Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Brian Eno‘s new album Lux came out this week, and although it’s one of his ambient instrumental records, it also marks 40 years since he first recorded with Roxy Music in 1972. (Below, there’s live footage of Roxy that year, playing “Ladytron” on TV. Yes, the band Ladytron named themselves after it. Yes, that’s long-haired, leopard-skin-jacketed Eno fiddling with electronics.)
We’re enormous fans of Eno here at MTV Hive — last week, Jim Allen listed his picks for the five strangest Eno songs here. But Eno’s also turned up in one surprising context after another over the past few decades. In the early ’70s, for instance, he played clarinet with and produced two albums by the Portsmouth Sinfonia. Didn’t know Eno was a clarinetist? He isn’t: the idea behind the Sinfonia was to have famous classical pieces performed by an ensemble of musicians who were entirely new to their instruments. That resulted in recordings like this… unusual… version of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” from 1974′s The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics.
Eno left Roxy Music in 1973, but continued to work with the group’s guitarist Phil Manzanera for years. He co-wrote and sang the splendid rocker “Miss Shapiro” on Manzanera’s 1975 solo album Diamond Head.
From 1975 to 1978, Eno ran Obscure Records, a label devoted to contemporary experimental music — some of which intersected with the art-rock world of which he was a part. Robert Wyatt, who’d worked on a couple of Eno’s rock records, turned up on one Obscure release, singing John Cage‘s piece “Experiences #2,” a setting of a poem by E.E. Cummings.
In 1977, Eno collaborated with the German electronic group Cluster for a series of recordings that came out over the course of a few albums. They’re mostly subtle instrumentals, but a few tracks included Eno’s voice; “Tzima N’arki,” from After the Heat, prominently features backwards singing. Reverse it, though — as in the version below –and it becomes an actual song, which shares its chorus with Eno’s own 1978 single “King’s Lead Hat.”
Eno spent some time in New York City around that period, and assembled the legendary 1978 album No New York, a survey of the ultra-abrasive “no wave” scene of the time. The Eno-produced set opened with the Contortions’ dissonant, brutal, weirdly danceable James Brown pastiche “Dish It Out.”
Over the course of the ’80s, Eno concentrated on ambient music and production, and scarcely recorded any vocal music of his own. His voice turned up again in a wildly unexpected context: the soundtrack to the 1988 film Married to the Mob, on which he covered William Bell’s 1961 soul ballad “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”
Eno’s 1993 sessions with the Manchester band James resulted in a bunch of experimental and improvised material that later appeared as Wah Wah. It also produced their biggest American hit, the title track of Laid.
David Bowie and Eno have collaborated a few times–most famously on Bowie’s 1977-1979 “Berlin Trilogy” of albums Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. They worked together again in the mid-’90s on Bowie‘s album Outside and a few associated projects. Eno co-wrote Bowie’s subsequent single “I’m Afraid of Americans”; he also mixed and sang on Bowie’s 1995 remake of “The Man Who Sold the World.”
It’s a pity that Eno and Elvis Costello only ever recorded one song together — “My Dark Life,” which appeared on, of all things, 1996′s X-Files-inspired compilation Songs in the Key of X. Costello‘s later comment on the session that produced it: “I really admired Brian’s ruthless and creative use of the erase button.”
Since 1984, Eno has been working with U2 on and off. He’s occasionally sung on their records, too (that’s him singing the bridge on “Lemon,” for instance). But his most unexpected performance with them may be his appearance backing up lead vocalist Willie Nelson on the 1997 U2 B-side “Slow Dancing.”
There’s more, and more, and more — his well-known productions of Talking Heads and Coldplay, his work with African and Russian musicians, his unexpected appearances on records by Grace Jones and Paul Simon. But Eno’s most-heard production by a very wide margin is his shortest, and most of its listeners have no idea he created it: Microsoft’s Windows 95 startup sound, below. Eno (who wrote it on a Macintosh) later said that he had been told to write something that was “inspirational, sexy, driving, nostalgic, sentimental … and not more than 3.8 seconds long.”