DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR YOU MY LOVE")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Now here's a group which has only experienced moderate success here in Britain, which has had several big hits in the States. Singing for you, we present The Zombies.
THE ZOMBIES: (Singing) For you, my love, I'd do most anything...
BIANCULLI: Americans were right about the Zombies, whose first record, the still spooky "She's Not There," made it all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart in 1964. In England, the same single topped out at No. 12. Five years later, by the time the group scored its biggest hit with "She's Not There," The Zombies already had broken up. But last month, The Zombies were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony that will be televised Saturday on HBO.
Terry Gross spoke with the lead singer of The Zombies, Colin Blunstone, in 1998. They started with the group's first single.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE'S NOT THERE")
THE ZOMBIES: (Singing) Well, no one told me about her, the way she lied. Well, no one told me about her, how many people cried. But it's too late to say you're sorry. How would I know? Why should I care? Please don't bother trying to find her. She's not there. Well, let me tell you about the way she looked. The way she'd act and the color of her hair. Her voice was soft and cool. Her eyes were clear and bright. But she's not there.
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Colin Blunstone, welcome to FRESH AIR.
COLIN BLUNSTONE: Terry, thank you very much.
GROSS: You got to record this song after The Zombies won a contest in - I guess, St. Albans, where you were from. What do you think defined The Zombies' sound?
BLUNSTONE: Well, I think a lot of the sound really comes from the writers. We had two unique writers in the band and very prolific writers, as well. And I think, possibly, especially Rod Argent - his songs were, I think, well, truly wonderful. I think they were brilliant songs. And he also was a brilliant keyboard player. So you got these great keyboard breaks that he would keep putting into songs. Also, he was a very accomplished musician even at an early age. He understood a lot about music, which was certainly - he was in a different league to me. So a lot of chord progressions and the bass notes we put on the bottom of chords was - it were quite unusual.
And he also understood vocal harmonies because he was in the cathedral choir until he was about 17 or 18. And if we played a gig on a Sunday night, we'd have to go and pick him up at the back of the cathedral where he'd been singing in - whatever the thing had been - at the cathedral. And he'd have to be taking off all his church clothes and getting into his rock 'n' roll gear. And then we'd go off to the rock 'n' roll gig.
So I think our harmonies helped to make things a bit different, as well. But I think there are lots of things that contributed towards it. But the songwriting and the vocal harmonies. And then maybe there's a little bit of the interplay between Rod's writing and my voice. I mean, both of them - Chris White and Rod Argent - used to write songs for my voice.
GROSS: What were the qualities of your voice that you think they wrote for?
BLUNSTONE: I think I tend to sing sad songs better than happy-go-lucky songs. So often, songs would have a sort of a haunting quality about them. "She's Not There" is probably a good example. I think they would look for that. Songs in minor keys would perhaps would be another thing they would look for. So lots of little things all added up to The Zombies' sound.
GROSS: Yeah, a lot of the songs you sang had more to do with vulnerability than showing how strong you were (laughter).
BLUNSTONE: Yeah, that's right. Well, that's me.
GROSS: Let's hear another one of The Zombies' big hits. And this is "Tell Her No."
GROSS: Tell us something about the song or the session.
BLUNSTONE: I think as I remember, we'd been touring with Dionne Warwick and - who you would call Dionne War Wick (ph) - and through that, we'd got very interested in Burt Bacharach songs. And I have a feeling that Rod Argent, who wrote this song, was going through a period of being influenced a lot by Burt Bacharach.
With regard to the session, we would record probably three or four, maybe five backing tracks in an evening at Decca recording studios. And then we would put vocals on. And it would probably be 12 o'clock or 1 o'clock at night before I got around to singing. And I always remember this session because I was fast asleep when they finished. And they woke me up to sing "Tell Her No." And in fact, there's a mumbled line in the middle of "Tell Her No" because I was half-asleep when I was singing it. And I said, listen, guys. I better just do that again because there's this mumbled line. And they said, oh, no, no, that's fine. Don't worry about that.
