Brian Eno: A Sandbox In Alphaville
By Lester Bangs
Part 2 of 4
Copyright 2003 Ben Catching III. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
In the very first interview I ever had with Eno, he had just finished a lengthy cybernetic exegesis, when I said: "Okay, now let's do what you do in your music: let's make a complete 90 degree turn. Instead of talking about all this theoretical stuff, why don't you tell me a little bit about your life, like say... what were your parents like?"
His face lit up. "My father was a postman all his life. He had exactly the same job from the age of fourteen until he retired a couple of years ago. Where I come from is Suffolk, which is in the east of England, a kind of underpopulated country area which really is, I suppose, still kind of a feudal society. There are sort of squires and local gentry, who aren't resented and who in turn don't control in a kind of unpleasant way. There's just an assumption of a hierarchy, actually. And this is reflected by the fact that everybody votes Conservative there; it's got about the worst record of Labour voting ever. It's a very conservative society. A friend of mine said that people that are happy vote Conservative, and in a sense, he's right."
"Or people that are threatened," I said.
"Yes, that too. At the lower level it's people that are happy, and don't see the need for changes. And in a funny way, I think my father was very happy. My mother is Flemish; she was in a concentration camp during the war, in labor camps mostly, actually building planes. She met my father at the end of the war and came to England, and in 1948 they gave birth to me.
"The interesting singularity about this area of Suffolk that I come from is that it's a small town, like 5,000 people, but directly next to town, literally within five miles, are two large American air bases, huge ones, with a total population of about 15,000 GIs. So from very early on, nearly all of the music I heard was American music. Which to me was like outer space music. I can never explain to people what effect of that was, not Elvis Presley but the weirder things, things like "Get A Job" by the Silhouettes and "What's Your Name," Don and Juan, the a capella stuff that I had no other experience of--it was like music from nowhere and I liked it a lot.
"But I'll say a bit more about my parents. The thing I find incredible about my father is that he never, ever cheats on anything. He's incredibly honest in this sort of really ideal country way, that part of being a community is not fucking people about. You just don't do it. He wouldn't dream of cheating on his taxes or anything like that, or even slightly slotting them in his favor. There's a real strong organic morality there that hasn't been imposed, somehow, and that isn't resented, either. It's not the result of a set of laws. I know that the same thing exists in country areas of America, as well.
"But what's interesting is that in the last fifteen years since I left that part of the world and moved to cities, when I revisit I find that that is actually degenerating now. There is a sense that, partly because the community just isn't as insular anymore, it's just not as integrated a community. People have moved and other people are more mobile, so you don't have this rather carefully evolved locking together of personalities. The thing that's always interested me about country areas is how eccentrics are tolerated, and not only tolerated but really have some actual part of social life. There was a guy we used to call Old Bill, who was a very very weird old man, sort of mumbling and grumpy and a really really ugly face. He used to just walk about, and his one ambition was to collect money for the brass band. When they were playing he used to go around and do it with his hat, and gave them the money. And so what he did was give him a uniform, and he was the happiest man after that. He had this thing to do, and of course the band was quite happy, and everyone was pleased. And in a city, he would either have become a tramp, or been put in a home or something like that. Nobody's interested in that kind of weird social role anymore, in big places.
"My parents were both Catholic, and all of my education until the age of sixteen was Catholic. I went to a convent first, with nuns teaching, and then from the age of eleven I went to Catholic grammar school, and that had some interesting effects. I was the only Catholic in the area that I lived, and there was a kind of thing about that, being called a Roman candle in jest. There was never any kind of hostility about it; just felt a bit different, that's all."
"Do you think Catholicism had any effect on the sense of dread in a lot of your music?" I asked, thinking of pieces like "Driving Me Backwards."
"I think so. Well, I trace the melancholy more to that, because one of the things, in fact the only thing I can remember from school was how I felt about these hymns: I thought they were absolutely beautiful, and the more sad they were the better I liked them. We were singing all the time, they do a lot of hymn singing in Catholic school. And though there was this you'll go to hell thing, and nuns giving descriptions of what would happen to you there, I don't think I took it seriously enough for it to leave a real impression, because when I was about fourteen the whole body of theory started to conflict with the way I wanted to behave, and I just chose the latter, without much guilt.
