Oldfield: High on the Ridge

August 24, 1974

Melody Maker

Toy gliders, house-hunting and a jam with a harpsicordist in a restaurant. It's all happening on the Welsh Marches where Karl Dallas meets Mike Oldfield.
MIKE OLDFIELD stood poised, silhouetted against the washed-denim blue Welsh sky like some kind of Greek Daedalus statue, launching a 12-ft wingspan glider into a westerly wind current blowing off Hergest Ridge.

It swooped down towards the borderline between heather and dark green bracken, faltered as Mike picked up the radio control box with its bright yellow windsock to warn him of changes of wind, caught a warm air thermal and began to climb.

Mike spends a lot of time out on the hills of the Welsh borders, playing with these gliders.

Most of the time, even when he is making music, he is not a terribly impressive figure, withdrawn, mumbling into the sparse beard on his chin, offering very little in the way of spontaneous conversation off his own bat.

It's easy to believe that it was here, staring up into the sky above the Welsh Marches on the English side of Offa's Dyke, that he got his inspiration for "Hergest Ridge," his new and even more grandly conceived album due out at the end of the month, a work so far beyond the faltering "Tubular Bells," in concept and execution that it must either surpass it or fall flat on its face.

"When I'm controlling the glider I get so into it that I feel almost as if I'm sitting inside. I don't feel as if I'm on the ground any more. That's why its such a shock when the thing comes to land and hits the ground."

He brought the glider in, swooping low towards us, slightly misjudged the angle and had to overshoot. I ducked as it whizzed past my ear silently, except for the whisper of air rushing over its aerofoils, banked and turned, coming back even lower.

He pushed a control and it seemed to pause in the air as if held by an invisible hand, then nosed into a bank of heather.

He was right: the shock was almost like the breaking of a spell.

Mike Oldfield has done this sort of thing for years, ever since he was turned on to it by his father, a figure who still tends to loom fairly largely in the conversation between Mike and his sister Sally.

Mike tried a few more sweeps with the glider but somehow the spell seemed indeed to have been broken. Or the wind had changed. Anyway, it never flew so long, or so high again, so he dismantled the wings and we turned to go back home.

Why had he chosen to call the album after Hergest Ridge?

"I dunno," he said, "It's a nice hill. It looks different from whatever direction you look. And it has all sorts of associations with old Welsh legends. You find it in the Mabinogion. There's iron age relics right on the very top."

How about the music? Did the various sections, the eight different and distinct melodies interlinked in 40 different ways to produce a completely coherent whole spreading over the album's two sides in a much more organic way than the somewhat spasmodic progression of "Tubular Bells," have any sort of programme, relating to different parts of the ridge, perhaps, or even to the way it changed its aspect with the seasons or the changeable climate?

"No." he said, shortly. "There's no programme." And he shut up like a clam.

He's not unwilling to talk about music as such, only his own music. The previous night he'd spent a great deal of time and energy trying to explain to a classically-trained musician the reason for the popularity of the chord sequence Davey Graham used as the foundation of "Angi," which he'd just been playing, even to the extent of showing how there was a piece of baroque music with the same harmonic structure.

That was a strange evening and no mistake. We'd left first of all in two cars, Virgin's Richard Branson and his lovely lady, Christine, and Mike's dog, Roger, in one, and Mike and sister Sally in the other, to go to look at a half-timbered 17th Century house Mike was thinking of buying.

He needed somewhere, he explained, big enough to accomodate a studio he wanted to build himself so he could construct the intricately layered shapes of mis-overdubbed music at home whenever the spirit moved him. And this place, which was in the process of being restored to something of its early glory by a man colouring the plaster in between the decorated timbers with a water-colouring brush, had a suitable barn.

The only trouble was that the view was vastly inferior.

Then, in the gathering dusk, we whisked across the country to a restaurant Mike had discovered, where in addition to serving excellent scoff like quails and syllabub in the long, low-beamed room, they also had a guy, Leslie, who played a very fair harpsichord, recorders, and hurdy-gurdy.

It could have been terribly twee and Elizabethan room-ish, but in fact the atmospehere was very nice, especially when Mike broke out his guitar and mandolin and started to jam along on old folk things like "Barbara Allen" and "She Moved Through the Fair," with Sally's high, sweet voice singing the words out of a book of Vaughn Williams arrangements.

Just imagine the scene. Here is this young genius (OK he don't look much in his faded denims) who has been at the top of the American album charts longer than anyone else except Simon and Garfunkel, who hates appearing in public and has had to have his arm twisted to agree to be in live concerts of "Hergest Ridge" and "Tubular Bells" later this year, and here he is, playing in publis entirely voluntarily, to an audience of passing travellers and blue-rinsed American lady tourists who have never even heard of him, even if they have seen The Exorcist.

The harpsichord guy has never heard of him either, and he gets quite uptight about it, before the evening's over (three or four bottles of wine later): "I understand you're quite famous but I know nothing at all about pop and I've never heard of you and I know nothing about the sort of music you play. Nothing."

And Mike, who doesn't like talking about his music, takes a deep breath and starts again to explain to this fellow musician where, exactly, the tune is at.

Seeing him there, reminded me of something that the technological wizardry of his two albums manages to obscure rather too effectively, the fact that Mike Oldfield is really rather a tasty musician. Check back to the lovely bass notes which open one of Kevin Ayers' albums and the serenely liquid guitar solo later on after the vocal of that first track if you want to be reminded of how consistently good he has been, over the years.

There are more good solos on "Hergest Ridge," if you can play it enough to dig them out of the surrounding layers of sound, and some truly remarkable playing on David Bedford's "Star's End" symphonic piece.

The music he is playing on this night in the Welsh hills is quite different, entirely acoustic, but some of the recorder-and-mandolin or harpsichord-and-guitar duets which had come out would make Richard and Graeme of Gryphon turn green with envy, because the harpsichord player ain't half bad, either.

So as long as you're not trying to get him to open up specifically about the music of Mike Oldfield and the thinking that goes into it, he'll talk about music all right.

It's always been that way, this reticence about his own art, ever since the old days when he and Sally were the Sallyangie, a potentially very interesting folk duo signed to Trans-Atlantic and beefing about being persuaded to dress up in green velvet and satin gear for their debut at the Cambridge Folk Festival.

They did it, then, complaining, but with the advent of economic security one thing Mike Oldfield has earned has been the right to say no.

You might think that with the artistic recognition his work has received since "Tubular Bells" he would have become more outgoing, but the reverse is true.

Success hasn't exactly spoiled Mike Oldfield and the riches that have flowed recently in contrast with the comparative penury of the previous five years haven't really made him any different.

You've read those articles about him sending back the Lamborghini and swapping it for a Mercedes and it's true he has a Merc now, a snappy little coupe which is quick but not at all flash, if you get my meaning. He also has a Range Rover which isn't a cheap car to purchase, never mind run.

He lives fairly frugally, though - the day before I went down, he had spent the entire 24 hours without food because he hadn't been able to get it together to go down to the village for groceries - and he dresses much like any other neighbourhood musician, jeans and T-shirt, funky Jesus sandals.

Somebody broke into his home and walked off with all his electronic gear, uninsured, and he was able to replace it without much bother, apart from a grimace at the inconvenience.

He has lots of those gliders, and he buys them ready-made these days, so they don't come cheap. But they appear to be his only real luxury, his only self-indulgence outside his music.

The thing that success has given him is the right to be more completely himself.

Even a few months ago, just before "Tubular Bells" had come out, he was prepared to endure the whole "being interviewed" bit as part of the business that had to be tolerated, even though he didn't like it.

Today, no-one could get him to wear satin and velvet on stage. And no one can get him to talk if he doesn't want to.

The scene changes to the Manor, Virgin's rambling hideaway recording studio in the wilds of Oxfordshire, where Mike has been overdubbing some guitar on to "Star's End." A feature of the piece is a long duet, more like a dialogue, between bass on the left-hand channel and guitar on the right.

Because the bass player couldn't make the gig, Mike ended up playing both parts. Anything to oblige a buddy - Bedford and he both played in Kevin Ayer's band.

Typically, Mike is now nowhere to be found. He has wandered off into the night while the piece is being mixed down, misses dinner, and is later discovered in the kitchen eating steak and chips.

I compliment him on his playing, which is superb. He mumbles non-commitally. I remark on the excitement of Bedford's composition and his face lights up.

"Oh, I'm so glad you like it," he says with enthusiasm. "It's incredible, isn't it? That's really nice."

I feel as if I have passed some kind of test, and the feeling is a good one.

Mike Oldfield Tubular.net
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net