“Mike Oldfield’s groundbreaking album Tubular Bells is arguably the finest conglomeration of off-centered instruments concerted together to form a single, unique piece. The most interesting and overwhelming aspect of this album is the fact that so many sounds are conjured up, yet none go unnoticed, allowing the listener a gradual submergence into each unique portion of the music.”
Mike Oldfield is a versatile, accomplished British musician who plays an astonishing variety of instruments. He started out as somewhat of a folkie, playing acoustic guitar in clubs around Reading, Berkshire.
In the early ’70’s, he joined The Whole World, which was a backing group for Kevin Ayers, former Soft Machine vocalist. (Interestingly, while I’d heard of Soft Machine, I only recently learned Ayers’ name through another blog.) He also played guitar for a while in the Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
“I got my technique from listening to Bert Jansch and John Renbourn guitar instrumentals on a Dansette [portable mono record player], lifting up and plonking down the needle hundreds of times to copy what I heard,” he explains.
The Whole World started recording at Abbey Road studios which had a multitude of instruments such as mellotron, harpsichord and of course, tubular bells. Oldfield used to get there early and spend time playing the various instruments. “I was listening to a lot of classical music at that time, especially Bach, along with ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’ by Terry Riley.”
“I wanted to create a long piece of instrumental music, because at that time there was a fantastic jazz orchestra called Centipede,” Oldfield explains. “They’d play a long instrumental piece that, although it never translated well to disc was absolutely superb when performed live. That was the biggest single inspiration: I wanted to make a piece of music like that, although maybe a bit more rocky and less jazzy.”
Oldfield started working up a demo of what was to become Tubular Bells at a now-defunct recording studio called The Manor in Oxfordshire. He then tried to shop it around to various record companies. But even in the heady creative atmosphere of the early ’70’s, an all-instrumental prog-rock album was a pretty tough sell.
Fortunately, The Manor was owned by a young Richard Branson. Oldfield played demos for Branson’s engineers but it wasn’t till a whole year later that they contacted him. (Just in time too as he was so hungry he was contemplating going to Russia as a state-sponsored musician). Branson allowed him a week to record Part One and, using the various instruments that he ordered, finished Part Two over several months.
Released in May of 1973, the album got some airplay on FM radio but didn’t really take off until its opening theme was used in the soundtrack of the movie The Exorcist. (Apparently, the director, William Friedkin, heard the album on a D.C. radio station and liked it.) And Tubular Bells became a smash prog-rock (some think it’s new age) album, ultimately selling some 15 – 17 million discs worldwide.
Whatever you call it, I love this album. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. I have the CD in my car ad probably listen to it all the way through every couple of months.
The album is moody, strange, elegiac, whimsical and even, sometimes, rocking. I guess I don’t even really know how to describe it. It takes you on a journey somewhere with guitars, mandolins, organs, grand pianos. (Oldfield is an excellent musician who plays most of the instruments on the album). I guess for me, mysterious is the best way to describe this album, especially Side One.
The opening grabs you with its haunting, sinister sound that continues hypnotically for about 3 1/2 minutes till guitars kick in, signaling a new movement. And I think that’s why the album works so well – it changes often enough to remain consistently interesting.
Side One ends with a long (8:30 minute) section, starting with a double bass line. This motif repeats for a good minute or two until the late Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band introduces the instruments (Grand piano, reed and pipe organ, glockenspiel, bass guitar, double-speed guitar, two slightly distorted guitars, mandolin, Spanish guitar, acoustic guitar – plus – Tubular Bells). I always get a kick out of how he announces the bells excitedly as if it’s some big deal.
After that, a choir of heavenly voices takes over, leading to a melancholy acoustic guitar solo. Side Two is really good too, if not as continually interesting as Side One. But it does, however, end with a madcap version of “Sailor’s Hornpipe.” (Some guy on Amazon griped that this ruined it. I think it’s a fun way to end an opus that has become somewhat somber at end.)
I have no idea whether you’ll like this album, none whatsoever. But you owe it to yourself to sit in a quiet place and listen to it, if only just once. It’s given me no end of pleasure over the years. (Note – the album ends with “Sailor’s Hornpipe.” After a silence, there’s some of “Comin’ Through the Rye” but that’s not part of the original). Here’s part one:
This album did so well that it launched Oldfield’s career and is the beginning of the Branson empire. He named one of his Virgin aircraft Tubular Belle. Oldfield won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition in 1975. He has made several sequels but has never reached the same heights.
For the record, several sequels were made to The Exorcist. Every single last one of them sucked. (I love that movie as much as I love this album and have seen it perhaps 10 or 12 times).