Friday 23 August 2019

Brian Eno's 1983 album Apollo: An ethereal soundtrack to lunar loneliness

Arguably Brian Eno's most complete album, 'Apollo' - a soundtrack to a documentary of unseen footage from the Moon missions - evokes the wonder of science fiction becoming reality

Defining moment: Brian Eno was 21 when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon
Defining moment: Brian Eno was 21 when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon
Brian Eno
John Meagher

John Meagher

In 1976, four years after the last manned space flight to the Moon, the US documentary maker Al Reinert began interviewing astronauts who had taken part in the missions. He learned that much of the footage they had shot was kept by Nasa, but had never been publicly shown.

For years, Reinert toiled on what he hoped would be the definitive film about the Apollo missions and he and his team looked through millions of feet of footage shot by the spacemen. Brian Eno, who, after leaving Roxy Music, had crafted a series of exquisitely realised albums on the natural beauty that surrounds us, was commissioned to deliver a suitably ethereal soundtrack.

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Eno - along with his brother Roger and occasional collaborator Daniel Lanois - duly delivered and the album was released to huge acclaim in 1983. Reinert had completed his film, then simply called Apollo, but it was thought his wordless film simply featuring stunning imagery and Eno's music was too arty to enjoy mainstream appeal.

It was back to the drawing board. The movie was re-edited, interviews were inserted and some of the magic was erased. It was eventually released in 1989 as For All Mankind, in honour of John F Kennedy's famous words at the start of the space race.

It's still a remarkable piece of work, but it's the original talk-free version, released by National Geographic the following year, that makes the most impact. And much of that is down to its majestic soundtrack.

There's an opportunity to see an edited version of Reinert's wordless original - and enjoy a live performance of the soundtrack album - at Dublin's National Concert Hall as part of its acclaimed Summer Series on July 23.

The David Bowie-approved ensemble Icebreaker will be performing the music, and having seen them take on this work at the same venue some years ago, it's an experience not to be missed - especially when the music is designed to complement the remarkable visuals.

But one doesn't need to see For All Mankind to appreciate Eno's majestic soundtrack. The album - official title Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks - is arguably the hugely influential ambient visionary's most complete album. And that's high praise indeed considering his breathtaking run of albums from 1975's Another Green World to 1978's Music for Films, to isolate just one era in what's been a remarkably varied career.

For anyone familiar with Eno's oeuvre up to the time of release, Apollo wouldn't have felt like a huge departure - there were wonderfully textured ambient pieces and serene electronic compositions that already sounded like the work of a man who had made an art form out of ambient music. It was, he once said, pieced together in the studio "the way you make a painting".

But there were some unusual moments, too, including songs like 'Deep Blue Day', that were rooted in the sort of country music that the young Eno had heard on American Forces Radio as a young boy. It was a style of music favoured by the astronauts, too. Each was allowed to take one cassette into space and all but one took country and western.

And it's Lanois' slide guitar that's employed so impressively, especially on 'Silver Morning' - but this is a cosmically-enhanced brand of country as Eno attempted to evoke what he later described as "zero-gravity country". Incidentally, the gifted pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole will be performing those parts with Icebreaker at the National Concert Hall.

Like all of Eno's finest work, Apollo is the sort of album that can be heard hundreds of times but its impact never wanes. In fact, it's only on close acquaintance that the magnificence of the work can be truly appreciated.

'Under Stars' - which like most of this album, is best heard through (good) headphones - opens the album and captures a sort of disembodied otherworldly experience.

The eerie 'Matta' evokes a sense of being in space, a long, long way from home - and from safety. A stew of unidentifiable sounds creates a feeling of disquiet, that something could go wrong at any moment - and in the Apollo programme and Nasa's subsequent missions, things occasionally did go badly awry.

And album closer 'Stars' conveys a multitude of emotions - awe, fear, anxiety, hope. Oh, and joy, too.

Eno, who was 21, when Neil Armstrong stepped on to the lunar surface, would have been deeply aware of what a moment of triumph it was, a testament to the sheer audacity of science.

"I watched it in the house of my painting tutor at art school," he later recalled, "and I remember the very eerie sensation of watching on his little black-and-white television and then looking up at the Moon and being absolutely shocked at the idea of what was happening there at that moment in time. It was one of those strange moments when time closes up on you and something that seems fictional and fantastic suddenly becomes real."

But there's one track that stands above the others. It remains, arguably, Eno's defining moment as a recording artist. It is, of course, 'An Ending (Ascent)' and even if its title doesn't ring a bell, you'll almost certainly have heard it many times, although probably never on day-time radio.

An understated yet stately piece, it somehow evokes the vast wonder of space and the audacity of mankind to even contemplate getting to the Moon. It's been used so often by film, TV and documentary people that it's almost become a cliché, but there's a reason why it's the go-to track for anyone wanting to soundtrack something that's so awesome that words can't quite convey it.

It even elevated Top Gear during its boorish Jeremy Clarkson years. Thanks to its presence on the soundtrack, the Aston Martin V12 Vantage is even more covetable. 'An Ending (Ascent)' was also used in the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Although Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks was critically acclaimed on its 1983 release, its reputation has been burnished further with each passing year. Although never intended to be performed live - it was conceived as a soundtrack album, after all - Eno accepted an invitation from London's Science Museum in 2009, on the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, to translate the music into a live performance.

It was the Korean composer Woojun Lee who helped reimagine it for the stage and Icebreaker and BJ Cole were charged with making the whole thing work. And work it did.

Although the album is usually referred to as a Brian Eno release, one should not underestimate the contribution of his younger brother Roger and that of Lanois. And the experience would be highly informative for both: it was Roger Eno's first album and it would provide the springboard for an intriguing and lengthy career which would encompass several other film soundtracks. And Lanois would go on to collaborate with Eno on several of his production projects - not least with U2. He is credited with co-producing The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and No Line on the Horizon.

And, on Friday, a newly remastered edition of the Apollo album is released. There's also a bonus discs of 11 tracks from the Eno brothers and Lanois, who have worked together collectively for the first time in 36 years.

Icebreaker perform 'Apollo' at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on July 23

 

Flying us to the Moon... the best space-inspired songs

 

‘Astronomy Domine’, Pink Floyd (1967)

Recorded two years before the Apollo 11 mission, this breathtaking song about the strangeness of space travel appears on Pink Floyd’s first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and demonstrates the genius of a young Syd Barrett. He would lose his way — and his mind — in the early days of Floyd and was the inspiration for their heartfelt mid-70s hit ‘Wish You Were Here’. ‘Astronomy Domine’ doesn’t just boast a complex and unusual song structure, but manages to evoke the excitement and dangers of lift-off.

 

‘Space Oddity’, David Bowie (1969)

Released the week before Neil Armstrong took those first, tentative steps on the Moon, Bowie’s breakthrough song was, in fact, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had been released the year before. It introduced the world to the character of Major Tom, the fictional astronaut who would appear on future Bowie songs ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, ‘New Killer Star’ and ‘Blackstar’. How much of the young Bowie was in the character of Major Tom?

 

‘Rocket Man’, Elton John (1972)

Much like Bowie, Elton John was fascinated by the idea of the loneliness of the long-distance space traveller — and this long before the International Space Station and astronauts having to spend months at a time orbiting the Earth. It remains a sterling example of the incredible songwriting chemistry he has had with Bernie Taupin and it’s a song that he has performed live in virtually every concert he’s done since. It was also, of course, the title of the Elton biopic which got good reviews on release earlier this year.

 

‘Walking on the Moon’, The Police (1979)

It may not be overtly about space travel or, indeed trips to the Moon, but The Police’s second UK number one that year (following ‘Message in a Bottle’) is one of Sting’s most unabashed love songs. And he uses the notion of moon-walking to capture that initial delight. It can’t have been completely incidental though — he wrote the song 10 years after Apollo 11 and there was, even then, nostalgia for manned space travel. Nasa had long abandoned the idea of sending man back to the Moon.

Read more: Dark side of the Moon: Irish film tells story of Nazi scientists, crimes and cover-ups behind Moon landing

From Cat-Women of the Moon to First Man: movies and the Moon 

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