The success of the first lunar landing, fifty years ago this July, was primarily a triumph of American military might. Like the Sputnik launch twelve years earlier, the Apollo mission had a very clear message: if we can put a rocket into space, you can bet we’re able to plant one anywhere we like on earth, too. But for the millions of people around the world who watched Armstrong’s moonwalk on television, the lunar landing also promised something else: it was an invitation to dream.
Our lunar satellite has long inspired flights of the imagination with promises of a mirror world: like our own, but subtly askew. And often, musicians have been the greatest lunatics. As early as the seventeenth century, lunar fictions like Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World simultaneously offered a satire on the hypocrisy of French politics and a glimpse of a world in which ‘thousands of choristers make the woods resound with their melodious notes’ and ‘every leaf of the forest seems to have borrowed the tongue and shape of a nightingale’. In the twentieth century, the space race gave an obvious boost to stargazing musicians. In 1962, British band The Tornados released Telstar, an affectionate tribute to a geostationary communications satellite; but two years earlier, the track’s producer, Joe Meek, released an even stranger space-themed record called I Hear a New World. Recorded with an array of experimental tape effects in Meek’s flat above London’s Holloway Road, the album conjured strange alien landscapes in which ‘saroos’ and ‘globbots’ danced genteel minuets to merry melodies composed of electronic bloops and rushes of white noise. As a gay man living in a country in which homosexuality was still punishable by imprisonment or chemical castration, Meek had good reason to dream of other worlds and other ways of living.
Space exploration itself soon had its own soundtracks. When Neil Armstrong strapped himself into the cockpit of Apollo 11, he took with him a tape of Antonín Dvořák’s New World symphony. By some accounts, he also took Les Baxter’s deeply weird Theremin-led exotica record, Music Out of the Moon. But it was the Czech composer’s ragtime-influenced paean to the future that became the soundtrack to that first small step onto the lunar surface. Later, Russian cosmonauts up in the Salyut space station, overcome by longing for the home world, played themselves tapes of terrestrial noises: thunder, rain, birdsong – anything to block out the endless silence of space. In effect, they created their own new age soundscapes; background muzak for homesick spacemen.
Back on earth, the success of the billion-dollar Apollo programme led Gil Scott-Heron to point out the elephant in the room: ‘The man just upped my rent last night,’ the Chicago-born poet sang in 1970, ‘No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey’s on the moon.’ Yet while some like Scott-Heron saw the space race as an expensive distraction, for jazz bandleader Sun Ra it was an opportunity. Ra’s music had taken a distinctly cosmic turn back in the 50s, but by the time of the moon landings, he was claiming Saturnian birth right and writing Moog-backed free jazz imaginings of African colonies in space on albums like The Nubians of Plutonia. In Ra’s epic feature film of 1973, Space is the Place, he opens an Outer Space Employment Agency offering a new life to disenfranchised Oakland youth. ‘How do we know you’re for real?’ the kids ask. ‘I’m not real,”’ he declares. ‘I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did you wouldn’t be seeking equal rights, you’d have some status in the world.’ Few grasped better than Sun Ra the power inherent in becoming myth and using fiction to create your own reality.
In his last book before dying in 1996, the French historian Jean Gimpel quotes Dan Goldin, head of NASA, ‘Technically speaking we are not ready to return to the moon or go to Mars.’ For Gimpel, Goldin’s admission was symptomatic of a widespread withering away of technological progress, a collapse of the whole idea of the future, its promise of a strange new world. The truth is, the moon was never really about the moon after all. It may have been about military supremacy, but it was also about achieving something so fantastic that it made all other insurmountable things seem possible too. Photos of the whole earth sent back from Apollo triggered our own planetary mirror stage: we saw a world unified and coherent and a new imaginary was born. Those impossible dreams could become real on earth through the creation of impossible sounds, sonorous objects drawn direct from electricity, resembling nothing in terrestrial nature.