1973 was the year for prog. The simple fact that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, and Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans were all released in the space of a year (not to mention countless other classic prog records) meant for an astounding year for forward-thinking music. Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells is no exception and in addition to this, is also notable for the fact that Oldfield himself performed most of the instruments on the album, including guitars, bass, organs, glockenspiel, piano, mandolin, piano, and vocals, in addition to serving as producer on the record. What makes this such an astounding feat is that, in 1973, no one was making records this way. Though much more common in the digital age, in 1973, this was very rare. Even more impressively, Oldfield created the demo for what eventually became Side 1 of Tubular Bells at age 19 in his bedroom. According the liner notes of the recent edition, Oldfield ingeniously modified a two track, 1/4 inch tape recorder, using a screwdriver to rewire the machine’s erase head and a piece of card to block it, thus making the recorder capable of multitrack recording, and allowing him to ‘bounce’ a previous recording to a separate track while overdubbing a new one.
After several attempts at selling his demo (then known as “Opus 1”) to various record companies, Oldfield played his recording for Manor Studios engineers Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth, who took it to owner, Richard Branson and his associate Simon Draper. The two eventually allowed Oldfield a week to record at The Manor, during which Oldfield completed Side 1 of Tubular Bells, along with guests Steve Broughton (percussion), Henry Cow’s Lindsay Cooper (string bass), Mundy Ellis (vocals), Jon Field (flutes), Sally Oldfield (vocals), and Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Vivian Stanshall (Master of Ceremonies). After hearing the completed piece, Branson liked it so much that he allowed Oldfield to complete what became Side 2 in the course of the next several months during the ‘downtime’ in the Manor when other acts were not using the studio. The record, released May 25th, 1973 inevitably became the inaugural release on Branson’s new Virgin Records (Gong’s Flying Teapot was also released on the same day, but counts as Virgin’s second release) and reached Number 34 on the UK charts and the US top 10 as a single, effectively putting both Virgin Records and Mike Oldfield on the map.
This month, Tubular Bells celebrates its 40th Anniversary and to mark this, I dutifully put on my trusty pair of Sony Studio Monitors to see what makes the work so endearing. Side 1 opens with the iconic piano intro that has been unjustly associated with the horror film genre. Unjustly, because it is not horror or suspense that I hear in the repetitive 15/8 figure, but mystery and wonder. Even worse, countless imitators have attempted to capture this theme, further cementing it’s ‘haunting’ implications in most people’s minds. I disagree, though the simple theme (which Oldfield composed essentially as an improvisation) is powerful and definitely chilling, it does not personally give me the feeling of suspense.
The opening piece builds from a single piano line and slowly increases with complexity, adding at first a single bass guitar line, but is further augmented by mandolin, electric guitar, and organ. Here, Oldfield demonstrates his talent for composition which far eclipses ‘rock’ music, as the lines are independent and intertwining, just like a piece of Classical music. The mood, however, changes suddenly at the 6 minute mark from wonder to true suspense, and with a single, resonating cymbal crash, the piece morphs into a section marked by layered, distorted electric guitars and thundering, Pink Floyd-esque bass. This leads to a section marked by dissonance and ominous guitars (much more appropriate for the horror film genre, if you ask me), before the journey returns back to wonder at around the 9 minute mark with an emotional crescendo that leaves me on the edge of my seat. Interestingly, there is a lack of a proper drum kit, but that is in no way a detriment to the record, but there is however, the presence of percussion instruments, with Oldfield trying his hand at glockenspiel and at the climax of Side 1, Tubular Bells. Near the end, he recycles a similar idea as presented at the beginning, starting with a single bassline, he builds slowly, adding different layers of instruments to increase variety. It is here, when “Master of Ceremonies”, Vivian Stanshall begins announcing each instrument, allowing it to take a solo, eventually climatically announcing the Tubular Bells, thus giving the record it’s name. The piece ends quite satisfyingly on a single, solemn, acoustic guitar rendering and variation of the previous theme, which leaves me waiting for what is to come next. Over Side 1’s 25 minute runtime, it never feels drawn out or overblown, rather the interest is constantly built up by Oldfield’s clever compositional skills and his knack for creating music which lives in a space all of its own.
Side 2 opens with interesting harmonics and psychedelic-tinged organ, but this quickly moves into some more unique ideas. The first 10 minutes of Side 2 seems to feature three main movements: the opening harmonic-tinged movement, a second, softer, pastoral section, and a third piece which is inspired by Scottish bagpipe music, only played on electric guitar. After 10 minutes of essentially three laid back sections, the piece transforms into full-on hard rock mode, with rolling timpani and for the first time, a drum kit appears on the record. Of particular note is the pre-death metal growling Caveman vocals, provided by an intoxicated Oldfield who is credited as ‘Piltdown Man’ (so named for bone fragments thought to belong to an unknown ancestor to humans – it turned out to be a hoax). Apparently composed in rebellion to Branson’s desire for vocals on the record for a single release, this section of the record is entirely wordless, but effective, and complete with Wolfman-esque howls. To me, this adds a much-needed element of humor to the record; throughout all of the moodiness this record has, it still retains a fair amount of humor which is one of the reasons why it’s so endearing 40 years later. Offsetting the ‘Piltdown Man’, the next section is primarily ambient and slow, before unexpectedly morphing into a gradually speeding up rendition of “Sailor’s Hornpipe”, played primarily on mandolin and organ. Personally, this is the only part of the record that leaves me a bit dry – after a record that is so expertly composed, the “Sailor’s Hornpipe” seems like a bit of an anticlimactic ending.
Though in many ways a product of its time in terms of production, it retains a timeless quality in its instrumentation, which makes it an enjoyable listen, even 40 years later. As a whole, the piece seems to shift effortlessly through genres: Classical, rock, psychedelic, and even folk and is also dynamically quite impressive, with a lot of variation throughout to add contrast. An observation I made is that Oldfield seems to excel at music that builds from a simple, repetitive figure which grows in complexity through layers of instrumentation. He also has an expert understanding of mixing timbres and harmonies, making for music that works well on the surface, as well as for more in-depth listenings. What makes this truly progressive music is in the way it draws the listener in and allows you to exist in the unique realm it inhabits. This, to me, is why it continues to inspire musicians and to captivate music lovers everywhere in 2013, just as much as it did when it was first released.
You can purchase your own copy of the album here: