Totally Tubular

February, 1995
Charlie Salem
Internet And CommsToday

Mike Oldfield is a man who's always been ahead of the game. And now this innovative musician is connected to the Internet. Charlie Salem finds out why...

"It's all digital - everything around me is the most up-to-date I can get. I like it that way," said Mike Oldfield waving at the 48 track mixing desk, CDROM drives, rows of discs with sound and graphics samples in his studio.

He has been connected and corresponding on the Net for some six months now.

"Being wired up bas saved me alot of time and effort when I'm trying to promote my work," said Oldfield, playing with his terminal. "What's more, I use software writers and artists on the West Coast of the States where I spend a good time of the year. The Net is essential in keeping in touch with that whole process while I'm over here doing other things," he added - pointing to his studio control room and the row of guitars that lay around him, ready to play.

The result of this work is a brand new CD called "Songs of Distant Earth". It's a work inspired by the book of the same name written by sci-fi giant Arthur C. Clarke. The whole work represents a first for the record industry and the multimedia worid. The album gives the user an interactive program to play alongside the music, with the images reflecting Mike Oldfield's intentions.

"It used Arthur C. Clarke's book as a starting point and avoided telling the story in a step-bystep fashion," Mike maintains.

Oldfield met the writer, now in his eighties, and was given carte blanche to develop the book as he saw fit.

Clarke had been sent a copy of Tubular Bells 2 and was sufficiently impressed with the work to allow him to take the whole thing one step on and help Oldfield realise his ambition.

The original short story itself (which the final novelisation was based on) was written in 1957 and contained the line 'These are the songs of Distant Earth'. The line seemed to "pop out from now'here" and made as strong an impression in Clarke's mind as it did in Mike Oldfield's all those years later.

The line kept circling in around my head, the same year the Sputnik satellite kept whirling round. The only way to exorcise the line was to sit down and write a 12,000 word novella with that line as a titie," Clarke was to tell Oldfield.

As it happens, Mike shared Clarke's love of the story. The full sized Songs novel is Clarke's favourite book. looking back on this new work, Mike was relieved that his painstaking search for new sounds, ideas and images was worth it.

"l couldn't use a 12-string or acoustic guitars because they sounded just too earth-bound in context. I had Io come up with a whole new vocabulary of studio-manufactured sounds."

As for the CDROM element, Oldfield scanned the equipment racks and available literature and put logether a package of gear that kept him "holed up with a stack of manuals taller than I am".

CDROM users can travel through a futuristic city as if they onboard a giant spaceship. They travel lowards a central controi system in which they encounter a musical tower. There, they come across a musical puzzle. Playing in this mode provides the player with a series of options that trigger a song on the album.

"And because it's based on MYST mode you can actually get lost in it - spend ail day looping back and forth.

In fact, MYST provides Oldfield with an example of the CDROM experience that sets it apart from ail other games. As far as he is concerned, MYST is the technical and creative benchmark against which ail other games are judged.

The game had a profound effect on Oldfield and a copy lay by his mixing desk as a diversion from the task of putting his record together.

"Things aren't really exciting in music at the moment," he insists. "You feel that with so much of it you heard it A before. It's like hearing new versions of old ideas.

"I've been in bands since I was 16 and for the first time in ages I find working with CDROM the most exciting around. around. I mean, it used to bother me what happens in film. And having worked on 'The Killing Fields', I found the effort too great. It's not really adding up to much - film is so disposable!

But as he sat in his studio flicking through the recent editions of the UK and US magazines and asking about the latest games and who's on the Internet, he seemed pretty determined that he wsa going to continue working with the technology but not necessarily do a game.

"I'd like to work on a project - a bit like MYST - in that it would be a quest... a spiritual quest that would help with your own spiritual development. After all, that's what my music has mainly been all about - self discovery and expression."

Despite his wanting to keep the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke's book, Mike had problems with the writing of the CDROM music.

"I was working on a theme by Sibelius that is mentioned in project. It was driving me mad as I just couldn't adapt it for the record musically. In the end I just threw my arms in the air and in a rage banged out a theme. Like a sort of miracle, it worked!" he says elatedly.

"The CDROM took alot of work to put together, and it was put together by me. I then had an artist to polish it up. It was a bit like Walt Disney where there was a basic vision from him and then others to help put it together."

This overview has helped him overcome what he refers to as the "weakness" of the current UK pop scene. It's all just meaningless - at least with CDROM, the whole thing becomes an experience."

As the first major recording artist to have produced a CDROM in such a hands-on manner, he's keeping ahead of the pack. And without the Net keeping him in the centre of the Web, it's doubtful he could have managed it.

Tubular hells

Mike has been through a lot of psychotherapy and exegesis - a much publicised primal scream therapy in which a person's deepest emotions are brought out and worked on.

It helped unlock the door and bring out a lot of skeletons that were in the closet. All that stuff is painful but it helps when you're trying to work and, come up with new ideas for a CDROM."

It seemed that Mike's success and problems stemmed from the fact that by the age of 20, he had created a 16 million sellinq instrumental LP - Tubular Bells, This compounded Mike's other problems: I'd had a really unhappy childhood and had birth defects that affected my brain and a lot of my other actions".

"By the time I was 16 I was in the back of vans gigging with a band," he said, looking over at his favourite quitar, a Telecaster that used to belonging to Marc Bolan.

He was a musical prodigy at the age of 10 and playing in folk clubs with his sister at the age of 15. He joined Kevin Ayres who had a huge influence over his career. "He taught me repetition, just doing things over and over," Oldfield says.

This repetition formed the basis of Tubular Bells. The initial recording was done on a two track tape recorder and recorded durinq free time at the Virgin Records studio.

Despite their initial resistance to the project, in 1973 Virgin released it and despite lack of promotion, the album turned into a huge hit. Its haunting theme was used in the film 'The Exorcist'.

As the success of the album made Virgin richer, Oldfield seemed to grow more and more unhappy. He was trapped inside an allegedly difficult contract and despite more success with other LPs, he grew progressively more unhappy until the advent of Punk seemed to have done him in.

However, Tubular Bells 2 was released last year to huge success and it seems that Mike Oldfield is back once again on the scene.

Songs of Distant Earth - the book

Based on an earlier short story, Arthur C. Clarke developed a full novelisation, published in 1987. Essentially, the story is told of the destruction of the Earth in the year 3600 by the Sun going nova. However, the Earth has had 1600 years to prepare for the disaster, which it does by sending out huge automatic seeding ships to nearby planetary systems, containing embryos, then computer encoded genetic information.

By the time of the Earth's destruction, a new form of interstellar drive has been invented, allowing further star systems to be reached by manned ships.

The book tells the story of how the last such ship launched, the Magellan, and how it arrives at Thalassa, a planet seeded hundreds of years before by an automatic probe.

Surprisingly, Thalassals population has maintained a reasonable level of technology and hasn't relapsed into barbarism like other worids seeded.

The Magellan's crew needs water for ils ice shield (which is to protect it from interstellar dust et the high speeds the ship cruises at) which requîres a long stay, so they can continue their journey to their final destination. The main thrust of the story concerns how the two societies get along with each other, the Thalassans who only remember Earth as a semi-mythological worid, and the crew of the Magellan, who saw the final destruction of the planet with their own eyes.

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield