Get me. I have a not especially nouvelle vague theory that the artists who enjoy the longest, most interesting careers are the avid collaborators – that it’s the art of collaboration; the regular influx of new perspectives and approaches, that keeps their work fresh.
I know this is the sort of thing that’s next to impossible to prove. Correlation versus causation, right? Are artistic alliances just something that restless, intellectually curious makers do? A by-product of the sort of curiosity that is itself the root cause of these long, electric lifetimes of art-making?
Anyway, like I said, unprovable–a real chicken-and-egg situation. But if you wanted to try, you couldn’t ask for a better case study than the man born Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno 75 years ago today.
Brian Eno needs no introduction, of course. As a self-described “non-musician”, producer, visual artist, author and activist, the egghead one has had an incalculable influence on the recording, production and texture of modern rock and pop music . Indeed, he has been involved in so many varied and significant artistic adventures that to call him a Zelig-like figure — which is often done — is to risk understating his reach and importance.
First coming to international prominence in the early 1970s as a founding member of Roxy Music, Eno built a reputation as an innovator, and made his name on sonic “treatments,” his contributions not just involving playing an instrument, but drastically altering a philosophical or theoretical approach.
Eno also experimented with guitar tunings, used the studio space as a “compositional tool,” employed a randomly drawn card technique known as Oblique Strategies, and even occasionally earned credits for “Enossification” on a huge and wide-ranging catalogue of other people’s music: from Genesis and Grace Jones to John Cage and John Cale; and from Robert Fripp and Robbie Williams to Jah Wobble and James Blake. Throw Karl Hyde, Harold Budd and Paul Simon into the mix as well and you get the picture.
While his own solo discography is incredibly varied and eminently expansive (29 studio albums and counting, running the gamut of glam rock to film soundtracks to New Age-influencing ambient electronics), his 22nd collaborative LP was issued just this month; an intriguing team-up with downtempo DJ Fred Again on Secret Life, a superlative example of Eno occasionally elevating the careers of younger, less famous artists he finds interesting.
Still, Eno is perhaps best known for his celebrated production career, and his name’s almost certainly on a fair few pieces in your library. So in honour of his three-quarter century we’ve picked out a Perfect 10 of classic cuts that rank among his most groundbreaking achievements. Get Enossified with us as we count down the essential tracks “produced” by Brian Eno.
Ultravox! — My Sex (1977)
A case of master passing his knowledge on to the pupil if ever there was one. If you saw the names Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite in the credits for a band on Island Records beginning with the letter ‘U’ you’d naturally think of U2, right? Actually, the pair worked together years before teaming up with Bono and the boys, co-producing the debut album from Ultravox! in their apostrophed pre-Midge Ure incarnation. While Eno’s involvement is ostensibly overplayed (he was enlisted initially as a “name” to get the band noticed), the album’s helmsman is undoubtedly John Foxx, whose archly mannered theatrics bring to life glam-tinged tales of alienation, destruction and disillusionment in the new wave era.
The LP owes more than a little to Brian’s contributions to fabulous Roxy Music creations such as the sophomore For Your Pleasure or his own solo set Here Come The Warm Jets. Alas, it’s hard to say how much of that is Eno’s presence rather than simply the band’s own Eno worship, you can certainly hear him in songs such as Life At Rainbow’s End or Slip Away. And while the first act of the epic I Want To Be A Machine seems to be David Bowie’s version of Jacques Brel’s My Death twisted by a bogus mandroid, on the extraordinary My Sex, Foxx goes further still, creating an electro-flesh ballad describing the vulnerability of the body, only a couple of titular letters out from the Belgian original. The track was also spun off as the flip side of the Dangerous Rhythm single, and certainly bears more of Eno’s sonic soundscapes than the ‘A’. Thank heavens for Paul Day’s seven-inch then.
Devo — Jocko Homo (1978)
Hailing from the same Akron city as the great Pretender, Chrissie Hynde, the debut album by Ohio new wave weirdos Devo had a ton of top names clamouring to be involved. Iggy Pop and David Bowie both expressed interest in producing them (the latter even announcing live on stage he had the job in the bag), and although Eno eventually sat in the captain’s chair, Bowie is said to have helped “on the weekends” while filming the Just A Gigolo movie in Berlin.
Alas, although now considered a birrova alt. rock classic, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was not an easy project—the helmsman found the band difficult to work with and resistant to his compositional suggestions. It’s really no wonder, either. The aesthetic identities of the two artistic parties rarely mesh. Where Eno wanted a warm and atmospheric sound, Devo’s vibe was cold and mechanical, like a robotic New York Dolls on acid.
Presented as a tense tongue-in-cheek critique of an idealised Amerika, the nervy aggro punk funk spliced with deconstructionist pop and post-modernism was best summed up by their manifesto Jocko Homo, a herky-jerky burst of deviance like no other. Perhaps being connected to one of counter culture’s most anti-human albums reinforced Eno’s own, later humanism, because I don’t know how else you get from this to The Joshua Tree.
Talking Heads — Once In A Lifetime (1980)
Same as it ever was? Let’s be obvious for a minute… OK, four minutes and 19 seconds to be exact. This Talking Heads masterpiece is one of Eno’s most enduring productions, and gave the New York art rockers their first major hit outside of the US, aided in no small part by that evocative Toni Basil-directed promotional video.
Developed from a jam session in Nassau with Robert Palmer on guitar and percussion, Once In A Lifetime is an intoxicating bass-heavy mosaic of Afrobeat polyrhythms, looped electronics, and the Heads’ increasingly cerebral pop melodicism. With his prints all over the compositional credits and the call-and-response chorus vocals, the egghead crafted a strange yet immediately accessible sonic landscape that is arguably his most distinctive singular achievement.
Eno observed that frontman David Byrne combined the “blood-and-thunder intonation of the preacher” with optimistic ever-quotable lyrics: “It’s saying what a fantastic place we live in, let’s celebrate it. That was a radical thing to do when everyone was so miserable and grey!” Moreover, Byrne denied the words castigate Eighties excess and Thatcherite yuppie greed and averred the song was about the existential unconscious: “We operate half-awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?’”
U2 — Where The Streets Have No Name (1987)
No musical act has benefited from Brian Eno’s guiding hand more than Ireland’s godhead quartet. He’s received production, performance, and even vocal credits on seven official U2 albums, and joined them outright on the one-off Passengers project Original Soundtracks 1 in 1995. Eno helped reflect and shape Bono’s emotion and bring The Edge’s wavering, atmospheric guitar to the fore. For 1987’s The Joshua Tree—arguably the most famous work of all concerned—he and Daniel Lanois married the emerald act’s soul-searching anthems with a gaggle of gorgeous electronic flourishes.
The results were even better than the real thing: the LP was a major coup artistically and commercially, single-handedly turning U2 into megastars and launching Eno and Lanois’ mainstream career. And U2, BE told The Independent, are essentially the ABBA of their day. “Some of their best songs are fantastic, and you can’t argue with that. You can’t. I was in a taxi the other day when With Or Without You came on the radio, and I just thought, ‘Bloody hell, that’s good.’ Because it is!”
Spun off as the third single from The Joshua Tree, Where The Streets Have No Name was immediately prevented from a Top 3 position in the UK charts by What Have I Done To Deserve This? by Pet Shop Boys & Dusty Springfield. Rubbing further salt in the wounds, when the seminal synth duo splashed some music hall camp on the U2 tune by covering it as a deadpan disco medley with I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You in 1991, it also also peaked at No. 4, prompting the U2 PR machine to issue a wry statement saying “What have we done to deserve this?” Neil Tennant later revealed that he had “managed to patch things up with Bono” after getting celebritied up with him at Elton John’s hilltop home in the south of France. That’ll be the Nice mansion high on Mount Boron then, a couple of miles along the coastline from where I’ve written this very article.
James — Laid (1993)
As a producer, Brian Eno’s trademark techniques aren’t as instantly identifiable as, say, Trevor Horn’s or Steve Albini’s. And Eno isn’t necessarily one to make other artists’ albums in his own image, though his investment in a project does depend on how highly he values it. In the case of James’s Laid, the egghead wasn’t impressed with their song One Of The Three, which the band ended up recording when he wasn’t in the studio.
The rest of the record, however, is one of the strongest of the so-called Britpop era, and none more memorable than its yodelling folky title track. With lush and dreamy effects and some of the best songwriting of the band’s career. Needless to say its sound is immaculate, no doubt a result of Eno’s expert touch—even if he does consider himself that typically self-effacing “non-musician.”
Laurie Anderson — Freefall (1994)
Eno’s on-off collaborative concepts with fellow avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson began with her fifth studio set Bright Red. Eno recalls how working on that album altered his production method: traditionally, mixing a record began with the rhythm section, laying down a landscape on top of which the vocals were placed; fascinated by Anderson’s voice, Eno decided to upend the process and begin with her voice and then build instruments around her; a technique he has continued to this day.
Listening back to the songs from that era, meanwhile, Anderson finds them “floaty and open in a way I had forgotten”. And there’s no greatest example of the spatial odyssey they created than in the sublime Freefall. Unlike the majority of the album, there’s no discernible vocal contribution from Laurie’s future husband Lou Reed, though the slightly Peter Gabriel-ish track does boast numerous musicians from past and future David Bowie works, including Adrian Belew, Gerry Leonard, Joey Barron and Neil Conti. Talking of which…
David Bowie — I’m Deranged (1995)
Despite recurring collaborations with the likes of Bono, Booth and Byrne, the great Dame himself, David Bowie, might have been the most fruitful musical partner Brian Eno ever had, if only because every time they emerged from the studio, the results were nothing short of hypnotic. Despite what lazy journalism would have you believe, the only Bowie album to actually bear an Eno production credit is 1995’s 1. Outside, one of DB’s strongest post-’80s projects and a complex noir concept or “A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle” as it was hilariously subtitled.
Though not as concise and unblemished as the Tony Visconti-helmed Low and “Heroes” (both 1977), Outside finds the self-confessed purveyors of pretentiousness embracing spontaneity—little was written before they came to the studio—and tried-and-true techniques such as lyrical cut-ups or oblique strategy-style flash cards. The result is a very long album, but one rich in art-rock highlights, such as the pounding industrial stomp of Hallo Spaceboy (later re-produced by Pet Shop Boys for hit-making potential) and the electro-jazz meets jungle sonics of I’m Deranged — a dark, frenetic hyperballad ripped apart here and there by Mike Garson’s wayward piano inserts. It was memorably featured in David Lynch’s Lost Highway movie in 1997.
Sinéad O’Connor — Emma’s Song (2000)
Following a hiatus after 1997’s Gospel Oak that saw Irish maverick Sinéad O’Connor survive a punishing custody battle, a suicide attempt, a lesbian self-outing, and a change of record label, 2000’s Faith And Courage saw the Pope-baiting singer conspire to deliver a broad palette of moody and textured song arrangements crafted in conjunction with a roll-call of sonic notables from Fugees’ Wyclef Jean to Eurythmics mainman Dave Stewart and dub pioneer Adrian Sherwood.
Pairing with SOC mainstay John Reynolds, Eno contributes his idiosyncratic knob-twiddling to the penultimate track, Emma’s Song, a spookily serene new-age ballad that suggests tension, ambivalence, and mystery, all hauntingly wrapped up in Sinéad’s sweetly sincere delivery.
Coldplay — Viva la Vida (2008)
Haters begone – because Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends was almost certainly one of the most interesting albums from 2008. It’s arguably Coldplay’s most sophisticated work, spanning genres as diverse as chamber pop and avant-garde jazz, culminating in one of Will Champion’s most aggressive use of backpedals and bass drums. It’s a musician-heavy work, which is curious considering that Eno’s metier is minimalistic. But what a way to journey into ornate baroque and roll, culminating in one of the most memorable British pop singles of the 21st century. There‘s even an alternative promo video by Anton Corbin, shot in my former sabbatical city of The Hague and a tribute to the Dutchman’s earlier film for Depeche Mode‘s Enjoy The Silence.
Talking of varying versions, during the album’s production Viva la Vida was one of the songs that had polarised each member’s opinion over which take they should choose. In an interview, Chris Martin recalled: “We did quite a few different versions and went round the houses a bit and eventually settled on those treatments for it.” With its minimal use of guitar, the symphonic string-heavy arrangement was one that the Pet Shop Boys liked so much they even covered the track just months later, conjoined pseudo mash-up style with their earlier 45, Domino Dancing.
Jean-Michel Jarre — Epica Extension (2022)
The most recent Enossification and the only one officially a retooling of an existing production. Celebrated synthesist Jean-Michel Jarre enlisted the egghead for Epica Extension, a propulsive piece first found on his 2022 album Oxymore, ostensibly an homage his fellow French electronic and classical composer, Pierre Henry, who died in 2017.
The sonics of the original Epica are there but clothed in a different aura. Now some more muffled, others more crystalline, it’s genuinely a new interpretation of the narrative that Jarre had offered. The drums drive ahead over a hypnotic array of pulsing synths and a lead loop that sounds like it’s coming from some uncanny choral singer, representing the rhythmic addition that Eno was longing for. The bustling breakbeat makes it more energetically urban, enhancing its creativity. JMJ said in a statement:
“When I started Epica, I immediately thought that Brian Eno could be involved in this most rhythmic track of the album, thinking that he could bring his signature ‘ambient’ touch in reworking the track — another kind of oxymoron. But he told me that he was most interested in developing rhythmic ideas these days… and here is the beautiful, ghostly, unexpected result. Thank you Brian.”
Thank you indeed Monsieur Brian Eno. Here’s to future days.
Red Bull, Earl Grey and Digital Lion: Brian Eno talks James Blake is here