The Story of Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’
“I suppose I was advanced for my age.” So said composer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield to The Guardian, reflecting on Tubular Bells, the 1973 masterwork he composed at the age of 19. Some musicians toil for decades as they work toward their definitive album; Oldfield — then a struggling, baby-faced guitarist with a minor role in a production of Hair — did the exact inverse, arriving out of nowhere with a groundbreaking musical monolith.
As a composition, Tubular Bells is a rare example of a legitimate rock symphony. With its grand structure (one 49-minute piece split on two sides of vinyl) and complex approach toward harmony and meter, the music is in line with much of the early-’70s prog-rock scene. But the album’s scope was wider than that: With its moody textural drama and use of unconventional instrumentation (the spine-tingling titular bells, glockenspiel, timpani), Tubular Bells also became a watershed moment in the New Age movement.
The story behind the album’s creation is just as fascinating. Oldfield, retreating from the influence of his alcoholic mother, spent most of his teenage years holed up in the loft of his family home, composing music by himself, playing all the instruments. Living in a flat in north London, he later managed to record a self-produced demo tape, which eventually found its way into the hands of Virgin Records co-founder Richard Branson. Blown away by the sophistication of the composition (and the musicianship of the teen prodigy), Branson signed the reclusive Oldfield to a recording contract and sent him to rerecord a new version of the album in their newly established Manor Recording Studio.
As he did on the demo, Oldfield approached the process as an exercise in immersion, recording nearly all of the instruments himself (from a dizzying array of guitars and keyboards to bass, percussion and even “taped motor drive amplifier motor chord”). The finished product would become the first release on Virgin Records — a snowballing critical success that also wound up at No. 1 on the U.K. album chart.
Further cementing the music into the pop-culture time-capsule, director William Friedkin used the album’s spooky opening piano theme for the soundtrack of his 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. Listening to Tubular Bells today, it’s difficult not to envision a Satan-possessed child vomiting wildly as her head spins in circles.
Oldfield immediately resisted the idea of performing the music live. After Branson tricked him into giving one concert (at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London), Oldfield suddenly panicked on the way to the show, refusing to play. As legend has it, Branson offered him the keys to his Bentley in exchange for the performance. Though the show was an astounding critical success, Oldfield immediately felt uncomfortable with his new-found celebrity status.
“I didn’t feel I could reproduce the album on a stage,” Oldfield reflected to The Guardian. “Richard gave me his Bentley so I would do it, but I later discovered the car cost more to repair than it was worth. Having been seen as some village idiot, I was suddenly everyone’s greatest hero. So I went to live in the Welsh hillsides, surrounded by sheep.”
While Oldfield continued to record influential albums throughout the ’70s and well beyond, Tubular Bells remains his solitary masterpiece.
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