Saved from the Bells

Phil Gifford
New Zealand Listener

Staff writer Phil Gifford talks to recent visitor Mike Oldfield.

Talk of English musician Mike Oldfield and only one thing springs to mind - Tubular Bells.

Oldfield wrote this monster when he was 17 and recorded it before he was 20; it was used as theme music in "The Exorcist", and 12 million copies of the album have been sold. So naturally Oldfield's road manager on a brief visit to New Zealand suggests that no questions should be asked about Tubular Bells.

It is the old sensitive-rock-star tradition. Don't ask Joe Cocker about his drinking, Rv Cooder whether he was asked to join the Rolling Stones, or Lou Reed if he's gay. Oldfield is 29 now, but the hint that he is easily upset by the wrong questions appears to be sound advice. While he appears more distant than damaged, the near-whisper of most of his answers suggests it would not take much to tip his answers from brief to vanished.

He was brought up in Reading, a child obsessed from the age of 10 with music, listening to Sibelius but playing mostly folk music on an acoustic guitar.

"I'd come home from school in my lunch hour just to listen to music. Well, I'd smoke some cigarettes as well."

His, older sister Sally was a folk singer, and for a while, when Oldfield was 15, they worked as a. duo. At school he had daydreamed about being a pilot.
"But I didn't like school, the authority of school, so I didn't have the qualifications to get a commercial licence."

Instead he worked in a band with Kevin Ayers, playing avant-garde rock, making "just enough money to support myself". When the Ayers band folded, Oldfield worked in the pit band for the West End production of Hair.

"I was deputising for Alex Harvey, who died this year. He used to be the full-time rhythm guitar player. I was earning about £20 a week."

Enter the Bells. Oldfield had a large part of the instrumental worked out on a demonstration tape by the end of 1971. For a year he hawked it round English record companies and was rejected at every one. But when Virgin released Tubular Bells in May, 1973, it was an instant success. Oldfield, however, was not exactly in a condition to revel in his new fame. Interviewers at the time described Oldfield as painfully shy. He is blunter:

"I went into a kind of mental depression ... mental illness really, at the time. I couldn't see anything apart from music for about two years, and just concentrating on that was destructive.

"Some lovely things did come out of it. There were negative aspects, twisted things to do with magic. But musically it was good, there was some good music.

"Other people find it scary to listen to ,the music from then. I don't.

"There wasn't a big sort of turning point when I came out of it. I wanted to come out of it, and there were a number of people who helped me. Now I'm more like I used to be when I was 12 or 13, before music took over completely,."

There are now other interests. He is in the local squash club where he lives in Buckinghamshire. on the edge of London.

"I like the game and the social life around it, in the bar."

And there is the old love of flying, now gratified by a private pilot's licence. and even special licences to fly Bell 47 and Jet Ranger helicopters. The highlight of his Auckland visit was a chartered helicopter flight over the city. The flying even extends to his new album, Five Miles Out, whose title track deals with a flyer in difficulties in a storm.

Off-stage his touring band members are kitted out, as is Oldfield, in Biggles-style leather jackets, with hand-painted names and flying motifs. Many bands on the road tend to act like big kids, but the slightly unusual aspect of Oldfield's group is they dress like it too. Oldfield says he will tour extensively until he has enough money to build a video studio.

"I love working in video but the capital costs are enormous."

He dismisses curtly the suggestion that extensive touring might make it difficult for him to write new material.

"Writing to me is not a very involved business. I just get three or four little musical ideas that I have to build on. I have little. half-tunes on bits of paper in my guitar case. That's what writing is. It's not sitting down and planning to write something."

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield