Jul 10

ENYA – “Orinoco Flow”

FT + Popular95 comments • 7,803 views

#618, 29th October 1988

Brian Eno famously used to write his lyrics – or claim he did, at any rate – on the basis of sound rather than meaning: if the phonemes danced in service to the song, that was good enough for him and what they actually said could go hang. I get something of that vibe from “Orinoco Flow” – the arrangement’s pert staccatos bubbling up into Enya’s cute, clpped phrasing. But she corrals her syllables into something that does make sense: a hymn to travel and motion for their own sake.

If you’re going to delight in the way words sound, the Atlas is a good place to start, a great soup of bizarre and evocative names. Some excellent tracks centre themselves on lists of places – Saint Etienne’s “Girl VII” and the JAMS’ “It’s Grim Up North”, Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”. “Rhythm Stick” is a kind of lairy, deliciously dangerous cousin of “Orinoco Flow” in the way it’s a travelogue of teeth, tongue and lip as much as of place. “Flow” also reminds me of Kate Bush’s “Sat In Your Lap”, particularly the urgent finale – “A trip to Mecca! Tibet or Jedda!”

These are rich comparisons for a song to live up to, of course – and they’re meant to indicate that “Orinoco Flow” is interesting and unusual, not imply it’s a masterpiece. But it’s better than I thought it was. My lazy man’s impressions of Enya heavily feature ideas like “Celtic”, “hippy-dippy”, and “wind chimes” but here it’s only the mist of backing vox that put me off: when the song loses its light rhythmic impetus on the middle eight they help bog it down, and it never totally recovers.

All the mouthplay on “Orinoco” is in the service of simple, relaxed prettiness, and over repeat listens that can lose its appeal. But the song has plenty of ideas, and an airy freshness which must have been a pleasant surprise on 1988 radios. An admirably playful record, even if it’s not one for everyday use.



1 2 3 All
  1. 31
    Tim on 21 Jul 2010 #

    #1: wait, did Marden Hill have a (ahem) “fluffy pabulum” phase? I recall them as El Records sophistopop (with a lean towards Bond soundtrack acid jazz a little later). I was very fond of the odd song of theirs. Was there another Marden Hill?

  2. 32
    punctum on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Whoops, Marden Hill – I meant Windham Hill. Clearly it’s a Freudian thing.

    #29: Where did you get your copy of the NWA album? I didn’t find one in the import racks (Intoxica! of all places) until spring ’89.

  3. 33
    Tom on 21 Jul 2010 #

    #18 – This is a good point – one of the interesting things about the early 90s is how a whole load of strands (rave, ‘green’, new age, old-school hippy) got shaken up together and crossed over, so that – for a given individual – any one might well be a vector of transmission for a lot of the other stuff.

    Any direct experience I’ve had of people into new age stuff came after that point of intersection, so I guess it’s quite possible that new age was initially a scam for shark-eyed city professionals.

  4. 34
    thefatgit on 21 Jul 2010 #

    #32 Tower Records, but if specialists were not supplied until spring 89, then what the hell was I listening to in autumn 88? Maybe I’m misremembering, but there was something “controversial” on my Walkman about this time…”Smoke Some Kill” maybe.

  5. 35
    MBI on 21 Jul 2010 #

    This song will forever be defined in my mind by that scene in the first season of “South Park” where Stan’s grampa tries to convince Stan to help him euthanize himself — he plays this song for Stan and says “this is what it’s like to be me.”

    Stan (panicking): Oh god! This is horrible! This is so cheesy and lame — yet somehow strangely soothing — Grampa turn it off!

  6. 36
    lonepilgrim on 21 Jul 2010 #

    I enjoyed this more than I expected to based on my vague memories. Punctum does a fantastic job of putting it in a context of other female artists of that time who were similarly singing in tongues but I much prefer Mary Margaret O’Hara or Liz Fraser. This lacks the passion of those two – perhaps because she’s singing someone else’s material.

  7. 37
    wichita lineman on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Does anyone else have much time for Clannad? Their first 2 albums aren’t – from memory – a million miles from Trees/Loudest Whisper acid folk (I’ve never explored beyond Clannad 2).

    I spent hard earned cash on the theme from Harry’s Game and follow-up Newgrange, the chorus of which Radio 2’s Ray Moore ‘misheard’ as “rum te tum, pass the Erinmore”. Or maybe they really were subliminally plugging pipe tobacco?

    Not much NWA on my turntable, as you can imagine.

