With a touch of irony, Brian Eno tells a story about waiting in Cologne airport where awful piped music provoked him to compose Music for Airports. Prompting reflections on mortality, the forcefully happy melodies he heard in the departure lounge and aeroplane comprised music designed to inoculate against panic. “I thought it was much better to have music that said, ‘Well, if you die it doesn’t really matter’ … I wanted to create a different feeling that you were sort of suspended in the universe and your life or death wasn’t so important”.
By playing and discussing vinyl records that attempt the instrumentation of airborne death I will treat Music for Airports as Eno intended—as music to die to. These are examples of ‘bad music’, records whose motivations and sometimes tasteless musical ideas can be hard to fathom. D.O.A. (1972), is Bloodrock’s, first-person narration of dying after crashing. Jupiter Prophet’s 35,000 Feet: Challenger’s Theme (1986), a Terry Rileyesque synth memorial to the Space Shuttle disaster, blithely croons “a candle in the sky … no stopping to let them cry”. On his LP ‘In Search’, Chance Martin features two flight songs, Too High to Land and High Test, singing “747 started to twirl / Out of control / Look out the window at your own dead ready world”. Merrill Womach’s LP ‘I Believe in Miracles’ gives holy thanks for surviving his own plane crash, while the bizarre Flight F-I-N-A-L…a dramatic comparison to death, enacts a trip to heaven on hymn-filled Inter-World Airlines.
The most compelling film about aeroplane death may be Johan Grimonprez’s pre-9/11 D.I.A.L. H.I.S.T.O.R.Y. showing the timeline of hijacking using documentary footage, extracts from Don DeLillo’s novels, and a soundtrack including ambient music and Do the Hustle, played over terrifying footage of crashes. In the wake of 9/11 and the non-negotiability of hijacking, how has our fear of in-flight death changed and to what extent is Eno’s ambient early-warning solace superseded by desperation to alleviate current insecurities about terrorism? What kind of music is needed to address these new anxieties? Steve Reich’s 2010 WTC 9/11 anyone?
Ambient@40, plane crash
Music to die to
What is the best music to die to? In Peter Weir’s 1993 film Fearless Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez play survivors of a plane crash depicted at varying speeds from inside a passenger cabin, the disintegrating interior choreographed in mesmerizing detail. As the electrical circuits ignite and the seats, luggage and passengers get swept away, we hear the ambient melancholy of the first movement of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No 3 (1976). What kind of music suits such disaster spectacles, if any is appropriate at all? Since Gorecki’s mournful construction, methodically building from layered and repeating motifs, couldn’t be in greater contrast to the noise of an airplane being torn apart, this image-music combination suggests the pointlessness, under such circumstances, of any mental state other than resignation to one’s violent death.
This is similar to Brian Eno’s stated motive for composing Music for Airports, to rid airports of falsely reassuring “happy” piped music: “‘get them prepared for death’…I wasn’t joking about that. I meant that one of the things music can do is change your sense of time so you don’t really mind if things slip away or alter in some way”. (Bangs) Whether or not Eno’s composition is still effective in replacing a lack of mindfulness with an alertness to death, it’s clear from other music concerning real or imagined plane disasters that a very different kind of attunement is felt by some musicians, no matter how morbid the narratives. Amongst this genre are some startlingly bizarre records that plangently bemoan the loss of celebrities, or whose gory vividness comes from having witnessed the death of a friend. Such ‘bad’ music that lurks on the edge of what’s acceptable reveals the unresolved and often disturbing impulses underlying personal expressions that are invariably excised in the process of making songs popular. These erratic records open rifts in the surface of homogenous commercial production to reveal a musical unconscious of emotional vulnerability, religious fervour, or murderous intent. There are songs here by crash survivors as well as religious fantasies of flights that speed the dead to heaven. There are the narratives of racist records that wish catastrophe on minority pilots and others that imagine plane disaster as a metaphor for personal breakdown. Then there are records hazarding musical treatments of 9/11 that expose a persistent publically shared trauma. In contrast to Eno’s project, the gruesome imagery of these records shows there are wildly disparate musical responses that deal with the possibility of an air disaster.
Though not made by a crash survivor, one of the more alarming concept albums, Flight F-I-N-A-L…a dramatic comparison to death, (1965), could not be more faith-driven. It was produced as a spoken word dramatic work by evangelist Forest McCullough who, like Eno but with significantly less levity, imagines this blend of zealous religious drama and ardent choral music preparing the listener for death. In the sleeve notes McCullough explains how the conceptualization came to him when he flew back from the funeral of his father, who he visualized on a similar flight to heaven: “It is the sincere desire of the cast and choir, and of myself, that as you listen to this dramatic presentation you will be inspired to prepare yourself for the journey that you will some day make into Eternity”. The LP cover illustrates an Inter-World Airlines plane, resembling Concorde, heading into the clouds at a steep 45-degree angle. The soundtrack’s narrator explains:
Non-stop supersonic service to the new Jerusalem is now ready for boarding at the Gate of Death. Passengers holding confirmed reservations for this flight may proceed immediately to this Gate through the blood-sprinkled concourse.
Tickets for the journey have been issued by the Holy Spirit and stamped with Christ’s blood. Passengers are assisted by Chief Stewardess Angel of Mercy who greets them with Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil…”, and explains that Christ is the pilot. We can tell it’s Jesus because of the archaic sentence structure of his cockpit announcements: “Flying time to the new Jerusalem is not considered, for thou art now in the realm known as eternity where time is no more”. Not the most reassuring message to receive mid-flight. This heavy-handed allegory is interspersed with full-throated hymns sung by the passengers, performed here by a Christian college choir from Nashville.
Listening to Flight F-I-N-A-L provokes the thought that Music for Airports and Symphony No 3 might be for those already, rather than imminently, dead. In the uncanny vacancy of most international terminals, it’s easy to imagine yourself in some purgatory where we let slip our earthly attachments on the way to the afterlife. How fitting then that these would be the last terrestrial interiors we experience before a plane crash. Moreover, as we listen to the looping melancholia of Music for Airports and Symphony No 3 we may be excused for wondering whether we are still alive. These are melodies to delight Charon whose passengers could probably do with a soundtrack for crossing the Styx.
When Eno was able to have Music for Airports installed in terminals the reactions were mixed. It’s not known what reception it met with at Minneapolis/St. Paul or Sao Paolo airports, but in 1980 when it was played as part of a four-channel installation titled 2 Fifth Avenue in the Marine Terminal of La Guardia one traveler remarked that it sounded like funeral music. (Miller, 1980, p.28 and 111) Christopher Schaberg suggests that the work was dismantled for unsettling passengers, “making it all too clear that they were indeed in an airport” (Schaberg, 2012, p.90) This is hardly surprising given Eno’s remark that “I thought it was much better to have music that said, ‘Well, if you die it doesn’t really matter’, you know. So I wanted to create a different feeling that you were sort of suspended in the universe and your life or death wasn’t so important”. (nathanidiothend)
In imagining that passengers fall under the spell of soothing airport music, Eno assumes we aren’t capable of simultaneously holding two, partially contradictory, conditions in mind. First, while being aware of the artificial reassurance of such music, we’re happy for it to help us defer thinking about the imminence of airborne death, the worry of which would be paralyzing. At the same time, we recognise that this acoustic fabrication of an illusion of security causes the prospect of air disaster to acquire greater vividness, but it is the vividness of something ‘over there’ that we grasp as separate from us yet still a strong possibility. This happy airport terminal music is the screen which obscures and fixes our thoughts on the prospect of death. Airport music doesn’t obliterate the fear, but rather acts as a prophylactic through which we can more objectively evaluate a very plausible threat while managing our anxiety. (Pascoe, 2001, p.298)
Why, in any case, would Eno know what’s best for others’ deaths? Why does he feel the puzzle of musical affect is that simple to solve, our responses that predictable? He would have Music for Airports induce indifference to our own death, but isn’t that the event towards which we should be most keenly attuned and prepared? If the standard airport melodies delude us that our death is not likely, isn’t it the case that Music for Airports also “provides a constant tranquillization about death”, as Martin Heidegger puts it in Being and Time? (Heidegger, 1962, p.298) Above all, Heidegger is concerned by other people’s unwillingness to allow us to face the prospect of our own death when they suggest that it’s probably not going to happen (happy airport melodies), or, once we can no longer avoid the certainty of our mortality, their confidence in presuming what state of mind is appropriate for us to maintain (Music for Airports): “What is ‘fitting’ according to the unuttered decree of the ‘they’, is indifferent tranquility as to the ‘fact’ that one dies. The cultivation of such a ‘superior’ indifference alienates Dasein from its own most non-relational potentiality-for-Being”. (Heidegger, ibid) Our own death is what we are destined for, Heidegger says, and neither induced forgetfulness nor a forced indifference should alienate us from that profound experience. An alternative to Eno, Heidegger, and airport melodies is a voluntary ignoring of the prospect of our death, facilitated by just getting on with things. Virginia Woolf is a strong advocate of this life-affirming blissfulness, whether through the diminution of the significance of human temporality in comparison with the interminable duration of the sea in The Waves; or the casual unexpectedness of death in To the Lighthouse, “Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before”; (Woolf, 1969, p.147) or the diary entry “One ought to work—never to take one’s eyes from one’s work; & then if death should interrupt, well it is merely that one must get up & leave one’s stitching—one won’t have wasted a thought on death.” (Davey, 2003, p.244) In Airspaces David Pascoe follows this line of thought in quoting poet Francis Hope who died in the Turkish Airlines DC10 1974 crash at Orly. Hope, a frequent traveler, felt that the only way to deal with the threat of an air disaster was to imaginatively absent himself:
I should still prefer to let the machine take over, and cultivate my one mystical skill: a firm belief that whenever my life gets nasty, it is happening to someone else. Not only am I not flying the plane, I’m not even travelling in it when the going gets rough. (Pascoe, 2001, p.244)
The anticipation of disaster by Eno’s Music for Airports is unusual, for most records about plane crashes are reactive in depicting the response to a real or imagined event. Albert Hammond’s I Don’t Wanna Die In An Air Disaster (1974) employs lavish orchestral arrangements, layered vocals and a surging chorus to list the various ways he’d least like to die. Although he clearly articulates the same anxieties that motivate Eno, this is about all that Albert Hammond’s record shares with Music for Airports.
And I love to watch the clouds
And the mountains and the sky
Swish around a cocktail
The stewardess brings by
Lord, this is the life for me
Lord, oh, Lord
This is the life for me
But I don’t wanna die
In an air disaster
I don’t wanna die on a plane
Not surprisingly, given its inauspicious title, Hammond was more successful as a singer-songwriter of hits like I’m A Train (1974) and It Never Rains In Southern California (1972) whose treacly sentimentality makes the pessimism of Air Disaster seem salubrious. The ridiculousness of this kind of commercial sound is satirized by post-punk DIY band Half Man Half Biscuit whose Albert Hammond Bootleg (1986) imagines the narrator returning home to find his family outside the house taking refuge from the offending record that a stranger has just dropped off. In a splendid non sequitur the song then recounts an unhappy liaison in Marseilles whose end is unkindly celebrated in the verse:
Oh god, how I longed for a dangerous wave
So I could surf myself towards an early grave
I would rather talk to plankton than to dance with you
I hope your plane back home’s a DC-10
Introduced in 1970, the ill-fated McDonnell Douglas DC10 wide-bodied jet’s initially poor safety record was only confirmed by the Orly crash. In 1979 it was completely grounded in the United States for more than a month following a disastrous accident on takeoff from Chicago’s O’Hare airport. This aircraft history unfolds as Eno is thinking of Music for Airports. Blame for the DC10 incidents was placed on faulty cargo doors (Orly), engines detaching from the wing (Chicago), and bursting tyres, all inexcusable design flaws. Between 1973 and Half Man Half Biscuit’s reference there were eight DC10 accidents, all but one with fatalities. Although production ceased in 1983 there were a further six fatal accidents (not counting two involving terrorist activity) from 1987-99.
From his vision of cabin cocktail service, it’s probable that Hammond, like other successful musicians, often travelled by private plane. Incidence of accidents is much higher in this sector—pilots have a shorter training time; they sometimes fly exhausting double shifts; the planes are less frequently serviced; and flight provision is largely unregulated as some companies deliberately evade Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) oversight. Between 2000-2014 Bloomberg accounts for 62 fatal crashes of corporate and private planes compared to 16 commercial flight accidents. However, looking through the Bureau of Aircraft Accident Archives for the same fourteen years it’s evident that there were 90 fatal crashes involving charter and private planes that resulted in over 200 deaths. In the same period the number of fatalities of commercial passenger planes was at least double, due to the anomaly of the 220 passengers, terrorists and crew dying in the four hijacked 9/11 planes, and the 260 deaths resulting from the November 12, 2001, American Airlines flight 587 that crashed in Queens. [i]
To own a private plane or take commercial flights before the 1970s you would most likely have been middle class, wealthy and white. In the 1960s tickets were four to five times more expensive than now and as airlines expanded operations they were challenged to attract passengers deterred by the high cost and concerns for safety. Richard K. Popp explains how advertising campaigns in the post-World War II period worked to depict fear of flying as an irrational product of childhood anxieties or springing from concerns of women, overprotective of sons and husbands. [ii] The appeals were made directly to middle class wives, often living in suburbia.
In the more dangerous era of commercial aviation, it was mostly the well-off who got to fly and to an extent this continues to be the case. Inevitably the target audience for Music for Airports, especially in 1979, would have been middle class Caucasians whose supposed unawareness of their own vulnerability could readily have been attributed by Eno as much to privilege as insensitivity. Eno, the descendent of postmen, would have recognized the class politics of a soundtrack that gets bourgeois flyers to be more aware of their mortality. There is in his ideas a measure of shadenfreude at the thought of the well-heeled business classes meeting a grim and spectacular end.
For unambivalent vinyl malevolence, Flight NAACP 105, 1966, by Son of Mississippi, aka Johnny Rebel, aka C.J. Trahan, exemplifies the racist cultural practice of regarding blackness as signifying inferiority and ineptness. Trahan was an opportunistic country singer who realised he could make money from racist songs, as he had from pornographic material performing as Filthy McNasty. The lyrics of Flight NAACP 105 fantasize African American pilots being guided by a white redneck air traffic controller to miss the runway and crash in a forest. It’s the only record here to feature the sounds of a crash. The single’s release followed landmark hirings of African American pilots in the early 1960s. The 1963 Supreme Court decision “Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission v. Continental Airlines, Inc. 372 U.S. 714 no. 146” determined in favour of Air Force trained Marlon Green. Green’s lawsuit had been provoked back in 1957 when his job application for pilot was refused in favour of five less-qualified white applicants. A year later American Airlines hired David Harris as its first African American pilot. It’s likely that Seaboard World Airlines (now absorbed into FedEx) was in 1955 the first to hire an African American pilot, August Martin. Martin had trained to fly B-25 Mitchell bombers, though WWII was over before he could be deployed. Released at a time when phone booking agents were trained to detect African American accents so that passengers could be screened on to segregated planes, Trahan’s record is the KKK underside of all-white flights flown by white pilots. Trahan briefly emerged from obscurity when, under interview pressure from Howard Stern, he agreed to change the title of his 2001 Infidel Anthem to Fuck You, Osama Bin Laden. The sophomoric line “We’re going to hang you by the ying-yang” indicates that a 35-year interlude had done nothing for Trahan’s lyric writing.
Returing to Eno, is a musically-instilled resignation to airplane death related at all to death cults that advocate extreme selflessness in preparation for self-sacrifice? Japanese Kamikaze pilots of WWII often prepared for their mission of piloting armed planes into Allied warships by attending meditation sessions in Zen temples. Zen scholar-priest Dr. Masunage Reiho sympathized with these pilots in newspaper articles he wrote in 1945—“The source of the spirit of the Special Attack [Kamikaze] Forces lies in the denial of the individual self and the rebirth of the soul which takes upon itself the burden of history”. (Victoria, 2003, p.139) But this is a goal-oriented Zen resignation to death that is in the service of a war machine where loyalty to the Emperor and nation, and avoidance at all costs of the shame of surrender, ensure that each combatant gives their utmost to the point of death. In the wake of the American invasion of Okinawa, the pursuit of death as a noble act was extended to all Japanese citizens with horrifying results. [iii] As a philosophy where a noble, responsible attitude towards death resolves a selfless life, Zen acceptance of mortality lends itself well to being coopted by this military philosophy. Yet taken in itself, Zen is more a recognition of the continuity of life and death than a will to death forwarding a messianic or political agenda. This is affirmed by the 1950s Zen popularizer Alan Watts while discussing the Buddhist Wheel of Fortune as a force that flows through all life forms.
I imagine that those commercial airline pilots like Andreas Lubitz, [iv] who committed suicide in 2015 by crashing a plane full of passengers, achieve a state of aggressive resignation, or even commitment to death, similar to that promoted by Japanese militarism. In this sense, selflessness converts to an extreme and selfish disregard for the lives of others. Consider too the number of plane crashes, particularly between 1949-1960, due to suicides or murders (often of family members) to obtain life insurance. In 1955, for example, John Gilbert Graham planted a bomb in his mother Daisie King’s suitcase, blowing up United Airlines Flight 629 and killing a further 43 passengers and crew. He was hoping to claim $37,500 after buying insurance from airport vending machines just before take-off.
The most compelling depiction of intentional plane disasters may be Johann Grimonprez’s 1997 Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, which tells the story of hijacking. Grimonprez incorporates his own film sequences into extensive documentary footage of hijack attempts, many of which result in grisly outcomes. His soundtrack includes extracts read from Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Mao II while the closing sequence using Van McCoy’s disco hit Do The Hustle, and featuring footage of several spectacular plane crashes, may qualify for least appropriate musical accompaniment. It seems likely though that Grimonprez’s choice of Do The Hustle intentionally indicates the absurdity of any musical treatment of such disasters while problematizing the consumption of the documentary disaster footage he has secured.
Of course, Weir’s choice of Gorecki could have been driven by the wish to aestheticize what is already disturbingly riveting viewing, where there is no differentiation between the materialities of dying humans and exploding objects. The sequence in Fearless depicts in microcosm what so fascinates and appalls us about crashes as if they were a contemporary sublime: the spectacularity of mass death, knowledge of the helplessness of the predicament (you can’t run or jump), plunging from a great height (confirming the implausibility of airborne humans), and the sudden transformation of luxurious protective aluminium cocoon to volatile explosive device. Airplane crashes resemble the results of extreme conflict, the irruption of war-like events into one of the most monitored and protected environments—airports and planes. This music is a way of accounting for the experiential overload that interrupts our well-regulated everyday lives. The agreeableness of Eno’s composition may for some listeners inappropriately embellish the gruesome finality of plane crashes. Whereas Music for Airports emerges from Eno’s long interest in experimentalism with loops of sound, Gorecki’s music comes preloaded with intimations of mortality, for although he avoided admitting such links, Symphony No 3 has been associated with remembering the Holocaust. It was even performed at Auschwitz by Sinfonietta Cracovia with soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and conductor John Axelrod as part of Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film (2005).
Let’s hope there are no plans to perform Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 at the Ground Zero memorial site, nor for Neil Young to play Let’s Roll where Flight 83 crashed into a Pennsylvania field. Compared to the impromptu memorials by relatives of the missing, the rush by artists to produce in situ tributes to the victims of 9/11 felt unreflective and opportunistic at the time and of questionable value even now. WTC 9/11 was commissioned from Reich by The Kronos Quartet but the cover of its July 2011 Nonesuch CD release, featuring a sepia-tinged photo of the approach of the second plane, was badly received. Composer Phil Kline described it as “the first truly despicable classical album cover”. By August, Reich had conceded a revised design which on rerelease would show the smoke and dust thrown up by the collapsed towers. It’s a surprise then that the 2016 Belgian vinyl release by Megadisc Classics, performed by Quatuor Tana and including Different Trains, should return to the moment of impact with a cover showing a closeup of the South Tower exploding in a fireball of glass and metal. What can this make the music do but to concede similar aestheticizing ends as Gorecki’s Symphony No 3 does for Weir’s crash sequence? Young’s track was eventually released on the 2002 LP Are You Passionate? but is a disappointingly jingoistic slab of plodding rock and roll that is the last thing you’d want ringing in your ears at the point of death. Reich returns to the compositional practices of Different Trains by using pulses and voice samples, this time taken mostly from NORAD air traffic control and NYC Fire Department recordings. The lack of a structure and sound palette new to Reich leaves WTC 9/11 without an innovativeness that might be adequate to the event.
Far more effective an evocation of the disaster is Don DeLillo’s 2007 novel Falling Man which centres on the life of a North Tower survivor as he reunites, after the towers’ collapse, with his estranged wife whose grim reflections make any easy resolution unthinkable:
This was different, a clear sky that carried human terror in those streaking aircraft, first one, then the other, the force of men’s intent. He watched with her. Every helpless desperation set against the sky, human voices crying to God and how awful to imagine this, God’s name on the tongues of killers and victims both, first one plane and then the other… (DeLillo, 2007, p.134)
Whereas Reich, like most other respondents, is concerned only with the American victims and mourners, DeLillo has always wanted to address the intractable knot of terrorist and terrorized. Something of this complicated perspective is shared by Karlheinz Stockhausen’s troubling comments on 9/11 which reveal a compromised awareness of the irresistible spectacle of air disaster. Whereas Weir and Eno obscure this problematic delectation in their treatments, Stockhausen’s self-aggrandizing ambitions cannot help but bring this issue under a glaring spotlight. Soon after the attacks, Julia Spinoia, a staffer of the Fankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, reported on Stockhausen’s response to questions at a press conference:
Stockhausen answered that the attacks were “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” According to a tape transcript from public broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk, he went on: “Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for 10 years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn’t do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing. Artists, too, sometimes try to go beyond the limits of what is feasible and conceivable, so that we wake up, so that we open ourselves to another world”. (Kernis)
Stockhausen’s response recalls DeLillo’s Mao II where reclusive American novelist Bill Gray becomes inexorably attracted to the mentality and tactics of Middle East hostage takers, recognizing a transfer of agency from writer to terrorist:
What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous. […] Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative. (DeLillo, 1991, p.157)
Unlike Reich, at least DeLillo and Stockhausen recognize the incommensurability of contemporary literary and musical composition to such an event, although in the process they expose an avant-gardist identification that links radical artistic acts with violent political initiatives. A disconcerting footnote to the inappropriateness of musical treatments in relation to 9/11 came from Clear Channel Communications who shortly after the attacks circulated a memo to their radio stations advising against playing around 150 songs and artists whose lyrics were felt likely to give offense. It seems that a list had originated with corporate leaders and then been augmented by eager regional representatives who accelerated its circulation. (Strass) Just as peculiar as the existence of a list in the first place was the choice of material [v] which included songs with ‘heaven’, ‘hell’, ‘shoot’ or ‘flames’ in their title (several by AC/DC and Kiss there), as well as anything that sounded like it would resonate with the hijackers’ intentions, such as R.E.M.’s It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) and Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust. It’s hard to divine what was behind the listing of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York rather than Bye Baby!, but all of Rage against the Machine’s output, Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World and Elvis Presley’s You’re The Devil In Disguise were also barred. Might Clear Channel have had its eye on Music for Airports had the net spread to album tracks? This corporate sensitivity issuing from patriotic overreaction to a national disaster reveals how changed circumstances might inflect a song with sinister meaning. Yet would those who treasure items on Clear Channel’s blacklist, like Steve Miller Band’s Jet Airliner or Nena’s 99 Luftballons, be offended or comforted were they cabin entertainment during an emergency landing?
Bloodrock’s D.O.A., released in 1970 and a hit the following year, sung from the point of view of a dying casualty of a plane crash, was surprisingly not on Clear Channel’s list. However, the single’s release date was close enough to the Federal Communications Commission March 5, 1971, caution on broadcasting drug-related songs for it to be banned by American radio stations that voluntarily extended the FCC’s warning to cover troublesome lyrics of any kind. The FCC notice stated:
Whether a particular record depicts the danger of drug abuse, or, to the contrary, promotes such illegal drug usage is a question for the judgment of the licensee. […] It raises serious questions as to whether continued operation of the station is in the public interest.
In short, we expect licensees to ascertain, before broadcast, the words or lyrics of recorded musical or spoken selections played on their stations. (Fong-Torres)
In 2005, long after the record’s debut, Bloodrock’s guitarist Lee Pickens explained the song had been written in response to seeing a friend’s fatal crash in a plane from which he himself had just exited. In this case the relation of music to disaster could hardly be more intimate, and what seems to us a tasteless reveling in mutilation and death must have felt to Pickens as the only way to deal with such an experience. The intensely gloomy music alternates choruses of dense symphonic rock with subdued pulsing sounds and shrill sirens that accompany the singer’s description of his injuries.
We were flying along
And hit something in the air
Looking at the ceiling
Someone lays a sheet across my chest
Something warm is flowing down my fingers
Pain is flowing all through my back
I try to move my arm
And there’s no feeling
And when I look
I see there’s nothing there
The face beside me stopped its holy bleeding
The girl I knew has such a distant stare
Besides its surprising intimation of 9/11 in the image of a jumbo hijacked and crashed into the White House out of devotion to a reclusive leader, Don DeLillo’s White Noise also features a slapstick account of a narrowly avoided plane crash told by passengers stumbling in shock through the arrivals lounge. When the three engines cut out, the plane plunges thousands of feet to apocalyptic announcements from the cockpit:
‘We’re falling out of the sky! We’re going down! We’re a silver gleaming death machine!
[…] In less than three minutes we will touch down, so to speak. They will find our bodies in some smoking field, strewn about in the grisly attitudes of death. I love you, Lance’. This time there was a brief pause before the mass wailing recommenced. Lance? What kind of people were in control of this aircraft? (DeLillo, 1986, p.90-91)
What kind of preparedness would Eno’s ‘if you die it doesn’t really matter’ music have afforded this wailing crowd? Probably not much, as it ignores the range of unpredictable and intense realisations that occur as the moment of disaster approaches. These imagined representations like Weir’s, DeLillo’s and Blooodrock’s are far from the uncertainties and strokes of luck experienced by actual survivors. Take, for example, the accounts from survivors of the United flight 232 crash (yet another DC10) on 19th July, 1989, at Sioux City, Iowa.
When the command to brace came, Susan White and the other flight attendants took up the chorus: “Brace! Brace! Brace!”
“And as I’m yelling it”, White recalled, “I’m saying the Lord’s Prayer in my head and focusing on the bright light, the tunnel—that swirling tunnel that takes you to heaven—the harps and everything peaceful that I had imagined heaven to be like.” She looked out the window and saw that they were passing through a layer of clouds, so fluffy, so white, so beautiful, and she felt her love of flying once more. “Right before impact, I said, ‘Okay, I’m in your hands, Lord’. And I had no fear at all. No fear. I took a deep breath. . . .” And then she felt the devastating concussion and saw through the porthole in her exit door that a ball of fire had engulfed the plane. “And I calmly said to myself, ‘I’m burning to death. That’s how I’m dying’. And the fire was there. And then we started tumbling, and three times I remember it hitting on my door”. (Gonzales)
White escaped with her faith and health unscathed. Merrill Womach also turned to religion to survive the 1961 Oregon crash of his private plane when its engines froze in midair. Otherwise barely injured, he was engulfed in exploding fuel and hospitalized with extensive burns disfiguring his face. Womach was a devout Christian and a gatefold LP of religious songs, I Believe In Miracles, issued on the self-published Melodies Divine record label, celebrates his survival. A stark illustration in black and brown on the white LP cover shows a plume of thick smoke rising from flames consuming a small plane that has nosedived into a forest clearing. The embers that float above the fuselage coalesce to suggest a white cross in the smoke. Nothing indicates that the extensive inside sleeve notes were written by anyone other than Womach himself who explains that he endured the pain by singing all the way to hospital, “He called on the One he knew best, as he sang hymns during the trip”. Once out of surgery the songs of praise continued.
As the elevator brought him from the surgical floor, his relatives and friends heard that familiar voice resounding down the shaft…again a hymn. ‘The Love of God’.
And he sang all the way back to his room. Other patients on the floor did not complain about the noise…instead they requested their favorite hymns. This man who was rushed to surgery, not expected to survive, was now in the midst of a two-hour request concert!
In He Restoreth My Soul, A Gospel Films, Inc. production, Womach is shown visiting the hospital that once treated him, singing the implausible I’ll Be Happy Again in a jaunty baritone voice to very sick patients who, despite looking worn out, suspicious and withdrawn, concede applause at the end.
Instances of solo survivors like Womach are surprisingly frequent amongst private and commercial flights. Airsafe.com lists 29 crashes of commercial planes between 1970-2014 where there were single survivors. Herzog’s Wings of Hope (1998) films one of these returning to the site of the accident. Juliane Koepcke, traveling with her ornithologist mother back into the Peruvian rain forest to spend Christmas at her father’s zoology research station, had survived a two-mile plunge from a 1971 LANSA flight that was struck by lightning, falling through the tree canopy very near where Herzog was, at the same time, starting work on Aguirre Wrath of God. David Toop observed at the Ambient @40 conference [vi] that Music for Airports is for people who don’t like airport terminals. There are a lot more reasons after 9/11 for disliking terminals, including greater anxiety concerning terrorist incidents, increased surveillance and knowledge that a hijacked airplane is more likely to be shot down by one’s own government than secured through patient negotiations. But Lima airport on Christmas Eve, when Herzog and Koepcke were battling to get on the only plane to Pucallpa before the holiday, must have been especially stressful. Herzog would have been on the same flight if it hadn’t been overbooked and if LANSA hadn’t previously lost planes in 1966 and 1970. Given that the immediate challenges facing survivors often surpass those of the crash itself, it was fortunate that Koepcke’s parents had brought her up in the Amazon forest acquiring valuable survival skills. Koepke never once mentions religious belief as a factor in her survival nor as recourse to boost flagging morale. She explains that she was saved by good luck, by her knowledge of the environment, and by assistance from the river inhabitants she finally stumbled upon.
Few crash victims make vinyl records, but it helps to have a faith like Womach’s that surviving an air disaster confirms God’s personal interest in your wellbeing and future significance on earth. It does no harm also to belong to a network of religious communities who will buy your record and even provide a choir to accompany you.
John Denver died in 1997 flying his own aircraft, although it was a Long-EZ self-build prop plane rather than what was suggested by his song Leaving On A Jet Plane (1969). As a flying enthusiast Denver must have been aware of the dangers (28 people had died in Long-EZ planes between 1981 and his own final flight), yet he had purchased the machine secondhand with a hard-to-reach modified fuel selector handle and had refused an offer to refuel before takeoff. The most famous crash involving musicians, the Beechcraft Bonanza taking off on 3rd of February, 1959, from Mason City, Iowa, with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper on board, prompted numerous mawkish tribute songs that encapsulated widespread grief while revealing a desire to profit from others’ bad luck. The Day The Music Died, the compilation LP released two decades later by Silhouette Music, takes its title from Don McClean’s tribute to the singers and collects nine of these memorial songs that at the time made a brisk profit from the opportunity. Those released within a month or two of the event include Ray Campi’s The Ballad Of Donna, and Peggy Sue, “I knew a girl, Donna she was named, She knew a boy whose love she never claimed”; Lee Davis’s Three Young Men, “Three young men took an airplane ride / Out to tour the countryside / Three young men from out of the West / Now we lay them down to rest”; and Tommy Dee’s Three Stars, “Gee, we’re gonna miss you, everybody sends their love”. Their unashamed lyrical poverty reveals an urgency to release the records before popular grief subsides. Dee wrote his response the day of the crash and, after an unsuccessful attempt by Eddie Cochran, recorded it himself with Carol Kay less than a week later.
Undeterred by the pitfalls of rushed-to-market tributes, Canadian electronic band Jupiter Prophet released 35,000 feet—Challenger’s Theme shortly after the Space Shuttle disaster on 28th of January, 1986. The awful event was watched by schoolchildren across the US as teacher Sharon Corrigan was the first, and obviously the last, participant of Ronald Reagan’s ill-advised ‘Teacher in Space Project’ where she was to deliver lessons while in orbit. Everything about this record is grotesquely improper, from the notion of writing a ‘theme’ track for the event, to referencing the height at which the Challenger disaster started to unfold, to the breathy train-shunting sound and monotonous high-pitched Terry Rileyesque synthesizer melody over which we endure uncomfortable arrhythmic bangs that sound like exploding fireworks and the gratingly whiny voice that croons the few decipherable lyrics: “Look up into the sky not down under the ground / No reason to ask him why / A candle in the sky like rockets in red / That climb to the end of time / Never stopping to let them cry”.
There is at least a respectable time lag between the Manchester United Busby Babes crash and Morrissey’s 2004 Munich Air Disaster 1958, released on the 12” EP Irish blood, English heart. Notwithstanding the characteristically ironic morbid tone, “I wish I’d gone down, / Gone down with them / To where Mother Nature makes their bed / We miss them / Every night we kiss them…”, the promising lyrics capture the sense of grief that must have taken possession of every 1950s Manchester football fan. The predictable musical arrangements however, fall far short of the event.
