Mike Oldfield (Michael Gordon Oldfield. JVS.) has been among the most inventive and successful musicians in popular music for the best part of two decades. A dozen of his albums have reached the UK chart, and despite not being regarded as a singles artist, he has been responsible for a US Top 10 single and three UK Top 5 hits. Two of his albums have topped the UK chart, and one of the two was the second biggest selling album of the decade during the 1970's. In 1981, he was awarded the Freedom Of The City of London, an accolade which he shared at the time with only one other popular recording artist, Paul McCartney, while John Cleese appeared in ads for his records. At one point in the late 1980's, he was contacted by Michael Jackson with the idea of collaborations, but probably blew his chances by refusing to believe that the person on the other end of the telephone was really Jackson.
Born in Reading on May 15 1953, Mike Oldfield was shown his first guitar chords by his father, a doctor, who had learned the basics of the instrument in Egypt during a spell as a forces medic. The young Oldfield's teenage musical influences included Celtic music, classical (especially Bartok, Sibelius and Ravel), primitive tribal music (Which does not mean today's flavour of the month, World Music), hard Rock (Led Zeppelin II), Blues (We used to support Free and I was very impressed with Paul Kossoff) and Folk Music (I used to practice guitar by copying note-for-note the instrumentals played by Bert Jansch and John Renburn).
With his sister Sally, Oldfield formed a duo known as The Sallyangie, who made an album for Transatlantic, Children Of The Sun in 1968, when he was still only 15 years old. When brother and sister went their separate ways, the 16 year old Oldfield formed a band which he called Barefoot, another member of which was his brother, Terry Oldfield, now a successful maker of music for natural history documentaries for television. Barefoot were not destined for either fame or longevity, and after they folded in 1970, Oldfield became bass player and sometimes lead guitarist for a critically lauded group, The Whole World.
Led by Kevin Ayers (ex-Soft Machine), this group was a quintet, every member of which would achieve subsequent fame or notoriety: apart from Oldfield (who became its most celebrated ex-member), it included drummer Robert Wyatt, who went on to chart success despite being confined to a wheelchair after a tragic accident, David Bedford on keyboards, who worked for several years with Oldfield before branching out on his own, Ayers himself, who remains a cult hero, on bass and vocals, and inventively unorthodox saxophonist Lol Coxhill, who has been known to busk at Waterloo Station when he feels like it. Oldfield notes that he regards the time he spent playing bass with Wyatt at the drums, as having been important and enjoyable. During this period, Oldfield worked on two albums by Ayers, Shooting At The Moon, which was released in 1971, and the oddly-titled Whatevershebringswesing (1973).
Still only in his late teens, Oldfield became a victim of the Rock'N'Roll lifestyle, admitting that he developed bad habits while still in his teens from the pressure of touring. Two years later, Oldfield and Wyatt were among the members of the backing band for a concert which was critically regarded as a super session. A recording of the event was released as an album titled June 1st 1974, and featured Ayers, John Cale and Nico (both ex-Velvet Underground) and Brian Eno, who had left Roxy Music not long ago. By that date, of course, Oldfield was himself well on the road towards solo superstardom.
During his time with The Whole World, Oldfield enjoyed recording at Abbey Road studios so much that he would arrive earlier than his colleagues in order to experiment with different instruments and learn about different recording techniques. This became such an interest that he borrowed a tape recorder from Kevin Ayers to work on a instrumental composition which had resulted from his research. Eventually, he felt sufficiently confident about the quality of the as yet incomplete work to want to preview it to record companies in the hope that he could raise enough interest and more importantly, finance, to polish it to his own satisfaction. One of the labels he tried was Virgin, at that time a company whose main business involved a chain of successful retail record shops. Richard Branson, was thinking about launching a record label, but at the time Branson's inhouse producer, Tom Newman, heard Oldfield's demos, plans were not sufficiently advanced to commit the still fledgling label to a major album project, as it might still be many months before the Virgin label achieved liftoff. Thus Tom regretfully advised Oldfield that while they were incredible impressed with the demos, he felt it only fair that the project should be offered to other labels who might be in a better position to progress in immediately.
Oldfield accepted the advice, and over several months of 1973, played his tape to a number of labels, none of whom offered to sign him. At which point, he returned to Virgin, where ha had received positive approval, in the hope that the situation might have improved. Branson was surprised that no-one had been interested and signed Oldfield , allowing him to utilise the facilities at The Manor, the Oxfordshire farmhouse which had been transformed into Virgin's first recording studio, if they were not being used by customers. In order to facilitate this arrangement, Oldfield lived at The Manor for some time, and after six months working with Tom Newman, was finally satisfied with his creation, an extended piece lasting just under 52 minutes which had involved overdubbing numerous instruments, the vast majority of which he played himself. The result could only possibly appear as a complete album.
This was Tubular Bells, the first record released on the Virgin label which became the best selling album of 1974, eventually topped the UK album chart more than a year after it was released, and was only outsold during the 1970's by Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Trouble Water.
Tubular Bells remained in the UK album chart for over five years and reached the US Top 3 during a chart residence of nearly a year. Success in America was assisted by the selection of a part of Tubular Bells as the theme music for the headline grabbing horror movie, The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin (a film which, remarkably, Oldfield did not see until many years later). In the wake of this cinematic success, a single was released in the US of Theme From The Exorcist, which reached the Billboard Top 10 in 1974, and doubtless fuelled the album's climb to platinum status and eventual sales to date of well over ten million copies worldwide. Not bad for a debut album with only one track, which had been written and largely played by a virtual unknown. The best known name of the record was that of Viv Stanshall, erstwhile leader of The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, who played the role of Master Of Ceremonies, introducing the instruments as they took up the theme of the composition.
Shortly after the album was released, Oldfield assembled a band of players including David Bedford, Kevin Ayers and then Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor to perform Tubular Bells live at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. The ecstatic audience reaction remains one of Oldfield's most gratifying memories. Incidentally, when Abbey Road studios sold a quantity of equipment which had become redundant or surplus to requirements, much publicity surrounded the fact that certain pieces of hardware had been used by The Beatles. When Oldfield purchased a mellotron which had indeed been used by The Beatles, few realised that Oldfield himself had also used it during the formative stages of Tubular Bells. He still has it at his home studio.
The US hit single was not released as such in Britain, but a section of the album was re-recorded and released as a single by Virgin under the title Theme From Tubular Bells, which all but reached the UK Top 30 later in 1974. By that Time, Oldfield had virtually completed his next album Hergest Ridge, a similar extended piece on which he was again working with Tom Newman at The Manor. This was inspired by a hill near where Oldfield lived in Herefordshire, close to the Welsh border, and was recorded under immense scrutiny from critics, fans and Virgin alike. Where Tubular Bells had ambled up the chart, Hergest Ridge raced instantly to Number One, where it stayed for three weeks until it was ironically supplanted by Tubular Bells finally outselling everything in sight to reach the top. For one week in September 1974, Mike Oldfield's first two albums occupied the first and second slots in the UK album chart, an achievement which, if not unique, has certainly rarely been equalled.
1975 also saw the release of his third album Ommadawn, which featured instrumental assistance from Paddy Maloney of The Chieftains on Uillean pipes provided a Gaelic flavour and four African drummers contributing their own ethnic percussive specialities. Oldfield himself played over a dozen instruments on the album, including mandolin, bazouki, bodhran, banjo and glockenspiel as well as the more predictable array of guitars, basses, keyboards and synthesizers. A third consecutive chart topping album would have been a lot to expect, and Ommadawn by Oldfield's own incredible high standards, was a relative failure, peaking at No. 4 in the UK album chart and also spawning a Top 5 hit single, coupling On Horseback from Ommadawn with In Dulci Jubilo, which had previously appeared as the B-side of an experimental single, Don Alfonso earlier in 1975. (The B-side of Don Alfonso In Dulci Jubilo (For Maureen) is a special version only available on this single. JVS.)
Boxed, a four album boxed set including different versions of Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn, plus an album called Collaborations, was released in 1976 and spent three months in the UK album chart. No new Oldfield album was released during 1977, although the UK singles chart at the start of that year had featured Portsmouth, yet another Mike Oldfield hit, his biggest to date, which peaked inside the UK Top 3.
In many ways, 1977 was a milestone year for Mike Oldfield, despite the lack of a new album, because he underwent what appeared to be a total personality upheaval after attending a course on which he learn the principles of Exegesis, a philosophy which in simple terms transforms those who lack self-confidence into gregarious outgoing personalities. Immediately following his dynamic rise to fame, which itself followed a lengthy period of self-imposed studio incarnation, Oldfield found it difficult to communicate verbally with the media, which inevitable resulted in criticism from the weekly music press, who illogically viewed him as a so-called boring old fart, because he was a consummate musician, unlike the young lions of the Punk / New Wave revolution, who took little pride in their musical ability yet envied those whose talent provided them with a comparatively comfortable life. Oldfield changed, possibly too much: I become confrontational, but I think Exegesis, or EST (Erhard Seminar Training), which my sister studies, can be extremely beneficial in some cases. He no longer has any contact with Exegesis, although he vividly recalls his discovery of philosophy.
When a new album, Incantations, eventually emerged at the end of 1978, its release coincided with that of an EP titled Take Four, which included several tracks which had previously appeared on singles, except a track called Wrekorder Wrondo. The EP failed to set the chart alight. However, Incantations, which featured a guest appearance from Steeleye Span founder member Maddy Prior, was Oldfield's first original album to feature individual songs rather than a single epic, and remained in the UK chart for four months, peaking well inside the Top 20. With new found confidence, Oldfield embarked on his first major tour after assembling a backing band.
A double live album recorded on the tour Exposed, was released in 1979, peaking again inside the Top 20 of the UK album chart, after Guilty had just failed to reach similar heights in the UK singles chart. It was quite a departure for Oldfield - recording in the USA with a New York studio rhythm section, it provoked accusation in the music press of selling out by going Disco, which Oldfield, probably correctly, suspects were motivated by ignorance and envy. The fact that the single was his biggest hit for three years seems to support that contention. Also in 1974 came a charity concert at Jubilee Gardens on London's South Bank in aid of Greenpeace's Save The Whales campaign, plus another Top 20 hit, Blue Peter, the specially composed theme tune for the long running children's TV series, whose producers had invited Oldfield to write it. The theme tune he wrote is still in use today, but he rarely considers it as he donated all his royalties, inperpetuity, to Cambodian charities.
As Blue Peter entered the UK singles chart, eventually reaching the Top 20, Platinum, a new Oldfield album, entered the album chart. Recorded in Britain and America, it included an unlike version of the Gershwin evergreen, I Got Rhythm, but its chart performance was the worst yet - only nine weeks and peaking outside the Top 20. Another 1979 project involved composing original music for Reflections, an education film made by the man who originated the geodesic dome, although this music has never been available on record.
Especially since discovering his remarkable post-1977 self-belief, Mike Oldfield has not been the type to be floored by failure, so his next album QE2, was released less than a year after Platinum. Among the guest musicians on QE2 were the highly celebrated Phil Collins, both frontman of Genesis and also a solo star, and Maggie Reilly, a greatly under-stated Scots vocalist who had impressed with a shortlived band called Cado Belle before Oldfield invited her to sing on the album. In fact, the track on QE2 which caused the most initial interest was an instrumental cover version of Wonderful Land, certainly one of the biggest hits for The Shadows. Oldfield remains an affectionate admirer of Shadows lead guitarist Hank B. Marvin, but then so do numerous other lead guitarists. The Oldfield version was released as a single, but became a rare failure. A potentially interesting collaboration with another guitar hero, Richard Thompson, also produced little in the way of tangible benefits, although Oldfield remarks that Thompson's approval had given him confidence in his own ability to write lyrics. A further cover version from QE2 which was released as a single was the title track of ABBA's Arrival album, complete with a spoof picture sleeve featuring a helicopter, just like the ABBA album. Despite such talking points, the QE2 album was about as successful as Platinum, logging 30% more chart weeks but peaking marginally lower, although it also became his first USA chart album for five years - several of his earlier albums were amazingly not released at all on the other side of the Atlantic since Virgin lacked a license agreement with an American Label for several years.
In 1981, Oldfield composed an anthem in celebration of the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, which he performed at London's Guilhall on the eve of the Royal Wedding to enthusiastic acclaim, although as yet, the anthem has never been released on record. Oldfield thinks that his reward for the loyal gesture was to be granted The Freedom Of The City Of London, and he was also honoured the following year with an entry in Who's Who - although other popular musicians may be listed there today, when he was first granted the accolade, his only colleague was Paul McCartney.
While he spent mush of 1981 learning how to become an aeroplane pilot - he is professionally qualified to fly both aeroplanes and helicopters, although he flies less frequently than in the past - Oldfield used the experience as inspiration for his next album Five Miles Out, released in early 1982. Maggie Reilly was again involved, and guest musicians involved Carl Palmer (the P in ELP) and Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains again. The Album, whose sleeve appropriately showed an aircraft in flight, was Oldfield's biggest since Ommadawn, returning him to Top 10 of the UK chart for the first time in seven years, while it also spawned two minor hit singles in the title track and Family Man. Both hits featured Maggie Reilly, who would play a prominent part in Oldfield's next big hit, but even before that happened, Daryl Hall & John Oates cut a cover version of Family Man which reached the USA Top 10 and the UK Top 20.
Five Miles Out spent over six months in the UK album chart, and Oldfield hadn't achieved that since Tubular Bells, released nine years before. His artistic renaissance appeared complete when Crises, released in 1983, not only out-performed Five Miles Out, but also included his most familiar single yet, Moonlight Shadow, with Maggie Reilly contributing an enchanting vocal, which remained in the UK chart for over four months.
Oldfield recalls that the idea for the song first came to him in New York, where he was arriving on the night John Lennon was murdered. As well as Reilly, Crises also used two well known vocalists who became famous with major Rock bands - Jon Anderson (from Yes), who suggested a collaboration, and Roger Chapman (from Family), whom Oldfield invited because they liked each other since the first time they met when Oldfield auditioned for Family. He also singles out for special mention drummer Simon Philips, who he asked to play in the style of Robert Wyatt. Oldfield now brackets Philips with Robert Wyatt (the ultimate compliment).
1984 saw Reilly and Philips return for Discovery, which reached the Top 20 of the UK album chart during a four month residency. The biggest single included, To France, again featured Reilly. Also in 1984, a song from Crises, Shadow On The Wall (with vocals by Chapman) was a major hit in Germany - Oldfield says that it was regarded as a symbol anthem behind the Iron Curtain, and was very popular in those pre-Glasnost days. During That same year, he composed the music for the celebrated David Putnam feature film, The Killing Fields, and while the soundtrack album only briefly reached UK chart, Oldfield's score was nominated for both UK (BAFTA) and USA (Golden Globe) Awards. However, he did not release another original album for three years.
Some of that time was spent investigating the possibilities of video, which was exercising the minds of many musicians at that time. Oldfield installed a state-of-the-art audio/visual facility in his studio and after a trial run with a video single, Pictures In The Dark, which featured both Norwegian vocalist Anita Hegerland and the then little known boy soprano, Aled Jones, who had just signed with Virgin's subsidiary label, 10 Records. Ultimately, the video album, The Wind Chimes, was released in 1986, and its accompanying album, Islands, the following year. The album featured chart-topping Welsh vocalist Bonnie Tyler, Kevin Ayers, Roxy Music's Andy McKay on oboe, noted saxophonist Raf Ravenscroft (of Baker Street fame), Geoff Downes (of Buggles, Yes and Asia) and Anita Hegerland, who by this time had become Oldfield's partner in private life as well as singing on his albums. Although the album was huge in Germany, the results were evidently not of great interest to the British public, but Oldfield shrugs his shoulders, saying I needed to get it out of my system - he has not subsequently immersed himself in video to the same extent. Even so, the album crept briefly into the UK Top 30 - not exactly a complete disaster.
In 1989 came Earth Moving, which involved, apart from Anita Hegerland, Adrian Belew (David Bowie's guitarist), noted session singer Carol Kenyon, Maggie Reilly and Chris Thompson, erstwhile singer with Manfred Mann's Earth Band.
Although Innocent was a big hit single in Germany, the new recipe was less commercial than Oldfield had hoped, and he immediately set out to recover his following by attempting to recreate Ommadawn, working with many of those who had contributing to the chart-topping album 15 years before, including Tom Newman as producer, Paddy Moloney, African drummers, and even two of the same singers, Bridget St. John and Clodagh Simonds. Despite critical acclaim, Amarok sold more slowly than any of Oldfield's previous albums. Somewhat bluntly, Amarok's sleeve contained a Health Warning, which read This record could be hazardous to the health of cloth-eared nincompoops, although Oldfield insists that it was meant as a joke, however accurate he may feel it to be! So what happens now? Oldfield's last album under his current Virgin deal is released in February 1991. Called Heaven's Open, it is half instrumental and half songs, with a live band and sung by himself.
His next album after Heaven's Open will be Tubular Bells II, and he also remarks that he still has the original demos of the original album, which he might be persuaded to release, but for the sequel, not only is he working with his original collaborator, Tom Newman (who had returned to work on both Amarok and Heaven's Open), but work is underway to recreate the studio they used at The Manor in Oldfield's Buckinghamshire home so that the atmosphere of the original album can be captured. He is also planning to tour in support of the album, and is looking for a major movie for which he can write an original score.
To sum up, Oldfield has interesting views on the condition of the industry to which he has devoted his life: It seems to me that the major problem at the moment is that too many people are in pursuit of cash profit rather than quality art. In recent years, instrumental music has been called self-indulgent by the press, and has been supplanted by computerised music, which leads to a decline in sales. Machines are sophisticated, but they are simple to operate and lack the human spirit - record buyers instinctively realise it's missing. Apart from that, I'm having singing lessons from Helena Shenel, and I'm feeling much more at ease with my voice now.
(Special thanks to Virgin Records Denmark for contributing with this Biography)
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net