Ginger & Eno: Two Fine Docs

Eno movie

One would be hard pressed in extremis to find two personalities, musical or otherwise, who are more dichotomous than the serene musician/non musician, producer and creative entity that is Brian Eno, and the man who is the most talented drummer in the history of rock music, and among the best drummers in music entirely, the mercurial Ginger Baker.

What unites them by a microscopic thread are relatively recent documentaries about them that are at once revealing and analytical.

Brian Eno – 1971 – 1977: The Man Who Fell To Earth, directed by Ed Haynes, closely and comprehensively studies the early phase of Eno’s career in music, his most fecund period as a rock musician, the period when his explorations of ambient music, electronica and more fully realized avant-garde projects began to blossom.

Like no small number of British musicians, Eno gravitated to music from art school, where he prepared for a career in painting. His entry into music was sideways, and serendipitous, called upon initially for his expertise and facility with machines, from tape recorders or other recording devices, to anything capable of creating, amplifying or manipulating sound.

It was not only the peculiar sounds Eno could coax from a synthesizer, but his resourceful methods for altering and transforming the sound of other instruments in the band, as well as the sound of the band as a whole, that resulted in his full membership in the legendary art-rock group Roxy Music, and that made him integral to the band’s early identity.

The concept of Roxy Music is attributed almost entirely by contemporaneous participants as well as by rock historians to singer Bryan Ferry, but the uniqueness of the early sound deservedly is credited to Eno. One virtue of this documentary is to remind us what a refreshing kick in the head Roxy Music was, and how delicious a conceptual project it was when realized on albums and the performance stage. Of course, Eno and Ferry, literally brought more charisma to the band than it could handle, and was the principal reason for Eno’s departure after only three albums.

The documentary is exhaustive when it comes to Eno’s early projects, devoting time to each of the Roxy albums to which Eno was a contributor, as well as to each of the solo albums he recorded afterwards during an extraordinary six-year period. Here Come the Warm Jets was the first, and the debut of Eno’s peculiar, abstruse lyrics combined with his sonic marvels, combined with collaborators’ instrumental snap, crackle and pop. It was unique, and indicative of the work to follow.

Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy was the second.  It was even odder, even more eccentric lyrically, and musically more reliant than before on synthesizers and accoutrements of the variously electronic.

During this period Eno engaged in several adventurous collaborations, the most interesting and the most stunning his work with guitar innovator Robert Fripp on the albums No Pussyfooting and Evening Star. The title of the former is a nod to Fripp’s invented system of pedals used for altering his guitar notes while he played them. The system would come to be known as Frippertronics. Fripp’s guitar system was paired with Eno’s own tape loop system to produce a repetition that changed very incrementally, creating a sustained but incidentally evolving melody.

While there is a fraternal relationship to the work of experimentalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the result, again, is unlike anything. Fripp and Eno build another musical world, one of cold, weirdly ethereal, mesmerizingly beautiful strangeness.

Which leads to Another Green World, considered by many to be Eno’s greatest achievement as a rock musician and sonic impresario. It is his most conceptually unified and seamless, his finest combination perhaps of the idiosyncratic and musically pleasing. It is widely regarded as his most influential work for contemporaries and future musicians as well, and a pioneering work in the ambient/electronica field.

While Eno would record another rock-oriented album, Before And After Science, he was evolving, as the film so adeptly details, into a more adventurous creator, though in other directions from rock, delving deeper into what is for all intents and purposes his own musical creation, Ambient music. Ambient, as conceived by Eno is intended to exist in the foreground or in the background, according to the listener’s wish, seductively lulling and beautiful or easily ignored, residing in the recesses. Most of his work for the next couple of decades would fall into the Ambient category.

The album Discreet Music, a favorite of mine, was the first issued on Eno’s own record label, Obscure Records, founded to disseminate the work of worthy composers under exposed to a larger public, one of the more noteworthy Gavin Bryars, whose The Sinking Of The Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet were to become classics. Discreet Music is a work of gorgeous minimalism, a polished and perfected application of Eno’s looping system with tape recorders, beauty made from technology if you will. One side is a typically slowly evolving repetitive suite, the other Eno’s treatment of Pachelbel’s Canon, which lives up, and more, to the description achingly beautiful.

One of the wonderful collateral benefits of the documentary is the attention paid, and the introduction to the music of many musicians and composers besides Eno: John Cage, Terry Riley, Moebious, Roedilius, Phil Manzanera, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, The Winkies, Tangerine Dream, Cluster and Harmonia to name some.

Famously collaborating on Bowie’s Low, Eno became omnipresent in the studio for decades, among the acts he produced: Talking Heads, Devo, U2, Laurie Anderson, Toto, Robert Wyatt, David Byrne, Coldplay, Depeche Mode, Icehouse, Massive Attack, Ultravox, James, and yes, many, many more. He created the Windows ’95 start up sound for Microsoft, though we’ll try not to hold it against him.

I’ll leave it to the film to describe Eno’s infatuation with Cybernetics, and its application to his music, as well as Oblique Strategies, the card system for breaking through a blocked creative process, also utilized by Eno and his collaborators, invented by Eno and artist Peter Schmidt.

There’s much less to say about Beware Of Mr. Baker, a considerably more straightforward account, but a no less galvanizing personality at its center, not entirely in a good way. Besides being a monster drummer, Ginger Baker could be a plain monster, notorious as much for being a bastard and unreconstructed drug addict as for being arguably, the world’s greatest drummer.

The film is formed around director Jay Bulger’s conversations with Baker conducted at Baker’s home in South Africa, Baker’s wife and family seemingly as wary of Baker as of the filming itself. Whether necessary to prove the point or not, that one indeed should beware of Mr. Baker, Baker assaults the director at one point. No hyperbole in the title I’m afraid.

But the commentary from fellow musicians, music critics, friends and enemies throughout the film makes for a rounded depiction.

Unlike Eno, who became a musician, Baker was essentially born one. Preternaturally gifted, as he would say, he intrinsically understood time. The film follows a more or less chronological biographical and career timeline, Baker’s orneriness and contrariness and creative restlessness such a constant, formal flourishes hardly seemed necessary.

Certainly central to the film, as it was to Baker’s career was his time in Cream. Never before, or since has such individual virtuosity with the three essential rock instruments of drums, bass and guitar been collected into one performing unit. As much as Clapton may now be known by younger generations only as a classic rock geezer, Eric Clapton in his prime was, after Hendrix, the most astounding guitarist in rock music. Jack Bruce was an equal on bass, and perhaps the most musically adventurous of all three. And then Baker, whose drumming skills and drumming instincts no one could even approach.

The most exciting element of the film is the archival footage of Cream performances, displaying what a virtuosic and thrilling juggernaut the band was. Clapton’s and Bruce’s recollections of Cream, and their observations on Baker, both musician and man, and even friend, are compelling too.

Along with the inside story of Baker’s tumultuous stints with Blind Faith and Ginger Baker’s Air Force, the film documents Baker’s exploration and embrace of African music, including his personal and professional relationship with Afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela Kuti. Baker’s relationship with Africa and African music is perhaps his only lasting relationship, and certainly considerably less fraught than the others, though no relationship, interpersonal or otherwise could avoid his contrariness.

The wives, the girlfriends, the disaffected children, the estranged musicians, the bountiful drugs and the musical glories are all here. But more significantly, the film offers an evocative, even essential slice of rock history, and a searching, intelligent biography of an indisputable musical legend.

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