Brian Eno is a producer, writer, and multi-instrumental musician, legendary both in his own right as a pioneer of ambient music, and in the work he’s done across his vast career with others, like Bryan Ferry’s band Roxy Music. He is perhaps best known in mainstream circles for his incomparable synthesizer and soundscapes work on David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” of albums — Low, Heroes, and Lodger — all produced by Tony Visconti with visionary help from Eno, and for his work with artists like U2, The Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, and King Crimson.
But there’s so much more to him than meets the framed platinum record… His body of work is surprisingly eclectic. Here are just a few surprises from his catalog.
1. “The Microsoft Sound”
Anyone who owned a PC in the ’90s is intimately familiar with the chimes that rang out when their Windows 95 operating system loaded. It turns out that sound was created by none other than Eno himself.
Tasked with coming up with an “inspiring, universal, sentimental, futuristic… and emotional” micro-song, Eno went to work. The only parameter was that “it had to be 3.25 seconds long.” Nevertheless, he rose to the challenge and created 84 pieces for submission to the project.
The chosen track would eventually enter the consciousness of millions of computer users the world over. Somewhat ironically, he composed the entire thing on a Mac!
2. The Dune Soundtrack
The soundtrack to David Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi epic Dune was produced by Brian Eno and largely written by Toto, although one song (“Prophecy Theme”) was penned by Eno himself, alongside ambient synthesizer-soundscapes producer Daniel Lanois and Brian’s brother, Roger.
Rumor has it that Eno wrote an entire soundtrack for the film on his own but ultimately decided to hand the writing reins over to Toto. I would love to hear that original music one day, but alas, who knows if it will ever surface!
3. Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
The debut album by Ohio new wave weirdos Devo had tons of top producers clamoring to be involved. Iggy Pop and David Bowie both expressed interest, and although Eno eventually won out, Bowie is rumored to have helped “on the weekends.”
Unfortunately, it was not an easy project — Eno found the band difficult to work with and resistant to his suggestions. It’s really no wonder, either. The aesthetic identities of the two artistic parties don’t really mesh at all. Where Eno wanted a warm and atmospheric sound, Devo’s vibe was cold, mechanical, and robotic. The album was initially released to mixed reviews, but in the years that have followed, it’s become a new wave classic.
4. The Spore Soundtrack
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Brian Eno contributed Reich-inspired electronic soundscapes to the soundtrack of the video game Spore. The 2008 game, which centers around developing your own creatures, features unique music that evolves with how you play. For instance, the music is different if you choose to raise a herbivore or a carnivore, a large animal or a small animal, etc.
Uniquely, players never hear the same song twice. The interactive soundtrack was a perfect fit for Eno, and no doubt a lot of fun to produce. Contributions were also made by Cliff Martinez of Drive, Contagion, and Traffic soundtrack fame.
5. Talking Heads’ Remain in Light
Although Eno and the Talking Heads had worked together before, and David Byrne would later go on to record a duo album with Eno, this particular project was considered a bit of a departure for both parties musically. In fact, in order to tour in support of the music, the band had to expand their roster.
Remain in Light was more heavily influenced by world music with the stated goal being to blend Western rock energy and African rhythms. The resulting album became an instant classic and included the hit single “Once in a Lifetime,” in which Eno used a different rhythm count for some members than others.
6. Paul Simon’s Surprise
For many, the collaboration between the two on Paul Simon‘s 2006 release, Surprise, came as an actual surprise. At face value, it would seem the two artists were from two different worlds entirely — Eno’s synthesized soundscapes and Simon’s world-music-influenced acoustic folk might not seem to be an obvious marriage. But on the contrary, Simon notably stated that, “We’re both ‘sounds’ people… We’re both about soundscapes.” And, in fact, some of the songs do feature some very Eno-esque trippiness — the track “Another Galaxy,” for example.
It’s worth mentioning that the album was Paul Simon’s highest-charting success since 1990’s Rhythm of the Saints. It’s also worth mentioning that Herbie Hancock, Pino Palladino, and Bill Frisell all played on this album. Surprise!
7. Grace Jones’ Hurricane
Grace Jones is a force of nature in the entertainment world. She has pioneered as a supermodel, an actress, a producer, and of course, a recording and performing artist. Initially a disco artist, she got into all kinds of styles throughout her lengthy career, including new wave, reggae and pop.
As her career began to wane, she vowed never to record another album again — and didn’t for about 20 years. Hurricane, her widely acclaimed 2008 comeback album, featured a whole new style, a bit closer to trip hop. Eno contributed, naturally, with his signature keyboards, effects, and sonic treatments, as well as backing vocals.
8. “Only Once Away, My Son” (with Kevin Shields)
Kevin Shields, the vocalist and guitarist for shoegaze mainstay My Bloody Valentine teamed up with Eno to produce a new track for Adult Swim’s Singles Program. The TV network has been commissioning various artists to release around 30 songs a year.
The result, “Only Once Away, My Son,” is over nine minutes of lush, ambient landscapes complete with dark waves of synthesizer, big distorted guitar drones, and chimes. The real surprise here is that these two, cut from similar cloths, haven’t managed to team up before!
9. Songs from Cool World
Eno contributed one exclusive, new song to the soundtrack for the film Cool World, which features Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger. Other contributors to the music include the late David Bowie (with Nile Rodgers), Moby, Pure, Ministry, and the Future Sound of London.
While Eno contributing to soundtracks is nothing new for Eno, what is surprising is this particular film — a very risqué combination of live action and cartoon. The movie itself is a strange cult favorite, ostensibly about a creator that falls passionately in love with his bombshell of a creation and her struggle to become real. The movie never found its niche, but the soundtrack — a mix of jazz, pop, electronic music, and cinematic orchestral pieces — was quite well-received.
10. Willie Nelson and U2’s “Slow Dancing”
This might just be the oddest collaboration on here, but somehow, it works. Almost a decade before it actually got recorded in the ’90s, U2 wrote “Slow Dancing” for Willie Nelson. Although a simple acoustic track was released as a B-side, the band eventually decided to revisit the track and collaborate with Nelson in the studio. But this time with a strange secret weapon: background vocals provided by Brian Eno! Can you hear it?
11. Baaba Maal
In the late ’90s, Eno and his longtime ambient collaborator, trumpeter, and composer Jon Hassell contributed some deep, new-agey synthesized soundscapes to Senegalese singer and guitarist Baaba Maal’s track “Lam Lam.” As a side note, remember how Talking Heads’ Remain in Light featured an attention toward “African sounds”? Well, Jon Hassell also played trumpet on that record all the way back in 1980!
12. Seun Kuti
In 2011, Eno also coproduced Seun Anikulapo Kuti & Egypt 80’s album, From Africa with Fury: Rise. Kuti is the son of Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Kuti talked to All About Jazz magazine about the collaboration, saying that “Brian Eno is ‘Brian Eno’ for a reason. He has a great mind when it comes to music. He adds new dimensions to the sound. He showed me new ways of opening up the sound I’d never have thought of on my own.” Eno is similarly effusive about Kuti, saying that he makes “the biggest, wildest, livest music on the planet.”
To learn about modern mixing production techniques (like EQ, Compression, Level, Pan Setting, Digital Signal Processing, FX Sends, and so much more) from some of today’s leading sound engineers, preview Soundfly’s newest and most in-depth mentorship-assisted online mixing courses, Faders Up I & II: Modern Mix Techniques and Advanced Mix Techniques, for free today!
And right now, if you sign up for either course before January 31, you can take 30% off (that’s $150) with the exclusive code MIXINGMONTH.
*This article has been edited, a previous version included the misleading phrase, “He is perhaps best known in mainstream circles for his incomparable production work on David Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’ of albums.”