The Four Faces of Brian Eno

In his various roles as a producer, collaborator, theorist, or composer himself over the past 50 years, Brian Eno has enjoyed nothing more than throwing wrenches into musical spanners. Indeed, there may be no fiercer opponent of the tried and true. Back when he was at art school in London in the late ‘60s, the young painter devised a variety of ways of getting himself creatively unstuck. The trick, as he explained it to journalist Glenn O’Brien in 1978, was that in “performing a task that might seem absurd in relation to the picture, one can suddenly come at it from a tangent and possibly reassess it.”

Such tactics proved to be even more useful after his focus shifted from art to the rock world. While recording For Your Pleasure with Roxy Music in 1973, he would put odd little instructions on cards and scatter them to help introduce a random variable to the high pressure and often rigid context of the recording studio. “You tend to proceed in a very linear fashion,” he said. “Now if that line isn’t going in the right direction, no matter how hard you work you’re not going to get anywhere. The function of the cards was to constantly question whether that direction was correct. To say, ‘How about going that way?’”

Full of instructions like “do nothing for as long as possible,” those cards were the basis of Oblique Strategies, a deck that Eno and artist Peter Schmidt published for use by other artists in 1975. The spark of vitality and ingenuity those cards fostered is the quality that most connects a wildly disparate body of work by an artist whose guises and capacities can seem just as varied. True to his word, Eno has never gotten stuck in one place, swiftly shape-shifting from the feather-clad self-professed “non-musician” of his Roxy Music days and thrilling early solo albums, to the intrepid experimentalist who invented ambient music, to the invaluable creative foil for David Bowie and U2, to the modern multi-tasker whose artistic and technological ventures include 2017’s Reflection, a work that exists as both an album and a generative-music app. And as these playlists demonstrate, those various spheres contain their own multitude of reliably random variables.

Eno: The Art-Rock Freakazoid

Despite his later reputation as rock’s preeminent egghead, Brian Eno clearly delighted in his showman tendencies when he arrived on Roxy Music’s stages looking like a space-age ostrich before smothering the band’s high-concept art-rock rave-ups and decadent ballads with synthesizer whirrs and squeals. Even by the standards of early-‘70s glam, he was wildly flamboyant, so much so that Bryan Ferry grew weary of competing with him for attention from audiences and critics. The tensions prompted Eno to quit the band in 1973.

Starting with the same year’s Here Come the Warm Jets, Eno then released a series of solo albums that were just as packed with wild new ideas as his albums with Roxy Music had been. With the help of friends like Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, and Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt, he would demolish just about every piece of existing rock methodology in songs that turned and twisted while somehow retaining their headlong velocity.

Eno: The Sonic Adventurer

Eno claimed to have invented ambient music while convalescing after a car accident. Immobilized, he was unable to adjust the volume on a recording of classical harp music that was partially drowned out by the sound of rain. From that experience, he got the idea of creating music that was explicated designed to stay in the background, subtly coloring its environment. The notion wasn’t entirely original—French composer Erik Satie developed very similar ideas about “furniture music” back in the 1910s—but Eno most definitely was the one who popularized it as a genre when his first ambient album, Discreet Music, was released in 1975.

Over the next decade, Eno continued to be a crucial nexus point between the rock and experimental music worlds via endeavours like Obscure Records, the label on which he released early works by future avant-classical giants like Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman. Meanwhile, on his pioneering Ambient series and beyond, he’d develop more elaborate sound worlds, working with such collaborators as Daniel Lanois, Jon Hassell, Laraaji, Harold Budd, and his brother Roger. (His fascination with Germany’s experimental-rock scene would also culminate in several albums with Cluster and Harmonia, as well as the Krautrock-influenced instrumentals on David Bowie’s “Heroes” and Low.) Surely anyone who’s ever blissed out at the end of a yoga class owes him a sizable debt of gratitude.

Brian Eno: The Friend of the Famous

What can you say? The man’s a people person. Even before his tenure with Roxy Music was done, he was networking with just about every member of the art-rock elite. Dalliances with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, John Cale, Kevin Ayers, and Nico would lead to his collaboration with David Bowie on his Berlin trilogy. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he’d prove his mettle with rock’s new vanguard as a producer for Ultravox, Talking Heads, and Devo, as well as the no-wavers he included in the No New York compilation.

His work with an ambitious young Irish band is what truly established Eno’s rep as someone who could bring the best out of musicians in a recording studio. Eno and Daniel Lanois’ wide-screen production aesthetic for U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree became the gold standard for Important Rock of the 1980s. But rather than apply the same brush to every artist’s music, he’s continued to adapt his methods to whatever the situations require, thereby eliciting extraordinary moments both from blue-chip clients like Coldplay and Damon Albarn and fellow avant-pop artists like Owen Pallett.

Brian Eno: The 21st Century Maverick

Being in such high demand as a producer meant less time for his own musical ventures. As a result, Eno’s releases became more sporadic after the original run of Ambient recordings. Yet the century thus far has been one of his most prolific periods, both in terms of his many musical installation works and the recordings under his own name, and with collaborators such as Leo Abrahams, Jon Hopkins, and Underworld’s Karl Hyde. In fact, his relationship with Warp Records has yielded a run of albums that are as richly enthralling (albeit less frantic) as his first four solo efforts in the 1970s. Not bad for an artist who still doesn’t consider himself a musician.