On July 20th, 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed the Apollo 11 Lunar Module , The Eagle, on our moon. While Michael Collins circled the Earth. Waiting alone in the command module to bring them home. This what the World remembers of NASA`s third human space flight program, whose aim was to take a three man team to the moon, and back. The Apollo program actually ran between 1969 and 1972, with missions numbered 1 to 17. Some aborted, some ending in tragedy. But there were six flights, and a total of twelve men took that same walk as Aldrin and Armstrong. The Apollo missions remain the only manned journeys beyond Low Earth Orbit. In 1983, Tokyo-born, Texas-raised journalist Al Reinert, assembled footage from these missions into a feature-length documentary, For All Mankind. Reinert referred to the Apollo astronauts as Cosmic Cowboys, and he commissioned Brian Eno to produce the score.
Eno holed up with his brother Roger, and Daniel Lanois, at Lanois` studio in Ontario. The film was nominated for an Oscar, and won at Sundance. The music was released as Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks*. These atmospheres consist of fragile, sparse, notes held in delay. The effect achieved by playing everything backwards, then subjecting it to “heroic” reverb, in both directions. So that each moment blurs with the one preceding and the one following. There`s the twang of Country guitar on some track. I guess this is supposed to represent something familiar, the past, like an spaceman singing about longing to see West Virginia, but it of course sounds alien in this setting. Hanging out there in sonic space like a UFO. Leaving whistling trails of light years travelled. To be travelled. Out towards a universe of lonely stars. Far far away suns old enough to make our measure of time meaningless**. Metal creaks, and machinery hums. Industrial ambience segues with something more organic. Nocturnal, subterranean stirrings. An animal magic. The Bluegrass licking like a man stuck in silent running re-watching home movies, attempting to hold on to a memory, in an oxygen-free and weightless environment. The dust-bowl Blues of a Sci-Fi ghost town, where former lives and loves are but holograms, spectres. Substance-less apparitions of what was. Something perhaps hinted at in the title of the album`s warmest track, Always Returning.
For what was on the surface “a great leap” forward Eno, Eno and Lanois` score doesn’t feel celebratory. There are no fanfares, no ticker tape, no parade. Instead they accurately echo the “exultant isolation” Mike Collins felt as he piloted that command module to the far side of the moon, searching for signs of his moon-walking colleagues, and The Eagle. An Ending (Ascent) is a soundtrack to transcendence. A prophetic post-singularity hymn. Predicting a Human Race finally free of the flesh. Evolved into unified code. Here to go. Nearly gone. Hurtling out into the unknown. An Ai choir joined in prayer to the bodies and the dying planet we`ll leave behind. A sadness as the-way-we-were is jettisoned like a spent fuel casing as we exit orbit. The green and blue ball disappearing. It`s a breath-taking piece of music that sings of sacrifice. An ending, and a beginning.
On the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong`s one small step, the “Apollo” album will be reissued on vinyl, in an extended edition, which contains two sides of new compositions. Three tracks from Roger, three from Daniel and five from Brian. All taking their cues from the more melodic originals, like Under Stars, and Silver Morning. Rather than the abstract nature of pieces such as Matta and Secret Place. Pedal steel is in evidence. There are even distant drums, Muscle Shoals keys. The music referencing Eno`s back catalogue. Capsule recalling Taking Tiger Mountain`s “Prog Blues”. The End Of A Thin Cord described by Harmonia-esque synths. Pianos painting the mirrored surfaces of calm, still oceans, in the manner of Eno`s collaborations with Harold Budd. Finegrained approaching Deep Blue Day.
But these new pieces don’t carry the power of the original album, perhaps because they simply recreate it. Perhaps because those original recordings marked a series of firsts. The first time Eno had worked with Lanois. The first time Roger had recorded. The first time Eno used the Yamaha DX7. The first commercially available digital synthesizer. And of course they were soundtracking man’s first steps on the moon. Great music attempts to capture great emotions. Without that spark it becomes just music.
The standout from the extended set is Eno`s closing Like I Was A Spectator. Its chimes squeezed thin into extra-terrestrial accordion drones. Hitting further melancholy heights. Its title hinting at a life passing by, a protagonist unable to alter events. But Eno`s always been there, getting involved, setting his ego loose, and getting amongst it. Roxy Music, and synthesizers. Harmonia, Cluster, and Kosmische. The Mudd Club, No Wave, and Talking Heads. Exploring the Fourth World, inhabiting the bush of ghosts. Tape loops, sampling, Ambient, and systems music. Always experimenting. Always looking to the future. Never returning. This “re-imagining” of Apollo maybe the only exception***.
*The are several different edits, cuts, of the film. One with music. One with the music removed and narration added. One with a mixture of both. The chops and changes based on the audience reactions to test screenings. Seven of the tracks on the original Atmospheres & Soundtracks album appear in the final version of the film. The remainder of the music – a further eight compositions – can be found on Eno`s Music For Films III, which was released in 1988.
**In fifty years the Moon has not changed. The lunar modules are still there. The blast craters. The astronauts` footprints. All but one U.S. flag is still standing. The samples of rock that were brought back are estimated at four billion years old.
***Like Lee Scratch Perry`s Rainford, this re-examination of Apollo has me a little worried. As another of my musical heroes, associated with innovation, seems to be uncharacteristically looking back, taking stock. Brian I hope all is well.
You can pre-order a copy of the extended edition of Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks directly from the enoshop.