Friday, October 14, 2011

Eno -- "The Great Pretender" (1974)

Monica sighed
Rolled on to her side
She was so impressed 
That she just surrendered

2 or 3 lines does not use the term "genius" lightly.  But if that term applies to any of the musicians whose music has been featured here, it certainly applies to Brian Eno.

Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, who was born in the UK in 1948, was one of the original members of Roxy Music, one of my absolute favorite bands during my law school days.  

Let me correct that.  At first, Eno wasn't really a member of the band -- he ran the mixing console during their live shows from offstage.  But eventually he appeared on stage, playing keyboards and singing backing vocals.  

Lead singer Bryan Ferry often appeared in black tie and affected a world-weary, lounge singer look and attitude.  But Eno preferred much more flamboyant costumery:  

Brian Eno in 1973
Eno left Roxy Music after their first two albums -- he didn't like touring and didn't get along with Bryan Ferry (who does strike me as being a high-maintenance kind of guy).  I eventually purchased those two albums, but my first two Roxy Music albums  were LPs #3 and #4 for the band -- Stranded (1973) and Country Life (1974) -- and Eno doesn't appear on either one.

So I guess my first acquaintance with Eno came through his first two solo albums, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973) and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974).  

Bryan Ferry
To say that some of the records from my law school days that I've written about on this blog haven't really held up over the years is a big-ass understatement.  But these two Eno albums are just as enjoyable and undated-sounding as they were 35 years ago. 

I had a difficult time deciding which one of Eno's songs to choose for this series.  So I'm not choosing one -- I'm choosing several.  (At least three, I think -- maybe more.)  

I decided to start with "The Great Pretender" for two reasons.  First, the song is a reasonably representative Eno song, so it's as good a song to use to introduce you to Eno's oeuvre as any other. 

The second reason I chose this song are the lyrics quoted above, which "The Great Pretender" opens and closes with.  I don't think 2 or 3 lines has ever featured a song with a better two or three lines of lyrics.

The music relies as much on synthesizers and electronic effects as it does on guitars and drums.  It is dense, pounding stuff -- but still bouncy.  Listening to it doesn't fatigue you.

Brian Eno today
But it's Eno's lyrics that are truly unique.  One of the ways he came up with the words for his songs was to sing random, nonsense syllables as the music played.  Eventually, individual words and phrases would sort of accidentally pop out of the nonsense, and pretty soon he had the lyrics for a song -- which rarely told any kind of coherent story, but were compelling nonetheless.

I have no clue what the rest of the song is about.  One critic has written that the song describes the rape of a suburban housewife by a crazed machine.  (Say what?)  But I suspect it's not "about" anything.  How in the world could these lines be "about" anything?

Settled in a homely fishpool
Hung with little eels
Often thinks that travel widens
Stay at home, the trout obliges

Wondering where Eno got the title for the album that this song is part of?  Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy is a Chinese revolutionary opera that tells the true story of a Communist soldier who infiltrated a gang of bandits during the Chinese Civil War.  Eno saw a book of postcards from the opera in San Francisco and decided to use the same title for his second album, which has something of a Chinese feel to it and several songs with China-theme lyrics.

Here's the album cover:

There's one other thing you need to know about this album.  While he was recording it, Eno and a friend created the "Oblique Strategies" deck of cards, which is sort of an artsy version of the old "Magic 8-Ball."

Each "Oblique Strategies" card has a printed phrase on it that is supposed to be used to help you break a deadlock or overcome uncertainty.  For example, there are cards that say "Try faking it," "Honor thy error as a hidden intention," and "What would your closest friend do?"  While he was putting this album together, Eno would draw a card and use it to guide the next step in the recording process.

Ultimately, Eno and his collaborator created five editions of "Oblique Strategies."  The older editions sell for ridiculous amounts of money -- one rare book dealer is currently offering a fourth edition "Oblique Strategies" for $2200.  Here's a link to the "Oblique Strategies" website.

Here's an example of an "Oblique Strategies" card:

Richard Linklater's 1991 movie, Slacker, features an "Oblique Strategies" deck.  One of the cards is quoted in the famous R.E.M. song, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"  MGMT (which titled one of their songs "Brian Eno") had a deck in the studio when they recorded their 2010 album, Congratulations, but later said they don't know if they used it correctly. 

I wouldn't award the "genius" title to Eno solely on account of his first two solo albums -- although I think they are amazing albums.  Eno has also contributed to the production of much great music by other performers.  For example, he has collaborated with or produced albums for the Talking Heads, U2, Devo, David Bowie, and others.

David Byrne and Eno: Geniuses!
Eno became a major figure in avant-garde music with his "ambient music" albums.  The notes to his album, Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978), describe ambient music in these terms:  "Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."  

Here's a short example of Eno's ambient music:

According to Eno, his musical career was the result of accident as much as anything.  In 1992, he said that "as a result of going into a subway station and meeting Andy [Roxy Music saxophonist Andy Mackay]], I joined Roxy Music, and, as a result of that, I have a career in music. If I'd walked ten yards further on the platform, or missed that train, or been in the next carriage, I probably would have been an art teacher now."

But isn't that true of life in general?

Here's "The Great Pretender":

Here's a link you can use to order the song from Amazon:


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  3. Thanks, Lee, but I'll trust in Eno.

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