August 01, 2004


'If you're an intelligent cook you'll abandon the recipe at a certain time. You taste the dish and you realize there's the seed of an interesting new taste. So you work on that and forget you were making chicken Kiev, or whatever. You make something new.'


Speaking of glam, I've been spending a great deal of time recently with Eno's 'song' albums of the 1970s. I'd never really got them before, but, as is so often the case, a push from Marcello nudged me in the right direction.

Previously, ever the serious-minded aesthete and vesigial Romantic, I'd found the records' wilfull absurdity and apparent incoherence uninvolving - almost deliberately so. It was the flatness of Eno's (non-) singing voice, or non-singer's voice, its undisguised English middleclassness, that I found most distracting . (I never had any problems with the pelllucid disquiet of the ambient LPs.)

In many ways, it is Erik Satie, the producer both of sublimely beguiling compositions and of proto-Dadaist absurdism, who may have provided the template for Eno's duality.

In the end, I've come to see that quartet of albums - Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy), Another Green World and Before and After Science - as rock's escape from rockism, rock if it had begun in the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear rather in the delta blues, rock re-imagineered by Roussel and Magritte and re-programmed by Norbert Wiener and Gregory Bateson.

On these records, Eno cultivated an irony that was actually diametrically opposite to Pomo's terminal inability to relinquish self-consciousness, since it was a technique for depersonalizing production. Such distanciation strategies meant that he was pop's Kubrick, fundamentally interested not in playing but - in anticipation of sampling culture - editing. (Interestingly, both Eno and Kubrick had to fend off accusations that they were cold). If Eno's description of himself as a 'non-musician' was routinely dismissed at the time, even by admirers such as Lester Bangs, as a pose, a provocation, we can recognize it now as a straightforward account of how someone not trained in music could have a role in sonic production. The hardcore continuum would familiarise us with this notion.

Ultimately, Eno was, like his inspirations Cage, Macero, Duchamp, Burroughs and Warhol, not a musician, not an artist, but an abstract engineer. Eno's concepts and diagrams had applications far beyond any one aesthetic field. (Concepts and diagrams - how very un rock 'n' roll.)

Eno was also, and for the same reasons, white pop's Tubby, famously using the studio as his primary instrument. This conjunction - Tubby and Eno - is important, since, while Eno might seem whiter than white, his strategies have more in common with the techniques of black sonic fiction than with those of western European romanticism (=rockism) .

We owe to Kodwo the insight that, despite the role it has featured in many white imaginaries, Black music has seldom had nor sought the Romantic, authenticist and subjectivist orientation that has dominated western european production. Those strategies of meta-reflexiveness and frame-breaking that we think of as distinctively postmodern were pioneered by black artists in all fields, not only music.

"Postmodernism doen't mean anything in music at all. It doesn't mean anything, it hasn't meant anything since at least 68 when the first versions started coming out of Jamaica. As soon as you had the particular social condition of no copyright, this nineteenth century copyright was already gone, instantly you had the freedom to replicate, to literally recombinate, almost immediately. That encouraged a wildstyle of rhythms where things would attach themselves and recombinate. And as soon as you had that, that's postmdernism accomplished and done with, right then in 68, this is another reason why traditional things don't make any sense in music, ever since then by defintion you've had postmodernism and it hasn't been any big deal at all, it's just already been accomplished."

Like Nietzsche's madman, the prophet of a past event, Eno merely brought the news to a public not yet ready to hear it.

Eno's approach was to decouple sonics from both the organism and the subject. The emphasis on the figure of the cyborg in eighties and nineties cyberculture has distracted and even garbled the fundamental cybernetic emphasis on the system. As Eno told Lester Bangs in 1979, the cybernetic approach, far from reinforcing the domination of the Cartesian subject over his environment, radically collapses agency back into system:

'Also, one or two of the pieces I've made have been attempts to trigger that sort of unnervous stillness where you don't feel that for the world to be interesting you have to be manipulating it all the time. The manipulative thing I think is the American ideal that here's nature, and you somehow subdue and control it and turn it to your own ends. I get steadily more interested in the idea that here's nature, the fabric of things or the ongoing current or whatever, and what you can do is just ride on that system, and the amount of interference you need to make can sometimes be very small."

"The corollary point is that if you're not in the manipulative mode anymore you're not quite sure actually how to measure your own contribution if you're not constructing things and pushing things in a certain direction and working towards goals, what is your function? In fact, one of the reasons cybernetics keep coming up is that it does talk about ways of working that are different than that. It does talk about systems that are self governing, so which may not need intervention. They look after themselves, and they go somewhere which you may not have predicted precisely but which is generally in the right direction. But the assessment of those things is, of course, very difficult."

As Bangs says, such an orientation would go some way to accounting for Lydia Lunch's disparaging of Eno's work (even as Lunch's remarks reveal how profoundly phallic, boorishly rockist and unradical she is/ was): ' Eno's records are an expression of mediocrity, because all it is is just something that flows and weaves, flows and weaves . . . it's kind of nauseating. It's like drinking a glass of water. It means nothing, but it's very smooth going down.' (btw Witness Bangs' own rockist attempt to mollify other rockists, in his review of 'Here Come the Warm Jets': 'Don't worry, Eno may like synthesizer but this isn't one of those doodley-squats like George Harrison's Electronic Sounds -- these are hard-driving, full-out rock'n'roll songs with consistent percussive force'.)

The work of, amongst others, Sadie Plant in the nineties reminded us that cyberculture is best conceived in terms of 'flows and weaves'. Such a language is the only discourse which could adequately deal with the nonlinear repetitions of house, jungle and techno. Preparing the way for such anti-climatic plateaus, Eno explicitly rejected the testicular thermodynamics that had up till then ruled rock's roost. As a master practicioner of uneasy listening, Eno sought not to (over)excite the organism - such overexcitation merely produces an anaesthetic effect - but to open it out, to take it into slow time. So this was Eno's version of adult pop, which he consciously conceived of as a flight from the hormonal demands of the Teen-Age:

'Critics can't stand these records, by and large, because in their search for eternal adolescence they still want it all to be spunky and manic and witty. They come back to rock music again and again, expecting to feel like kids. That isn't what I want from music anymore - not in quite that way. I'm interested in the idea of feeling like a very young child, but I'm not interested in feeling like a teenager.'

What Eno pursued was not the full on presence and self-identity of phallic certainty, but the hypnagogic indeterminism superbly invoked by Bangs at the beginning of his 1979 interview.

'The other day I was lying on my bed listening to Brian Eno's Music For Airports. The album consists of a few simple piano or chordal figures put on tape loops which then run with variable delays for about ten minutes each, and is the first release on Eno's own Ambient label. Like a lot of Eno's "ambient" stuff, the music has a crystalline, sun-light-through-windowpane quality that makes it even as you half-listen to it.

I had been there for a while, half-listening and half-daydreaming, when something odd happened. I started thinking about something that didn't exist. I was recalling a conversation I'd had with Charles Mingus, the room we were in at the time and things he'd said to me quite clearly, except that in reality never been there and the conversation had never taken place. I realized immediately, yet calmly that I was dreaming, though I had no memory of even the preliminaries to sleep and had in fact passed over into the dream state as if it were an unrippled extension of conscious reality. So I just lay there for a while, watching myself listening to Mingus while one-handed keyboard bobbins pinged placidly in the background. This went on until I was jolted out of it by the ringing phone. I stumbled in disoriented to answer it, and hearing my voice the caller asked: "Lester, did I wake you?"

"I'm not sure", I said, and told her what I'd been listening to.

She just laughed.'

All Eno quotes are from this wonderful site, which I've only just begun to explore, but which looks to be full of gems.



Incidentally, has anyone heard the new Phil Manzanera album? Amazon sent me an email which made it sound very interesting, as does this article from the Independent. Apparently the album - a sonic re-creation of Manzanera's memories of 60s psychedelic London - was inspired by the death of his friend, Ian Macdonald. Prior to reading the Independent piece, I'd never had any inkling about Manzanera's close association with Macdonald. (It does explain iMac's enthusiasm for Roxy, however!)

Posted by mark at August 1, 2004 04:48 PM | TrackBack

Nice work, Mark. I must admit I was a little disappointed at the meagre amount of Eno in your Top British Albums list. Will you be rectifying this?

btw, been listening to Systems Of Romance. More soon...

Posted by: Nick at August 2, 2004 09:12 AM

Yes, I think I will be rectifying it!! It was obv an oversight --- or an overhearing ;-)

Posted by: Mark at August 2, 2004 09:41 AM

I've always loved the ambient lps and thought Eno was a fantastic conceptualist but didn't go through a threshold with the song albums utnil recently....

v much looking fwd to yr take on systems of romance

Posted by: Mark at August 2, 2004 09:45 AM

btw, in the 1979 interview with Lester Bangs, Bangs says that Ultravox are so bad not even Eno could save them... lol

Posted by: Mark at August 2, 2004 09:45 AM

I loved the first two Eno LPs more than the first two Roxy LPs. They're still major favourites. So many ideas, so many possibilities being juggled there...and they still fell within the parameters of Glam.
But what about Electro-Glam - Glitterstompft? Did it really start with the Holiday '80 EP? I would argue it's origins lay in the snare-sound of 'The Idiot' and 'Low'. Interesting that people are name-checking 'Systems of Romance'...I'd also push for the first Ultravox LP being a late addition to the Glam Canon (produced by Eno!)...some of the lyrics are sooo Bowie ("My sex waits for me, like a mongrel waits, down-wind on a tight-rope leash...")Guess he'd read Wild Boys too. Saw Ultravox twice with John Foxx: he was glacially cool, a glampire, unblinking, unflinching when gobs of phlegm hit him in the face: yep, he had Late-Era Glam Star written all over him. But the others looked kinda uncomfortable/unconvincing in pancake and vinyl trews. And 'Metamatic' is ur-electro-glam too...all hollowed out and cold-hearted: Sub-Ballard exteriorised psychoscapes, a nostalgia for underpasses and towerblocks lit by bleached-out sunsets (fine in principal if you don't have to actually live there!) If you like 'systems of Romance', you'll love 'The Garden' too...not so much Glam so much as proto-Nu Romo. And what about The Banshees? The First LP: also another possible Glam/Punk hybrid?

Posted by: kek-w at August 2, 2004 08:53 PM

Hey, kek-w, look to the k-punk masthead --- you saw Ultravox with Foxx? I'm about as jealous as I could be --- I agree abt the first Ultravox album --- but 'My Sex' is more Ballard than Bowie I reckon (much better than Bowie I think) --- my whole life started with that song ---- never been wild abt 'The Garden' musically though I like the feel of it, Foxx has a fascinating take on the English pastoral/ ruinationalism (cf Cathedral Oceans and the albums he did with Harold Budd) ---

Posted by: mark at August 2, 2004 09:35 PM

Doh! Yeah, it's obvious that it's Foxx now you've pointed it out :-) Reckon you're right though: 1st UV LP is more Ballard than Bowie. Interesting that Foxx moved from Urban Romanticism to Pastoral Romanticism; wonder what prompted that?
Saw them in a small sweaty club in Yate (Bristol Highrise Overspill)...remember me and me mates teased Warren Cann by yelling out "Wotcha, Warren!" in broad zumerset accents as he set up his drum-stool po-faced in full make-up and vinyl to break a mood, eh? He stopped, looked up and grinned back at us (secretly chuffed, I suspect, that we knew his name). It was a trick we played on a lot of drummers round that era eg "Wotcha, Lol!" at a Cure gig, etc. Always did the trick! Still, Ultravox...what can I say: they were great! I remember Foxx standing there, unblinking like a shop dummy as trickles of gob ran down his face. (Not from us, I hasten to add!) He could've been one of the greats... well, he was, far as we were concerned! Caught 'em at Reading '78 too: played some stuff that I think might have ended up on Metamatic; maybe some unreleased stuff, but my memory's hazy. Is there a bootleg of that performance out there anywhere?

Posted by: kek-w at August 2, 2004 10:01 PM

Cor blimey! This is top stuff, guys. I'm hanging on every word, though saving my own thoughts for the big essay.
I grew up in Yate, by the way..

Posted by: Nick at August 2, 2004 10:34 PM

Hey Kek --- wow --- I'm soooo jealous ----- but i've got some mpegs and bootlegs (incl some of the 78 Reading performance) if you'd like em --- send me yr address and I'll copy em for you -- they were kindly sent to me from the chap who runs this site: --- it's a great site, the definite Foxx-era Ultravox archive really... I think Ultravox played 'He's a Liquid' and also ''Walk Away' live...

Posted by: mark at August 3, 2004 12:39 AM

mark - terrific article again. it's interesting you've published the eno / glam stuff around the same time as the one on miles and context: eno was always god like to my teen and early 20s brain and i still find it difficult to disassociate those feelings from my enjoyment of his work.

i've got manzanera's 6PM. at first it dissapointed, as all his albums do for me, but after a few more listens there are some good - great tracks. however, a lot of the songs are mediocre (uninteresting chord and melody progressions) and he sings on all the tracks with very obvious software note tweaking a'la cher.

eno's presence is minor but he does come up with some lovely synth sounds that linger in the background.

in case you didn't know, ian macdonald's real name is maccormick - he was the brother of bass player bill - who played in wyatt's matching mole, 801, some eno albums and who contributes a lovely bass solo to the song on 6PM that deals directly with ian mac's death.

Posted by: philT at August 3, 2004 04:40 AM

Hey mark - def. interested in the UV Reading '78! I'll drop you an email soon; swap addresses...I expect you've got everything by Foxx, but I'll see what I've got that I could burn for you in return. Most/all my stuff's vinyl...I think I might have (lowers voice furtively in case anyone is listening) an old Smash Hits flexi somewhereof '20th Century'...have you got that? I expect everything's on the internet these days. Also got a Roxy Music vinyl boot from mid-seventies called "Better than Food" some Eno-era live/studio out-takes on it...I'm sure I must have some stuff somewhere I could swap in return for Reading. Thanks!

Posted by: kek-w at August 3, 2004 10:58 PM

'20th Century' is now a bonus track on the Edsel/Demon CD re-issue of 'Metamatic', along with all attended b-sides. Lush....

Posted by: Nick at August 4, 2004 10:11 PM

I've got 20th century on the metamatic cd but also, more impressively, on the 7" picture disc of Burning Car. :-)

Posted by: mark at August 5, 2004 09:19 AM

I've got 20th century on the metamatic cd but also, more impressively, on the 7" picture disc of Burning Car. :-)

Posted by: mark at August 5, 2004 09:21 AM