Review Summary: A dazzling masterpiece ahead of its time, Tubular Bells stands even today as a monumental work of progressive music.LepreCon presents: Rock Legends
Legend in Focus: Mike Oldfield
Part One: Virtuous Mission...
How exactly does one describe a beast like Tubular Bells
in such a way as to adequately convey its brilliance and majesty without meandering into a comprehensive, analytical breakdown that could very well amount to a thesis? Iconic even to those who have not heard it in its entirety, the cover image alone- a piece of the titular ensemble twisted and contorted into a vague heart shape above a cresting wave- is imprinted in the minds of many musical enthusiasts. Of course, everyone and their mother knows the haunting theme tune of the classic horror film 'The Exorcist', which is based upon the introduction to Tubular Bells. But how does the work as a whole stand up?
There is no doubt that 1973 was a very important year for progressive rock music, with many of the genre's stalwart juggernauts releasing albums; Jethro Tull brought out A Passion Play
, Yes dropped Tales From a Topographic Ocean
and Genesis gave us Selling England By the Pound
. Emerson, Lake & Palmer were going from strength to strength with their fourth album Brain Salad Surgery
and Camel even released their eponymous debut. Perhaps most significantly of the lot of them was Pink Floyd's magnum opus Dark Side of the Moon
. Which makes it all the more astonishing that an unknown English musician on a fledgling label known as Virgin Records by a then 23-year old Richard Branson could make such an impact.
Entering the Manor Studio at the tender age of 19, Oldfield had a week to lay down the first side of his LP, after which the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were due to record. Opening with the familiar minor piano line, the organ and glockenspiel join in for some repetition and several variations of the signature phrase. The mood of this first movement constantly shifts between serene- and somewhat sinister- to upbeat and edgy as the piano and organs alternate with rock guitar lines. Time signature shifts abound as Oldfield introduces a bluesy shuffle with the bass and distorted electric guitar. A nasal choir is followed again by more riffing in 4/4 and 7/8, before the ominous tolling of bells and a jaded guitar line herald the lead in to the dynamic finale. As a notable poly-rhythmic bassline repeats as if without end, Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, acting as the Master of Ceremonies, announces each instrument in turn, beginning with the 'grand piano' (actually a keyboard as he didn't have access to a real grand piano) with a jovial phrase repeated by the reed and pipe organ, glockenspiel, bass guitar, 'double-speed' guitar (guitar recorded while the tape was spinning at twice the speed), two “slightly distorted” guitars, madolin, spanish guitar and acoustic guitar and the idiosyncratic clanging of the titular tubular bells. The instruments then all come in together in cacophonous climax, some in unison and others in harmony, backed by an uplifting choral arrangement with vocals provided by Oldfield's sister Sally. A solo acoustic guitar rounds out the first movement.
So impressed was Branson that he allotted Olfield a lot more studio time to record the second half of the record. The second movement continues to explore some of the ideas laid out in Part I, but the extra time given to Oldfield is apparent in the eclectic turns and various directions he takes. The contrast between peaceful and bombastic is taken to surreal and even bizarre places, including the infamous, heavy 'Piltdown Man' section where an allegedly inebriated Oldfield grunted and screamed unintelligibly over rolling timpani and a prolonged electric guitar solo, apparently in response to Branson's demands to have some regular vocals on the album. In what would have otherwise been an ill-advised move, some far from unwelcome humour is injected into the piece, lending it some avant-garde credibility. Followed by some spacey, ambient guitar work not unlike that of David Gilmour, it is certain that Oldfield's mind was far from Top of the Pops. A heavily accented rendition of the Sailor's Hornpipe brings Part II to a triumphant close. CD re-releases contain two additional tracks; Mike Oldfield's Single
is a considerably shorter but nonetheless enchanting variation of a theme from the second movement and Sailor's Hornpipe
is a curious number with Vivian Stanshall narrating an amusing faux guided tour of a museum over the closing of the second movement.
It is important to note that Oldfield played most of the instruments on the album himself, recording each one separately before layering the tracks together- almost standard studio practice today but virtually unheard of in the 70s. Constraints of time, technology and budget meant that Oldfield was unable to record the album precisely to his vision, something he attempted to rectify in his live shows and his 2003 anniversary re-recording. It may have fallen short of his expectations but what he accomplished was still something practically never heard before, a progressive masterpiece composed and almost entirely performed by a singular young musician. Tubular Bells
was the first LP released by Virgin Records and was a gamble that paid off handsomely for Oldfield and Branson, becoming a surprising hit as amulti-million selling album. However, masterful a work though it may be, that is not to say that it is for everyone. Those who prefer more immediacy in their music will become swiftly impatient with the repetitive nature of the movements, the subtlety of the build-ups lost on them. The 'caveman' vocal section may be a bit too surreal and off-putting for some. Those who favour long, progressive works may find the album primitive if they are unfamiliar with the record and/or Mike Oldfield in general, which would really be a curious thing if one considers themselves a fan of progressive music. However, though Oldfield despised the fame it brought him, there is little doubt that Tubular Bells
is a monumental crafting of musical genius that has stood the test of time extremely well, standing proudly alongside the aforementioned titans of progressive rock that none have succeeded in replicating, not even Oldfield himself on the 2003 re-recording, but that is a story for another day...
The Tubular Bells lineup was:
Michael Gordon Oldfield- acoustic guitar, bass guitar, electric guitars, mandolin, organs, pianos, timpani, tin whistle, tubular bells and 'caveman' vocals
Additional personnel include:
Steve Broughton- additional percussion
Sally Oldfield- vocals
Vivian Stanshall- 'Master of Ceremonies'
The story of Mike Oldfield will continue in PART TWO: Hergest Ridge...