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When Brian Eno Was a Rock Star: Live Highlights from His Early Days

Invisible Hits is a column in which Tyler Wilcox scours the internet for the best (and strangest) bootlegs, rarities, outtakes, and live clips.


Brian Eno, who turns 70 today (May 15), has spent much of his career cultivating a professorial image. The oblique strategist seems most content as a studio wizard, whether he’s helping U2 reach multi-platinum heights or partnering with more marginal figures like British pianist Tom Rogerson and Karl Hyde of Underworld. Over the past 40-some years, Eno’s done such a good job at remaining largely studio-bound as a solo musician, collaborator, and producer that it’s easy to forget that for a minute there in the 1970s, he was one of our most dynamic, flamboyant live performers. Eno had what it took to be a genuine rock star—here’s the proof.

Roxy Music’s “Ladytron” on “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” 1972

If Ziggy Stardust and his Spiders came from Mars, early Roxy Music might as well have been beamed in from another galaxy altogether. And Eno, during his brief-but-productive time in the group, was determined to appear the most alien of all. Though he initially contributed to the band in an offstage role behind the mixing desk, Eno was soon competing with frontman Bryan Ferry for fans’ attention. Writer Richard Williams set the scene in a 1972 live review for Melody Maker: “Shadowy figures took the stage, the greatest response being reserved for the lad with the dye in his hair and a twinkle in his fingers. ‘Eno! Eno!’ they roared.” This raucous rendition of “Ladytron,” taped right around the time of Roxy’s debut LP, captures some of the raw, weird excitement of the band’s early gigs, climaxing with a sci-fi VCS3 synth blowout from Eno. As the band’s fame grew rapidly, so did Eno’s share of the spotlight. His outlandish costumes, created in collaboration with designer Carol McNicoll, became more and more glam-tastic, while his innovative synth work demanded even more attention. Something had to give.


Eno & the Winkies’ “Love Slips Away” + “Here Come the Warm Jets” in Darby, England, 1974

Eno was essentially forced out of Roxy Music in mid-1973. He wasted no time getting going on a solo career: The day he left Roxy, he wrote “Baby’s On Fire,” one of the standout tunes on Here Come The Warm Jets, his now-classic debut released in early 1974. The LP was recorded with an array of musicians, from King Crimson’s Robert Fripp to bassist Busta Jones (who would later join up with the Eno-affiliated Talking Heads in 1980), but the all-star cast wasn’t available to play the Warm Jets songs live. To accompany him on a series of shows around England, Eno recruited a pub rock group called the Winkies. The partnership was short-lived, after a hard-partying Eno suffered a collapsed lung just a few dates into the tour. But an audience tape of a gig in Darby gives us a (dismally lo-fi) glimpse of Eno’s only solo tour. Beneath the murk, the Winkies deliver a tight sound (even on some of their leader’s more unusual compositions), while Eno’s confident vocals show that he was adapting to his new frontman role with ease. The Velvet Underground and Who covers, not to mention a few unreleased originals, are an added bonus.


Eno’s “Seven Deadly Finns” on Dutch Television, 1974

For a more listenable example of Eno & the Winkies, a Peel session recorded in February 1974 (and subsequently widely bootlegged) is highly recommended. While guitarist Guy Humphreys can’t quite reach the heights of Fripp’s solo on the Warm Jets version of “Baby’s On Fire,” the group manages just fine elsewhere; “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch” and “Totalled,” a poppy early version Another Green World’s “I’ll Come Running,” are both stellar, as is a campy version of the torch-song classic “Fever.” To get an idea of what Eno looked like as a performer during this period, feast your eyes on this lip-synced video for “Seven Deadly Finns,” one of his earliest singles. His outfit is fabulous, his makeup is perfect, his moves are snappy. He looks like a total star. But Eno wasn’t getting much out of the rigors of a rock’n’roll lifestyle. After his collapsed lung, Eno had time to reflect. “I went into the hospital and didn’t play any music for six weeks,” he later said. “During that time I was thinking, ‘Why should I tour?’ I don’t very much enjoy it. It’s not very creative. I’m more of a technologist, manipulating studios and musicians in a funny way.”


Fripp & Eno in Paris, 1975

Eno was fed up with touring, but he wasn’t quite done with the stage. In mid-1974, he played a show at London’s Rainbow Theatre with Kevin Ayers, John Cale, and Nico, a collective unofficially dubbed ACNE. Sections of the performance, including a pounding “Baby’s On Fire,” were released on the June 1, 1974 LP. Cale, Nico and Eno also nearly caused a riot during Berlin’s Metamusik Festival that summer, when Nico sang the more controversial verses of “Deutschland Uber Alles,” accompanied by intense Eno synth noise. (“You could feel the pressure on the glass walls of this brand new Kunst Museum,” Cale recalled in David Sheppard’s excellent Eno bio On Some Faraway Beach. “For a while it looked like it might be destroyed by this crowd—and all because of ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’!”) Less confrontational moments came the following year, when Eno and Robert Fripp took their proto-ambient collaborations on the road for a few shows. The Paris gig, bootlegged as Air Structures (and released much later by Fripp’s DGM Records), features some truly sublime moments of guitar-synth-loop beauty. Sadly, the becalmed vibes are interrupted regularly by an announcer scolding the crowd for flouting the venue’s strict no-smoking policy.


801 at the Reading Festival, 1976

Eno was coaxed out onstage one last time in the 1970s by his old Roxy Music cohort, guitarist Phil Manzanera, who had ideas for an art-rock supergroup of sorts called 801. After a low-key warm-up gig, the band also featuring bassist Bill MacCormick, keyboardist Francis Monkman, drummer Simon Phillips, and guitarist Lloyd Watson officially debuted in the summer of 1976 at the Reading Festival with a killer set of energetic prog-punk. Looking positively normcore in a black T-shirt and sensible haircut (for once), Eno took the lead on a number of the songs, including a wondrously re-imagined version of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and a revved-up “Third Uncle,” off his sophomore album Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). As good as 801 sounds here (and on the officially released 801 Live), Eno only played one more gig with the group after the Reading Festival. In the four decades since, he has appeared sporadically as a live performer. The recording studio and all its endless possibilities held too much sway over Eno’s imagination. The adoring crowds would have to look elsewhere.

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