Oblique Strategies

by Cynthia Rose / Harpers & Queen

1979

Cynthia Rose looks at artist/musicians David Bowie, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop (touring Britain this month) and the risks they are taking with electronics, Expressionism and the science of systems.

In spring 1976, an unemployed rock star with the stage name Iggy Pop left America ‘forever’ and moved to Berlin. Like his friend and fellow émigré, David Bowie, he was fleeing the fleshpots and artistic cannibalism of Los Angeles – Angel City. In Berlin, he found a ‘New York for the Eighties’, a new life and new inspirations. Berlin was where avant-garde artist Robert Wilson came to stage his massive ‘performance operas’, such as Death, Destruction, and Detroit; where ‘conceptual’ and ‘body’ artists Chris Burden, Hermann Nitsch, Peter Weibel, Klaus Boegel, and Gunter Brus – engaged in staging risk as an artistic act – had a big following. It was where the musicians of Dusseldorf, Cologne, and Munich met: Hans Lampe, Klaus and Thomas Dinger, Michael Rother, Edgar Froese, Florian ‘V-2’ Schneider and Kraftwerk. It was also a city where, as Bowie puts it, “the mentality is oblivious to a trend or a famous face, and strict about its ordering or artistic information”.

The effects of this stern environment on Bowie and Pop were galvanic. In collaboration with Brian Eno (the retired Roxy Music rock star turned special effects expert) Bowie made Low, his “first album for the future”. In collaboration with Bowie, Iggy Pop made The Idiot, a modern meisterwerk as narcotic as disco (the prevailing commercial trend in music at the time of its release). These were the first albums by recognised Western rock artists to synthesise the solemn, post-atomic concerns of the European art and music scene, with its almost clinical fascination for urban claustrophobia and ambiguities of day-to-day life in the technocratic age. And the production of both was heavily influenced by the visual arts, for both Bowie and Pop had taken up painting. Bowie, whose affinity for German Expressionist art far pre-dated his residence in Berlin, executed about 200 lithographs and a sizeable collection of paintings (mostly head-and-shoulders portraits of fellow artists, writers and sculptors). Iggy Pop drew and painted. The photo of him on the cover of The Idiot is a re-creation of a painting of the same name which Bowie found in a German Museum. Later, Bowie was also to play the role of a painting: the cover of his Heroes album was inspired by a self-portrait by Viennese Secessionist painter Egon Shiele (a painter whose brief life holds a fascination for Bowie: he has commissioned several scripts for a film, with himself in the title role, of Schiele’s life but has so far found none satisfactory).

Bowie’s interest in fine art has persisted: he hopes to study painting again formally some day, “when I have the time” and while filming Just a Gigolo in Berlin, he channeled his passion for the sad city and its history into a series of woodcuts made in his moments off the set. A brown leather album containing Polaroids of his paintings travels with him wherever he goes.

Iggy Pop – a singer whose ferocity in performance once caused security guards to be replaced by low-cost barbed wire – was also interested in the challenges and questions inherent in ‘performance’ and ‘conceptual’ art. During his concert tours to promote The Idiot, he imported into his rock presentations several techniques inspired by those avant-garde forms: in New York’s Palladium, he was ‘dumped onstage out of a bag’ a la Chris Burden, and at London’s Rainbow he performed with parts of his arms deliberately blacked out, so that his form, eerily elongated, appeared to emerge spontaneously from the darkness of the barely-lit stage. Iggy pop’s performance acumen is accurate enough to create rites rather than events. The rites of rock and roll and of urban blues in performance are hardly new. But Pop’s application of them to the expression of the addictions, confusions and assertions of the self today has a clarity which places his art in a realm apart from mere ‘entertainment’.

Once, Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Brian Eno could all have been described as rock stars. Yet each, individually, made a radical change of course. Their decisions had few precedents in the music business: radical changes of direction are hardly common among those who sell, or who look as if they are about to sell, a lot of records. But what began as separate re-evaluation of artistic purpose coalesced into something more. Slowly, and scientifically, each was building a new music which re-energised the ambiguous mindscape of the late Seventies, which reunited American expression with European memory, which began to reconcile the Romantic heritage with a scientific world view. “There is no incompatibility,” aesthetician Susan Sontag told a New York reporter recently, “between observing the world and being tuned into an electronic, multi-tracked, McLuhanite world, and enjoying what can be enjoyed about rock and roll today. Rock and roll really changed my life … and when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.”

The influence of Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie is going to produce more such inspirations in the Eighties. By talking to them individually, one elicits the similarities between them which account for some of the curiosity and sympathy they feel for the common factors that exist in their work. All three are over thirty, survivors of stardom and veterans of extended encounters with the subjective realities of drug-induced experience. Each has learned from some variant of that nervous condition which can result from being a little too famous, a little too talented, and a little too sensitive in one’s apprehensions. But most importantly, all share a belief in what the leading edge of any artistic assault on the Eighties must be, and that is cybernetics – the investigation of systems of control.

A fascination with systems is logical in a successful rock musician, not the least of whose problems is that financing, recoding, and performing one’s music is now a gigantic, multinational business. The artist at the centre has to command an almost superhuman range of systems analysis to avoid being eaten alive or sucked dry.

There is also the fact, as Iggy Pop maintains, “that rock is all electric entertainment – and the electric part is important. It’s an important thing to me that no matter what your amplification, you have to plug it into a socket on the wall. The same socket, in fact, you use for everything else in modern life.”

The new modernist music of Germany has been a major force behind Pop’s and Bowie’s assimilation of cybernetic theories. Bands such as Can, Faust, Cluster, the early Kraftwerk, Neu! And Neu!’s offspring La Dusseldorf developed music which, although it was particularly ‘scenic’ and evocative, used a meticulous construction. It shifted moods and layered changing textures around a repetitive, minimal rhythm pulse: it was stark and hypnotic yet responsive. The bands did not have much in common beyond their nationality (except perhaps their isolation from the Western rock-and-roll tradition), but their disciplined artistic projections of a continuous state of flux, together with the severe ambiance of the studios in which they collaborated – Conrad Plank’s converted barn and Hansa-by-the-Wall in Berlin – struck Bowie and Pop as being something complete and significant – a methodology worth investigating. Neu ’75 – the remarkable last album from Neu! – had emerged a year before Bowie produced the strikingly similar Station to Station. And two years later Bowie made Low, whose ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ sides recalled the more ambiguous division into ‘night’ and ‘day’ of Neu ’75 called ‘The Urban Hero’. It contributed directly to Bowie’s most saleable and resonant modern vision, his own composition ‘Heroes’ (also issued by RCA as ‘Helden’, a German-language version on which Bowie’s vocals seem even more impassioned than those of the English counterpart). No less influential was the prolific work of Brian Eno, the freelance entrepreneur and collaborator whose projects have included four albums of rock music – Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before And After Science – solo and collaborative albums of electronic music (Discreet Music and No Pussyfooting), his own idiosyncratic record label, Obscure Records, and college tours as a lecturer in cybernetics (“Some spectacularly badly attended,” he notes wryly.). In addition to David Bowie, Eno has produced innumerable artists of the moment – John Cale, Ultravox, Devo, Talking Heads – and he established such founder members of New York’s Bowery brethren as DNA, Mars, The (original) Contortions, and Teenage Jesus. Eno’s curiosity and humour have provided a bridge between artists of many persuasions who might never otherwise have met. But he firmly insists that the sympathies with and interest in music he detects among those who “write, paint, or sculpt, but who want to talk about art in much broader terms,” have a very specific basis. They arise “because you’re interested in experiment, not just musically, but in terms of your whole lifestyle and the way you think about the world in general … [Music] means more, you know, than just something to have a good time to.”

Recently, Eno has worked hard on a series of solo projects designed to develop a superior form of Muzak which will act as an antidote to the increasing stress of urban existence. It is called ‘Ambient Music’ and Eno defines it as ‘music to induce calm and a space to think; music which must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing any one in particular’. The first in the Ambient series is Music for Airports. “It’s special flying music,” he explains, “Really, it’s music to resign you to the possibility of death. I’m such a nervous flyer, I found that the kind of music they do use actually makes you more nervous. I mean, the sound systems are so bad, and the music is so worthless you begin to think, ‘Well, if this is the standard of the music, what must the airplanes be like?’”

Bowie, who is Eno’s most well-known collaborator (and a fellow nervous flyer) is candid about Eno’s broad-spectrum approach to music: “Of all the people I’ve heard who construct textures, Brian’s work appeals to me the most. Some of his notions – and his general kind of fine-arts orientation – I find very accessible and sympathetic. Some of his applications of analytical studies to music are way above my head. I can’t speak on his behalf, but he helped me re-focus what I wanted to do, and gain some recognition of my own relationship with the environment in which I live. I’m not so worried about technical innovation as a thing in itself; I welcome any new dialogue between man and machine.

“But I want to know my immediate environment; I don’t want to have to call in a specialist every time something goes wrong.” Self-sufficiency: it’s no coincidence that ‘Stayin’ Alive’ became the theme song of music’s first collective attempt at a mutant futurist movement – disco. At the end of the Seventies, survival preoccupies star and stepper-out alike. To remind himself that art is just a function of living, and that intuition, accident, common sense and sensuality have to be accommodated in a musical vision “whether or not it means you waste £100 an hour in studio time”, Eno developed his Oblique Strategies. These are a pack of black and white cards (subtitled ‘Over 100 Worthwhile Dilemmas’) forming a compendium of ideas and reminders to be continuously reviewed in the mind. Eno meant them to act against the “business seriousness” of music-making, to help him keep from losing “excitement and that frame of mind which combines both discovery and enjoyment. I wanted to make sure I kept on grabbing for the unique moments. I wanted to find a way to make sure I kept noticing them, so I just made a list of reminders for myself.” Then he discovered that his artist friend (and sometime collaborator) Peter Schmidt was keeping a similar list, with reference to his painting. The two decided to put their ideas together as a deliberate project but, Eno maintains, few of the strategies were ‘contrived’. Almost all of them arose out of work, “except for a few given by other artists, which we’ve noted on those cards.”

Brian Eno has already released an album of the many film scores he has composed (Music for Films) and he plans to do a lot of film music in the future. “I’ll work on anything, because it gives me an area to experiment with which I might not have otherwise; it gives me an excuse to do the music, and it pays for the recording time!” David Bowie plans to begin directing films, but also to contribute as the observer-traveller of his last album, The Lodger. “The statements I want to make now,” he hints, “are no longer the statements of a generation or an age group, but expressions of place … the emotive forces one can feel in a particular modern environment. It’s music for all ages, and it’s all going to fall in place with the more factual and scientific thinking around me.”

Iggy Pop is touring with a new band, which he deliberately rechristened The Stooges, after the band which first purveyed his existential visions. Like Eno and Bowie, he has renounced the comfort of his roots and the seductive fictions of success. His new music is hard and demanding – a blinding reconciliation of heart and head, thought and feeling, fantasy and judgment. But it is also archetypal rock and roll. “It’s industrial entertainment,” says Iggy solemnly, “but it is entertainment. I want to give people something they haven’t been and couldn’t have been given before – something that they can take away and use.” Belief in belief itself as a creative force is latent in any audience at the close of a confused decade – members of a generation struggling with emotions and attitudes which are basically Romantic. The expectation that this is found in experience and in the reflected light of the illuminated personality has found increasingly wide acceptance within what the pop press like to call ‘rock culture’ – a corpus of music and a music-related proliferation of style, fashion, film and the visual arts. Certain developments in this culture have also proved a magnet to another pole of the Romantic sensibility, the morbid: preoccupations with solitude, death, and the union of beauty and terror. There has always been a Texas Chainsaw Massacre /Dawn of the Dead level of attraction in the more decadent and pathological features of rock. Yet, commercial and crass as rock culture may be, in many ways has become, it is still capable of outstanding risk. In the Eighties, the best and most vital rock music will still offer a convenient means of expressing a sense of disaster and a clear portrait of what the artist – the artist as a human being, not a star – wants to repudiate. But it looks as if it may also offer something much more valuable: an autonomous illusion which might just manage to compete on even terms with those forces of the technocratic society which can conspire to eliminate from our lives all but the most banal or profane of feelings.

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