And I've heard stories of people who - in bands who have been trying to copy our version of "Tell Her No." And they've been desperately trying to work out what the lyric is. And I have to - after 15 or 30 years or whatever it is - I have to tell them, well, you shouldn't have bothered because it's just a mumble. So there is no lyric there, really.
GROSS: Where is the mumble in the song?
BLUNSTONE: I'll leave it to you to find out because I can't remember off the top of my head.
GROSS: Oh, come on.
BLUNSTONE: (Laughter) No, I really - I can't remember. It's something like - umm, you play the song. And then I'll have a think about it while you're playing.
GROSS: OK. Why don't we play it? You listen in, and then you tell us which - the line was.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL HER NO")
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL HER NO")
THE ZOMBIES: (Singing) And if she should tell you, come closer. And if she tempts you with her charms.
BLUNSTONE: OK, that's all right. First one...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL HER NO")
THE ZOMBIES: (Singing) Tell her no, no, no, no, no-no-no-no. No, no, no, no, no-no-no-no. No, no, no, no, no. Don't hurt me now, for her love belongs to me. And if she should tell you, I love you. And if she tempts you with her charms. Tell her no, no, no, no, no-no-no-no...
BLUNSTONE: Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL HER NO")
THE ZOMBIES: (Singing, unintelligible).
BLUNSTONE: That's it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL HER NO")
THE ZOMBIES: (Singing) No, no, no, no no-no-no-no...
BLUNSTONE: Did you hear it?
GROSS: Yeah. So it's the part...
BLUNSTONE: It's sort of...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
BLUNSTONE: It sort of sounds like, don't love her, love from your arms or something. But really, it's (vocalizing).
GROSS: I always heard it as, don't hurt me now from her arms. And I figured, well, I don't know what that means. But it's all right. I get the gist of it.
BLUNSTONE: Yes. Well, what it means is there was a rather sleepy zombie who was trying to do his best but was...
BLUNSTONE: ...a little bit not with it. He was amongst those not present.
GROSS: What was it like to be in the United States and, you know, billed as a British Invasion band? What did that mean to you?
BLUNSTONE: Well, the surprise for me was the reaction, enthusiasm and the huge numbers of the fans in America for all music. I mean, things were a little bit more basic back here in the U.K. We would be travelling in the back of an old van. There were very few freeways in this country - we call them motorways - so we would be traveling on country lanes, vast distances in a broken-down, old van.
It wasn't terribly glamorous, really, except we were having fun. We were 18 years old. What did we care? But then when we went to America, we were playing to huge audiences and very, very enthusiastic audiences that were screaming and screaming and rushing the stage and tearing our clothes off. And it was all pretty exciting stuff, really. Really exciting.
GROSS: Do your best to be honest with me about this. What's it like when you're 19 - you're a young man. You're just getting started, you know, as a man in the world and sexually and all that. And here there's like - you go from city...
BLUNSTONE: That sounds very interesting...
GROSS: Yeah. You go from city to city, and women are screaming and screaming over you. I mean, this must really give you a sense of being something else, you know, and...
BLUNSTONE: Very lucky is...
BLUNSTONE: ...The expression I was thinking of.
GROSS: Right (laughter).
BLUNSTONE: Well, I enjoyed it very much. It was very exciting, and it was great fun. But we all still lived at home with our parents. And we still lived in the little area that we'd grown up in. And we weren't really allowed to get too carried away.
GROSS: In one article that I think was written in an American newspaper or magazine, the band was described as clean-cut, quiet, well-mannered, intelligent; they behave like gentlemen. Was that considered good or a liability (laughter) at the time...
BLUNSTONE: Well it's, funny. When you met...
GROSS: ...To be so clean-cut in your image? Yeah.
BLUNSTONE: When you met people in the media, I think they quite liked it because we turned up on time, and...
GROSS: You didn't insult them (laughter).
BLUNSTONE: We didn't insult them. We didn't spit. And, you know, but when you actually put that into an article, I think it can put people off. People want rascals and rogues and naughty boys. You know, then do you know what he did? Do you know what this guy did? People love that, you know?
