Eno's no bounds

From The Guardian, by Michael Bracewell, Friday May 8 1998

From Top of the Pops, 1972, to confidant of Tony Blair, 1988, with a lot of startling career moves and radical music in between. Michael Bracewell meets pop polymath Brian Eno at 50.

The downstairs loo at Brian Eno's London office is decorated with a collection of computer generated photo-montages which have been cleverly created to place Eno in a whole variety of culturally prominent situations. "There's a particularly funny one of me receiving a country music award from Dolly Parton!" laughs the real-life original of this pixel-manipulated cultural tourist, whose portraits as a ubiquitous personality, within contemporary European culture bring to mind Woody Allen's character Zelig, popping up with a homely smile between Stalin and Hitler. The only factor which prevents these images of Eno from simply being funny, however, is their close proximity to the truth about the man himself.

At 50 years old next week, Brian Eno is a composer, conceptual thinker and polymath who has spent most of the last 25 years making a fascinating and multi-faceted transition from being the popular embodiment of the avant-garde to occupying a near institutional position as something pretty close to a warm-hearted liberal humanist within the fridge of contemporary art. Or, to put it another way, he's gone from wearing peacock feathers and blue eyeshadow on Top Of The Pops in 1972, as a co-founder of Roxy Music, to being invited to the House of Commons by Tony Blair to discuss the future of communications. Oh, and he had a cameo role in the last-ever episode of Father Ted. "To identify which of my achievements I'd like to be proud of, would involve a certain amount of self-flattery that I'm not used to doing in public," he says, "but I guess that what I'm most pleased about is the idea of making it unembarrassing that pop musicians could be articulate, and could be self-conscious about what they do, and think about it and talk about it and regard themselves as artists -- without having to apologise for it. Because I certainly think that things like my "ambient" music, and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts LP [1979] were theory-driven or idea-driven in the sense that I worked out the position that I wanted to take and took it. And this was unusual at the time in pop music -- it was not completely unknown; I think that Frank Zappa did the same and Pete Townshend in a certain way -- but none the less it was still regarded that to use the intellect in any way next to this passionate form called popular music, was not allowable.

"So I think, just as classical music concentrated itself in the head, to the exclusion of the body, pop music -- at least, as far as the critics would write about it - was seen as a 'body only' form of music, and the head was just kind of hanging on at the end, trying to keep up! So I think that what I wanted to say, from very early on, was that pop music could be 'a whole body experience' and that it should be!"

It is this integration of pop and intellect, realised through treating the recording studio as a laboratory for conceptual thinking -- rather than as a mere tool -- which has granted Eno his unique reputation for being the liquid engineering in the manufacture of contemporary music. Educated within the first wave of art school conceptualism in the mid to late 1960s, Eno attended Winchester School of Art before hooking up with Bryan Ferry and Andy Mackay to form Roxy Music. Departing after the second Roxy Music LP, For Your Pleasure, and taking with him the strain of radical eeriness which had given those two LPs their distinctive atmosphere, Eno commenced a hugely acclaimed solo career -- kicking off with the screamingly camp heroism of Here Come The Warm Jets, which would have a significan impact on the arty end of British punk rock. But he swiftly dropped pure pop to concentrate upon the minimalism of his ambient music, and the sheer potential of pop within creative thinking.

"The inclination is to make it all sound like there was a 'grand plan'; and it wasn't like that actually, but there was always this thing with me of 'leading by instinct', and then saying 'How does that connect up with everything else that I'm interested in at the moment in movies or books or science?' I always assume, and always have done, that my enthusiasms have a common route; and, I mean all of my enthusiasms, be they sexual, intellectual, aesthetic or emotional. I always assume that if I start to get interested in something or other that I haven't been interested in before, I can check it across the spectrum of my interests and see what it would imply in different areas. So, if I suddenly find that I'm liking things that are more jagged and dissonant in music, so I start to think 'So who's painting like that?, Who's making films like that? or what would a comedy show like that be like?' And I find that I can also predict things like that; because I think that culture moves roughly in step. It's not perfectly in synch at any given time - one medium might be leading, like in the early eighties it was painting and in the early nineties I'd say it was film - but different things take the advantage as someone opens up a territory, and then people start to see the implications of that territory in what they're doing.

"There are two ways of being an artist. One is to really explore one furrow, and a lot of artists that I really like best, actually, do that; some obvious examples would be Randy Newman or Joni Mitchell. They're people who've got one territory and they really, really examine it. Samuel Beckett would be the best example of that. So a lot of the art I like best comes from that kind of thinking: of saying, 'This is my language and I'll get better and better at speaking it.' But I'm not that type of artist; I'm really thrilled by suggesting other ways of talking, other languages one could speak, and then letting other people make use of them. Once an idea has been floated as convincingly as I think it needs to be, I don't want to go on flogging it forever! It doesn't mean I stop doing it, but I don't want to make it exclusively 'my thing'."

One can see Brian Eno's career as a gradual widening of the sphere of influence of his creation of "new languages" in which people can discuss and develop their creative thinking. Early on in his career, he produced the Oblique Strategy pack of cards, which was like a kind of artistic Tarot for suggesting new ways of considering a creative problem by simply following the advice on a dealt card. Within the cultural catalyst of punk, Eno found new relevance as the producer of the first LP from the musically interesting but ideologically nutty Devo, from Akron, Ohio, and of the first LP by Ultravox! with its arty-punk classic opening track: Satday Night In The City Of The Dead. The omission of the "ur" within “Satday” is vital to an appreciation of the whole! He also worked with Judy Nylon and Patti Palladin - aka "Snatch" - on their co-released Red Army Faction single, and more or less declared the manifesto of post-punk music as it would permeate the 1980s in his collaborations with Talking Heads, and, most importantly, David Bowie.

It was the high profile releases with the latter, Low and Heroes, which New would make Brian Eno household god of those New Romantic outsider types whom Peter York has defined, quite simply, as "Them". It would also position him as the producer of choice the for the multi-million album selling u2 -- whose anthemic rock would be given more than a twiddle of artistic credibility by Eno's conceptual thinking, such as suggesting the band think in terms of soundtracks for imaginary films. Throughout the 1980s, Brian Eno would advance and consolidate his position as a link between, for example, the low-budget, radical aesthetics of Derek Jarman, for whom he composed film scores, and commercial success of rock group James, whose elevation to chart status he had overseen. Within the arena of contemporary culture, he had become a cross between Prospero and Clark Kent - assuming near-mystic status as a creative thinker, while loaning his conceptual strength to a succession of increasingly prominent artists and projects.

"I remember reading in an interview with Hank Shocklee, from Public Enemy, and he said that the record which really influenced them was My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which I had made with David Byrne from Talking Heads. And this was very interesting to me because the thought that my record might have been one of the seeds of rap music gave me quite a different sympathy towards rap, which when I read that interview, I just couldn't get at all. Another example, was that someone told me that he read an interview with Prince where Prince said that the record which most influenced him was Another Green World - which was incredibly flattering. It's my understanding that Prince had picked on the idea that you could have records that were kind of sonic landscapes with vocals on them and that's sort of what Another Green World was, I think. In past, people had not really been 'sound composers' -- the limitations were pretty severe -- and wanted to treat sound as an elastic, plastic medium that can be really stretched and squeezed and so on. I just wanted people to be in a sonic world of some kind."

By defining himself as a conceptualist, an enabler and a creative catalyst, rather than a merely sophisticated pop musician, Brian Eno has developed a reputation and identity which has taken him from the recording studio, through the visual arts -- in collaboration with among others, Laurie Anderson -- and into the institutions of culture as a representative of a new kind of establishment. In addition to being an honorary editor at Faber & Faber, he has also become a Professor of Multi-Media Installation at the Royal College of Art, and presented the Turner Prize one-minute speech in 1995 -- the year that Damien Hirst won the award. It would take only a small leap of the imagination, in fact, to see him as a candidate for mayor of London.

And it is Eno's suggestions as to what he would implement as mayor, which reveal the traditional liberal humanist within the avant-garde artist. Entering into the fantasy with good humour and remarkable clarity, he straight away suggests that Dublin and Hamburg should be studied as models for the urban regeneration of London, with particular attention being paid to the balance between public funding and private investment; he would like to see a red light district, the legalisation of marijuana and compulsory Media Studies for children -- so that they know how to recognise the mutation of information within the processes of mediation. It is this lucidity in conceptual planning which makes Eno a cross between Marshall McLuhan and Michel de Montaigne, and which got him into discussing ethics with Tony Blair.

"I did meet Tony Blair about two weeks before he became Party Leader, funnily enough. He invited me to have dinner with him in the House of Commons to talk about the future of communications, and I ended up having a discussion with him, which was rather one-sided on my part, about whether it was productive to invoke concepts of good and evil in thinking about legal structures in society. I think that we design our moral structures, basically, and that we can change them and re-design them; and it's difficult to tell people that and say that you still believe in the rule of law which I do, actually."

Over recent years, through his work on the charity War Child, his support for Jarvis Cocker's protest against Michael Jackson's self-worshipping "Christ" act, and his demand, at the Turner Prize, that art should cease its self-reflecting narcissism and become as answerable to public debate as science, Eno has introduced a soft political edge into his identity as a public figure. As Roxy Music could envisage a fantasy of the future 26 years ago, as autofact aesthetes creating imaginary worlds, so Brian Eno is now in a position to suggest real ideologies for the future, and on a global stage. His reputation as a conceptual thinker, in the age of the New Pop Establishment, has reached to the official showcases of European government. "I'm Director of one of the Pavilions at the Hanover Expo 2000 -- and that's a huge space, expecting up to 153 million visitors, so it will certainly be my biggest audience! I want to commission artists to make the most beautiful pieces you have ever seen also which also double as scientific demonstrations; I would love for them to make beautiful things which are actually about something - that are not just unmoored phenomena. What I really hope, to tell you the long-term truth, is to invent a new identity for artists. I'd love for this project to be so exciting for the artists who work on it and the others who see it, that they think, 'Hey, we can make art that is about something other than simply other art...”

Such an integration of pure aesthetics and social conscience link Eno's conceptualism to the humanism of Joseph Beuys, returning the basis of European art to a morally questioning but spiritually-centred sense of collective witness. It could just be, in fact, that Eno has predicted the social climate of the millennium.

Michael Bracewell's England Is Mine (Flamingo) is available in paperback, £7.99