Instrumentals in the 50’s and 60’s were nothing if not tuneful. The hopeful artiste had about two and a half minutes to make an impression and they couldn’t waste that time with anything that was less than a great lump of tunefulness.
By the 70’s things had moved on a bit, we were now used to extended instrumentation in pieces of work, progressive bands were extending solos, the Who had produced a kind of opera with musical interludes which proved to be a breakthrough record. Most significantly LP’s were more important than singles and that meant there was a whole load more space for music.
A significant composer who pointed a possible way forward from instrumental music as being more than just a good tune was Terry Riley. ‘In C’ and ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ from 1964 and 1969 respectively were tremendously influential among a small group of forward looking musicians with the introduction of repetition using repeated groups of notes to set up layers of pulsating sound.
Along with Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, Riley produced a sort of dynamic ambient music. Compared with writing a conventional symphony it was pretty easy to emulate. Pete Townsend copied the approach for Baba O’Reily (a direct tribute in the name), by the mid 70’s sequencers would be able to reproduce Riley’s minimalist string of notes which made a whole lot of songs sound a whole lot better.
Around the time Townsend was emulating Riley’s work for the ‘Who’s Next’ album a young guitarist called Mike Oldfield had got a gig playing bass with ex Soft Machine Bass player Kevin Ayers who was enjoying a brief but fertile solo career. As well as getting to play assorted colleges and polytechnics around the country he also got to spend time at Abbey Rd Studios where he found plenty of time to tinker away at the plethora of instruments the studio had to offer.
Oldfield was very much a product of the early 70’s. His mother suffered enduring poor mental health and his own health was compromised by LSD. Oldfield was a pretty insecure introverted character who was happiest escaping into a world of his own music.The difference between him and a thousand other studio dabblers is that Oldfield was able to produce discernible pieces of music and get someone to listen them. Eventually he ended up at the Manor Studio, newly built by Richard Branson by virtue of his undouble skills as a session musician. Engineers Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth were able to recognise the potential of Oldfield’s sound pieces that he was working on in his spare time and persuaded Branson to allow some studio time.
Mostly he worked on his own, overdubbing track after track. This in itself proved to be quite a novel for the album which was to be called ‘Tubular Bells’, overdubbing had existed almost as long as recording but now there was the technology to support it and listeners were amazed at one man’s ability to play so many instruments. In fact most of the instruments were variation on guitars, mainly the same one with various treatments.
The enduring impact was down to more that Oldfield’s precocious talent on stringed instruments. Most notable was the piece that inevitably became known as the exorcist theme after it was picked up as music for the film which helped catapult Tubular Bells into public prominence. Here was a piece that seemed to emulate the work of Riley and is the most evocative piece on the record. Elsewhere there’s quite a lot of folky melodies, Oldfield had initially been in a folk duo with his sister Sally and throughout his career was prone to revisit bucolic tunes which inevitable gave him the chance to break out recorders and penny whistles.
By the mid 70’s it seemed like everybody under the age of 30 had a copy of Tubular Bells along with Dark side of the Moon. My mate Phil’s Sister had a copy which we would listen to whenever she was out, people were very touchy about their vinyl getting scratched. Although I heared to it quite a bit at a formative age it didn’t make a huge impression on me. There’s only one piece of music on the album that uses drums (which Oldfield couldn’t play) and at 15 there was a limit to how much recorder and marimba I wanted to listen to.
The other big centre piece of the record is the actual tubular bells theme. Narrated by Viv Stanshall who was next due to record in the studio, it’s a less funny version of the Bonzo’s intro and outro which he also featured on (and wrote). At first it was quite a novelty hearing the introduction of various instruments such as bagpipe guitar, but after a couple of listens it started to grate a bit. The final instrument to be added was the titular Tubular Bells which had probably been appropriated by Oldfield before being removed after a John Cale Session.
Listening to the album 35 years on its interesting how home recorded it sounds in the days of cut and paste and quantising of sounds. Bear in mind Oldfield had to play all of the instruments in real time and apparently there are about 2,000 ‘punch ins’ (ie corrections). That’s without slowing down of and speeding up of tapes to get different effects, it’s a testament to the skill of the engineers as well as the musician. It must have taken hours and hours of studio time which it takes a certain type of person to be able to endure. Its also interesting what a unique guitarist Oldfield is having an immediately identifiable sound (when he’s not messing about with it) which is almost devoid of any blues influence. The lack rhythm instruments seems strange now, the only drums are a brief appearance by Steve Broughton of the Edgar Broughton band, we are so used to the availability of drums whether by machine or sampled that a lot of the time it just sounds like this is a rough cut waiting for a rhythm track.
That’s part of the appeal of Tubular Bells though it’s the imperfections which would be ironed out when Oldfield’ s music entered the next decade. The record helped establish the Virgin empire but there was no where left to go. The next record Hergest Ridge was criticised for being too much like Tubular Bells and the last time I really listened to an Oldfield LP was 1979’s Incantations whch seemed to have a lot of choirs on it.
By that time Oldfield himself had undergone some sort of personal transformation following a self growth Exgenesis seminar. I hope it did him good as to the casual observer he’s become a bit of an arse, leaving Britain because of the smoking ban and living in various tax havens and supporting Donald Trump.
No matter how many years have passed he couldn’t escape Tubular Bells. The sleeve is iconic and now synonymous with Mike Oldfield the brand. He’s revived it on two occasions with tubular bells II and III which have revived the format with contemporary technology which is kind of interesting but neither better of worse than the originals. Recognising the lost potential of the original recordings some older tunes have been enhanced with state of the art (ie soon to go out of date) as Tubular Beats, so far he has resisted tubular grime or tubular dubstep but even on reduced tax he funds might need topping up at some point in the future.