Mike Oldfield by Tim Oakes

June, 1980
Tim Oakes
International Musician and Recording World

In many ways, Mike Oldfield is the perfect artist to officially open the IM & RW Test Bed studio. His whole career was born out of the recording process, rather than extensive gigging before live audiences. He made the demos for Tubular Bells on tape recorders at his home using the technique of overdubbing to its full potential by doing everything himself. His success initially was one which was conceived and executed on tape.

Despite his massive success, Mike still utilises the formula which has brought him so much success in doing everything himself, usually in the comfort of his own studio. At the moment he is due to undertake the building of a studio in his new home.

In between breaking the champagne, Mike was more than a little interested to hear the facts and figures behind the IM & RW venture. Now if only we can come up with our own Tubular Bells...

To try and characterize the music of Mike Oldfield is like trying to play chess blindfold, you can get hold of the individual pieces and recognise them, but you will never know the whole story. His music is complex, containing influences from all types of music from traditional folk to the classical works of Silelius and Debussy.

His musical career began at the age of 15 when, at the suggestion of his sister Sally, they formed the duo Sallyangie. Their work together included an album of the same name (recently re – released) which sank almost without trace. This was his first experience of life as a working musician, the decision was not made for the esoteric joy of the career, but to leave school.

"I wanted to leave very badly, but I had to have something to do when I left. It was Sally’s suggestion that I came to play guitar for her, I didn’t know anything about the image bullshit, all I knew was that I enjoyed playing the music. As a first introduction to the music business, it was terrible."

However he survived the ordeal and, after the break with his sister, went on to join Kevin Ayers and the Whole World. This was perhaps the most important of his formative years; the switch from acoustic folk guitar to electric bass, and his subsequent meeting with David Bedford, then the Whole World’s keyboard player, which spawned the idea of what later became Tubular Bells.

From there, with the ideas on tape he approached the embryonic Virgin Records and eventually became their first artist, in every sense of the word. From this point his success has increased to a level which is quite astounding. Tubular Bells has now sold 10 million copies all over the world; a statistical giant, only Hergest Ridge could push it from the number one position in the UK charts – after holding there for over a year; a musical triumph.

His musical knowledge is prodigious, and his technical expertise, not surprisingly, rolls the occupation of engineer, producer and musician into one, in a style hat has become his trademark. On tour he has to create the sounds that an entire studio, plus effects and overdubbing have made. Not an easy task, but one that Oldfield executed admirably on his mammoth tour of Europe last year.

This was achieved by employing 52 of the world’s most respected musicians, including Pierre Moerlin and his brother Benoit, Maddy Prior, Peter Lemer and of course the avant garde composer David Bedford who conducted the entire orchestra and also arranged all the pieces for the tour.

His personal guitar sound, perhaps the most important single instrument in the band, was created with the simple use of ingenuity: "On the tour I had a flight case with all my personal gear in it, there was the 'normal' sound, which came from a Twin Reverb, then there was the broken up distorted sound which came out of a Princeton, and there was the solo sound from a Mesa Boogie.

"I overload the Boogie as far as it can go, further in fact, I put a pre-amp on it to overload it, followed by a noise gate. Down at the front of the stage I had a footswitch with three settings to direct the guitar sound. We had some monumental problems with the set up but the basic idea worked well under the circumstances."

The circumstances were a tour that covered almost all of Europe in a mad dash from country to country. Stark contrast to the retiring, hermit like existence Oldfield enjoyed previously broken only by a single concert of Tubular Bells at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London just after the release of the album.

"Although the audience loved it, I was disappointed by the actual result, " He commented. "I never wanted to play the album live because of all the problems we had recording it, I had agreed with my record company to do the gig, so it had to go ahead. I waited until it was my decision before I did another one!"

The band that he employed for the gig was supplemented by the likes of Mick Taylor but it was not the band that he had intended for the concert, "No, I really wanted folk or acoustic musicians that could play electric, like Al Stewart or John Renbourn. Not that I regret that band, they were an incredible bunch, and they were both technically competent and also enjoying what they did. Perhaps that’s more important."

That was followed, on his own decision, by the last tour, but the next will be the subject of a number of Mike Oldfield cuts; "The next tour will find everybody necessary. I found that we could do without all those strings, after all they’re just one instrument really. I’m also cutting down on the choir, perhaps just four or five really good singers would do. I’m hoping to cut it down to just about 12 or so, we can get away with it just as easily, and have just as good concerts."

A comment that the Police and the Jam seem to have just as good concerts with three musicians is given the full treatment of the Mike Oldfield Short Sharp Answers department. "You ask the Police to play Tubular Bells then..."

After the tour Oldfield will retire once more to the rural retreat where he will lay down the tracks of the next album. "I expect to start almost as soon after the tour as I can, perhaps early August, I’ve no idea how long it will take, could be months or just weeks. I’m going to make it another solo venture, I’ll do nearly everything myself," for any particular reason? "Well I don’t have to use sessions musicians you know..."

While recording the tracks Oldfield sits at the desk to enable him to control the battery of technological weaponry he employes. The mixer is also the one that is used on tour, packed away into his control room along with his prodigious guitar collection. Of all these, the guitar he most favours for both live work and recording is the Gibson L6S.

"I tend to use the whole freetboard and I tried to find a guitar that was really accurate up on the top, the L6S is good but its not as good as I would like it to be. I suppose I should really get an ES335, now they are really in tune. But I like the L6S neck, the shape is just right and, for me, that’s one of the most important features, the pickups on it aren’t all that good but that’s cancelled out by the amps, they can make anything sound good"

But what sort of influences have gone into something like Tubular Bells and Ommadawn? "Well there was the King Crimson first album, when I heard that I was knocked out, I really was. Then of course there was Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley, an absolute classic. Then there are the contemporary guitar players like John Renbourn, he has the most incredible guitar style. And of course, there is the bagpipes bit, I’ve always loved the idea of a drone, perhaps the Terry Riley thing again, that idea of ostinato. That was really the basis behind Incantations, playing all the notes at once to make this great big drone. I tried to really get into the bagpipe thing with a set of Northumbrian pipes but they are incredibly difficult. The coordination is just impossible."

Consequently, Oldfield employed Herbie to play the Northumbrian pipes for him. Paddy Moloney from the Chieftains came in to do the Uillean pipes break on Ommadawn. That remains perhaps the most haunting of all the sections of the album, it comes out of the same sort of "break" that made Tubular Bells, but the pastoral feel is much stronger, something he thinks will increase in his work.

As to the critics who attacked his latest work Platinum, Oldfield could not care less, "Obviously it’s not nice to have terrible criticism of something that you personally think is good, but it didn’t bother me all that much.

Platinum was very well received by musician friends of mine, I think that’s more important coming from people I know, who know what I’m doing, as opposed to a reviewer that I don’t know and who doesn’t know me.

"Unfortunately, I am a spectacle, a persona, the media isn’t allowed to admit that people actually like what I do." Platinum will be followed by the next venture, and one that will be different again from the others. "Incantations was based on intervals in the music of fifths. In some sort of progression the next piece will be based on intervals of four. It’s going to make for an unusual sound, more so than Platinum. That was a progression towards more ordinary contemporary music. For a start there was more of an emphasis on the bass and drums which I tend to leave out, I’m not sure about the direction yet of the new one."

But the production may well be influenced by many of the 'new wave' type bands such as the Boomtown Rats and the Police (even if they can’t play Tubular Bells), not that he has any affection for the atmosphere that brought them into the limelight. "The music scene now is much more pretentious than ever before. I think that everything has gone down very low, there are very few bands who really shine out and Police and the Rats are two of them. Of course there are the few records that I hear that are OK but by and large I think it must be at an all time low."

The reason? "Well it’s obvious isn’t it? There just isn’t any money about, none at all. When you think of a pound you think of all the pennies and sixpences that go into it, but that’s irrelevant now. A pound used to be worth such a lot but you can wipe your nose with them now. Look at a whole pound note, you can hardly buy a packet of cigarettes with that these days."

Oldfield adds the final word, a product perhaps of his recent fatherhood and the fact that the last tour lost a half a million pounds; "I can’t afford a new desk anymore, I tried to sell my plane but, well, no-one wanted to buy it."

Armed with this new world optimism, let us hope that the music and dreams of Mike Oldfield do not fade, rather that they develop and progress taking the influences of all his past works together. Bring on the bagpipes, bring on the steel seagulls. I’m guilty.

Mike Oldfield Tubular.net
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net