Fact: Mike Oldfield is a hugely successful and influential contemporary instrumental composer.
Opinion: Mike Oldfield is a genius. With arguments for and against the latter still raging after more than three decades, there seems little point in buying into the debate here. Indeed, rather than giving us a better appreciation of Oldfield's muse, the "genius" tag has done nothing but polarise his detractors (those in the rock press who defend cherished notions of street cred) and his most fawning, die-hard fans (who would give Oldfield's guitar strap a ten minute standing ovation).
This retiring Englishman is, however, a distinctive and original talent. Forever passionate about musicianship, Oldfield's contribution to modern music has been in his ability to convinvingly combine the sounds of rock, folk, ethnic and classical music, stretching and at times completely changing their context. As a father to various strands of new age, ambient and world music, those genres would be all the poorer if it were not for his considerable talents.
Born in 1953, his early career saw him performing in a folk duo with his sister Sally, followed by a stint as a guitarist with a band led by ex-Soft Machine bassist Kevin Ayres. By 1972 Oldfield had set out on his own, brandishing a tape of a long, ambitious instrumental composition he had been working on for some years. Alas, most of the record companies rejected it, but salvation eventually came in the form of flamboyant British entrepeneur Richard Branson who chose Oldfield's work to be the first release on his new label Virgin Records.
The resulting album was the legendary 'Tubular Bells', an unprecedented symphonic-style fusion of rock, folk, minimalist and classical elements with Oldfield playing a mind-boggling array of acoustic and electric instruments. As much loathed as it is revered as a watershed in "progressive" or "art rock", the album remains one of the most surprising commercial success stories in contemporary music. True, rock audiences of the time were already hip to extended instrumental workouts thanks to groups like Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, King Crimson and others. But 'Tubular Bells' appeal reached beyond the rock milieu and no one, least Oldfield himself, expected a record by a complete unknown to reach Top Five on the album charts in both England and the USA. By 1995 the album had sold over 17 million copies worldwide, makinig it the highest-ever selling contemporary instrumental release.
For most of the 1970's Oldfield retained the sophisticated, melodic but rarely heavy handed style of his debut: repetitive motifs developed through a series of different movements, occasionally returning to a central melodic theme. Though 'Tubular Bells' has stood the test of time rather well, its runaway success has eclipsed the fact that the three albums which followed it are also fine works. 'Hergest Ridge', a more pastoral and folk-derived piece, was initially released to a cooler critical reception. But hindsight reveals the first half to be a lyrical, powerful, profoundly beautiful piece of music. The occasional throwback to its predecessor is forgivable: "Hergest Ridge" succeeds brilliantly in capturing the Celtic heritage of Britain which so obviously inspired it.
If 'Ommadawn' is better, it's only because it sustains its musical invention for the full forty-five minutes. This time around there's thundering African drums, more upfront female vocals and some of Oldfield's most passionate lead guitar playing. Also notable is the acoustic guitar/uilleann pipes duet with Paddy Moloney of Irish folk group The Chieftains.
A three year break separates 'Ommadawn' and his epic 1978 release, the double length 'Incantations'. Here Oldfield's experiments with choral arrangements and exotic-sounding percussion come to full flower, enhanced by an orchestra and his typically fluid guitar lines. Although the album is a little too long relative to its number of good ideas, "Incantations" is a highly accomplished work and marks the end of a sequence of classic albums.
Previous to recording 'Incantations' Oldfield issued 'Boxed', a set of both previously released and unreleased works. His remixes of the early albums are unspectacular, but the other material includes a number of short pieces - including the spirited reel 'Portsmouth' - foreshadowing his eventual move into a more conventional pop/rock format.
Oldfield's move in the late 70's from an eclectic orchestral approach to a more pedestrian rock style was puzzling. It coincided with his emergence from a radical form of psychotherapy, before which by his own admission he had been almost paralytically shy and introverted. But whatever it did for his personal life, the shift did little to advance or even maintain his artistic standing. Whereas his earlier music had been hailed as original, visionary and distinctive, his 80's albums often display none of these qualities.
On records like 'Crises', 'Five Miles Out' and 'Islands' Oldfield ropes in assorted guest vocalists - Maggie Riley the most prominent - to perform songs characterised by his usual instrumental precision but a decided lack of soul and purpose. Compounding the problem is the fact that they sit so awkwardly alongside the usually lightweight instrumentals. In fairness, the hit single 'Moonlight Shadow' from 'Crises' is a great pop song by any standards, but it's very much an exception. Most of Oldfield's efforts from this period show him hedging his bets: part instrumental records, part pop/rock records, unsatisfying as a whole.
In the face of such indecisive, at times embarrassingly trite output, the critical response was savage. "You're finished as a questioning human being if you're even considering buying this", declared New Musical Express in a review of 'QE2'. It took the 1985 soundtrack 'The Killing Fields' to bring Oldfield back to anywhere near his best: an exotic instrumental work forged with Asian percussion, majestic choral arrangements and some highly imaginative synth playing.
Today, only diehard fans would deny that for such a multi-talented artist the 80's were a disappointing period. Ironically when at the turn of the decade he finally did come to his senses the results were almost overwhelming. 'Amarok' marks a welcome return to roots, his first thematic instrumental album since "Incantations" and perhaps his most ambitious work ever. The 60 minute suite works through a bewildering range of sounds and moods, eventually climaxing in a joyous African stomp. Dense and complex, Oldfield perhaps overreaches himself here by packing in too much variety and detail; all but the most patient of listeners may be left gasping for air. Yet there's no denying the album's daring, with Oldfield's wonderfully droll sense of humour coming to the fore in a hilarious parody of Margaret Thatcher.
Frustratingly, neither of the two following albums capitalise on the promise of 'Amarok'. 'Heaven's Open' marks a return to songs, even if Oldfield's own attempts at singing make for a surprisingly listenable record. As for 1992's much ballyhooed 'Tubular Bells II', it's hard not to think that Oldfield's motives in recording it were largely commercial. The name alone virtually guaranteed it a minimum number of sales - indeed, it was a worldwide bestseller - but the result is little more than the same material revamped and re-recorded with digital processing and whiz-bang studio technology. It's not a complete disaster, but the lingering aftertaste is one of a rather cynical cash-in with little of the charm that blessed the original. To quote the old adage, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Thankfully, his 1994 release 'The Songs of Distant Earth' redeems him again. Based on Arthur C. Clark's science fiction novel, the album marks a kind of new age update of Oldfield's sound and is arguably his most cohesive, satisfying work in two decades. It's a seamless 17-part suite forged with multi-layered keyboard harmonies, ethereal vocals (Gregorian chants, a boy choir and pygmies to name a few), dramatic orchestral sweeps and sonorous guitar lines. Blessed with moments of rapturous beauty - notably 'Let There Be Light' and 'Supernova' - 'The Songs of Distant Earth' is the sound of Mike Oldfield coming home, at peace with the 90's and looking to the future with renewed purpose.
The two compilation albums - two and one/four CD sets respectively - bravely attempt the impossible task of coherently summing up Oldfield's highly eccentric recording career. Still in including some of the better material from his 80's albums they do make interesting purchases for fans. But for newcomers his first four albums from the 70's are definitive and, in all likelihood, will remain forever so.
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net