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Music

'Oblique Strategies': The creative card game invented by Brian Eno in 1975

Although he is best known to Far Out readers for his minimalist solo work along with efforts with stadium rockers U2 and David Bowie, Brian Eno is an avant-gardist of the highest order. It’s not the work that drives him, but the art process has stimulated and interested him all this time.

Eno has kept himself busy over the years, whether it’s touring as part of Roxy Music, or “Enossifying” a Genesis track at Peter Gabriel’s request. He also designed a set of cards that offered as a guide to him through dense times, and was more relaxed.

“The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when panic, particularly in studios, tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working,” said Eno in a 1980 radio interview, “And that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.”

Centred on the aphorisms that can solve or destroy a work situation, the cards hold such messages as “honour thy error as a hidden intention”, “state the problem in words as clearly as possible”, “remember those quiet evenings”, “once the search is in progress, something will be found”, “work at a different speed” and “look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them”.

Physically, they are presented in a deck of 7-by-9cm printed cards in a black box. And although the game doesn’t hold a set of rules per se, the function of the exercise is to encourage artists to continue working down their perilous path. In other words, they act as a friend at a time of great need. 

Eno has always tailored philosophies to suit the work at play. During the recording of The Joshua Tree, he claims he tried to burn a tape in the hope of getting a more vital performance from the band. He was caught in the act, but at least his intentions were pure. Indeed, he persuaded U2 to abandon their rock image on the excellent Original Soundtracks 1 album, giving Eno and U2 the chance to explore other avenues the rock genre prohibited them from performing. Only once do the band return to the melody-laced flavours of their traditional output, and it’s for the spellbinding ‘Miss Sarajevo’, a chorus-heavy anthem complete with a stunning vocal from Paravotti. 

Bono must have used the Oblique Strategies cards in his time, considering that the messages are meant to help people find their purpose behind the mania and craziness that lingers in a recording process. Eno likely borrowed a couple of tips from the equally idiosyncratic David Bowie, who believed that the best way to generate great art was to push beyond the point of comfort into the realm of discomfort. 

Eno and Bowie worked on ‘Warszawa’, a probing instrumental punched up by a series of chants and scat vocals. Buoyed by the directions Bowie gave him, Eno came up with a riff that was eerie, ominous, even hymn-like, making it one of the undisputed highlights on Low. Written to evoke the energy of Poland, the song could never have come around but for Eno’s interest in exploring. 

Danger leads to great art, but it can also be damaging to the artist, once they start to doubt themselves. These cards help artists recover their sense of control, and gear them to happier terrains. Eno is the first to understand the risk creativity involves: “I often get asked to come and talk at art schools,” he revealed, “And I rarely get asked back, because the first thing I always say is, ‘I’m here to persuade you not to have a job.’”

The best way to be truthful to an artistic endeavour is to commit to it with everything at their disposal. The Stone Roses took that dive in the late 1980s when they collectively decided to give up their day jobs to focus on the music at hand. John Lennon gave Paul McCartney a firm ultimatum, leading the bassist to quit his job for the band, much to the supposed chagrin of his father. This likely explains why he released the Oblique Strategy cards in 1975. The whole purpose of the exercise is to comfort artists, who have taken the ultimate plunge and jumped out of convention into a more abstract world. Coldplay took that dive into the world of art-rock in 2008 to create Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, an orchestral work that seeped in the importance of the here and now. Naturally, they asked Eno to look over the process. 

Because that’s precisely what art is: it’s a process. The product only holds so much value, barring the commercial one, and if the journey to the final point isn’t worthwhile, then what’s the point? 

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