Mike Oldfield is an odd duck, even more so as the years roll on. His first and best-known album, Tubular Bells, seems to be lodged in any serious record collection, somewhere between Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Dark Side of the Moon. Adding to the mythology of Tubular Bells is its role as the seed of Richard Branson’s Virgin juggernaut. For my part, well, I’ve pretty much caned most of his output to death (we don’t talk about “Don Alfonso”), and still find his music fascinating to a, frankly, embarrassing degree, so I have a bit to say here, not all of which will be entirely objective. I present one fan’s exploration of the oeuvre of Michael Gordon Oldfield – guitar genius, unrepentant chain smoker and accomplished aeromodellist.
Mike’s own origins line-up with the classic guitar-god blueprint of a reclusive teenager who becomes obsessed with the guitar as a means of escape, mastering the craft in folk clubs before blowing off school and hitting the road as a gigging musician in various bands and even back-up in the musical HAIR. Most notable in this early stage was his involvement in Kevin Ayers’ post-Soft Machine output, particularly on the albums Shooting At The Moon and Whatevershebringswesing – I thoroughly recommend those albums in their own right and while it’s definitely Kevin’s show, for an insight into Mike’s early style, check the appropriately manic “Lunatic’s Lament” (from Shooting) and the more lyrical “Whatevershebringswesing”. And let’s not forget the classic “May I?”.
Mike’s 2007 autobiography Changeling covers this era quite comprehensively. At this time, Mike struck up a friendship with another member of Ayers’ band, David Bedford, himself an established composer, who encouraged Mike in his own endeavours. For Ayers’ part, he loaned a tape recorder which Mike hacked to record on four tracks, creating a certain demo which he would soon pitch to labels with little success. Eventually, he was doing session work at The Manor, recently bought by Branson and converted to a residential studio. He talked a driver into rushing him back to London to fetch the demo and got to play it to the engineers who seemed very interested, but at that point Virgin Records were just a chain of record shops and still in the process of setting up the label to put out their own music.
A year later, Mike was still gigging around, when he got a call. He met Branson at his houseboat with Simon Draper, who essentially ran the day-to-day of the musical operations, and they agreed to a deal – a shockingly bad one from Mike’s perspective. The weird project would be the label’s inaugural release. Mike was given the downtime at The Manor to record his thing. There are a few myths about the recording, such as the thousands of overdubs, or that it was all done by computers (that would come later).
As for the titular bells, they actually had a lot of trouble getting decent levels for the recording and ended up hitting the bells with a mallet – practically destroying them, which can’t have pleased the instrument hire company – as Mike wrote in Changeling, he’s been shown many sets of bells and none have the dents from the ones used. While Mike and engineers Simon Heyworth and Tom Newman (who would often co-produce with Mike in the future) employed a lot of studio trickery to achieve particular effects and sounds, multitracking was still in its infancy and the mixing desk was fully manual, so it was literally all hands on deck for the final mix.
As an aside, Faust were recording Faust IV there as well, and there’s a little bit in the booklet from The Wümme Years (mucho recommended, by the way, go buy it) where the band’s manager, Uwe Nettlebeck, is extraordinarily salty about this arrangement.
“Awful guy. He (Branson) knew how to cut his chunk out of other people’s flesh. Between three and five in the morning, the sure spare time we left to his disposition, he let Mike Oldfield have the studio to make Tubular Bells – and sailed off with it and its profits. Must have been, on the different end of it, a once in a lifetime deal for both of them. I still wonder why the Great Lord did not call him in when he was so near on all those balloon flights” – Uwe Nettlebeck, Faust – The Wümme Years 1970-73 booklet
Another resident of The Manor at that time was Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – Mike convinced him to introduce the instruments at the conclusion to Side One – “plus, Tubular Bells!” – and when they’d all gone and gotten properly drunk late into the night, Mike and Tom decided to stroll around the mansion playing “The Sailor’s Hornpipe” as Vivian surveyed the accommodations. (Perhaps that’s why Faust’s manager was so grumpy.) Initially this version was deemed too weird to go on the final product, replaced by a version without Viv’s commentary, but it later appeared on the Boxed set a few years later, as well as on the 2009 reissues.
With the album in the can, after some headscratching from the company about the title (Breakfast In Bed?) and the marketing angle and wondering if there should be intelligible vocals on it (Mike’s caveman bit didn’t seem like a hit), in May 1973, they decided to just release it. John Peel would play the whole thing on his BBC Radio show, giving it hipsters the thumbs-up to torment their university dorms with it (had to give Larks’ Tongues a rest sometime, eh?), so it did well from the start, but apparently it was a bit of a slow burner that relied mostly on word-of-mouth.
For his part, Mike was not at all keen to go out and promote it. Eventually Branson cajoled him to do one show at the Albert Hall with the bribe of a broken-down Bentley, with a very heavy line-up (Mick Taylor! Steve Hillage! Fred Frith!) that was later reprised for television – look for “Tubular Bells Second House” on the youtubes. The US rights were licensed to Atlantic, who managed to license the opening motif for The Exorcist on the basis of a white-label audition (“I want some unsettlingly repetitive piano and organ music! Yeah, that’ll do!”), which broke the album somewhat into the American consciousness – or at least the tinkly piano bit.
Part of the reason that it seemed like a hard sell was that nothing of this nature had really been produced in a rock context; although progressive rock had been a thing for several years it was still more or less song-based underneath all its pretensions. Oldfield, however, knew his Sibelius and Satie, and as mentioned, he started out playing folk before moving onto rock – so he was at home with all these styles. At this point, though, Oldfield more or less stopped listening to other people’s music which explains a lot.
So that’s the mythical origin story, but what do I think about the actual music?
My personal opinion is that while Tubular Bells is an landmark album in 1973, a year full of great albums, and a massive achievement from a literal teenager – Mike turned 20 a week before the album’s release – and maybe this is part of the reason he keeps revisiting it himself with diminishing returns. I love a lot of those recording quirks – one of the reasons why I was so interested in the process of its creation. And there’s subtle things that reveal itself with each listen. Thing is, well, I’ve probably listened to it too much. And the rehashes don’t help. And, besides it wasn’t long before he’d bettered Tubular Bells. If I was to make a list of my favourite Mike albums, it would probably rank about 6th or 7th – there’s a lot more to him than that one ubiquitous bent exhaust pipe album from the horror movie.
In particular, I have far more affection for his next couple of albums.
Hergest Ridge is the epitome a difficult second album. But it’s really, really good. As I said, I’m pretty much played out on Tubular Bells, but its follow-up is a different matter for me. After the first album became a success there was of course a lot of pressure on Mike to come up with the sequel. Well, he wasn’t having any of that – he was not at all interested in touring or doing publicity (with the result that Richard Branson commissioned an orchestral version of Tubular Bells to take out on the road, but which wasn’t particularly good) so instead Mike decamped to some hut on the Welsh border to ponder his next move.
It’s a typical story – you’ve delivered your stunning debut album, but creatively, there’s nothing left in the tank, and you’re dealing with some heavy family shit, you’re not in the mood to do chores for the record company, besides they haven’t paid you a cent yet, and all that anxiety only complicates things. Yet, you persist.
The result, Hergest Ridge, is a simpler album, and, yes, pastoral for the most part except for “Thunderstorm” on Part Two. There are fewer distinct themes than on Tubular Bells but they’re good ones, given the time to develop and mutate. Very textural, too. The particularly haunting nasally vocals are employed for effect, not narrative, by Sally Oldfield and Clodagh Simonds, and brass and strings are employed effectively. I believe Hergest Ridge is timeless but I think it’s Part Two that I’m most fond of – the “Spanish Tune” section followed by “Thunderstorm” which breaks into that final reprise that ends on a paranoid note.
There was trouble on the horizon – Hergest Ridge actually beat its predecessor to the Number One spot on the charts, but already a sort of backlash was in train – for some people the album was more of the same, and they didn’t want more of that; for others, they were after Tubular Bells II (they’d be waiting a while) and this wasn’t that either. Another cause may have been the oil crisis which meant the initial pressing was on lighter vinyl – not conducive to a recording with Hergest Ridge‘s dynamics and subtleties.
