Bowie and Eno in the 1970s, A Retrospective

A combined eighteen albums between them in ten years, David Bowie and Brian Eno were the virtually unchallenged supreme rulers of the 1970s when in context came to placing premiums on innovation, progression, forward-thinking, artful, and generally ambitious music. On one end of the spectrum we have what would be one of the most successful careers in rock music history, commercially and contentiously relevant, spawning millions of scarily obsessive fans and on the other side we have undoubtedly the most curious man in the twentieth century, who, because of it, became a household name for musicians; altering the ways in which music is approached, composed, performed, and perceived, and everything from punk to techno to new age bears his unmistakable influence. Clearly, the 70s was not exclusively reserved for one party as it was both Bowie’s and Eno’s decade. And it comes as no surprise for anyone when told the two frequently collaborated in the decade they owned.

I could have easily spoken about Bowie and Eno individually while on the subject of great careers in the 1970s but seeing as they respectively finished number one and two on my list of favorite albums of the 70s, as well as their history of working together, it wasn’t all that farfetched to have a single entry for the both of them. And though the two couldn’t have been further apart in their humble beginnings (Bowie playing folk, Eno in Roxy Music) they inevitably found a creative convergence by the mid-70s. That mutual respect and understanding would eventually give new life to Bowie’s career, who, before working with Eno on the Berlin Trilogy was musically stagnated by glam rock and was at the apex of his hard drug addiction. As for Eno? By the time he began collaborating with Bowie, he had abandoned Roxy Music, developed new technology/techniques, introduced/coined “ambient music”, released a number of electronically inflicted pop albums, and produced albums for classical orchestras. No big deal. However, working with Bowie can be seen as a sort of culmination of Eno’s career up until that point and Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy was his vessel, so to speak.

The 1970s didn’t exactly start off with a bang for David Bowie as he was desperately grasping at straws, trying to find his niche. But granted, between his first three releases he moved in sonic leaps and bounds. First came the ridiculous theatrical comedy songs of the debut in 1967, then the second rate acoustic folk of the follow up in 1969 and finally, with The Man Who Sold the World in 1970, which is his first full on rock record, an album that can be marked as Bowie’s first foray into the glam rock style he would be best known for. Also noted is his friendship with guitarist Mick Ronson, which would prove essential to much of Bowie’s 70s output (especially on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) and The Man Who Sold the World is the first time the pair worked together on an album. The result is a much heavier affair than is normal for a Bowie album. There’s balls-out hard rock guitar all over the place but this is much more than just a straight forward rock recording. The Man Who Sold the World features some of the strangest moments of Bowie’s career, some of which prove superb and others of which prove unsettling, alienating or just plain annoying.

The Man Who Sold the World is a definite progression from Bowie’s earlier work. It heralds the beginning of Bowie’s most productive decade and an almost unprecedented partnership with Ronson. Of course, this is still early days and though the desire to experiment produces some brilliance it also proves to be the downfall of the album. Bowie’s experiments would eventually prove to be some of the most successful in music history but on only his third album much of what is attempted here seems greatly over ambitious. Thankfully, the track ordering means that the downsides are well interspersed with the great moments so the album is never far away from a pick-me-up. Still, ultimately as a whole The Man Who Sold the World fails to blend together as an album and comes off as a cold, alienating experience.

The early 1970s sure were an exciting time if you happened to be an aspiring rock band. The shocking breakup of the Beatles might have been the greatest tragedy in the history of rock, sure, but it was also an opportunity for other leading bands to become “the next sensation”. And around this time Roxy Music was prepping their self-titled debut album, which perhaps can only be described as warbling oboe, burbling analogue synthesizer sound effects and Toytown’s very own Larry the Lamb on steroids. It’s not rock, it’s not pop, not yet glam, not really folk, not quite country and not entirely prog either. However it seems to fit most comfortably into the progressive mold, musically echoing early Oldfield and Genesis in part, and pretty much most other things during the early 70s, really. Yet there remains something incredibly distinctive and unique about this album, as it clearly laid the groundwork for greater things to come. Though this was the band’s first album, there was already tension in the band most noticeably between frontman and lead vocalist Bryan Ferry and their electronic sound manipulator Brian Eno. The album is like a battle between commercial pop (a’la Ferry) and the avant-garde (a’la Eno). Combined, this is probably why I remain unconvinced by the album. It’s an unusual fusion of styles, but beyond a couple of tracks, although memorable in places, it lacks anything truly remarkable enough to draw you back regularly.

Eno stayed with Roxy Music for one more album, 1973’s For Your Pleasure before being told in no uncertain terms by Bryan Ferry to get the fuck out of the band for being far too cool. His debut solo album Here Come the Warm Jets is so smart and sharp it’s completely understandable that he became boredom with the rock star life and mindlessly quibbling with (by comparison) a musically illiterate imbecile; the man clearly needed more than guest appearances on TV talk shows and touring. You can’t just keep a mind like Eno’s locked up in a dressing room. What Eno did with Here Come the Warm Jets is take all the interesting elements he incorporated into Roxy Music and pushed them even further, creating an album that sounds somewhat like a cross between the Velvet Underground and glam rock that David Bowie was playing at the time. It is best described as an experimental-pop album, with a slight glam edge. Kind of ironic seeing as both Bowie and Eno would entirely abandon the glam rock shit while work together.

