that would cross all commercial lines, uniting different cultures, the past and the future, European experimentalism and gutbucket funk.”
Working in Los Angeles and San Francisco for a while before returning to New York, Byrne and Eno added an extra element to the mix: alongside field recordings (Muslim devotional singing, the gospel chants of Sea Islanders off the coast of Georgia), they found themselves increasingly obsessed with the ranting and raving of talk-radio hosts and evangelists. This proto-sampling approach would be hugely influential on later sound-bitebased genres like hip hop and jungle. What’s less well known is that Bush of Ghosts was itself influenced by very early hip hop – more so breakdancing than early rap records. Ironically, this connection with hip hop would be forged not in New York but when the duo were out in LA. “Brian and I met Toni Basil, a choreographer who later had a hit single with ‘Mickey,’” recalls Byrne. “She was working with this street dance group the Electric Boogaloos and was going to do a whole show based on popping and locking. Brian and I thought it was the most amazing dancing we’d ever seen. In a way, some of the music we were making we thought was slotted for her to use in a television program with these dancers. But it never happened.” Eno thought that the future of video, a form with which he had just started to experiment, would involve either ambient imagery (close to stationary) or dance (extreme kineticism). Both would be endlessly rewatchable, because ambient images would become like décor while the fluid intricacy of experimental dance would be so sinuously complex you could never get bored with it.
Byrne and Eno’s work on Bush of Ghosts was interrupted when they joined the rest of Talking Heads during the sweltering hot New York summer of 1980 to start work on the group’s fourth album. Initially titled Melody Attack, the album quickly became a pop version of the ideas being explored on Bush of Ghosts – ideas like the Fela-meets-Terry-Riley’s-In-C approach of “having lots of instruments all playing very simple parts that mesh together to create a complex track,” as Eno explained to one interviewer. “For example, there were five or six basses on ‘Born Under Punches’ each doing simple bits.” Unfortunately this methodology reduced the other Heads – Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, and keyboard player Jerry Harrison – to raw content generators, producing material to be assembled into constructions by Eno and Byrne. There was also a kind of deconstruction of the band itself, with bass parts being provided by people other than Weymouth. Roles became fluid and uncertain. Even Byrne himself had to change his approach: rather than go into the studio with written songs, he improvised clipped, chanted melodies to suit the roiling rhythmic density of the new direction. His vocals became increasingly percussive, verging on rapping in sections of “Born Under Punches” and “Crosseyed and Painless.” On the shimmering dreamscape “Seen and Not Seen,” Byrne abandoned singing altogether, reciting the story of a man who learned to change his facial appearance by willpower.
Remain in Light was an artistic triumph, but it was also a disaster: pushing for the new direction and assuming a vastly expanded degree of creative control, Eno irreparably damaged what he had earlier described as “the best working relationship I’ve ever had within rock music.” The members of Talking Heads – even David Byrne, his symbiotic other half – started to suspect that he was trying to turn to the group into a new Roxy Music, except that in this case Eno would be in charge, not Bryan Ferry. The inverse ratio between the creative fulfillment of the band and that of the producer had been apparent to Eno as early as More Songs. “The songs that were least complete going into the studio came out best for me,” he told Melody Maker of that album. Fear of Music was better still because “there were even fewer complete songs” at the start of the recording process, leading to the formation of a “group mind, a recording identity” with Eno at the center. Remain was the culmination, resulting in music so complex that its live performance required the expansion of Talking Heads into a nine-piece.
Despite his steering role in the project, Eno had his own misgivings about Remain – he felt the album could have been taken much further. Those frustrations would take on a bitter edge when My Life in the Bush of Ghosts came out within a few months of the extravagantly praised Remain in Light. (Originally Bush of Ghosts was meant to come out first, but it got delayed due to sample-clearance issues). Although Bush of Ghosts is now revered as a groundbreaking classic, at the time it received a mixed critical response, suffering from a post-Remain backlash and having its thunder stolen by the innovative Talking Heads LP. Some critics accused Byrne and Eno of being cold-blooded eggheads and, worse, neo-imperialistic appropriators of world music.
“Eno was on the couch reading the English music papers and he had the most downcast expression on his face.” - Michael Beinhorn
“One day in early 1981 I arrived at the studio and Eno was on the couch,” recalls Material keyboard player Michael Beinhorn, then participating (with his band mates) in an amorphous Eno project. “He was reading the English music papers and he had the most downcast expression on his face. The reviews of Bush of Ghosts were out... My sense is that Brian at that point decided, ‘I’m never going to make rock music again.’” Whether it was as clear cut as that – after all, he’d already been making ambient music and ethno-grooves for years – it does seem that the lukewarm response to Bush of Ghosts encouraged Eno to move even further from song-based pop forms and into atmospheres and soundscapes. That trajectory reached its pinnacle with the ambient On Land, an album whose genesis can be traced back to the Material sessions of January 1981.
