Towards Ommadawn: A Critical Study of Mike Oldfield’s Third Studio Album
The music of Mike Oldfield has largely been neglected and misunderstood with a degree of scepticism applied inappropriately to its musical merit. The reasons for this lack of critical attention has come from the huge commercial success of his debut album ‘Tubular Bells‘, which ironically, through its popularity has led to a blighted view of any music that followed. Secondly, based on pressures from Richard Branson and the Virgin record label, which without Tubular Bells may not have enjoyed the success it has now attained, Mike Oldfield moved into a more mainstream and commercial musical style during the Eighties which subsequently led to a decline in musical quality.
It is unfair to make judgements on a small portion of an artist’s output, as many music critics have done thus far. This essay aims to give a critical overview of an album which is thoroughly original and which compositionally advances greatly over Tubular Bells. Through musical analysis and historical information regarding the album, I hope to bring a degree of appreciation to an artist who has been unfairly shunned and to evaluate what makes his music so unique. ‘Ommadawn’ is composed in two parts and so similarly is this essay. The first part of the essay looks at general features of the album whilst the second part is concerned with a thorough musical analysis. As no full score exists of the music, all musical excerpts have been transcribed from the album by the author.
Chapter One: Historical Context of Ommadawn
'Ommadawn' was released in 1975 and was the third in a trilogy of albums which started with Tubular Bells. The huge commercial success of 'Tubular Bells' had pushed the reclusive Oldfield directly into the spotlight and this prompted great distress for him. Dealing with his own feelings of insecurity alongside his new-found fame must have been particularly difficult and in response, his second album 'Hergest Ridge', was a more refined and spacious work. Written in solitary existence in the quiet retreat of Hergest Ridge on the border of Hereford and Wales, the album reflected its surroundings with a greater sense of compositional sophistication. The critical view was initially hostile with many expecting a repeat of the novelty that 'Tubular Bells' had brought. This sense of rejection to the album instilled Oldfield with more mixed feelings and a great deal of frustration.
Initially the composition of ‘Ommadawn’ had been a direct response to the critical dismissal of Hergest Ridge but later Oldfield commented on how the music became a means of expelling his pain and frustrations and in the process led to his obsession with composing the album. It is particularly clear how far down Oldfield had to go in order to express himself and this led him to some of the darkest areas of his mind.
'like one of those nights when you get food poisoning and you're up all night being sick…I was delving into the most miserable parts of my own....brain'1
The sense of frustration in his own personal life and musical life gave rise to some of the most heartfelt and intense music he has ever written. The solo guitar at the end of side one had been particularly traumatic to record and was the ultimate reflection upon a difficult childhood. Mike Oldfield was already looking into ways of dealing with his issues, including the controversial exegesis therapy.2 In talking about his birth, Oldfield explains how he felt after recording the guitar solo and what it represented.
'It scared me to death when I did it. When I did that electric guitar, I found it really frightening. I couldn't sleep'3
'I realised that what had been fucking me up was being born. A lot people get fucked up when they're born. So I decided that I was just going to be re-born. It was the only answer. I had to recreate the circumstances of my birth.'4
'The end of the first side of Ommadawn is the sound of me exploding from my mother's vagina'5
What is most remarkable about this album is the way in which the intensity of feeling never overwhelms the quality of the music. One can appreciate the mood of the composer throughout the album but this never detracts from the attention to detail and shows a great deal of restraint contrary to how Oldfield was feeling at the time. The balance between emotion and control is always handled with a great deal of care. It is only at the end of part one that he allows his music to rise up and reach maximum peaks of intensity and this electric guitar solo contains passages of incredible power and intensity.
Chapter Two: Recording Technique
'Ommadawn' was recorded on a 24 track tape machine and although at the time this was considered quite spacious, the multiples upon multiples of instruments and overdubs required soon caused great problems with the equipment. Interestingly, had it not been for the disintegration of the multitrack recorder tape then the version of 'Ommadawn' known today may have been quite different. Mike Oldfield kept a colourful graphic chart of progress with crayons but eventually tracks would become accidentally erased due to the oxide shedding from its backing and this would leave the tape virtually useless but as Mike explained at the time, this enabled him to refine his musical ideas further when recording the album again leading to a far superior performance.
I think there was something wrong, probably with the tape before I got it, or it may have been just that I played it so many times, and it started shedding oxide, getting a bit worn out. Nobody knows what happened to it. But it’s a jolly good thing that it did happen, otherwise I might not have done it again and it would not have been half so good6
Although the majority of the album had to be completely restarted, engineer Philip Newell who was called in to help during the technical difficulties explains a little more about what had remained from the original tapes:
The final version that we worked on could have had some things on it that were second or third generation. The tape wore out, and a copy was made, and then that copy was worn out and another copy was made. Some of the later things were overdubbed, first generation, but there were still some of things on there that had come from the original tape i.e. third generation7
This instability in recording equipment and the use of unusual and old instruments has led to an unclear sense of tonality during the opening.8 Whilst it is not entirely clear what caused this anomaly, it is logical to assume that the recording equipment played a large role in it.
Chapter Three: Orchestration
The success of ‘Ommadawn’ as a piece of music can certainly be attributed to the subtlety and variety of its instrumentation. The texture is employed structurally to emphasise certain emotions and helps to accentuate features within the music. Whilst the effects of certain orchestrations allow the listener a greater understanding of the mood of the music, it is never cliché or predictable but rather a subtle blend of musical thought and construction. For instance, in brighter musical passages, the texture often becomes less dense to allow for a sense of clarity. Similarly, passages of tension are often characterised by the use of low register instruments such as bass and percussion to create a driving impetus. One senses that the instruments used belong instinctively to the music and have not been added as a mere effect or novelty. It is fair to say that with an instrumental line up of such range and diversity that we are dealing with music that is orchestral in proportions. The overall musical effect is rich, varied and kaleidoscopic in sound. Below is a list of instruments played by Mike Oldfield which staggeringly totals up to nineteen and also a list of instruments played by guest musicians on the album.
Instruments played by Mike Oldfield on the album
acoustic bass, acoustic guitar, banjo, bouzouki, bodhrán, classical guitar, electric bass, electric guitars, electric organs, glockenspiel, harp, mandolin, percussion, piano, spinet, steel guitar, synthesizers, twelve-string guitar and vocals.
Instruments played by guest artists on the album
Don Blakeson - trumpet
Herbie - Northumbrian bagpipes
The Hereford City Band - brass
Jabula - African drums
Pierre Moerlen - timpani
Paddy Moloney - Uilleann pipes
William Murray - percussion
Sally Oldfield - vocals
Terry Oldfield - Panpipes
Leslie Penning - recorders
"The Penrhos Kids" (Abigail, Briony, Ivan and Jason Griffiths) - vocals on "On Horseback"
Clodagh Simmonds - vocals
Bridget St John - vocals
David Strange - cello
One will notice the wealth of stringed instruments used on the album coming from different musical cultures such as the Bouzouki and Appalachian Dulcimer. Oldfield’s interest in Greek music and his mother’s ties to Irish music reflect in his choice of instruments from the folk tradition.
Throughout ‘Ommadawn’ we hear the Celtic harp which adds a subtle delicacy to the music. As well as traditional acoustic and electric guitars, we find extensions of these with classical guitar, banjo and acoustic bass. Oldfield even had a custom instrument made for him and he explains its use within ‘Ommadawn‘.
I originally went to see Zemaitis because I thought I would treat myself to a beautiful guitar. He said, "By the way, I also make acoustic basses." He also made a 6-string acoustic steel-string for me, which can be heard on 'Ommadawn' in an acoustic solo just before the bagpipes. I use it when I want a really bright sound as a solo instrument. It doesn't work very well as a backing instrument. I usually use my Martin D-35 for that.9
He continues to explain the technique used to create a certain effect that he was after during part two.
Going back to 'Ommadawn', I wanted a rhythmic texture, so I played three 12strings, each processed through a limiter so that they were all of equal volume. With repeat echo added to them you get this fantastic sort of rumbling texture that was also vaguely rhythmic.10
Electronic instruments are kept to a minimum with piano and spinet providing the majority of keyboard activity. Percussion is used often to highlight passages of mounting intensity and energy and often complements the bass. We see no drum kit as would be expected by a rock artist and instead find either world music or orchestral percussion. Panpipes and recorders are used effectively in passages where the music becomes brighter and the lightness of their timbre emphasises this quality. Alongside this we see a surprising solo spot reserved for Northumbrian Bagpipes in part two.
Voices are used particularly effectively throughout for their colouristic qualities and they are often employed to sing chorale-like chants as a textural blanket. Words are not present here but the general pure style of singing that one may find in folk or early music is crucial in allowing the voices to blend with the rest of the ensemble. Certainly one finds that the texture and instrumentation is always changing, always developing just as the music changes and it makes sense that through the rapidly moving variations that the orchestration changes equally as quickly. Longer passages are gradually built up through an additive process of layering instruments which gives the effect of a tutti.
There is a great deal of attention throughout to the nuances and timbre of different instrumental combinations and this is certainly crafted with care and sensitivity to the musical structure. This is apparent in an accompaniment passage in part one where recorders take the principal melodic material supported by piano or in the way that the bass guitar and percussion interact to create a solid foundation. Even in fuller sections, there is a clear sense of each individual line’s responsibility whether melodic, harmonic or decorative. To maintain interest over a thirty minute duration is certainly not easy but this is achieved by the variation of colour and texture throughout.
Chapter Four: Analysis of Ommadawn Part One
I propose that the structural plan for ‘Ommadawn’ part one resembles sonata form. Whilst the piece does not use this form in its strictest sense, it is clear that the presentation of its material could be analysed in such a way. The development of the material takes the form of five variations which moves through many different moods and instrumentations. Below is a grid outlining an overview of the material as applied to sonata form.
First Subject immediately (No Introduction) x
Chromatic run into Second Subject in contrasting mode x 1
Repeated Exposition First Subject with elaboration and rubato x 3
Chromatic run into Second Subject x 2
Bridge passage leading to new key (F#minor)
Development (in the form of variations) Variation 1 New Key (E Mixolydian)
Variation 2 New Key (E Major)
Variation 3 New Key (E Major/A Major)
Variation 4 New Key (F# Major)
Variation 5 New Key (E Mixolydian)
Recapitulation in new key (E minor) First Subject x 2
Descending scales into Second Subject x 1
Extensive coda based on all the principal material x 7 (With African Drumming)
Bridge into finale
First Subject tutti in new key (G#minor)
African Drumming to fade
This analysis will look at part one in greater detail based on the sonata form process. One must remember that Mike Oldfield was not classically trained and therefore would not necessarily have made this explicit cerebral decision. However, he did listen to Classical music in general above any other type of music and was particularly fond of composers such as Sibelius and Delius and clearly this would have influenced his appreciation towards the role of thematic development. The piece as a whole uses the intervals of the fourth and the third extensively throughout, both melodically and harmonically and this provides a structural cohesion to the music which will discussed throughout the analysis.
Chapter Five: First and second subject exposition
The exposition begins immediately with an eight bar melody in G Aeolian (natural minor) of limited range which moves largely by step and represents a masculine subject in its clear melodic contour.
(CD track 1)
The interval of the perfect fourth is particularly important during the whole of ‘Ommadawn’ and the melody stresses this over a tonic drone. The lack of harmonic movement during the exposition gives the music an improvisatory quality and prevents the music from moving to any firm cadence. Although the bass part occasionally outlines the dominant, the melody itself does not follow this implied harmony. Theme A is repeated four times supported by a simple accompaniment whilst a countersubject is stated subtly by electric guitar in the background.
(CD track 2)
This countersubject becomes much more important during the variations that follow. After a short chromatic run we hear the feminine second subject which contrasts with the first in its use of mode and general motivic shape.
(CD track 3)
Theme B moves into the Phrygian mode with its flattened second and this added A flat provides a sense of harmonic tension against the drone that supports it. The grace notes that occur throughout this theme no doubt make reference to bagpipes which Mike Oldfield was particularly fond and which are used in part two. The two ideas have much to differentiate themselves from each other. In contrast to the perfect fourth of the first subject, the tritone is prevalent during the second subject against the drone which has now moved up to the dominant (D). Also, one can see that the melodic shape of theme B is based around a pair of descending thirds which further distances the two subjects. These descending thirds appear frequently during the variations. As expected in sonata form, the exposition is repeated and theme A is played this time on classical guitar in a quasi-improvisatory manner pushing and pulling the tempo with a great deal of rubato. Theme B is repeated again but this time the drone alternates between the dominant and subdominant and another countersubject is heard on electric guitar before rising above the texture at the cue of a resonant crash on tam tam.
(CD track 4)
This countersubject becomes increasingly agitated during the end of part one and possesses qualities of both first and second subject in its use of the third and in the quaver movement which reminds us of the first bar of theme A. As we reach the four minute mark the first harmonic shift occurs, wrenching us from the familiarity of harmony we have been hearing for so long and moving suddenly down a semitone to F# natural minor. This bridge passage into the variations themselves contains a striking semiquaver scale pattern on electric guitar which returns throughout part one and two at various different speeds. The sequence near the end of this passage outlines the descending third idea associated with subject B which returns in ascending form immediately afterwards in the first variation of the development.
(CD track 5)
Chapter Six: Development/Variations
One of the most important aspects about the variations that follow is the way in which they move from the relatively melancholy thematic material of the first four minutes to a much brighter and secure harmony. Each variation has its own distinct mood and shows a clear parallel with Classical variations. Another interesting feature is the way in which over the course of the first three variations, the harmonic rhythm increases creating a great sense of energy and excitement which contrasts with the static harmony of the opening.
Chapter Seven: Variation 1
The first variation takes us into E Mixolydian mode which contains the flattened seventh. Its similarity to the major scale gives our ears the impression of being brighter in sound than the opening and acts as a contrast. The harmony still remains static at this point with a strong E pedal point underpinning the movement of the melody and the use of essentially D and A major chords implies an expected IV-V-I cadence in the key of A major but Oldfield resists this temptation by dropping out the pedal point altogether as the melody continues leaving an emptiness to the harmony, albeit for some syncopated guitar chords. Looking at the first phrase of this new melody we can see how it takes the shape of the first 8 notes of theme A and augments them to create something that remains familiar to the ear but has a very different and more relaxed quality.
(CD track 6)
As the melody continues to move, the harmony changes unexpectedly by moving through the implied chords of B minor, D major, A major and G major before finally returning to the E pedal.
Chapter Eight: Variation 2
The first countermelody outlines the interval of a third followed by a descending scale. Variation one segues effortlessly into a developed version of this countermelody but now written in the major key of E as a full theme of its own.
(CD track 7)
he harmonic rhythm increases with a resonant brass chorale moving through chords I-IIIb-IV-V-VI-V-I to cadence back with a symphonic crescendo into E major. The harmony becomes more stable at this point and contrasts with the modal sound. The chord pattern is repeated once again with a stronger bass line emphasising the chord movement and a decorative electric guitar line which drives us forward into variation three.
Chapter Nine: Variation 3
Variation three continues the bright and energetic countermelody variation played now on recorders with a simple guitar and piano accompaniment. This thinning of texture allows us to hear the harmony clearly and an increase in harmonic rhythm. The melody itself is elaborated and decorated with quaver movement and this gives it a greater sense of energy and excitement.
(CD track 8)
The chord progression remains simple throughout moving through chords I-III-IV-V-IVI-III-IV-V-I in E major. This repeats three times before modulating into the key of A major. The harmony returns to a held pedal point articulated by the bass guitar which outlines the tonic and dominant. The melody and chord progressions are repeated again in the new key before a change of key leads us into variation four. The effect of this key change is of lifting the music upwards away from the implied tonic minor and into the tonic major. It is approached by a scale passage which directly resembles the semiquaver passage of the bridge section accompanied by chord I-V-IV-V and chord VI, which becomes chord I of F# major.
(CD track 9)
Chapter Ten: Variation 4
Variation four is perhaps the most beautiful and striking of all the variations with a delicate melody played on harp based around the second phrase of theme A in the major key supported by an increasingly simple chord progression.
(CD track 10)
The chords are based on those that have gone before, but simplified to chords I-IIV-I and occasionally chord IV. This is repeated three times and is supported by a wordless vocal chant which reinforces the harmony. At the end of the third repeat, the voices begin to sing the word ‘Ommadawn’ in a rising scale before a solo cello takes over the melody. The cello takes the second phrase of theme A in a quasi-improvisatory fashion whilst the harmony provides a greater sense of anticipation in its tonic to dominant movement.
(CD track 11)
It is not surprising that Mike Oldfield chooses to express the word ‘Ommadawn’ at this point as it leads into a jubilant statement for electric guitar to dance and weave over the glistening accompaniment. The perfect cadence into F# major provides the listener with a much needed sense of resolution and is a defining moment in the piece. There is a sudden glissando and another change of key which takes us into the final variation.
Chapter Eleven: Variation 5
Variation five acts as a transition towards the recapitulation and also serves as a vehicle for some virtuosic guitar work. The modified theme A melody from variation one makes a return here employing rhythmic diminution and taking a more subservient role and marking a change back to E Mixolydian once again. Above this, a rapid solo guitar part weaves around the shifting harmony resembling the shape of the scale passage from the bridge and again we see the descending thirds motif within this passage.
(CD track 12)
This is repeated twice with a short guitar figure outlining the important interval of the fourth the second time.
(CD track 13)
The bass guitar provides a sense of impetus in its new rhythm which drives the variation forwards towards the recapitulation.
The chord progression during this variation is based on the Mixolydian scale with its flattened seventh. The movement of the chords once again outlines the interval of a fourth.
(CD track 14)
At the second repeat, the chords begin to move towards a new cadence with E major shifting down to D major and then up to B major instead of minor and acts as the new dominant into the recapitulation, now in E minor.
Chapter Twelve: Recapitulation
This subtle change of key and orchestration marks the return of Theme A proper, and is a surprising twist in the mood of the music. The rhythmic impetus that the bass guitar provided in variation five is expanded and taken over by the Jabula drummers which gives the music an ominous and ritualistic quality.
(CD track 15)
This is repeated twice and followed by a short linking passage containing the rapid descending scales from variation five. This leads into the restatement of theme B, resplendent with pan pipes and whistles accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar. The harmony softly outlines a series of minor 7th chords based around the interval of a fourth.
This is repeated once before being taken over by the voices and drumming section for the lengthy coda.
Chapter Thirteen: Coda
The coda section takes theme B and repeats it in full seven times. It is through this repetition that Oldfield builds his music to its climatic conclusion. The music builds to its emotional climax by way of an additive process of layering instrumental parts through each repetition and the rhythmic impetus of the percussion drives the music forward with increasing intensity. For the first time in the piece we hear the key musical material played in succession as well as together in counterpoint. The harmony, melody and rhythm remain constant throughout based on the chords of E major, D major, F# minor and E minor whilst other parts are gradually added.
The addition of marimba serves to outline the harmony here and to provide another rhythmic pattern to drive things along.
During this repeat, we hear the return of theme A which plays with less rhythmic animation and shows how it acts in counterpoint to theme B.
(CD track 16)
At this repetition another guitar line plays a combination of Variation two’s melody and the second counter subject.
(CD track 17)
This repetition contains the last musical addition, a hypnotic guitar arpeggio which outlines the major seventh of its respective chord. Simultaneously, the drumming pattern gradually intensifies and this leads the music towards the thrilling finale section.
Chapter Fourteen: Finale
The harmony moves towards C# minor and remains locked on this chord whilst an acoustic guitar plays a solo ascending scale passage in the Phrygian mode. This is expanded upon by a solo electric guitar which plays the second countersubject with mounting intensity. The bass provides a driving V-I repeated pattern whilst the rapid guitar strumming and galloping drumming section propels the music forward at an increasing speed. A trumpet outlines a three note motif centred around the note F# which outlines the interval of the fourth with the bass and suggests the shape of the first four notes of theme A in inverted form.
The harmony changes to C# major, which becomes chord IV of G# which then rises to D# major which becomes the dominant for a dramatic tutti section playing theme A in the new key of G# minor. Theme A attains a sense of triumph over the other musical material and is asserted with confidence and power before the final solo electric guitar line soars through the texture. One can hear the sense of frustration and anger within this solo as it screams and wails in anguish as the drums, voices and guitars reach their highest peak of intensity. The solo line itself contains little virtuosity but rather punctuates with a series of accented stabbing notes of percussive intensity. The harmony supports it with a driving tonic dominant bass line and the interval of a fourth returns altered to a tritone to give a greater sense of tension.
(CD track 18)
The piece ends with a strong perfect cadence in G# minor and ends with a long drumming solo to fade. This ending is most unusual and leaves a sudden vacant hole in the sound and the effect is rather unsettling as we are left with the sound of unrelenting drums as they fade into the distance.
Analysis of Ommadawn Part Two
Chapter Fifteen: A Section
Ommadawn part two resembles a slow movement with a relatively small amount of musical variation and a slow tempo throughout. Structurally it resembles an ABAC form with the central B section taking centre stage as a rather beautiful duet between guitar and bagpipes. The outer A sections are far more melancholy in character and are rather minimal in their stepwise melodic movement. Looking more closely at the A section, we can see reference to the shape of themes from part one and an emphasis on the harmonic movement of fourths as well as the tritone which derives from part one and enhances the musical continuity.
(CD track 19)
The opening four minutes of part one had a very static quality, with the musical material centred around a tonic drone. The second half of this A section directly imitates this in its sense of limited progression and resembles a mantra in its endless repeating scales. The modality of the music eradicates any sense of an implied cadence and this in turn accentuates the drifting quality of the music. The use of a mass of overdubbed guitars in this section gives the remarkable sound quality of an electronic instrument such as the Mellotron. Upon closer attention it becomes clear that the one homogenous sound is in fact many layers of small guitar cells playing rapidly which is aurally striking.
The quavers rise by step over the distance of a minor sixth (indicated with a bracket) whilst the harmony moves once again around the important interval of the fourth. The second countersubject returns again before a restatement of the opening of the A section, now in the new key of D minor, the subdominant of A minor.
(CD track 20)
Chapter Sixteen: B Section
The dense texture suddenly recedes into the distance leaving a lone acoustic guitar to gently finger pick the accompaniment to the B section now in G major. The harp from part one returns to outline a simple scale encompassing the interval of a perfect fifth whilst a bagpipe outlines the interval of the fourth in a soft drone. Above this, Oldfield plays a gentle decorative line on his custom steel string acoustic guitar and this bright jangling sound evokes images of great plains and landscapes. The prevailing movement of this line is around the interval of the fourth particularly around the harmony which is resolved and elaborated with delicate filigree scales. A perfect cadence is approached by a linking passage where we hear the countersubject from variation one from the part one which settles on the dominant before moving back to G major for the B section proper.
(CD track 21)
The first phrase of this melody emphasises a series of descending thirds whilst retaining a strong modal character in its use of fourths. There is a close connection between the intervallic shape of this theme with theme A from part one as can be seen below.
And here, notice the similarity with this new melody in the B section in its shape and range of a perfect fifth.
This is repeated twice and is followed by a second phrase which moves towards to the subdominant.
(CD track 22)
This phrase is much simpler melodically occupying a range of a perfect fourth over a C pedal point. The most striking feature is the F natural which implies a plagal cadence in C major. However, the music soon moves back into G major once again. The whole section is repeated once more with a single string melody played on synthesiser adding a further supporting line to the texture. The brightness of the major tonality is subtly transformed into the tonic minor and a return of the A section played on recorder with gentle guitar accompaniment. This is the third time we have heard this melody, each in a different key a fourth apart (A minor, D minor, G minor)
Chapter Seventeen: C Section
The A section continues to descend chromatically as it had before reaching the chord of F# minor and dramatically shifting key to A minor for the final C section. This section grows to a finale for the entire piece and builds in excitement over a steadily repeating chord progression. Above this an electric guitar rises majestically in a similar fashion to the end of part one but this time the mood is more brilliant and optimistic. The chords move down by step and are then repeated in the subdominant whilst the bass provides a bold and emphatic dominant tonic pattern.
(CD track 23)
The Jabula drummers return to add an extra weight to the texture whilst the solo guitar becomes more animated with rapid scale passages reminiscent of part one. After the tension of part one the clarity of harmony at this point provides a bittersweet resolution to the piece. There is certainly a sense of defiance here and one feels that although Oldfield had himself gone through quite a trauma in composing and recording the album that he was determined to end in as positive a tone as possible. Despite this, the piece ends on an emphatic A minor chord which asserts the underlying mood throughout.
Chapter Eighteen: Postlude: On Horseback
Shortly after ‘Ommadawn’, Mike Oldfield includes a short postlude to the album which is worth mentioning. The piece is a three minute song which contains all the qualities of a lullaby in its simple harmonic and melodic writing and in the use of children’s voices. At face value this piece is both light hearted and ironic in nature. However when viewed, as it should be, against what has gone before, one can easily hear Oldfield expressing his own naivety and insecurity in the world. Oldfield was still a young man when this album was composed and there is a yearning sense of innocence in this song of a man who had still not grown up properly and who at that time feared the world in which he was living. Included below is an outline of the accompanying guitar melody and the chorus alongside the rather charming lyrics. Of note is the reference to Hergest Ridge, the one place where he was able to find solace and happiness.
(CD track 24)
On Horseback Lyrics written by Mike Oldfield
I like beer, and I like cheese I like the smell of a westerly breeze But what I like more than all of these Is to be on horseback
Chorus Hey and away we go Through the grass, across the snow Big brown beastie, big brown face I'd rather be with you than flying through space.
I like thunder, and I like rain And open fires, and roaring flames. But if the thunder's in my brain, I'd like to be on horseback Some like the city, some the noise Some make chaos, and others, toys. But if I was to have the choice, I'd rather be on horseback.
Chorus Some find it strange to be here, On this small planet, and who knows where. But when it's strange and full of fear, It's nice to be on horseback. Some are short, and others tall, Some hit their heads against the wall. But it doesn't really matter at all, When you happen to be on horseback.
So if you feel a little glum, To Hergest Ridge you should come. In summer, winter, rain or sun, It's good to be on horseback.
You know, I'd rather be on horseback.
I believe that the first four albums by Mike Oldfield (Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge, Ommadawn, Incantations) all show a great deal of craftsmanship whilst retaining an essentially accessible language. They should be appreciated as more than popular music or entertainment. Had Oldfield continued in this way then he would have undoubtedly composed much more fine music. Sadly, the pressures of record company bosses steered him into different directions, and whilst during his long and illustrious career he has written some incredibly rich and varied music, it is unlikely that any of it will stand the test of time like the first four albums continue to do. Particularly in ‘Ommadawn‘, I hope to have enlightened readers on an album that crosses many cultural and musical boundaries, expressing deep emotions and displaying great sensitivity to instrumental colour and all written by a single person without any formal classical training. I certainly hope that this essay will open up a greater appreciation of contemporary popular music in the future and in the process allow people to discover a wealth of music that may not have been easily found before.
© Ryan Yard 2007
1 ^ Moraghan, S, ‘Mike Oldfield A Man and His Music’ (Britannia Press Publishing, 1993) p.64
2 ^ Exegesis therapy was a particularly intrusive and unpleasant form of therapy that involved clients being verbally broken down and rebuilt through a gruelling and distressing process. For more information on this therapy read Moraghan, S, p. 83-86
3 ^ Moraghan, S, p 64
4 ^ Moraghan, S, p 64
5 ^ Moraghan, S, p 64
6 ^ Moraghan, S, p 64
7 ^ Oldfield Music Ltd, Dark Star The Official Mike Oldfield Magazine Issue 24 p. 11 (unknown author)
8 ^ Through consultation of live recordings it is asserted that Ommadawn part one is in G minor. However, the studio recording is significantly flat and is closer to F# minor. Live recordings validate the key of G minor. Only one live recording that I found starts in F# minor and was performed in a special arrangement for the Cologne Orchestra in 2006. The reasons for the choice of key in this instance is unclear but should be considered rare.
9 ^ Excerpt from "Mike Oldfield: A Rare Interview With The English Guitarist, Studio Wizard, and Composer of "Tubular Bells", Guitar Player 1978, (online source) http://tubular.net/articles/78_xx.shtml
10 ^ Excerpt from "Mike Oldfield: A Rare Interview With The English Guitarist, Studio Wizard, and Composer of "Tubular Bells"(online source) http://tubular.net/articles/78_xx.shtml
Moraghan, S., Mike Oldfield A Man and His Music (Britannia Press Publishing, a division of Britannia Crest International Ltd., 1993)
Newman, R., The Making of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (Music Maker Books, 1993)
Dallas, K., 'Balm for the Walking Dead', Let It Rock Magazine (December 1974)
Dallas, K., 'Beyond the Ridge: Portrait of a Genius', Melody Maker Magazine (October 25th 1975)
Oldfield Music Ltd. Dark Star The Official Mike Oldfield Magazine (May 2001-Issue 22)
Oldfield Music Ltd. Dark Star The Official Mike Oldfield Magazine (May 2003-Issue 24)
Tubular.Net, 18th March 2007 (Accessed 15th December 2006) http://tubular.net/
Antodrennan., YouTube, 18th March 2007 (Accessed 15th December 2006) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcsGrtaMp_E
Antodrennan., YouTube, 18th March 2007 (Accessed 15th December 2006) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pERwsZo5IM
Fieldmour., YouTube, 18th March 2007 (Accessed 15th December 2006) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iJdVmU3Vuo
hifiguru9., YouTube, 18th March 2007 (Accessed February 2nd 2007) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2v48VftXpFc
Jaimixx., YouTube, 18th March 2007 (Accessed 15th December 2006) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U76Z8PjT-s0
Mike Oldfield: Ommadawn (Virgin Records Ltd, 1975, HDCD Remaster 2000) MIKECD 4 / 7243 8 49370 2 7
Mike Oldfield: Live in Montreux 1981 (Eagle Vision 2006) DVD EREDV565
All musical examples transcribed from the ‘Ommadawn’ studio album by Ryan Yard. Musical examples inputted into Sibelius 4 notation software.