When Neil Armstrong first stepped outside Eagle, the lunar module of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, and set foot on the surface of the moon at 2.56am UTC on July 21, 1969, it was deservedly seen as an epochal, awe-inspiring technological achievement. However, there was as much wonder to be derived from pondering the human aspect. What did it feel like? It took no less than Brian Eno to put that feeling into music, over a decade later, with the Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks album, initially commissioned for a documentary but with an afterlife that has seen it hailed as one of the most important ambient electronica albums of all time.
Awe, serenity, and homesickness
Journalist and filmmaker Al Reinert sought to explore this perspective in his documentary For All Mankind, and needed a soundtrack capable of subtly capturing not only the epic, pioneering resonances of the endeavor, but also the emotional subtext, without recourse to reductive melodrama. Going by the testimony of the Apollo astronauts themselves, their missions combined awe, serenity, and homesickness with a contrastingly flinty pragmatism. They were there to do a job, in a deep-space environment that wasn’t hostile so much as indifferent; and that realization may have been scarier than any worst-case scenarios their imagination could conjure.
By the early 80s, Brian Eno had already cemented a reputation for producing ambient works in which stillness and calculated neutrality nevertheless evoked distinct moods, on top of which the listener’s perception helped decide which emotional impression one came away with. Eno’s ambient pieces, even with specific pointers attached (Music For Airports; Music For Films), always left tacit spaces, areas of blank canvas, which the listener filled with his or her own subliminal detail. It was, by design, a missing element which constituted an additional ingredient; and an impressed Reinert consequently commissioned the maverick sonic auteur to provide the soundtrack for his Apollo documentary, the result of which was the Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks album.
Contemplating the cosmos
The project would find Brian Eno collaborating with his younger brother Roger and Canadian producer/musician Daniel Lanois, the latter fresh from co-engineering Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land album. (Lanois’ highly successful production credits for U2, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan were still some years off.)
“Brian and I have always been very close,” Roger Eno tells uDiscover Music, “and in 1983 I sent him a piece of mine – 90 minutes of barely any movement – on a cassette tape. I’d been the music therapist in a psychiatric hospital for the previous two and a half years, and had long been interested in music designed not purely for ‘entertainment’ purposes. This approach chimed with my brother’s, so he invited me to record Apollo with Dan Lanois.”
Recording took place in Lanois’ stomping ground, Grant Avenue Studio, in Hamilton, Ontario; and the combination of Brian and Roger Eno’s intuition with Lanois’ technological and musical smarts proved to be appropriately well-starred. “Very roughly speaking, I provided a melodic/harmonic input,” Roger says, “though I rather dislike putting it like that as it sounds dry and contrived – which it certainly wasn’t. I recall the whole period with great joy. Much of the time we were in tears of laughter as the three of us so enjoyed each other’s company. This, added to the fact that no egos were paraded, made the actual work process extremely easy. Any one of us could present an idea ‘to the room’ and there would be no upset or ‘damage done’ if it were not taken up. No one had anything to prove and we had great visuals to work to.”
First released in July 1983, Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks may have been conceived as a series of tracks to accompany images of celestial exploration, but its haunting, discreetly delineated textures and expanses encourage contemplation of the cosmos in their own right. With a Yamaha CS-80 synth as the softly thrumming propellant at its heart, the album’s careful deployment of instruments also finds room for a low-budget Suzuki Omnichord, pitch-shifted downwards to lend it an otherworldly gravitas. Guitars also feature throughout, stroked so sparingly and delicately that they only register like faint blips on a mission control console. Think of the pinging harmonics and distant backward guitar ozone of “Always Returning,” or the treated wobble which is threaded throughout “Under Stars.”
Most unexpectedly, Lanois appends pedal steel guitar to “Deep Blue Day” and “Weightless” – a “space cowboy” touch which reflects the listening bias of the astronauts themselves, most of whom reportedly took cassettes of country music with them on their moon missions. “Deep Blue Day” even essays a c’mon-old-hoss nodding gait, a fondly witty touch which nevertheless works beautifully in the album’s spatiotemporal context.
Gauzy and ethereal as Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks was, it nevertheless lodged itself firmly in the collective psyche, as evinced by its gratifying afterlife. As a memorable example, “An Ending (Ascent)” made for a poignant aural backdrop during the 7/7 tribute in the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London. The ceremony’s director, Danny Boyle, had already used the piece on the soundtrack of his 2002 film, 28 Days Later, as had Steven Soderbergh in 2000’s Traffic, while “Deep Blue Day” accompanied a particularly grisly scene in Boyle’s epochal 1996 film, Trainspotting.
For All Mankind: 2019 reissue and new recordings
Half a century after Neil Armstrong’s historic inaugural moonwalk, Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks was remastered at Abbey Road by mastering engineer Miles Showell and was reissued on July 19, 2019, with a bonus disc of new material recorded by Brian Eno, Roger Eno, and Daniel Lanois, reuniting the trio for the first time since the 1981-82 sessions.
“The second disc was recorded and thought about entirely differently,” Roger explained at the time. “For a start, we were not even together in the same room this time: we used MIDI files sent by email. Dan sent his from LA and I sent mine from rural England: we sent three tracks each to Brian in London for him to treat and add to. He then wrote five of his own, and that’s what you hear.
“Apart from the fact that the effects, samples, etc, did not exist in 1983, the very possibility of this method of recording/collating was unthought-of. We thought it appropriate to use the new [method] as this also encouraged reference to the original disc rather than an attempt – or temptation – to ‘copy’ it.”
Compiled under the umbrella title of For All Mankind, and tying in neatly with Al Reinert’s film, the 11 new instrumentals range from the stateliness of “Over The Canaries” to the brooding portent of “At The Foot Of A Ladder,” the latter of which presses a primitive drum machine into service to great effect. The simple three-note motif of “Last Step From The Surface” is as incisive as a TV channel ID sting, and the companionable silences of “Waking Up” recall the unhurried, meditative stretches which characterized the original album.
Ultimately, the music that runs across the expanded reissue is, like space itself, vast, unknowable, and emblematic of an eternal emptiness that is nonetheless filled with matter of profound significance. It’s a reminder of how small and precious humanity is in the grand scheme of things – and that thought is both humbling and consoling.