From the archives: Sample and Hold
From 2012: a look back at Brian Eno and David Byrne’s album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts at 30
Throughout the seventies, Brian Eno helped produce some of most rock’s most influential albums. His career basically started with him glammed-out in Roxy Music, playing synthesizers and helping shape the band’s unique sound. After one too many clashes – and a gig where he realized he cared more about his laundry than the music he was playing – Eno split, first releasing the oddball pop duo of Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) before almost single-handedly creating ambient music on Another Green World and Music For Airports. And he found time to work with David Bowie, The Talking Heads and Devo, played an infamous series of gigs with 801, recorded instrumental albums with Robert Fripp and recorded and compiled the seminal No New York collection.
Basically, between 1974 and 1980, Eno was a pretty busy man. While his music from this period is occasionally pretentious, sometimes feels half-finished and can be a chore to get through (sometimes all three at once) it’s legacy is hard to deny: anytime one stumbles across a list of The Most Influential Albums Ever, you’ll see a bunch of his solo albums scattered therein, not to mention the stuff he produced. Still, have you listened to the second half of any of his albums? Eno was a guy who usually kicked his albums off with a few very good tracks but they usually ran out of steam about halfway through.
But for all the critical success of his seventies stuff it wasn’t until the early eighties that an album of Eno’s really feels revolutionary. And that’s because, for once, he didn’t have to do the heavy lifting.
The key thing about his solo albums is the cast: Eno was almost always joined by top-flight musicians, from a pre-“Sussudio” Phil Collins to Robert Fripp to Percy Jones. But by and large, they were solo albums in the biggest sense of the word: Another Green World has seven tracks where Eno is unaccompanied, for example. And they all bear the hallmarks of his remixing and production, which often completely changed the sound of the way they were first recorded. It’s telling that Eno came up with Oblique Strategies, a system to get out of mental blocks: with the amount he put into recording, he must have run into more than a few.
By 1980, Eno was hanging around with The Talking Heads and developing an interest in African funk: their albums of this period, and especially Remain in Light, are fleshed out with grooves and horn sections, miles removed from their tight, wiry sound on their first two records. Around the time of that album’s recording, Eno and David Byrne began collaborating on a new project, a kind of juxtaposition of music and speech. In sessions that ranged from late 1979 to early 1980, the two recorded with an assortment of musicians, heavy on instruments not normally found in rock – gongs, bata drums, a bodhran – or found items: a frying pan, cardboard boxes. Indeed, a look at the original multi-tracks (available online as part of a remix project!) shows everything from guitars to several basslines to multiple synths plus layers of percussion.This was played against recordings, samples and world music to create album that sounded like maybe nothing before it, even if there was predecessors.
The idea of sampling was nothing new: Holger Czukay, of experimental krautrock act Can, had used shortwave radio in some compositions. And more known to Eno were the experiments coming out of the No Wave scene: Boris Policeband used a police scanner for vocals, for example. And the burgeoning hip hop scene in New York was surely known to the duo, too.
But the way they went about putting this album together is still almost without precedent: in an age before MIDI Sampling, before digital technology was widely available, things were done manually. This means they had to be synced up by ear, by trial and error and if stuff worked, great! If it didn’t, well, you were back at square one.
The results are stunning: otherworldly funk, pounding bass lines and strange, beamed in vocals. Tracks lurching between radio chatter and rock, music that’s occasionally intense and distant, with just enough ties to the usual it’s never alienates: between the thundering bass on Regiment, the lush, otherworldly instrumentation of “The Carrier” or the talk radio chatter versus drumming circle of “Mea Culpa”, everything sounds just left-of-centre now and revolutionary in context.
Another highlight track is “The Jezebel Spirit.” Over a surging funk background, complete with screeching guitars and occasional synth flushs, there’s a bizarre, faceless vocal: a priest, asking if someone is ready and laughing menacingly. As the track builds up in tension, the priest begins chanting: Jezebel, the spirit of destruction, is within someone. As he begins to yell and shout about heaven and urging the spirit to leave (punctuated by keyboards), a second person begins breathing heavily, almost like they’re under duress. It’s quite literally an exorcism caught on tape, set to music. The effect is hypnotic: just what exactly is going on? Who is this strange priest? And is the girl okay? The album’s liners are completely unhelpful, only admitting it was recorded in New York.
A good pairing to My Life… is the bootleg Ghosts. Between a few cuts not on the original album (although released on the expanded reissue), it has alternate versions of key album tracks. One is a completely different version of “The Jezebel Spirit”. It’s a good example of the experimentation on this album: it retains basically the same backing track, but is layered with a completely different vocal. The effect isn’t as spooky as the final result, but it’s still an unsettling track.
But the key ingredient on this bootleg is it’s first cut: an excerpt from an early 80s interview where Eno explains the motivations behind his output. “The first music I did was very much concerned with process, with constructing machines… that produce music as their output,” says Eno in that interview. But he also sees the recording process as similar to painting. On My Life…, Eno was searching for new sounds, new ways to paint in the studio. “Every day there are new instruments made,” he says, “and those instruments create colours, sound colours that just didn’t exist yesterday.” These colours are a big part of why My Life doesn’t sound like anything else from the early 80s.
Sometimes, these colours got them into trouble. As seen above, licensing the samples was an issue, and some tracks were re-recorded. Another created a set of controversy on it’s own: “Qu’ran” paired a Funkadelic-like bass line with middle eastern instrumentation, layered with chanting vocals. One problem: the chanting was a recital of the Qu’ran. Protests from Muslim groups led to the track being pulled from all later pressings; it was even left off the comprehensive 2006 reissue.
“A lot of the music I’ve done, you can’t imagine if it’s made by human beings,” said Eno. But here, he couldn’t be more off the mark: this is an album that distinctly human: the rhythms of dance and funk, vocals from our media-drenched culture. In some ways, it’s very much a product of it’s time (those synths couldn’t have come from anywhere else but the early 1980s) but in others it’s remarkably ahead of it’s time. You can hear this album’s influence in Negativland’s best stuff; it’s hard to imagine a tapestry like Paul’s Boutique coming together without this kind of blueprint. Few things released over 30 years ago still sound this modern – and will still be so in another 30.
Originally published June 12, 2012