Balm For The Waking Dead

December, 1974
Karl Dallas
Let It Rock Magazine

Mike Oldfield is a strange sort of superstar for the seventies - shy, withdrawn, his face fairly unfamiliar to the readers of the musical press even now, after "Tubular Bells" has topped the album charts for over a year, a shooting star that suddenly appeared on the musical horizon and has dominated it to the increasing perplexity of critics, promoters, and most of all the record companies. They turned down his ridiculous idea of producing a rock symphony, using thousands of overdubs instead of the other musicians which would have been the alternative - an option as unacceptable to Mike, because of the few other musicians he'd trust on such a prospect, as it would have been to the said record companies on grounds of cost.

But then the seventies are a funny sort of time. Perhaps Mike Oldfield is the sort of superstar we need - or deserve; as indicative of what is happening now as the Fab Four were in the sixties.

It is not true, of course, that Mike has no charisma. There was a moment in the Robert Wyatt Drury Lane concert when this anonymous figure shambled on to fiddle - there is no other word - with the synthesiser, and you could feel the thrill run through the theatre. We couldn't see his face but this, surely, was Mike.

His guitar-playing is, perhaps, the best place to begin to approach him, for it is easy to forget, in the midst of this technology he uses so brilliantly, and the constantly frustrated media attempts to penetrate the enigma of what makes him tick, that he is a truly remarkable musician. And a very self-critical one.

Recently, he bought himself an incredibly expensive classical guitar, made by a Japanese who produces one instrument every five years, and I asked him about his judgement of his own proficiency.

"Well,” he said, "on this guitar, I'm rather useless. On an acoustic guitar, I'm extremely out of practice. I used to be quite good. On an electric guitar, I think I know it reasonably well. I could know it a lot better. I mean, I can close my eyes and know where I am on the fingerboard, mostly. You know, I know chords all the way up.

"But as far as this goes, I've got a long way to go. That’s why I bought a decent guitar, because I want to get good on Spanish. In fact, if you know anybody who can give me lessons, I'd go along.

"I want to be able to sight-read, and just open a book, you know. That week, there'd been a big front-page story in "NME" about his "plans to form a band", something that had passed through his mind as the germ of an idea, but was far from being a definite proposal. The way the crumb of a story had been seized upon irritated him considerably. But it was inevitable, in the circumstances, that we discussed the idea; and as he outlined the requirements for the possible band's three guitarists, who would be required to play separate melody lines rather than the classical lead-plus-rhythm of the traditional rock format, I realised not only how hard it was going to be for him to find his paragons, but also how hard he worked to get the pure, almost ethereal sound which is his trademark.

"They'd have to be very proficient with their guitar sound," he said. "There'd be no room for people feeding back and that sort of thing. "To keep an electric guitar sustained you have to do that sort of stuff,” he said, demonstrating a finger vibrato, "all the time. To keep it going, keep the note going. Because if you let it die away, the fuzz-box starts going ee-errk. A dreadful instrument to try and play.

"The band is one possibility. It could happen. If I find, say, six suitable musicians I shall be very happy. But I must admit I'm dubious, that we'll find the right people. If we do, then that will be wonderful."

What would make them suitable?

"Well, musical technique and, I suppose, musical philosophy, which is not verbal;” he said, deftly fending off my next question. "You can only tell by the way somebody plays.

"I'd use three guitars, all electric. They'd play in chords, one guitar to each note, like a string section in an orchestra, which is what I do on the records anyway.

"But live, that, together with two keyboard players, bassist - heaven knows where I'd find a good bassist. There's good bassists, but a suitable one. Somebody who plays bass expressively, doesn't just go bm bm bm. Bass guitar can really talk, if you want it to, and say things. I don't know anybody.

"Drums? Oh, there'd be a percussionist, timpani and that sort of stuff, gongs. I don't really think I'd have a drum kit:”

Not, therefore, a conventional rock band.

"What's an example of a conventional rock band? No, it wouldn't be an ordinary rock band, it'd be like a very powerful miniature, er, I don't know. I haven't even written the music for it. I'd like some help in writing the music for it from the other people. It is a hypothetical thing, just an idea.”


"Well, no words, no. There's probably a couple of singers I could think of, that would complement a few bits, maybe with some words, but not words with any meaning.

"I don't like words, much, in songs, unless they're folksongs. I can't stand rock words. They make me cringe. I never listen to the words of any rock song. I have a big block against them, for some reason.

"My speech is playing the guitar, or playing instruments. I can say things of equal validity as any words:”

He's right there. As non-verbal communications, both "Tubular Bells" and "Hergest Ridge" obviously convey something to the record-buying public which has nothing to do with the technology of the recording studio and a great deal to do with the pain of Mike's own emotions, the search for tranquillity which makes him seem hard to reach in the ordinary run-of-the-mill, musical-press-reception sort of environment in which he meets most music writers and which has led him to hide himself away in the Herefordshire-Radnorshire borderlands.

But they also seem to convey very little to the average critic, who finds it hard to square the romanticism of Mike's work, the washes of impressionistic sound which seem to hark back through people like Terry Riley to Delius and Ravel, with the feeling that they must, somehow, an innovator. And since innovators are, by definition, supposed to be hard to listen to, the fact that Mike's work has such instant appeal, that it is so tuneful, that the demands it makes are not try to understand but that you should also try to penetrate and allow the layers of texture to wash over and through you, above all that you should not be frightened of surrendering to its romanticism, of recognising that there are other reactions to the pain of the world than a scream of agony, disturb the hard-bitten.

An anecdote perhaps illustrates the sort of instant appeal that has.

The other day I was walking behind a fellow in the street who was whistling the complex 7-7-7-9 Terry Riley like figure which opens “Tubular Bells”. The nine beat threw him a bit at the end it’s true, but I was reminded forcibly of Schoenberg’s mostly unfulfilled desire to have his twelve-tone tunes whistled by errand boys on their bikes, and thought how envious he would have been of this young autodidact.

Oldfield’s music is instantly recognisable, and in fact when I discussed his significance with David Bedford, his former fellow-musician in Kevin Ayers’ band who has re-scored both works for symphony orchestra, this was the very point he made.

“He’s not a great innovator, no" said Bedford, “but he's a very great individual, in that if you listened to a few hits he couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. If I was to put a heavy metal band on, you wouldn't have a clue about which particular heavy metal band it was, because they all sound the same. And for me at any rate, the same for singer-songwriters. Whereas with a Mike piece, there's a distinct individual voice, though he's still pretty young. And you don’t necessarily have to be an innovator. Bach wasn't an innovator, Gabrielli really wasn't an innovator. Britten certainly isn’t an innovator, or Tippett. They’re all particular individual voices which as soon as you hear a piece of theirs, you say ‘Ah, that’s so-and-so’. "He stands out in the rock scene because he's the only one who uses a sort of logical construction to his pieces, and they have a semi-classical feel to them. And he'd probably stand out in a classical concert situation in that he'd have a rock feel to him, because his whole background is rock, so that that tinges everything he does."

Everybody makes a reference to Terry Riley when they are talking about Mike - I have done, twice, already - and some critics have gone on to conclude from the comparison that Mike is merely ripping off the ideas of someone else and taking advantage of the fact that, in the main, the rock audience isn't too aware of what is being done by the classical avant garde.

"It's probably based on the beginning of "Tubular Bells," said Bedford, "which uses a repeated figure which goes over and over again. That, in Terry Riley, is the reason for the piece, the hypnotic effect of the repeated figure, whereas in the "Tubular Bells" context it's used as an accompaniment figure to something much more important, so there isn't really a comparison to be made at all.”

When I raised the question with Mike himself, he was a typical mixture of concern and unconcern, vulnerability and defiance on the point.

"Well, I had heard it once, yeah;” he said. "I since bought the record, "Rainbow In Curved Air". I like very much the beginning of it, but it gets a bit boring after halfway through. They do say that, don't they? Well, so what?"

Of all the sides of his musical personality, it is probably Oldfield the melodist - possibly, the first genuine melodist we've had since McCartney - that is the most important.

Bedford's judgement is interesting: "They're not classical melodies in one sense because they're not developable. He doesn't extend his melody. He'll have it with a different accompaniment or on a different instrument and it's very rare that the melody is a unit in itself.

"It is then repeated on a different instrument so that it's constantly changing in texture. The nearest composer in the classical field you could think of would be someone like Messiaen, who just keeps repeating blocks. So in that sense he hasn't got a classical melodic feel to him, because they're not developed.

"So they're just tunes. They have a sort of slightly rural touch to them. on occasion, I've noticed, a sort of feeling of Delius to them perhaps. It's just a sort of mixture of everything he likes which has got churned up in his mind and come out as something completely different from all the various influences that went on in the first place.”

Certainly, in classical terms, Oldfield's music tends to be naive in the extreme. His knowledge of recording techniques, even of his own instrument, is fairly sophisticated, but the remarkable thing is that this knowledge allows him to marshall his comparatively limited range of melodic ideas in a way that hitherto had been the exclusive province of the classically educated composer. And where his technique is limited, the very ineptness of the playing is used as an effect.

In this sense, despite the symphonic sweep of his vision, I think Oldfield's works are still relevant to rock, which despite recent trends towards musical virtuosity in the playing of people like John D. McLaughlin and Rick Wakeman, has always tended to make a virtue out of its weaknesses, under-emphasising its strengths as a sort of populist ploy.

Thus the "classical" nature of his music is something of a delusion. It is true, he is inspired more by Delius than by Bo Diddley, but his appeal to the public is closer to that of the great virtuosi at the end of the Nineteenth Century, your Fritz Kreislers and your Franz Liszts - even though he rarely appears in public these days, and gets his most dramatic effects late at night in the recording studio, with no one, not even the engineer, but a bottle of whisky to keep him company.

Not for him the bleak vision of a Schoenberg or a Stockhausen. Despite the pain of his own life, the music comes across more as self-therapy than as an expression of that pain. No primal scream for him.

At the age of 15 he devised one of the most peaceful and serene melodies on "Tubular Bells", the organ-and acoustic-guitar tune on the second side, as a means of influencing his own feelings.

"I invented my own state of mind," he told me. "I was feeling very unpeaceful at the time, for quite a long time. I still am. And there was in fact one point in my life that I suppose you'd say that I had a nervous breakdown.

"I don't know what it was. I just went mad for a few weeks. I was incredibly frightened all the time, about being alive, and the only thing that gave me any comfort was playing the guitar. I had to invent a mood that was totally opposite to what I was feeling.

"It was around that period that I wrote that particular tune. I also wrote the beginning of the second side.”

Mike Oldfield speaks to all the walking wounded, and the romanticism of his melodies holds out a note of hope. The tunes that he devised, originally, to modify his own state of mind, have the same, serene effect on the people who buy his records. And boy, as the film publicity says, do we need it now!

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield