Brian Eno writes songs with the mixing desk

Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads and Brian Eno is one of my favorite songs by anyone ever.

Groove and minimalism

“Once In A Lifetime” is made of layers of percussion and keyboards and guitars swirling around the central bassline, a four-bar cell that repeats almost identically under the entire song. Rock and pop are all about simplicity and repetition, and this bassline pushes both qualities as far as they can go. Byrne and Eno have a well-known love for African pop and funk, and it comes through clearest in “Once In A Lifetime.” Byrne and Eno know that if you have a really good groove happening, people will never get bored no matter how repetitive it is.

A normal American pop song is around three and a half minutes long. Three and a half minutes would barely be enough of “Once In A Lifetime.” In the video up there it’s five and a half minutes, and on The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, it’s six minutes. It could be forty-six, as far as I’m concerned; it’s one of those grooves, like Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” or James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” that you never get to the bottom of.

The harmony in “Once In A Lifetime” isn’t as minimal as the bassline, but it comes close. The entire song is just different voicings of D7 or D7sus4. As with the bassline, I’m not bored of D7 by the end, any more than I’m bored of the sruti box drone in a Ravi Shankar record.

“Lifetime” has verses, choruses and a bridge, like a normal pop song, but the sections are all harmonically identical. They differ in arrangement, as combinations of instruments enter and exit, muted and unmuted on the mixing desk. This kind of song structure was radically weird by US pop standards in 1980. Hip-hop embraced it enthusiastically, and now it’s becoming the mainstream pop standard as well.

Songwriting using improvised loops

“Lifetime” was written by loop-based improvisation in the studio over a click track, followed by many hours of mixing and tape editing. The band performed a long, simple, repetitive groove, and you can think of the finished product as the jam’s highlight reel.

Using improvisation as the basis for songwriting is nothing new. Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman routinely borrowed (or stole) improvised licks from their sidemen and incorporated them into their tunes. Some of Miles Davis’ best albums are built entirely from edited improvisations by his band. But piecing together songs out of improvisation at the level of single phrases was a pretty fresh concept in 1980.

Building songs out of live improvisation means that your song is written by people focused in the moment, with their usual self-consciousness temporarily dissolved. This is the kind of brain state in which people have their best ideas. Who knows which bandmember thought up the “Once In A Lifetime” bassline, but I’ll guarantee you that they never would have arrived at it sitting alone in a room with a pencil and paper.

Improvised lyrics

Musicians who focus mostly on lyrics, like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, tend not to engage the listener much from the neck down, much less the waist. David Byrne’s lyrics on “Lifetime” were mostly improvised over the completed instrumental track. This is a strange way to work for most of the rock musicians I know. For hip-hop, it’s a common practice, and the pop mainstream is mostly following suit.

Improvised lyrics like David Byrne’s don’t come from the verbal consciousness. They come from deeper in the intuitive mind. Talking Heads lyrics, goofy and asymmetric though they are, always have nice strong body logic. They feel good when you sing them or speak them, or speak-sing them the way David Byrne does.

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself: Well… how did I get here?

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again, after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

You may ask yourself
How do I work this?
You may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
You may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
You may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

Then the chorus again, then:

Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was

Water dissolving and water removing
There is water at the bottom of the ocean
Under the water, carry the water
Remove the water from the bottom of the ocean

That last line is pretty much obliterated by tape loops of itself. Then the chorus again, and then the last verse:

You may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
You may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
You may say to yourself

Chorus, chorus, bridge over the chorus sung half speed, out.

What does it mean? It could be gibberish, or a deep and profound statement about the existential crisis facing modern humans, or a zen koan, or a bunch of inside jokes between David Byrne and himself. I think what makes the song so cool is that it works equally well on any of those levels.

David Byrne figured out how a nerdy white guy can have soul

David Byrne’s ingenious approach to soul is to be his anxious and uptight self. By not even attempting to be cool, he becomes the coolest nerdy white guy he can be. The same strategy works great for Jason Schwartzman, Jon Stewart and Napoleon Dynamite.

Art should be fun

“Lifetime” is a piece of abstract, conceptual modern art, but it’s also totally accessible. It doesn’t require any special knowledge to enjoy it. Why can’t all modern art be fun? Why should highbrow culture make me bored? I experience enough boredom. I wish for more highbrow musicians to follow Talking Heads’ example and write fun songs you can dance to.

Brian Eno’s role

Non-musicians have a hard time imagining what the producer’s role is in music like this. Anybody who watches TV can picture a guitarist or a drummer, but you might never see a producer at work unless you’ve been in a studio. The producer’s job in electronic music is like the editor’s in a movie or TV show. Sometimes the music producer is directing the movie too, sometimes not.

Brian Eno has made an earnest effort over the years to explain his job to people. Nick Seaver tipped me off to this lecture he gave called “The Studio As Compositional Tool” from (they think) 1979. It’s worth quoting at length.

The first thing about recording is that it makes repeatable what was otherwise transient and ephemeral. Music, until about 1900, was an event that was perceived in a particular situation, and that disappeared when it was finished. There was no way of actually hearing that piece again, identically, and there was no way of knowing whether your perception was telling you it was different or whether it was different the second time you heard it. The piece disappeared when it was finished, so it was something that only existed in time.

The effect of recording is that it takes music out of the time dimension and puts it in the space dimension. As soon as you do that, you’re in a position of being able to listen again and again to a performance, to become familiar with details you most certainly had missed the first time through, and to become very fond of details that weren’t intended by the composer or the musicians.

The effect of this on the composer is that he can think in terms of supplying material that would actually be too subtle for a first listening. Around about the 1920s – or maybe that’s too early, perhaps around the ’30s – composers started thinking that their work was recordable, and they started making use of the special liberty of being recorded.

I think the first place this had a real effect was in jazz. Jazz is an improvised form, primarily, and the interesting thing about improvisations is that they become more interesting as you listen to them more times.

Speak it, Brian Eno!

I think recording created the jazz idiom, in a sense; jazz was, from 1925 onwards, a recorded medium, and from’35 onwards I guess – I’m not a jazz expert by any means – it was a medium that most people received via records. So they were listening to things that were once only improvisations for many hundreds of times, and they were hearing these details as being compositionally significant.

Jazz listeners were already been hearing these details as significant in the moment too. There is something novel to recording about about scrutinizing and memorizing improvised solos.

So, to tape recording: till about the late ’40s, recording was simply regarded as a device for transmitting a performance to an unknown audience, and the whole accent of recording technique was on making what was called a “more faithful” transmission of that experience. It began very simply, because the only control over the relative levels of sounds that went onto the machine was how far they were from the microphone – like device. The accent was on the performance, and the recording was a more or less perfect transmitter of that, through the cylinder and wax disc recording stages, until tape became the medium by which people were recording things.

The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something’s on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t. It’s hard to do anything very interesting with a disc – all you can do is play it at a different speed, probably; you can’t actually cut a groove out and make a little loop of it.

You can if you’re an ace turntablist. Tape does make it a lot easier though.

The effect of tape was that it really put music in a spatial dimension, making it possible to squeeze the music, or expand it.

Initially tape recording was a single track, all the information contained and already mixed together on that one track. Then in the mid-’50s experiments were starting with stereo, which was not significantly different. The only difference was that you had two microphones pointing to your ensemble, and you had some impression of a real acoustic sound came to you from two different sources as you listened. Then came three-track recording; it allowed the option of adding another voice or putting a string section on, or something like that. Now this is a significant step, I think; it’s the first time it was acknowledged that the performance isn’t the finished item, and that the work can be added to in the control room, or in the studio itself. For the first time composers – almost always pop composers, as very few classical composers were thinking in this form – were thinking, “Well, this is the music. What can I do with it? I’ve got this extra facility of one track.” Tricky things start getting added. Then it went to four-track after that, and the usual layout for recording a band on four-track at that time.

You should remember that everything, including the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was done on four-track until 1968. Normally engineers would do something like this: the drums on one track, the voices spread on two tracks with the guitars and the piano, say, on one of those tracks, and then the strings and additional effects on the fourth track. This was because they were thinking in terms of mono output; eventually, it would be mixed down to one signal again, to be played on radio or whatever. When stereo came in big, it gave them a problem. When they converted to stereo, things were put in either the middle, or dramatically to one side, or you’d hear some very idiosyncratic panning.

Anyway, after four-track it moved to eight track – this was in ’68, I guess – then very quickly escalated: eight-track till ’70, 16-track from’70 to’ 74, 24-track to now when you can easily work on 48-track, for instance, and there are such things as 64-track machines. The interesting thing is that after 16-track, I would say, the differences are differences of degree, not differences of kind. Because after you get to 16-track, you have far more tracks than you need to record a conventional rock band. Even if you spread the drums across six tracks, have the bass on two, have the vocals, have the guitars, you’ve still got six tracks left. People started to think, “What shall we do with those six tracks?”

From that impulse two things happened: you got an additive approach to recording, the idea that composition is the process of adding more, which was very common in early ’70s rock (this gave rise to the well known and gladly departed orchestral rock tradition, and it also gave rise to heavy metal music – that sound can’t be got on simpler equipment); it also gave rise to the particular area that I’m involved in: in-studio composition, where you no longer come to the studio with a conception of the finished piece. Instead, you come with actually rather a bare skeleton of the piece, or perhaps with nothing at all. I often start working with no starting point. Once you become familiar with studio facilities, or even if you’re not, actually, you can begin to compose in relation to those facilities. You can begin to think in terms of putting something on, putting something else on, trying this on top of it, and so on, then taking some of the original things off, or taking a mixture of things off, and seeing what you’re left with – actually constructing a piece in the studio.

In a compositional sense this takes the making of music away from any traditional way that composers worked, as far as I’m concerned, and one becomes empirical in a way that the classical composer never was. You’re working directly with sound, and there’s no transmission loss between you and the sound – you handle it. It puts the composer in the identical position of the painter – he’s working directly with a material, working directly onto a substance, and he always retains the options to chop and change, to paint a bit out, add a piece, etc.