"I can also remember at about the age of nine, for some reason I became the class clown. I can't remember anything I actually did; I can just remember keeping in balance this mixture of being bright enough to get by--so the teachers couldn't actually get on my back too much--and also being kind of precocious at the same time, always managing to stay one up. I could actually do the work as well, because I was one of the brighter kids--in fact, I even used to quite consciously do a lot of sort of secret research, so that I could stay bright enough to maintain my freedom in that respect. My father bought this thing called Pear's Encyclopedia, which was issued once a year by a soap company in England, and I used to just sit and read it--it wasn't like an imposition, I liked reading it--and sort of cram it in until I had this huge head full of facts about things. I can remember a time also when this became very useful. There was a teacher called Miss Watson who was a very nice old lady. She said, 'What does anyone know about the calendar?' and it so happened that about a week before I'd been reading about the transition from the Roman to the Gregorian calendar, and I knew everything about it, like how long exactly in minutes and seconds the year was. And so I delivered this impromptu spiel which staggered them. I didn't tell her that I'd just read it all up, and from that time on she sort of held me in awe, which gave me all sorts of freedoms in her class."
"Do you ever see your current position as being somewhat analogous?"
"Yes, I hadn't thought about that incident in a long while, and I was just thinking as I described it about whether that was also the case. What I do think is that my tendency to work by avoidance has strong roots in my childhood. One very strong thing that I can remember was a real decision that I took when I was nine, which was probably my first really important decision. I can remember my father coming home from work as he always did-- he always had to work lots of overtime in order to get enough money, because the job wasn't well-paid. I can remember him coming home from work and just falling into a chair and going to sleep because he was so tired he couldn't even eat, and I thought, 'The one thing I'm never going to do is get a job.' I saw that it was a trap, because he was so tired and so exhausted on every level that he was never going to be able to do anything else but get up the next day and go to work. It turned into a distinct avoidance thing for me, because I never wanted to be in that position. That thought never left me: in fact, I've never had a job in my whole life, except once. When I say a job I mean something you do for somebody else to earn money, not because you want to do it. And I did have one job like that once. I did design and layout on a newspaper. It was an advertising magazine that was distributed free to a million homes. I didn't hate it. I became very successful at it. I started off at the bottom, doing a very menial job, and in the four months I was there I got promoted again and again and again, and I ended up earning four or five times as much as I'd started with, and sort of running the office. And then I realized that I could carry on doing that and never do anything else, because I wasn't doing anything else. And I kept saying to myself, 'Oh well, I'll do some music this weekend,' and then I wouldn't, I'd be too tired and I'd say, 'Oh, I'll do it next weekend,' and then I wouldn't do it, so I just gave it up after a while. It was exactly what I knew a job would be like--not horrible enough to make you want to get out, just well-paying enough to make you comfortable and to keep putting things off.
"So when I was about thirteen or fourteen I decided to go to art school, and it wasn't hard to get in, because the art school I applied to was short of students and had to have a minimum amount in order to meet their funding. I didn't have any real notions of being an artist at the time; I was interested in and very moved by painting, but the main thing was that I didn't want a job. You don't really have art schools here like we do in England. In England, which has a fifth of your population, there are about eighty art schools. Some of them are quite small, but again some of them are much bigger than anything you have here. They're all the result of the William Morris movement, the idea that the masses could be cultured and so on. They always had this reputation of being the liberal education in England, and it's always been the place where people who didn't really know what they wanted to do except that they wanted to do something vaguely creative, would go. And art school staff have always been afraid of that idea--they knew that everyone didn't come there with the idea that they would all turn out painters, but it was just like a scene where everyone kept going. Which is now threatened incidentally by Margaret Thatcher, who is cutting back the grants to such nonproductive facilities.
"The first art school I went to was a very, very unique and interesting one. It was run by a man called Roy Ascott, who had previously started another art school in London which Pete Townshend studied at, and quite a number of other interesting people. He'd gathered together the staff, and they'd quite effectively tried to work out a new policy of art education, with the idea that art had an important cultural role and wasn't just to do with people making pictures. It was a center for creative behavior really; that's what they tried to think of it as. Of course, they were always in this bind that the education committee demanded to see lots of paintings, and the fact that students were doing interesting music and theatre and dance and so on didn't really interest them. They only wanted what was expected. So Ascott got sacked from the place that Townshend was at, and then he found a little old art school that was just sort of going to pot, and he started the same thing again there with the same staff. It only lasted two years, again he was sacked, he just keeps getting sacked all the time. He's a brilliant guy. He was…well, I suppose you could say he's a behaviorist, which usually has bad connotations to it, but in an art school context that's just dynamite news. He was hated by the liberal arts teachers of England like nobody else. They used to publish all sorts of articles against him because the kinds of things he did, to anyone who wasn't involved in them, must have looked very fascist. But they weren't. They were really exciting.
"I'll tell you the projects we had the first semester. You must realize that this is a real naïve bunch of students, all fifteen or sixteen, that come in with paint boxes thinking that they were gonna do Renoirs or something like that. I was involved by pure accident: it was the nearest art school. In fact, if I could have done, I would have gone to another one that I couldn't get a grant for. This was just a crummy little place in a little country town, and this bunch of students all from the country, and all with ideas about the nice paintings they'd be doing. On our second day there, our first drawing exercise was to make a visual comparison between a venetian blind and a hot water tap. It was meant to be in terms of how they functioned, not in terms of how they looked. And this boggled everyone. And then the first main project was that the students were put in pairs, and each pair of students had to invent a game, the function of which was to make some kind of psychological behavioral evaluation of people who played it. So they weren't necessarily competitive games, they were games that involved making a decision rather than a number of others, and then extrapolating things about people's personalities on the basis of those decisions. I think there were thirty students altogether, so there were fifteen games made. They varied through all sorts of things: mine was a kind of board game, others were whole rooms that you went through and did various things in. Anyway, all the students went through this, and consequently each student ended up with fifteen so-called character profiles. From those character profiles you had to make what was called a Mind Map, which was a kind of diagrammatic scheme of how you tended to behave in lots of different situations, and then the next part of the project was that you had to then assume a character who was as far as possible opposite to that one, and that was who you were to be for the rest of the semester, which was like eight more weeks. This was very, very interesting. And then we were put into groups of five on the basis of these new assumed characters. The meekest person would be like the group policymaker, and the one who tended to talk most would be who got to do all the dirty work, like buying things from the shops. He would be the dogsbody; that was my job, actually. And so you had people working with characters who were quite alien to them. And each group of five had another project that was a very complicated one that I can't explain, but we had to make the projects using those characters.
"There were some funny things (that) happened. There was one girl who was very timid, so part of her Mind Map stipulated that she had to walk this tightrope in front of the whole group every morning. This was her own stipulation, you know, these things weren't imposed; having designed your own Mind Map you then worked out a number of behavior patterns that you carried out. Another interesting thing was that the whole accent of the course was on working with other people; you could act alone if you wanted, but the accent was on group dynamics and how people worked together. In fact, we went into that in quite considerable depth, about how you got things done in groups and what sort of behavior tended to be counterproductive and so on. It was all very useful. I'm happiest working with other people anyway. It was really like early training in Oblique Strategizing, collaborating, all the techniques I use now, and it was certainly the most important thing that could have happened to me at the time. That lasted only two years and then everyone got sacked again, and I went to another art school: one of the staff whom I got on with particularly well got a job in another school and said would I come along and be a student there. The first was Ipswich, the second was Winchester. And while at the two I studied under some wonderful people. Tom Phillips is I suppose the most famous now, isn't he, quite a well-known painter. He wasn't then; he was a very tough teacher, and we got on extremely well. That is, until I became a rock musician, and then he thought I was throwing my talents away. That was a very painful experience, for me and probably for him too actually. I also studied under Christian Wolff, an American composer who wrote a series of pieces for nonmusicians which were very important to me at the time, generally using untrained voice, or noninstruments like sticks and stones and so on; in fact, one of them was called 'Sticks and Stones.'
"See, when I was at Winchester I got myself elected head of the student union, so that I could hire interesting staff. So I started getting people to come down and give lectures. We used to have a lot of composers coming down, like Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff and Morton Feldman.
"I didn't know that I wanted to do music until I'd been at art school for about three years, although I'd been fooling with electronics and tape recorders since I was about fifteen. I had wanted a tape recorder since I was tiny. I thought it was just like a magic thing, and I always used to ask my parents if I could have one but I never got one, until just before I went to art school I got access to one and started playing with it, and then when I went to art school they had them there. I thought it was magic to be able to catch something identically on tape and then be able to play around with it, run it backwards--I thought that was great for years," he laughs.
"I can remember the first musical piece I did at art school: the sound source was this big metal lampshade, like they have in institutions, and it was a very deep bell, and I did a piece where I just used that sound but at different speeds so it sounded like a lot of different bells. They were very close in pitch and they just beat together. It's not unlike many of the things I do now, I suppose.
"Later at Winchester I build George Brecht's 'Drip Event.' That was one of the best things I did in my art school days. George Brecht produced this thing called 'Watermelon' or 'Yam Box' or something like that. It was a big box of cards of all different sizes and shapes, and each card had instructions for a piece on it. It was in the time of events and fluxes and happenings and all that. All of the cards had cryptic things on them, like one said, 'Egg event--at least one egg.' Another said, 'Two chairs. One umbrella. One chair.' There were all like that, but the drip event one said, 'Erect containers such that water from other containers drips into them.' That was the score, you see. I did two versions of that. I did a simple one which won an award, but then I decided I wanted to do a big one. I made a ten-foot cube out of what you call speedframe here I think, we call it Dexene in England; it's this metal that screws together. You can make big structures out of it very easily. On top of that I had a collector that collected water, then the water would be disseminated through a whole series of channels and hit little things and make noises as it went down. At the bottom of this cube there was a wall a couple of feet high all the way around, and the wall was covered with those things you get for the children's painting books where you just put water on them. So over the few days it survived--it was wrecked by vandals-- the water would drip, and it would splash onto these little pictures which gradually came to life very slowly. But it was a very lovely thing, it made the most beautiful delicate noise. I had the water just dripping onto little cans with skins stretched across them so that they made little percussive noises, little dings and tinkles and so on, a very very delicate noise, and it was right by a river, so the gentle bubbling of the river was in the background. But that got wrecked, unfortunately. It was outside and I never event got a photograph of it.
"I also did La Monte Young's "X For Henry Flynt," which was a good performance too. It's a place that I can't remember the exact score, but it stipulates that you play a complex chord cluster and that you try to play it identically and with an even space between it. There were two ways of doing it, since the score is ambiguous: you either play each one identical to the first, where you're trying to always play exactly the same thing, or you try to play each one identical to the one before. I did two performances of that one: I did one like this"--he spreads his arms--"at a piano where it was just as many notes as I could cover, and I did another one with an open piano frame where I just used a big flat piece of wood, CRASH CRASH CRASH. It sounds horrible I know, but if you last ten minutes it gets very interesting. My first performance of it lasted an hour and the second one an hour and a half. It's one of those hallucinatory pieces where your brain starts to habituate so that you cease to hear all the common notes, you just hear the differences from crash to crash, and these become so beautiful. They're just entrancing. The difference can be like trying to cover both the black and white keys at the same time, sometimes you don't get a white down properly or miss a black, and just missing one note out of the fifty or so you're covering is a very noticeable difference, you really can hear that. You start to hear these omissions as melodies, or sometimes your arms creeps up a little bit further or down a little bit further or you hit too hard or your rhythm switches, and of course since I had the sustain pedal down as well it was just a continuous ring and eventually the whole piano was just really resonating and the richness of the sound was just amazing. After a little while you start to hear every type of sound, it's the closest thing in music to a drug experience I've heard. You hear trumpets and bells and people talking clear words, sentences coming out, because the brain starts to--it's like the opposite of sensory deprivation, but it's the same effect. You start to hallucinate, because you telescope in on finer and finer details, like for instance the acoustics of the room become very very obvious to you. You notice that one note always echoes off that wall and another always echoes off that wall. And you can hear interplays like that in space as well, which of course are facts that in a normal performance you wouldn't be aware of, since things are going by so quickly and they don't repeat.
