February 20th, 2017
From “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives” by Tim Harford, on how David Bowie, Brian Eno and a slew of musicians went to Berlin, Germany, to make the first of Bowie’s brilliant trilogy of albums that he made there. Hyperlinks are courtesy of me:
As Visconti and Bowie struggled to find a new direction—not so much composing songs as carving them out of blocks of sound—Eno took to showing up at the studio with a selection of cards he called Oblique Strategies. Each had a different instruction, often a gnomic one. Whenever the studio sessions were running aground, Eno would draw a card at random and relay its strange orders. Be the first not to do what has never not been done before Emphasize the flaws Only a part, not the whole Twist the spine Look at the order in which you do things Change instrument roles For example, during the recording of the Lodger album, Carlos Alomar, one of the world’s greatest guitarists, was told to play the drums instead. This was just one of the challenges that Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards imposed, apparently unnecessarily.
The cards drove the musicians crazy. (This annoyance cannot have come as a surprise to Eno. During work on an earlier Eno album, Another Green World, the cards reduced Phil Collins, the superstar drummer from Genesis, to hurling beer cans across the studio in frustration.) Faced with one piece of card-inspired foolishness, Carlos Alomar told Eno that “this experiment is stupid”; the violinist Simon House commented that the sessions often “sounded terrible. Carlos did have a problem, simply because he’s very gifted and professional . . . he can’t bring himself to play stuff that sounds like crap.”
Yet the strange chaotic working process produced two of the decade’s most critically acclaimed albums, Low and “Heroes,” along with Iggy Pop’s most respected work, The Idiot and Lust for Life. Low was arguably the bravest reinvention in pop history—imagine Taylor Swift releasing an album full of long, pensive instrumentals and you get a sense of the shock. It’s hard to argue with such results, and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies now have a cult following in creative circles. The Berlin trilogy of albums ends with Bowie’s Lodger, a record with a revealing working title. It was originally called Planned Accidents.
Here‘s a minimal, online version of Oblique Strategies.
As long as you’re exploring the same old approaches, Brian Eno explains, “you get more and more competent at dealing with that place, and your clichés become increasingly clichéd.” But when we are forced to start from somewhere new, the clichés can be replaced with moments of magic.
I mention Adrian Belew, another fine guitarist, who was drafted into the David Bowie recording session where Carlos Alomar was ordered to play the drums. He didn’t really know what was happening, and had barely plugged in his Stratocaster when Eno, Visconti, and Bowie told him to start playing in response to a previously unheard track. Before he could ask why Carlos was on the drums, Belew was told that Alomar “would go one, two, three, then you come in.” “What key is it?” asked Belew. “Don’t worry about the key. Just play!” “It was like a freight train coming through my mind,” said Belew later. “I just had to cling on.”
“Poor Adrian,” muses Eno. “He’s such a great player that he can handle this kind of thing.” Still, he adds, “I think I would have a bit of difficulty doing that experiment now. I didn’t really know enough about being a playing musician at that time . . . I didn’t know how disruptive that was to players.” Eno admits that his experiments with Belew, Alomar, and the other musicians in Berlin weren’t much fun for them. Used to finding a comfortable groove, their routines were “entirely subverted” as Eno pushed them through arbitrarily chosen chord sequences by pointing at different notes on a blackboard in the studio.
The eventual result of the freight train coming through Belew’s mind, sliced and spliced by Eno and producer Visconti, became a guitar solo that is the spine of Bowie’s single “Boys Keep Swinging.” The solo is now regarded as a classic. And from a creative point of view, the end may justify the means: when we listen to a Bowie album, we don’t see the mess and frustration of the recording session; we can just enjoy the beauty that it produced.
And then Eno says something that sheds a new light on the way I see the Oblique Strategies cards and the unplayable piano. “The enemy of creative work is boredom, actually,” he says. “And the friend is alertness. Now I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds, to be able to stay on top of it. That kind of alertness is exciting.”
That alertness is Keith Jarrett onstage in Cologne. It’s Adrian Belew desperately trying to make sense of “Boys Keep Swinging.” And it is the effect that the cards can have on a creative project. The cards force us into a random leap to an unfamiliar location, and we need to be alert to figure out where we are and where to go from here. Says Eno, “The thrill of them is that they put us in a messier situation.”
Eno’s Oblique Strategies began as a tidy prototype: a checklist. Working on the first Roxy Music album in 1972, Eno and the rest of the band found themselves in a proper recording studio for the first time. That was intimidating. “It was a lot of money,” he says. “We were just working away and working away. And sometimes I would go home at night and remember, think back over the day’s work, and think, God, if we’d only remembered such-and-such a thing, some idea, that would have been better.”
Eno started making a list of ideas to remember in the high-pressure environment of the studio. The first was “Honor thy error as a hidden intention,” a reminder that sometimes what is achieved by accident may be much more worthy of attention than the original plan. The list of reminders grew, “sitting out on the control room desk.” But Eno soon found that the list didn’t work. It was too orderly. It was too easy to ignore the disruptive instructions. Your eye would run down the list and settle on exactly the item that would cause the least stress, something that felt safe. And so the idea emerged of turning the checklist into a deck of cards that would be shuffled and dealt at random. Eno’s friend, the artist Peter Schmidt, had a flip-book filled with similar provocations. The two men teamed up to produce the Oblique Strategies deck—a guaranteed method of pushing artists out of their comfort zones.
The poet Simon Armitage, fascinated by the cards, says their effect is “as if you’re asking the blood in your brain to flow in another direction.” That does not sound like a pleasant experience. Carlos Alomar, the guitar maestro who once told Eno his experiment was stupid, still remembers what it was like having to take orders from the cards. “I picked the card and the card simply said, ‘Think like a gardener,’” he recalls. “The immediate impact of the thought of course throws you off. I think that’s the purpose. It’s like when you’re feeling a pain in your foot and someone slaps you in the face, you’re not feeling the pain in your foot anymore. I started thinking, how would I make things grow. So it allowed me to look at the sessions a little bit differently. I kind of let my guitar parts develop into being what they were. You know. Plant something, nurture it, water it, let it grow.”
Most of us don’t like being slapped in the face. But it’s possible to take that slap and turn it into something remarkable. Useful diversions can come from anywhere: an error from some piano movers and a guilt trip from a German teenager; the randomness of an algorithmic search; a strange order from a deck of mysterious cards; the background noise that you can’t quite shut out; the side project that suddenly suggests a new solution. Or the annoying need to collaborate with other people, which is the subject of the next chapter. Over the years, Carlos Alomar came to realize that the cards he once dismissed as “stupid” have unexpected benefits. “I mean some of it worked, some of it didn’t,” he said a quarter of a century later. “But quite honestly it did take me out of my comfort zone and it did make me leave my frustration at what I was doing and totally look at it from another different point of view and although I didn’t like the point of view, when I came back, I was fresh.”
Alomar now teaches music at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, and he regularly resorts to the Oblique Strategies. His students will sometimes experience creative block, and “I need for them to see what I saw, and feel what I felt, and the dilemma that I had when I had to come up with something out of nothing.” He adds, “They’re very curious cards.” When I tell Brian Eno this, he laughs.