BRIAN ENO on a series of inspired collaborations
"That was a pretty exciting period, because the early Seventies were the dawning of a sort of self-conciousness in pop music where people like Bowie and Roxy realised one of the things you could do was play with style - you could use the history of pop as part of its content. We were deliberately mimicking and reusing old styles, but combining then with some kind of vision of the future as well. There was a sort of revolution against hippiedom, which punk was very much part of, and at the same time a desire to make the music of the future. That's what I wanted to do and I think Bowie did, too - to make music that didn't just talk about the future, it sounded like it came from the future.
I don't think we copied each other but we were aware of competing. There was a partisan thing on the part of the fans, which was actually completely enjoyable. It never translated into bad vibes between the bands. In fact, we hardly knew each other. There were a whole lot of ideas in the air and it wasn't difficult to pick them up, actually, if you were so inclined. A lot of musical ones came out of The Velvet Underground and that English tradition of wanting to make music into an art form, to make it transcend being entertainment. That had kind of happened with The Velvet Underground - and with The Who as well, funnily enough. That slightly arty self-conciousness has always been part of English pop from The Kinks to Pulp or whatever. It's something Bowie was part of and wanted to reincorporate, and that's where I came in.
I'd bumped into him before we worked together on three occasions. When we did our first American tour at the end of '72, we got to New York and a big bowl of poinsettias was delivered from him. It was just like, 'Welcome, good luck on your tour.' Which was very decent of him because by that time the so-called competition was in the air. The next time we encountered each other was sometime in early '73 when we did this famous Rainbow concert where he was top of the bill and we were second. We were really good that night and so was he, but prior to that there had been a bit of friction because we felt we hadn't been given enough soundtrack time.
The third meeting was when he did this big Wembley concert in '76. I'd never actually been introduced to him before, and I wasn't in Roxy any longer. So I went backstage and we then drove back to where he was living in Maida Vale. He said that he'd been listening to Discreet Music [Eno's groundbreaking 1975 proto-ambient LP], which was very interesting because at the time that was a very out-there record which was universally despised by the English pop press. He said he'd been playing it non-stop on his American tour, and naturally flattery always endears you to someone. I thought: God, he must be smart!
I never really knew what all the fascist stuff was about. That was before I worked with him and it never really interested me much anyway. I just thought it was him playing with images again. I didn't for one moment think it was a serious political statement. I can quite easily believe it had no actual content other than he knew he could get a result with it.
I see Low as very much a continuation from Station To Station, which I think is one of the great records of all time. I wasn't involved in that one at all but I thought it was very strong, a real successful joining of that American urban funk scene with the kinds of things we had been doing in the early Seventies. Low was actually made in France, at the Chateau d'Herouville. Then "Heroes" was made in Berlin and Lodger in Montreux, so only the middle one was actually made in Berlin. Calling them the 'Berlin' albums is inaccurate in geographical terms, but Bowie at the time was living in Berlin. And Berlin was an important image for us in the sense that it represented one of those historical and political crossing points where East meets West, and also where a certain image of cultural slippage or decadence still persisted.
When we were doing Low we were living at the Chateau and Bowie was still going through the break-up with his wife. He was pretty much living at the edge of his nervous system, very tense. But as often happens, that translated into a sense of complete abandon in the work. One of the things that happens when you'e going through traumatic life situations is your work becomes one of the only places where you can escape and take control. I think it's in that sense that 'tortured' souls sometimes produce great work.
During Low there was a court case in Paris to do with the custody of his son. He was very, very upset. I felt desperately sorry for him going through that and trying to make a record at the same time. So he disappeared to Paris for a few days and I stayed there and started working on some things of my own. I said to him, 'The studio's booked anyway, so I'll start some things and if they're any use to you, we'll use them on this record. If not, I'll pay for the studio time and use them myself...' I think 'Warszawa' and 'Subterraneans' came out of that period. But when he came back from Paris, obviously something hopeful had happened there because he was in a much better state of mind. And when he's in a good frame of mind, nobody can work like him. He's really dynamite.
Although I had quite a lot to do with Low, it was definitely, at source, his record. I wasn't even there from the start. I think my contribution gave it a different shading that it wouldn't have had otherwise, because I was pushing for all this strange instrumental stuff and for the sound to be radical in some way, all nervy and electronic. But he's always been very fair with me about credits and payment in general.
We had a really great time making "Heroes". Bowie was in a good frame of mind. We were in Berlin, where he was at home, and those sessions didn't take a long time. We used to make records so bloody quickly back then, it always astonishes me. My recollection is, for some reason, we slipped into the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore characters - Bowie was Pete and I was Dud, and for the whole time we stayed in character: 'Ooh, I dunno about that harmoniser part, Dud...' It was hilarious, I don't think I've ever laughed so much making a record. Which is funny, when you think how the album sounds, but I often think you make music to be the place that you aren't in. It's like, when I was living in a very loud part of New York, I made my quietest records.
When we got back together for Outside, Bowie wanted to make 'disinterest experiments' more - to just put together a recipe of people and see what happens. He almost sat out the first few days of that record. He set up an easel in the studio and was just painting. We were creating musical situations and occasionally he would join in if it became interesting. I was inventing these role-playing games with the musicians.
I don't know if I can narrow Bowie's main contribution to pop culture down to one thing. But he made eclecticism work in a completely natural, convincing way - it doesn't sound like a bunch of things stuck together. I hear so much stuff still which is borrowing from the acts between early glam and My Life In The Bush [Byrne-Eno's seminal 1981 ethno-futurist collage], but it just sounds like different things put together which don't enrich each other in any way.
You can't really compare Bowie to other icons like Presley or Dylan, they each score on different territories. Presley never wrote a single song, so that's a territory where he's not even in competition with Bowie, who has written some of the best pop songs around. Dylan, on the other hand, doesn't score well on the theatrical stage image, so their territories don't overlap. I think Bono admires Bowie, but Bono is much less ironic. A big part of David's thing is irony. Bono is not a natural ironist, so in his territory, Bowie doesn't really have any competition. His territory is unusual in that it's maximum attention to image and presentation, but maximum attention to composition as well. Some people say Bowie is all surface style and second-hand ideas, but that sounds like a definition of pop to me. It's a folk art. It's only in the conceited fine arts that we're supposed to be totally original and pretend that it came out of nowhere, straight from God to us. In pop music, everyone is listening to everyone else."
Uncut (October 1999)
Interview: Stephen Dalton