The Orchestral Tubular Bells Review - New Music Express

January 11, 1975
Max Bell
New Musical Express

As it already appears that every other person in Great Britain possesses a copy of this much-venerated work, I doubt if it's necessary to explain the mechanics of "Tubular Bells"s' unfurling dramatic qualities; in which case you may be pondering the artistic justification of repeating so exactly a musical experience that has already proven its commercial viability.

Apart from one section removed at Oldfield's insistence, David Bedford has orchestrated the work without fundamentally altering the notation. Where the real change occurs, however, is in sheer textural interpretation.

What, in retrospect, was the brainchild of a highly-gifted technical musician able to overdub a multitude of parts to produce a whole, becomes a composition that can be presented in total. By using the RPO to reproduce each different sound, Bedford manages to convey the natural possibilities in a fluid evolution rather than a conglomeration of effects; as a finished work it makes more complete sense.

The listening intention of "Tubular Bells" is whatever you choose to make it, so I won't presume to inflict all my associations upon the various atmospheric passages. What makes it valid is this indefinable ability for evocation; film music without the film, aural wallpaper, high class muzak, call it what you like but you can't ignore it.

Not that Tubular Bells is the symphonic masterpiece some claim it to be, surviving on melodic invention rather than thematic complexity. Inevitably with a work of this length, occasional sections are less attractive than others. I particularly dislike the brief lapse into big-band swing that precedes a segment of pure "West Side Story" -- George Chakiris rides again. Moments like these verge dangerously near to popcorn cliche, but Oldfield keeps a tight rein on the fantasy so that just when the pleasantries get too overt, he brings the content around to a more sober formality.

On this version Bedford develops the orchestral ideas with a vengeance. The percussionist has a field day on the many rapid toccatas, and the comparisons with Ravel's penchant for dictating the climatic pulse occur at times, particularly with the violins and flutes playing as a counterpart to a swelling bass cauldron.

More than ever I find the "Big Country"/Grand Canyon parts the most spectacular -- Mike Oldfield meets Aaron Copeland -- so that in many ways I prefer Side Two with its sonorous march evolving into a cinemascopic, sepia-tinted montage.

Later there's Oldfield's modest classical doodling upstaged by his own tremendous electric guitar solo with its rivetting harmonics. Of course the album closes with the traditional rendition of the sailor's hornpipe taken at an undignified lick.

This re-working, while ostensibly the same as the original, is, in fact, its final logical extension. Bedford's orchestration extrapolates many of the merits which Oldfield couldn't produce alone, which is why admirers of Tubular Bells Mark One may well appreciate this even more.

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield