Monday, December 26, 2022

Brian Eno on his music for film and television

BRIAN ENO interview

Sight and Sound, Winter 2020/2021

by Simon Reynolds

Brian Eno has been fascinated by the relationship between film and music for nearly half a century. In the early Seventies, he started buying soundtrack albums, in particular Nino Rota’s Fellini scores. The open-ended quality of film music when heard separate from the visuals became a kind of aesthetic ideal, encouraging Eno to drift away from the song forms of his early solo albums towards the sonic watercolours of Another Green World and then onto the instrumental moodscapes of his ambient records.

“Listening to soundtracks changed my ideas about what music was allowed to be,” says Eno via Zoom from his second home in Norfolk, where he’s been sequestered during the pandemic. After leaving Roxy Music in 1973, he and engineer Rhett Davies would work in the recording studio all day. “Just before it was time to go home, I’d say, ‘let’s do the film mix’. And that meant ‘take this material somewhere else’.  We might remove most of the main elements – the voice, or the drums - leaving a few elements that were now suspended in space. We might change the speed, slow it right down, or put a really long reverb on the sounds.  We never spent very long on ‘the film mix’ but often, at home later, I’d think, ‘that was the best thing we did today’”.

In 1976, some of these ‘film mixes’ were collated for an LP Eno pressed up in a limited edition of 500 and sent out to screen production companies as a “use me please” calling card. Two years later, the album was officially released, with a slightly different track list, as Music For Films. “If you listen carefully, you’ll notice there’s tracks from Another Green World but slowed down to one-third speed,” Eno laughs.

By 1978, Eno had already scored a “truly terrible horror movie” titled, in the U.K., The Devil’s Men, and  formed a productive collaboration with Derek Jarman.  Used in Sebastiane, “Final Sunset” is the only track from Music for Films that also appears on his new career-spanning collection Film Music 1976-2020. Ranging from a lovely rendition of  “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, the William Bell soul song best known in its countrified version by The Byrds, to the glitchy disorientation of “Design As Reduction”, a piece made for a documentary about Dieter Rams, the seventeen tracks have been sifted from some 180 projects for movies and television Eno completed over the past four decades.

Always an early adopter, Eno realized a long time ago that film work might be one of the main avenues through which an experimental musician like himself could get exposure and sustain a livelihood.  In recent years, the insatiable appetite on the part of the new streaming services for adventurous television has fostered an equally strong demand for adventurous sounds, making the music supervisor an increasingly creative and crucial figure. It’s been a godsend for musicians impacted by the erosion of record sales, especially the kind of musician who can’t rely on live performance as an alternate source of  revenue.

“It’s one of the places that people can do things that wouldn’t ever get played on the radio,” says Eno.  “As a composer in the popular music world, you’re always fighting to get anything heard if it doesn’t have a song or a beat.  Films are the place where suddenly all the things you  dreamed about doing, they can be done.  It’s true  for orchestral music too. Most orchestral music that is recorded now is for films. Quite a few studios, like AIR in London, survive pretty much on recording big orchestras for movies.”

Eno estimates that 15 percent of his income comes from film and TV work. Sometimes this will be commissioned;  other times it’ll be the use of a piece from one of his earlier records. In one case, included on the new collection,  it was both: “Deep Blue Day” was originally made for Al Reinert’s 1989 moon landing documentary For All Mankind, but is better known from its 1996 repurposing in Trainspotting, where its dreamy drift incongruously accompanies the junkie Renton’s dive into a toilet bowl to recover some opium suppositories. 

“Deep Blue Day” and the other For All Mankind pieces actually came out several years before the Reinert documentary reached screens, as the 1984 album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. “The story Reinert told me that got me really excited about the project was about how each of the astronauts was allowed to bring one cassette with them, to listen to during the considerable down time you have traveling through space. Nearly all of them chose country & western music. I found this so charming - people right at the cutting edge of technology, pioneers at the edge of the frontier, playing what was basically Earth frontier music.”  That idea led Eno and his collaborators (his brother Roger and U2 co-producer Daniel Lanois) to the sound of “Deep Blue Day,”  which entwined shimmering ribbons of pedal steel guitar around a slowed-down Western Swing rhythm, a preset on a device called the Omnichord. Without that snippet of information from Reinert, says Eno, the soundtrack would probably have consisted of “just space music” -  amorphous, abstract, absolutely predictable. “It gave us a completely different direction.”

Starting with a kernel of inspiration is how Eno likes to approach composing for film. “Quite often, I will get started on it before I’ve seen anything at all. Before I’ve even read the script. I’ll just have heard the briefest description.” Although he’ll sometimes stick photographs of the movie set (as with Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones) or still images (NASA shots from the lunar missions, with For All Mankind) up on the studio wall, Eno never writes to the film itself. The idea of composing music  tailored to precise allotments of time or specific scenes is alien to him. If anything, he’ll operate the other way around, generating a large number of underscores and inviting the film makers to pick as they see fit.   

Eno goes one step further with his music for Series 4 of Top Boy, the formerly Channel 4, now Netflix drama about gang life on an East London council estate. “That’s what I was working on this morning. They start shooting next week and this time we’ve decided to try having the music available when they’re shooting. They can use it as a scene setter.” He pauses and chuckles wryly. “We’ll see how that works out.”



“I haven’t been watching much at all, but I do like this Japanese program, Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories [MBS / Netflix]. It has such an unusual mood. It’s all set in a small Tokyo restaurant that opens from midnight until 7-AM.  Each episode is only half-an-hour long and it’s essentially one person’s tale - some odd little story of life, often nothing dramatic. There’s something so calmly human about it. It’s extremely heartwarming and comforting.  Everything is at kind of a slow pace. And the production values look like a film I could have made. I don’t think there’s any music in the program itself aside from this song at the beginning of each episode ["Omoide (思ひで)", by Ludens].  A song in Japanese, sung by this rather faltering male voice. There’s something so touching about it, because it’s not a  polished, pro voice. Well, he may be a great pro singer for all I know, but somehow he’s managed to project this persona of real innocence. It’s beguiling. The song is such a great mood setter for the program.” 

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

RIP Terry Hall

The Specials reissues

Uncut, May 2002

"This ain't a track, it's a movement," proclaim The Streets on their recent 2-step-meets-2-Tone tune 'Let's Push Things Forward'. There are songs so potently and provocatively original they do seem to demand the formation of a subculture around them. But 'Gangsters', the Specials' 1979 debut, has got to be one of the very few cases where this literally happened: seemingly overnight and out of nowhere, an entire scene of ska bands assembled itself in response.

That may not have been Jerry Dammers' masterplan, but he was consciously attempting to create a brand new sound. Having already tried to merge punk with contemporary roots reggae and come a cropper owing to the hard-to-bridge difference in tempo and feel, Dammers decided to wind back the clock to reggae's precursors, ska and rocksteady; their speedy pace and jerky rhythm guitar chops were more compatible with new wave angularity. 2-Tone arrived at just the right moment: the arty vanguard of post-punk (PiL, The Pop Group etc) was preoccupied with dub's spacey sound and apocalyptic dread, leaving a gap in the market for an uptempo and upful punky-reggae sound. Defined by trebly, 7-inch brevity rather than bass-heavy 12-inch expanse (a la Metal Box), 2-Tone was populist and radio-friendly, yet its black-white hybridity and mixed-race bands were a perfect fit with the progressive RAR politics of the day.

For all its outward appearance of fun and energy, though, what's striking about The Specials is how grim the music's world view mostly is — a stance of sullen disaffection embodied in singer Terry Hall's unblinking eyes and perpetual scowl. Songs like 'Too Much Too Young' (a venomous diatribe addressed to an ex-girlfriend who's lost her youth to early motherhood) and 'Concrete Jungle' (a snapshot of '79 street life, a boom year for racial attacks and random violence) recall the desolate monochrome vistas and dosed-off options depicted in Sixties social realist films like Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and Kes.

Grey was always simultaneously The Specials' forte and fault — those lugubrious trombones! From its colour cover (featuring some band members actually smiling!) to its new sonic flavours (Dammers had become infatuated with muzak). More Specials was a bid to move forward and leave behind the legion of clones. Elvis Costello's sparse, near-mono production on the debut aimed to capture the band's legendarily electric live performances; now Dammers had fallen in love with the studio, an ultimately ruinous passion.

