Earlier entries of this series can be found here: http://www.acclaimedmusic.net/forums/vi ... ive#p45337
“Over the nights and through the fires/ We went surging down the wires/ Through the towns and on the highways ”
102. Eno – St. Elmo’s Fire
Genre: Art rock.
Country: United Kingdom.
Album: Another Green World.
Acclaimed Music ranking: #4576.
Song ranking on Acclaimed Music in the artist’s discography: 5th.
Ranks higher than Strange Town by The Jam, but lower than Positive Education by Slam.
Place in the Acclaimed Music Song Poll 2015: #644.
Produced by Brian Eno & Rhett Davies.
Lyrics by Brian Eno.
Vocals by Brian Eno.
“Wimshurst” guitar by Robert Fripp.
Desert guitars by Brian Eno.
Organ by Brian Eno.
Piano by Brian Eno.
Yamaha bass pedal by Brian Eno.
Synthetic percussion by Brian Eno.
No, this is not the song written for a John Hughes 80’s teenage movie of the same name. That big hit, fully named St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion), is by John Parr and is probably one of the few things Brian Eno would not consider (though there’s no telling with him really). Parr’s song is a cheesy yet effective energizer. Basically the opposite to the dissonance and ambience Eno tries to achieve. Or is it?
St. Elmo’s Fire is an interesting pick for a Eno song to talk about. Of course, talking about Eno songs is something odd in itself. Few artists are seen so much as album artists as Eno. His music is a lot about experimentation and soundscapes that are developed through an album. It is a miracle that so many of his tracks work as standalones, because this is someone who is not actively trying to make singles. Of course he helped create some real hits for other artists in his work as a producer, but his solo work centres on sounds as sounds. How does music work? What is the texture of a sound? How do we process it? He likes to call himself a non-musician. Indeed, the Brian Eno sound is what you get when you let a musical theorist loose in a recording studio.
For people like me who are interested in the same questions that occupy Eno’s music, his work as well as his process are of great interest. For broader audiences it perhaps matters less. He never had a solo hit or a huge selling album, but I’ve been surprised how well his music has been received by people in general. Consciously or unconsciously, he must have been up to something.
Another Green World, the parent album of St. Elmo’s Fire and Eno’s most famous work, found Eno at a sort of crossroads. He came from a glam-rock background through Roxy Music, but had already been solo for a few years. His solo work had mostly been rock, but of a very odd kind. And things got a little weirder with this third effort, as he started using non-rock sounds that would pave the way for his future path. Eno decided to step into the studio without a single idea for actually creating music. Indeed, the first four days he ended up doing nothing at all, because, well, he didn’t know what he wanted to do.
Here his Oblique Strategies came in handy. This was a box Eno made with Peter Schmidt and it contained a series of cards with tips you should use as inspiration. Just pick a random card and follow it’s advice to the heart and this should break your creative block. You can find a link to an online version of Oblique Strategies below. It contains instructions as varied as “Disciplined self-indulgence”, “What are the sections sections of? Think of a caterpillar”, “Tape your mouth” and “Get your neck massaged”. These ideas should help you think anew and have actually been used by a lot of artists over the years.
Eno used the Oblique Strategies a lot during the recording of Another Green World, but sadly it is not known which cards lead to which songs. What we do know is that it is a strange album that switches sounds and styles as if there is no tomorrow, but still ends up feeling like a complete piece. What’s more, despite the almost too calculated and artificial way this album came to be, it is a bit of a surprise to hear that it is actually a work of enormous beauty and understated emotion. It should be cold, but it isn’t.
Maybe it is because of another key talent of Eno: intuition. It seems that once he set his mind to some piece of music he knew how to make something out of it. He had a lot of means at his disposal, including a huge variety of instruments. Many he played himself, but he also had a several musical friends come over to the sessions, most famously Phil Collins and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. Some of these musicians were frustrated by Eno’s process (including Collins, although he still appears on three tracks on the final album), while others responded well to it.
Perhaps it is no surprise to hear that Fripp was one who enjoyed the Eno method. King Crimson did switch sound several times, so Fripp was interested in such a playful approach to music. He would record several albums with Eno in the future, but on Another Green World he played on four tracks. St. Elmo’s Fire is one of them and is actually a great showcase of Fripp’s talent. Eno asked Fripp to replicate the electric sounds that two poles on a Wimshurst machine create. A Wimshurst machine is a 19th century invention by James Wimshurst that is used to generate high voltage. As an ode to the machine, Fripp is credited on the album sleeve as playing a Wimshurst guitar, even though such an instrument doesn’t exist.
