With a new compilation of Brian Eno's work in stores, we look at back at the composer and producer's pioneering career

Brian Eno: International man of mystery. - CECILY ENO PHOTO
Cecily Eno photo
Brian Eno: International man of mystery.

Brian Eno: Music nerds know him, critics adore him, and electronic musicians worship him. But the pioneering Brit has done a lot more in his career than make weird soundscapes designed to calm you down while you wait around in the airport.

On the occasion of a new compilation of his work as a film composer — titled, appropriately, Film Music 1976-2020 — we're looking back at Eno's career, from the sonic experiments you may never have heard of to the Top 40 radio hits you never knew he produced. Here are some facts about the incomparable Eno.

HE WAS A FOUNDING MEMBER OF ROXY MUSIC. Roxy Music was one of the greatest of all British pop bands, racking up a string of '70s hits in their homeland but only ever achieving cult status in the states. Founded by the suave, velvety-voiced Bryan Ferry, the group fused glam-rock and baroque chamber-pop into a package that was as sensual and dance-y as it was artsy and cool, and Eno joined the band in its nascent phases as a "technical adviser" (mainly because he knew his way around a synth and owned a reel-to-reel machine). Though he would frequently butt heads with Ferry and depart the band before they'd score their first U.K. No. 1 with 1973's Stranded (he only appears on their self-titled debut LP and the landmark For Your Pleasure), Eno's influence lingered, and Roxy Music would lean into lush synthesized soundscapes in their later and most celebrated albums.

HIS EARLY SOLO RECORDINGS ARE SOME OF THE BEST OF THE '70S. Upon his departure from Roxy Music, Eno got right into producing solo material his way. At only 25, he released the terrific Here Come the Warm Jets (1974), with the equally dextrous Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) coming less than a year later. Those were followed in late 1975 by Another Green World, which is often cited as Eno's masterpiece and still sounds remarkably fresh and contemporary in 2020. Considering the narrow release window, this trio of albums revolves through remarkably varying styles: Compare the itchy nervousness of "Needles in the Camel's Eye" and "Baby's on Fire" from Jets with the enveloping ambient sounds of Green World's "The Big Ship," and it hardly sounds like the same artist. It's one of the most exciting, unpredictable stretches in any musician's discography.

HE'S THE GODFATHER OF AMBIENT MUSIC. Eno became obsessed with what he now calls "generative" music in his 20s, setting out to create soundscapes from electronic patterns and preprogrammed noises. Ambient music, which tends to prioritize tone and texture over melody or rhythm, wasn't invented by Eno, but he's credited with popularizing it and defining its most basic tenets. Beginning with 1975's Discreet Music, Eno is responsible for some of the most important texts of the contemporary ambient movement, including 1978's Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Music for Films (though some critics questioned whether any of its tracks were actually intended to be used in movies, some of them were featured in the works of outsider artist Derek Jarman). 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, one of Eno's many collaborations with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, is often cited as one of the most influential records of its type, both for its pioneering use of sampling and for its fusion of Byrne's fascination with world music and Eno's ear for sonic adventurousness.

HE'S NO DOUBT PRODUCED AN ARTIST YOU LOVE. Ever since he added electronic embellishments to Genesis' 1974 opus The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and contributed to David Bowie's more experimental mid-period albums like Low and Heroes, Eno has been synonymous with collaboration and studio wizardry. Eno's work with Talking Heads pushed them from art-punk wunderkinds to new wave innovators, and Eno's inventive use of the studio shaped the sounds on three early Heads albums — More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light — that are now considered among the greatest rock records ever made. Eno also had a long working relationship with U2, producing six of their studio albums, including smash hits like The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can't Leave Behind. Other notable credits include Devo's Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, Coldplay's Viva La Vida and James Blake's Overgrown, suggesting that he's as comfortable helming boundary-pushing experimentation as radio-friendly hits.

THE SAME GOES FOR FILMMAKERS. In a recent podcast interview with the U.K. critic Mark Kermode, Eno talked about his process when composing film scores: He'll produce a wealth of material without ever having seen footage, and the filmmakers are free to use what they wish. It's an unusual approach, but scrolling through Eno's filmography, it kind of makes sense considering his film credits are as all-over-the-place as his discography. Among his composer credits: Dario Argento's stylish 1987 slasher Opera (which also features contributions from Rolling Stone member Bill Wyman), the moon landing documentary For All Mankind (1989), Peter Greenaway's erotic drama The Pillow Book (1996) and Peter Jackson's divisive adaptation of The Lovely Bones (2009). Eno is also said to have recorded a complete score for David Lynch's much-maligned adaptation of Dune (1984), but only fragments of his work remain in the finished version. The band that ended up composing the final score? Toto, best known for "Africa." Weird. ♦