There have been three mixes – the original, which Mike was unsatisfied by, probably for the reasons I mentioned; A quad mix was supplanted the Boxed which was carried over used for the initial CD release, and then the 2010 mix for the re-issue – Mike did a slight edit which tightens up proceedings, and the mix is a bit clearer, but the essence remains. The deluxe edition of the re-issue also includes a full demo of the album recorded in Mike’s cottage before finishing it up back at The Manor, and makes the original mix available on CD for the first time.
Around about this time Mike contributed to “Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road” on his friend Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, bringing the same paranoiac guitar tone to the mixed. Mike also played on the live album June 1, 1974 with Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Eno and Nico.
Mike would never be anywhere near this fashionable again, although his music continues to pop up in the weirdest places – but he had gathered enough fans that it wouldn’t really matter. Even so, Mike took this criticism to heart and vowed to answer positively. He’d figured out a few thing from Hergest Ridge, which he would apply to good effect. The next album was even recorded twice, as the first batch of tape kept deteriorating – but this effective dry run seemed to give Mike a good chance to figure out what worked for the the final recording. Enter Ommadawn.
This might sound like hyperbole, but I personally regard Ommadawn‘s first half as one of the most perfect pieces of music ever recorded. Yes, really. But this does seem to be a question of taste – I’ve suggested it to a number of people, some of whom have loved it, some of which decided it’s just some wanky overwrought bullshit. Poor them.
The introduction is made – an intricately crafted yet accessible tune that has you at “hello” – before it is joined in counterpoint by another, and the two motifs intertwine with each other over the course of the next twenty-odd minutes – over tin whistles, over pianos, over bass guitar, over a brass band, over the Solina string ensemble synthesiser, over near-nonsensical Gaelic chanting by Sally and Clodagh who were joined by Bridget St John – “I’m the fool, and I’m laughing”. Wine is spilt, vases fall to their doom, clothes are doffed, cats shooed from the bedroom, neighbours disturbed. Like every good romance, there’s ups, and there’s downs, leading to a hell of a lot of tension as the heartbeat starts racing and the cup runneth over, while the Jabula drummers pound the beat into the distance.
Side Two had a hard act to follow. And it doesn’t try to, instead it goes on a more experimental turn – first we get a massive drone of guitars sounding like organs – this time the legend of the thousands of overdubs was accurate – that segues into Mike on acoustic guitar bouncing off The Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney on the Uillean pipes, before we’re briefly called back to the manic tumescence of Side A. And then we get a goofy novelty tune about riding on horseback, complete with kids chorus. Which sounds corny as hell, and it is, but the presentation is such that he gets away with it. Where Hergest Ridge ended in paranoia, Ommadawn roils along in hot blood, even finishing with a happy ending. Two, even.
As Mike hoped, Ommadawn restored his critical fortunes, and still sold pretty well, which was fortunate for Virgin because all the other weird experimental bands they had signed (as interesting as some of them were) weren’t doing shit in the charts.
“On Horseback” brings up another aspect of the Oldfield canon, the crap novelty song – he’d do these long expansive works, but then he’d also knock out these weird little tunes, often released as Christmas singles. Some of them were based on traditional songs, others pastiches of them. And often they had video clips to go with them – most strikingly “Portsmouth” with the hanky dance, which often popped up as filler on ABC TV in the afternoons along with Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and of course Roger Glover’s absolutely terrifying Butterfly Ball video with Ronnie James Dio as a singing frog.
In 1976, the first three albums were remixed for quad and bundled up with a fourth LP, Collaborations (recently re-issued on vinyl in its own right) and presented as Boxed – the first of many compilations. The folk tunes, “Argiers”, “In Dulce Jubilo” and “Portsmouth” recorded with local recorder player Leslie Penning, were accompanied by a suite of works with David Bedford. Most essential of these is “First Excursion”, which encapsulates the 70s Oldfield guitar sound – this also pops up on the 2010 Ommadawn re-issue. Not quite as essential, however, is Mike and David bludgeoning “Speak Tho’ You Only Say Farewell” into red splat with a blunt shovel and rolled into a shallow grave next to “Froggy Went A-Courting'” and “Don Alfonso”. (Seriously, don’t.)
By the end of 1976, Mike Oldfield had released three strong albums to critical acclaim and popular success and effectively defined his own genre. As he prepared to record his fourth grand work, the future seemed bright. What could possibly go wrong?