On the first day of those sessions – which took place at the newly equipped studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn – Eno arrived with photographic slides he had purchased that morning at the American Museum of Natural History. “He called me on the way over, asking if I had white sheets because he wanted to project images on the walls,” recalls Material’s soundman Martin Bisi. Eno turned up in a cab with his German friend Axel Gross, whose résumé includes experimental post-punk projects Les Vampyrettes and Biomutantes, and promptly set up projectors all around the room. “The idea was to play music and record surrounded by images of animals like impalas and water buffalos. Landscapes too – Kilimanjaro, the savannah.”
The session wasn’t very productive. Bisi, by his own admission, was an amateur sound engineer in those days (he would later become an accomplished, in-demand producer) and he annoyed the typically calm and mild Eno so much that he hurled a chair. Material bassist Bill Laswell would ultimately make ambient records himself but his background at that point was playing in Southern funk bands and he couldn’t get into the Eno vibe. Laswell and Beinhorn are actually given co-writing credits on “Lizard Point,” but Beinhorn says, “I can’t pick out a note that actually comes from me. Maybe it’s in there as halfspeed tapes or processed in some way.” Most likely the co-credits are Eno’s way of honoring the first stirrings of a direction that developed during the month-long session. One thing that definitely made it onto the record was a tape of frog sounds recorded in Honduras by Laswell’s friend Felipe Orrego, heard on “Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills).”
Beyond musical affinities, Eno had opted to work from the group’s base in Red Hook because of a longstanding inclination to avoid expensive recording studios, where time-is-money pressure could paralyze creativity. Eno gave aspiring producer Bisi, then only 18, a month’s advance, enabling him to equip the place. After that session, however, Eno created his own workspace in his new apartment, a large loft on Broadway and Broome that he bought with his girlfriend Alex Blair and their cat Poo-Poo. Although there were other sessions at proper studios – in New York, Ontario and London – much of the work for On Land was done in this mini-studio.
The album’s working title was Empty Landscapes. But the African mise-en-scène that was the backdrop of the Brooklyn session faded as an inspiration, a residue of the Remain/Ghosts phase. (Eno had even talked to interviewers at the time of wanting to move to Africa.) Instead, the landscapes gradually took on a decidedly English atmosphere, a nostalgic direction influenced by Fellini’s Amarcord, with its dreamlike re-enactment of small-town life in 1930s Italy.
Upon its release in 1982, Eno described On Land as an attempt to conjure the atmosphere of the Suffolk countryside of his childhood: desolate and melancholy, but also familiar and comforting, “a nice kind of spooky.” “That mood is very much a feature of the environment where I grew up,” he told Musician. “It’s a very bleak place and most visitors find it quite miserable. I don’t think it’s miserable but it’s definitely a sort of lost place in a lost time – nothing has changed in this part of England for many hundreds of years.” His goal was to create a heightened version of this landscape from memory, partly by using audio tricks that were non-naturalistic (a 70-second echo, for instance). He titled “Lantern Marsh” after a phosphorescent marsh in East Suffolk that he had seen on a map but never actually visited. Other titles and sounds had actual memories attached to them. Leeks Hills was a forest in which he used to play, while “The Lost Day” featured a “little bell sound” that worked on Eno like the aural equivalent of Proust’s madeleine. On a Christmas visit to his parents in Suffolk he discovered the reason he was attracted to it and why it affected him so much: he went for a windy walk along the River Deben and heard the sound of “the metal guy wires banging against the [metal] masts of the yacht.” It was virtually the same sound that he’d generated using a Fender Rhodes electric piano played extremely softly, a sound that tugged at his buried memories with uncanny power. Hence the title “The Lost Day,” so close to Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu.
“You can easily live in New York and just see the mess of it. I wanted to make it mysterious again.”
Some of On Land’s glinting, diaphanous music soundtracked his first major video work, “Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan,” which comprised glacier-slow images of the New York skyline at sunset captured from the window of his downtown apartment. Both the audio and video reflected a desire to slow down the city’s hyped-up metabolism, to transform New York against its will into a more tranquil and ethereal place. The word “mediaeval” was a sideways allusion to an experience of culture shock and stimuli overload in Chinatown, where his senses were assaulted by strange smells and sounds. Eno decided that to survive in the city he needed to imaginatively transform the place into something less overwhelming; after all, he was a Suffolk native raised amid the “aloneness” and “very slow pace of things” that characterized that sparsely populated coastal region of eastern England. The idea of New York as a “strange, medieval, huge complex town in the middle of nowhere... suddenly made the place tolerable for me. You can easily live in New York and just see the mess of it. I wanted to make it mysterious again.”
