The quietest revolutionary in rock is 60. Elvis, Dylan, James Brown, even Oasis, have set more souls alight. But, by working for Microsoft (he wrote the Windows start-up theme), Bowie, U2 and Talking Heads, Brian Eno has parlayed outlandish musical ideas into a ubiquitous and lucrative career. Coldplay, with their new album Viva La Vida, are the latest to request his patented production philosophies of misdirection and subtle reinvention.
When Eno first materialised as the peacock-feathered, mascara-painted outer-space dandy at Roxy Music's keyboards in 1971, he looked an unlikely sonic philosopher. But his collaboration with fellow art-school student Bryan Ferry yielded decadent, alienated soundscapes such as "In Every Dream Home a Heartache", before he left in 1973. Eno's brief career as a solo star started with Here Come the Warm Jets. Its startling variety, punk-prefiguring abrasions, and country melodies became his only solo Top 30 hit in 1974. But a brief period touring it graphically demonstrated his limits as a rock star. "Scuzzy," he'd call it later.
"I enjoyed screwing the girls for a while, but then that wore off as well." The collapsed lung which finished him was, Chic magazine claimed, the result of six such couplings in a night. Studio collaboration would give Eno safer, quieter avenues.
His long association with David Bowie was crucial. The one-time glam-rock rivals first worked intensively on Bowie's so-called "Berlin Trilogy". Though Eno was only partially involved in the first, Low, and Tony Visconti produced this, and Heroes, in 1977, he was a vital sounding-board, agile enough to keep up with Bowie's ideas. His synthesiser experiments were the basis for the bleak electronic instrumentation of Low's "Warszawa", and both albums would become founding texts (along with Kraftwerk's albums) for the synth-pop that defined the 1980s. Joy Division were named Warsaw early on, in homage.
"Heroes" was famously made in Hansa Studio 2, shadowed by the Berlin Wall and once used as a Gestapo ballroom, while Bowie grappled with smack addiction, "living at the edge of his nervous system," in Eno's words. But the latter's talent for relaxing fragile superstars with creative play was already apparent. "We slipped into Peter Cook and Dudley Moore characters," he recalled. "Bowie was Pete and I was Dud, and for the whole time we stayed in character. 'Ooh, I dunno about that synthesiser part, Dud...'"
Lodger (1979) completed their Berlin period. Bowie would look to Eno again on Outside (1995). But the creative systems the latter had built by 1977 would prove as important as any album. In Berlin, Eno had begun using his Oblique Strategies cards, shuffling instructions such as "Emphasise the Flaws" and "Honour Your Error as a Hidden Intention". This acted as a real card trick, distracting sleight of hand that relaxed musicians into innovation (Talking Heads and James were later treated in this way).
In another corner of his mind, meanwhile, he was inventing ambient music. Recuperating from an accident, he asked a friend to leave a harp record on, and the one working speaker let its faint strings blend with wind and bird-song. Subliminally, he recognised that this was music. Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978) announced a theory with, as the title suggested, much in common with JG Ballard's eerie mundane modernity. Ambient techno was one of the immensely popular genres which made Eno's perception universal, then debased. This suited him. "I'm not a settler, " he said. Instead, he wished to stay a pioneer.
David Byrne was Eno's next companion, through three Talking Heads albums including Remain In Light (1980), whose African grooves had been tried on Lodger. "Eno gave me confidence in the studio," Byrne said, "to go in with nothing prepared." The pair's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981) crystallised Eno's ideas of the 1970s, fusing with Byrne's own fascination with African music. Not only so-called "World Music", but primitive sampling was sketched, as tape of African singers and US talk-radio preachers snatched from the airwaves was, Byrne recalled, "thrown against" instrumental tracks. From Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee to Moby's country-blues techno smash "Go", its impact was creeping, and profound.
"Leverage is much harder to do than units," Eno observed. And the heavy lifting of ideas his work then achieved in music is almost Beatle-esque. It contrasts starkly with rock'n'roll's creation, the nervous explosion of energy with which "That's All Right, Mama" burst out of Elvis at Sun. Perhaps the innovations from his later work are still rippling through pop's underground tributaries. But, since Ghosts, made in his early thirties, unit-shifting seems Eno's main achievement.
U2 have been his goldmine, calling card and continuing foothold in the mainstream. Their label boss, Island's Chris Blackwell, "thought I was completely the wrong person for the job," Eno recalled. "He thought I'd turn it into art-rock." But it was only after setting the sweeping template for the band's global success by co-producing The Unforgettable Fire (1984) and The Joshua Tree (1987) that Eno, at Bono's request, reconfigured them as post-modern rock stars with Achtung Baby (1991).
Returning to post-Wall Hansa, and gifting Bono ironic texture, Eno sampled and recontextualised his own past with Bowie to massively commercial effect. James, Paul Simon and now Coldplay have been put through similar mills.
Eno at 60, then, is no longer pop's imposing philosophy professor. The image, anyway, hardly suited the man who shocked Chrissie Hynde when she interviewed him in 1974. "He just didn't come on like someone with an extensive collection of breast bondage literature in the bathroom," she noted, and shameless sensuality must be part of his success.
John Cale who, in his autobiography, recalled being confronted in the studio by "a livid Brian, charging at me with a thin stick, as if to stab me" when making Wrong Way Up (1990), also sees him as fierce and raging. Cale, in fact, is the musician Eno might have been, and gives the best clue to the one he has become at 60. The former Velvet Underground man has an equally formidable record, producing some of rock's greatest debuts, such as those of The Stooges and Patti Smith.
But Cale ploughs on as a would-be pop performer, distracted and dissatisfied. Eno put his feathers away 30 years ago, preferring to pull history's strings from a spot in the shadows . From Bowie to Bono, others take the strain. Eno keeps thinking.
Eno's musical foils
Eno's role behind the keyboards and mixing desk with glam rock band Roxy Music in 1971-73 first made him a household name.
One of his first pop collaborations was with Bowie in 1977, and his production work on the Berlin Trilogy helped re-categorised the star's work.
The American band in part owe their alternative new wave sound to their collaboration with Eno who produced their 1978 debut album.
Responsible for the overall new wave sound of early Talking Heads. Working closely with David Byrne and the band he co-wrote their critically acclaimed 1980 album Remain in Light.
Eno hadn't been available to produce Stutter, their 1986 debut, at the Manchester band's request, but later developed their ambient sound with a recording process that resulted in the hit album Laid and the experimental Wah Wah which brought out their tendency for spontaneous jams.
Eno agreed to produce U2's album The Unforgettable Fire with Daniel Lanois in 1984 and since the pair produced some of the band's most famous works including The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby.
Aged 64, Simon's long and highly-anticipated first collaboration with Eno was realised in the 11-track album Surprise in 2006.
The latest band to get Eno's production on upcoming album Viva la Vida.