Listen to this track by former Roxy Music member, producer, and ambient art rock forseer Brian Eno. It’s “St. Elmo’s Fire”, a song as featured on his landmark 1975 album Another Green World.
When not playing the songs on the album completely by himself, he is joined by some luminary musicians from the prog and art rock camp, including Robert Fripp (who plays the squiggly guitar break on this tune), John Cale, and Phil Collins of Genesis, one of the many bands to which Eno would lend his sought-after production skills.
Eno’s feel for texture in the producer’s seat would also inform this record, which was looked upon as a crossroads album away from rock songs, albeit ones with unexpected angles, and into a more experimental space where minimalist mood pieces were more central. This song is one of five out of fourteen that contains lyrics, for instance.
There is a lot of talk about experimentation when artists put out records that diverge from the pop song plot. But, the question in this case is, was the experiment a success?
Well once again, when we talk about “experimental pop”, the only measure of success that can be applied across the board is whether or not each part of that term – “experimental” and “pop”, that is – is served in the material. The fact that this record failed to chart in either the UK or the US for instance may be a strike against it in the minds of some. But, it was also hailed as a progression for Eno as an artist pursuing an untrodden path, and is now considered an essential part of any respectable record collection, and making all kinds of Top (insert number here) Albums you should own on any music publication you can name.
As it stands, “St. Elmo’s Fire” is an example of Eno translating a sense of traditional pop elements and overall structure, and simply setting them down into a non-traditional sonic space. This song full of the vivid imagery of a surreal road trip delivered by a lead voice constrasted with backing singers. But, the instrumentation that creates the backdrop for the song, and some eccentric accents added in as well, puts a bit of a spin on the traditional pop song.
For instance, Fripp’s solo is complicated, more like a sound effect than a melodic statement. But his part is locked into the whole structure, held in contrast to the almost gospel sound of the voices, singing “in the blue August moon” chorus. The whole thing becomes pretty seaworthy when listening to it as a pop song. But the ship has some weird angles that makes for a more interesting voyage.
And that’s Eno’s genius; positioning the expected in with the unexpected, and making them sound like one unit. This isn’t a landmark album for nothing! And it would help to keep Eno on an important road when it came to creating work that is both accessible and challenging at the same time.
This skill of Eno’s would be applied to ensuing albums of his own. But, they would be used to arguably their greatest effect on his work on David Bowie’s Low, a record that doesn’t shy away from balancing instrumental soundscapes with more traditionally structured pop songs, either.
Actually, Eno’s overall contributions to Bowie’s Berlin period from 1976 to 1979 would help to define Bowie’s output during that period as a whole, helping Bowie to transition out from his nervy rock sound created while still in L.A. It would also help to pop music as a whole transition into the 1980s, with both men looked upon as being incredibly important to the work of many who followed later in that new decade.
Eno’s credits are long and celebrated, working with artists like Peter Gabriel, Ultravox, U2, David Byrne, James, and even Coldplay! His work as a solo artist as well as a producer are well documented by now, and he is an active artist today. You can learn more about his new album Lux here.