(33-1/3 series) by Geeta Dayal
136 pages, Continuum
Review by Marie Mundaca
The Discreet Charm of Brian Eno
I attended a David Byrne concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York City earlier this year. I hate David Byrne for personal reasons—I was deeply asleep at CBGB’s Theater in January 1979 when he rudely awoke me with “Psycho Killer”—so I didn’t really want to go. But there are seats at Radio City, which made the show more enticing for me—it’s hard to stand in a crowd for two hours! But what made this show interesting to me was that the focus of the show was to be the music Byrne made with producer and songwriter Brian Eno.
I was first introduced to Eno’s music when I was a punk rock teenager. My older friends’ musical taste went beyond The Adverts and Richard Hell. They all tried to educate me by subjecting me to music by The Residents, Stockhausen, and Brian Eno. Eno’s Music for Airports, Discreet Music, and Another Green World were the perfect soundtracks for late night conversations about nothing. Well, they were about something, usually creating Great Art, or starting a Great Band. Regardless, these talks never got beyond the conceptual stage.
But it was at the David Byrne concert, as Byrne performed hit songs like “Once In A Lifetime” and “Burning Down The House” that I realized that most of the late 20th century musical catalog would not exist without Brian Eno. His work with the Talking Heads and U2 had a tremendous influence on pop music. I used to think that Eno had sold out; after all he curated the great No New York album;, and now he was hanging out with Bono? No New York was probably single-handedly responsible for Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and Nirvana. His work in ambient soundscapes led the way for trance and techno. Not to mention that he created “The Microsoft Sound,” the startup music for Windows 95, called by one youtube commenter, “the sound that marked… the digital age.”
I’ve forgiven Eno for his work with Byrne and Bono. After all, without his influence, both bands probably would have been a lot more boring, and popular music a lot mundane.
In the recently released “33-1/3 series” monograph, Another Green World, music and science writer Geeta Dayal explores how this album cemented Eno’s theories about “the recording studio as musical instrument,” and all that entailed. The development and recording of Another Green World took place over a few months in 1975, and throughout the book Eno and other musicians remark on how expensive that was. Eno would gather musicians into the studio with only vague ideas, but an outstanding group of musicians, like Robert Fripp, John Cale, Phil Collins (To be fair to Eno, this was ten years before abominations like "Sussudio"). According to Dayal, Eno encouraged creativity among the musicians utilizing a deck of cards with suggestions that he created, called “Oblique Strategies,” rather than dictating exactly what they should play. Eno said in an interview, “(T)he musicians I work with play a very creative role—they’re not there as executives of my ideas.”
Dayal takes her time exploring all the personalities and backgrounds that Eno brought together for this project. Describing production and creative processes and how they produced the warm evocative songs on Another Green World would be difficult for anyone not versed in electronic music. But Dayal writes about the production of this album in an accessible and interesting way. The story of this album not just the story of how an album was made, but a story about the creative process and having faith in one’s ideas. Dayal doesn’t waste readers’ time reviewing the album, knowing that everyone can easily listen to tracks like “St. Elmo’s Fire” (no, not that one) and “Over Fire Island” on their own.
The album Another Green World can get a bit wonky and weird, which is not surprising upon finding out how it was made. The amazing thing about the album is how successful it is on many levels. There are experimental pieces and gorgeous pop songs that sit side-by-side. Dayal makes it clear how important this album was both to Eno’s development and to the development of late 20th century music in general.
Readers interested in Eno will love this book, as will any creative types struggling with how to make something from only vague ideas. Beware, though, there are no ribald stories about Bono or Byrne. Perhaps my friends and I should have listened to Eno more closely during those late nights—we might all be famous now.