Brian Eno is now 70 years old, but he possesses more energy than most people half his age. When I last saw him in London a few months ago, in his airy, spacious studio, he bounded around with unstoppable stamina, making pots of tea and showing off his latest music and art projects. As I watched him excitedly demo some new tracks on his massive, glossy Mac, I came to the realization that Eno was probably always like this, even back in the 1970s with his reel-to-reel tape machines and analog synths: His passion for making music has never wavered.
Eno’s mammoth discography spans half a century of recorded music. Many people know him best as a producer and collaborator – a key force behind stone-cold classics like David Bowie’s Low and Heroes (produced by Tony Visconti and aided mightily by Eno), Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, Devo’s debut album Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!, U2’s The Joshua Tree and dozens upon dozens more. In the early Seventies, when Eno was in his early twenties, he was Roxy Music’s synthesist and sonic magician, leaving an unforgettable mark in his brief three years in the band before releasing four offbeat and hugely influential rock albums of his own, and collaborating with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and the German group Cluster, among others. In between all of this, he put forth the modern concept of ambient music. Scores of albums and collaborations followed – encompassing the histories of rock & roll, electronic music, experimental music, soundtrack music and seemingly everything else.
How did Eno stay this impossibly productive for five decades? As I looked around his studio – lined neatly with books on every conceivable subject and an enviable record collection – it became increasingly clear that Eno is incredibly organized. (You can easily start to imagine the apocryphal stories of Eno working with Bowie in Berlin in the 1970s: Eno wakes up bright and early to eat a healthy breakfast of muesli, while Bowie, strung out on chemicals and insomnia, cracks raw eggs into his mouth to stay alive.) In the space, there are whiteboards everywhere, covered with ideas, calendars and to-do lists. His books are arranged by category or concept, like the cool bookstore of your dreams (sections include “The Human Story,” “Evolution,” and “Theories of Art”). A light installation fills another corner, pulsing with slowly shifting colors in soft hues. One high shelf is lined with homemade perfumes he has concocted, hand-labeled with conceptual titles. Rows of vinyl records line another corner, including the Velvet Underground, Sam Cooke and lots of blues – and about a million Fela Kuti records.
Eno continues to make music at a furious clip. And music is only one side of him – he’s a painter, a sound artist, a light and video artist, a prolific writer, a political activist, a theorist on culture. But another secret to Eno’s continued success is his incredible openness to the world. He reads widely – on a range of different subjects that have nothing to do with music. He listens widely, too, and when he finds something he adores, he focuses on it. “Isn’t this amazing?” he says, while showing me a YouTube video of a particularly fearsome drummer. Eno has the childlike exuberance of a seven-year-old kid hearing music for the very first time. He’s not ironic and jaded, or blasé, or too cool. That zest for life – combined with the formidable chops of someone who has made music for most of his lifetime – has led to hundreds of seriously great records.
After a full-on immersion in Eno’s extensive back catalog and writings, you can almost predict what he’ll say next: not because Eno is predictable, but because everything about Eno’s personality is now woven so indelibly into the fabric of culture at large. His idiosyncratic tastes, and the philosophies he so ardently advocated for back in the 1970s, are now accepted as fact: the concept of the recording studio as a musical instrument; the idea of ambient music as an “environment”; the limitless potential of sampling (David Byrne and Eno’s fantastic album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, from 1981); the Oblique Strategies cards (“one hundred worthwhile dilemmas” for getting out of mental ruts); and so much more. His activities in the recording studio are the stuff of legend, proving you could be completely weird and make unforgettable pop and rock music at the same time. Looking back, it seems insane that the same guy who produced the extreme avant-garde noise of the landmark No New York comp also produced some of U2’s biggest hit albums. But that’s part of the beauty of being Brian Eno.
At 70, he is still intensely creating and experimenting – earlier this month he released Music for Installations, a sizable box set of work stretching back to 1986. Like his good friend, the late David Bowie, he has undeniably altered the course of popular music, and we are all the better for it. Happy birthday, Brian Eno.
Geeta Dayal is the author of a book on Brian Eno, Another Green World, part of the 33 1/3 series.