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“The Man Who Fell To Earth”: This 2011 documentary explores rock renaissance man Brian Eno’s ’71-’77 recordings
Brian Eno 1971-1977: The Man Who Fell To Earth — now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — documents six key years in the revered sonic innovator and rock renaissance man’s celebrated career, from his early days in art school, to joining Roxy Music and appearing on their first two albums, through his remarkably inventive solo recording career which ends in 1977 with Before and After Science, the last of four albums to feature his lead vocals, and just prior to becoming a recording studio wizard, leading to his work with David Bowie on the so-called Berlin Trilogy and his full immersion into an exploration of ambient music before the end of the decade.
In 1970, Brian Eno’s chance meeting with saxophonist Andy Mackay on a subway train platform would ultimately lead to Eno to joining Roxy Music, who had recently formed.
Originally, Eno — who began using his last name largely to avoid confusion with lead singer Bryan Ferry — didn’t want to perform with them onstage, preferring instead to stay backstage, playing a VCS3 synthesizer and operating a Revox tape machine and a mixing desk which altered guitar tunings and synth frequencies to create elaborate and inventive new sounds.
He gradually came out of the shadows as a full-fledged performing member of the group, eventually earning a reputation for wearing flamboyant glam outfits often accessorized with feather boas.
Roxy Music were soon appearing on John Peel’s radio show and opening for bands like Genesis, but it was through another British progressive rock band, King Crimson, that they’d end up signing with E.G. Records.
E.G. had released In The Court of the Crimson King through a distribution deal with Island Records, and Ferry — who had auditioned with them after the departure of their original vocalist Greg Lake — wasn’t quite what guitarist Robert Fripp and songwriter/record producer Pete Sinfield were looking for, but they were suitably impressed with Ferry and ended up helping his band get signed to David Enthoven and John Gaydon’s artist management company and independent label.
The Man Who Fell To Earth details how Eno contributed to Roxy Music’s first two albums, and how it it all came to an end in the summer of 1973, during a promotional tour for the band’s second album, For Your Pleasure.
Eno would tell Melody Maker (July 21, 1973), that he’d decided to leave the band after realized he was so bored in the middle of one of their songs onstage that he was trying to remember if he’d picked up his laundry that day.
Eno secured his own recording contract with Island, who began releasing all of Eno’s solo efforts, beginning with Here Come The Warm Jets, released in late ’73, followed by Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) in 1974, Another Green World in 1975, and finally Before and After Science, which was released in 1977.
The documentary tells the backstory to these albums, as well as detailing Eno’s non-song recorded efforts, like his collaborations with Fripp, the first of which — 1973’s parenthetically-titled (No Pussyfooting) — was recorded for a grand total of $14, and showcased a tape-delay system dubbed “Frippertronics.”
These would be some of his first attempts at what he would later call “ambient” music, which he’d begun to explore more and more as the decade went on.
His 1975 album, Discreet Music, explored a kind of minimalist approach to contemporary classical music. It was released on Eno’s own Obscure label, which he created to release a series of avant-garde classical recordings, and between ’75 and ’78, ten albums by composers like Gavin Bryars, David Toop, Harold Budd (with whom Eno would work with during the ’80’s) and the Penguin Café Orchestra would all be released, with Eno producing most of these efforts.
The final half-hour of the film explores Eno’s productions with other musical friends, including the German duo Cluster (featuring Dieter Moebius, who died last year), as well as the creation of his “Oblique Strategies,” a set of 113 paper cards each bearing a singular message (like “Do Something Boring”) which were meant to help overcome creative blockage in the studio.
The documentary also explores his enduring interest in ambient recordings, “ambient” being a term he’d begun using in the early 70s as a way to describe subliminal soundtrack music to underscore whatever happened to be happening at the time, like his Music for Airports, which we told you about here.
Despite its claims, editor/documentary filmmaker Ed Haynes’ 2011 film — appropriating the latter part of its title from Nicolas Roeg’s 1977 alien-on-Earth sci-fi film — this isn’t the first documentary about Eno: there’s also a long-lost 24-minute documentary Eno, directed by Alphons Sinniger, which we told you about here, and there have been subsequent documentaries of various lengths focusing on later ambient periods of Eno’s musical career too.
The Man Who Fell To Earth is, however, is the first unauthorized feature-length doc (157 minutes long!) to explore the first six years of Brian Eno‘s incredibly creative output in the 1970s, and provides us with exclusive interviews with some of his occasional collaborating musical partners, including Jon Hassell, Percy Jones, Hans Joachim Roedelius, Chris Spedding and Brian Turrington.
Also featured are interviews with Eno biographers, theorists, and critics — including Johnny Rogan, Robert Christgau, David Sheppard (On Some Faraway Beach), Eric Tamm (Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound), Geeta Dayal (author of the 33⅓ book on Eno’s landmark album Another Green World), Simon Reynolds (Retromania), David Toop (Ocean of Sound: Æther Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds), and Mark Prendergast (The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Moby—the Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age) — as well as an interview his longtime friend, Lloyd Watson.
Eno makes only a brief appearance in the film (in two soundbite excerpts from a 2008 BBC Arena interview), but there’s enough engaging detailed discussion here from all involved that you get the complete story (and then some).
The documentary also features several of Eno’s instrumental tracks snippets playing over archival footage from avant-garde and experimental films, like Pruitt-Igoe sequence from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, clips from Andrei Tarkovsky films and more.