Things haven't been going smoothly for Mike Oldfield. Tours have lost money, expensive gear has been scrapped and he's had a dispute with his label over an album track. KARL DALLAS lends a shoulder.
THIRTY thousand unwitting Mike Oldfield fans have a fair-to middling chance of picking up something of a collector's item - and, incidentally, to participate vicariously in Mike's new-found experience of fatherhood - if they buy a copy of his latest album.
It all arises from a dispute between Mike and his label Virgin over the contents of the album. In its original form, track two, side two contained a slightly mawlish but genuinely naive paean of praise to Mike's inamorata (and mother of Molly, his new daughter), the astonishingly beautiful Sally Cooper, whose presence in the Virgin press office was for many years a more pressing reason for journalists to schlep out to Vernon Yard than her boss Al Clark's particular brand of laconic dryness.
A quick glimpse at the words of the chorus will give you an idea of the flavour of thing:
"Sally, I'm just a gorilla/ I'll say I love you ever more/ Even an ape from Manilla/ Couldn't stop me knocking on your door."
As verse, you've got to admit, it does tend to elevate Pam Ayers to the T. S. Eliot class, but it also has the same sort of gauche charm as that version he did of "The Spaniard that Blighted My Life", not to mention the "apeman" sequence on "Tubular Bells", a strain that has as much to do with the manic depressive cycle of his creative urge as his more memorable melodies. Furthermore, Mike sings the lyrics himself, something he hasn't done on an album since he celebrated the joys of the horsey life at the end of "Hergest Ridge" [sic] - and that was more of a Lee Marvin grunt.
HOWEVER, as is the wont of record companies, even with artists who have laid the foundations of their present prosperity, Virgin didn't feel too inclined to indulge Mike over the track, and a long argument ensued, which at one time threatened to make the album miss the pre-Christmas sales period.
Meanwhile, sleeves and labels had to be printed, so, during the impasse, track two, side two carried the title of the original song, "Sally", and they even pressed 30,000 copies of the album with the original song on it before Mike relented, wrote new and tune - also called "Sally" [sic] - to go with Alan Schwatzenberg's drum track, the only thing common to both besides the title.
So, externally, there is nothing to distinguish the two albums: they all have the same sleeve and label. But if you read the matrix number scratched on the surface of the run-out portion of the disc you'll see that the original, including "Sally" Mk I, has the number V2141-B-1, while the Branson-approved version, with the "Sally" Mk II, is numbered V2141-B-3 (which suddenly suggests to me, by the way, that there may well be a second version floating around somewhere, numbered B-2).
WHY did Mike, for many years one of the brightest stars in the Virgin firmament, able to persuade them to bankroll more than half the £500,000 costs of his last, financially disastrous tour, allow himself to be shoved around like that?
"I thought it was lovely," he told me. "I was really knocked out with the whole side until we gave it to them and they hated it. I held out for quite a while, and maybe I should have stuck to my guns.
"The road crew were sufficiently moved to ring me up and plead with me not to take it off. I probably shouldn't have.
"But you've got to keep these people's conviction, and let them know you are co-operating."
He never needed to worry about such things in the past, I objected, and for a moment he agreed.
"I didn't need to. But now I not only need to, I want to as well."
SPEAKING of need, of course, brought us to the state of his finances, currently, which has been the subject of some comment in the public prints. He has been variously described as "a pauper" and "broke", which I'm happy to reveal is something of a slight exaggeration.
He is, for instance, planning to sell his Beechcraft Sierra private plane - but only so he can replace it with a helicopter, which he fondly imagines he'll be able to hover down to his new residence in Denham, Bucks, though I don't imagine traffic controllers at Heathrow will hjave much enthusiasm for the scheme.
"Between Virgin and me we threw away half a million on the tour, out of which I personally lost over two hundred thousand, which means that I haven't had any royalties this year. Which means that financially things are quite tight, which is a new experience for me.
"I know I'm not short of a few bob, but I have to be very careful. You see, Virgin advanced me money to pay for the tour, but even though I never saw that money, from the taxman's point of view I've had it, and I've got to find 60 percent tax of that money that I've never had."
Consequently, mike has been advertising for a manager to look after his affairs, though he thinks the lucky man will actually be expected to concentrate on putting together tours which pay.
"I don't mind if they don't make money, as long as I get my royalties for next year. I'd rather not have my money involved at all - let someone else put up the money and make what they can outof it.
"I hope to be back on the road next year, in April or something, and we want to keep all the bits of the last tour that worked. Some of the pieces worked, and I want to include some of the new album, which is what I wished I'd had to perform last year. 'platinum' was designed to be played live. The film stuff worked, and I'm going to have more film.
"The guitar sound worked, though it was a wierd way that we did that, with a box at the back. The PA sort of worked, but I've had it all re-built so that it's smaller and easier to transport.
"I've scrapped all that quad stuff, that didn't work, and we're selling the compute mixer, that didn't work.
"I plan to have 12 people, compared with the large orchestra, but I'm very conscious that it mustn't be a disappointment next time, just because it's been scaled down. I've got ideas for the films and I'm going to get Ian Eames to animate them.
"David Bedford won't be on the tour." He refused to enlarge on this.
"Some of the venues will be huge, like the Wembley Arena is being held for April, I think, but I also want to play smaller places around the country, playing more places, even if they are smaller."
MIKE expressed some disappointment, not to say bafflement, at the sort of reception the new album has had from the press. He feels - and I agree with him - that most reviewers have trotted out the same old "pan it because it's boring and he's so successful" clichés, without noticing the considerable break with his own pastthat its almost minimal music represents.
He agreed that parts of "Platinum" were simpler than anything he had previously composed.
"I've learned that you don't have to fill up every single track out of 24 with millions of overdubs, necessarily. On some parts, there are only four instruments playing. But then the beginning of "Incantations" was unbelievably complex, in every single key and every single time, and people still said it was boring, so obviously what's in it technically doesn't turn people on or off.
"Then there's a section in the middle of "Platinum" where there are more complex chords than I've ever used before. They fit in in such a way that they sound normal, but if you look at that chord on the piano, it's most ridiculous, they haven't even got a name for it."
WHEN I first met Mike Oldfield, he was a 15 year old folk guitar virtuoso with personality problems, which he learned to sublimate in his "Tubular Bells". Over the years, I learned to understand his craziness, and we once spent a ridiculous lunch hour sharing nervous breakdown experiences we'd undergone.
When I next met him, after a reasonable break, at the time of "Incantations", he had just undergone therapy, and seemed nuttier than ever, especially in the way he kept declaring so vehemently that now, at long last, he was sane and in control of his own life.
This time, I'm happy to report, he seemed truly normal, no longer the shy faun-like creature who used to compare interviews with being raped, nor yet the born-again powerhouse I'd found so alienating a year previously.
"I was very idealistic at the time of 'Tubular Bells'. I suppose you could say I had a vision of what I wanted to do, but it was a vision of security and warmth and safety because I felt so unsafe. Now I want to acheive clarity. I can only describe it in pictorial terms, you know, like the way every album I've ever had has had a blue cover on it.
"That's why I called it 'Platinum', partly as a joke - you know, 'Mike Oldfield goes platinum', but also because it's a lovely strange metal, heavy and bendy like lead. I really wanted to call it 'Airborne', but they wouldn't have it. They've always done things like that. They even wanted me to put vocals on 'Tubular Bells'.
"I feel nice and averagely neurotic like everyone else, now."
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net