If you were to drop the needle on a random sampling of the music Brian Eno has created over the years, what would be surprising is not simply how instantly recognizable all of the recordings are, but the fact that one man — especially one who routinely describes himself as a non-musician — has successfully involved himself in so wide a variety of forms of personal expression. And not simply musical expression. For the past few years, he’s spent most of his public time constructing visual art installations across the globe, expanding into the physical world the philosophy of his “ambient music” — untenable soundscapes equally deserving of deep listening as they are of relegation to the background.
Wrong Way Up (Opal/Warner 26421) is the latest surprise. It’s a contentious collaboration with John Cale that resulted in an exuberant pop album showing a side of Eno the public hasn’t really heard since 1977, when he released Before and After Science, the last in a series of pop albums he released following his exit from the art-rock group Roxy Music. Since that time, though he’s increasingly focused his own creative projects on ambient music and visual art, his influence on pop music has actually magnified through production work with artists like David Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo, and U2, each of whom spent time under his theoretical tutelage, and left quite changed.
In recent years, much of Eno’s musical attention has been focused on Opal Records, a label which, like his earlier venture into the record business, Obscure, releases diverse works by both experimental and pop musicians — among them Harold Budd, Daniel Lanois (his co-producer on the U2 albums), and John Hassell. In 1989 Eno travelled to the Soviet Union to produce an Opal album by John Cale — co-founder with Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground — called Words for the Dying. A collection of orchestral settings for poems by Dylan Thomas, the record closed, inexplicably, with a playful, if dolorous, pop tune credited to both Eno and Cale, “The Soul of Carmen Miranda” — one of three, as it turns out, the two of them penned.
In what began as an attempt to expand on the success of “Carmen,” Wrong Way Up collects 10 new pop songs Eno and Cale recorded earlier this year. Cale was just coming off the final work on Songs for Drella, a tribute to Andy Warhol he composed with Reed. And Eno, it turns out, hadn’t been an entirely inactive pop artist of late, explaining during his interview tour of the States in support of the album, “I’ve been recording country songs for a long time. I don’t usually do anything with them. I just record them and keep them to myself. I’ve done a very nice ‘Ring of Fire.’” One of these home studio tracks, a cover of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” is featured on the soundtrack album to Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob — but it took Cale’s firm insistence to get Eno to return to his roots for a whole record.
“We weren’t worried about trying to be different,” explains Cale from New York City, where he’s lived primarily since he came to the U.S. from his native Wales in the late ’60s. “The only thing I went into the record with that I wanted to contribute to Eno’s personality was a recording situation where you could hear every nuance of what he was singing — that is, there would be no vocal dubbing and just him, solo. I mean, it’s kind of a personal regret that I never pursued it vehemently enough.”
Wrong Way Up opens with “Lay My Love,” something of an artistic declaration of personal freedom: “I spin relentless variation,” sings Eno. “I am the sea of permutation.” It’s an effortless tune, sung on the deadpan, nearly nasal, tight harmonies reminiscent of Eno’s ’70s pop albums. The first verse hints at the chorus, waiting for a second repetition of the melody to actually resolve itself. After its third repetition, the arrangement opens brief windows for guitarist Robert Ahwai to introduce some tasty, heavily echoed figures. Ahwai’s one of the several musicians — including Eno’s brother Roger on keyboards, Daryl Johnson on bass, Ronald Jones on percussion, Nell Catchpole on violin, and Dave Young on bass and guitar — Eno and Cale called in to the sessions for a day to fill out the arrangements. It’s a model, if not a downright formula, for the album’s success. But its pleasant mood belies both the gist of its lyrics — “I am the crow of desperation” — and the tense circumstances of the entire album’s recording. The very use of the word “ love” sparked a debate.
As Cale explains (Eno steers away from the subject), Wrong Way Up did not make for an enjoyable collaboration. Of “Empty Frame,” from whose lyrics the album title is gleaned, Cale recalls: “We were trying to nibble away at all these songs and I just sat down at the keyboard and MIDI-ed up some sounds and Brian started belting out this number. He sounded closer to Jackie Wilson than anything. He was tremendous, and it was like I had to practically grab on to his shirttails and say, ‘Don’t do anything with it; just leave it the way it is; it’s perfect!’ And then I went home at the end of the recording and he changed it a little bit, but some of that belting vocals is still in there; it really portrays something positive and energetic that two people going in opposite directions can do.”
Which is a pretty good summation of the whole album. In his attempt to bring a sense of immediacy to the proceedings, Cale stumbled on the real difference between his and Eno’s work habits: their perception of inspiration. Cale, an early student of Aaron Copland who’s performed with John Cage and La Monte Young, revels in distraction, and lives on a creative edge kept fresh by a peripheral, albeit self-conscious, attention to detail. For Eno, inspired moments provide source material for meditation and construction — they’re the beginning, not the end, of the creative process.
The acoustic piano featured on the cut “Crime in the Desert” serves as a good point of comparison. It’s a fleeting, New Orleans–style romp on the high end of the keyboard, sounding something like the infamous piano scene in the film Reefer Madness. Cale’s memory of the riff’s impetus is brief: “I’m happy to work blind. It’s just that I have to feel that if I’m working blind I’m able to nurture that. And once I’ve gotten in a particular spot, then I can relax inside it and it moves along nicely. But it’s the scurrying around looking for it that kind of gets difficult.”
For Eno, that piano motif invokes an exceptionally detailed memory. Cale played the basic riff with its complicated chord pattern into a sequencer, which Eno edited down into a cycle with some kind of structure and dumped onto the 24-track-recorder. Cale added another track and with further editing by Eno, the result was a song with a 26-bar verse and an 18-bar chorus, “or something like that,” explains Eno. “But, in some ways, the full length version of that would have been great just for his piano performance.”
Which is probably the simple suggestion Cale was making at the time. “With Brian,” he explains, “I think what happened is that he would listen to what you said, but he really didn’t have much patience with it. His idea of listening to what you said was eventually, you know, slam the door and come out with a solution. I haven’t figured out yet what Brian’s notion of cooperation, or collaboration, is.”
Despite such differences, Wrong Way Up remains a remarkable pop album, at times soothing (“Spinning Away”), unsettling (“In the Backroom”), and downright danceable (“Crime in the Desert,” “Spinning Away”). For all its affinity with both Eno and Cale’s early solo work, it’s also uproariously contemporary, and sounds fine on a party tape right alongside the Fine Young Cannibals (a comparison both musicians take as a compliment). Yet, on Wrong Way Up, wherever you drop what is now a proverbial needle, you’ll find a unique voice.
This article originally appeared in the January 1991 issue of the magazine Down Beat.