By now, the story is legendary. In 1975, Brian Eno, the man whose young career already had more than enough innovation, daring, and radiant genius to secure his legend, was in a car accident that left him bedridden. His friend Judy Nylon popped by with that fateful record of 18th Century harp music, which Eno, with much strain and stress, put on when she had left, not noticing that he had failed to sufficiently turn up the volume on his stereo. Upon returning to bed, he discovered what he had done but had no strength to rectify matters. A lesser mind would have merely grumbled and forgotten the incident, but for a mind as verdant as Eno’s, it proved a defining incident, one that would forever alter his approach to music-making.
The way the harp music became just another element in the room suggested new possibilities, ones that any ordinary musician would naturally ignore. In 1976, when rock amps were continuing their banal journey up to 11, Eno turned his down to near-zero and managed to grab attention anyway. It was perhaps the only radical thing to do at the time, considering that Lou Reed had found the unsatisfying outer limits of noise the previous year with Metal Machine Music, and Discreet Music, the first product of Eno’s new ambient approach, bested Eno’s former hero not just by being more enjoyable, but by being more adventurous as well.
The method for creating “Discreet Music” (the track, not the album—more on that in a moment) was probably more complex than I understand it to be, but the underlying concept was to put simple melodic lines from a synthesizer through a graphic equalizer and echo unit and then slowly tinker with the timbre and delay of the melodies over the course of one half-hour. Not exactly the kind of thing Mr. White was asking from Jimmy in That Thing You Do!, but at least a segment of the mid-‘70s audience was hip enough to recognize it for a major innovation. And if the title track was the element most responsible for such plaudits, it sadly came at the expense of the rest of the album, “Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel,” the warmth to the lovely chill of the album’s first half. Giving snatches of “Canon” to string players and monkeying with the tempi and alignment of the parts, Eno makes music just as calm and beautiful as “Discreet Music”, but with none of the electronic wizardry that so many of his disciples would hide behind when they were out of ideas. That Eno was about to be cited as a major influence on the punk explosion while producing music this radically placid is just one more reminder of the man’s exemplary willingness to sacrifice popularity in favor of fresh avenues of expression.
But if the first chapter in Eno’s ambient saga was a success, his dogged persistence in the genre made his followers pine for another Here Come the Warm Jets, or even another split-the-difference work like Another Green World. 1977’s Before and After Science was excellent but schizoid, and it proved to be the last of his quartet of quasi-pop albums. Of course, those four are enough to consider his work in the realm an unqualified success, and Eno has as much of a right as any real artist to follow his muse wherever it leads him. But the sense that we’ve all been a bit cheated stems from the fact that Eno didn’t abandon ambient like he’d done to pop after a similarly short period. I’ve often wondered just how many ambient albums it’s worthwhile to own, and the question goes double for producing them. Eno wasn’t making Discreet Music parts two through infinity with the rest of his career, but neither did he make any more sudden leaps sideways. With Discreet Music, Eno broke ground in the background, and good for him that he did, but nearly 30 years on, it’s hard not to wish that he had given us some more time standing front and center.