Originally published in Arthur No. 17 (July 2005), accompanying Kristine McKenna’s conversation with Eno: “Before and After Silence”
INDOOR THUNDER: Landscaping the future with Brian Eno
by Alan Moore
Remove ambiguities and covert to specifics.
The first half of the twentieth century saw all energies and the agenda that had driven Western culture from its outset reach their logical albeit startling conclusions in the various fires of Auschwitz, Dresden, Nagasaki, after which we all sat stunned amongst the smoking fragments of our worldviews, all our certainties of the utopias to come revealed as flimsy, wishful, painted sets, reduced to vivid splinters, sharp and painful. There was scorched earth, there was shellshock, there was no Plan B. Hiroshima rang through the traumatized and anxious mindset of the 1950s, through Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture, its shuddering reverberation somewhere between funeral knell and warning seismic tremor. Our response to the bad news carved a division through society, between flat denial on the one hand, paralyzed hysteria upon the other; between those who doggedly refused the notion that tomorrow might be different from today, and those fixated by the mushroom clouds who scorned the notion that there might be a tomorrow. Both these attitudes, you’ll notice, have conveniently avoided any need to think creatively about the future, have dodged any obligation to consider the Long Now. Tomorrow is today with smaller radios or it’s strontium and ashes, and in either case there’s no need to prepare.
Throughout the 1950s there was very little ground between these two terminal visions, one complacent in its sense of stasis and the other in its sense of doom, but such ground as existed was staked out and cultivated by the era’s artists, by its avant-garde musicians, its Beat poets. By the middle ’60s they had turned the thin conceptual corridor between Eisenhower/Macmillan monotony and Oppenheimer Armageddon into thriving, fertile territory where the future tense could once more be employed with meaning, where future itself could once more be imagined, could take root. In England, grown up from the ferment and foment of the moment, an exuberantly progressive Art School scene together with a network of experimental and impromptu Arts Laboratories were the psychedelic backdrop that the next wave of creative talent would emerge from in the early 1970s, once all the counter-culture crackle of the previous ten years had run its course. The fairground ozone glitterfog of Glam Rock with its twilight sexuality and its somehow nostalgic futurism boiled up from the dayglo debris in bohemian basements, happened happenings, a rich mulch of dreams crashed and trampled and ploughed under. David Bowie and Steve Harley sprang from Arts Lab roots in Beckenham. Brian Eno spent the 1960s soaking up the influence of tutors such as the composer Cornelius Cardew or Tom Phillips, author of the treated masterpiece A Humument. At its deepest and most interesting subterranean extremes the hippy underground became the velvet goldmine.
The peculiar electricity that sparked back then amongst the leopard skins and sequins came from tensions that went further than the obvious sexual ambiguity of heterosexual bricklayers in lippy. There were also stress lines spanning past and future, the subculture caught between them like a lurex Janus, one face with its yearning Garbo gaze trained on a celluloid romance of yesterday, the other staring through its greasepaint thunderbolt into the alien dazzle up ahead, dynamic conflict that was evident in Bowie’s mismatched eyes, in the fraught brilliance of the period’s most emblematic pop group, Roxy Music. Here the sound was tug-of-war taut, stretched between the MGM lounge-lizardry of Bryan Ferry’s retro-fitted vision and the squelchy sci-fi shimmer that Brian Eno dressed it in, Noel Coward on the set of Logan’s Run. When the rope inevitably snapped, the synthesizer artist/non-musician, suddenly cut free from the opposing pull of any gravity, seemed to rise instantly to a conceptual stratosphere remote and previously unglimpsed, dragging the decade with him by its iridescent quiff.
It’s difficult to overestimate the manner in which Eno’s subsequent solo career has impacted with culture, in terms of both its complexity and the sheer breadth of its blast radius. Back in the first flush of the ‘70s his manifesto, yet to be unpacked, was nonetheless there to be read in “Baby’s On Fire”’s two-note minimalist flourish, in the cascading metal vistas of his work with Robert Fripp. It could be seen in the inventive pilfering from Chinese picture-story propaganda that engendered Taking Tiger Mountain…, in the thinking behind the ingenious, endlessly useful deck of creative prompts labeled Oblique Strategies that he and Peter Schmidt released in January 1975. It was even apparent in the mantelpiece clutter of Here Comes the Warm Jets’ picture sleeve, the pornographic playing card that referenced the album’s title, the sly and understated sense of humor. Rapidly transcending his considerable status as Glam icon Eno became instead the most coherent and most capable example of a cutting edge that pop culture had witnessed, became something new and without precedent, something refusing definition save in its own self-invented terms.
If there is anything that’s more authentically remarkable than Eno’s almost total single-handed transformation of the way we think about our entertainment culture, more striking than his casual invention of the sample or of ambient music, then it is the quietness and above all discretion with which he’s accomplished everything. It is the unobtrusiveness with which he carries out his dynamitings and his demolitions, the delicacy of his bulldozers that clear way the parlor walls while everybody’s having tea, and no one notices. We pass the sugar and try not to mention the roof’s gone. Many of his pop contemporaries, perhaps mindful of the fact that ultimately they have little that’s original to say and no expectation of effecting any noticeable change within society will compensate by flaunting ersatz dangerousness in their lyrics, their appearance or their lifestyle, whereas Nature tells us that the genuinely dangerous beasts lie low in the grass and do not choose to advertise their presence until it’s all far too late. Working at culture’s liminal extremes, deep in the social utlra-violet, he is taking Tiger Mountain by stealth. Implacably intelligent and utterly unsentimental, he got the job because he was so mean, while somehow appearing so kind.
His function, frequently, is catalytic, sparking a profound reaction in which only he himself will not be noticeably changed. Eno’s collaborations with his former Glam associate David Bowie later in the 1970’s, most notably on Low, were massively important to the shaping of the Punk and New Wave movements without ever being seen as part of those phenomena. His sampled TV news report of Dutch industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer’s death on R. A. F. provided House music with all its aural furniture by way on an anonymous charity shop donation. Even throwaway remarks such as his comment that while only a few hundred people ever listened to the Velvet Underground they all formed bands are endlessly recycled without any real awareness of their source, and yet his sphere of influence continues its expansion unabated. His ubiquity would seem to imply that while only a few hundred people ever paid attention to Brian Eno’s work, they all formed countries.
Propaganda for a state wholly of mind, his oeuvre acts upon the world around it like a beneficial virus, ideas that infect the host, transform it to a vector by which the infection may be further propagated. As with all successful viruses, there is a strategy by which the host’s immune defenses and resistance to the ideas can be circumvented, and in Eno’s case that strategy is one of simple beauty and necessity. His notions, packaged irresistibly within a haunting and transporting drift of notes and tones are simply too profoundly lovely, are too vital and too obviously true to foster any opposition, any barricades. Whether it’s the elegiac end-of-season seafronts of “Some Faraway Beach” or the mesmerizing glass-and-raindrop crawl of “Thursday Afternoon,” the final “It’s the stars…” refrain that ends his wonderfully cross-purposive collaboration with John Cale, Wrong Way Up, or The Shutov Assembly’s tingling, thrilling “Ikebukuro,” there is a sublime, uplifting presence that informs each piece and brooks no opposition, an enlightening eunoia, beauteous thought that changes people and their landscape from the inside out.
Avoiding all classification and restriction by defining himself doggedly in terms of what he’s not, the non-musician has been able to ignore all boundaries, can access areas where musicians are not usually encouraged: futurology and film and fashion. Perfume. Politics. He is tomorrow’s perfect occupant, the model for what humans can achieve when unencumbered by the luggage or the language of the self-set limitations of our prison past, and better yet he makes it all look like such fun. Upon the one occasion when I had the privilege of meeting him, at the recording of an interview for Radio Four’s Chain Reaction series, he turned up wearing the clothes he’d worn the previous day after his daily consultation of the Oblique Strategies pack had admonished him severely to “Change nothing.” Having buffed my shoes up to a fine sheen in an effort to impress him even if the toying with my hair and simpering failed, I was surprised when he insisted upon polishing his own shoes just before we went on air. I pointed out that this was wireless and that nobody would notice, to which he replied by asking if I didn’t think that an impression of one’s dusty shoes could somehow be transmitted over radio? I was transfixed, and honestly had no response to this spontaneous Zen koan. What’s the sound of one shoe gathering dust?
Brian Eno is one of our modern culture’s brightest lights, never more radiant than in that culture’s most obscure and interesting corners, someone we should all be grateful we’re alive at the same time as. He’s the ambient motor hum, the alpha wave harmonic barely audible behind civilization. We should all sit quietly and listen.
Alan Moore recently retired from mainstream comics writing, and will soon be marrying his longtime girlfriend and collaborator, artist Melinda Gebbie. He will be presenting a piece about William Burroughs at this year’s Patti Smith-curated Meltdown festival in London.