Sonic weirdos rejoice! The entire catalogue of Brian Eno’s Obscure Records is available online, and for free, at UbuWeb. The U.K. label—which released ten albums from 1975-78, all produced or executive produced by Eno—represented a veritable powerhouse of experimental musicians and composers, from John Cage to Gavin Bryars to Michael Nyman. Obscure Records also first released Eno’s own epochal Discreet Music, a touchstone in what would later be known as ambient music.
For someone who has been raised on pop music, the genius of Brian Eno has always been his accessibility, the way he can make strange and unexpected sounds feel comfortable. Like many others, I first came to Brian Eno’s music via his production work with Talking Heads, David Bowie, U2, and others, following the path from the mostly pop-centric records like Another Green World to the more abstract Ambient series. The common thread through most of Eno’s 70s output is the warmth and openness of his recordings.
Though the original liner notes (sadly not available online) offered detailed notes on composition and arrangement, the Obscure Records catalogue is wide open to beginners. One doesn’t have to understand systems music theory to love Discreet Music. Similarly, all you need are ears to experience the slow awe and tragedy of Gavin Bryar’s “The Sinking of the Titanic” or to be lost and floating through Harold Budd’s The Pavilion of Dreams, simply one of the loveliest things I’ve ever heard.
Wonders abound in this music. John Steele and John Cage’s stunning Voices and Instruments is a quiet wandering beauty, with lyrics from ee cummings and James Joyce. The marvelous New and Rediscovered Music by Max Eastley and David Toop features a variety of Seuss-worthy homemade instruments, like the hydrophone, a sort of harp with a stream of water flowing through it. Another highlight is Toop’s vocal-only “Do The Bathosphere,” which somehow manages to be both ethereal and hilarious at the same time.
In all, the catalogue holds together remarkably well, from the cover art (variations of a single John Bonis collage) to the Obscure number stamp on the back. Many of the artists appear on several of each other’s recordings, lending the label’s output a cohesiveness, a feeling like this is a group of likeminded people coming together to explore. All of these pieces share a mutual strangeness, the dreaminess and joy of experimentation, the delight of the accidental moment.
Eno’s curatorial skills also show a remarkable foresight. Many of these composers and musicians went on to collaborate further in the pop music world, from Gavin Bryars enlisting Tom Waits to sing over the homeless man’s gospel loop on “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” to Harold Budd’s work with the Cocteau Twins (for my money, their collaboration Moon and the Melodies is a highlight of the Twins discography), and John Cage, whose influence (especially on contemporary electronic music) is inescapable. You might come to this music a bit apprehensive, but after a few minutes you will feel lovingly at home.
Some of these records have been reissued in CD format, but many of them remain out of print, not to mention being pressed in limited quantities to begin with. A reissue of these records is what reissue box sets were made for. Here’s hoping someone gets on that soon.