This like how Quincy Jones once compared a synthesizer to sculpting a pure electronic waveform.

Each channel on the mixer is a long strip. Generally at the bottom is a level control, for how loud you want that channel to play back. Next up, normally, there’s a pan control, for where you want the sound object in the stereo/quad image. Next up is an echo control, and echo is really a separate issue, which has to do with something very unique to recording: briefly, it enables you to locate something in an artifical acoustic space. There’s also equalization – a device by which you can create a timbral change in an instrument, which in rock music is especially important, because many different rock records, in my opinion, are predicated not on a structure, or a melodic line, or a rhythm, but on a sound; this is why studios and producers keep putting their names on records, because they have a lot to do with that aspect of the work. Apart from equalization, there are other facilities which are widely used, such as limiting, compression – which has the effect of altering the envelope of a note or an instrument, so you can do something I’ve been interested in, creating hybrid instruments.

Compression is quite interesting over a whole track; if you’re using severe compression and limiting at the same time, when you push one instrument up, the track is governed so that the overall level will never change. Pushing one instrument up effectively pushes the others down, so all you do is alter the ratio between the instruments where you make a move. I started to use this as a deliberate, compositional, sound-type device; it’s generally been ignored or regarded as a misuse of the equipment before, but I’ll let you judge for yourself. On Helen Thormdale from the No New York album (Antilles), I put an echo on the guitar part’s click, and used that to trigger the compression on the whole track, so it sounds like helicopter blades.

Naturally, all of these things are variable throughout the entire course of the music. These are the kinds of things that you, as a listener, don’t generally notice; some of them operate almost subliminally – they are the ambiance of a track, not the obvious aspects of the track. Those are very much the things that traditional production is concerned with. And they allow you to rearrange the priorities of the music in a large number of ways.

We’ve spoken of the transition from the ’50s concept of music to the contemporary concept of mixing. If you listen to records from the ’50s, you’ll find that all the melodic information is mixed very loud – your first impression of the piece is of melody – and the rhythmic information is mixed rather quietly. The bass is indistinct, and the bass is only playing the root note of the chord in most cases, adding some resonance. As time goes on you’ll find this spectrum, which was very wide, with vocals way up there and the bass drum way down there, beginning to compress, until at the beginning of funk it is very narrow, indeed. Things are all about equally loud.

Then, from the time of Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh album, there’s a flip over, where the rhythm instruments, particularly the bass drum and bass, suddenly become the important instruments in the mix. A timbral change also takes place. The bass becomes a very defined instrument; by the use of amplitude control filters, the bass actually begins to take on a very vocal attack. The bass drum gains a more physical sound, and also has a click to it; generally you’ll find that bass drums are equalized very heavily, something like 1000-1500 cycles, to give a real sharp click. It becomes the loudest instrument in disco – watch the vu meter while a disco track is playing, and you’ll see the needle peak each time the bass drum hits.

Once you’re on tape, there are so many variations you can make that you don’t really.need to spend all that money hiring musicians; you can do a great deal with one piece of work. So when you buy a reggae record, there’s a 90 percent chance the drummer is Sly Dunbar. You get the impression that Sly Dunbar is chained to a studio seat somewhere in Jamaica, but in fact what happens is that his drum tracks are so interesting, they get used again and again.

This takes us to reggae, which is a very interesting music in that it’s the first that didn’t base itself around the standard approach of making work by addition. Earlier I said the contemporary studio composer is like a painter who puts things on, puts things together, tries things out, and erases them. The condition of the reggae composer is like that of the sculptor, I think. Five or six musicians play; they’re well isolated from one another. Then the thing they played, which you can regard as a kind of cube of music, is hacked away at – things are taken out, for long periods.

A guitar will appear for two strums, then never appear again; the bass will suddenly drop out, and an interesting space is created. Reggae composers have created a sense of dimension in the music, by very clever, unconventional use of echo, by leaving out instruments, and by the very open rhythmic structure of the music. Then, too, someone like Lee Perry, a producer who’s always been very intelligent as far as using the constraints of the situation goes, might find there’s hiss building up on tracks he’s used over and over. A Western engineer might get frightened by this, and use all sorts of noise reduction and filtration. Perry says, “Okay, that’s part of the sound, so we’ll just add something else to it and use it’ ” This adds an ambiance of weirdness behind what was straightforward reggae.

This has nothing to do with anything, but Brian Eno’s most widely heard work is probably the Windows 95 startup sound.

Sampling “Once In A Lifetime”

Hip-hop and electronica musicians have been drawn to the “Lifetime” groove, more for its ambiance than its beat. The highest-profile example is “It’s Alright” by Memphis Bleek and Jay-Z.

If you’d like to hear my mashup of  “Once In A Lifetime” with several hip-hop and dance tracks that sample it, get in touch.

One thought on “Brian Eno writes songs with the mixing desk

  1. “a four-bar cell that repeats identically under the entire song”

    Awesome article, but it’s actually based around a 2 bar pattern, and the pattern is reversed between the verse and chorus, so is not consistent throughout the song

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