From Tubular Bells to - Tubular Bells, Simon Evans looks at the circular progress of Mike Oldfield who plays a rare Birmingham date next week.
When Tubular Bells was released in May 1973, its composer, Mike Oldfield, was a painfully shy young man, not yet into his 20s, who found in music a way of expressing the lingering hurt of a traumatic childhood. Those rather cumbersome percussion instruments have cast a long shadow over his career ever since and although Oldfield has occasionally surpassed his first album in artistic terms, commercially it has proved impossible to equal.
Even when he released a smoothed down, easier on the ear sequel in 1992, it only sold a fraction of the 16 million copies, and rising, that Tubular Bells has shifted worldwide. In the immediate wake of Tubular Bells however, Oldfield, for all his personal insecurities and painful shyness, could do little wrong. Hergest Ridge, the follow-up to Tubular Bells was an immediate number one as was Ommadawn, which followed two years later and remains perhaps his most satisfying album. On all three LPs, Oldfield played the bulk of the instruments simply because he didn't trust anyone else to realise his particular artistic vision.
By the time of Ommadawn's release, in the October of 1975, Oldfield was increasingly seeking in his music a way of letting go of the painful memories of his childhood. At the end of side one of Ommadawn he lets rip a guitar solo of remarkable intensity and power and later described this passage as a "rebirth". Certainly after Ommadawn, Oldfield gradually metamorphosed from a nervous, amiable hippie into a self-absorbed, arrogant "rich twit" as he was described in
a 1978 NME interview.
The dramatic change in Oldfield's persona, and consequently his music, seemed to date from his taking part in a course run by the EST cult. Set up by Scientology renegade, Werner Erhard, EST was a hotch-potch of psychoanalysis and primal therapy, and became fashionable in mid-70s music business circles (John Denver name-checked the organisation on his 1975 Windsong LP).
After undergoing a gruelling four-day course at a London hotel, which seemed to comprise of being humiliated and abused for 16 hours at a stretch, Oldfield emerged a changed man spouting to anyone who would listen how we should all take responsibility for our past and not blame anyone else for what might have gone wrong in our lives.
Musically the change took longer to emerge and the first post-EST album, Incantations, like its predecesors, successfully combined the functional minimalism of the American composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich with a very English pastoralism.
Gradually however, as Oldfield grew more overbearingly self-assured and less reliant on his music for emotional catharsis, his music became functional and one-dimensional, only recovering his muse for the Tubular Bells II project in 1992.
He has continued to release albums sporadically throughout the 90s, reinforcing his newly-discovered ambient-dance following (The Orb remixed a couple of tracks from Tubular Bells II) with The Songs of Distant Earth andTubular Bells III (which bore no more than a passing resemblance to the original) while revisiting his folk roots on Voyager.
His most recent album Guitars, a typically patchy affair, is a selection of pieces, of varying moods, scored purely for guitar, midi guitar or individual guitar samples. Only mildly interesting technically and musically, it seems to have been rushed out to cash in on a brief (two date) British tour titled Then and Now, which gives grounds for hope that he may be revisiting some of his mid-70s masterworks.
Oldfield's progress has certainly been a strange one, taking in the Sallyangie folk duo with sister Sally, playing in Kevin Ayers' eccentric Wide World and contributing to LPs by such musical eccentrics as he Edgar Broughton Band and composer David Bedford.
His career post-Tubular Bells II has, if nothing else, been similarly unpredictable but it's hard to avoid the feeling that Oldfield has found personal contentment at the expense of his music, which is why he'll never again come close to equalling that still -remarkable debut album.
Guitars is released through WEA. Mike Oldfield plays the NEC on Wednesday.
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net