Chance Martin worked closely with Johnny Cash and other prominent Nashville musicians before devoting five years to recording the remarkable 1981 LP In Search whose world-weary songs were so out of step with contemporary music that it left barely a trace. The fearless song writing, and high-quality production and musicianship, sustain a kind of uninhibited cowboy baroque whose confessional lyrics verge on the parodic. The cover photograph shows an overhead view of innumerable disarrayed items, as if the residue of a touring musician’s life had been scattered in a plane crash. These include foreign currency, tape reels, guitars, telephones, cameras, cowboy hat, vinyl records, the Bible, keys, audio cables, harmonicas, and newspapers with headlines of Elvis’s death and Reagan’s election. In the top right corner, amongst all the debris, is an airline pilot’s cap. Two songs use flight as a metaphor for sudden reversals of good fortune and confidence. An appealing country rock song telling of resignation to an imminent demise, Too High To Land imagines buzzards circling overhead as the singer tries to cope with a personal breakdown.
If I never live to see another day, another day
I’ll understand tomorrow was in my way—it was in my way
I won’t wash my memories, wash them away, wash ’em away
Or never let my past—take part of today
I’m up…too high to land
I’m down…I don’t understand
The images of flying and plane crash in the opening song High Test are analogous to limits of exhilaration and psychological stress. As if filtered through an intoxicated consciousness, it kicks off with disorientating flight announcements and ambient airport noise. Confusing body with plane, the drunk narrator stares out the window to imagine lethal impact with the fast approaching ground.
747 started to cry
I looked out the window
And seen my dead ready world
Start to move in.
Bye bye building bye bye
Big company man bye bye
Bye bye friend bye bye
Lord my life’s in a mess
It’s hard to imagine any one soundtrack coping with the many temporalities of airport terminal experience that must now be endured, from the slow shuffle towards hand luggage scanners, to the mandatory long winding path of international duty-free with its sensory assault of perfumes and liquor samples, to the extended physical and mental limbo of lying sprawled in a departure gate seat. Though the tedium of air travel has intensified since Eno was stuck in terminals in the 70s this hasn’t deterred attempts to reinstall Music for Airports in its preferred place of work. Promotional material for the 4th of April, 2018, London City Airport installation avoids any mention of Eno’s morbidness. Anne-Marie Mcgregor, of the airport’s music consultancy, explains:
With Music for Airports, Eno crafted the sound of being suspended in the universe and created tracks that would make lasting connections which has meant they have stood the test of time and continue to be synonymous with tranquility, ethereal beauty and calm. (London City Airport)
Melanie Burnley, the airport’s Director of Customer Experience, hopes the music “will help create a calm and pleasant ambiance as passengers make their way through to Departures”. No thought then of the inconsequentiality of one’s possible death. Instead are intimations of a return of the happy mood music that infuriated Eno in the first place. This defanging of Music for Airports is a still more bathetic echo of the historical avant-garde, cyclically obliged to endure its recuperation by the society it had initially opposed.
So how does Eno’s ambient music cut through the varying scenarios for crashes? Does he imagine only one kind of circumstance for airborne death? Could any musical memory insulate us from the experience of crashing? Depicted in Fearless, does the vividly detailed imagery of graceful death and destruction as the plane breaks up, modulated by Gorecki’s Symphony No 3, promise any resignation during such final moments? The terror experienced in those last minutes, even seconds, before impact must be the same regardless of the cause of the crash and type of consolatory music retained in one’s memory. As anticipated by DeLillo, the black box recorder of Lubitz’s Germanwings Flight 9525 picks up the passenger screams moments before striking the ground.
Optimistic in its Promethean pragmatism, the aviation industry has gone in the opposite direction to Eno by investigating each crash to identify technical faults or pilot errors and improve planes so that these incidents are less likely in the future. There is no resignation to death on the part of the aviation authorities and commercial airlines. This refusal by most airlines to accept the inevitability of crashes is commercially motivated. Given a choice, and the money, which passenger wouldn’t prefer to fly with a secure airline or on a safe plane over one blighted by a poor safety record like LANSA or the DC10?
By designing a music that conveys the possibility of an airplane crash, Eno’s project of anticipating disaster, of psychic preparation for the very worst, invokes the event that validates its sonic negativity. In preparing the listener for death it casts a spell to activate the crash itself. After all, why cancel out trivial melodies with mesmeric music rather than with found sounds like birdsong, the wind through trees, or rain on leaves? Why not replace the evil happy tunes with “luscious silence”, as he fancies doing in the 1980 comment from Omni magazine below? Eno’s imagined intervention is likely more pernicious than the Muzak programming he would displace to instill a deterministic fatalism, the “indifferent tranquility” towards death that Heidegger criticises. It’s hard to imagine a more disenchanted offspring of the radically transformative agency claimed by the historical avant-garde. However, within the realm of politically contested representations that air disasters have become, Eno’s dissension should also be seen as agile manoeuvring away from the aesthetics of catastrophe which DeLillo and Stockhausen entertain. In the end, as he explains here, it seems that Eno’s Music for Airports eschews the heroics of twentieth-century avant-gardism and flashy pop hedonism for isolated, tentatively affirmative, self-reflection. If we could experience it while alive, the best music to die to would be the silence that follows our own death. Different from Murray Schafer’s silence, “a sound initiated before our birth […] and extended beyond our death”, (Schafer, 1977, p.262) such music would reveal what the world is like once free of the noise with which we constitute it ourselves. It’s an unrepresentable sonic condition imagined by some compositions, including Music for Airports.
I guess what I want to do with this piece is give you the feeling of being alone again. Most of us spend nearly all our time with others. And we forget we’re always tailoring ourselves for others, always adapting and modifying our behaviour. It means that parts of us don’t surface because there are no social situations that demand time. I guess I’m looking for some feeling of luscious silence, a feeling of solitariness. (Miller, 1980, p.28 and 111)
[i] Of the numerous websites documenting plane crashes, PlaneCrashInfo.com (http://planecrashinfo.com/) is probably the most comprehensive although it doesn’t document private flight accidents. A valuable database is provided by The Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives (http://www.baaa-acro.com/) catering to flight enthusiasts for whom crash statistics and photographs seem to be just another facet of the absorbing history of aviation. The Aviation Safety Network (https://aviation-safety.net/) provides up to date information on plane crashes occurring internationally in valuable databases that can be searched by country, cause of accident and even maps indicating airport locations. AirSafe.com (http://www.airsafe.com/) provides valuable summaries of crash data as well as helpful practical information to flyers, although it seems eccentric to be hosting grim details of flight fatalities alongside advice on fear of flying. Improbably, Wreckchasing.com (http://wreckchasing.com/) combines an unhealthy prurient interest in disasters—“Wreck Chasing provides the thrill of discovery mixed with the romance of flight”—with concern for victims’ families— “Documentation of a site often brings closure to families who have lost a loved one”. And finally, AirDisaster.com was a reliable source of information until, ironically, “One January 17, 2008, the servers hosting the forums crashed…” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airdisaster.com).
[ii] “When American Airlines, for example, identified a drop in winter flying as problematic, Ruthrauff and Ryan responded in 1949 by crafting a full-page magazine ad built around a joyful family reunion at a snowy suburban home. ‘‘I’m no bachelor wife this winter’’, the headline trumpeted, ‘‘now that John travels by Flagship!’’. Capital Airlines ran a similar series of ads in early 1953. A typical installment featured a beaming young woman in evening wear phoning a friend to say: ‘‘We’ll Be There . . . He Came By Air’’. By emphasizing family time, reunion themes obscured the threat of a crash and instead directed fears toward the impoverished relationships that time apart could breed. Whatever risks were involved in air travel, then, were deemed worth taking in exchange for the benefits of speed”. (Popp, 2001, p.244)
[iii] Accounts of the battle of Okinawa, where American troops overcame resistance in July 1945, indicate that suicide attacks by the Japanese 32nd Army were routine tactics. Convinced that US soldiers would kill any who surrendered, many individual soldiers and civilians also took their own lives. See for example: Roy E. Appleman, James M. Burns, Russell A. Guegler, and John Stevens, The United States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific, Okinawa: The Last Battle, Historical Division, Department of the Army: Washington, D.C., 1948.
[iv] On 24th March, 2015, after locking the captain out of the cockpit, copilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed his Germanwings Flight 9525 into mountains in Southern France killing all 150 passengers and crew on board.
[v] On 18th September, 2001, Clear Channel issued a further memo rebutting the censorship claims, without, however, denying that a list of songs had been distributed. (Wikipedia)
Clear Channel Radio has not banned any songs from any of its radio stations. Clear Channel believes that radio is a local medium. It is up to every radio station program director and general manager to understand their market, listen to their listeners and guide their station’s music selections according to local sensitivities. Each program director and general manager must take the pulse of his or her market to determine if play lists should be altered, and if so, for how long.
These assertions would hardly reassure DJs whose jobs were vulnerable if they ignored company guidelines.
Writing about Clear Channel’s directive, Steven Wishnia’s response on 24th October, 2001 in Lip Magazine explains the predicament for DJs “Who in a job as highly coveted and easily replaceable as radio DJ is going to defy a ‘suggestion’ from on high about what is ‘inappropriate’? They don’t have to spell out Y-O-U W-I-L-L B-E F-I-R-E-D. The kind of people whose immediate response to such a list would be to blast Body Count’s ‘Cop Killer’ four times in a row generally don’t get such jobs or keep them very long.” (Wishnia)
[vi] The Ambient@40 conference was held at the George Buckley Theatre, University of Huddersfield, 23-24 February, 2018.
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About the Author:
As an artist and writer, approaches to studio work and text are linked by interests in the imagery of intoxication as a form of utopian representation.
Recent exhibitions and performances include Sparrow Come Back Home, ICA London, 2016-17; The Nothing That Is, The Carnegie, Covington, Kentucky, 2017; Bad Music Seminar, Trump’s Songs, Colloquium for Unpopular Culture, New York, 2017; Bad Music Seminar, DIY Punk, Wave Pool, Cincinnati, 2016; John Cage’s Variations II (for 5 turntables), The Carnegie, Covington, Kentucky, 2016; Cherry & Lucic, Portland, OR, 2016; After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe, CAC, Cincinnati; Bad Music Seminar 2, performance, The Showroom, London; Bad Music Seminar 3: Sex, Murder, Politics, 4: Song Poems and 5: Becoming-Animal, performances, The Horse Hospital, London, 2014; London Open, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 2012.
Recent publications include ‘Turntable Materialities’, Seismograf, Denmark, 2017; ‘Intoxicating Painting’, Journal of Contemporary Painting 2017; ‘The Materiality of Water’, Aesthetic Investigations, 2015; ‘Cinema, studio, tools’ in Proto-Tools 1, Flat Time House, London, 2014; ‘A Local Culture: tradition and risk in Cincinnati’ in here., PAFA, Philadelphia, 2011; ‘Countercultural Intoxication: An Aesthetics of Transformation’ in The Countercultural Experiment: Consciousness and Encounters at the Edge of Art, University of Minnesota Press, 2011