"But fortunately that thrill is something that doesn't keep happening. Once you throw about the brain's facility to habituate like that, it's not something that you can keep using forever, I've found, because part of the thrill from something like that is that from such an economical source so much happens. Once you know that, there isn't that thrill anymore; you sit down to another of those pieces of unchanging music and think, 'Oh well, I know what's gonna happen now.'
"Not long after that I joined a Cornelius Cardew thing called the Scratch Orchestra. I was only a member of that for a very short time. It was a group which ended up being about eighty people, mostly from art schools but also some composers and so on, and it was like a kind of music events type study group which also performed those things. It's really hard to explain what went on in the Scratch Orchestra. There was a thing called the Scratch Book which was a dossier of all the pieces produced by people in the orchestra, and they ranged from conventionally scored pieces to very offbeat types of graphic material intended to produce music. It had a lot of offshoots: for instance, the Portsmouth Sinfonia was really an offshoot work since most of the people in it in the beginning came out of the Scratch Orchestra. There was another one called the Majorca Orchestra, then People's Orchestra Music and lots of little groups who were very important in England for a while and absolutely nowhere else. The Portsmouth Sinfonia was already established when I joined it. I joined and just produced the two albums--well, in the loosest sense of that word. There was not much producing to do, since the first one was recorded on stereo, so mixing meant putting one channel up or the other.
"I joined the Sinfonia just after I left art school in 1969, and it was a great training. Anyone could join, provided they came to rehearsals, and the idea was that you play the popular classics as well as you could. Now everyone thinks that the Sinfonia was composed only of nonmusicians but it was wasn't actually; it had this open membership so that anyone could join, so some very good musicians joined. That was what really made it interesting: this tension between people playing it really well and others making an absolute fuckup of it, but everyone doing it with full seriousness. The concert we did at the Royal Albert Hall was great. There was a girl who had actually trained as a concert pianist for many years, and her career had been ended because she walked through a glass door by accident and damaged her left hand. She knew she could still play very well, but she would never be a concert pianist now. Anyway, she joined the Sinfonia, and we did "Pathetique." I think with her, it was some Tchaikovsky piece, she was playing these beautiful piano things, and it was one of those where you get the piano and then the orchestra coming in: "Pliddleliddleluddlelidliiidleliddle--BRAANH UHN AHN ER ONNKH!" I played clarinet. Not very well.
"It was around this time that I got into Roxy Music. In fact, I was in the two simultaneously. In fact, my last concert with Roxy was at the York Festival: I played in the Sinfonia in the afternoon and Roxy in the evening, like one after another. Actually that was also my last Sinfonia concert as well, come to think of it.
"I joined Roxy Music after it started as well. Well, just after. Bryan came from Newcastle Art School: he'd been in a soul band there with a guy named Graham Simpson who was the first bass player in Roxy, and they decided to come to London and start a band together. So it was just the two of them at first, then they advertised for a synthesizer player, and Andy MacKay went along with his little synthesizer. Then they found out that he also played wind instruments, and Andy said, 'Oh, I know a guy who plays synthesizer, I'll play saxophones and that, and I'll get this other guy who knows electronics.'
"The truth was that I'd never touched a synthesizer before, but Andy knew that I had been doing things with electronics for a long time, five or six years, particularly using tape. Since I was about fifteen, really. They didn't even ask me to play at the audition, in fact I was never auditioned. I got there on rather a false pretense actually, which is a good way to do it. I had tape recorders, and Andy said, 'We want you to come along and just help us make some demo tapes of the band,' and that's all I thought I was going there for. Then I noticed there was a synthesizer around so I started playing around with it, and they said, 'Would you like to join the band?' So I guess in a sense it was an audition, but I didn't know it was.
"I borrowed the synthesizer off Andy, and shortly after that he went away. He got a teaching job in Italy for a month or so, and I had this studio and these tape recorders, and I just started doing experiments with the synthesizer. It's not a hard instrument, actually. People think synthesizers are difficult and mysterious, but in about a day you can understand how to use it. In about five years you can understand how not to as well."
"So I joined Roxy about a month after it started happening, in fact I joined about four days after Andy. The band at that time was bass guitar, synthesizer, saxes and piano, a very peculiar lineup.
"We rehearsed for a long long time adding drummers and guitarists occasionally along the way. To get a drummer we auditioned 130 drummers, and it came down to tow people in the end. One was a guy named Charlie Hayward who played in Quiet Sun, which was Phil Manzanera's first band. He was a very technical sort of drummer with a lot of interesting ideas; he had a drumkit that was made apart from ordinary drums, it had all sorts of junk inside it, like a van Tieghem type of thing only on stands so he could play it. So it was a choice between him who was very light and Paul Thompson who's very very heavy, and we went for Paul, because we decided that with the instruments we already had quite enough etheria, we needed some kind of heavy anchorage. And I think that was quite the right choice as well. I think if it hadn't been for Paul, who is always quite the overlooked person in Roxy, it would have been just another arty band.
"We spent a year rehearsing, first of all in Bryan's girlfriend's house and then in my house. I built a tiny little studio that was soundproofed off, and we worked in there really hard for about five months. We used to rehearse five nights a week. It was our only life--we gave up all sorts of social life. We never made any money because we never played live. I supported myself by doing two things mainly. I was wheeling and dealing, which meant that I used to buy electronic equipment, and knew where to buy things cheap. I was living in South London, which was a crooked part of London, and I just used to buy stuff up that was cheap, and sell it again. For instance, this chain called Pearl and Dean closed down their operations, they used to have PAs in cinemas and bingo halls, and I bought up all their loudspeakers and got a bulk discount. I bought 75 of these columns of loudspeakers and sold them all bit by bit, and some of them became part of the Roxy PA and that. So I used to do that and the other thing was, I made a few blue films. I didn't feel bad about it; mostly felt tired. And it takes a long time, as well; not a long time in terms of Apocalypse Now, but it takes about two hours. And because you always do it indoors of course, you have to do it under these very bright lights.
"I was very happy in Roxy for quite a long time. I don't think any of us expected to be successful, for a start. Well, Bryan did, I suppose. But for the rest of us it was still kind of (an) art event type of thing. I don't think anyone would have been surprised or even especially disappointed if after a year it all folded up. In fact, it even looked like it might, at one point. We did our first live performance over a year after we'd got together, and then we did about a dozen performances in a dozen places with awful equipment and under very bad circumstances.
"Then we got signed. We had two supporters. First of all John Peel got us to do his radio program, and that was the first time I'd been in a recording studio. We did this session, and we did it very well, because it was our ideal situation: we'd been used to working in something like a studio in my place for a year. So we weren't at all flustered by that situation, and we also had an idea or I did anyhow about how you could use the studio. We recorded five songs in four hours, and actually did a bit of overdubbing and so on. And the tapes sounded really great. They got broadcast, and the reaction was remarkable. Nobody had ever heard of us, we were completely unknown, Peel had seen us at a Genesis concert. It was a terrible concert. At this time I still wasn't onstage yet. I used to be at the back of the hall mixing and synthesizing and sometimes also singing as well, which was a very weird role to be in: the audience is sitting there watching and suddenly this voice comes out and they look all around.
"At one point in this concert I remember Andy, who had a predilection for wearing large boots, stepped backwards onto the main DI box which fed about six instruments to the mixer. And of course everything went off because he crushed the fuckin' box. We didn't have any roadies, so the only thing for me to do was to set up a mix that I thought would be all right for the rest of the show and go and sit on the stage holding these bloody wires in! I didn't have a soldering iron or anything, I couldn't fix it. So I just sat the whole rest of the concert, holding the wires in like this. I felt like such a prat.
"So anyway Peel liked that. And then after that Richard Williams wrote about us in this column he used to have in Melody Maker called 'On the Horizon,' which was about unrecorded bands. It was our first press and very flattering as well. Then we used the Peel radio tape as a demo tape, took it around to a lot of places, most of whom were uninterested. Then we got in touch with E.G. Management, because we'd all been very impressed with how King Crimson were handled, and E.G. set up an audition where they hired this horrible big empty cinema in Stratton, and there were just these two people in the audience who sat there watching us and looking like managers. At one stage our new roadie, in an effort to look efficient, went running across the stage tripping over another of those main wires and ripping it out, so once again, there I was…perhaps that's what people liked about me. Anyway, they rejected us, and then this Richard Williams piece came out, and they decided to give another listen and accepted us. We were a real mess in some ways at that time. It was all like good ideas but real untogether."
That last sentence, in fact, would be a perfect description of Roxy Music's debut album. Eno himself feels that Stranded, recorded a year later and their first LP without him, is really their masterpiece. It may well be, but in that album Roxy stopped being a vessel strong enough to hold both sonic experimentalism and Bryan Ferry's fin du chicle romanticism, and settled instead for being perhaps the most opulently aristocratic pop group of the Seventies. Eno's sonic miasmas were on one level no more than a frame of gilt smog, designed to better showcase tunesmith-vocalist Ferry, but on another they were the defining factor in the band's air of mystery and avant-garde reputation, and as crucial as Ferry's Basil Rathbone singing in establishing the group's basic sound. The second album, For Your Pleasure, featured a ten-minute cut called "The Bogus Man" which represented all that was good and bad about Roxy with Eno: it was a failed experiment, but it at least pointed the way for others. This atmosphere of risk made the first album a bit cluttered yet diffuse--too many people trying to do too many things all at the same time--but the first side of For Your Pleasure is the pinnacle of the Ferry-Eno marriage, great songs in a setting that can only be called luxurious.
Meanwhile, Eno was stealing the show from Ferry, not musically but with his image--his flutterlashed amphetamine spider look on the inside of For Your Pleasure is alone worth the price of the album. Later he would abandon things like makeup and outrageous clothes both in and out of the public eye, opting instead for a more modestly functional look (even if he doesn't always keep his shirts buttoned much above the navel), and looking back on those wild visuals today he says: "It was just a piece of work, a very interesting person that I made for a little while. It was a person that was slightly separate from me as well, and the problem with it was that it was very quickly became a limiting for a little while. It was a person that was slightly separate from me as well, and the problem with it was that it very quickly became a limiting identity because for one thing it scared everybody away," he laughs. "Things like that act like filters, and this was acting as the wrong kind of filter. It filtered out exactly the kind of people that I wanted to meet, and attracted exactly the kind that I didn't want to. You'd have to have some idea of the English trendy scene at the time... it just attracted assholes I didn't want to have anything to do with. There was kind of assumed heroism about it, when in fact it was very easy to do. There's nothing heroic about it in that kind of situation, because if you're in a band you're in a totally protected environment. It'd be a lot more difficult for a schoolteacher, say, someone who actually had to deal with people outside the same set of assumptions. It's an easy way of getting a reaction, and being easy doesn't cancel it out--I suppose what also happened was that I fell out of love with that aesthetic of... not shock, but flamboyance."
Meanwhile, there were ego conflicts within the band--or, more precisely, involving the band vs. Bryan Ferry. "I'm sure Bryan felt threatened by me, and with good reason in a way. Roxy was his band he was certainly the driving force in it--without him it would have been like a bunch of fiddlers. He was the most important member beyond a doubt. Now what happened was that because of my image the press constantly focused on me. I'm not blaming the press for this. I was photogenic and I talked a lot in interviews where Bryan was quite taciturn, so all the interviews for a time were with me. I must say I was quite honorable in that I didn't come on like it was my band, I always kept saying 'It's Bryan's songs' and all this sort of thing. Nevertheless, the impression the public had was that it was at least as much my band as his if not more.
"So I can see why he felt pissed off, but you see then it took an extreme form in him, where he felt that to establish his position he had to make out that everything was his. That it could have been any bunch of musicians, that it was his concept and he told us all what to do. Which wasn't true either, but eventually was manifested in things like when we went to tour Bryan always had a palatial suite to himself, the other band members all had rooms of their own, the drummer's was the worst always, and the road crew had to bunch together. He had been forced into an extreme position, and that created equally extreme reactions in the other members of the band. I never said it with much seriousness, but it was said sometimes, 'We don't fuckin' need him, we can do it alone,' which wasn't true either.
"When the group broke up I thought I didn't really want to be in a band again, because of all the ego conflicts. Also, it didn't really seem such a great way of getting music done, because the experience with Roxy was that as soon as it became successful, which was relatively quickly, we'd stop doing the parts that were interesting for me. I liked these endless nights just fiddling around, but then we had to be too purposeful to do that, because there was another tour coming up, 'Oh god, we've got to do photo session,' etc. Gradually I thought, 'Well, this isn't what I want to do, really, it's all very flattering and so on' and it was, to suddenly be getting all the attention. We went from being totally unknown to being very well known in about a month, which was very thrilling but didn't increase our real freedom at all. We spent less and less time working on music and thinking about what we ought to be doing. And that doesn't mean that we just started relying on a formula--it meant that the experiments that were embarked upon were done less well and less thoroughly. They would just be started upon and then we'd think, 'Oh, we haven't got time.'
"Things got rigidified, and necessarily so, because right up until the time that I left the band we never had equipment that was up to our ideals. What we did was quite electronically complicated, using live tapes and all these treatments and quite unusual instruments, like an oboe is a very hard instrument to amplify. We had a difficult sort of band to deal with anyway, and one of the biggest problems that dogged us all the time I was in the band was that we couldn't hear what we were doing. Nobody could properly hear everybody else. So it meant that to avoid total disasters we couldn't improvise, or make decisions quickly. Things all had to be agreed, and on top of that we had a complicated light show and what have you, and that was all synched, and we were choreographed and all that sort of thing."
In the midst of all this Eno formed a friendship and informal working alliance with Robert Fripp, which would drive the wedge between him and Roxy even deeper while it increased his confidence about working with others. He had been doing some experiments at home with tape delay, the kind of experiments that Roxy no longer permitted; this particular set embodied the system that would someday be known as Frippertronics: "I published the diagram for that in 1967, actually. At first I did it with three tape recorders in a chain, then I ended up using two. In fact, I used that on the first Roxy album: there's one song that has a saxophone treated through that system. But Fripp was the first person I met who actually could use it properly; every other guitar player or musician I met just overplayed immediately. They'd all build up this dense structure that you couldn't work with at all.
But Fripp immediately understood the use of it; in fact, almost the first time we ever met was when we made the first collaborative album. We'd met once briefly in the office because we shared the same management company, and I said 'Why don't you come round sometime, I've been doing some things treating guitars that you might be interested in.' I had that set up already because I'd been working with it myself. So he came over and within about a minute we started doing this thing. He just plugged into it and we taped "The Heavenly Music Corporation" as it was released on No Pussyfooting. It was really interesting, because we did it without discussing it or anything. When we listened to it afterwards he said, 'I don't like it that much,' and I said, 'Oh, I think it's really great.' I kept listening to it and played it for him again about a month later, and he said, 'Yeah, it's really good, isn't it?'
"Then again Richard Williams came into the picture. He came to visit me in this interim between us hearing it and Fripp hearing it again, and he thought it was great, and wrote a little piece about it, much to Bryan's chagrin actually. This was one of the first big issues in the Roxy breakup, or my part of that. It was like the 'You've got another woman' kind of thing. I didn't ask Richard to write this, in fact I wasn't expecting it at all. He'd come around to listen to something else. Ferry wasn't aware that I'd done anything with Fripp, because Robert had only just come round for this one evening, you see. So this article came out and Bryan was just really hurt about that, because it was like I was starting my solo career and made it look even more like I wasn't just a member of Roxy.
"The funny thing is that I wasn't really feeling particularly limited in Roxy at that time. This was actually a bit before that crisis happened. I was quite happy, though I'd done a little work with Robert Wyatt on Matching Mole's second album, and I discovered that I really enjoyed working with other people, which is something I hadn't known musically that I could do. Because my role in Roxy was so peculiar that I thought, 'What other band could I possibly be in, who else would want to work with somebody like me?' But when I actually found that there were other people I could work with, it was quite a thrill."
See Part 3 of 4 of
"Brian Eno: A Sandbox In Alphaville"
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