Eno had started messing with video back in 1979. His first installation was accompanying a Frippertronics performance at The Kitchen (Robert Fripp dubbed it “video Muzak”). The early roofscape work was also shown at Grand Central Terminal in early 1980 and at LaGuardia Airport to accompany an airing of Music for Airports. Eno also used a Polaroid snap of “video feedback,” created by pointing the camera at its own monitor, as on the cover for Bush of Ghosts. He was interested in creating “video painting”: something that could be left playing in someone’s living room, watched inattentively or not at all, working (like ambient music itself) as a tint in the environment, closer to perfume or incense than a narrative-based art form. The concept was hatched partly in opposition to how rock videos had evolved. According to Eno, directors of pop videos misguidedly believed that “to make a thing interesting [they should] put more and more action into it. But that just gives you a blur, which takes maybe five watches to work out, and after that you don’t want to see it again. My solution to this problem was to take the video away from being a short film, a little story, and turn it into something beautiful to look at, like a picture.”
Recalling “Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan” in a 1989 interview, Eno said, “Like the music that accompanies them, the films arise from...a desire to make a quiet place for myself. They evoke in me a sense of ‘what could have been’ and hence generate a nostalgia for the future.” But in truth they seemed to be more simply a product of homesickness. While still living in downtown New York – and even dabbling a little on Wall Street after eavesdropping on brokers’ conversations at the gym – Eno was little by little absenting himself from Manhattan. He started to lead an increasingly reclusive life, spending most of the day in his apartment holed up in the small studio, which he described as “a sort of sacred space somehow.” He would tinker with music, experiment with perfumes (one of his obsessions), read and think. Picking up on this cloistered vibe, People magazine’s Arthur Lubow described a typical day in the life of Eno as “self-indulgent and monastic,” and wrote of his music’s drift toward “an Arcadian kind of yearning.” Alex Blair spoke of Eno’s “social claustrophobia.” “He doesn’t like sitting around gabbing,” she said.
Back in 1972 Eno had told Disc that he’d “always been attracted to whatever place on the planet seemed to be the center of the most tension and energy.” London had been that place; now it was New York. By the ’80s, it seemed that all the things he once found so magnetic about New York – the border-crossing conversations, the musical ferment – had become negatives, a form of mental crowding threatening to his own creativity and equilibrium. His last North American musical projects – Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, made to accompany Al Reinert’s film about NASA and the moon landings, and The Pearl, made with Harold Budd and Daniel Lanois – were both recorded in the relative seclusion of Hamilton, Ontario. There was also a video painting of a nude woman, shot in San Francisco and designed to accompany his most vaporous ambient album yet, Thursday Afternoon. Then a burglary at the Broome Street apartment sealed the deal of his utter alienation from New York. In the middle of 1984, Brian Eno returned to his homeland.
A version of this article appeared in The Daily Note, a free daily newspaper distributed in New York during the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy.
Roxy Music interview, by Lisa Robinson. Disc magazine, October 1972.
“Odyssey of Two British Rockers,” profile of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, by John Rockwell, New York Times, July 23 1978.
“ENO=MC²,” interview by Lee Moore. Creem, November 1978.
“Brian Eno: A Sandbox In Alphaville” by Lester Bangs, chapter from his unfinished book Beyond the Law: Four Rock 'n' Roll Extremists. Written 1979/80, published online August 2003 by Perfect Sound Forever.
“The Studio As Compositional Tool,” 1979 Brian Eno lecture, as reprinted in Downbeat, date unknown.
Eno interview, by Lester Bangs, Musician, 1979.
Eno interview, by Richard Williams, Melody Maker, January 12th 1980.
“Eno: The Electric Boogaloo,” interview by John Orme, Melody Maker, February 14, 1980.
“Eno: Voyages in Time & Perception,” interview by Kristine McKenna, Musician Magazine, October 1982.
Eno profile, by Gene Kalbacher, Modern Recording & Music, October 1982.
Eno profile, by Arthur Lubow, People, October 11, 1982. Vol 18. No. 15.
“Eno: Only The Small Survive,” interview by Dave Rimmer, The Face, July 1983.
Brian Eno’s 1986 sleeve notes for the re-release of Ambient 4: On Land.
Thoughts, Words, Music and Art. Part One, by Mark Prendergast. From Sound On Sound, Vol 4 Issue 3, January 1989.
Robert Quine interview, by Jason Gross, Perfect Sound Forever, November 1997.
Brian Eno, Tribute to Robert Quine, Perfect Sound Forever, July 2004.
On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno, by David Sheppard (London: Orion Books, 2008)
Header image credit: Marcia Resnick