"You're not going to ask me why I made 'Tubular Bells', are you?" It's easy to forgive Mike Oldfield for wanting to steer the conversation away from the one thing everyone remembers him for. It was 1973 when Oldfield appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with his epic one-man album 'Tubular Bells'. Consisting of a single continuous, fifty-minute composition with more hummable melodies in it than the next five albums on the charts at the time, it sounded like the work of a modern Rip Van Winkle - as though an English folk musician had slept through twenty years of rock-and-roll and, on awakening, had been handed an electric guitar and shoved into a room full of exotic percussion instruments and a sixteen-track recorder.
For a time, 'Tubular Bells' turned pop music on its head and an improbable six million Americans into fans. It was enthusiastically reviewed; there were even articles in Time and Newsweek. It also launched Virgin Records, a label that became synonymous with pop music that is original, intelligent, and well off the beaten path.
But success in popular music is nothing if not ephemeral. In the United States, Mike Oldfield's following today is probably best described as "cult," yet he continues to have a huge audience in Britain and in West Germany (the second-largest album market in the world). His last LP, 'QE2', sold 100,000 copies in its first week - No. 1 in Germany and among the top five in England. But it went almost completely unnoticed in the U.S., where it takes two things to sell records: airplay and touring. A serious and decidedly uncommercial artist, Oldfield hadn't even released a single here since the cut version of 'Tubular Bells' used in the movie 'The Exorcist' made the charts, and the reclusive musician did not like to tour.
But that may all be changing now, as I discovered when I talked with Oldfield recently in New York. The focus of the Oldfield party's attention that morning was tour jackets. Tour jackets? Thirty genuine-leather R.A.F. aviator jackets, to be exact, each adorned on the back with a large decal picturing a prop plane headed into a storm - from the cover of Oldfield's new album, "Five Miles Out" - and the legend "Mike Oldfield World Tour." The amateurish artwork was a matter of concern to Oldfield, his manager, and another artist who'd been called in to look it over. Everyone hated it. It was agreed that the person responsible should be sent on a tour of the Falkland Islands.
I reminded Oldfield that he wasn't known for touring.
"I soon will be." A grueling one-hundred-and-five-date world tour - the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and Europe - would see to that. He hasn't toured before, he says, because he has been too busy making records. "Now I make records with live concerts in mind. My previous albums were difficult to reproduce live - well, I thought they were difficult. But I can do it now." Although Oldfield's albums still have the lush sound of a hundred-piece orchestra, he finds he can re-create them in concert with a mere seven musicians.
"Everyone plays more than one instrument. And, well, I do have some lovely machines. The heart of the system is the Fairlight CMI - Computer Musical Instrument. It isn't a synthesizer, strictly; it's a digital synthesizer. It doesn't create sounds with oscillators and filters and all that. What it does is make a digital recording of a natural sound and store it in the core memory. If you like the sample you've got, you transfer it to floppy disc, and then you have a repertoire of natural sounds - flutes, violins, the whole works. The CMI has a keyboard you play like a piano, and it sounds a real orchestra.
"We've got some wonderful sounds programmed in, such as Paddy Moloney on the Irish pipes - the real thing, not a synthesized version. They're the sounds that are used on the album, so the live show sounds very much like it."
Where does all this digital synthesizing take place?
"Well, I like bathrooms - you know, singing in the bathroom. So basically I built a studio that's like a huge bathroom. It's all tiled. And I've got a computerized desk - it really enables you to get good mixes. It's mostly American equipment."
Just as the tour is designed to support the new album from one side, a single has been released to drum up a little interest from the other: "Family Man" is a playful foray into New Wave that's about an awkward, embarrassing exchange between a hooker and a reluctant john.
"It's a fun thing, but what worries me is that if 'Family Man' is a hit, everybody's going to be saying, "He must be making an album of things like that." But it's not like anything else I've ever done. It's good, but it's not representative...not important."
What is representative? That's not easy to define, even for Oldfield himself. Asked to give a name to the kind of music he makes, he was somewhat at a loss.
"It's just me. It relates to hundreds of different sorts of music in different ways, every little bit of music that ever made me think, "Oh, I like that" - English blues, English hard rock, a bit of bluegrass, Irish music, synthesizer music, classical music, even nursery rhymes and children's music."
All of these influences, and more, can be heard on 'Five Miles Out', plus something that may surprise established Oldfield fans: lyrics. His previous albums have used almost no vocals, and what few there were tended to be more in the nature of another instrument - chants, singsong - or a narrative voice-over than conventional song lyrics. But why lyrics now - why not before?
"To write lyrics you've got to have something to write about. Well, this time I had something to write about: my airplane theme. That's what the album's all about. Every time I go up in a small plane something terrible happens. One engine stops, we go into a thunderstorm or snowstorm, or we're surrounded by fog."
Lyrics or no, theme or no, except for 'Family Man' and the title cut, 'Five Miles Out' is characteristic Oldfield. It is filled with eclectic, inventive compositions played on an imposing array of acoustic and electronic instruments. Oldfield is a gifted melody writer, possibly because he is so open to influences, and he may be even more skilled at developing a melody - scoring it imaginatively and enriching it with harmony and embellishments. His pieces invariably build to powerful climaxes. It's an approach that is closer, at least structurally, to classical development or jazz improvisation than to rock, and it's an approach that sets Oldfield apart from most of contemporary songwriting. As he himself put it, "I heard a song on the radio the other day, and I thought, "Hmm, now that's an interesting melody." So what happens? They repeat the same tune over and over, the same way, twenty five times. By the time the song was finished, it had gotten boring. That's lazy music making."
A hundred-and-five-stop tour is probably about as far as you can get from lazy music making, but it's no guarantee of success. I asked Oldfield if it would disappoint him if he never again saw the lightning strike as it did with 'Tubular Bells'.
"No, not really. Of course, it would be nice to hit it big again. But for now, I think, I just want to fill the concert halls. I'd be disappointed if we didn't do that."
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net