From Miles Davis to The Velvet Underground: Brian Eno picks 8 songs he couldn’t live without
There’s something particularly joyful about Brian Eno and Desert Island Discs. Not only their comfortable pioneering smiles but their parallel influence on music. While the buzz of the business continues to bubble and swell around them, they quietly and methodically go about their vital business.
Here, we’re revisiting eight songs Brian Eno couldn’t live without as he appeared as the guest on Sue Lawley’s Desert Island Discs back in January 1991.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of a show like Desert Island Discs. The British institution has become a mainstay of the musical lexicon. Having interviewed world leaders and garage bands alike, the BBC Radio 4 show is based on a simple premise: which eight discs would you take with you to a desert island? As well as being stranded on the inescapable island with your eight favourite tunes, you are also gifted one luxury item, one book, the complete works of Shakespeare and your choice of a holy book.
It’s a format which always invites its guests to share the journey which had brought them to the highest highs, lowest lows, and ended up with them sitting across from their host with a mic. Whether it’s reflecting on the people who made the music or the scenarios the music soundtracked, the conversation is always an enlightening one. The same can, of course, be said for the pioneering electronic musician, Brian Eno.
As ever, the succinct, and sometimes scolding, introduction from Sue Lawley is all you need to know about the star she’s interviewing. Eno’s introduction is one of the most relatively vague we’ve ever heard: “My castaway this week is a rock musician. As the flamboyant keyboard player of the group Roxy Music, he achieved huge popular success. But at the height of his fame, he gave up the world of weekly gigs and adoring fans to experiment with electronic music.”
Adding: “Now, widely admired for the way in which he revolutionised background music in airports and supermarkets and for his experiments in video, he’s become the intellectual guru of the rock world.”
As Lawley reveals, Eno is a terribly difficult man to pigeonhole. Dodging categorisation is something he’s been doing throughout his illustrious career both in a band and on his own, in the studio with David Bowie and behind the mixing desk with U2, Eno has done it all. It’s an eclecticism that is reflected in the music he would take with him to his own deserted island.
Eno’s first pick is Gene Chandler’s ‘Duke Of Earl’ which was a track from a “group of songs that was a very big influence on me as a kid,” he said, before adding: “In fact, they sounded to me like music from outer space when I first picked them up on my transistor radio late at night.” He later continues: “Listening to music like that I realised I could make music.”
The next pick may well appear as a trendy pick these days but in 1991 Eno used his next to choice to throw a spotlight on Fela Kuti which Eno describes as the “best dance music I’ve ever heard,” he continues. “With this record, I can’t sit still.” It’s a hint at the myriad of influences that have been woven into Eno’s music throughout his long and winding career.
The third choice is maybe something a little more expected. As Lawley delves into the musician’s art college past, Eno divulges his beatnik history and his penchant for women’s clothing during the swinging sixties, they do eventually lead into his selection of the Velvet Underground, a band Eno has worked with across his career. “They were very, very contrary,” muses Eno on picking ‘Sunday Morning’. “This was a time when everyone was singing about flowers in their hair and The Velvet Underground came out with songs about ‘Heroin’ and ‘Waiting for The Man’. They were very tough. Urban. And I thought with some very good songs.”
Away from the stripped back alt-pop sounds of the Velvet Underground, Eno also picks some lesser-known moments including Nikolai Ivanovitch Kompaneiski’s ‘Herouvimska Pessen’ and Fairuz’ beautiful ‘Ya Tayr’ in between sharing the inner moments of Roxy Music, including the rift that separated he and Bryan Ferry.
To swoop back into the gloriously sanctity of music, Eno also picks Miles Davis’ brilliant ‘He Loved Him Madly’, about the track he says: “About the time I left Roxy, there were some new things happening in Jazz, spearheaded by Miles Davis who was making records that were highly controversial and pretty unpopular, in that they used a kind of rock format and a rock sound to make music that was very diffuse and somewhat incoherent, actually. I found this music extremely interesting.”
Eno returns to that rock sound when he selects Captain Beefheart’s ‘Too Much Time’ a song which Eno says “has rather a good theme for a desert island,” and welcomes the golden hues of the bounding song to cascade across the airwaves. There’s still room for one more song selection, also known as the Castaway’s favourite.
After revealing that his luxury item was at first “a pleasant way” to commit suicide, then a “lifetime supply” of drugs, finally he settled on a telescope. His book would be Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony & Solidarity to complete his selections. He was ready to reveal his favourite song to take with him, ‘Lord Don’t Forget About Me’ by Dorothy Love Coates.
“The last record is a gospel song, I mean, gospel is, I suppose, the music I’ve listened to more than any other over the last few years. I particularly love the gospel style of singing, the way that the voice is liberated in this way of singing. This is a song by probably the most liberated of all the gospel singers.” It’s a powerful, goosebump-inducing way to end the show which sees Eno as every bit the intelligent maestro you’d imagine him to be.
Brian Eno’s eight favourite songs:
Gene Chandler – ‘Duke of Earl’
Fela Kuti & Afrika 70 – ‘Alu Jon Jonki Jon’
The Velvet Underground – ‘Sunday Morning’
Miles Davis – ‘He Loved Him Badly’
Nikolai Ivanovitch Kompaneiski – ‘Herouvimska Pessen’
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – ‘Too Much Time’
Fairuz – ‘Ya Tayr’
Dorothy Love Coates – ‘Lord Don’t Forget About Me’
BBC have made the episode, with slightly shortened musical pieces available on their website through the BBC Sounds channel and on Spotify.