Not Yet Remembered: Prog and Brian Eno

The nerds have come a long way since I realized I was one of them in middle school. Now we’re all grown up, and obsessions and interests once broached with hesitant caution and hidden with extreme care are now discussed openly. Sometimes the obscurity of the subjects and the depth of the minutia is too much to take.

Yes is the AnswerProg rock seems to be the only thing not reaping the benefits of the revenge of the nerds. Still maligned by a geeky stench and stigma, it is seemingly enjoyed by many but visibly championed by few. To defend prog, as Rick Moody puts it, is to defend the indefensible.

Well, Moody and many other literary-minded word-nerds do just that in Yes is the Answer (And Other Prog-Rock Tales), edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell (Rare Bird, 2013). It’s not all about Yes, Moody takes a stance on Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Tom Junod parses the power of Peter Gabriel, Rodrigo Fresán attempts to align A Clockwork Orange and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, John Albert transcends hoodrat status by recounting his seeing King Crimson live, Beth Lisick explains the undeniable import of Rush‘s “Tom Sawyer,” and the inimitable James Greer illuminates how Robert Pollard is as Guided by Gabriel as he is The Beatles. These essays all have varying degrees of success, but hell, I even like Jim DeRogatis’ piece.

With that said, this might not be the first book-length discussion or defense of the importance of prog (see Bill Martin’s stuffy Listening to the Future or Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell’s spotty Beyond and Before), but it’s definitely the most readable and goes the longest way to returning prog to its status as a respectable musical genre.

From Brian Eno's "77 Million Paintings"
Images from Brian Eno’s “77 Million Paintings”

Few people even marginally associated with prog are as universally revered as Brian Eno. Outside of being recognized as the inventor and purveyor of ambient music, Eno is largely associated with the other four-letter word of 1970s rock, but his first solo works were collaborations with prog guitarist Robert Fripp. His early solo records boast appearances by members of Genesis, Soft Machine, Hawkwind, Can, Cluster, and several from King Crimson, among many others. Not to mention the “Enossification” of parts of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (as Junod discusses in Yes is the Answer).

Brian Eno: Visual MusicBrian Eno: Visual Music by Christopher Scoates (Chronicle Books, 2013) documents Eno’s thought and thinking through many of his records and art installations. The book is a wealth of visual stimuli, with photos from throughout his career, as well as drawings and diagrams from his own notebooks: from his collaboration with Peter Schmidt on the Oblique Strategies cards (see below) to his musical work with David Byrne and Talking Heads, David Bowie, and his solo work. There are also written contributions from Scoates, Roy Ascott, Brian Dillon, Steve Dietz, and Eno himself. In addition, there’s a transcript from a lengthy dialogue between game designer Will Wright and Brian Eno, and not the one previously available from The Long Now Foundation but a new one entirely.

The stills from Eno’s “77 Million Paintings” evoke something Marcel Duchamp once said: “I was interested in ideas–not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.” The same could be said of any of Eno’s many projects. Scoates’ Brian Eno: Visual Music is an essential collection for anyone interested in one the most important thinkers, musicians, and working artists of our time.

From the original Oblique Strategies, 1974
Handwritten cards from the original Oblique Strategies, 1974.

Brian Eno once defined a nerd as “a human being without enough Africa in him or her,” and it seems the nerds have risen above their lack of Africa, except perhaps where prog is concerned, but there still may come a day…