It's easy to see why the pork pie massive were puzzled and pissed off by the sudden depletion of energy on More Specials, but Dammers' new penchant for arrangement and production pays off with brilliant songs, like 'Stereotypes' (all Dr Zhivago-like balalaikas) and 'International Jet Set' (Casio-rhumba riddims and whirling Wurlitzer that stage the EZ listening revival 15 years ahead of schedule).

A Heaven's Gate-style financial calamity, 1984's In The Studio feels fatally sapped by its protracted gestation (three years, hence the album's wry title). Although Hall's only writing credit on the first two albums was More Specials' nuclear armageddon-themed 'Man At C&A', a crucial proportion of the band's spirit — its bleak, black humour — seems to have disappeared when he left for Fun Boy Three along with Neville Staple and Lynval Golding. Apart from the sinuous-melodied, mischievous 'What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend', the dominant mood is sanctimonious, especially the GLC-friendly protest-pop singles 'Racist Friend' and 'War Crimes'. In The Studio sounds literally studious, a series of meticulous and joy-drained genre exercises, sedate and sedative. 

                                                            "I'm the man in grey... and I don't have a say"

                                                                                     The wounds of class

                                                                "Nothing ever change..."

For the longest while, 2-Tone seemed like a sealed-off pocket in Britpop time: it vaporised as abruptly as it arrived, leaving little legacy apart from America's ill-advised ska-revival revival. But echoes pop up in the oddest places. Samples from 'Monkey Man' and 'Friday Night, Saturday Morning' graced underground rave anthems by Bodysnatch and 4 Hero. Tricky is a huge admirer of Terry Hall, and had him guest on the Nearly God album. Dammers' film score-steeped, sepia-toned sound circa More Specials and 'Ghost Town' is an unacknowledged precursor to Portishead circa 'Sour Times'. And there's a definite ska feel that crops up repeatedly in 2-step garage, from Doolally's 'Straight From The Heart' in 1998 to this year's 'Too Much Brandy' and 'Push Things Forward' by The Streets. 2-Tone's mood-blend of jaunty and glum — a dancefloor hemmed in by desperation on all sides — has perennial appeal and resonance.

4 Hero sampling "Friday Night, Saturday Morning"

                                                                   Tired Eyes remix!

Snippet from the start of "Monkey Man" goading alla the bouncer man appears in this Bodysnatch oddity "Revenge of the Punter" 

A whole post on hardcore continuum / 2 Tone intersections.

This tune from the Specials comeback album is rather good 

Friday, December 2, 2022

Kanye, "the Black Bowie"

So it is revealed that KW originally wanted to give his 2018 album Ye the title  Hitler.  Which inevitably brings to mind David Bowie's "I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I'd be an excellent dictator" comment from 1976.  Apparently in a 2015 business meeting Kanye also described Hitler as a "marketing genius", which mirrors Bowie's impressed comments about Goebbel's skills in the advertising / propaganda realm and Hitler's as master showman who "staged a country". 

Here below is a review of Pablo where I do the West / Bowie comparison.

But first, crikey, look here's a piece from 2011 on Kanye comparing himself to Hitler! Apparently at the Big Chill Festival, he said this to the audience: "I walk through the hotel and I walk down the street, and people look at me like I’m ... insane, like I’m Hitler. One day the light will shine through, and one day people will understand everything I ever did." The LA Times journo consults a psychologist and psychiatrist, who posit plausibly that "For Kanye West to compare himself to Hitler in that way, it suggests a certain level of narcissism. To empathize with someone responsible for the deaths of millions of people, it can indicate a lack of sensitivity to how other people are going to feel about your comments. And, again, it can be a sign of narcissism.’ and ‘Kanye West’s referencing of Hitler is about narcissism and identifying with people in positions of power." 

Not that you need professionals to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder - you just have to listen to the records. 


The Life of Pablo
The Wire, April 2016

by Simon Reynolds

A journalist recently asked me whether I agreed with his thesis that the Rock Star is a dying breed – literally dying off, with high-profile 2016 extinctions like Bowie and Lemmy. My thought was that if you understand rock narrowly as electric-guitar music, then yes, resources are depleting rapidly; it’s a minority-interest sound now, incapable of supporting mythic-scale personalities. 

But think of “rock star” in a less tethered-to-genre way and it’s surely obvious that the archetype is alive and kicking elsewhere. Above all, rap is where you’ll find that public theatre of ego-drama, unbridled excess, and artistic over-reach, the car-crash personalities and epic sagas of anti-heroism.  If Future is our era’s Iggy – vocal tone of pained ecstasy, lust-for-life turned toxic - then Kanye West amply fills the Bowie role. There’s the same torturously conflicted relationship with fame, the same restless chasing of the cutting edge balanced by a compulsion to command the centre stage of pop culture.  

Like Bowie, West is a mediatician as much as a musician.  So while the audio content of his seventh album intersects with the soundworlds of TriAngle or LuckyMe, it doesn’t make sense to approach The Life of Pablo in the way that 98% of the releases covered in this magazine get treated – as a primarily audio experience. Pablo resists being disentangled from the vortex of discourse - gossip, leaks, forensic analysis, public melt-downs - that imbricates its every texture and lyric.  Tempting as it is to hack exasperatedly away at the thicket of context and subtext – from the month-long cavalcade of “spaz in the news Kanye” (to quote a lyric from the album) to the way that virtually every sound and line seems hyperlinked – in order to get through to the Work itself, the truth is that the surrounding swirl is the Work, or at least an outer but un-detachable layer to it.

The fact that there’s no solid-form incarnation of Pablo, that the album can only be heard as a stream from the hi-fidelity streaming service Tidal, practically incites you to listen connectively, with other windows open on your browser: checking reviews, consulting rap-nerd annotation sites, monitoring Twitter and Facebook reactions. This is Pablo’s, and Kanye’s, proper domain: the hubbub of the internet.

Pablo is an Event, then. But it’s also an assemblage of moments, aesthetic decisions, accumulated over three years of studio work (with a few elements dating even further back, to the 2010 sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: the album before the previous album).  How could a coherent vibe possibly emerge from such a piecemeal process? The simple answer is that it hasn’t.  It’s not just that this album as a  (not-)whole feels loosely collated and arbitrarily sequenced. Many individual tracks seem like they could easily dis-assemble into constituent parts – there’s a segmental feel to the way that guest raps, vocal cameos, samples, intros and codas slot into their provisionally allotted place. You sense a governing logic of additive and subtractive unrest that has yet to subside. West tweaked tracks up to the last minute and indeed beyond the last minute. It’s conceivable that there will never be a definitive shape to The Life of Pablo.

The album’s mode of construction invites deconstruction: breakdowns of the credits, inventories of samples, a fever of instant-response exegesis.   This is how we tend to envisage creativity operating these days: as recreativity, the marshalling of influences,  allusions, evocations, self-reflexive references. Kanye is an exemplar of the modern ideal of the curator as creator. He rose to fame through deft use of samples, often amounting simply to re-presenting the music of others with his lyrics over the top and a turbo-boosted beat underneath. That technique felt inspired and glorious on the Chaka Khan-lifting “Through the Wire”, his debut solo smash in 2004; it felt empty and crass with the Curtis Mayfield-molesting “Touch the Sky” and Daft Punk-depleting “Stronger.”  Pablo is littered with startling sample-choices, but who even knows if Kanye, a man over-extended on multiple fronts, actually found them all? Perhaps he’s now obliged to delegate tasks like this to his diffuse squad of producers, what’s been described as the Kanye Think Tank.

Just as Pablo dismantles the conventional understanding of the Album as a finished work, authorship becomes moot here as well.  “Famous” is typical, crediting no less than sixteen writers (although some of these are the composers of the samples) and eight producers. It’s a drastically racheted-up version of the way Bowie made records, except that each of his albums drew on a finite team of players and a single producer or co-producer. Here, each individual song deploys a different line-up.

As you’d expect, then, Pablo is bitty. It’s an album of good bits and shit bits, all jumbled together. Nearly every song contains at least one great sound or rhythm idea. In “Famous,” it’s a sequence of what sounds like electro-Bollywood, but is actually Eighties dancehall queen Sister Nancy. In “Feedback”, it’s a gnarly loop distantly related to an Iranian disco song by Googoosh. In “FML”, it’s Section 25’s “Hit” drastically reprocessed into a psychedelic dirge of fluorescent bass and gargoyle vox.  Other delights come from guest collaborators or producers, like the too-brief interlude of Laurie Anderson-like cyborg chorale from composer Caroline Shaw in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2,” or the lachrymose texture-swirls and echo-misted beat of “Real Friends,” built by Frank Jukes and Boi-1da.     
But every good bit is marred by its proximity to a shit bit, and nine times out of ten, the latter involves a gross sentiment or a mewling, sloppy delivery emitted from the brain and mouth of West himself.  Perhaps the most grating adjacency of beauty and beastly is “30 Hours”, where the blurry-souled mumble of Arthur Russell from World of Echo is accompanied by the self-regard and spite of a Kanye punch-drunk in the media echo-chamber.  After a swipe at an ex’s supposedly fading looks and a  jab about a blow job being better than having no job, the song degenerates into barely written drivel barely synched to the beat – the seeming off-the-cuff realism underlined by the interruption of a cellphone call and Kanye’s mumbled “I’m just doing an album track right now.”  

Pablo grips your attention through an attraction-repulsion effect: the attraction largely pertaining to the sonics, the repulsion manifesting almost entirely in the lyrics. Despite the album’s disparate provenance and huge cast list, Kanye’s personality is overpoweringly present, oozing from every pore of the record. If there’s a thematic, it’s spiritual unrest and a longing for wholeness. Fractured and insatiable, Kanye confesses “I just wanna feel liberated” - freed from his own self, from the chains of appetite and vanity.   At his core is a hungry hole that can be filled not by trophies and transient thrills but by God’s love alone.

Kanye has touted Pablo as a gospel album (its original working title was So Help Me God) and as a musical form gospel pops up several times, mostly early on. Featuring a squeaky-voiced 4-year old preacher and swells of choir, opener “Ultralight Beam” pleads for serenity and sanctuary. “‘Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1,” the next track, uses samples from a 1976 gospel record by Pastor T.L. Barret and Youth for Christ from West’s hometown Chicago. “Low Lights” takes a long passage of female testifying about the Lord’s inspirational power from “So Alive”, a track by house producer Kings of Tomorrow. Not for the first time, I was struck by the childish conception of the Almighty that seems to figure in hip hop: no trace of the Old Testament God of Thou Shalt Not, or the New Testament God who warns that the rich will have a tough time getting into heaven. This is a forgiving and indulgent deity, who offers ego-reinforcement and motivational uplift, unsurprisingly close to the all-American God who figures in prosperity theology a/k/a the gospel of wealth. 

Entreaties to the Sky Daddy have featured in Kanye’s work from the start. “Jesus Walks”, on the debut The College Dropout, introduced his “at war with myself” shtick: torn in twain ‘tween venality and virtue, lowly libido and higher purpose. Except it didn’t seem like shtick then; it felt strikingly original. West continued to present himself as a divided soul – most movingly on Late Registration’s exquisite “Addicted” – and opened up the terrain occupied by the likes of Kendrick Lamar with songs like “Bitch, Don’t’ Kill My Vibe” (where Lamar identifies as a sinner while admitting “I’m probably gonna sin again”). A secular version of this woozy confusion came from Drake,who became a  superstar by reveling in the fruits of fame and fortune while simultaneously complaining about the hollow-inside tristesse that followed.

These self-medicating and self-loathing (never enough to change or stop, of course) MCs constitute a late phase of rap I think of as its decadence. Where hip hop once thrilled with the barbarian rapacity of its hunger for success, now the genre – all conquering, sated – succumbs to a sickly malaise of self-doubt and overshared “sensitivity”. An inner void has become virtually a status symbol, like being player-hated once was: the true mark of having triumphed now is to feel like the treasure is worthless.

Kanye pioneered this brand of anhedonic numbness, complaining about feeling unreal when he sees himself on TV in the “Pinocchio Story,” the mawkish finale to his emo-rap album 808s & Heartbreak.  As the listener ventures deeper into Pablo, the gospel concept dissolves both musically and thematically: the sonics are suggestive by turns of IDM, trap, and “21st Century hipster”, and lyrically any striving for higher ground gives way to the profane fare of paranoia and self-pity.  “Famous” is supposedly Kanye  “breaking-up” with Fame, (a temptress personified here by Rihanna) but he still manages to squeeze in some instantly-infamous jibes at Taylor Swift along with a legion of haters “mad they still nameless.” “Feedback” confesses “I’ve been out of my mind a long time” only to brandish that fact as support to his claim to be a modern Picasso: “name one genius that ain’t crazy.” “Real Friends” recycles laments first aired on 808s about the impossibility of leading a normal life: back then it involved a relative’s wedding and having to leave before they cut the cake, here it’s about always being in a hurry and not knowing how old his friends’s children are. The only new element is the dissing of a cousin who stole West’s laptop.

That crime and the “dirty motherfucker” responsible crop up a second time on “No More Parties in LA”, one of Pablo’s most cohesive and enjoyably groovy tracks: a Dilla-like throwback to underground rap’s hyno-loop aesthetic, with Madlib producing and guest verses from Kendrick Lamar. One sample source is “Suzy Thundertussy”, Junie Morrison’s funk track about a super groupie.  The original song starts with the line “Los Angeles is a lonely sort of place”, but in “No More Parties”, the first two words - Morrison’s oozily enunciated “Los Angeles”  - is turned into a recurrent refrain that sounds like “lost in lust” or, even more mystically, “lost in lost”. Like Lamar’s own “Swimming Pools”, the song sounds dissolute, the parties blurring into each other in a memory-haze of Hollywood Hills decadence. More than anything, “No More Parties” reminds me of “Hotel California” and Don Henley solo songs like “The Last Worthless Evening”: rock stars having their coke and critiquing it.  

Since at least 808s & Heartbreak being a Kanye West fan has resembled a dysfunctional relationship where one partner keeps pushing the other away, constantly testing their limits. Where Drake exists “somewhere between psychotic and iconic,” the discomfort zone for Kanye is somewhere between mess and messianic, desperation and despotism. An asshole who knows he’s an asshole and tells you he’s an asshole - “a 38-year-old 8-year-old with rich nigga problems” is how he self-diagnoses on “No More Parties” - is still an asshole. Even if he keeps managing to find ever more audaciously upfront and often laugh-out-loud ways -- on this album, “I Love Kanye” -  of telling you that.  

Equal parts scattershot genius and splattershit grotesquerie, Life of Pablo is a reminder of rap’s enduring paradox:  here’s an entertainment form based on personalities that in real life you would avoid like the plague - monologists, braggarts, slimeball lechers, pullers of rank.  You wouldn’t want to be with these people; you wouldn’t want to be these people. To circle back to the start, that then raises the question:  why do we need rock stars? (The “we” is rhetorical: I know many, perhaps most readers of this magazine either never felt such a need or have long out-grown it). At one point, there was interest and even illumination to gleaned from watching their megalo-melodrama from afar. Their misadventures and vision-quests made exhibitionist art out of the paradoxes and impasses of “living without limits” (as West phrases it on the most haunting song here, “FML” - an acronym for Fuck My Life).  Stars showed how ascending to that scale of freedom could become its own trap.  But we’ve seen this story acted out too many times. Fame-as-pathology, fame-as-catastrophe – it’s a script now.

Pablo’s final song “Fade” pivots around some classic house music samples -- Hardrive’s “Deep Inside,” Mr Fingers’s “Mystery of Love”- along with two different versions of “(I Know) I’m Losing You”  by Rare Earth and Undisputed Truth.  Guest Ty Dolla $ign voices what sounds like Kanye’s personal plaint about needing attention to feel alive: “When no one ain’t around... Ain’t nobody watchin’... I just fade away”. When Barbara Tucker’s wondrous vocal lick from the Hardrive track – “deep deep down inside” – enters, it sounds blurrily processed, probably indecipherably so for listeners unfamiliar with the original garage anthem. I hear it as “deep deep down I’m stuck”. That’s Kanye West and that’s pop culture in 2016.