A One Hit Wonder in the US, Mike Oldfield is a legend in his native England
In May, 1973, an album was released which not only redefined the way people listened to music, it also redefined their expectations of the people who released music in the first place. Tubular Bells, the debut album by an all but unknown teenager named Mike Oldfield, hit the headlines not only because it became one of the largest selling albums of all time, but because it had been turned down as utterly uncommercial, utterly unlistenable, by pretty much every record company in the world.
Nobody expects every label to get every signing right every time. But surely someone, somewhere, must have played Oldfield's original tape and seen something in there to captivate them? People talk about the man who turned down the Beatles, but at least Dick Rowe admitted his mistake, and had a decent explanation for it. Of the men who turned down Tubular Bells, the only one who has earned even a hint of subsequent fame is the American who listened carefully through all 40+ minutes of what was then called Opus One, then said "come back when you've finished the lyrics." Oldfield's response has not been recorded.
In all fairness, of course. it would have been impossible to predict the impact Tubular Bells would have. Even Richard Branson, the would-be entrepreneur who eventually agreed to release it, then formed his own label to make sure he could, foresaw nothing more than a few critical raves and a tidy cult following. Oldfield himself continued to doubt the evidence of his own bank balance for at least another year, only really comprehending just what he'd achieved when it came time to record the follow-up.
And even today, he is hesitant to truly invoke the specter of his best-known work. The mildly mistaken twentieth anniversary conceit of Tubular Bells II notwithstanding, little that Oldfield has accomplished in the decades since his first album sent the entire western world into paroxysms of delight has even hinted at the textures invoked by that record. Indeed, an ear lent to the clutch of singles which followed Tubular Bells (and its immediate successor) suggests that far from trying to capitalize on his initial success, Oldfield would have been happier divorcing himself from it entirely.
How else can one explain the likes of "Froggy Went A Courting," recorded with folk songsters Bridget St. John, and unleashed on the b-side of his first Bells single; 'Don Alfonso,' a drunken cavort through a nonsensical ditty, recorded with producer Tom Newman and a wine soaked Kevin Ayers; or 'On Horseback," that thoroughly inane ode to the joys of horse riding, which Oldfield appended to the tail end of the otherwise impeccable Ommadawn?
Patently, Mike Oldfield was adamant that he was no one trick pony, and the only real question on anyone's mind was, why he ever believed anyone would think he was. After all, anyone who could play twenty different instruments on one album alone was hardly likely to be a one-dimensional zero, was he?
Michael Gordon Oldfield was born in Reading, England, on May 15, 1953, the son of a guitar playing doctor. With his older brother Terry and sister Sally already showing marked musical progress, it was a healthy environment, but Mike was a prodigy waiting to happen. By the age ten, he was already composing original songs on acoustic guitar, and by the time he hit his teens, he was playing early evening shows around his home town, stringing together what he later described as "15 minute instrumentals ... in which I would go through all sorts of moods. The minute I came home from school, the entire weekend would be spent practicing and playing guitar." In another interview he elaborated, "I started playing on a six string acoustic guitar that my father gave me, and the first thing I' learned to do was a claw hammer pick. I was really knocked out with it." The first song he learned to play was Davy Graham's spellbinding "Anji."
Oldfield switched to electric guitar when he was 12, playing in a youth club band modelled on Cliff Richard's backing group (and, of course, solo hit makers) the Shadows. Years later, Oldfield would remember those early shows when he recorded his own version of the Shadows' "Wonderful Land"; at the time, however, simply aping that band represented the peak of his ambition. When his own group broke up, "I decided I was going to give up the guitar, give up music." He was all of 13 years old. His retirement lasted six months, until the Mersey boom reawakened his interest and, armed with a 12 string acoustic guitar, he began learning the hits of the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers. "Eventually, I wanted another six string," he recalls, "but I couldn't persuade my father to buy me one, so I took half the strings off the 12 string. I used that in a duo with a friend of mine."
In 1967, when Mike was 15, the family moved away from Reading, to a new home in Essex; that same year, he and sister Sally, 20, formed the acoustic duo Sallyangie. Sally was friends with Marianne Faithful, then Mick Jagger's girlfriend, and through Faithful's auspices, had already cut some demos-some with Jagger's aid, according to Mike.
Nothing ever came of these, but still Sallyangie would enjoy a vaguely rags to riches ride after they came to the attention of Pentangle's John Renbourne. Taking the duo under his wing, he recommended them to Transatlantic, a label whose instincts lay firmly around the folky end of the psychedelic spectrum. They signed Sallyangie immediately, label mates to such disparate noisemakers as the Purple Gang, purveyors of that delightful bluegrass smash 'Granny Takes A Trip," and a clutch of mote traditional musicians who were inextricably being drawn into the underground web. Released in North America by Warner Brothers, the Sallyangie's debut album, Children Of The Sun was even by the enlightened standards of the time. With the Oldfield's joined by Pentangle drummer Terry Cox, and flautist Ray Warleigh, it possesses a hippy-dippy quality which quickly grows cloying. Nevertheless Children Of The Sun does bely some fascinating influences: working purposefully towards the more baroque end of folk, Pentangle, the Incredible String Band and Tyrannosaurus Rex can all be discerned in the album's arrangements, and while Sally's distinctive vocals do dominate, Mike contributes sufficient harmonies to make one wonder why he later proved so reluctant to raise his voice on record.
Singer Bridget St. John, whose path would cross Oldfield's on several future occasions, remembers catching Sallyangie at one of their London club engagements. "I was very impressed that someone so young (as Mike) was doing that. I didn't get my first guitar until I was 19, so seeing him at 15, playing like that, was amazing."
Other musicians shared her surprise, but for all their plaudits and its period charm, Children Of The Sun did little. By the end of 1968, Sallyangie was no more, and Mike, joined by brother Terry, was moving into rockier pastures with a new band, Barefoot. Again it was a short-lived project; by March, 1970, he had been recruited to The Whole Wide World, a gloriously ambitious band put together by former Soft Machine frontman Kevin Ayers, to help promote his recently released Joy Of A Toy solo debut. Indeed, according to legend, Oldfield auditioned for Ayers within 24 hours of Barefoot's demise.
Kevin Ayers' career is undoubtedly one of the most idiosyncratic in British rock history, a meandering journey which, at least through the first half of the 1970s, took Ayers so close to stardom, on so many occasions, that his failure to grasp it can only be put down to bloody-mindedness. The Whole Wide World, with Oldfield handling guitar, David Bedford (keyboards), Mike Fincher (drums) and Lol Coxhill (sax) was a shining example of this contrariness; Joy Of A Toy echoes with the warm whimsy of some of Ayers' most poignant songs, "(Girl On A Swing" and "Lady Rachel" included, but it was the dissonant avenues of "Stop This Train" and "Eleanor's Cake (Which Ate Her)" to which the band was best equipped to do justice.
Certainly live recordings from this period, most notably the Garden Of Love bootleg (a 1970 radio broadcast) and a handful of tracks on the BBC sessions collection Singing The Bruise, capture Ayers and co in fine semi-experimental fettle, proud successors to the traditions of the original Softs.
Yet they remained capable of some truly beautiful music. At the end of 1969, the group recorded what Ayers intended to be its first single, the compulsive "Jolie Madame". Eventually passing unreleased until 1976 brought the compilation Odd Ditties (Harvest SHSM 2005), "Jolie Madame" united Ayers' group with singer Bridget St. John, a union which would continue onto her own next single, "If You've Got Money"/"Yep" (WB 8019), and one track on Ayers' own next album, "The Oyster And The Flying Fish."
Shooting at the Moon (Harvest SHSP 4005) was released in late 1970, another superlative album from Ayers. Again, it was Ayers' gentler songs which garnered the most attention, notably 'May I?" (which was perversely translated into French for single release), "The Oyster And The Flying Fish," and the non-LP 45 "Butterfly Dance" (Harvest HAR 5027). For the band itself, however, the stand-outs were the oddities: "Pisser Dans Une Violon," "Lunatics Lament" and "Rheinhardt And Geraldine/Colores Para Dolores." Another classic in the making was "Clarence In Wonderland," a delightfully dippy song which Ayers would later reinvent as "Connie On A Rubber Band."
The instability of the music naturally translated itself to the band. By the time Shooting At The Moon was complete, drummer Fincher was on his way out, to be replaced by Dave Dufont, while Lol Coxhill was preparing to rejoin the band front which he'd come, Delivery. (He would also cut a 1971 solo album, Ear Of the Beholder, Dandelion DSD 8008, on which Oldfield would guest.)
This new line-up, however, was to proved extremely short lived, one recording session and a smattering of gigs, before Dufont was replaced by William Murray, and Ayers relieved himself of the bass guitar by bringing in Andy Robertson. Two months later, Ayers dissolved the band. With David Bedford having already announced he intended slipping into a solo career, Oldfield's own thoughts naturally turned in the same direction; in fact, the pair would become something of a double act over the next couple of years, with Oldfield (and Ayers) helping out on Bedford's first album, the frankly bizarre, but immortally titled, Nurses Song With Elephants (Dandelion IMP 1008). and Bedford returning the favor as Oldfield slaved over Opus One, or Breakfast In Bed as he was now referring to it. Recording on a Bang & Olufson stereo tape recorder he borrowed from Ayers, and with only the vague ambition to create a one man full scale symphony to sustain him, Oldfield worked very strictly to a maxim of "try it and see." Before he found a storeroom full of instruments in the bowels of Abbey Road, during one of his Kevin Ayers sessions, for instance, Oldfield had no idea just how prodigiously multi-instrumental he was. Before he discovered that by masking the tape recorder's "erase' head with a piece of cardboard, he could effectively overdub onto the music he was making, he had no idea how to record more than one instrument at a time. And before he started carting his demo tape around the music industry, he had no idea how blinkered the business was.
Simply to make ends meet during this period, Oldfield landed a number of temporary and guest guitarist slots. He appears on the Edgar Broughton Band's eponymous third album (Harvest SHVL 791), and also played for a time in the houseband of Hair. Perhaps the most important engagement of them all, at least in terms of what it would lead to, was a gig playing bass with soul man Arthur Lewis. For it was via Lewis that Oldfield finally found someone else who liked his tape, in September, 1971.
Lewis had booked time at the Manor, a brand new studio complex at Shipton-on-Cherwell, near Oxford owned by Richard Branson, the slightly more than teenaged entrepreneur who founded the Virgin chain of record stores, the Manor was still being completed when Lewis and co. arrived.
Inevitably, Oldfield was as fascinated by the technical work being carried out there as he was by his own recording duties, and falling into conversation with Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth, the studio's chief engineers, Oldfield mentioned his solo musical ambitions. They were curious and asked to hear his tape; the future course of rock in the '70s took an abrupt left turn there and then.
Overwhelmed by what had now been a re-retitled Tubular Bells, Newman and Heywood pledged themselves to helping Oldfield complete it. Cornering Branson's right hand man Simon Draper, the trio struck, emerging from the meeting with the offer of week of free studio time, and a formidable arsenal of musical instruments. Recording was scheduled to begin in earnest the following September.
While he waited, Oldfield returned to Kevin Ayers' side. Just three months after breaking up the Whole Wide World, Ayers re-employed the band as backing for his next album, the apocalyptic Whatevershebringswesing (Harvest SHVL 800).
Released in January, 1972, Ayers' third album was once again a morass of contradictions, swinging effortlessly from the flamboyant pop of the latest 45, "Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes" (Harvest HAR 5042), to the psychotic wilderness of "Song From The Bottom Of A Well." Nothing short of a full fledged freak out, onto which a qualude rhythm has been unwillingly grafted, "Song From The Bottom Of A Well' is the nearest Oldfield ever came in the studio to doing what he habitually did on stage: "I would do an electric guitar solo, and depending on how pissed I was, I used to let it feed back and do somersaults all over the floor."
With this reformed Whole Wide World still behind him, Ayers' next project was his most grandiose yet, an orchestral performance which the BBC would air in its In Concert series, in January 1972-the sheer expense of maintaining a twelve piece orchestra precluded his original dreams of taking the project on the road.
Since released Within Windsong's Radio One In Concert (WINCD 018) series, with the original set list dramatically rearranged for who knows what reasons, the concert represents Ayers at his most impossibly ambitious, and implausibly bizarre. But the versions of "I.ady Rachel" and "May I?" which open the CD, are so stunningly gorgeous one can forgive Ayers anything.
In September, 1972, as arranged, Oldfield returned to the Manor. He worked quickly; having now moved into the Manor's residential quarters, whenever the studio was empty, he would head down there, day or night, to work. And when it wasn't empty, he'd be around anyway in between his own sessions, Oldfield also helped out around the studio, winning an engineering credit on Legend, the first album by Henry Cow (Virgin V2005) in the process.
Much of what became side one of Tubular Bells was complete by the time that initial week of free studio time was up; the entire thing was finished in just three weeks worth of work (plus another three spent mixing it). And all the while, the demands of the piece kept Newman and Hayworth fully occupied as they attempted to bring what they already considered to be a state of the art studio in line with Oldfield's demands. Even so, with a track sheet 'which effectively carpeted the studio floor, Tubular Bells was recorded under what local),'s studio veterans would describe as unbearably primitive conditions.
With no more than 16 tracks available to record onto, Tubular Bells became an engineer's assault cotirse, as Oldfield layered more and more instruments onto the soundtrack; by the time it was complete, shortly before Christmas, 1972, Tubular Bells boasted more than 2,000 overdubs.
The following month, Richard Branson flew to Cannes, to attend the annual music industry trade fair, MIDEM. Tubular Bells went with him, but even in its finished state, there were no takers. Returning home, Branson announced that Oldfield's opus would become the first release on Virgin records. It remains the most successful.
Released on May 25, 1973, Tubular Bells caught the entire industry of guard. It was the era of Prog Rock, that increasingly bloated beast which literally devoured the flesh of the classics, then regurgitated them through electric noise-makers. In turning that scenario right around, Tubular Bells literally changed the course of popular music. By early July, it had entered the British chart, and though it would not hit #1 for another 15 months, its eventual chart run of 271 weeks firmly establishes it amongst the top ten albums in British rock history.
An accompanying single, coupling the "Greensleeves"-like waltz from side two, with Mike and Bridget St. John's bizarre rendition of 'A Froggy Went A-Courting," breached the Top 30. Despite this success, it is perhaps only fitting that St. John herself does not even remember recording the song; 'I do vaguely recall going to the Manor, but as for recording..." "A Froggy Went A Courting' remains a true, but so delightful,
curio, and as if to further its claims on obscurity, two different versions of the performance exist, one with Oldfield singing the line "the owls did hoot...,' one with St. John delivering the line.
While it tore up the British charts, Tubular Bells' progress was slower, but scarcely less spectacular in the United States. Entering the chart in November, it would rise to #3, largely assisted by the use of its distinctive opening theme in the hit horror movie The Exorcist. America would also send a second single from the album, not unnaturally entitled 'Tubular Bells (Now The Original Theme From 'The Exorcist'),' soaring into the Top Ten, so it was strange to read, the following year, of Oldfield's absolute loathing of the movie which brought him such success.
Or maybe 'loathing" is too strong a word for it. Talking with New Musical Express journalist Roy Carr, Oldfield more succinctly summed up his reaction as fear.
"I was much too frightened to go and see it,' he explained. 'Judging from what I've read in the papers ... I don't wanna know.' And that was before Carr documented the movie's goriest scenes in delicious detail.
Now, Oldfield swore, 'I'm most definitely not going to see it. 'The thing nobody realizes," he continued, 'is that I knew absolutely nothing at all about this." It transpired that although he was aware that an American film company wanted to excerpt Tubular Bells for a soundtrack, Oldfield was not even consulted before his music was grafted onto what became widely regarded amongst the most horrific horror films ever made, and while he was swift to add, '...not that I minded,' one kind of got the impression that deep down, he did.
Not that Tubular Bells was out of place in that, or any other horror genre, movie. These days, it's become something of a byword for cocktail parties and late night headphone sessions, but all listeners should be aware that Tubular Bells is best played with the volume full up.
Intricate, delicate, and painstakingly precious though great swathes of it are, still there arc equally vast chunks which blister with allthe power of the apocalypse: the electric guitars which churn around the halfway mark on side one; the stomach pounding bass which sends all but the biggest speakers into cardiac arrest; the garbled Piltdown chorus which pockmarks side two; the maniacal Sailor's Hornpipe which rounds out the end of the album; and of course the arrival of the bells themselves, ushered in by Master Of Ceremonies Viv Stanshall, and clanging to an angelic crescendo after seven minutes of increasing suspense. It might not be Heavy Metal as we know it, Jim, but if there had never been a Black Sabbath or Zeppelin, great chunks of 'Tubular Bells could still have given the rest a good run for their money in the face of such success, and some even more incredible plaudits, Oldfield remained almost painfully modest. "I always thought that once I made my own album, held the covet in my hands and read my name, I'd think it was wonderful. But you know, it's not like that at all.' Of all the Millions of words written in praise of his creation, the only published comment that had any real impact was a letter published in a British MUSIC Paper, describing Tubular Bells as a pile of rubbish.
'That letter made me feel quite good inside," Oldfield confessed. 'The fact that somebody hated it was great but quite honestly, I can't understand why that one letter had such a wonderful effect on me. It gave me much more satisfaction than any of those positive reviews I read.'
More than two decades later, he remains unhappy with the album. 'Apar from the fact that there's a hundred hertz hum running through the entire (thing), it all sounds so serious-arms pushing down on the keyboard, stern eyebrows frowning...' Even at the time, though, it was clear that Oldfield was something more than the usual messed up rocked star. He was an almost,@ painfully reluctant one too.
Despite demand for many more, Oldfield would perform Tubular Bells in public on just two occasions, for the time being at least. He said at the time, 'I don't like doing gigs, and won't do any until such time as the whole concert thing is so incredibly rehearsed, well equipped, and I've got the right people to play with.'
Of the two performances, the best remembered was that produced for the benefit of the BBCs Arena television program, and which cut newly shot studio footage with some surprisingly effective montage sequences, including a spectral merry-go. round for one portion. (Play the album; you'll soon figure out which one.) The resultant film, which covered side one of the album alone, would be broadcast several times over the next few years, and also went out on tour, opening for Supertramp and Chris DeBurgh in the fall of 1974.
Oldfield continued, 'if eventually I am to do gigs, I want each and every one of them to be a satisfying thing to go out and do. And only then will I consider it. I want people who are not only musically capable, but are also emotionally equipped to do it.'
In June, 1973, however, he did stage one live performance, at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. With a band which included the miss guitars of Mick Taylor, Steve Hillage, Fred Frith and Ted Spoght, bassist Kevin cancelled his appearance, claiming to be under-rehearsed), the show went phenomenally well, but even afterwards, Oldfield remained uncertain.' To be truthful, I think I'd be much happier conducting and engineering it than actually participating. The engineering is twice as complicated than any of the parts.' At the QE2, he revealed, "all the guitars were fed straight into the mixing board, which a lot of people didn't realize. But even that had a lot of technical problems.' Some' of these are evident from the CD bootleg which documents the show (Tubular Bells Live), but generally excellent sound and some superlative playing renders them all but irrelevant to the proceedings.
Shortly after the concert, Oldfield took himself off to begin planning his next album; he eventually relocated to a remote part of Hertfordshire, overlooking a local beauty spot called Hergest Ridge. It would not be an easy album to make. Although Oldfield insisted that his approach to composition remained unchanged, he admitted, 'I'M More conscious of what's worth recording now. I reject many things would I've used before. I'm trying to make the materiail much more related. At the sometime, I'm attempting to make music that I'd really like to listen to. When I sift through other peoples' music, there's always bits and pieces that I like, and I want to make a whole record like that." Such lofty aims were not easily attained.
'I go downstairs and play piano for an hour or two and nothing happens for week-,, nothing worth building on." But when inspiration did strike, usually while lie was out taking walks, "I needn't have an instrument at hand."
A welcome respite from this turmoil cathic in mid-May, when Oldfield joined rehearsals for an ill-star linc-up put together by Kevin Ayers, for a London Rainbow show celebrating the release of the singer's latest album, The Confessions Of Dr Dream (island LPS 9263), which Oldfield had guested on earlier in the year.
Appearing on a bill which also featured solo spots from John Cale, Nico and Roxy Music renegade Eno, Oldfield would join Ayers onstage for three numbers, 'Everybody's Sometime And Some People's All The Time Blocs,' to which he would contribute a stunningly beautiful solo, 'Two Goes into Four," and 'Don't Go Home Without Your Hard On,' a ramshackle tout ensemble effort which, sadly, was omitted from the souvenir album released later in the year under the title June lst, 1974 (Island ILPS 9291).
The Ayers-Oldfield partnership would continue across one further single that year, 'The Up Song' (island WIP 6194), while Oldfield would also engineer new albums by labelmates Henry Cow (Unrest, Virgin V2011) and Robert Wyatt (Rock Bottom, Virgin V2017) during the year. But perhaps his most enjoyable outside 'project was an album recorded with engineer Tom Newman.
Fine Ol' Tom (Virgin V2022) is not, if the truth be known, that great a record. Newman's voice is okay, and his songwtiting is adequate, if. Sometimes thingly 'humorous.' Neither does Oldfield, who appears on three tracks, let rip on the guitar as often as he might.
But all that can be forgiven the moment one bears 'Sad Sing,' the opening track on the album and the first single (Virgin VS 120). Frustratingly short, infuriatingly contagious, 'Sad Sing' seldom gets mentioned in even the most analytical discussion of Oldfield's career, yet it might well be the greatest two minutes and 24 seconds in his catalog.
Then, with such asides now out of their system, it was time to get back to business.
Once again, Hergest Ridge was to be primarily a one man concern, although a handful of outside musicians were invited in; oboe players June. Whiting and Lindsay Cooper, trumpeter Ted Hobart, one William Murray (credited on the album simply with 'cymbal') and vocalist Clodagh Simonds.
Brother Terry and sister Sally were also involved, Sally adding backing vocals, Terry playing the flute with which countless televsion documentary soundtracks have now familiarized us (years later, he would compose a veritable symphony for the instrument, to accompany a show about meer cats). David Bedford was recruited to arrange and conduct the choir and s@ngs.
After six weeks of recording, however, Oldfield was at his wits end. Shortly before one journalist arrived to Interview the young maestro, Oldfield had scrapped one complete section of the album, and was trying to come up with a replacement. He'd given himself two weeks in which to do it.
'I'm going through a bad phase at the moment. Nothing is turning out the way I want it, and at the moment I'm not quite sure how to go about rectifying it. Everything keeps going out of tune, so I've had to restring just about everything.'
He also discovered that he had 'a dreadful sense of timing. I think it's okay at the time, but when I come to play it back, I find I've slowed down and speeded up in all the wrong places. I must have had my mind on other things.' He would finally complete Hergest Ridge to at least something approaching his own satisfaction, just two months before its scheduled release date.
The sense of expectation surrounding the release of Hergest Ridge was completely overpowering, at least in Britain (in America, the album would barely breach the top 100). Everybody wanted a piece of the maestro; indeed, some people were so impatient that father than wait for the new record, they went out to buy the old one instead. In the weeks before Hergest Ridge appeared, there was a sudden rush on Tubular Bells, to the point where it was virtually impossible to find one anywhere in London, with record stores reporting that Virgin Records themselves were out of stock. 'Years later, a Virgin insider would claim that the label had, in fact, planned that entire scenario. Advance warning on the critical response to Hergest Ridge (namely, that it wasn't as good as Tubular Bells, a stigma which still, very unjustly, pervades the record's reputation) persuaded the Powers That Be to halt the pressing plant, forcing frustrated would-be purchasers to invest in advance orders for Hergest Ridge instead. The plot apparently worked, as well, Not only did Hergest Ridge enter the U.K. chart at #I, but when it finally slipped down three weeks later, it was to make way for Tubular Bells.
Other stunts, however, were less blessed. A single from the album, execerpting one short section under the title 'Spanish Tune,' got no further than promo stage, while a proposed television commercial for the album had to be withdrawn and reworded after the Advertising Standards office pointed out the phrase "available from Virgin and other immaculate record shops' might possibly upset the Catholic church.
Meanwhile, Virgin's American wing thought so little of the album that rather than release a solid extract on the obligatory promo single, they opted to edit tire whole of side two down to five minutes, and release that instead. No wonder Americans complain that the full album goes on way too long!
Hergest Ridge, true to Oldfield's vision, is a considerably more cohesive piece of music than its predecessor. Whereas Tubular Bells was essentially a series of individual, but connected themes, liergest Ridge established a recurring motif and pursued it through the album.
'Smooth, uncluttered," is how Oldfield himself described it. Whereas Tubular Bells involved "a lot of confusion and lots of nasty overtones, things going bang, crash, car doors, horns, tube trains, buses," lletgest Ridge was "a much nicer environment. There are no tube trains, very few car doors, lots of open countryside, smooth hills, a general feeling of smoothness and well-being and non-hysteria.
'I made an album totally different from Tubular Bells. I got plenty of bad criticism for it. and I was really surprised. It's basically not more than six different tunes, and the tunes are related, so the whole thing is related. Also, if you want to get anything out of it, you've really got to listen to it. There's lots of things hidden, things that may seem meaningless, but they do have a meaning, a musical meaning. And just the general texture is so comforting...' at least until the album starts building towards that succession of climaxes which finally peak, in the words of journalist Roy Carr, with "95 guitars in full array (tickling) our senses like 40,000 headsmen galloping across one's lobotomy on reapers.'
"Christ, how could I ever possibly hope to recreate that live?' Oldfield responded.
in fact, oldfield was planning a public performance of Hergest Ridge, as he and David Bedford prepared special orchestral arrangements of both that album and Tubular Bells.
The pair had already completed work on Bedford's own next album, the wide ranging neoclassical Siar@ End (Virgin V2020); now they were working towards reworking both Ridge and Bells in time for their premier at the Royal Albert Hall in December, 1974. similar events in Glasgow and Newcastle would follow in the new year.
Similarly rearranged studio versions of both Tubular Bells and lfergcst Ridge were also recorded, albeit with controversial effect. "It's like a huge monster lumbering to its feet and getting started," Oldfield sighed as he listened to one playback. "As they play, the spirit gets better, but somehow they sound bored. Perhaps it's because I'm bored with Tubular Bells.'
0ldfield himself had never been too keen about orchestrating his music to begin with. "If it had been my idea and I'd organized it, I might have been more enthusiastic,' he sighed. "But it was out of my hands.'
He admitted, of course, that 'it would have happened anyway,' and seemed grateful to have even been allowed to get involved; in any event, a major failing out between composer and arranger would result in Oldfield being conspicuously absent from the Royal Albert Hall premier of the orchestral works.
Further evidence of Oldfield's dissatisfaction with this latest project can be gauged from the fact that while The Orchestral TubularBells became at least a middlingly successful hit (it made #17 in the UK, in February, 1975), The Orchestral lfergest Ridge would never be given a full release. Elements of it finally leaked out in the soundtrack to a 1979 NASA documentary, The Space Movie (alongside out-takes from 1978s Incantations album), and more recently, subscribers to the Dark Star fanzine received copies. But that was it.
Collectors aside, few people can seriously mourn its obscurity, particularly if the orchestrated Tubular Bells is anything to go by 'Classical" renditions of rock classics are a dubious proposition at the best of times, and for all the high flying claims of its supporters, Tubular Bells is a rock album. Just as Oldfield feared during the actual i, , )rding, the orchestra sounds lazy, bored, plodding, imbibing the piece with a bloated self-importance which is leagues removed from the original'.s joyful unsclfconsciousness.
Neither has the passage of time done it any favors, and The Orchestral Tubular Bells' last U.K. reissue, through the ultra-budgct priced Disky label, is probably no more than it deserved. Shortly before Christmas, 1996 a promotion through the WH Smith & Sons chain of record stores saw The Orchestral Tubular Bells included in a 'four for Ten Pounds" offer. it was not necessarily a bargain.
Oldfield may or may not have been commenting upon The Orchestral Tubular Bells when he chose the month of its release as the suitable moment to issue a new single. And what a single it was.
'Don Alfonso,' recorded one drunken night at the manor in November, 1974, with Kevin Ayers, Chris Cutler and David Bedford along for the ride, is a delightful record. It is not, however, the kind of composition which springs instantly to mind when one sees Oldfield's name on a record label.
The tale of a Spanish bullfighter, Don Alfonso himself, the song details a typical day in the matador's life: 'see ze bull, kill ze bull, yes sit, yes sir, three bags full, then we have bully beef for tea." Or sometimes, steak and chips. Or even, ham and eggs. It is an uproarious ditty (Alfonso, incidentally, rhymes with 'Oxo," manufacturers of a popular British beef stock), characterized by some marvelous Oldfield guitar, while Ayers plays the empty wine bottles with all the passion of a born percussionist.
Even better, one need not be content simply with the single. A German language version exists, although it was released only in Germany (club!), while an extended version of 'Don Alfonso,' a full two minutes longer than the 45, was later slipped onto Virgin's V sampler, alongside some equally idiosyncratic cuts from labelmates Kevin Coync, Steve riillage, Ivor Cutler and Tom Newman. Boasting an extra verse, 'Ind a longer solo, six minutes of ' Don Alfonso" may be too much for some people, but for the rest of us, it's great.
The orchestral debacle at an end, Oldfield again threw himself into his own work, resurfacing only briefly, to lend some guitar to the Edgar Broughton Band's swansong Bandages (NEMS NEL 6006), and to cement a reconciliation with David Bedford, by appearing on the latter's Rime Of The Ancient Mariner album (Virgin V2038).
Having found himself a country retreat in the wilds of Gloucestershire, Oldfield launched into his next album with extraordinary gusto: extraordinary, that is, because he did not have a clue what he wanted to do. Indeed, he later confessed, 'after Hergest Ridge, I couldn't imagine me doing any more (albums).' It was well into the new year before anything began to take shape.
'I just had two tunes which ran together on acoustic guitar, and it sounded nice. I developed it all from that.. 'It," of course, was Ommadawn, the third of Mike Oldficid's rock symphonies, and minute for minute, the most powerful of them all.
Confessing that its very completion was motivated purely by 'confidence' and "obsession," Oldfield also acknowledged Ommadawn had been the easiest of all his albums to ctiinpletc.
"it doesn't sound so frightened as the others," he said. "it sounds a bit stronger." And as for the future, "I can imagine doing loads and loads more. I want to get cracking on another one very fast. obviously licrgest Ridge was never tire end of me writing music, but it (lid feel a bit like it. But this one, and especially after doing it, unless I crash in the car one night, I'tii obviously going to do a lot more music. An awful lot."
Not that Ommadawn was a trouble free record. "I had loads of problems. I did the whole of the first side twice. I think there was something wrong, probably with the tape before I got it, or it may just have been that I played it so many times, hundreds of times, and it started shedding oxide, getting a bit worn out. Nobody knows what happened to it. But it's jolly good that it did happen, otherwise I might not have done it again. and it would not have been half so good. The first one was going to be the final one, (but) just as I finished, I listened to it and I realized that it was going to be only a demo. It was quite a shock.'
So was Oldfield's choice of a closing segment for the album. "On Horseback' was a three minute ditty dedicated to (of course) horse riding ('hcy and away we go, through the grass, 'ctoss the snow," and so on).
It was, Oldfield insisted, an integral part of the album; "very important. It seems to balance it out. There seemed to have been an ovet-pessimisticness (sic) about it, especially the end of the first side." A song whose most memorablc cotiplets included the immortal "big brown beastic, big brown face, I'd rather be with you than flying through space,' certainly offered an antidote to that, although the merits of "On Horseback' still raise debate amongst Oldfield fans, more than two decades after ommadawn dawned. Less contentious are Oldfield's sentiments about the remainder, of the album, -and particularly that aforementioned 'end of the first side."
The excitement actually starts around the midway point, slowly building in layers of sound and effect, before the turntable itself appears to climax in an explosion of physical relief, while the record gently subsides back into itself, with a slowly fading drum. A collision of tribal beat, primal chant and shrieking guitar, the passage is stunningly simple, numbingly repetitive, and breathtakingly beautiful, heartbreaking in its intensity. Indeed, next to that single passage, even "Tubular Bells" seems a rubber band concerto. Oldfield himself seemed totally shocked by what he had created.
"Some people find it makes them happy Other people, it makes them very unhappy it scared me to death when I did it. When I did that electric guitar, I found it really frightening. I couldn't sleep. And the horse song is sort of the opposite to that."
The following year, Oldfield would try reining some of that so primitive emotioii back in, as he adapted several of Oinni(idawpi's guitar themes for a new piece he recorded with David Bedford, "First Excursion." He did not succeed.
The inclusion of a vocal track aside, Ommadawn marked several departures for Oldfield. It was his first album not to be recorded at the Manor, as he opted instead for the remote Herefordshire countryside, and the little known Beacon Studios; it was the first not to feature either Tom Newman or David Bedford in any capacity (Leslie Penning, the man who introduced Oldfield to horseback riding in the first place, replaced Bedford as the album's orchestrator); and finally, it would see Oldfield opening the studio to a staggering, if suitably eclectic, array of outside musicians: Paddy Maloney and the singularly named Herbic, with their complement of uilican pipes and northumbrian bagpipes, Gong's Pierre Moerlen, an African drum group, and the Hereford City Band.
Terry and Sally Oldfield, of course, were in attendance, along with Bridget St. John, and another vocalist, Clodagh Simonds, whom Oldficid would later credit with concocting the album's distinctive title.
Laughing off journalistic attempts to render Ommadawn a quaint misspelling of the Gaelic 'amadan' (meaning a foolish man, or a simpleton), Oldfield explained, 'I first saw it written down on a bit of paper, the words that Clodagh Simonds made up. About a week after that, I thought 'that's a nice word.'"
St. John confirms the totally uncalculatcd fashion in which the album's distinctive vocal chorus was created. 'Mike didn't give us lyrics, or words, it was simply the sounds that he wanted. tie used the vocals more like another instrument."
She remembers the session taking place over no more than a couple of days, a remarkable achievement considering the complexity of the piece. Nor were the vocal scsqions for Ommodawn all that she and ol(Ifiel(i recorded together; they all tapcd an exquisite version of St. John's own 'Ask Me No Questions,' a performance which St. John still steadfastly refuses to release.
"It was Mike and 1, and it was something special between us. A lot of people have told me I should have put it out at the time, because it would have been a hit, but I didn't want to try and 'make it' on someone cise's name.' She laughs as she recalls, 'I think Mike was a bit worried that I would release it; almost as soon as we finished recording, I got the feeling he wished we hadn't done it!"
Premiered on laic night radio DJ John Pect's show, Ommadawn was released on October 21, 1975, little more than a month after Oldfield completed recording and mixing. It would not prove an immediate success; Ommadawn peaked no higher than #4 in Britain, while its American counterpart faltered at #146. At the same time, however, Ommadawn has probably survived the passing of time with greater ease than either of its predecessors, and with considerably more grace as well. Foreshadowing so many future developments on the fringes of popular music, but inflicting its own darkness upon what, in other hands, has become the wanton superficiality of modern folk and 'Celtic' musical forms, Ommadawn is New Age music for a post-apocalypse future. It also remains his greatest accomplishment.
In December, Oldfield returned to a piece of traditional music he had first approached on the b-side of 'Don Alfonso,' creating a double A side of 'in Dulci jubilo' and "On Horseback," and promptly winning his first major hit single. "In Dulci jubilo" itself has since become something of a festive anthem in the UK, reappearing on some compilation or another every December; it would also be appended to Dutch pressings of Ommadawn (Virgin 27493), and would subsequently turn up on Oldfield's next British album, a massive four disc retrospective titled Boxed. Only this time, you needed four ears to listen to it.
Laughably moribund today, through the mid-1970s, Quadrophonic sound was considered the wave of the future. And it's true, the notion itself was flawless, surround sound techniques which not only put you in the same room as the band, they put you inside their heads as well, with music literally ricochetting from speaker to speaker, an aural experience of such dazzling complexity that yotk would never hear stereo in the same light again.
Of course, it wasn't quite as simple as that. Such advanced technology never is. Rather than simply re-equip existing stereos with a few new speakers, Quad demanded a sizeable reinvestment in an entire new system, and while there was some consumer response at the higher end of the audiophile market, Quadrophonic sound was ultimately doomed.
Before it surrendered, however, most socalled 'classic' albums of the previous decade were remixed for the system, including all three of Oldfield's.
There are some intriguing variations. The original Quad Tubular Bells, for instance, was appended with the sound of a model acroplane zipping from speaker to speaker, a comment on Oldfield and Newman's favorite mode of relaxation during the original album's gestation, while both Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn feature vastly superior mixes, most noticeable in the interplay of the guitars during the more frenetic moments.