The guitar comes in rather late in the song, around the halfway point. First slowly, while Eno starts singing how he and his travelling companion – cryptically named Brown Eyes – see St. Elmo’s Fire. Quickly, the guitar takes centre stage in the song and Fripp plays at a very swift pace, creating an effect that sounds indeed like sizzling electricity. Would it be too much of a pun to say that the effect on the listener is electrifying? Well, it is to me. The specific link to electricity fulfils another role: it musically symbolizes St. Elmo’s fire.
You know when you are writing about someone like Eno if you just have to explain more things than usual, things that have little to do with music. So after Oblique Strategies and the Wimshurst Machine it is perhaps also necessary to quickly explain what St. Elmo’s fire is. I mean, John Parr didn’t seem to know when he sung the lines “I can feel St. Elmo’s fire burning in me”, because that is absolutely not how that works. In short, St. Elmo’s fire is an electric effect which appears under certain weather conditions, mostly thunder storms. It makes glowing plasma appear on certain surfaces, especially pointed objects. It is a rare occurrence, mostly spotted on ships at sea during terrible weather (see picture above). It used to be seen as actually a good omen in Christian tradition: the effect was named after the patron saint for sailors and seen as a sign from above that all would be well, despite the hard weather.
So yeah, how John Parr could feel St. Elmo’s fire burning in him, even though it actually isn’t a fire fire is an interesting question. I know we should take his words more metaphorically, but it is a metaphor that doesn’t quite work once you know what St. Elmo’s fire is. He also posits: “Take me were the future’s lying: St. Elmo’s fire!”. Hmm.
But let’s get back to Eno and Fripp. I wonder whether Eno already had the weather phenomenon in mind when he requested that particular solo from Fripp, or that it was just an interesting sound that he wanted to emulate. Eno never writes lyrics beforehand. He listens to the finished instrumentals and sings nonsense along with it, writes the nonsense down and then rewrites it into something that makes at least some sense. If it is true that even just the idea for St. Elmo’s fire came so late into the song process it says a great deal about Eno’s knack for associative writing and thinking. His description of seeing the natural phenomenon fits very nicely with the appearance of Fripp’s solo. If St. Elmo’s fire had a sound, it might sound like that.
St. Elmo’s fire in the natural world is such a rare and almost otherworldly happening that for centuries people have written about it in wonder. Eno, whether he has seen it himself or not, plays into this reaction to great effect. The lyrics of the song tell of what seems like an extremely long walk, through various landscapes and weather conditions, each described in a way that is reminiscent of Romantic art; in other words: in awe as if overpowered by nature.
This is one of the few songs on Another Green World with lyrics and singing. As I said, this record was something of a turning point for Eno. The instrumental parts of the album paved the way for his next works. They are sort of proto-ambient: more low-key and background-friendly than other music that was around at the time, but not quite as extreme or minimal as what was to come. On this album, the few tracks that had lyrics and were more “poppy” merged oddly well with the rest. That is because Eno used unique sounds everywhere. St. Elmo’s Fire is the fastest track here and works fittingly as a jolt of electricity in the whole. Apart from the Fripp’s guitar, the instruments - all played by Eno himself - are more otherworldly in sound, but the piano is played in such way that it connects easily with the rest of the album.
I’m becoming very, very fond of Another Green World and St. Elmo’s Fire should have been the hit single if it were such kind of an album. It’s nice to have these Eno songs pop up more and more on Acclaimed Music. I just asked the Oblique Strategies website for some advice for a closing line for this article. “Towards the insignificant”, it posits. Interesting. I think that is what Eno has always strived towards, but this has lead him to the opposite.
Link to the Oblique Strategies: http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html
There haven’t been that many covers of this song, but this is a good example of quality over quantity. The few I did find seem to honour Eno’s quest for discovery. All the songs here are vastly different from each other and from the Eno original. He would be proud.
The Popoli Dalpane Ensemble turn it into an instrumental, mostly for strings. It takes about a minute and a half before it sounds anything like St. Elmo’s Fire. The track has a wild and spontaneous feel about it that is simply awesome. Arturo Salteri takes a similar approach and also turns the song into something mostly suited for violin, but whereas Popoli Dalpane Ensemble take it into a sort of jazz route, Salteri makes it into something more classical, but also folky. Then there is whatever you call Rude 66’s take, which seems vaguely metal to me. I personally don’t care for it, but it is sounds wholly original from start to finish. Few artists encourage such play with genre as Eno. Even the most conventional cover here, by Luca Faggella, comes off as fresh, even though he mostly seems to clear the song from most of it’s weirdness.
This is also one of the last songs I expected to be sampled, but it has been, by none other than Danny Brown. His song, Brown Eyes, caries the same name as the person Eno seems to have journeyed with in his song, which might have inspired Brown to seek out the track. The sample appears a couple of times, a bit fuzzed-out. It seems to mostly give some location context to Danny Brown’s rapping. It’s not the most stunning use of a sample I have ever heard, but hey, it works and it is an original choice.
Danny Brown’s Brown Eyes: