Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells

19 year old reinvents what it means to prog

As bassist in Kevin Ayers’ band, The Whole World, between 1970 and 1972, it was around this time that Mike Oldfield began work on his own solo project, thanks to the backing of Richard Branson’s newly created Virgin label. The result was Tubular Bells, a 50 minute suite that was about as progressive as anything else at the time, whether by Pink Floyd or Genesis. Released in May 1973, the album garnered major critical acclaim, eventually reaching the Top 3 the following year.

Apart from contributions by orchestra master Viv Stanshall and Steve Broughton on drums, Oldfield pretty much played everything else (except flute), remarkable if one considers that the multi-instrumentalist was still in his late teens when he began recording and composing it. And, virtually the whole project was recorded in just one week at The Manor, England’s first residential recording studio.

But Tubular Bells could also be a psychological piece, one that contains as much bucolic beauty as it does extreme paranoia. No wonder that a section of music was included in The Exorcist, one of the most genuinely scariest movies ever made.

Side one is arguably the most rewarding, throughout which Oldfield weaves a tangled, complex web of moods and ideas, until we reach the final stretch, where the music is constantly evolving and re-evolving, built on layer upon layer of undulating instrumentation (mandolins, Spanish guitars, a multitude of organs and keyboards, you name it, Oldfield probably played it). Genius? Perhaps. And if not, then certainly brilliant.

The second side is perhaps less inspired, though no less interesting, and not without its moments. The intro is particularly sublime, as is “Piltdown Man” and “Sailor’s Hornpipe”, both of which reveal a more lighthearted side to Mike’s personality.

Along with Dark Side Of The Moon, Tubular Bells would go on the become one of the biggest selling progressive rock albums of all time, not bad for a record that was almost entirely instrumental and with no real pop songs to speak of. Clearly it is a troubled album by a clearly troubled young mind, so much so that Branson had to release it through his own company due to indifference on the part of major record labels, a decision which ultimately worked in the entrepreneur’s financial favour, owing to its considerable success.

To this day, Tubular Bells continues to surprise and astonish the modern listener, just as it did more than forty years ago. It remains a work of astounding contrasts, and complicated structures. Long may it haunt the imagination.