BLUNSTONE: But then they're not having to face it firsthand. So in a way, I think that it went against us a bit. Mind you, I'm saying this with hindsight. I didn't realize it at the time. We were just making it up as we went along.
BIANCULLI: Colin Blunstone speaking to Terry Gross in 1998. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ZOMBIES SONG, "WORK 'N' PLAY")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1998 interview with Colin Blunstone. He was lead singer of The Zombies, who are new inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony will be shown Saturday on HBO.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: When you first came to the United States on the first Zombies tour, you performed with the Murray the K show in Brooklyn. And Murray the K...
BLUNSTONE: That's right.
GROSS: ...Was, like, the great...
GROSS: ...New York disc jockey. And he'd had these great rock 'n' roll shows in which a lot of, like, you know, rhythm and blues acts and rock 'n' roll acts performed. Who did you share the bill with? Do you remember?
BLUNSTONE: Yes. Chuck Jackson was top of the bill, the Shirelles, Ben. E. King, Shangri-Las, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, as they were then. And we had to follow them, and they were wonderful. And they used to bring the house down (laughter), and we had to go on next. The Nashville Teens - there was another English band on there. There were probably some other acts as well, but I don't remember anymore.
But it was a great experience. You know, we did five or six shows a day. But, of course, we only - we sang one or two songs. It wasn't as if you went on and did an hour. But you had to be there from early in the morning till late at night and just go on and do your one song.
GROSS: So everybody probably knew everybody else's song by the time (laughter)...
BLUNSTONE: I think they did, yeah.
GROSS: ...The tour...
BLUNSTONE: And one of the things that intrigued me was we couldn't go out of the theater because there were huge crowds out there. And Paul Atkinson, our lead guitarist, he left the theater once. And this crowd sort of - they didn't mean to do him any harm. But just because they were so big, they backed him up against a plate glass window...
BLUNSTONE: And the police came in and got him out. He - when he came out, he had no shirt on. He was just about to go through a plate glass window. And they said to him - they said, well, listen. We've got you out the once. But if you come out again, you're on your own. So that was enough for us. We just had to stay backstage all day.
But then when everyone had gone home, we came out. Normally, we'd go and have a quick beer in the bar next door. And then we'd get on the subway because we didn't really have any money, even in those days. We were - I think we were No. 1 nationally, but we still didn't have any money.
So we'd get on the subway, and people would say, you're going on the subway late at night? - from Brooklyn to wherever it was, which I think was a fairly tough area. And people were just amazed. But if people - if the fans it just waited a little bit longer, they could have come on the subway with us and (laughter) probably helped us to find our hotel. I'm sure we were getting lost all the time.
GROSS: But that's very funny, though, to go from, you know, in just a couple of hours from complete stardom at the theater to complete invisibility on the subway.
BLUNSTONE: I know. But, I mean, it's a crazy business, isn't it?
BLUNSTONE: And I think you have to learn to switch on and, more importantly, to switch off because if you try and live the rock 'n' roll life, I think you'll be in trouble. You know, you'd probably be dead.
GROSS: Well, let's pause here and play something from the new Zombies box set. And this is a previously unissued recording that you made, I think at the BBC. And it's a cover of Burt Bacharach's "The Look Of Love."
GROSS: And you had mentioned before that the band had - what? - toured with Dionne Warwick.
BLUNSTONE: That's right, the very first tour we ever did. And we were fantastic Burt Bacharach fans. I think I still am a big Burt Bacharach fan. He just writes the most wonderful songs.
GROSS: Were you thinking of Dionne Warwick when you sang this yourself?
BLUNSTONE: No because the version I'd heard was by Dusty Springfield. And I think she had a hit in America with that version, but she didn't have a hit in the U.K. It's funny how that happens. You know, people can have hits with a wonderful version of a song in one country, and it doesn't mean anything in another country - very strange.
(SOUNDBITE OF BBC BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And now you're hearing the sweet and swinging sound of The Zombies one more time in "The Look Of Love," written by Burt Bacharach.
THE ZOMBIES: (Singing) The look of love is in your eyes, the look your heart can't disguise. The look of love is saying so much more than just words could bear to say. And what my heart has heard - well, it takes my breath away. I can hardly wait to hold you, feel my arms around you. How long I have waited - waited just to love you. Now that I have found you, you've got the look of love. It's on your face, the look that time can't erase. Well, tonight, could this be just the start of so many nights like this? Let's make a lover's vow and then seal it with a kiss. I can hardly wait to hold you, feel my arms around you. How long I have waited - waited just to love you. Now that I have found you, don't ever go. Don't ever go. I love you so.
GROSS: "The Look Of Love" as performed by The Zombies on the BBC in October, 1967. The very last hit that The Zombies had, "Time Of The Season," was from an album called "Odessey And Oracle." It's an album that didn't sell well at all in the United States. And the hit single, "Time Of The Season," I think was released long after the album had already kind of bombed.
BLUNSTONE: I know.
GROSS: What is the story behind why this record came out in the way that it did?
BLUNSTONE: Well, it's - I mean, it really intrigues me because I sometimes think that records have a life of their own because everything was against this record. We recorded it for CBS Records in London. They'd only just started out. There were quite a small company in London, and they gave us a very limited budget. I think it was a thousand pounds, which even in those days was a very small budget for doing an album. And there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm. We'd had quite a few flop singles. We'd just come back from a disastrous tour of the Far East. And we went into the studio, recorded this album, and there really wasn't a great response in the U.K. I don't think - in America, they didn't want to release it at all.
But Al Kooper from Blood, Sweat & Tears was in London. And he just bought a lot of albums, took them back to America. And he just felt that this album stood out from everything that he brought back from the U.K. So he alone is responsible for what happened with "Time Of The Season" because I think CBS had given up on this album. But he said, listen, this is a wonderful album; you must release it. "Time Of The Season" had no right to be a hit. But I'm very, very glad that it was a hit.
And even in the studio - I tell this as a story against myself - I didn't really like the song. And I didn't want to sing it. And it had been written more or less in the morning before we recorded it, and I wasn't too sure of the exact melody. And Rod and I had a set-to in the studio. It was in Studio 3 at Abbey Road. And he wanted this song absolutely as he wrote it, and I kept making little mistakes. And I said to him, Rod, listen. If you know how to sing it, you come in here, and you sing it. And he said to me - mind you, the language is a little bit richer, I hasten to add.
BLUNSTONE: He said to me, Colin, you're the singer. You sing it. And it went on from there. It was quite a fiery moment. But, I mean, I'm really glad that I - he made me stand there and sing it. I would be very upset if I hadn't done it.
GROSS: Colin Blunstone, it's really just been a pleasure to talk with you. I thank you very much for being with us.
BLUNSTONE: Well, thank you, Terry. Yeah, it's been fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME OF THE SEASON")
THE ZOMBIES: (Singing) It's the time of the season when loves runs high. And this time, give it to me easy. And let me try with pleasured hands to take you in the sun to promised lands to show you every one. It's the time of the season for loving. What's your name? Who's your daddy? Is he rich like me? Has he taken any time to show you what you need to live? Tell it to me slowly. Tell you what, I really want to know. It's the time of the season for loving.
BIANCULLI: Colin Blunstone, lead singer of The Zombies, spoke with Terry Gross in 1998. The Zombies were inducted last month into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The ceremonies will be shown on HBO on Saturday. After a break, we'll hear from two members of another band inducted this year - Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno of Roxy Music. And our critic-at-large John Powers will review the Netflix nature documentary series "Our Planet." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME OF THE SEASON")
THE ZOMBIES: (Singing) What's your name? Who's your daddy? Is he rich like me? Has he taken any time to show you what you need to live? Tell it to me slowly. Tell you what, I really want to know. It's the time of the season for loving...
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Another newly inducted group into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is Roxy Music, the influential 1970s British band featuring Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. Today, we'll listen back to interviews with them both, starting with Roxy Music frontman and founding member Bryan Ferry.
The band Roxy Music fused classic pop with futuristic gender-bending experimentation, which predated both glam rock and disco. Their hits included "Virginia Plain," "Love Is The Drug," "Street Life," "Dance Away" and "Avalon." After Roxy Music broke up in 1983, Ferry went on to a successful solo career. Terry Gross first spoke with Bryan Ferry in 1987. Before we hear their conversation, let's listen to a bit of "Avalon."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AVALON")
ROXY MUSIC: (Singing) Now the party's over. I'm so tired. Then I see you coming out of nowhere - much communication in a motion without conversation or a notion - avalon.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: What was the sound you had in your mind when you put together Roxy Music?
BRYAN FERRY: I don't know. It was to try and do something which didn't sound like what other people did. That was one of the ideas. I was influenced by so many different kinds of music, not only black American music, which was probably my main source of inspiration but, you know, Indian music, Arab music, all kinds of ethnic things as well. And having been to art school, I'd been kind of familiar with art music, people like John Cage and Morton Feldman, this kind of thing.
So it was kind of - we were interested in kind of experimental sounds. You know, we had a synthesizer, which was quite rare at that time. And so we used to treat the lead instruments to try and make them sound a little bit different and so on and even the voice sometimes. So it was always an adventure. Each thing was - it was really exciting, you know, because we didn't feel there was anything else that sounded like that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS THE DRUG")
ROXY MUSIC: (Singing) It ain't no big thing to wait for the bell to ring. It's ain't no big thing - the toll of the bell - aggravated spare for days - I troll downtown, the red-light place. Jump up. Bubble up. What's in store? Love is the drug. And I need the score. Showing out - showing out - hit and run - boy meets girl where the beat goes on - stitched up tight - can't shake free - love is the drug - got a hook on me. Oh, catch that buzz. Love is the drug I'm thinking of. Oh, can't you see? Love is the drug for me.
GROSS: Since you are still basically an amateur when you put together Roxy Music...
FERRY: Still am.
GROSS: Did you feel like you operated on guts a lot of the time?
FERRY: Oh, yeah because we didn't feel particularly skilled. But the attitude was strong (laughter). And it was kind of - even though it was kind of arty music, as it were, it was very emotional. And we felt our hearts were in the right place.
GROSS: You started performing in tuxedos and elegant jackets. Did that image for you come from movies or from other music groups?
FERRY: I think it came out of desperation.
GROSS: What do you mean?
FERRY: Well, no. We - the first year or two, we kind of wore pretty outlandish costume. We thought, well, let's make this a bit of a theatrical experience. So we kind of - nobody was really doing that at that point. So we felt that was an interesting thing to do.
And after a year or two of kind of thing, you know, the sort of rather strange costumes we wore, there was - it seemed a natural thing to do to do something a bit different and into suits and more kind of anonymous look, you know? It seemed to be a strange juxtaposition of images or something. And it seemed to capture people's imagination, perhaps too much, in fact.
GROSS: You mean because it drew attention away from the music itself?
FERRY: Yeah, a little bit. Yes. You know, you always have to be aware of that. And sometimes, an image can, if it's too strong, can get out of hand.
GROSS: One of the first records that you recorded was an album of pop and rock standards called "These Foolish Things." And what you recorded on it ranged from Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" to Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall"...
GROSS: ...And the standard "These Foolish Things."
GROSS: And you sang them with a lot of irony. And I thought that that irony was partly your attitude toward the songs but also your attitude toward yourself because you didn't think of yourself as fitting the image of the people who'd sing those songs.
FERRY: Right. Yes. It was after the second album. And it was great fun to do. We did it in about three weeks, which is very quick for me. And I particularly liked the title track...
GROSS: Me too (laughter).
FERRY: ..."These Foolish Things." I like to do songs from that period where, perhaps, you're dealing with a song rather than a great recording, you know, because that song has been done so many times that you never think of one specific recording of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THESE FOOLISH THINGS")
ROXY MUSIC: (Singing) The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses, the waiter's whistling as the last bar closes, the song that Crosby sings - these foolish things remind me of you.
BIANCULLI: Bryan Ferry spoke to Terry Gross in 1987. He returned to FRESH AIR for another interview in 2002. Terry asked him about his interest in performing and recording covers of other people's songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Bryan Ferry, over the years, you've recorded a lot of standard songs from the '30s and '40s, American popular song. I'm wondering how you started listening to that music.
FERRY: I think it must have been really through the Hollywood musicals on TV, you know? I suppose the glamour of Hollywood always appealed to me. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly always look so amazing in their kind of Savile Row suits and stuff, as is all the other movie stars I liked, like Cary Grant or Gary Cooper or whoever they were. Yeah - very, very sort of glamorous images in those movies.
GROSS: Is that the look you were going for when you started performing?
FERRY: Not really. When we first started performing in the early days of Roxy, I mean, it was more of a kind of - a bit more kind of outlandish, I suppose. I had a friend - a couple of friends, actually - who were young fashion designers in London, and London's always been a great place for emerging talent in fashion, you know. And a couple of people did costumes for us in the early days of Roxy, which were kind of a bit science fiction-y, sort of - a bit futuristic.
And yeah, we had a lot of fun with those kind of early days of dressing up. I think we wanted to make it quite theatrical, you know, the show that we were doing. And I used to work in a tailor's shop when I was at school, you know, on a Saturday for pocket money. And so I think I became interested in clothes, especially tailored clothes, at a very early age. Also, a lot of my very early kind of musical heroes, like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis - all of the kind of jazz, bebop players dressed in very cool suits. They always had the suits and ties and looked pretty sharp, you know.
GROSS: When you...
FERRY: I went to see the Modern Jazz Quartet once when I was young, and they were always in black tie and very smart.
GROSS: That's probably the nice thin lapel era, also (laughter).
FERRY: That's right. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely right.
GROSS: So when you were working in the tailor shop, were you actually doing any sewing yourself or...
FERRY: Oh, not really, no. Selling was my game.
GROSS: Selling. Right, OK.
GROSS: Were you good at selling?
FERRY: Yeah, very good at selling, and I used to give advice on stylistic details of suits. And as you said, how thin should the lapel be? Men's clothes are all about details, really.
GROSS: Right, right, right. Bryan Ferry, you grew up near Newcastle in England. Your father was a coal miner. What was your impression of his work - of working in the mines - when you were growing up?
FERRY: Well, I felt very sorry for him because he was actually a farmer to begin with. And his dad had been a farmer. And I suppose you'd call him a farm laborer. He worked and lived on a farm. And it was an interesting part of the country where I came from, where there were small kind of mining communities which would be surrounded by a lot of green fields and farms and so on. And he was from the farming side, really.
But in the Great Depression in the '30s, the farm he worked on, I think, ran out of money. And he had to go and work underneath the ground, which was the last place in the world for him because he was a real countryman. But he looked after horses under the ground, the ponies that pulled the carts, you know. So he did a kind of job with horses under the ground to - I felt kind of really sorry for him. So he was a very hard-working man and a good person to have for your father, really.
BIANCULLI: Bryan Ferry speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. His influential 1970s band Roxy Music was inducted last month into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The ceremonies will be televised tomorrow night on HBO. After a break, we'll hear from another Roxy Music member, Brian Eno. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROXY MUSIC SONG, "TRIPTYCH")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. In 1971, Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry teamed for Roxy Music, the influential British group that was inducted last month into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The ceremonies will be shown on HBO tomorrow. Eno played synthesizers, a relatively new musical instrument and toy back then, and electronically manipulated the sounds of the other musicians.
After leaving Roxy Music, Brian Eno made albums on his own and started his own label that recorded albums of atmospheric electronic music. He became an important figure in the new wave scene of the 1970s, producing records by Talking Heads and Devo. Terry Gross spoke with Brian Eno in 1990 about another very different musical project.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You produced the Portsmouth Sinfonia record, or records, and this was an orchestra of musicians who really couldn't play and who would play classical warhorses like "The William Tell Overture" or "Thus Spake Zarathustra." And it was, you know, like, the most ragged assemblage you'd ever hear. Did you organize the band?
BRIAN ENO: No. That was the brainchild of Gavin Bryars, an English composer. And it was called the Portsmouth Sinfonia because he was teaching at Portsmouth College of Art. And that grew out of that place, but then it attracted a much wider membership. At our peak, we had I think 80 members in the orchestra. At our biggest ever concert, we had an 80-piece orchestra and a 320-piece choir. We did Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" at the Royal Albert Hall. But I just must correct something, actually.
ENO: Funny enough, it wasn't entirely non-musicians. The rule with that orchestra was that anybody could join. Now, they could also be musicians. They didn't have to be non-musicians, but anybody could join. But the rule was that if they joined, they had to turn up at the rehearsals and they had to try their hardest to play it right.
Well, given that most of the players had absolutely no - most of the players, I should say, had no musical background - this was guaranteed to fail in an interesting way. But some of the players were actually very skilled. And this was what made it musically interesting, I think, because occasionally, you'd hear a thread of very nimble playing amidst this near-chaos that was going on most of the time.
GROSS: Is that what made them interesting to you?
ENO: Yeah. I liked - I loved that. I learnt a lot about music playing in the Portsmouth Sinfonia - more than probably any other experience I've had because the - if you get people who can't play instruments very well trying to play melodies that they know - everyone knew the tunes, you know. They were always Beethoven's Fifth and, as you say, the warhorses of classical music. The - probably the only thing they'll manage to do is to follow the rough shape of the melody. They'll go up when it goes up, and they'll go down when it goes down but not by the right amount more often than not. So what you got was classical music reduced to its - to its sort of statistical averages where...
ENO: ...Where the sum total was kind of roughly recognizable.
ENO: It was a very exciting orchestra to be in. We fired a couple of people because they played around. The one thing that wasn't tolerated was people deliberately making jokes or trying to make it sound funny. It sounded funniest when everyone was trying hard to get it right. And it didn't sound funny when people larked around and made silly noises, you know? So we worked - we really did rehearse. And we realized that the quality - the quality of the failure depended on how hard we tried to succeed. And we tried very hard.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROSSINI'S "WILLIAM TELL OVERTURE" PERFORMED BY THE PORTSMOUTH SINFONIA)
GROSS: Brian Eno is my guest. Have you ever gone through a crisis of becoming too proficient at either composing or at using the electronics that you use or tape manipulation? You know, coming from this non-musician background and being informed by this Portsmouth Sinfonia stuff about how something sounds when you're really trying hard to do it right, and you can't - I mean, people like you get really good (laughter), you know?
ENO: Well, it's a good question because I think what happens - it's not so much the over-proficiency that's a problem. It's the lack of alertness that goes with knowing how to do something well. Once you know how to do something quite well or you're familiar with doing it, a lot of times you automatically are falling into routines. You know exactly how that works. You switch it on. You do this. You do that. You do that. And all of that is sort of done on automatic. And while you're on automatic, you're not listening any longer.
One of the reasons that people who don't play instruments well are sometimes able to do surprising things with them is that they're listening at a much more basic level than skilled performers are. They start asking questions like, hey, does this sound interesting? Yeah, it does - at quite a different point from where the professional performer would. He's already been through that. He's already working at a level where he considers all those questions have been answered long ago. They're not interesting to him anymore.
So I think this is the problem. It's not proficiency. It's the switching off of your alertness that goes with thinking you are proficient on something. So the trick is to think of ways of surprising yourself back into hearing freshly again. And that's something that really requires thinking and techniques of thinking. It's something you can do quite consciously. You can set yourself exercises that trick you into hearing something differently.
BIANCULLI: Brian Eno speaking to Terry Gross in 1990. He and Bryan Ferry and the other members of Roxy Music have been inducted into this year's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. HBO presents TV coverage of the induction ceremony tomorrow night. After a break, critic-at-large John Powers reviews the new Netflix nature documentary series "Our Planet."
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROXY MUSIC SONG, "TARA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.