Both Bowie and Eno would begin to cement their place in the 70s with their respective follow-ups, Hunky Dory and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Hunky Dory constituted the most gargantuan leap forward yet for Bowie; it was the first truly classic Bowie album and the first in a trio of acclaimed classics. While its successors, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, were better overall albums, Hunky Dory features some of the best individual songs. There’s a startling number of pop classics here which constitute some of the greatest compositions in the history of pop/rock music. It’s hard to believe that Hunky Dory was released just a mere few months after Bowie’s previous album, The Man Who Sold the World. I don’t know how or why but I would like to think this was a result of Bowie, himself, knowing that his best was yet to come and was anxious to get his work out. Much like his pal Bowie, Eno also released his follow-up Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) the same year as his debut. And though it is an impressive album, it hints forward. You know that with two terrific solo albums under his belt that the ambitious Eno, like the great Harry Houdini, would have something special under his sleeve, something that would pull everyone under the rug, and unalterably establish him as a master during his time.

By the mid-1970s both Bowie and Eno have firmly put an indent in the collective conscious of critics and the public alike. Hell, the two even left their mark on 70s pop culture (Bowie’s alter egos, Eno’s contribution to Roxy Music). After the release of Hunky Dory in ’71 Bowie put out a string of would be chart topping albums (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups, Diamond Dogs). Diamond Dogs, released in ’74, was established as his glam swansong; Bowie jumped the glam rock ship just in nick of time, before it drifted into a blank parody of itself. And though he released his best solo album during his rock-based era, Another Green World, in 1975, Eno would begin to venture out and explore because for Eno, the easy route simply couldn’t be trusted. It wasn’t so much that he was a masochist who liked to make things hard on himself as it was a mistrust, disdain even, for the obvious according to his own mother, young Brian was “always looking for something different,” bored silly by everything else. That’s an apt quote as it was just that what Eno’s illustrious forty year career can be bogged down to: looking for something different.

Where did the increasing interest in experimenting begin? The infamous story of Eno being struck by a cab in 1975, lying bedridden and immobile as a record of harp music played at barely-audible levels has been recounted several times over the years. The experience of listening to music as background created for Eno, “a new way of hearing music.” And the results were immediate. By year’s end, Eno had released a record that would form a distinct component of the ambient template. Of course I’m talking about the aforementioned Another Green World; ten tracks that were closer to brief instrumental sketches than the pop songs on which had made his name to that point. Not only was the self-proclaimed “sub-Bowie” leaving behind vocals for much of Another Green World, even more radically, there was little-to-no sense of linear development in many of the tracks; in fact, several sounded as if their length was arbitrary, or, as he himself put it, “just a chunk out of a larger continuum.” In retrospect, Another Green World had made it quite clear that Eno was increasingly falling out of love with the song as a means of expression. But not that he’d completely given up on pop; over the next three years, Eno would collaborate with German group Cluster, produced albums for Ultravox, Devo, the Talking Heads, and David Bowie as well as recording his fourth and final pop album, the masterful (and not a little ambient) Before and After Science.

Another Green World arrived just as the music industry was practically collapsing in on itself. What’s ironic about this is Another Green World’s buzz transformed Brian Eno into the industry’s hottest commodity, leading to production and collaborative offers from pop’s leading luminaries, with David Bowie only the most famous. Coinciding with the arrival of Another Green World is Bowie’s downward spiral; success, America, repercussions of fame, drugs, etc. He separated from his first wife, began taking his parental responsibilities more seriously, and generally mellowed out, he boogied to Berlin, Germany. In comparison to his time in the western world, his days in Berlin were ones where Bowie dried out. Low, the first and best in the Berlin Trilogy, shows Bowie slowly returning to cohesion after the colossal freakout of Station to Station and the massively disappointing Young Americans. Low is not only Bowie’s finest moment as an artist at this point in his career but beyond, too. While the next two releases in the Berlin Trilogy (Lodger, “Heroes”) are excellent releases in their own right, Low is the pinnacle of his career as an artist and was a necessary part of the recovery process allowing Bowie to put some space between himself and his demons.

There are certain aspects of Low that are strikingly reminiscent to Bob Dylan’s 1965 game changer Bringing It All Back Home. Not so much in sound but the the stretch from “Warszawa” through “Subterraneans” was as divisive among Bowie fans as Dylan going electric on said album. What I’m getting at is if the first half of Low is ahead-of-its-time pop, the second half, comprised of four instrumentals, was near-unprecedented for a pop star of Bowie’s stature. As such, Eno often unjustly got the praise or blame for this half of Low. Yes, Bowie had heard and loved Another Green World, and yes Eno and his synthesizers are all over Low, but as a collaborator, not a guru. Eno didn’t even show up until the time for overdubbing came, and “Warszawa” was the only (co)writing credit he had on the record. I would argue Eno actually had more of an audible impact on the first side, contributing heavily to the fragmented, processed feel of it.

You put on a record by an artist, you listen to a couple more releases from their catalog, or you listen to their entire discography. If you only listen to that one album one single time, does that mean you didn’t like it? Or were you just left satisfied? You start your Bowie and Eno journey in 1971 and 1974 with Hunky Dory and Here Come the Warm Jets, you like it and continue down the road on to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Taking Tiger Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), you’re suddenly a fan. Then it changes, then something is replaced, then it changes again, and abruptly you don’t know where you are anymore. Bowie and Eno will do that to you, just take one step at a time. Because by Low and Another Green World, you’re not baffled like the critics and fans were when they were released, you’re aware that you’re in the presence of greatness. It wouldn’t be fair to end this 70s retrospective without getting into Eno’s post-1977 material, which shows his interest in pop music (insofar that it was anything more than a reliable paycheck that kept him constantly in the studio) was in obvious decline. By 1978 Eno’s recorded work was strictly ambient; Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Music for Films being the two that were released in the late 70s. But perhaps I’ll further investigate his ambient work for another entry as for now, let us relish in Bowie and Eno’s mysterious and ethereal pop records.