Through early 1976, Oldfield opted to remix both Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn (Virgin engineer Phil Newell handled Tubular Bells) for the next generation of Quad releases, albums which were perfectly -compatible with both stereo and quadrophonic systems. And ignoring the cries of 'why didn't you think of that in the first place?" which immediately arose from the record buying public, they set about creating what are probably the definitive mixes of all three, for inclusion in Boxed.
Oldfield was particularly effusive about the Hergest Ridge refit. 'The main intention was to cut down on what I thought had been unnecessary trimmings, and in some cases, like the snare drum, erase them entirely
Most of the real effort went into perfecting the backing tracks down to the texture of each note, and I only added things like the trumpet and snare drum because I was worried that people might think it was too repetitive. But there is nothing wrong with repetition if you regard what's being repeated as worth repeating.
"On side two, I've given the voices more prominence and taken away a few of the guitar parts I added for the wrong reasons. Now it's the experiment in texture I always wanted it to be, a prototype in some ways for the beginning of side two of Ommadawn.'
Tubular Bells was more problematic, primarily because tire original master tapes had disappeared. Newell reckons he finally found them under somebody's bed, along with half a dozen Ming vascs, numerous rare art treasures, and a mysterious extra reel of out-takes ... or rather, one out-take, a tiotou@ly drunken rendition of the closing "Sailor's hornpipe," recorded at_3 in the morning by Oldficid and Viv Stanshall, as they pounded from room to room around the Manor. Along the way, Stanshall improvises a commentary upon the surroundings: "from the outside an ordinary house, a great house true, 483 tooms, each one with its own marble washbasin and douche.' Gleefully, this bizarre slice of typically Stanshallian humor was added to the remixed Bells, in place of the original, all-instrumental 'Hornpipe.'
Aside from the regular albums, Boxed would also feature a fourth disc, available only with the full package, and featuring eight short tracks dating back over the past three years of oldfield-ian sessions and experiments. It was a fascinating gesture; there was, after all, a lot of material to choose from, and if any one criticism can be aimed at Collaborations, it's that a lot of the choices were wrong.
The inclusion of the hit version of 'In Dulci Jubilo' was of course welcome, as were both sides of what would become oldficid's next hit single, the traditional naval ditty 'Portsmouth" (it reached #3 in December, 1976) and another track from the November, 1974, session which produced 'Don Alfonso,' the bizarre "Speak (Tho'You Only Say Farewell)."
Another traditional instrumental, 'Argiers" (like 'Portsmouth' and 'in Dulci jubilo- recorded with Leslie Penning) rounded out one half of Collaborations, and would also appear on a 45, as the b-side of the Australian 'Porismouth,' and in Britain, backing a frenetic rendition of 'The William Tell Overture' early in the new year.
The remainder of Collaborations, however, was simply a lost opportunity.
"Don Alfonso," 'Froggy Went A Courting," and so many more one-off weirdies already becoming impossible to find, Virgin could have restored Oldfield's entire nonalbum catalog to the racks. Instead, they chose four lengthy David Bedford compositions, which may have provided a fine shop window for his wares (Slar's End, Ancient Mariner, and 1976's The Odyssey, Virgin V2070, were all excerpted), but added little of interest to Oldfield's own canon.
Of course, such criticisms were lost on the marketplace. Retailing at a bargain L6.99, Boxed reached #22 on the British chart shortly before Christmas, 1976, and remained on the listings for over three months. Subsequently deleted, it has since resurfaced as a three CD package, with Collaborations split up to provide bonus tracks to the regular albums. With the original quadraphonic mix reduced to stereo, but without any loss of the actual benefits of the remixing, it continues to offer by far the most superior versions of Oldfield's three key albums.
Oldficid himself was to remain silent throughout much of 1976-78. While the world outside went crazy for punk rock, he described its proponents as looking like Venusians-'Iike little animals from Venus'-and hoped they'd go away soon.
Yet he would not fight them. Nothing more than a slot in a live performance of Bedford's The Odyssey, and a guest appearance on the composer's Instructions For Angels album (Virgin V2090), plus a couple of one-off singles, testified to his continued existence, and it must be said that the outside world didn't appear to be missing him. Neither 'William Tell Overture" nor another collaboration with Leslie Penning,
the adorably twce 'Cuckoo Song," charted, although Oldficld did find himself with a most unexpected hi@single, when 2 French disco concern, ithamps Boys, set a medley of Tubular Bells themes to a pounding dance beat, and made the British Top 30.
There were other collaborations, although few received much coverage. oldfield appears on Tom Newman's second album, Faerie Symphony (Decca TXS 123), and the ',Dance on Daone Sidhe' 45 (Decca FL3735); he and sister Sally together would also record an entire album with Finnish bassist Pckka Pohjoia, the oft-reissued/retitied The Mathematician@ Air Display (Virgin 2084).
Of Oldlield himself, however, there was no sign. Later, he would tell enquiring journalists problems, and simply could riot face a return to the limelight. In fact,- he r was also busy recording whal would become. perhaps his most misunderstood, and consequently overlooked, album, the double LP Incantations.
Released in time for Christmas ' 1978, Incantations' biggest problem was that it was totally out of place in the musical climate of the time. Whereas other pre-punk acts, Yes, the Stones and so on, had reacted to the changing moods with their grittiest albums in some time, Oldfield claimed he had never even heard any punk rock, and Incantations certainly did not contradict that otherwise unlikely-sounding scenario. Indeed, as if to snub forever the supposed economy and immediacy of punk, Collaborations was released in two very different (and completely unannounced) mixes, neither of which can be told apart except by actually playing them.
Again, the album concentrated its energies on a handful of themes, the most notable being a wonderful interpretation of Longfellow's epic poem Hiawatha. performed by Steeleye Span vocalist Maddy Prior.
Mindful, perhaps, of the increasingly diminishing returns Oldfield albums were achieving in the US, Virgin chose not to release Incantations here; copies were heavily imported, however, particularly after the set made its CD debut in 1986. Beware, however, of this particular release: in order to fit the entire double album onto one disc, the CD ruthlessly slashes part three of the piece by almost four minutes, a bit of surgery which wasn't undone for another 5 years.
For listeners approaching Incantations anew in recent years, it is difficult to comprehend how the album came to be so comprehensively overlooked. True, its four parts could have been condensed to two, with several of the passages (the opening of side three in particular) contributing little to either the overall flow of the album, or to Oldficid's reputation in general. But the album remains gently evocative, a far cry, Oldfield later admitted, from his state of mind at the time it was recorded.
His problems, he explained, manifested themselves 'as a general feeling of panic, that something was terribly, terribly wrong. It could happen anywhere; in a lift, in a supennarket,,driving a car or even sitting in a'qu-iet country mead@.' For a time, he was involved in the spiritual cult of Exegesis, a period he would later renounce, but which certainly did much to draw him out of his shell.
They break your personality down, and build it back up, and through that I re-experienccd my fears. it was like opening some huge cathedral doors and facing the monstcr, and I saw that the monstct was myself as a new bom infant, because I'd started life in a panic."
Having faced his fears, and for the first time understanding them, oldficid thrcw himself into promoting his new album with both gusto and open-ness, before dropping a bombshell which few of his fans had ever expected to hear. He intended taking Inca"tations on the road.
'I underwent what I would describe as a 'rebirth' experience,' which gave me a lot of insight into myself and human nature,' he explained at the time. 'I have started again." , Yet it transpired that Exegesis alone was not responsible for his change in attitude. Years later, he admitted that punk rock, too, had reinvigorated him, although not in the way that many other musicians might claim. His personal commercial stock had sunk exponentially with the rise of punk, and in 1992, Oldfield accused, 'I fadcd because Virgin were actively promoting the opposite kind of music. Richard (Branson) put all his energy into it. They were signing all these punk bands, and I was having trouble getting anyone on the phone.
'I've since read in Richard's book that (Virgin) wanted to change their image. In record shops, my records were taken off the front shelf and put on the back. it was simply a money-making exercise. A few people got very rich and built empires. The quality of music suffered, and it hasn't yet recovered.
'Meanwhile, I had Richard smiling and being very nice. He used to act out being generous. but at the same time he was being veryungenerous with royalties. He was caming a lot of money off Tubular Bells ... I donl know what became of it, but I know he's got a nice island somewhere.'
Oldfield appeared intent on making up lost ground, further proving his reborn credentials by high-tailing it to New York's Electric Lady studios, there to begin work on his next album, Platinum, and record a new single, the pulsing disco excursion 'Guilty'
Recorded with a handful of local sessionmen, and totally unlike anything he had ever released In the past, 'Guilty' was both stunning and shocking; still, fanspromptly sent it soaring into the U.K. chart, while Oldfield did his part for promotion by appearing on such bastions of British TV as Top Of The Pops and jimli fix It.
'Guilty' would feature heavily in Oldficid's live set, a lavish display which demanded 25 technicians, three articulated lorries full of equipment, and 50 musicians spread across a band, an orchestra, and a -choir-a fascinating line_ up by anybody's standards.
Maddy Prior returned to reprise her studio performance of "Iliawatha," while David Bedford, Gong's Picrre Moetlen and Pekka Pohjola led in the musical name recognition stakes. There was also a prominent role for Tim Cross. a young keyboard player who would become an integral part of Oldficid's future plans, and who actually made his Oldfield-ian debut performing 'Guilty" on Top Of The Pops.
Introduced to Oldfield by Tom Newman, Cross' distinctive organ still looms large in the memory, and as Oldlield began piecing together the severely truncated line-up which would accompany his next tour, Cross' name was one of the first he pencilled in.
