One-track mind

November, 2005
Martin Vengadesan
Music, Myths & Legends

The single-track album is a thing of beauty, is it not? Well, not always. Anyone who’s ever sat through the Italian band Devil Doll’s 79-minute horror movie of a song The Sacrilege of Fatal Arms will want to contest that claim. Yet there’s one man who’s made the single-track album the cornerstone of his lengthy solo career, and sold millions of albums in the process.

Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells has to go down as one of the least likely successes of popular music, and it’s a work that still sparkles to this day.

Oldfield recorded his first album as a 15-year-old supporting his older sister Sally in the duo SallyAngie. In the early 1970s he backed Soft Machine founder Kevin Ayers on his solo recordings (as part of the band Whole World) and hung around Abbey Road working as a sessionist.

While still in his teens Oldfield began to hawk the idea of a solo work that was based on folk and rock music but structured like a classical symphony. By now a talented multi-instrumentalist, he painstakingly laid down layer after layer of music, and encountered stiff resistance from the record companies, which back in 1972, were as open-minded as they’ve ever been.

Enter Richard Branson, entrepreneur extraordinaire and owner of a record store. Determined to break into the music business in a big way, Branson was willing to take a risk on the young Oldfield, and allocated him ample recording time at his new Manor Studios.

Playing almost all the instruments himself, Oldfield weaved a delightful musical tapestry that ranged from stately Ravel-like passages to hard rock and pastoral folk. Also on board was narrator Viv Stanshall (who was MC for the 15 or so different instruments that Oldfield used to play the same theme ? I kid you not!), gruff, distorted vocals and a revved-up rendition of the Sailors Hornpipe! Due to the limitation of the LP format, the 48-minute piece was split into two sides, but they were essentially two halves of a whole composition.

While other may have baulked at the inherent challenge of recording alone, Oldfield was quick to seize upon its advantages.

The album was released in 1973 and soon proved to be a runaway success. Its place in popular culture was sealed when the next year, the opening theme was featured prominently in the classic horror movie The Exorcist.

Oldfield soon set about cutting Hergest Ridge, an even more rustic work than Tubular Bells. Over the next few years he confirmed that Tubular Bells was no fluke, just as making arguably his two greatest albums ever in Ommadawn and Incantations. Both were single-track works that saw him experimenting with “world music”, comfortably fusing the Greek bouzouki (a lute) and African drums (courtesy of the South African group Jabula) with his own considerable range of more conventional instruments.

But despite his public triumphs, Oldfield had to battle his own reclusive tendencies. In fact, he was such an introspective fellow that by the late 1970s he had to undergo therapy in order to become more assertive. Whether this had an effect on his musical career is uncertain, but he suddenly showed a willingness to experiment with the short-song format on his fifth album Platinum (although he had recorded the playful non-album singles In Dulci Jubilo and Portsmouth in the mid-70s).

Oldfield generally spent the 1980s as a pop artiste, his albums peppered with shorter songs featuring guest vocalists ranging from Bonnie Tyler to Adrian Belew, although his biggest hit, the sublime Moonlight Shadow, was with the relatively unknown Maggie Reilly.

He still found the time to be eclectic though, fiddling around with Khmer traditional music to provide a background to the stark movie about genocide in Cambodia, The Killing Fields, and it’s notable that many of the pop albums like Five Miles Out and Islands still had side-long experimental works.

The proof that Oldfield still had one more magical moment left in him was a return to his roots with 1990’s Amarok, a 60-minute single-track album! Starting with some jarring, dissonant rhythms moving onto Celtic themes and brief splashes of classical guitar, this piece has a consistent experimental edge, although it was notable that nearly 20 years on, it did share some elements of the Tubular Bells formula.

In fact after Amarok, Oldfield demonstrated an alarming tendency to repeat himself. He updated Tubular Bells with a similar, but not identical record called Tubular Bells II (1992), followed it up with Tubular Bells III (1998), The Millennium Bell (1999) and Tubular Bells 2003 (a note-for-note re-recording of the original piece!). Considering that he’d already recorded a live Orchestral Tubular Bells way back in 1975, Oldfield had clearly over-indulged his quest for perfection.

To be fair, the man did intersperse this love-fest with his own past with a growing interest in dance music, and while his most recent album Light + Shade is a shockingly unimaginative affair, there’s no telling what to expect from one of the more unpredictable artistes of our time.

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield