When I was a wee lad, back in the U.K., my Dad would, on occasion, sit me down in the living room and place his yellow-spongey-ear-foam’d Sennheiser headphones on my head, drop the needle on a record, and leave me to it. I always thought it was to simply share the gift of music with me but, as I grow older, I think it MAY also have been a REALLY good way to get me to shut up for an hour or so. On one such day in the mid 70’s he completed the ritual by placing the black disk on the ol’ Thorens deck and walking away as my ears filled with a sound unlike ANYTHING that I had known prior. Little did I suspect that pretty much the entire rest of the country had had a similar experience.
The record on that auspicious day was Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield and it has been a favorite, and “Must Own”, of mine ever since. I have probably bought 30+ copies of this album for friends over the ensuing years. No musician should NOT know it. However, the story of this album is as convoluted and complicated as the music contained on it. An empire was built with the money from its sales and a man was broken by its impossibilities. A bit of a tragic tale, to be honest.
In his mid-teens a young musician by the name of Michael Oldfield modified the Bang & Olufsen 1/4″ tape-deck in his bedroom to allow him to use it like a traditional 4 track, and got to work recording the lattice-work of music that he heard in his head. Over the ensuing months he managed to commit almost all of it to tape and then sent it out to see if there would be anyone interested in releasing it. The reaction was a CRUSHING silence, even from Pink Floyd’s label.
As any musician of the time would have, Mike just decided to head into the studio with anyone he could find and make a life as a Studio Rat. It was during one such session at The Manor, the almost finished studio owned by one Richard Branson, that Mike mentioned to the blokes there that he had this “thing” that they might want to hear. They said that they did and a roadie working at the Manor drove him the hour back to London to pick up the tapes and they returned with them to the studio.
Tom Newman was a musician employed by Branson to help get The Manor up-and-running and was also a record producer always looking for the next project to work on. After Oldfield returned with the tapes and handed them to him, he promptly forgot about them entirely. He continued to forget about them until a few days later when Oldfield reminded him. To placate the young lad, upon getting home, Newman pressed play and listened to it on loop for the next 5 hours. He was blown away by what he heard. And then…NOTHING happened AGAIN.
Disconsolate, Oldfield was ready to move to Russia to become a State employed musician. Unbeknownst to him three of Branson’s employees Newman, Simon Heyworth, and Simon Draper, had finally convinced Branson to listen to the recordings and he had agreed to pay for the recordings to be finished at The Manor. He gave them a week. Instead of “finishing” Mike’s demoes it was agreed that they would RE-RECORD ALL OF IT! In a WEEK!
They rented over 30 instruments in preparation for the tracking days but it was as the techs were wheeling out all of the stuff used in a previous John Cale session that M.O. saw a set of tubular bells and asked if he could hold on to them for a bit. I consider this to be one of the most fortuitous pieces of synchronicity in all of recording history. Oh, by-the-way, did I mention that Mike Oldfield was 19 when he started said recordings? 19! Good grief.
Side One of the album had been entirely transferred from M.O.’s head into his notebooks using a language of symbols and arrows that only he could possibly understand and decipher. It was with this innate understanding of the information that he proceeded to play every instrument for the entire album, bar the flutes, drums, and string bass, himself. Please think about that as you listen to the record. It is absolutely shocking to consider that a 19 year BOY accomplished all of it. Every instrument. In a WEEK!
However, FIRST they had to work out how to do it! Initially it was a total grind and nothing was working. It wasn’t until someone thought of creating a separate click track for EACH segment of music that things started to happen and, in the words of M.O., “from that point on, it got a little easier.” By the end of the week he had played over 2000 overdubs, utilizing almost all 30 instruments, and working so many hours in the studio that it wore the tape out.
As the week drew to a close time became of the essence and things were looking pretty rough by the conclusion as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were LITERALLY hanging-out waiting to get into the studio to start THEIR recording when it was decided that a rather drunk Viv Stanshal (The B.D.D.D.B.’s lead-singer) would intro each instrument as it appeared in the final half of Side 1. Little did he know that his dramatic introduction of “And…TUBULAR BELLS!” would give Oldfield the inspiration to name the album that instead of “Opus One”, his original title.
I told you the Cale bit of the tale was fortuitous! Richard Branson had planned on calling the record Breakfast In Bed, and the cover was to feature a photo of a boiled-egg with blood pouring out of it. Seriously. Only goes to show that Record Execs have NEVER known anything! The un-mixed recording was taken to a music conference in Europe to see if anyone would be interested in releasing it. Once again, the silence it received was CRUSHING.
One American exec WAS interested but, upon hearing that he would give them $20,000 if M.O. would just put some vocals on it, Oldfield stormed out of the studio, went to the wine-cellar, grabbed a bottle of Jameson’s, got royally pissed (Brit-slang for drunk) and returned to the studio to ad-lib the weird voice on Side 2 that came to be known as “The Piltdown Man”, complete with wolf howls. I remember being TERRIFIED of this bit upon my first hearing it that day in 5 Fairfields Crescent, London, NW9, and I’m not sure I don’t suffer a little PTSD to this day. Thanks Dad. The tubular bells that are heard on the album itself are a pair that was re-recorded OVER the prior ones because the engineer didn’t like the way that they sounded, a decision Oldfield regrets to this day.
Once the recording was completed it took a team of 5 people, manning a 20 channel desk, running an Ampex 16 track tape-machine, a MONTH to mix the entire record. With each pass they had to MANUALLY pan, EQ, and add effects, in REAL TIME. There was no automation in those days. It’s a staggering accomplishment and the reason that, in my mind, Tubular Bells is the single greatest recording in music history. There are MANY other records that have challenged the technology of the day and gone on to become considered “Masterpieces”,—The Wall is a perfect example— but I don’t think that they can be considered in the same frame as Tubular Bells.
Feel free to disagree. This is my column.
When the record was finally finished, and mixed, Branson had no choice but to put it out himself and created Virgin Records for, pretty-much, that sole purpose. It sold 17 million copies world-wide and was the bedrock upon which the entire Virgin Empire was to be built. Sales in the U.K. were 2.5 million copies alone. There was a stat I read once that mentioned that, at its peak, 1 in 4 households in England owned a copy of Tubular Bells, but I fear that this is apocryphal.
[Christian breaks down Tubular Bells here, track-by-track—skip ahead to around 39:44, and enjoy!—Ed.]
The cover is a representation of the tubular bells themselves. The reason the bell is bent is artistic license taken from the condition of the real bells used once M.O. had destroyed them with the huge hammer he grabbed from the Manor to play them for the recordings. I always wonder where they are now. I, for one, would LOVE to own that piece of music history. They probably got thrown away. Bastards. Little did they know.
While reading Branson’s autobiography Losing My Virginity (so friggin’ imaginative) I found a section dedicated to Oldfield and this record. Branson talks of the Oldielfd’s reticence to try and play the record live, in its entirety, and how he (Branson) convinced him to do a single show at The Royal Albert Hall with Queen Elizabeth in attendance. The story he tells is of the, almost, panic-attack level of anxiety that Mike was experiencing before going on-stage, and how it took them driving around London just prior to show time, and Branson promising to give M.O. the Bentley they were driving in, to finally get him into the theater and out in front of the crowd. Richard did confess, however, that he thinks that playing that show might have “broken” something in the young lad and that he doesn’t think that Mike Oldfield was ever the same again.
It’s a somewhat-sad denouement that over the course of his career—he is now in his mid 60’s— Oldfield continued to re-record Tubular Bells, each time trying to get closer to the perfect sound that he heard in his head, when all along I think he got it right on the first try. I always think of this record as his Great White Whale. Geniuses are, more times than not, complicated, troubled, people, who think NOTHING like the rest of us. Safe to say Mike Oldfield fits the description perfectly. He now lives on an island in the Bahamas and continues to put out music regularly, fully embracing the technology of the Internet for that purpose. His soundtrack to the movie “The Killing Fields” is gorgeous. Please check out the rest of his work, too.
Tubular Bells went on to win the 1975 Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition. It spent a staggering 280 weeks in the U.K. charts, and eventually reached the #1 spot dethroning Oldfield’s own Hergest Ridge album, the FOLLOW-UP to T.B., to gain the top spot. It is, of course, best known as the theme from the movie The Exorcist. One of the most perfect music placements in film history. My favorite version of the album is the beautiful “25th Anniversary Re-Master” from a few years back. It comes packaged in a fantastic “book” with this story and pictures of the characters and locations that helped make it a reality. That’s the one to own.
I will be forever grateful to my Old Man for placing those old Sennies on my head (he still owns them) and introducing a VERY young me to one of my favourite albums of all time.
Thanks Dad. A foundational moment.
Oh, and Mike Oldfield celebrated his 20th birthday 10 days before the album was released. Absolutely incredible.
Give it a listen. It is as mind-blowing now as it was on the day it was released, May 25th, 1973. You’ll not be disappointed. Side One is my favourite of the two sides.
But your results may vary. It’s THAT kind of record.
Enjoy. See you on the next one.