A total of 13 shows were scattered throughout continental Europe, and in both musical and critical terms, the exercise was a howling success. But logistically it was a nightmare and financially, a disast er. While Oldfield sat back to plan his next outing, a double live souvenir of the tour, Exposed, was released in a gallant attempt to recoup some of the losses.
It worked as well. Released, in August, 1979, in a 'two albums for the price of one" limited edition of 100,000 copies, Exposed sold so well that the original limited concept was abandoned, and the album slipped into regular production, It eventually peaked at #16.
xposed is a strange album. It comprises just three pieces of music: A straightforward "Guilty," a complete, but quite ostentatiously "showy" rendering of Tubular Bells, and a cruelly truncated version of Incantations, which played up to the live audience by highlighting what had hitherto been regarded as the studio version's lowest points!
A more interesting take on incantations appeared on Airborne, a 1980 double album compilation released in the U.S. by Virgin, and highlighting Oldfield's last three albums. While the first disc simply reiterated much of his own next album, Platinum, the second served up a new live performance of side one of Tubular Bells, plus an Incantations medley which effortlessly slipped between studio and live highlights. A very worthwhile collection, Airborn has infuriatingly failed to make it onto CD yet.
A similar U.K. release was made by the mail order Tellydisc company, although this version is even more furiously sought by collectors: Aside from the live Tubular Bells, an exclusive remix of "I Got Rhythm- was joined by rare album appearances for the 'Pipe Tune,' 'Wreckorder Wrondo' and 'Cuckoo Song" singles and b-sides.
Rounding out a very busy year, Platinum was finally released in December, linking the fruits of Oldfield's New York sojourn with more recent material recorded with several of the musicians who had undertaken the spring tour.
Tim Cross was amongst those invited along, but was lucklessly forced to pull out on the very eve of the sessions when he broke his wrist. In what remains one of the most bizarre couplings in rock history, he waited out his convalescence by joining a Punk Rock band, the Adverts! Their second album, Cast Of Thousands, was to be produced by Tom Newman, and when vocalist TV Smith mentioned he wanted to add keyboards to the band's arsenal, Newman had no hesitation in introducing Cross, both for studio work and the British tour which followed.
Cross would, of course, return to the Oldfield band in the new year, but he and Smith would continue working together for much of the next decade. (Oldfield, too, would eventually go punk, gucsting on both the Skids'joy album, Virgin V2117, and, very humorously, playing tubular bells on an album by Bram Tchaikovsky, Strange Man Changed Man Radar BAD 17.)
Platinum represented a major reshaping of the Oldfielci formula. The album was divided equally between one side long piece of music, and four shorter cuts.
'Platinum" itself was breathtaking; having originally appeared, in demo form, on the soundtrack to a 1977 Arts Council movie called Reflections, the piece had expanded beyond belief, into a seamless blending of four movements.
Of the shorter cuts, the instrumentals 'Woodhenge,' in which brother Terry's musical influence is clear for all to hear, and the frenetic "Punkadiddle" were the best; elsewhere, there was a fairly appalling 'I Got Rhythm," and there was 'Sally," a song whose out of character frenzy so incensed Virgin chief Richard Branson that he actually halted the presses until Oldficld supplied something a little less 'boisterous" It was, the entrepreneur decided, all very well for Oldfield to have emerged from his reclus ive ge, and to dedicate songs to his sta girlfriend (Sally was Sally Cooper, Oldfield's long time companion), but that did not excuse lyrics like: 'Sally, I'm just a gorilla, I'll say I love you ever more. Even an ape from Manilla, couldn't stop me knocking at your door." Between 30- and 40,000 copies of Platinum had already shipped, but Branson was adamant. 'Sally' had to go. Oldfield compiled. The annoyingly infcctious "Into Wonderland" utilized the same basic drum track as 'Sally,' but otherwise wandered off on a totally different course. Needless to say, collectors continue to ircasure the withdrawn Platinum, partly because 'Sally' has yet to reappear in any other forum, but also because the substitution had a second, interesting, side effect. 'Punkadiddle," the succeeding track (and one of the cuts worked up in New York), gained some 50 seconds of intro' 'Is the original bridge between it and 'Sally" was left intact. Interestingly, the speed with which the vinyl was replaced was not matched in the artwork department; the jacket for Platinum continued to credit 'Sally' for some years to come, with the error even carrying over to the 1984 CD reissue. Collectors seeking the withdrawn vinyl version, therefore, have only the matrix number to guide them: original prcssings are stamped V2141-Bl or -B2; the "Into Wonderland" version is -B3.
A new non-album single followed Plotinum into the stores. An instrumental, it was a distinctive reworking of a rtaval hornpipe called 'Barnacle Bill," but better known to myriads of British children as the theme to the long running TV program Blue Peter.
Two versions of the single exist; the original, featuring a very abrupt ending, was withdrawn following complaints from radio disc jockeys, to be replaced by a second pressing featuring a more refined conclusion. The substitution worked as well, offering further proof of Oldfield's commercial reemergence as it raced to a Top 20 placing. Profits from the hit, which was retitled 'Blue Peter' for the occasion, were donated to a Cambodian relief appeal, while Oldfield's rendering of the theme became a semipermanent fixture on the show itself. (A third version of 'Blue Peter- can be found n the Benelux compilation Wonderland, irgin 203550)
1979-80 also saw Oldficld guesting on two successive albums by Picrre Moetten's Gong, Downwind (Arista SPARTY 1080) and Live (Arista SPARTY 1130), as well as join. ing artist Phil Beer for a track donated to the Broadreach House Drug And Alcohol charity album Where Would You Rather be Tonight, (Sunrise A40111M)@ "Pass You By' has never been released elsewhere, and remains a thorn in many otherwise comprehensive collectors' side. Other collaborations from this period include Oldfield playing alongside Lca Nicholson & The Rawtenstall Concertina Band on the Concertina Record album (Kickin r g Mule SKNF 165), and a 45 coupling 'The Dambusters March/'Southampton Dock' (Virgin); and linking with James Vane for an obscure 45, 'Judy's Gone Down'/'Jungle Lovers" (Island WIP 6539). Amidst all this activity, plans for the next tour carried on.
True to his word, oldfield's spring, 1980, tour was a remarkably economical affair, at least in comparison with its predecessor. Forty shows around Europe and Britain culminated with the 11 piece bond appearing alongside the Beach Boys, Lindisfarne and Santana at the annual Knebworth festival in England, before the party moved back into the studio to record the next album, QE2.
The album would boast a phenomenal line-up of musicians, as Oldficid was joined by Genesis drummer Phil Collins, former Cado Belle vocalist Maggie Reilly, producer and synth wizard David Hentschel, percussionists Mike Frye and Morris Pen, and Tim Cross. Indeed, Cross, Reilly, Pert and Frye would form the nucleus of oldfield's next touring line-up, and one whose effectiveness can easily be gauged from the two cuts on which they were first united, 'Conflict' and 'Celt."
QE2 as a whole continued the direction mooted by Platinum, with Oldfield eschewing even the sidc-long instrumental, in favor of just one extended effort, the ten minute 'Taurus I." Elsewhere; covers of the Shadows' 'Wonderful Land' and Abba's 'Arrival' highlighted a commercial sense which which even Platinum had never hinted at (both would become singles), and provoking long term Oldfield supporters to question their hero. Many reviews, on the other hand, accused Oldfield of simply marking time while he waited for the next sprawling opus to dawn on him, a complaint which could scarcely have been better timed. In July, 1981, sales of Tubular Bells reached ten million. Unfortunately for them, such pretensions were the furthest thing from Oldficld's mind '
With bassist Rick Fenn joining the QE2 nucleus, the 1981 tour saw Oldfield finally complete the transition from orchestral maestro to band member. Live shows no longer centered around the sprawling masterpieces of old; with the emphasis firmly on the new material, the likes of Tubular Bells and Ommadawn were featured only in truncated form, and it was pieces like 'Platinum" and 'Taurus I' which now expanded.
The 1985 compilation The Complete Mike Oldfield features one side of unreleased live material dating from the early 1980s, andit is indeed instructive to compare the ferocious rendering of "Platinum" with, say, the live takes of Tubular Bells included on Exposed and Airborne, There is no competition.
Even better is a 1982 live recording which appeared a decade later on the just One Night bootleg (Canterbury Dream CTD 001/002). This tour, of course, caught the newly christened Mike Oldlield Group promoting its own debut album, the astonishing Five Miles Out, and the new material simply swamps the oldcrr, both in terms of conviction and style.
July, 1981, nevertheless saw Oldfield's status amongst rock's royalty confirmed first, when he was invited to play a free concert as part of the celebrations surrounding the marriage of Prince Charles and that Diana woman (a unique "Royal Wedding March' was composed and performed for this occasion), and then when he joined Paul McCartney as the only rock musician to be featured in Who is Who. Asked why Oldfield had been selected over so many other, equality deserving, musicians, a Who is Who spokesperson allegedly replied, "I don't know but he is someone everyone's heard of, isn't he?"
Five Miles Out was released in March, 1982, but its genesis actually dated back two years earlier, to a day in August, 1980, when Oldfield (a qualified pilot) was flying his twin engined Piper Navajo over the Pyrenees mountain range. The plane flew into a thunderstorm, and Oldfield recalled, "we were tossed about like a pancake, and there was ice collecting on the propellers and rain on the windscreen, and everybody was going 'aargh."' The new album's title track, and the gorgeous painting selected for its cover, were both inspired by that event.
Despite a number of quite savage reviews, Five Miles Out became Oldfield's first Top Ten album since Onimadawn; even more remarkably, it would provide him with a major hit single, when Hall and Oates covered side two's opening cut, 'Family Man," and made #6 in the American chart, and #15 in the British. (Oldfield's own version reached #45).
The American duo provided a horribly emasculated take on what, in the Oldfield Croup',, hands, had been a pulsating track characterized by one of Oldfield's most violent guitar solos, but as a commercial vindication of Oldfield's new direction, there could be no stronger indicator. Five Miles out, incidentally, reached #164 in the U.S., ten places higher than QE2.
The constraints of working within a band format saw oldfield, for the first time, restrict his musical endeavors to guitar and bass, with a little keyboard and vocal thrown in for good measure; the ensuing musical democracy certainly worked to the album's advantage when it came to live work, as (once again), the Just One Night bootleg amply shows. "Taurus II," the return to side long epics which opened the album, is positively electrifying in concert, an attribute which it certainly inherited from the album take. (Also of interest from this period, but frustratingly unavailable, is a version of Free's "Alright Now," performed by the Group for a promo single, issued to coincide with the birth of The Tube, a new British music television program.)
Despite the obvious success of 'Five Miles Out," the Mike Oldfield Group did not continue on, at least in its most effective form. A wholesale shift in personnel saw only Maggie Reilly retained in a 1983 touring party which now included guitarist Ant ' former flawkwind violinist Simon tiou 5e' drummers Pierre Moerlin and co-producer Simon Phillips, bassist Phil Spalding and keyboardist Graham Pleeth. Undeniably competent and gifted though this aggregation was, it lacked the coherence and spark of the original band, and Crises, Oldfield's eighth album (and his third to include a song called "Taurus"), echoed this uncertainty
That said, it effortlessly continued his reborn run of hits, as the album climbed to st6 in Britain, while a single of "Moonlight Shadow,' one of Maggie Reilly's greatest ever performances, made #4, Oldfield's highest ranked 45 since 'Portsmouth.'
Widely regarded to be a tribute to John Lennon; described by Oldficld himself as having been inspired by the Tony Curtis movie Houdini; but better associated with the wonderfully evocative smugglers and highwaymen type video which accompanied it, 'Moonlight Shadow' is a truly delightful pop song, and by far the best cut on its accompanying album. Compare it, for example, with the horrendous 'In High Places,' in which Jon Anderson turns in as uninspited a vocal as anything on Tales From Topographic Oceans (yet still got a return call from Oldlield, for 1986s one-off 'Shine" 45).
The quirky 'Foreign Affair,' and the relentlessly rocky 'Shadow On The Wall," with vocals by former Family mainstay Roger Chapman, are better, but still they pale alongside "Moonlight Shadow," while the side long title track was just that, a side long title track from the man whose career now seemed to revolve around such things.
Fired by some strident guitar, feeding into several very enjoyable passages, 'Crises' seemed little more than Oldficidby-numbers, the kind of composition he could rattle off after breakfast, and have forgotten about before lunch. Fans seeking a more lucid Oldfield performance from this era are advised to seek out b tieg recordings of his guest slot alongside Progressive retro-rockers Marillion, performing 'Shadow On The Wall' and an excellent version of Genesis' 'I Know What I Like." In such unfamiliar surroundings, Oldfield radiates a confidence and enjoyment which his own work was too starkly lacking.
Oldfield places much of the blame for this on external pressures, particularly within the record company
"I was at somebody's birthday party just after 'Moonlight Shadow' had been a big bit, and of course they all thought 'wow, big hit, got to do them all exactly like that, then,' which was a blanketed mentality, and unluckily I followed that advice and wrote a lot of so "gs, most of which weren't very good."
A new album, Discovery, bore the brunt of that affliction, although it did provided him with another hit single, "To France." Inspired by the tragic life of Mary, Queen Of Scots, this beautiful song is best appreciated across the five minute course of the 12-inch single.
In concert, too, Oldfield grasp on the established elements of his craft appeared to he weakening, looking to him abandotting tire concert stage after one final, 50 date, European tour.
Yet his Appetite for work was undiminished. Forming his own label, Oldfield Records, he produced and played on its first release, David Bedford, Silvy Clusters, Nobtilor And Places fit (Oldfield OM 1), while he also recorded his first Killing Fields soundtrack, when he was contracted to score Roland.
0ldfield subsequently claimed that attempting such "a narrowing and emotional film" was one of the hardest jobs lie had ever undertaken, and the resultant music echoes that struggle to contraire, positive ends. Oldfield's adaptations of Cambodian folk music were uniformly strong, while "Etticle," a Francisco larrcga composition best known in England as the theme to the country-life-oriented television show Tire Old Country, ranks amongst Oldfield's most compelling recordings. In that it also divorced him from his increasingly formulaic band work, The Killing Fields unmistakably signposted the fresh directions in which Oldfield would soon be looking.
While 0ldfield himself quietly withdrawing hack to his completed home studio, it was the ominously titled The Complete Mike 0ldfield compilation which closed this particular chapter of his career. A two album retrospective, The Complete Mihe Oldfield offered one disc of old singles and album tracks, dating back to "In Dulci Jubilo" and wrapping up several non-album loose ends (an alternate version of "Five Miles out,' is also included), and another devoted to excerpts from the 'classics," and the aforementioned previously unreleased live tracks. It was an excellent set, wellconceived and paced, and stirely deserved more than its eventual lowly (#36) chart placing.
Throughout 1985, Oldfield worked on what he described as a video single, "Pictures In The Dark," with teenaged soprano Aled Jones, and lattcr day Group vocalist Barry Palmer. Undeniably successful within the constraints of Oldfield's own abilities (it reached #50 on the U.K. chart), it was, however, simply a tough sketch of what lie really dreamed of: A full video album.
Constructed with director Alex Proyas, the 21 minute Wind Chimes was envisaged as a visual accompaniment to Oldfield's next studio album, Islands, named for and dominated by Oldfield's new found love for Balinese folk music; in the event, a full year would separate the two releases, with Islands scraping into the British Top 30 in September, 1987, and Wind Chimes following in October, 1988.
Islands is a remarkable albtirii, not only for its c(ititents but also for Oldfield's choice (if accompanying musicians. I-ormer Boxy Music saxophonist Andy Mackay, Yes/Btiggles mainstay Geoff Downes, and "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" songstress Bonnie Tyler, were joined by Oldfield's old boss, Kevin Ayers, whose own remarkable career actually inspired one of the album's tracks, and accompanying 45s, "Flying Start" (oldfiel(i and Ayers would unite once more on tire latter's Still Life Willi Guitar album in 1992, Permanent PERMCD 5).
This period offers several interesting variations to the Oldfield collector. Original British pressings of Islands featured a version of 'Magic Touch' with vocals by Jim Price; this was replaced, early into the U.K. run, and on all American pressings, by the same song as performed by one Max Bacon. Those same early British CDs also include a bonus track excised from subsequent pressings, "When The Night's On Fire."
In addition, the "revised" Islands was at least partially remixed, while the American islands also features yet another remix of "The Time Has Come" alone, An extended mix of "Islands' itself was released on a U.K. 12-inch single, and finally, there is an American promo compilation which tracked through the last six years of Oldfield's career (plus an excerpt from Tubular Bells), and serves as an excellent "best of" Oldfield's years as the leader of a real rock'n'roll band.
The Wind Chimes video album makes a similar point, ranging across both islands and the promo videos which accompanied Oldfield's earlier 45s. Released on video in Japan, and laser disc in Britain, it is an enjoyable, but all too easily overlooked addition to Oldfield's canon, and one which Oldfield himself would swiftly turn his back on as he threw himself into another frenzy of recording work.
Three albums in a little under three years essentially recapped all three phases of Oldfield's career to date.
Earth Moving, in 1989, utilized seven vocalists over its nine tracks (with Maggie Reilly again shining brightest of all), and catered to everyone who had enjoyed the concise pop/rock epics of the early '80s.
Amarok (1990) offered up an album length symphony which not only reunited Oldficld with Tom Newman for the first time in a decade, it also reprised his first album's caveman -vocals and some very welcome tubular bells.
And finally, Heaven's Open (1991) divided itself between one long composition, and five shorter vocal tracks. What wa's interesting this time was that Oldfield himself handled all the vocals. After years of experimenting with so many singers, Oldfield had finally come to terms with the sound of his own voice.
"I'm pleased to have discovered I'm not as bad a singer as I thought I was." he said.
Whether the public agreed with him is another ' matter entirely. Heaven's Open became Oldfield's first ever non-charting album.
Typically, a string of singles accompanied these albums, with several offering up some remarkable, and sadly obscure gems. 1989 brought extended and 'disco' versions of -innocent" and 'Earthmoving,' and socalled Hard And Holy and Holy Groove remixes of "(One Glance is) Holy'
The title track of Heaven's Open would also be gifted with a 12-inch mix-, and while Amarok did not distinguish itself on the 45 front, the album itself was very cunningly paircd with Tubular Bells in a 1990 boxed set which was certainly designed to draw attention to the occasional similarities between the two albums. It was the closest Virgin could get to their initial dream, of releasing the album as Tubular Bells It.
As far back as 1982, rumors had been flying that Oldfield was planning to record a successor to his first album, with the English New Musical Express going so far as to report it as 'imminent." Of course, nothing came of that, but in 1989, Oldfield recorded a seven minute distillation of what was still his signature piece for BBC Radio One DJ Nicky Campbell's show, and Virgin's excitement went into overdrive.
"it was a rather sad situation," Oldfield reflects. "I delivered Amarok to the record company, and I was getting on very badly with them at the time. They wanted me to call it Tubular Bells If and I said, 'come on, it's not!' They said, 'if we call it Tubular Bells 11 it'll sell millions, and I said, 'but it's not Tubular Bells 11; if anything, it's "Ommadawn II," it's based on the ideas that I started off with on Ommadawn.'
Bridget St. John, who was flown over to Britain from her home in New York to lend vocals to the sessions, agrees with Oldfield's assessment, that Amarok was closest in feeling to Ommadawn, and drew out much the range of emotions as well. Unfortunately, an approaching (but as yet undiagnosed) bout of hepatitis prevented her from throwing as much soul into this recording as she had with that original album, and she acknowledges, "I wasn't completely in there, and I know Mike didn't use everything that I did, and I think that's why"
She has particularly fond me 'nories of one particular out-take from the sessions. "it was this beautiful song he'd written, in his own version of Gaelic, not true Gaelic, if somebody heard it they couldn't translate it into English, but it was the most beautiful song. The words didn't mean anything, but that didn't matter because I could feel what he wanted it to be.' As for its non-altearance on Amarok, 'I hope it wasn't because he didn't feel it worked, but because he didn't think it worked within the context of the album!'
Amaroh, Oldfield himself explained, "was an experiment to see if I could (make an album) without computers." Electronics had become an integral part of his studio discipline in recent years, and he continued, "even though it doesn't sound like it, it was all played by hand. It sounds like samples, but every little thing was played by hand, and I had a lot of fun doing it.' He also acknowledged, however, "I love parts of it, but there are parts of it that I hate, parts of it where I can't believe how I could be so naive. But other parts, I think 'wow, that's tremendous'.'
Despite his refusal to associate Amaroh with Tubular Bells, the monster was looming large in Oldfield's mind. It was not Amarok which crystallized the idea, however; it was the conclusion of his recording contract with Virgin
Having spent much of his career surrounded, he was now convinced, "by people who didn't like me, "Heaven's Open" became his final album for the label. Now, with Oldfield courting new suitors, what better dowry could he offer than a return to his most successful pastures?
Produced by Trevor Thorn, Tubular Bells II would be released through the Warners group in September, 1992, an anniversarymocking 19 years and four months after Tubular Bells I first burst upon an unsuspecting world.
This time, of course, the world knew exactly what to expect, and Oldfield did not disappoint them. Without actually repeating the so-familiar themes of old, he came close enough to reiterating them that for many reviewers, the only real point of comparison was the Ruties' approach to the Beatles' catalog, parody to the point of perfection.
There again, as Oldfield himself remarked, "there's no point writing a sequel if it's completely different. There's certain points where the two works converge, but then they'll separate and follow two distinct
Previewed with a live performance at Edinburgh Castle, featuring sixteen mustcians and the entire Royal Scots Dragoon Guards band, and accompanied by what proved to be a string of often sensational remixes by the likes of the Orb, Mark Lewis and Tommy Musto, Tubular Bells 11 was a guaranteed success, crashing into the U.K. chart at #1 and remaining there for two weeks.
In Spain, immediate sales of over 500,000 prompted a special souvenir single of one track, "The Bell," while a video of the Edinburgh show was also released to considerable worldwide fanfare, earning an airing on American PBS. (A live EP drawn from this same performance was released in Britain.)
Virgin Records were not slow to leap aboard this latest bandwagon. June, 1993, brought a new video compilation, The Essential Mike 014field@ three months later, The Best Of Mihc Oicifield: Elements appeared as a single CD, previewing a four disc boxed set of the same name.
Elements 1973-1991 was an interesting collection, not Only for what it included, but also for what was omitted. There was, for instance, still no place for -Don Alfonso' and 'Froggy Went A-Courting," but unreleased performances of Vivaldi's 'Concerto In C," and live versions of "Punkadiddlc" and 'Polka" went some way to intriguing collectors.
Elsewhere, however, great,swathes of the extravagantly packaged box simply replicated the eight year old Complete Mike Oldfield set, and while Tubular Bells was included in era entirety, the equally deserving Ommadawn and Hergest Ridge were represented, respectively, by one side, and one ten minute excerpt only.
Incantations, Amarok and 'Platinum' was similarly truncated, and with none of Oldfield's already scarce 12-inch mixes considered suitable for the set, the end result was as disappointing as it was undoubtedly Comprehensive ... particularly when one of the few genuine bonuses promised on the packaging, the Hard and Holy remix of '(One Glance is) Holy' turned out to be a mistitied regular 45 mix.
All in all, then, Elements represented a major failure, at least from a collector's point of view; there is so much Oldfield m'aterial still awaiting an official CD debut that Virgin's refusal to even dent the pile goes beyond corporate blindness, and verges instead on corporate spitefulness. (Collectors seeking some, although not all, of Elements key omissions can download a number of raritics from sundry Oldfield websites: amongst the other titles noted are live performances of Ommadawn and 'Mount Teide," 'Sally,' and several Tubular Bells If era performances.)
Oldfield himself would not return to the fray until November, 1994, when he released his own new album, The Songs of Distant Earth. In the meantime, however, he did receive a particularly unusual honor when Minor planet number 5656, first discovered back in October, 1920, by one W Baade, a( Bcrgedorf, was renamed in his honor.
A press release announcing the renaming stated, 'Oldfield is in a 3.9-year elliptical orbit around the sun ranging in distance from 272 million km (at perihelion, closest point to the sun) to 464 million km (at aphelion, furthest point from the sun). The orbit is inclined at about 4 degrees to the ecliptic plant (the plane of the carth's orbit about the sun), There is little information on the physical properties of (5656) Oldfield.N Even its diameter is uncertainties range of 6 to 14 km is probable. You will need a telescope to see this minor planet as its maximom brightness is some 1/1700 of the brightness of the faintest objects that can he seen with the unaided eye." Distant earth indeedt
A concept album based around Arthur C. Clarke's book of the same name, The Songs Of Distant Earth was an ambitious project, rendered all the more so by the inclusion of a Macintosh-only CD-Rom track.
Clarke wrote, in the album's liner notes, "since the finale of the novel is a musical concert, I was delighted when Mike Oldfield told me that he wanted to compose a suite inspired by it. I was particularly impressed by the music he wrote for The Killing Fields and now, having played (this record) I feel he has lived up to my expectations.' 0 f course, rock'n'roll treatments of books seldom work as well as one always hopes they will, and though Clarke's excitement was understandable, one cannot help but feel his expectations could not have been particularly high.
Although there ate several truly inspired moments, much of The Songs of Distant Earth does seem labored, while Oldficid himself certainly nodded far too heavily, and quite unnecessarily, in the direction of the hokier elements of modern 'New Age" concepts.
Having all but single-handedly ushered in that entire musical genre through the majestic soundscapes of Hergest Ridge, Ommadawn and Incantations, it was disappointing now to find him lagging some way behind the acts which had emerged in his wake. Indeed, Oldfield himself acknowledged that the album was, in many ways, an experiment, an attempt to acquaint himself with techniques which other acts had already become wellversed in.
'There's a lot of things wrong with it. It was a bit of a rush to finish it, but in general I'm pleased with it. It was a great opportunity to work with a computer ... I was investigating the possibilities."
Still, it is undoubtedly refreshing that for Voyager, his latest album, Oldfield should return to more traditional recording methods. Indeed, while Voyager also sees him return to the shorter song format which is so far removed from the classics he once created, but in terms of execution and enthusiasm, it stands amongst the best albums he has ever released.
"After Tubular Bells came out, people called it 'New Age'," Oldfield agrees. 'It wasn't. It was much more dynamic. When I listen to New Age music, I often find it boring, things done cheaply and without a lot of love and care or attention. Now I'm prepared to be an ambassador for instrumental music. I want to show kids starting out that you don't have to write music for the charts, it can be different, it can be out of the ordinary. They shouldn't be afraid to experiment.
That was certainly the case with Voyager. Wholly instrumental, it continues to exude a certain Celtic vibe, but this time, the effect explodes into stark relief in unprecedented fashion. Versions of old 'trad. are.' warhorses like 'She Moves Through The Fair,' 'Flowers Of The Forest' and 'Women Of Ireland,' it is true, add little more than a few fiddly bits to the renditions which countless other folk faves have produced. Where Oldfield excels, however, is firstly in having the courage to even try and restore such pieces to contemporary favor, and secondly in the skill with which he weaves his own new compositions amongst them, a process which peaks with the lengthy finale, "Mont St Michel."
Whether he will (or would even want to) ever return to the album length composi'items which made his name is a question for other people to ponder; Oldfield remains one of the most devilishly sharp musicians currently trawling the folk-rock fields, and one of the few who knows that the New Age will pass, and folk will just be folk again soon. This is the first shot in that forthcoming battle.
'People are fed up hearing music made for boardroom committees and sales figures,' he once complained. 'They want to turn on music and escape into another world, a world that can actually give them something. I want my music to do that. I want to give people the equivalent of a Disneyland ride, or a Spielberg film. It should be that good.'
In general, it is a goal he has succeeded in attaining.
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net