Tom Newman Interview

August 24, 1997
David Porter

What are your recollections of your first meeting with Mike Oldfield who came to The Manor with the Arthur Lewis Band?

Well just him being this very shy and slightly confused young hippy, looked as if he was spaced out, really, all the time. He only had 2 items of clothing that he wore on a permanent basis - a purply pair of flared jeans and a little skinny t-shirt. I only ever saw him in those for the first couple of years that I knew him. I think that's all he ever had! He played me this horrid little demo that was absolutely stunning, I just loved it. It wasn't actually Tubular Bells demos at that time, they were just bits of music - one of which had a hoover as a backing track. They were just so plaintive and beautiful that I was completely gob-smacked. I haven't heard the tape since then but I'd love to hear them, it would be wonderful to see what they sounded like now.

Of the bands that recorded at The Manor which ones (if any) did Mike do sessions with?

We did a thing called Manor Live which was Elkie Brooks and a whole bunch of people, and I think he played on one of those. He was around for the Bonzo stuff (he was kind of 'hanging out') because they used to work at very peculiar times. If Simon and myself had done a late one and fell asleep at 4 am., quite often Vivian would get up at 5 am. and want to start again. That was impossible as far as I was concerned, but Michael would quite happily do the odd session at wierd times of the night or day to try and keep them going. There was a band called Holy Roller, I've got a feeling he was around for some of that session aswell. It was a guy called Paul Kennerly who was leader of the band. It was a four piece heavy rock band who were very, very good. Then there was Henry Cow and their Legend LP.

Some sources suggest that 'Tubular Bells' required 10,000 overdubs, others say 2,500 and yet others say far fewer than that. Which one's correct? (Gareth Randall)

We did it on 16 tracks and it depends on how you define 'overdub', because anything on a multitrack tape recorder, strictly speaking, is an overdub and if you count the number of times you 'drop-in' because you've done it wrong ..... The way it was constructed was with the kind of riffy bit played live on a glockenspiel, then on a Farfisa organ and then guitar bits put on it - to go through 15 mins worth was impossible to do in one go. So we did drop in and out of that to get it right all the way through. There was no instance that I recall when something went down the first time and that was that. Just arriving at the right bit and it sounding right might take 10 or 12 drop-ins. Then you try and get the part all the way through, so for each part there may have been up to 20 drop-ins, so that's 320. If you add that to the other side, which actually took more drop-ins, because it was slightly more complex when it came to the drum parts ..... By the time we got mixes the tape was getting fairly worn - 2 inch tape had only just arrived really and it was a lot thinner and less robust than modern 2 inch tape. I think a copy was done but not till much later - probably when Phil Newell did the remix.... So if you count every single drop-in we might have done 1000, but that was par for the course for practically any album. That 10,000 overdubs was just bullshit that Richard (Branson) applied to it at the time to give it more status than the average album.

There is a lot of discussion about the cover of that album. What do you know about the famous twisted bell of Trevor Key's?

Trevor showed us his portfolio and one of the shots he had was an egg with blood coming out of it and that was a very strong contender from Richard's point of view. I can't honestly remember how the Tubular Bell arrived. Michael liked the idea of having some reference, because he was really excited by the way the end piece had gone and liked that great big 'doiung'. When Trevor went on the photo session he went down to Hastings beach (or Eastbourne), with these flaming bones (Sue Steward who wrote Trevor's obituary in The Independent newspaper should know more - I'm almost sure she went on the photo session). The original bell was stolen some years ago from Trevor's studio - it was beautiful - about 18 inches to 2 feet across, the tubing about an inch and a half diameter. It was actually quite expensive to make because bending tubing of that size was difficult. He had to remake it for the 'Tubular Bells II' thing and I can't remember whether they made another one or it was computerised. I've got a feeling, knowing Trevor - he would have made another one.

What are your memories of the recording of 'Hergest Ridge'? The recording was done in Feb/March 1974 - was there any particular reason why release was delayed until the end of August 1974, 5 months later?

'Hergest Ridge' was a real bone of contention, at the time, between Michael and Richard because Michael really wasn't ready to do another album. He didn't want to do a follow-up, he wasn't in the right frame of mind for it. He was finding it difficult handling the fact that 'Tubular Bells' had been so successful. Richard was badgering him like mad to do live gigs and he couldn't do it - mentally not in the right frame of mind. Richard was applying constant pressure to him to either tour or make another album or preferably both. From Richard's point of view, Michael was the only person on the label making an enormous amount of money for him and he didn't want it to stop, obviously. In actual fact, Richard was making something like five times more per album than Michael was in terms of actual cash. Eventually Michael succumbed and we talked about, and started putting together ideas for 'Hergest Ridge'. We did some sessions at Chipping Norton and some at The Manor and we mixed it at Air (London), I think. Because the record company was brand new and nobody knew what to do we were busking. There was no proper marketing team apart from John Varnom, who was a loose cannon at all times. So there was a lot of guesswork going on and a lot of argument about whether the follow-up should be released whilst 'Tubular Bells' was still in the charts. Despite the fact that I thought 'Hergest Ridge' was a fine album in a lot of ways it wasn't as well considered as Michael would have wanted it. He wanted a lot more time, not just a few months more, he didn't want to start it when he was forced to start it. He did it in a slightly confused state, he wasn't in a state of musical grace - he was a lot more focused on 'Tubular Bells'. Richard should have let him off the hook and 'Hergest Ridge' would have been more satisfactory from Michael's point of view - even though I think there are bits of it that are really good and it was a direction he could have gone a little bit further into. As it happened I don't think it mattered as what came out of the next one, 'Ommadawn', was priceless. 'Ommadawn' was conceivably his best album after 'Tubular Bells'. Had Richard waited a little, 'Ommadawn' might have happened a bit earlier and the first 2 albums would have been superlative rather than the second one not being up to scratch as far as Michael was concerned. Musically 'Ommadawn' was streets ahead of 'Hergest Ridge' on a lot of levels, and in intent aswell, and it is a shame historically that 'Ommadawn' didn't come next.

Mike's electric guitar sound is very distinctive, no matter which guitar he plays. What are his typical EQ, compression and pickup settings? (Gareth Randall)

The original sound I found for Michael was difficult to get because when we first started 'Tubular Bells' there weren't any good effects boxes that were dedicated (they had fuzz boxes and things like that that were very naff). Michael had this hideous box that we called a Glorfindel, which was a wooden box that somebody had made for him, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. It was just a noise making box really - it did give his guitar a fuzzy sound. I think we used it on 'Hergest Ridge' actually. Eventually, the sound we used at the end of 'Tubular Bells', on the guitar solo (and the sustained sound that is his kind of trademark) I got by coupling together 3 or 4 bits of specific equipment that we had at The Manor. I used the mic amp in his Teac tape recorder, so the guitar went into that, out of the tape recorder pre-amplifier into the Audio Developments mixer (now Rebis), into the compressor section, out of the compressor into a mic channel of the AD mixer, out of the mic channel into another compressor (called a Belcamen, which is a valve compressor) then directly onto the tape recorder. One compressor was set to limit and one was compressing and it went through two sets of pre-amplification and a little bit of EQ on the board. It was subtractive EQ, taking treble off, partly to get rid of the noise that was generated by the massive amount of amplification, and a little bit of low-middle (just under 1000 Hz) put on to give it a little bit of body. Since then he's used all sorts of different boxes and now I think he uses one of these digital thingy's that you just plug the guitar in. In fact the one he's got has a 'Tubular Bells' pre-set sound on it - some Japanese computer programmer has analysed it so he's got it there all to himself.

In what way does your technique of making records differ from Mike's? (Ian Braidwood)

This is still a bone of contention. I don't like sequencers as a matter of principle and this was one of the problems with 'Tubular Bells II'. Michael and I did the whole of side 1 as a kind of demo, I thought it was good, where I managed to get him to actually play quite a lot of it by hand. Of course, as soon as Trevor was introduced into the equation that became a no-no. Trevor just doesn't believe in anything that isn't absolutely perfectly in time. We agreed to differ about it. I like Trevor, we get on fine socially, we just can't work together as we are diametrically opposed. My idea of making music is to have and idea and play it by hand, and if you can't play it by hand use a sequencer or a sampler, but at least play as much of it as you can by hand, because we're human beings. It's very easy to get a machine to make music, that's fine but it's not human beings expressing themselves. And the great argument that Michael and I have constantly nowadays (the only argument really) is that I just don't like sequencers. He's too bloody lazy to get off his daft butt and play the thing all the way through.

A bit like Amarok was?

Amarok was nearly all hand played, not entirely, there were still sequenced bits which I dissaproved of. But he's got a sequencer and he knows how to use it and he's going to use it, and that's why we don't work together much lately, we just disagree over that particular thing. I like to play things by hand and Michael doesn't ....... that's why my records aren't very good. (laughs)

Tom, which of your albums are or have been released on CD so far? 'Aspects' (with each track inspired by a painting or piece of art) got very good reviews in New Zealand when it came out in the mid-eighties. (Philip Bendall)

Tom couldn't reel off his discography to me, but I do have a listing from Record Collector (June 1995) which is fairly accurate.

Aspects - Landscape NAGE 7
Bayou Moon - Landscape NAGE 2
Fine Old Tom - Voiceprint VP 166CD
Live At The Argonaut - Voiceprint VP 168CD
Ozymandias - Voiceprint VP 192CD
Hound of Ulster - Voiceprint VP 164 CD
Hotel Spendide - Voiceprint VP 195CD

For some reason Nick Austin of Coda (Landscape) won't reissue Aspects and Bayou Moon. Perhaps I could re-record them then they wouldn't be Nick's anyway. There's another album, it must have been '83, '84 or '85 around that period. Phil Newell wanted to produce an album for me, he booked a studio and paid for it, and he wanted me not to be involved in the production of it. He wanted to be the producer and make me do songs that he thought I'd be good at, he wanted it to be a kind of R & B album. He picked all the songs and I did weeks of sessions. There were a couple of Paul Kennerly songs, we re-did a couple of things that came out on Virgin as singles. The band was Steve Broughton and Arthur Grant on drums and bass, we had Snowy White, Dick Taylor from The Pretty Things, Joe Shaw from Doll by Doll, Paul Jones from Manfred Mann. Michael played on it, Dave Gilmour played on it, Vincent Crane from Atomic Rooster also played on it. We did all these tracks and the whole thing took a lot longer than expected, as I was trying to earn a living at the same time. We had a common Rolls Royce between us which Phil ended up selling to pay for the sessions. Eventually the tapes got impounded by the studio because we couldn't fully pay up. The multitrack tapes got left there but there were mixes, some of them were rough mixes and some of them were good mixes. Phil left the country and went to live in Spain and now he is doing very well as an acoustician and studio designer. He found some of the rough mixes which he then digitised and fiddled with and he's now got a deal with a Spanish label (and a deal in Germany or Italy as well) to release this album. He's put it all together and it's about to come out. It's apparently very, very good, Phil's over the moon about it and it's got a lot of publicity over there. I haven't heard it so I've got no idea what it sounds like.

How did you first get to know Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd?

Through Willie Wilson, he was the drummer from Sutherland Brothers and Quiver and he was also in bands with Dave as they went to school together. Around the time of The Wall they needed 2 drummers so Willie became the second drummer (they had 2 drum kits and the second one was hidden - or something like that). So I met Dave in '79 or '80 because he lived round the corner and we used to use the same pub and I met him through Willie. We used to do Saturday and Sunday night gigs in the pub The Warwick Castle, and we'd do Skiffle and Chuck Berry numbers and the pub would be bouncing up and down - it was a great gig. Dave would pop in and occasionally sit in, even Michael and Dave were in at the same time and that was a nightmare. Talk about clash of egos, horrendous! I mean this was a Skiffle band with a 15 watt PA system and these two bloody lunatics come in and wind it up and RAAAAWWWW!, you couldn't hear anything. It was fun though, went down well.

You produced "Wine Dark Sea" by Stephen Caudel - is he still releasing music? (Philip Bendall)

I haven't seen Stephen Caudel for years, I spoke to him maybe 5 years ago, as far as I know he's still writing. He's a fine musician but a bit of an anal retentive (I'm sorry Steve, but it's true!). He won't burst out, you know. There was another guy that I produced 2 or 3 albums for called Paul Brett, a fine guitarist but wouldn't let go of this English reserve. So the music is slightly corsetted in a way by the reserve inherent in the composer. I think that was Stephen's greatest problem was that he wouldn't go bananas, everything was a bit clean and pristine and rather too nice to be rock and roll.

You also produced Sally Oldfield on her album Celebration - what do you remember about this?

Well Sally's mad, she knows she's mad and she know's I know she's mad. In a kind of English eccentric sort of way. I can see Sally in 15 or 20 years time, not exactly as a bag lady, but almost an intellectual Bloomsbury type bag lady. She's lovely, I love Sally dearly, but she is very, very difficult to work with, I don't know why - probably cos she's mad. She's very talented, writes very good music and very good songs. Only time tells with people like Sally, she's in the wrong generation to be a hit. But, having said that, if you kind of take a peak into the future, maybe a thousand years time, she'll be an important part of this period between 1960 and 2000 in the same way as Ivor Cutler, Henry Cow and Hatfield and The North. Not just on the English scene, but right across the world, there are people writing slightly eccentric, non-mainstream, left field stuff which will all become useful historical catalogue.

Athough it was not recorded, Tom did comment on the cover to Celebration as being one of Trevor Key's worst efforts. I think Tom had the idea for the dancing children but the mandala was supposed to be emanating from the ground and less defined.

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield