Beyond the Ridge: Portrait of a Genius

January 1, 1970
Karl Dallas
Melody Maker


Mike Oldfield has done it again! After his chart-busting 'Tubular Bells' and 'Hergest Ridge' comes 'Ommadawn' - reviewed on the right. And here, Oldfield talks about the new album to Karl Dallas.

"Throw 'Em?" demanded the man in the pub when we asked him the way. "Oh, you mean Thruff 'em, up by where that Peter Wyngarde lives, where that new pop feller's just moved in. 'Ope he don't get up to the same sort o' mischief."

Thruff 'em spelt Througham, is Mike Oldfield's new country retreat, and the word has go round fast among Gloucestershire folk that Mike Oldfield, he of 'Tubular Bells' and 'Hergest Ridge' fame, had come to live among them to produce his fourth masterpiece.

Yes, you did read that right, I said fourth.

Because a while after he had got 'Hergest Ridge' out of his system, Mike had not the foggiest idea of what, if anything, he was going to do next, but now that 'Ommadawn', his third, is barely out on the streets his head is fairly teeming with ideas for further albums.

The only thing stopping him is the time it takes to get an old barn in his new home converted for 24-track sound.

The Beacon, where Mike recorded the whole of 'Ommadawn' (with the exception of the Jabula drums, which were recorded "wild" at the Manor), was at the bottom of a one-in-two incline where everything from grand pianos and furniture to mixing consoles and Dolbys, had to be manhandled.

Knowing his liking for seclusion, it came as no surprise to make his new home at the bottom of a valley, at the end of a road which petered out into a dirt-track.

It's a beautiful, old greystone building, parts of it dating back to the 13th century, with ornamental formal gardens in the process of being restored.

Just the sort of place, in short, which any of us would move into if we had become the best-selling twentieth century composer, with gold records up in the loo to prove it.

Not that the affluent life is without its problems. Despite the smell of fresh-baked bread that flapjacks emanating from the kitchen, it appeared that there were serious problems on the culinary front, namely in pumping up water from the spring, and all cups of tea had to be trickled from a 100-gallon jerrycan loaned by a friendly neighbourhood villager.

Oldfield was nowhere to be seen. He was, it later transpired, getting to know the locals over a few jars of Guinness, a tipple he has been known to fly to Edinburgh for on an impulse when the mixing was going wrong.

It is this capriciousness when it comes to dealing with the media which has given him a bad reputation with those who think an interview is an interview and no time to be chatting up the local tweedery.

Whereas to Mike, all human contacts are equally valid, and business merely something to be fitted in between the important matters of life, like flying gliders and riding horses (his current craze, as anyone will quickly gather from listening to side two of 'Ommadawn'). And, of course, drinking Guinness.

Oldfield, however, is quite ready to respond to questions. After sitting around listening to Thomas Tallis and Magma and bits of 'Ommadawn', which he wanted to play to Leslie Penning, the recorder-player, who hadn't heard it since he laid down his instrumentals, we got down to business, though not [until] after a bit of preliminary sparring regarding the name of the album.

Where had he got it from? I asked, knowing full well (or thinking I did) that it was Gaelic for "a fool."

"I first saw it written down," he said, "on a bit of paper, the words that Clodagh Simonds made up. About a week after that I looked at the words that she'd written down and I saw it there, and I thought, 'That's a nice word.'"

Did he know what it meant, then?

"It doesn't mean anything," he said.

It's Gaelic, I maintained. Amadan (pronounced ommadawn) means "the fool."

"No," he replied, "there is a word which sounds vaguely like it, which is Gaelic, which means fool, but Ommadawn doesn't mean anything."

Did the title come before he started work on the project?

"No, it was right at the very end. The bit with the drums and voices on I did twice, and I did the voices several times to get them perfect, and Clodagh ended up coming up at twelve o'clock, working through the night and getting back to London early the next morning because she had to be at work."

The last time we had spoken, just after 'Hergest Ridge', he had thought it unlikely that his next opus would be another epic work (to use his own words at the time). And yet here he was, with another epic. How come?

"It seems to be what happened," he said. "It began to take shape at the beginning of January. I just had two tunes which ran together on acoustic guitar, and it sounded nice, and I developed it all from that." He hummed the first two themes of side one to illustrate.

Had he found it difficult?

"Well, I had loads of problems, obviously. I did the whole of the first side twice. I think there was something wrong, probably with the tape before I got it, or it may have been just that I played it so many times, hundreds of times, and it started shedd ing oxide, getting a bit worn out. Nobody knows what happened to it.

"But it's jolly good that it did happen, otherwise I might not have done it again and it would not have been half so good. I mean, I would have done it again even if the tape had not worn out.

"The first one was going to be the final one, and just as I finished the first one I listened to it and I realised that it was going to be only a demo. It was quite a shock.

"And I had to do it all again."

Previously, referring again to things he had said at the time of 'Hergest Ridge', he had stated that 'Tubular Bells' represented his feelings about life in the city, while the "Ridge" was a reaction to the scenery that gave it the name. So what does 'Ommadawn' represent?

"I only speculated that they might have had those inspirations," he corrected. "I don't know, really. I haven't even got a speculation for the new one."

What was his state of mind while he was composing it?

"Obsessed."

With making it?

"Mmm," he affirmed. "I was a lot stronger, personally, than when I was doing the others. A bit more confident."

Confident musically, or personally?

"Personally."

Did this mean that he had come to terms with all the things that had been happening to him?

"No," he laughed.

But was he finding life easier to cope with now?

"I think so, a little bit. I'm a bit stronger. I don't find everything so bewildering as it used to be. I'm getting a bit used to being like me, here."

So had he come to terms with himself, at least?

"Well, I've only just started, really. I suppose this record was a picture of that. The second side, especially. No, the whole thing. It doesn't sound so frightened as the others. It sounds a bit stronger."

So it wasn't so much an attempt at musical self-therapy, as he had once suggested was the case with the previous one, but more a reflection of his current state of mind?

"Well, I don't know. I've no idea what goes on. It's the one thing that I don't understand, why I do it, and what it is when I've done it. It's funny."

Was he as pleased with this as he'd been with 'Hergest Ridge' when he completed it? (Earlier he had reaffirmed his approval of [that] work, though he is now talking of remixing it.)

"I'm very pleased with this. The only difference is that, after 'Hergest Ridge,' I couldn't imagine me doing any more. But after this, I can imagine me doing loads and loads more. I want to get cracking on another one very fast.

"So this is not the end, to me. Obviously, 'Hergest Ridge' never was the end of me writing music, but it did feel a bit like it.

"But this one, and especially after doing it and moving here, unless I crash in the car one night I'm obviously going to do a lot more music, an awful lot."

Any ideas?

"I have a few ideas. You know, we're just speculating at the moment, but there should be enough room here to record a small orchestra, and I'd quite like to do that."

Going out on the roads? A shake of the head. He never felt the need to communicate direct with his audience?

"Not an audience. I do, person-to-person, but not with a complete mass of people."

We spoke for a while about the closing "horseback" song which is likely to cause more comment, pro and con, than any other part of the new album.

Earlier, Leslie Penning had described how he had introduced Mike to horse-riding, and how the song had brought back the experience to him so keenly that he had, quite literally, wept, when Mike sang it to him.

"I just discovered it when I got on the back of his great animal," said Oldfield.

How important was the song to the album?

"Very important. It seems to balance it out. There seemed to have been an over-pessimisticness [sic] about it, especially the end of the first side, even though some people find it makes them happy. Other people, it makes them very unhappy.

"It scared me to death when I did it. When I did that electric guitar, I found it really frightening. I couldn't sleep.

"And the horse song is the sort of opposite to that. Well perhaps not the opposite, but it balances it. It's got that verse in it, 'some find it strange to be here.' I certainly do.

"And that maybe has a lot to do with why I make music."


Mike Oldfield Tubular.net
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net