Saved by the Bells

December, 1992
William Show
Details Magazine

In 1973, 'Tubular Bells' made Mike Oldfield a teenage superstar. He's been trying to live it down ever since.

ON A WINDY NIGHT lit by a perfect half-moon, in the castle where Mary Queen of Scots begat James I of England, Mike Oldfield is giving birth to a labor of love. It was just a generation ago that Oldfield released a symphonic rock opus that sold sixteen million copies and launched a generation of headphone-music snobs. Tonight, accompanied by fireworks, about twenty rock musicians, two dozen military bagpipers, and, yes, a BBC film crew, Mike is performing the world premiere of 'Tubular Bells 2'.

On the giant, bustling stage, it's not easy to spot Oldfield. He's the unassuming one, clad in a dark suite and ill-matched white sneakers. With a twitchy smile, he reads color-coded sheet music and swaps one guitar after another. The music drifts from the stage in honeyed sweeps of digitized sound, one suite dissolving into the next. Oldfield is happy, an emotion that hasn't always come easily to him. As he stands there, he feels waves of warmth and sympathy rising up from the eight thousand rapt listeners.

For the crowd as well as for Oldfield, this is special. When punk rock made it fashionable to sneer at such things, most taste-conscious Britons simply hid their copies of 'Tubular Bells'. This audience is the faithful, people who feel dispossessed by rock's fripperies. Like Oldfield, they probably don't think much of modern rock, rap, or hip-hop ("Crap or tick-tock or whatever the bloody hell it's called," the composer says haughtily). Tonight is an act of sweet revenge for everyone involved. To make it sweeter, this weekend 'Tubular Bells 2' will enter the U.K. charts at number one.

Nineteen seventy-three was a pivotal year in British rock. For a brief moment, it looked like concept albums might win out over three-minute pop songs. Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman went top-ten with an album of classically tinged synth rock based--strangely enough--on the lives of the six wives of Henry VIII. Pink Floyd completed 'Dark Side of the Moon', a song cycle that explored the awkwardness of lunacy. And Oldfield, a nineteen-year-old cripplingly introverted musician who had already served an apprenticeship with eccentric experimentalist Kevin Ayers, released 'Tubular Bells'.

The piece was originally conceived in Abbey Road's Studio 2, where the Beatles had worked, in Oldfield's spare hours between his sessions with Ayers. Mike emerged from these sessions with a two-track art-rock demo that no major label would touch. A young whiz kid named Richard Branson spotted the potential, though, and was eager to release something on his fledgling label, Virgin. Branson gave Oldfield all the studio time he wanted and watched patiently as the young composer stitched together intricate themes played on guitars, mandolins, chimes, pipe organs, and other instruments into a composition of, so the myth goes, nearly two hundred overdubs.

An edit of 'Tubular Bells' became the popular theme to 'The Exorcist'. When the album went mega-platinum, the revenue became the launchpad for Branson's empire. He founded Virgin Atlantic Airlines and became Margaret Thatcher's favorite entrepreneur. And Oldfield carried on with pastoral LPs like 'Hergest Ridge' and 'Ommadawn', music for the solitary audiophile.


OLDFIELD'S INTENSE, HERMETIC MUSIC has always mirrored his own self-imploded personality. He had a dismally unhappy childhood, which he capped off my retreating into his bedroom with a guitar. He never came back. "My mother," he says quietly, "was ... er, she spent most of her life as I knew her in mental institutions. She was addicted to barbiturates ..."

Oldfield smokes as he talks. He rolls his own cigarettes matchstick thin, using a brand of tobacco he can't get anymore. When he heard that the company was going out of business, he bought a three-year supply.

He was about four when his mother started going off the rails. "I witnessed some terrible scenes of humiliation and violence. So many times. Especially in the night. I saw her being carted off in an ambulance. I would go and see her the next day in these weird places full of very weird people, then she would come back and be all right for a week or so and then gradually get more and more upset, and then in the night it would happen again. For years. I didn't have anywhere else to go except my music. I sunk so deep into it, and it became such a friendly place. It didn't matter what would happen ... I'd just pick up the guitar and I wouldn't be there."

In his early teens he began writing lengthy pieces for guitar. Words were not featured in the world of Mike Oldfield. "I'm not very good with words," he says. "In those days I was hopeless with words. I wasn't even able to have a proper conversation because I couldn't string one sentence together with another one properly. If I went out with a group of friends I'd pick up a guitar and play for them. That would be my way of communicating."

Years later, when Richard Branson booked the Queen Elizabeth Hall for a live performance of 'Tubular Bells', a terrified Mike Oldfield refused to take the stage. He was only finally persuaded to go on after Branson promised to give the composer his Bentley.


WITHIN FOUR YEARS OF 'Tubular Bells' release, progressive rock ground to a halt. The moment the wind changed was perfectly exemplified when Richard Branson signed a group called the Sex Pistols. Suddenly Oldfield found that Branson, his adviser and confidant, wasn't there for him. He was distraught. He believes Virgin tried to distance itself from him. It hurt.

Meanwhile, in the British music press Oldfield was pilloried as the old hippie. He still talks of "a press vendetta" and of his battle with "a fascist musical government." Oldfield says a relatively low royalty rate and his own financial mismanagement meant he was in danger of losing the country house and recording studio he'd bought. Fits of blind terror, which had plagued him since his youth, got worse. He was drinking too much; finally, he split with his girlfriend.

Salvation came in the form of a strange self-help organization called Exegesis, a privately run psychotherapy setup often criticized in the tabloid press for using extreme techniques. Disturbing stories leaked out from their seminars of initiates being forced to sit obediently in a room for hours and sometimes having to urinate where they sat. But for Oldfield, rebirth was a lifeline. He "reemerged" from the womb after one harrowing session, screaming like a newborn baby. "I realized afterward that I must not have liked being born at all."

The change was extraordinary. The new Mike Oldfield was bouncing with positivity. Before he had been unable to face the press; now he posed naked in one of the U.K. rock weeklies. Before he had been unable to face flying; now he bought his own airplane and earned his pilot's license. The old Mike hated touring. The new one hired an eighty-piece band, went on the road, and cheerfully lost almost a million dollars.

For years, he continued professional psychotherapy to rebalance himself, all the while producing LPs for his public. His last one, 1990's 'Amarok', bore a warning: THIS ALBUM MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO THE HEALTH OF THE CLOTH-EARED. Faced with record company indifference upon its release, Oldfield poured his own money into promoting the album. It sank without a trace.

Then Rob Dickins, chairman of Warner Music U.K., stepped in. He is the man who nurtured Enya's career. As soon as Oldfield's Virgin contract expired, Dickins teamed him up with producer Trevor Horn for 'Tubular Bells 2'. The new record is a high-gloss, elaborate anagram of the original. Passages that had been dead serious now ring hopeful; what was once haunting returns as poignant. Trevor Horn has recolored and reprocessed sounds, fusing sections together with metronomic precision and transforming Oldfield's performance into a soundtrack that's stranger than science fiction.


AFTER THE TUBULAR BELLS 2 SHOW, Mike is buoyed up. He goes out and gets drunk on champagne. Later the U.K. press will bring up all the familiar charges. The Scotsman's arch review dismisses the show as the sound of boredom. "At best," it yawns, "it is incidental music, test transmissions from a planet you wouldn't want to land on." Oldfield doesn't pay attention anymore.

The next morning, hung over from the bubbly but still brimming with confidence, Oldfield sits in front of fifty journalists who'd been flown in from around the world to witness the event. He answers the questions wearily, rolling cigarettes and smoking them one after another. He talks once again, still angrily, of his difficulties with Virgin. Somebody mentions the Sex Pistols. Oldfield looks dismissive. "I don't bear any ill will," he says magnanimously, "but I think talent survives."

William Shaw was fourteen years old when he bought 'Tubular Bells' in 1973.

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield