An Introduction To Brian Eno: Six Tracks To Get You Started

By Josh Phillips

Brian Eno – 10 of the best | Brian Eno | The Guardian
© Photograph: Brian Cooke/Redferns. Eno, 1972.

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) 

© Peter Schmidt, 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) 

© After Raphael by Tom Phillips, 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) 

© Brian Eno, 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) 

© Neal Preston/CORBIS, 1974.

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)  

© John Bonis, 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) 

© Brian Cooke, 1972.

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.

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