I don’t know how people get into Brian Eno. I suspect it happens through a variety of channels. For me, it was a direct route through Bowie. I’ve mentioned before that after Bowie passed, Pete and I did a deep dive into his contemporaries, to include Brian Eno solo and took the reigns from there. I would say Eno is definitely the most impactful Bowie-offshoot, certainly in my household, but for me personally as well. Other common routes to Eno would be a direct through Roxy Music, with whom Eno recorded the first couple of albums. I would also guess that many looked into him as Talking Heads fans since he’s so known for his work producing three of their strongest albums. I would also guess that fans with very different sensibilities than mine are natively into ambient or contemporary classical, in which Eno has a substantial foothold.
All of this is to say that Brian Eno has essentially had three careers. In chronological order, as an art-pop musician, as a genre-inventing experimental musician, and as a musical producer. I think most know him for the latter two, but I appreciate him best as an art-pop musician, which is pretty astounding, considering I very much do not like Roxy Music. Eno’s first, second, third, and fifth* (out of approximately** 20) solo albums are SO GOOD, this output for me becomes the standout in a shockingly prolific and exceptionally accomplished career.
*In 2005, out of nowhere, Eno put out another pop album called Another Day on Earth, the first since Before and After Science in 1977. It is EXCELLENT. I wouldn’t rank it ahead of my favorite of his ambient output, but would slip it in right after Apollo, Music for Airports, and Discreet Music. If you haven’t heard it, you have to buy it or find it on YouTube. The title track is exceptionally good for managing emotions during These Times.
**Approximating the number of solo albums a person releases seems like an odd thing to do, but he’s put out a ton of collaborations as a solo artist (e.g., Eno and Cluster, Eno; Fripp & Eno, etc.), plus installations and other technically non-studio recordings, it really depends on what exactly you count as a solo album.
“On Some Faraway Beach” was released on his first solo album, Here Come the Warm Jets, which is my favorite Eno record. It is a perfect album: atmospheric, unnerving, creepy, and beautiful all at once. Two standout tracks, “Needles In The Camel’s Eye” and “Baby’s On Fire” were both featured in the 2008 major motion picture Velvet Goldmine. “Needles” was played over an opening sequence in which little mod children, contemporaries of the fictionalized David-Bowie lead character, run through the streets of 1960s London and the placement is 100% perfect. Fic-Bowie’s band in Ziggy-Stardust-the-Motion-Picture form perform a cover version of “Baby’s” recorded by a band calling themselves the Venus in Furs that features Thom Yorke on vocals. Read that sentence again. I feel like I made that up, but I didn’t.
I feel moved to tell you what the album sounds like but I can’t because it isn’t at all cohesive. Each song sounds like it is being performed by an entirely different band, which I need to stress, isn’t a criticism, it’s a statement of fact. “Needles” is light and playful (really does evoke the image of a bunch of mod kids running through cobblestone streets, I promise), “Baby’s” is dark and creepy, sounding almost sinister net of the plainly creepy lyrics, “baby’s on fire, better throw her in the water.” The songs that flank “On Some Faraway Beach,” “Driving Me Backwards” and “Blank Frank” are almost welcome interruptions of the intense sentimentality (not a criticism) of the middle track. “Driving Backwards,” I would bet a thousand dollars, was named as such because it sounds like it was recorded backwards ala David Lynch playing an actor’s dialog backwards, the dialog itself being written backwards. But it isn’t, Eno just invented the backwards sound. “Blank Frank” is harsh, drum-heavy and sung in an almost annoying nasal tone. It snaps you out of the trance you fall under listening to “Faraway Beach.”
A few summers ago, Pete and I took a weekend away in Asbury Park, New Jersey to catch a punk festival coming through (more on that in another post). We’d recently rebuilt our lives after a several-year-spanning bad patch and were starting to *really simmer* again. Happy, content, comfortable. The concert was our reason for taking the trip, but the trip ended up being much bigger than that. We relaxed and recreated really hard and it was one of my best vacations ever. At the time we were listening to a lot of Here Come the Warm Jets and watching the waves break on the beach, the piano riff of “Faraway Beach” was in my head on a loop. It endures--I still think of that trip when I hear the song.
It starts with that loop with soft drums and backing vocals, harmonizing “ahhhhhhh” with the piano riff. This intro lasts TWO MINUTES AND FIFTY THREE SECONDS of a four and a half minute song. And if you’re curious, the word count for the song clocks in at a lean 49*. This is the point though because that hypnotic and repetitive intro tells most of the story. When the vocals start, he’s starting in the middle of a conversation, with the understanding that you’ve had all the context you need for him to burst out with “given the choice, I’ll die like a baby on some faraway beach when the season’s over.” As is the case with all Eno solo songs, I don’t know for sure what this one is about, but am VERY confident it’s about something. If I had to guess, I would say it’s about how life is ultimately temporary with maybe a sprinkle of how nature exists past the human plane, but again, no idea for sure. As the vocals and the drums and other instruments fade out, the piano is back as the feature, playing a similar (but not the same) melody it did during that long introduction, at such a pace where you feel nature moving on after we’re gone. Purely my take, I don’t think I’ve ever discussed this with anyone. The internet tells me that the lyrics came to Eno in a dream and nothing else definitively.
*If you’re like me and don’t know how many words most pop songs contain, I did a word count for David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a fairly conventional pop song of a similar sub-genre from the same era and it has 266 words.
As much as I love Eno, Pete is the *big* fan in my household. He has a near-complete collection of Eno’s solo recordings, reads voraciously up on Eno’s methods and compositional philosophies and you can probably hear it in both of EG’s most recent albums, particularly the most recent, Relaunch. Pete’s phone case is the cover of Another Green World. When he’s wearing his t shirt that also bears the cover of Another Green World, he reminds me of the time I brought an in-heat Betty to the vet wearing a sweatshirt with a picture of a cat on it, clutching my wallet, which yes, also had a picture of a cat on it. He earned this post yesterday, having gotten through Billy Joel day. I rushed to get it done today even though I didn’t really have time for this reason and because it’s Thursday afternoon.
If you haven’t seen the BBC documentary titled Five Years, about the meatiest years of David Bowie’s career, it’s currently streaming on HBO Go. It’s the only documentary I could and do watch at least twice a year. It was hard to find for a minute there, to the point where when we did locate it on PBS dot com or some such place, we actually converted it to file and saved it for safe keeping. Anyway, among the five years covered in the doc is 1976, when the majority of Low was recorded over in Berlin with significant involvement from our pal Eno. I think he probably generally comes off very well in interviews, but he comes off EXCEPTIONALLY well in these as the godfather/puppetmaster of David Bowie’s most lauded output.
I bring this up because I want to talk about my very favorite part of it, when co-producer Tony Visconti recounts the famous story of how he introduced the idea of using new toy, the Eventide Harmonizer on Low, telling Bowie and Eno over the phone “it fucks with the fabric of time.” I think in telling this story, it’s implied that Visconti is kind of fucking with *them*, and they take the bait. The experimentally nerdy duo in their little production bubble let out a “whoop,” which I think only Visconti can do justice. That to me summarizes the necessity that these two work with each other on Low and Heroes. Like, the universe saw it as necessary. I think they’d agree, evidenced by the fact that though they didn’t work together all that much after Heroes, they regularly kept in touch and in much later years, would send each other funny and surreal emails, as if they shared a language neither of them could translate, but both completely and fully understood.