For whom the Bells toll

September 6, 1998
Giles Smith
Night and Day magazine for The Mail on Sunday

(Two star rating = Average)

After Tubular Bells II... Tubular Bells III. (Well what did you expect Tubular Bells V?) With no lack of pomp, Mike Oldfield's latest opus received a live premiere last Thursday in the open air on Horse Guards Parade - not, hitherto, one of the legendary rock venues, unless your idea of a gig is broad enough to include demonstrations by marching bands for the Royal Family in uncomfortable positions on horseback.

Somewhat surprisingly, the original Tubular Bells, released in 1973, bankrolled Richard Branson's Virgin record label. The market was not necessarily crying out for a 50-minute slab of instrumental folk rock made by a solo hippy with advanced hermit tendencies. But the sales went mad (more than 16 million copies) and an empire was founded. Without Mike Oldfield, there would probably have been no Virgin Atlantic. And no Virgin West Coast train service. It bears thinking about. Oldfield was to fall out with Branson and Virgin in the later part of the Eighties, when it was pointed out to the musician that his contractual royalty rate was not one of the most spectacular in the business. They settled out of court.

Also, Oldfield felt Virgin did not do enough to defend him from the onslaught of punk rock. If punk had a hitlist, then solo hippies with advanced hermit tendencies who made giant slabs of instrumental folk rock were high on it. Oldfield spent the golden age of the Pistols and the Banshees waiting for a comforting phone call about his future. It never came.

But eventually came another label another Tubular Bells (1992) and a salvaged career. Oldfield who writes down his musical ideas on Rizla papers and stores them in a jar, comes over as a quietly spoken and deeply withdrawn chap. Yet, clearly, someone who continues to make music and release it through a major record label could not be said to lack entirely the desire for acknowledgment. Someone, also, who is prepaared to stand up on Horse Guards Parade and send that music winging down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace is probably entertained at some level by the idea of a public role for himself. And Oldfield has certainly loved the business enough to create Rock's first movie-style sequel series.

In musical terms, the phrase 'Tubular Bells' comes to mean - we see after three shots at it - an album of music which starts with a set of arpeggios played on a piano and ends 45 minutes later with Oldfield bashing the bejaysus out of a set of tubular bells. In between , there will be sundry musical pieces, mostly instrumental, some featuring guest voices, one certifiable song, and the spectacle of Oldfield soloing away on a synthesised electric guitar whose sound - a sort of Gaelic whistle, powered by Duracell - is the real Oldfield giveaway, more so than the clang of those bells.

Tubular Bells III (like the sideburns Oldfield is wearing on the sleeve) apparently attest to a period in the composer's life on the island of Ibiza. Oldfield on Ibiza is no more imaginable than David Lee Roth on the Isle of Wight. But it happened and, as a result, there's a clubby drum machine under several minutes of the album. It stops, though, in a way in which clubby drums don't tend to, to allow moments of African drum, flamenco guitar and Celtic wail. People often use the word 'atmosperic' to describe this kind of eclecticism. Possibly the atmosphere evoked overridingly is that of the interior of a new car. Like Pachelbels 'Canon' and albums of monks chanting, Tubular Bells III slides into that peculiar category of calmative driving music for people in recently purchased saloons. It's one way in which it makes sense to talk of Oldfield as a distinctly contemporary artist: one could argue that this music could not have been created or sold ahead of the existence of the high grade, in-car CD player.

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield