Beyond the Ridge: Portrait of a Genius - Ommadawn Review

October 25, 1975
Karl Dallas
Melody Maker

MIKE OLDFIELD: "Ommadawn" (Virgin V2043) MIKE OLDFIELD (harp, electric guitars, acoustic and electric basses, acoustic, 12-string and classical guitars, bodhran, bouzouki, banjo, spinet, grand piano, electric organs, synthesizers, glockenspiel, percussion [,vocals]), PADDY MOLONEY (uillean pipes), HERBIE (Northumbrian bagpipes), LESLIE PENNING (recorders), TERRY OLDFIELD (pan pipes), PIERRE MOERLIN (tympani), DAVID STRANGE (cello), DON BLAKESON (trumpet), JULIAN BAHULA, ERNEST MOTHLE, LUCKY RANHU, EDDIE TATANE (African drums), CLODAGH SIMONDS, BRIDGET ST JOHN, SALLY OLDFIELD, THE PENRHOS KIDS (vocals), HEREFORDSHIRE CITY BAND conducted by LESLIE PENNING.

Composed, produced and engineered by MIKE OLDFIELD. Recorded at the Beacon, Herefordshire, January to September 1975.

IT WAS Eamonn Carr, Horslips' drummer and student of Gaelic, who first gave me a clue as to what Mike Oldfield's third album is all about. Scanning the David Bailey cover picture, with Mike gazing pensively through a rain-streaked window, he said the title over to himself and then jumped to his feet in excitement.

"It's Gaelic," he exclaimed. "That's not the way you spell it, but it's the way you pronounce it."

So it is.

Amadan, pronounced "ommadawn," according to John Grant's 'Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language', published in 1925, means "a foolish man, a simpleton."

So this is Mike Oldfield's self-portrait.

Of course, with such an introverted personality, every piece of music Mike Oldfield produces is a window into his soul, from the swirling fury of the sailors' hornpipe at the end of 'Tubular Bells' to the African drums which play throughout the nearly seven minute final section of 'Ommadawn', side one, and which have the last 1 3/4 minutes of the side to themselves in what must be one of the longest final fades in the history of popular music.

'Tubular Bells' itself was Oldfield's fragmented, agonised reaction to life in the big city, alternately sad and happy, manic and depressive, and, because of the divisions in his life, ultimately something of an artistic failure, despite its chart success.

In 'Hergest Ridge', he had swung to the opposite extreme. If anything, by achieving the affluence that allowed him to bury himself deep in the Herefordshire countryside, his life become too uneventful.

Having produced a second major work, he did not know what he would do next. So he made a silly, jokey single with his old mate David Bedford.

If the accusation that he was a mere one-hit wonder was unjustified, perhaps he was no more than a two-hit success, after all.

Well, 'Ommadawn' is a monster. It is more varied than 'Hergest Ridge', more complete in conception than 'Tubular Bells'.

It has singable tunes, primitive body rhythms, soaring moments of joy, surprises, pleasures and enjoyments in plenty.

In 'Ommadawn', Mike Oldfield has developed the concept of using studio techniques to create a quasi-symphonic structure for popular music to a point where it now really works.

Basically, it is quite simple. Classical music relies upon development and variation for building up musical interest, but Mike Oldfield has taken the system of a basic harmonic chord progression, which is the basis of all improvisation in jazz and rock, and built his structures upon it.

This means that he can create a basic melody, derive a chord sequence from it, and then erect a new melody upon the basis of the same sequence, and the two tunes will not merely be harmonically related, but they can also be played at the same time, working as counter melodies to each other.

Since a major chord can have a relative minor (G major and E minor, C major and A minor) and vice versa, he can modulate from major to minor and back again, without destroying the basic unity of the structure.

And by changing the melodic scale slightly, flattening a note here, raising it a semitone there, he can change the mode of the music in a different manner - a device quite often used by classical composers.

All this is fairly commonplace stuff. It has taken the genius - if that is not too strong a word, and I don't think it is - of a Mike Oldfield to use this simples of musical structures, accessible to the least musically educated among us, and make it the basis of remarkable works which, for all their apparent complexity, can be reduced to very simple essentials.

