Tubular Bells made Mike Oldfield his fortune but ruined his life.
Now he's back, reborn and revitalised. He talks to Giles Smith.
NEXT Monday, Mike Oldfield releases Tubular Bells II. Those who remember the original with scorn or embarrassment can have fun writing their own copy lines (Tubular Bells II - The Nightmare Continues). The rest can prepare for the premiere at Edinburgh Castle (4 September) and the television broadcast later that evening. Tubular Bells II is rock music's first sequel and, if it sells like it's expected to, we're about to see a stark demonstration of the way tastes can turn full circle.
Tubular Bells was the record with which the Virgin label launched in 1973. Oldfield (who could play virtually any instrument in virtually any style, despite being trained in none) had been touting his music around for a couple of years. But only Richard Branson was daft enough to put money behind a 50-minute rock and folk instrumental album. To date, Tubular Bells is thought to have sold 16 million copies around the world. And it is still selling, ticking over at 100,000 per year.
Oldfield sank some of the profits into a house in Buckinghamshire, where he still lives when he's not in the South of France or LA. Separated from the road by a sizeable gravel drive, it is one of those redbrick places which contrives to be quaint and massive at the same time. It has an indoor swimming-pool (though, sadly, not guitar-shaped) and the handsome out-buildings have been expensively doctored within to form an office and a recording studio presently crammed with musicians, rehearsing for that premiere.
On one of the office walls, written directly on to the wallpaper in red Biro and snaking its way up and across into the middle of the ceiling, is Oldfield's "progress chart". Crouch down by the skirting board, and you can see the entry for June 1991, where Oldfield records composing the first piano figure for Tubular Bells II. Up around waist-level, he gets a new manager, Clive Banks, and then, just above head height, a new record contract (with Rob Dickins at WEA). And not long after that, the chart peters out because, says Oldfield, "things started to happen too quickly".
On the opposite wall is a photograph of a cricket team (Oldfield looking haughty in a school cap with his arms folded) and beneath it, two framed pages from a score book. The match: Mike Oldfield's XI vs Richard Branson's XI (Branson is shown to have partly compensated for an expensive bowling spell with a tidy innings of 32). The date: the summer of 1985, before things between Oldfield and Branson became slightly less sporting, before Oldfield struggled out of his recording contract and briefly contemplated sueing Branson over his royalties.
"It was pointed out to me that I didn't have a very good royalty rate. I tried the legal means to get out of the contract, but I saw a QC who told me I didn't have a hope. By the time it would have gone through the courts, I would have lost the house, the studio, everything." Instead, Oldfield and Branson settled out of court. "He came up with an option for me to do three more albums, on top of the 10 I was already contracted for. And that didn't include film scores, so I think in all I made 16 albums for Virgin. Which is a hell of a lot of work and nearly 20 years of someone's life."
Oldfield is quietly-spoken to the point of inaudibility, prefers to sit cross-legged on chairs, smokes roll-ups. (In fact, he writes all his musical ideas on Rizla papers, storing them away in a jar; then when it's time to compose something, he up-ends the jar on a table and sifts through the available options.) He seems down-to-earth, but at the same time he is serious when he mentions his increasing suspicion that his grey spaniel, CD (short for Compact Dog), is a reincarnation of the Irish wolfhound that hung around at the Manor Studios during the recording of Tubular Bells I.
Oldfield was just 19 when that album came out. "And suddenly there were accountants and lawyers telling me I would have to go and live elsewhere because of the tax." In fact he was more concerned to stay at home and drink. "I was scared of everything. Music was an escape which I invented for myself because I couldn't cope with the real world. I used to suffer awful panic attacks and claustrophobia, and agoraphobia. I was unable to go into a city, because I thought I needed to be surrounded by things which were natural. I wasn't able to have proper relationships with anyone - I was in a terrible state.
"And when Tubular Bells happened, I went off and lived in a little cottage in Wales, put a pillow over the phone and just got lost in music. Richard would turn up sometimes and say, 'Look, America wants you to go over for a tour,' but I was incapable. There was no way I would fly."
He still managed to make records (Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn sold by the lorry-load) but then came punk rock. It was unsurprising that a, movement which cherished one-and-a-half-minute bursts of gleefully unprofessional noise had little room in its heart for the performers of furrow-browed instrumental albums. Punk sidelined many established artists but, with hindsight, it seems to have gobbed most copiously on the career of Mike Oldfield. "Within the space of a couple of weeks, I was suddenly rejected. I spoke to someone in a record store who told me how the instructions had come from above: hold back on the old style of music, the Tubular Bells style, and start pushing the new stuff.
"I was being pilloried in the music press, this whole wave against me and everything I stood for. And there was no phone call from Richard saying, 'don't worry, we'll stand behind you, we'll ride out this crisis.' In fact, the label was instrumental in my destruction. They were out there signing punk bands.
"I reckoned if I was going to survive, I was going to have in some way to get myself psychologically in better shape. I went to attend a weekend session with a group called Exegesis, and through that I was able to explore some of my past and I realised that a lot of my problems came from very early childhood. In fact, the biggest problem came with my birth. Like most people of my 'generation, I didn't experience natural childbirth. So I regressed and re-enacted that, and it gave me such power. I suddenly wasn't afraid to go to London any more. I learnt how to fly. It kept me, going through the 1980s, right through to this moment."
Before writing Tubular Bells II, he went back to TBI, as he now calls it, and broke it down into its constituent parts. Then he drew the new one up as a diagram on a large artist's pad, with blocks of colour representing the different sections. The eventual recording was produced by Trevor Horn, who gives it a depth and a shine unimaginable when the original was made. Oldfield says he started to refer to Horn as "Dr Click" because of his fastidiousness about instruments playing in time. "But he gives it rhythm and a groove, which I have always been weak on. If you listen to TBI now, it sounds stodgy for lack of movement."
The gimmick people remember from the first Tubular Bells was the voice (Vivian Stanshall's) introducing the instruments; it happens again on Tubular Bells II and the voice is Alan Rickman's. "We were in two minds whether to have the introductions, at all, and we tried all kinds of things. Trevor did a version in a Scouse accent, I did a version, we had a Disneyland-type voice doing them, we had Hal the computer from 2001. But Rickman sounded Shakespearean, so we went with that.
"The bells that I used on Tubular Bells I, I destroyed as I made it, because I hit them so hard. And we never found one which sounded as good until I was in this little percussion shop in the East End, and I found a little set, almost like a toy set. And I hit them once and said, 'yeah, that's it'. But for a while there, it was very nearly Tubular Bells II - The Quest For The Bells."
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net