  8. 38
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Ro-o-bin! The Hooded Man!

  9. 39
    anto on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Having grown up in a house where this kind of music – which I think of as Celtic mysticism?!? rather than new age – was being played frequently I’m probably too accustomed to listen to it anew.
    If there is any romance to having Orinoco Flow at #1 maybe it’s because in a year that was generous to pops extroverts (Tiffany, Kylie, Mark Moore, Eddi Reader, Pellow, Bros, Bono)this one marked a victory for an introvert.
    I’m not entirely won over though. I agree that a track like this is not a million miles from what certain indie voyagers were producing in 1988, but I would suggest the difference is that whereas listening to the Cocteaus, Mbv at their best can be as thrilling as standing in an artists studio watching them create wonderous pattens on a canvas there and then, with Enya it’s more akin to going into an art shop and seeing an attractive landscape already neatly framed and thinking “ooh thats nice”.

  10. 40
    Alan Connor on 21 Jul 2010 #

    “Does anyone else have much time for Clannad?”

    Cor, not half. I can’t find the flares-wearing inner gatefold image online, but Clannad In Concert (£1 in Woolies, 1989) has, among the workouts, the first recording I heard of Down By The Salley Gardens, for which I shall be forever thankful.

  11. 41
    brian in canada on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Enya and her sister Moya cut there chops ( if you will ) at their fathers Pub, Leo Brennan’s , in Crolly , Donegal. They both show up occasionally. If you are in Ireland – drop by. Glen Hansard was a recent guest , I think some photo’s are up at


  12. 42
    swanstep on 21 Jul 2010 #

    The hot keyboard of 1988 was the Roland D-50, which is most of Enya’s sound (my understanding is that she still uses it). Its most famous preset, #44, was called Pizzagogo. It’s featured prominently in OF and most other Enya hits, and as a result those in the know referred to OF as ‘Pizzagogo Flow’ ever after (see this vid for one of many demos). Tom’s speculations about bubbling syllables may be right, but keyboard mavens think they know what the germ of the title phrase was!

    The pre-pizzagogo Boadicea from her previous (first?) album, is probably my favorite Enya track (others agree – it’s been sampled a lot apparently), but there’s definitely pleasure to be had from this later stuff. 6 seems about right to me for OF(would give 7 to either book of days or the storms in africa stuff used at the end of Green Card (go about 5-6 mins in) – check out Depardieu and Andie McDowell wittily blundering through the gay cruising area of Central Park! I wasn’t clued up enough to notice this in 1990.).

  13. 43
    TomLane on 21 Jul 2010 #

    One of those songs that I couldn’t stand while it was charting. As years went on, my feelings changed. Not sure why, maybe it was the New Age tag that Enya got labeled with. A #24 peak in the States.

  14. 44
    Alan on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Clannad Legend – The Robin of Sherwood album (see #38) was indeed the first vinyl album I bought for myself. FACT. Not one I am proud of in general, but one I am more than happy to admit too as often as is necessary. Which is very often.

    I did not like Orinoco Flow.

  15. 45
    weej on 22 Jul 2010 #

    My wife is Chinese and was exposed to very little in the way of ‘Western’ music growing up. She says this song changed her view of music – she’d never heard anything like it before. I hadn’t either, I suppose, and it sounded amazing to me too at the age of 10, but now I find it hard to take it as seriously. I suspect it’s some kind of indie snobbery towards ‘new age’ which I have to get over, as I’ll be exposed to it a lot more in the future.

  16. 46
    Alan Connor on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Another category this falls into: 

    Around now, I started looking through the music of my friends’ parents. Common suburban tapes were this song’s parent album, Full Moon Fever, Traveling Wilburys Vol 1, Graceland and Tracy Chapman. 

    I was reminded of same c2003 when an actor friend was in digs and made small talk asking her landlady’s surly teenage daughter what she listened to. “Mainly Tracy Chapman. It’s my mum’s.” Not, like, 50 Cent? “NO. 50 Cent’s gay.”

  17. 47
    punctum on 22 Jul 2010 #

    I’m bothered about this “passion” meme which keeps bobbing up like Timmy Mallett’s mallet on Popular. The Top 40 isn’t La Scala and unfortunately people seem to confuse extroverted expression of emotion with genuine emotional commitment on the part of those of us who don’t feel that we need to shout or bleed what we feel.

  18. 48
    wichita lineman on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Whereabouts? Without checking back in detail it feels like most people are suspicious of volume + pained expression = genuine emotion.

    Good spot on the Rob Dickins line. It makes me like this synthetic bauble a lot more.

  19. 49
    MikeMCSG on 22 Jul 2010 #

    # 48 Are you jumping the gun there WL ? Seems like a comment on the next entry !

  20. 50
    Gavin Wright on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Like others above, I’d say Enya is an artist I respect and appreciate rather than actively listen to. I remember clearly her brief run of hits circa 1991/92 – this was around the time I was first properly paying attention to the charts and those songs stood out a mile from anything else sonically. I’m sure a couple of them even made their way onto my recorded-off-the-radio compilation tapes, ‘Caribbean Blue’ certainly (in fact that’s the one song of hers I’d be interested in re-listening to now).

    As for new age music, the yuppie connection obviously didn’t register with me at such a young age but it seems clear now. I’ve no idea whether any of it has any merit musically but I’d like to see someone trace its origins and development nonetheless.

  21. 51
    Rory on 22 Jul 2010 #

    A great thread, which sums up most of my own reaction to this: this was indeed a pleasant surprise in 1988, and doesn’t really deserve to be lumped in with the new-age imitators it spawned. It does lose its way for a bit in the middle, perhaps because it’s a one-minute idea stretched out to four, but that doesn’t fatally undermine it.

    I taped Watermark from a friend at the time, and thought I would be keeping up with Enya’s future releases, but that didn’t happen. I’m happy enough now to think of this as one of the better singles of the late ’80s, worth hearing once a decade as a reminder, and to leave it at that. A well-deserved 6 (which is where it peaked in Australia in early 1989).

    @46 – good list. I would add Michael Penn’s March as another suburban-friendly album of this period – and like Enya’s, another harbinger of the 1990s.

  22. 52
    Alfred on 22 Jul 2010 #

    I bought this on 45 when the single broke in America the following year, in large part because of its novelty. I prefer “Caribbean Blue” these days. Anyone agree?

  23. 53
    Matthew K on 22 Jul 2010 #

    #2, disappointed you got little response to what surely is one of the greater insights into electronic rock. A book I’ll look out for.

  24. 54
    Matt DC on 22 Jul 2010 #



  25. 55
    Steve Mannion on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Both this and ‘Caribbean Blue’ sound so distant from the places they evoke literally – or is this just lazy sonic stereotyping? Either way can anyone think of other examples?

  26. 56
    Alfred on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Steve: That’s why I’m perplexed by even the tepid enthusiasm for Enya. Hers is the kind of exoticism that conflates the Orinoco River and the “Caribbean” into an undulating, sinuous meaninglessness.

  27. 57
    Tom on 22 Jul 2010 #

    That’s kind of why I mentioned atlases – it’s a fantasy of travel in the absolute abstract, gorging yourself on exotic placenames without really wanting to go there.

  28. 58
    wichita lineman on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Good point Steve. The mid fifties was flooded with hit records that sounded ‘exotic’ – In Old Lisbon, Portuguese Washerwoman, Istanbul (Not Constantinople), Swedish Rhapsody, In A Little Spanish Town. Lou Busch’s Zambezi (which cropped up on Lena’s blog) was another tune about a mighty river in the southern hemisphere, catchy and fun, but it hardly evoked Africa. All foreign innit. Never seen the Orinoco flow but doesn’t this sound more like Antarctica than South America?

    Tom, I don’t think it’s about not wanting to go there. More that they are places you can imagine without having been, as their names are so evocative.

    I don’t have a problem with factually incorrect exotica. The dreaminess of Petula Clark’s Majorca from 1955 contrasts nicely with the image of drunken Brits in cheap high-rise hotels.

  29. 59
    Steve Mannion on 22 Jul 2010 #

    I’ve got my list of songs that are just the name of a country (where South America proves particularly popular). But have FSOL even been to Papua New Guinea etc.

  30. 60
    Rory on 22 Jul 2010 #

    @46 “Hers is the kind of exoticism that conflates the Orinoco River and the “Caribbean” into an undulating, sinuous meaninglessness.”

    Undulating, sinuous meaninglessness is what many people associate with tropical waters, isn’t it?

    In 1988 I expect it largely came as a relevation that “Orinoco” meant anything other than our snuffle-nosed friend from ’70s TV. If Enya helped reclaim the word for geography, then good on her. I’m not sure how that would have been helped by swapping the backing for the Rhythm of the Saints. (Or perhaps Aguirre?)

1 2 3 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)

If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page