'Hergest Ridge', for instance, was a collection of five or six themes per side, often re-surfacing in disguise and in combinations which hid their origins.

'Ommadawn' can be pared to an even simpler melodic expression, namely the melody which opens side one and is repeated four times in the first minute.

It begins in a minor key, as if symbolic of Mike's emotional state of mind, and after a run of notes starting with the bass and moving right up the piano keyboard, it is succeeded by what appears to be a second theme, a descending motif of brooding intensity with heavy bass underpinning which recurs at the end as the chanted tune under the African drums.

But both these themes are harmonically related to each other, and also to the jaunty little major tune which Les Penning plays on the recorder about halfway through the side, which is probably the sunniest piece of melodic writing for which Oldfield has yet been responsible.

The first theme returns, in its minor mood, on electric guitar, played hesitatingly, almost falteringly, as if he is feeling his way into the piece. There is another bass and piano chromatic run up the scale, and the second, descending theme recurs, this time with electric guitar making comments in the undergrowth, as it were.

The intensity rises and there is a massive gong crash, leading into a superb electric guitar solo, based on the first theme, which Mike seems to be tearing out of the very fabric of his soul.

Another gong crash ushers in cascades of guitar runs, the fingers scuttling up and down the fingerboard like harvest mice in search of scattered grains of corn, and before the runs have completed, the heavy thud of a bass drum announces a bridging sequence which leads in turn into majestic chords and a drum roll which seem to prefigure a mood of deep solemnity.

A major theme is introduced, high on a chorus of whistles, and more majestic chords with electric guitar, when Oldfield suddenly breaks the tension with the aforementioned recorder tune.

It is a superb stroke, taking the listener completely by surprise, and one of many such on the album which caused a classical composer friend of mine, who had regarded 'Tubular Bells' as mere frippery and 'Hergest Ridge' as rather uneventful, to cry out physically with sheer joy.

As the tune progresses, Mike's mandolin joining it in a counter - melody, and a tambourine moving the whole thing into a crazy kind of round dance, it becomes obvious that this was not such a break with what had gone before, and that for all its jauntiness, it is related to the brooding intensity of the earlier themes.

The dance comes to its climax, slows down to a pause in a slightly exaggerated ralantando, and there is a short sequence of guitar virtuosity, with more runs up and down the keyboard against a deep bass drum pulse, while after a short time accompanying off-beat chords remind us of something that has gone before, and, in fact, lay the basis for the album's second surprise.

The interesting thing about both these moments, the introduction of the recorder tune and the sudden revelation of the Jabula drums which is about to happen, is that on repeated playing you can see how Mike lays the basis for the development, and the "surprise" is really as inevitable as the falling of night or the breaking of dawn.

Listen carefully in the mix of the guitar runs section, for instance, and you can hear what might be distant drums buried deep in the mix, at first suggested by other instruments, then more explicitly.

High whistles play the second, descending theme slowly, almost as if the whole side is coming to a gentle close: and there is a sudden break, the drums are upfront, and voices chant words which may or may not have coherent meaning. It is impossible to hear the words, but the effect is electric. The whole point of the descending theme becomes evident.

Its relationship with the opening theme of the side becomes obvious, too, as first the harp, then Mike's electric guitar restated the first theme with variations.

Something must be said about Oldfield's guitar playing at this point. Gone is the serene, "singing" electric guitar tone which has made his sound instantly recognisable since that superb solo on Kevin Ayers' "Whatevershebringswesing" so long ago, and which we have already heard so far on this side of the new album.

Instead, he plays abrupt, stabbing phrases, sometimes composed of just two or three notes, as the background intensity of the section rises until it is becoming almost unbearable. This is a new Oldfield, neither manically gay nor self-rewardingly maudlin. There is anger; there are teeth.

Then the tension breaks, and we are left with that long, slow fade of drums (one minute and 46 seconds of them), and instead of being menacing, the sound is somehow reassuring, as if the heavy rhythm is in some way restating the basic unity of man and his universe after the aggressions of the guitar phrases have been released in catharsis.

I guarantee that not many people will feel able to just turn the album over and proceed with side two as if nothing has happened. Not straight away, anyway.

If they do, it will come as something of an anti-climax, for in a sense we are back in the world of 'Hergest Ridge' again, a constantly moving backdrop of notes and chords, using the multi-overdub capacity of his home 24-track studio to the full.

Harmonically, what he is playing is related to what has gone before, but it doesn't seem to be moving anywhere.

Like a mantra, it repeats over and over, never returning to exactly the same sequence of notes, sometimes modulating to the minor and back to the major, sometimes rising and sometimes falling, but in fact laying down a complex carpet of sound, a tapestry against which all the later musical figures will stand out in sharper relief.

I was reminded of the remark by John Cage, I think it was, that there is a point beyond monotony when the constant repetition of a pattern frees the mind to perceive variations that would not otherwise be noticed.

There is, indeed, more going on in this section than immediately strikes the ear, but it is the part of the whole album which is closest to his previous recorded work. He is, as I have indicated, laying the bases for yet another surprise, and perhaps the nicest one on the record.

The backdrop resolves itself into a shimmer of sound against which a limpid acoustic guitar emerges like ripples on a clear lake. Again, what happens later has an inevitability about it which, the second time you play the side, with hindsight you can see is predetermined and predicted by what has gone before.

Listen to the way the guitar is played, those demi-semi-quavers before each accented note (which are described, technically, as passing notes or arpeggioturas [sic]). Doesn't the acoustic guitar phrasing sound just a little like the pipes? A synthesizer drone adds to the impression.

Then we hard the real drone of the magnificent, Irish uillean pipes, played by the Chieftain of all pipers, Paddy Moloney himself, taking the melody over from Oldfield and making it very much his own.

If I had to take a single from this album, I think this is what I would take, even though the entire sequence lasts almost five minutes. It could be cut, of course (there are two reprises) but it would be a pity.

The basic theme of the opening backdrop is repeated on whistles, the music moves through an urgent mood, a dying fall of notes transforms it into a minor mode and then ... suddenly ... it's smashing-plates-on-the-floor time, as mandolins take up a Greek-s tyle melody that would not have disgraced Zorba the Greek. You can practically smell the aroma of skewered lamb dripping fat on to red-hot charcoal, and taste the resinous Greek wine, as the fool puts on one of those silly Greek tou-tous and prances around for our edification and amusement.

The guitar plays a counter melody and the whole thing is quite obviously going to leave us with the mother of a hangover next morning, when the scene changes yet again, and we are back in the open air and we hear Mike murmuring something about the delights of horseback riding.

Now if you have scornful shafts to throw, prepare to stick them into the album, because this is the fool rampant, unashamedly, mawkishly singing a somewhat silly ditty that the Incredible String Band might just have got away with at their most fey.

It works brilliantly, but with the extreme sophistication of those who have relearned the skills of the childlike, he has determined to offend all the Mr Hips and Ms Supercools in their Stirling Cooper pants and Zandra Rhodes dresses who pride themselves on their urbanity, and succeeds, I'm sure.

"Big brown beastie, big brown face," he sings, and something about preferring to be on a horse than zooming out to space (with echo-delayed guitars zinging up to escape velocity as if to show he knows what blast-off is all about, too).

To make matters worse, or better, he has this chorus sung by a crowd of local kids who obviously are completely into what he is singing about.

It is quite the most outrageous piece of kitch I have heard since the days when the Beach Boys were singing about cool water being "such a gas" and Robin Williamson prattling on about ducks on a pond.

You'll either love it, or hate it, and I am sufficiently of a townie to admit that I'm still not able to take it entirely without an embarrassed grin at my co-listeners.

But you gotta take it, or reject the whole of the rest of the album, because the whole thing hangs together so well that if you remove one piece, the whole edifice crumbles, like a house of cards, with the fool tumbling to earth last in the ultimate pratfall.

Are you ready for this level of completeness? Then it is just possible that you are ready to join Mike in his fooleries.

As Gertrude Horath wrote: "The fool of ritual, court or stage, whatever his type, is no fool."

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield