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Mike Oldfield:
Tubular Bells

Creating the bells

Michael Gordon Oldfield was born in Reading, England in 1953. At the age of 13 he dropped out of school to start a musical career - first with his sister Sally, and later with Kevin Ayers, with whom he played guitar and bass. At the age of 17 Mike was already putting together ideas of creating a symphonic work, similar to the large-scale compositions for full orchestra in several movements found in classical music, using a tape recorder he had borrowed from Kevin Ayers. By masking the "erase" head with a small piece of cardboard he could record more than one instrument.

Having set to work to create this music, Mike had decided to play all the instruments himself. With his natural gift for playing he had discovered that he could get a tune of almost any instrument from a glockenspiel to grand piano, a classical guitar to a Farfisa organ.
While working with Kevin Ayers Mike had often contributed to recordings made at the famous Abbey Road studios. In these studios there was a storage room that was full all kinds of instruments. By arriving early for these sessions he was able to experiment with these instruments and to incorporate new ideas and textures into his musical ideas.

After two years of reluctantly working with others, which enabled him to use the Abbey Road studios on his own, he finished a rough demo of his project, which at that time bore the name Opus One. Mike was so content with the result that he sent copies to all major record companies, all of which rejected it as not marketable.

Then came one Richard Branson. Branson ran a chain of record stores and had just finished building a recording studio in a manor house near Oxford. One of the first bands to record at that studio was a band led by soul singer Arthur Lee, in which Oldfield played bass at the time. The brief time spent at the recording studios Mike had the chance to play his tape to Branson and the other owners Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth. They loved the idea and immediately drew up a contract with Mike.

Mike spent the next few months at the Manor, recording his masterpiece which by now had been given the name Tubular Bells (after Richard Branson had spent weeks trying to find the "long metallic hanging tubes" Mike had written on his instrument wish-list without knowing the actual name for it). During the sessions he played over 20 instruments and more than 2,000 tape overdubs were made.

After the recording sessions Mike and Richard took the completed Tubular Bells to the Musical Industry Trade Fair, MIDEM in Cannes in January 1973. No one showed interest in the tapes, apart from one executive from the American record company Mercury, who said: "Slap some vocals on it and I'll give you $20,000". They realised they weren't getting anywhere and after two days they put a sign on their stand: "VIRGIN RECORDS - GONE SKIING".

Nobody showed interest in the recordings, so there was no other option left than to release the album themselves; on the new Virgin record label which Richard Branson and Simon Draper had established. The first ever release on Virgin records, V2001: Tubular Bells was released on May 25th, 1973.

The critics had difficulties defining the music and categorising it. They couldn't, yet the public took the music to their hearts. The album topped the UK charts for months and it became a wide success all over the world.

The USA was the only country where the album wasn't successful. That was, until William Friedkin used a 3-minute excerpt in his shocker movie The Excorcist. Oldfield and Branson were furious that the music had been used without permission, however the American public wondered what that haunting music at the end of the movie was. Because of the demand the 3-minute excerpt was released on single as Tubular Bells: Theme from the Excorcist which eventually boosted the sales of the album to an impressive 16 million copies.

Tolling the bells

Just like the critics in '73 I have difficulties describing the music found on Tubular Bells. It consists of one long musical piece, merely divided in two due to the limitations of vinyl.

Tubular Bells part 1 or side 1 is largely based on just one, seemingly simple piano melody (seemingly simple, as this combined 9/8 - 7/8 time signature sounds more simple than it is) which gets repeated in various themes by different instruments. This may sound boring, however Oldfield's creation immediately grabs your attention and won't let go until it is time to turn your record over to side two (thank god for the CD, which has eliminated that problem).

The finale of Side 1 consists of a melody played over and over each time by a different instrument, which is introduced by "Master of Ceremonies" Viv Stanshall. After a Grand Piano, Glockenspiel, Reed organ, Bass guitar and electric guitar the piece climaxes with the Tubular Bells. After the firing climax a serene acoustic guitar piece ends side 1.

Side 1 was recorded in 6 days, while Side 2 had taken months to record. This was because the first part had already been written when Mike arrived at the Manor studios, while the second part was mainly written in the studio, during the recording sessions. You can clearly hear this when listening to the album, as the second part is less consistent than the first. Where first side of the record is mainly one big piece, the second side is more like a collection of different, mainly calm and serene themes.

There isn't anything really happening until the 18th minute when the "caveman song" kicks in. A heavy piece with grunting lyrics which Mike and his brother Terry had written together back in 1968.
Side 2 and thus Tubular Bells ends with a traditional folk piece called Sailor's Hornpipe which results in a very original and funny ending of such a complex album.

The music on Tubular Bells can't actually be described, it can only be experienced.

Selling the bells

The huge success of Oldfield's debut resulted in an almost frantic attempt to surpass this success. A mere year after it's release Mike's follow up Hergest Ridge was presented, which followed the same concept as Tubular Bells: two 20-minute long tracks of complex instrumental music, on which Mike plays a wide range of instruments. Just like he did on his third album Ommadawn, released in 1975. And although the compositions on these two albums proved that Mike Oldfield was definitely a musician and writer with many talents, one can't deny that these albums followed the principle of Tubular Bells.

To milk the success of Tubular Bells even more, an orchestral version of the album was released in 1974, it was remixed in quadraphonic for a re-release in 1976 and the full album was featured on the 1978 live-registration Exposed. Despite these attempts, no Oldfield release came even close to the success of his '73 debut, until 1983, when his album Crisis was released. This album was a letdown for most of his hardened fans, yet the singles Moonlight Shadow and Shadow On The Wall were worldwide successes. Until this date Crisis still remains the second-most successful Oldfield album.

A change of contract from Virgin to Warner in 1991 led to a re-recording of Tubular Bells as a sort of 20th anniversary. Re-united with co-producer Tom Newman Mike re-arranged Tubular Bells while staying loyal to the original melody. The result was an excellent modernised Tubular Bells, and Tubular Bells II was a modest success with over 2 million copies sold: his biggest hit since Crisis.

The Tubular Bells goldmine must have worn out by 1998, when Oldfield released Tubular Bells III, just after the remastered 25th anniversary release of the original album. TBIII didn't follow the concept of the original Tubular Bells and TBII but instead used a simplified version of the famous piano opening as a basis for two dance-tracks on the album. The rest of the tracks on the album were all based on the best parts of many of his previous works, including an almost exact copy of his 1983 smash-hit Moonlight Shadow. Where he got away with TBII, the third chapter was considered "too much" by many fans and critics.

All in all there must be over 50 official releases containing Tubular Bells in some format, not to mention the original "Bell" logo which can be found on almost every Oldfield release of the past three decades. Despite all attempts, no album has ever been nearly as successful for either Mike Oldfield, or Richard Branson's Virgin records, as that one album bearing label V2001...

Written by Bart Jan van der Vorst


 

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